History of the Swiss Army Knife

Ah the Swiss. We love them for their cheese, watches and chocolates (Toblerone, anyone?). But of course, there’s something more closely associated with Switzerland – the iconic Swiss Army knife. It seems like any traveler who visits Switzerland doesn’t leave with one of it in his or her pocket. Perhaps you also own it or know someone who owns it (perhaps your dad or grandpa) and you have been fascinated when you see them use it when you were a kid. 

But have you ever wondered why it’s called a Swiss army knife and how it started to be? Learn about the history of this fascinating pocket tool here.

What is a Swiss Army Knife? 

A Victorinox Swiss Army Champion Plus knife

The Swiss army knife is a multi-tool with a smart design that’s known all around the world. Generally, it has a signature red color that bears a Victorinox or Wenger “cross” logo with a main spear point blade and various tools such as screwdriver, can opener and many others. These attachments are stowed inside the knife’s handle through a pivot point mechanism. But it’s more than a tool – it’s a symbol of craftsmanship and quality, just as much as it’s a hallmark of practicality and usefulness. 

Birth of the Swiss army knife

The first Swiss solider knife produced by Wester & Co.

Swiss army knives originated in Switzerland, specifically in the town of Ibach in the Canton of Schwyz – a region flanked by the Eich Wald and Staatswald mountain ranges. In 1884, Karl Elsener and his mother Victoria, opened up a small cutlery cooperative in the valley and began to create knives to be used in farms, kitchens and hospitals in surrounding towns.

In the meantime, the Swiss Army discovered the need for a new style of knife for their soldiers. The infantrymen were using the Schmidt-Rubin M1889, the standard service rifle that time, which required a screwdriver and a knife to be assembled, cleaned and dismantled. Since these two weren’t practical for a soldier it carry, the military decided that they needed to give their soldiers a simple and portable tool that has a screwdriver and blade in one. 

Elsener was approached by the Swiss military in 1890 to make an acceptable tool that would meet this need. Less than a year later, he created the prototype that would later become the “Schweizer Offiziersmesser,” or Swiss Officer’s Knife. In 1981, the knife was dubbed as the Modell 1890. It has a grip that was made of dark oak wood and comes with a blade, reamer, can opener and screwdriver. The knife was suitable for use by the army for disassembling the service rifle and for opening canned food.

At that time, no Swiss company has the production capacity to supply these knives, so they ordered 15,000 knives from German knife manufacturer Wester & Co. from Solingen, Germany. 

Real Swiss craftsmanship by Karl Elsener

Karl Elsener, the founder of Victorinox company

In 1891, Elsener’s tool became popular with military officers, though some had complaints about it. Elsener ended up retiring his partnership with Wester & Co. after being unsatisfied with the quality of production himself, and continued to make different variations after regaining control of his company. He made it better and added a corkscrew to the mix, and since then the device has remained structurally the same. 

In 1896, Elsener created a design in which the tools were attached on both sides of the handle using a special spring mechanism. This allowed him to use the same springs to hold all tools in its place, which was a big innovation that time. This way, Elsener can put twice as many features on the knife. 

A year after, Elsener designed a new knife featuring a second smaller cutting blade, a corkscrew and wood fiber grips. It was first registered with the patent office as The Officer’s and Sports Knife, though it wasn’t a part of his military contract.

Karl Elsener used the cross and shield as a logo to identify his knives. This was inspired from the coat of arms of Switzerland.

Entrance of Wenger to the market

A set of Wenger Swiss army knives

Elsener managed to control the market being the sole supplier of these special knives until 1893, when the second industrial cutler from Switzerland, Paul Boéchat & Cie, started selling a similar product. This company was headquartered in Delémont in the French-speaking region of Jura. Later on, this company was acquired and modernized by its then-general manager, Théodore Wenger, and renamed it the Wenger Company. Like Elsener’s company, the Wenger Swiss army knives produced and sold simple pocket knives up to multi-tools.

Both companies Paul Boéchat (Wenger) and Elsener (which later became Victorinox) used the cross and shield to identify their knives. These companies were separated by the Swiss government in 1908 to dissuade regional preference when they began competing heavily. The Swiss government split the contract with Victorinox and Wenger, each getting half of the orders placed.

By mutual agreement, Wenger used the slogan “Genuine Swiss Army Knife,” while Victorinox claimed the title “Original Swiss Army Knife.” Both brands feature a white cross in the logo – Victorinox had it on a shield, while Wenger placed the cross on a red, rounded square. Both knife brands became well-known worldwide.

