Military Knives: Soldiers’ EDC From The Past 50 Years

Military Knives: Soldiers’ EDC From The Past 50 Years
The namesake for the SOG Specialty Knives factory knife company founded by Spencer Frazer in the mid-1980s, the original SOG knives were made in limited numbers during the Vietnam War for, as Frank Trzaska noted, “the super-secret Studies and Observation Group [SOG], Green Berets that went out into the field to locate the enemy—Recon.” (Frank Trzaska’s knife and image)

Stepping away from standard issues, combat veterans recount the off-beat military knives they used day-to-day during their service.

Since BLADE® Magazine went to press for the first time 50 years ago, there have been wars and rumors of wars. Even in peacetime, the U.S. military has stood ready in defense of freedom around the world.

When service men and women have deployed into harm’s way through the years, their knives of choice have been by their side, sheathed or strapped, buckled or pocketed, or carried in a duffle bag. From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, service personnel have taken their chosen tools abroad and put them to use for a variety of chores.

Kim Breed

  • Fer de Lance from Pacific Cutlery
  • Ka-Bar-type fighting/utility fixed blade
  • Swiss Army knife with tweezers
  • Cold Steel SRK
  • Randall Models 1 and 14

BLADE field editor/knifemaker Kim Breed spent nearly two decades in the Army, serving with the 10th and then 5th Special Forces Groups. His experience in the Gulf War included a mixed bag of available knives for anything that was needed.

Military Knives: Pacific Cutlery Fer de lance
BLADE® field editor/knifemaker Kim Breed said his experience with military knives in the Gulf War included a mixed bag, including the Fer de Lance designed by David Steele for the now-defunct Pacific Cutlery. Pacific Cutlery was owned and operated by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Les de Asis, who went on to found Benchmade Knife Co. (image of Fer de Lance courtesy of Arizona Custom Knives)

“I carried the Fer de Lance designed by David Steel and produced by Pacific Cutlery,” he said. “It’s a double-edged fighter and I carried it almost my whole career. It’s light in the hand and has a big enough blade to do the job. Two edges meant I had one sharp for heavy duty and the other for finer stuff. Plus, the locals would freak out when I brought out a double-edged knife. It was good psychological warfare.”

Along with the Fer de Lance strapped to his back, Breed also had a Swiss Army knife at his side and an Arkansas toothpick.

Military Knife: Swiss Army Knife
An unexpected military knife: Kim Breed indicated Swiss Army knives were especially handy in Somalia for removing stickers and thorns with the tweezers.

“It wasn’t the real big Arkansas toothpick,” he remembered. “It was a smaller dagger with an aluminum handle. A lot of guys would buy the Ka-Bar because it was a good knife—but it was also cheap. When we got bored, we would throw knives, betting for a cigarette, chocolate bar or pound cake. The Ka-Bar might break but the aluminum-handle dagger wouldn’t.”

Speaking of the Ka-Bar*, it is among the top five knives of Breed’s Gulf War assessment, along with the Cold Steel SRK, Swiss Army knife, Randall Models 1 and 14 and the Buck 110. Each earned a bit of praise from the veteran.

Military Knife: Buck 110
The Buck 110 folder was widely available at the local PX and had good blade steel and easy carry for assorted cutting jobs.

The Ka-Bar has stood the test of time, and its generational tie to earlier combat deployments of family members from World War II forward may have been an influence, but for the most part, there was value, performance and availability to spare with the iconic fixed blade.

“It was in all the PXs,” Kim added. “You could get one for $12 and it worked pretty good, but if you broke one now and then you could have two or three around.”

Cold Steel SRK
Kim Breed said the Cold Steel SRK was a favorite among the troops, citing its molded Kraton handle in particular for praise.

Breed says the SRK was a favorite with its molded Kraton handle, while the Swiss Army was especially handy in Somalia for removing stickers and thorns with the tweezers. The Randalls were another legacy play. They were expensive knives but the troops’ fathers and grandfathers had carried them, so they were passed along to the sons and grandsons. The Buck 110 folder was also available at the local PX and had good blade steel and was easy to carry.

