Swiss Army Knife History & Facts (Some Surprising Ones)

Swiss Army Knife

One iconic thing to come out of Switzerland that almost every boy scout in the world has/had or wants is a Swiss Army Knife, and it is a product the Swiss are known for all over the world.

Swiss Army knives are incredible tools that paved the way for multi-tools but how did they come about and who made them? These are just some of the questions I’ll be answering in this article for you about this awesome Swiss product.

Join me as I run through everything you might want to know about Swiss Army Knife history and some great facts to go with it.

History of the Swiss Army Knife

In the 1880s the Swiss Army decided that they wanted every one of their soldiers to have a folding pocket knife. A pretty good idea if you ask me!

The purpose of the knife would be for opening cans of food, having a small knife for cutting things, a reamer, and a screwdriver that worked with the M1889 Swiss service rifle. The rifles required a screwdriver for assembly and disassembly.

The first order for “Swiss Army Knives” totaled 15,000 units but at the time there was no Swiss company capable of fulfilling it. The Swiss Army contracted a German knife manufacturer called Wester & Co. to fulfill the order.

The company was based in Solingen, Germany, and delivered the order for the first 15,000 Swiss Army Knives ever in 1891. The knife didn’t have a fancy name and was simply called the Modell 1890.

The Modell 1890 came with all the tools the Swiss Army requested including a can opener, reamer, single blade, screwdriver, and with dark oak grips.

The German company of Wester & Co. didn’t hold the contract for the Modell 1890 knife for very long. Karl Elsener, of Elsener company, went after the contract and proposed that his company (who made surgical equipment) should be the supplier of the Modell 1890.

By 1891, Elsener was the sole provider of the Modell 1890 to the Swiss Army. But, in 1893, the Swiss Army also contracted Paul Boéchat & Cie to produce the Modell 1890 knives.

In 1896, Elsener improved the design of the Modell 1890 and added a spring mechanism that allowed tools to be held on both sides of the handle, doubling the number of tools that could be on the knife.

He then came out with the Sports and Officers knife in 1897 which added a corkscrew and a second smaller knife to the design along with wood grips. It was not part of a contract for the Swiss Army, he was selling directly to the public.

Both of the companies supplying the Modell 1890 Elsener (Victorinox today) and Paul Boéchat & Cie (Wenger today), used the cross and shield on their knives, the same one on the Swiss Army knives you see today.

Both Victorinox and Wenger went head to head in the multitool market. Victorinox marketed the “Original Swiss Army Knife” and Wenger the “Genuine Swiss Army Knife.” Both companies supplied Swiss army knives to the Swiss Army from 1908 until 2005.

In 2005, Victorinox took the leap and bought Wenger, so all Swiss Army Knives today are made by Victorinox.

Swiss Army Knives
Swiss Army Knives

Interesting Facts About The Swiss Army Knife

The Swiss Army Knife is Was Made Exclusively by 2 Companies in Switzerland

The Swiss Army Knife was once made exclusively by both Wenger and Victorinox who shared the contract 50/50 with the Swiss Army for the knives.

But in 2005, Victorinox bought Wenger and it then took more than 8 years to integrate all the Wenger products into Victorinox. Not all the Wenger knives made the cut and thus some have been discontinued which today has made them collector items.

The original model of the Swiss Army Knife is called the “Modell 1890”

The original Swiss Army Knife was technically called the Modell 1890. This was the first knife ever designed, ordered, and given to Swiss soldiers.

But, the original model available to the public was called “The Officer’s Knife.” It was created by Karl Elsener, of Elsener company when he improved the Modell 1890 by adding a spring which allowed for more tools.

He also came out with the “Sports Knife” at a similar time that was also available to the public and similar to the “Officer’s Knife.”

The Americans coined the term “Swiss Army Knife”

It is true that the Americans came up with the term “Swiss Army Knife” and it was actually born a bit out of laziness and convenience.

The Swiss called their knives “Sackmesser” or “Schweizer Offiziersmesser” a name the American soldiers around them struggled to understand let alone pronounce.

Instead of learning how to say the words, they simply called the knives being used by the Swiss soldiers, the “Swiss Army knife”.