Shift to stainless steel and origin of Victorinox brand

The company didn’t have a name at first. But when Karl Elsener’s mother Victoria died in 1909, he renamed his company “Victoria” in her memory. Fast forward to 1921, the company started using newly invented stainless steel to make their Swiss army knives. Stainless steel was known as “inox,” short for the French term for stainless steel “acier inoxydable.” “Victoria” and “inox” were combind to create the portmanteau “Victorinox.”

How the Swiss army knife got its name

The Swiss army knife was ever practical, and it was primarily a tool used by soldiers. The knives didn’t gain international prominence until the 1940s, when World War II exposed the devices to American soldiers who struggled to pronounce the original German name, “Schweizer Offiziersmesser,” or “Sackmesser” in the local Swiss-German dialect. The term literally means “officer’s knife,” but the Americans referred to it as the Swiss army knife, which was easier to say. The name caught on, and this was what the tool is known around the world. 

Up to this day, each military recruit of the Swiss Army receives a Swiss army knife upon beginning their service.

Business expansion

The armed forces of more than 20 different countries have approved the use of different versions of the Swiss army knives made by Victorinox. Military forces from Germany, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Malaysia and the United States are using them.

Time passed by and Swiss army knives were exported all around the world and were not just used by the military men but also by common people. This tool is especially handy for outdoorsmen like campers, hikers and adventurers who need a portable tool for different emergency needs. Some people even own one for self-defense and protection.

Victorinox expanded its business and also manufactured other products such as cutlery, watches, travel gear, bayonets and even apparel and fragrances. Wenger also expanded, and sold kitchen cutlery, elegant watches, bayonets and wallet-type notepads.

Business slow down for Swiss army knives

At the turn of the 21st century, the 9/11 attack made it difficult for both Victorinox and Wenger to sell small knives. The terrorist attack pushed airports to be stricter with their security, and small knives are not allowed to take onto plains. The knife had a sizable presence in the travel and luggage industries, and it was a constant seller at duty-free stores before the 9/11 attack. Victorinox lost over 40% of its business as airports sent vast quantities of their knives back to them. This damaged Wenger’s business to the point that Victorinox had to acquire it in 2005. Though Victorinox was also affected, they did not lay off a single employee.

Victorinox also gone in weird directions, as they ventured to create different products (perhaps to help revive sales) such as:

  • Chocolate candy bars – Victorinox made hazelnut chocolate bars with the shape of Swiss army knives. Clearly, Switzerland needed another unique chocolate type to compete with the triangular Toblerone.
  • MP3 players – Victorinox once made a Swiss army knife with a built-in MP3 player. Talk about functionality.
  • USB drives – In recent years, everything has to be plugged into a computer, so Victorinox made a line of Swiss army knives with USB drives.
  • Fancy executive blades – These Swiss army knives are designed for business executives who want everything on their desk. They made a model with 80 separate functions, including a ballpoint pen, magnifying lens, LED white light and thermometer.

Victorinox acquires Wenger

For a long time, Victorinox and Wenger became the worldwide supplier of authentic Swiss Army knives, but in 2005, Victorinox bought its competitor. By 2008, Victorinox once again became the sole supplier of the knives to the Switzerland military. Victorinox kept both consumer brands intact.

In 2013, the company announced that the brands will be merged into one brand: Victorinox. However, Wenger’s watch, luggage and licensing business continue as a separate brand. Victorinox integrated Wenger’s knife business, so Wenger cease its production of Wenger knives.

Swiss army knife today

A Victorinox Swiss army knife with a 4 GB USB stick as one of its tools

Today, Victorinox continues to sell Officers’ Knife in different models. They can be purchased at stores throughout Switzerland and in 100 different countries around the globe. These knives make wonderful gifts, and major retailers allow engraving name on the handle for the perfect, personalized gift. In the town of Ibach in Switzerland, you can visit the Victorinox factory for a private or custom tour.

Features like blades, corkscrews, files, can openers, scissors, punches, screwdrivers, saws and tiny toothpicks are long-time features of the knives that exist until today. In the 21st century, Victorinox knives included modern touches like USB storage drives, LED lights, laser pointers and fingerprint scanners with data encryption built in. All these functions are still foldable or set to disappear on springs when not in use.