Jack Stottlemire

  • Ka-Bar-type fighting/utility fixed blade
  • Benchmade Stryker
  • Air Force/jet pilot survival knife
  • Custom Bob Horrigan
  • Randall Models 1 and 14

Knifemaker Jack Stottlemire served with the United States Marine Corps and the Army for a total of 27 years, with 14 combat deployments. He saw action in Operation Just Cause in Panama, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the air war in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Marine service was first and he saw all his combat duty with the Army, retiring as a sergeant major with Special Operations. Like Breed, he stresses that knives were used for camp chores, prying, slicing and such.

Military Knives: Randalls
Randalls were expensive but fathers and grandfathers had carried them, so they were passed along to the sons and grandsons. Developed in the mid-1950s, the Randall Model 14 Attack gained fame as a military knife during the Vietnam War. (Dan Clinton image)

“Using a knife in combat to stab somebody is pretty much bull,” he declared. “I don’t know anybody that used a knife for that in all my years. But if you’re in a helicopter crash and you need to cut strings or get somebody else out of the wreckage, that’s more realistic.”

Again, the Ka-Bar makes an appearance in the top five knives from his experiences, particularly in the desert environment. Stottlemire’s top five knives of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars include a custom Bob Horrigan** piece with a green Micarta® handle and a 5.5-inch blade of 440C stainless steel. “Bob and I were in the same squadron together and he was a real hero,” Jack offered.

Military Knives: KaBar
Les George said he’s “pretty sure” his Ka-Bar saw action in the Vietnam War, the Korean War and possibly even World War II. The last time the knife was in combat operations was when George saw active duty in the Iraq War in 2005. (Les George’s knife and image)

“The Ka-Bar is everywhere and I carried mine from the time I was in the Marines, and still have it 40 years later,” he continued. “I remember getting them for $25 or $35 and using them to pry and hammer and to open MREs [Meals Ready to Eat] and ammo boxes. That’s what we used them for 99 percent of the time.”

The famed Randall had stayed around as well, again identified as a legacy knife handed down from one generation to another. As for folders, Jack’s units were issued the Benchmade Stryker. “It was common to have a lot of Benchmade autos and one-hand flippers, and there were Gerbers in the same category,” he commented. “I always carried my auto on my vest front for easy access in case I needed to cut a bandage or something like that.

Jet Pilot Survival Knife
Air Force survival knife

“Then we also had the Air Force survival knife. It was a jump master knife that looked like a little Ka-Bar with a stacked leather handle and a short bowie blade. A lot of guys carried more than one knife. They usually had a folder stuffed in their vest or pocket and a fixed blade on their chest next to their magazine pouches. That was for easy access. It’s hard to get to your stuff unless it’s on the vest, especially when you’re in a vehicle or helicopter.”

Les George

  • Custom EOD knife (self-made)
  • M11 EOD knives by Lan-Cay
  • Gerber multi-tools/Leatherman Wave
  • Benchmade Stryker and AFO
  • CRKT M16

Knifemaker Les George served with the U.S. Marines in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and carried a knife specifically for EOD use. “I actually made my own EOD knife in Iraq,” he remarked. “It was the first in a series that would become the M12 EOD knife that is currently listed as an option for USMC EOD units to purchase and use.”

Benchmade Stryker
As for folder military knives, Jack Stottlemire’s units were issued the Benchmade Stryker, an Allen Elishewitz design that debuted in the late 1990s.

Among the other knives that Les saw regularly in Iraq were the M11 EOD knives by Lan-Cay, Gerber multi-tools, Benchmade Stryker and AFO, and the Columbia River Knife & Tool M-16.

“The CRKTs were available at the PX and the other knives were issued to the Marines by unit,” George recalled. “Obviously, the Ontario bayonet was common for that reason. I had my large fixed blade that I used to probe for and dig up IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and UXOs [unexploded ordnance]. It was a brute force tool, the very epitome of a sharpened pry bar. I had a small Benchmade fixed blade that I had bolted to my pistol holster. I used it to cut tape or prepare demolition charges, and all the cutting utility I needed was done with that knife. I also carried a Leatherman Wave multi-tool. I liked the Wave over the issued Gerber because it closed up smaller, and I could access the blade without opening the tool.”