The biggest Swiss Army Knife weighs 2 pounds and was made in 2006 as a collectible item

The biggest Swiss Army Knife ever made was the Wenger Giant. It comes with a total of 87 tools and it can perform over 140 functions. But, it is not that practical considering it weighs 2 lbs.

You won’t be carrying this Swiss Army Knife in your pocket and it is a collector’s item instead. The Wenger Giant is not made anymore but you can find a second-hand one if you look hard online.

The name “Victorinox” was taken from the mother’s name of the Swiss Army knife designer

The name “Victorinox” did come in part from Karl Elsner’s mother who was called Victoria. In 1909, when Karl Elsner’s mother died he changed the name of his company to “Victoria” in her honor. This is halfway to “Victorinox.”

In 1921, the “Victoria” company began using stainless steel (which had just been invented) to make their Swiss Army Knives.

In French, stainless steel is called “inoxydable” and “inox” for short. Karl Elsner then combined both “Victoria” and “inox” to create the company name “Victorinox” which we all know so well today.

The Swiss Army Knife has been used multiple times in space missions

Yes, the Swiss Army Knife has been used on space missions multiple times. NASA put an order in for 50 Swiss Army Knives that were specially designed for their astronauts’ needs in 1978.

The knife was called the Master Craftsman Model and was used in both mission simulations and in space too. There were several repairs made in space using the Master Craftsman Swiss Army Knives.

Today, the Master Craftsman isn’t needed on space missions as everything is controlled by software, but they came in handy back then.

Red is not the only color of the Swiss Army Knife

Red is certainly not the only color you can get a Swiss Army Knife in. The original Modell 1890 was made in 1891 for the Swiss Army hand dark oak grips.

Today, you can buy pretty much every model of Swiss Army Knife with the original red sides as well as black, transparent blue, transparent red, and hardwood sides like the original Modell 1890.

You can also find Swiss Army Knives with black rubber on the sides which provide more grip for heavy tasks than the slippery plastic.

The screwdriver in the knife was earlier used for disassembling a rifle

Yes, the original Modell 1890 Swiss Army knife came with a screwdriver specifically for the Swiss Service M1889 rifle. The screwdriver was a must-have for Swiss soldiers so they could assemble and disassemble their rifles.

The pointed tool with a hole in the knife functions as a needle

Yes, the pointed tool (called a reamer) on the back of almost every Swiss Army knife has a hole at the top so it can be used as a needle.

The function of the reamer is so you can punch holes in the fabric and then you can use it as a needle to sew the fabric up. This is super useful when you need to repair something in the wilderness.

It might damage your clothes but would be perfect for sewing up a canvas tent for example.

Quality is important in the production of Swiss Army Knives

It is certainly true that Victorinox takes the quality of its Swiss Army Knives seriously.

Every knife is made from stainless steel to stop it from rusting and every Swiss Army knife comes with a lifetime warranty, so Victorinox literally stands behind the quality of its production.

But, the lifetime warranty only covers the stainless steel and tools. It doesn’t cover the sides, which are often the first things to pop off after a lot of use. You can quite easily glue the sides back on if needs be, I’ve done it.

If you look after a Swiss Army Knife, it will last you a lifetime and you can hand it down through the family.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the point of Swiss Army knives?

Swiss Army Knives were originally designed by Victorinox in Switzerland as a tool for troops to use while in the field. In the 125 years since, it has become a popular multi-tool that you can keep at home, in your bag or car, or take out camping with you.

Is Swiss Army Knife allowed on a plane?

No, you are not allowed to bring a Swiss Army Knife or any other blade onto an airplane. If you bring one and it is found during the scanning of your carry-on luggage, it will be confiscated.

Why are Swiss Army Knives red?

Swiss Army Knives are red so that they can easily be found outdoors, especially in the snow. And, given that they are Swiss, it also matches the Swiss flag’s color, which is also red.

Written by Ashley Faulkes
As a twenty-year resident of Switzerland, I am passionate about exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, I spend my days deep in the great Swiss outdoors, and love to share these experiences and insights with fellow travel enthusiasts.

One thought on “Swiss Army Knife History & Facts (Some Surprising Ones)

  1. How do you find out how old your knife is, and are they collectible? I’m sure that sounds like a silly question but I’m 68 and I’ve had mine since I was a kid. It has the old automobile on the front of it. And my uncle gave it to me when I was young. It’s red and in good condition.

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