The Swiss Army knife is a well-known portable tool around the world, and it’s one of the few things closely associated with Switzerland. It’s a modern marvel made out of necessity for military, but stayed for more than a century because of its unbeatable utility and portability. It is undoubtedly an iconic piece of cutlery.
You may be familiar of the functions of a Swiss army knife, but there are things you didn’t know about this handy multi-tool:
1. They were first produced in Germany, not Switzerland
The origins of the Swiss army knife is a humble story. Switzerland was in an economic difficulty during the late 19th century and could not keep up with the growing industrialization in other European countries. Karl Elsener, a craftsman, wanted to create employment in his region but realized it would require enormous capital to industrialize the area. He founded the Swiss Cutler’s Union in 1884 and started his own cutlery company that provides utility knives and surgical equipment.
In the 1880’s, Elsener was required by the Swiss Army to create a simple folding knife for their soldiers. These knives were intended to be utility tools, to assemble and disassemble their Swiss service rifles and to open food cans. Since no Swiss company can fulfill this demand, they outsourced their knives to Wester & Co. from Solingen, Germany. The first 15,000 knives labeled as Modell 1890 were ordered from this German company.
But in 1891, Elsener decided that the Swiss army knives should be made in their homeland to ensure better quality, so he seized the contract between the Swiss army and the German company and took over the production of the Modell 1890 knives. Later on, Elsener’s company grew and became Victorinox, the maker of the first and official Swiss army knives still in operation today.
2. There are two official brands of Swiss army knives
In 1908, the Swiss army split its knife contract – half of the production to Karl Elsener’s company and the other half to Paul Bochéat’s (which was later renamed Wenger) company. This is to provide a level of competition, ensure quality of goods and regulate prices. Victorinox labeled their knives as the “Original Swiss Army Knife” and Wenger as “Genuine Swiss Army Knife.” These two companies owned the Swiss army knife business until Victorinox acquired Wenger in 2005, making the original company gain sole control of the Swiss army knife market and industry once again.
So, any Swiss army knife you buy today that is not Victorinox is not a legitimate Swiss army knife. Also, there are a lot of fakers out there that imitate Victorinox knives, so make sure that your knife reads “Victorinox Swiss made” on its biggest blade, and that the logo must contain the classic Victorinox or Wenger logo (if the knife is made before 2008). If your knife doesn’t have these properties, you got duped.
3. Swiss army knife was the first two-sided multi-tool
Karl Elsener revolutionized the design of the pocket knife. He figured he can put blades and tools on both sides of the handle using the same spring. Because of this, he was able to put twice as many features on the knives as previously possible.
4. But the Swiss army knife was not the first multi-tool knife
You may think that the Swiss army knife was the first multi-tool knife, but they weren’t. There were references of such a knife from an 1851 novel by Herman Melville, Moby Dick. On Chapter 107, it describes “Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screwdrivers, corkscrews, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, counter sinkers.”
5. The Swiss army knife is literally a work of art
Yes, a literal work of art displayed in a museum. The revolutionary design of the Swiss army knife made it so iconic that it has been selected for inclusion at both the New York Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich.
6. There was a historical reason why screwdrivers were a feature in Swiss army knives
The first ever Swiss army knife model, the Modell 1890, featured a spear point blade, a can opener, a reamer and a screwdriver. Since then, most of the Swiss army knife models had these features. The reason why a screwdriver was included in it was because the Swiss soldiers needed it to maintain their firearms. They need a screwdriver to assemble and disassemble their rifles for cleaning, and it will be impractical for a soldier to bring one.
7. There are more than 100 models of Swiss army knives
After almost 130 years since Karl Elsener took over the production of Swiss army knives, both Victorinox and Wenger have released more than 100 different models. Most of these still had the original features of the Modell 1890, while some contains other features like ballpoint pens, magnifying lenses, laser pointer, flashlights, thermometers and even a USB drive and fingerprint reader.
8. The Swiss army only used 8 of these models
The Swiss army knives were named that way because they were used by the Swiss army, but actually, these guys only used 8 of these models. This is quite surprising, but perhaps because of the great quality of the knives, they don’t have to change it every year. The knives designed for the Swiss army come with features that cannot be found with civilian versions, such as a scraping tool to remove carbon from hard-to-reach areas of a firearm, and a tool to puncture ammunition cans.
9. These knives have been to space
Even NASA had a use for these handy knives. Swiss army knives were brought to space by astronauts in multiple space missions since the late 1970s. NASA ordered 50 Master Craftsman Model knives in 1978 for use in space and in simulations. There were several instances where repairs have been conducted in space using a Swiss army knife.
10. There is a 2-pound version of a Swiss army knife
The Giant, produced by Wenger and inaugurated in 2006, weighs 2 pounds and includes 87 tools that can perform over 140 functions. It’s 9-inch wide, so it’s not technically a pocket knife, but still compact enough to pack these many functions. It must take quite some time to unfold and refold all these accessories, and you must really know it well to know where to get each tool you need at a certain moment. It’s truly one of the top knives you can own if you have a knife collection.
11. The Victorinox Swiss army knife company has always been overseen by a Karl
This one’s a fascinating fact: the Victorinox company has always been run and directed by somebody named Karl/Carl. How’s that? Well, the founder of the Cutler’s Union in 1884 and the maker of the first Swiss army knife was Karl Elsener. He oversaw the company’s operations until 1918.
His son, Carl Elsener Sr. took over to run the recently re-named company, Victorinox. He ran the company from 1918 to 1950.
Then, Carl Jr. took over and stayed as CEO for 57 years, from 1951 to 2007. This Carl started as an apprentice in 1937, so he worked for the company for 70 years.
In 2007, a fourth generation Carl took over the company. In this family, it seems like someone has to be named Carl and he must be the future successor of the company.
12. Quality control at Victorinox factories is a really big deal
If you want to buy an authentic, actual Swiss army knife, you can be sure that it can do what it promises. Quality control is one of the most essential parts of production at the Victorinox factory, and every part of the knife is checked at every 7 phases of production. Fifteen to 20 million parts pass through the assembly lines each month, and every inch of raw steel is inspected before it is used. The content of the metal is digitally analyzed to ensure tensile strength, Blades are cut, forged, polished, ground down, sharpened and stamped. Real eyes and real hands inspect every step of the production line.