Military Knives Wave Plus Fanned
Thanks to their versatility and affordability, multi-tools have been popular with the troops since Leatherman Tool Group introduced its original multi-tool in 1982. Les George carried the Leatherman Wave because it closed up smaller and he could access the blade without opening the tool. The Wave+ is a Wave descendant.

Les chose his knives based on the situations he might find himself in during deployments. “The big and small fixed blades had their niche, while the multi-tool was available as a catchall. With the kind of war that I saw, there was not much thought of knives used outside of tools, and for me cost was not a factor. I would have spent about whatever the price to get the knives I wanted.”

Top 5 Knives From The Vietnam War

  • Ka-Bar-type fighting/utility fixed blade
  • SOG fixed blade
  • M7 bayonet
  • Air Force/jet pilot survival knife
  • MIL-K

After studying the Vietnam War era and the knives that were most often found during that period in Southeast Asia, Frank Trzaska has come up with his top five from that timeframe. His list includes—you guessed it—the Ka-Bar, which sits at the top. “The U.S. Fighting/Utility knife, the Mark 2, the Ka-Bar, call it whatever you will, but to me it is America’s fighting knife—adopted in 1942 and still serving our troops to this day,” he smiled.

M7 Bayonet was a common ‘Nam era military knife.

Others topping Frank’s list include the original SOG, which he calls “a very hard-to-find knife made in limited numbers for the super-secret Studies and Observation Group [SOG], Green Berets that went out into the field to locate the enemy—Recon.”

Frank has also found the M7 bayonet, designed to fit the M16 rifle, to have been in regular use. “It was another piece in succession that was originally adapted from the M3 trench knife of World War II fame,” he noted. “The M3, M4, M5, M6 and M7 all used the same blade profile.”

Military Knife: MIL-K
MIL-K was a handy addition to a soldier’s kit.

The Jet Pilot Survival knife, aka Air Force survival knife, and a small all-metal pocketknife called the MIL-K were frequently seen with troops in Vietnam, Frank noted. “The Jet Pilot Survival knife was an iconic knife of the Vietnam era, and it was shown in photographs everywhere,” he related. “Although the name was ‘Jet Pilot,’ it was seen on ground pounders just as often. The MIL-K was the perfect all-purpose pocketknife that, as an extra, is dated so you can collect all the years and at a somewhat low price.”

Trzaska has spoken with troops all over the world, and the multi-tool has surged to the forefront among military personnel deployed these days, but he also quickly adds that the Ka-Bar is still a favorite. Given the salaries of enlisted men, he speculates that cost was always a factor in the purchase of a Vietnam-era knife.

Final Cut

Times change but for soldiers through the last half century/publication life of BLADE, knife uses have stayed the same in many ways. “Almost everyone in Vietnam carried two knives, a pocketknife and a fixed blade, and if you count the bayonet, it would be three,” Frank observed. “They were used mostly for opening meals, mail and boxes. A pocketknife was handy but a fixed blade on your harness was meant for fighting. Along with your bayonet, they were weapons of last resort.”

From the more expensive models to everyday carry in the field, military personnel in Vietnam had their pick. “The Randalls were the knives everybody wanted,” Trzaska said, “but few had them. They became a status symbol of a professional. Young guys also liked big knives until they had to carry all that extra weight and never use them. Then the small knife was the king. Most knives of the era were common steel and would rust easily. Stainless steel was a big plus and found its way into knife production over time.”

Through the years, BLADE has published many accounts of knives in the hands of military personnel deployed around the globe. Since the early 1970s, these stories have brought valuable information to readers regarding performance, personality and collectability. That trend will continue into the future.

*As Frank Trzaska notes, no matter whether you call it the USMC fighting/utility knife, Mark 2, Ka-Bar or what have you, the fixed blade with the leather-washer handle and clip-point blade made by several different companies that first appeared in 1942 and did yeoman’s duty throughout World War II remains a U.S. military icon.

**Robert “Bob” Horrigan, a member of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, was killed in action in Iraq on June 17, 2005. His twin brother is award-winning ABS master smith John Horrigan.

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