Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife; Flawed or Misunderstood?

The following article appeared in a small forum I belong to. I feel it's worth putting up here at my Blog. Many people tout the Fairbairn-Sykes as the ultimate fighting knife, while others have derided it as poorly designed.

Where does the truth most likely lay? Read on and form your own opinions.



The Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife, Flawed or Misused and Misunderstood?
by Steve Forester

I have been threatening to write on the F/S knife now for sometime. Believe it or not, it is coming. In the meantime, a bit on the Applegate/Fairbairn knife.

When this design was first announced in the 1990's I totally bought into it. I had the NATO F/S dagger and agreed with all it's shortcomings (based on my experience). When the A/F came out, it seemed to address the F/S faults and I totally bought into that Fairbairn (SOE) recognized the shortcomings of his design and collaborated with Applegate (OSS) to address. The design remained "dormaint"for 50 years (due to the war ending) before Applegate finally thought to resurrect, and offer to the public, the ultimate fighting knife. Many people recognized the ultimate fighting knife concept including Robert McKay in his book, "Modern American Fighting Knives". So, we had the end all to be all fighting knife - finally!

Hmmm! Well, maybe not so much so. Let me say first of all these opinions are all strictly my own and I have no first hand knowledge, or proof, for what I am about to offer. However...first of all, I believe Applegate was a wily old cuss who was not above seeing an economic advantage in a new generation of people (like me) who were taking an interest in WWII Combatives. As I have said before, my father and others of the generation that I knew, just wanted to leave the war behind them and move on with their lives. They never wanted to discuss, not because the war was so horrible, but because they just wanted to concentrate on the positive side of life and move on. When I mentioned WWII or anything associated with it, they just patiently smiled much as if confronted with a small child who just ask a stupid, and somewhat embarrassing, question.

Applegate never seemed to subscribe to this model. After the war, he seemed to stay with "security things", and sought to capitalize from his WWII OSS/MI experiences. Again, I am not faulting him in this except I strongly suspect it was largely for economic reasons. I notice Applegate never really engaged in major combat operations in WWII, preferring to stick with the training side. There is some note that he never really completed the parachute training in the UK, either, citing a leg injury. Not that I am faulting him for any of this. I only mention in that he seemed to be a guy that did the smart thing at the time (maybe what I would have done). Something that persisted after the war. Hence, the "wily old cuss".

So, that Fairbairn, who some describe as somewhat of a glory hound, would admit the failure of his famed fighting knife (that bore his name) only a couple of years or so after he produced it, seems a bit far-fetched to me. Especially in collaborating with Applegate (who was basically his pupil) on the failures. Maybe - maybe not!

This "ultimate fighting knife" was not so popular with everyone. From Wiki: "Applegate first approached Randall Made Knives with their design. Bo Randall made a handful of prototypes based on his "Model 2 Dagger" and sent them to soldiers for field testing, they proved not to be popular with the troops and Randall declined to produce the knife beyond the original prototype".


OK, fair enough. The original F/S knife wasn't that popular with the troops either which is why we have the M3 fighting knife and it's variants. More on this later.

So, then Applegate markets the design with various firms such as Al Mar, Blackjack, Boker, and others. With somewhat varying degrees of success.

This is where I came along and I can say the design didn't really grab me either. I bought the Blackjack version in the late 1990's and it was resigned to basement storage after awhile. It is hard to say why. It wasn't the workmanship. It was more the design. It didn't really slash, or stab, all that well. It didn't fill any particular need of mine, and soon found itself into a storage bin in the basement where it resided for at least a dozen years, or more. It was like, "I wanted to like it, but...".

I am not a fan of carrying any knife for self-defense, but, if any, it would be the Kasper-Polkowski designs of the Scorpion, Companion, and a few of his others. Polkowski and Kasper are long dead and these knives are unattainable now so I am not pushing these for economic reasons. Just saying what worked for me.

The photo at the top of the article is an original, WWII, First Pattern, Fairbairn/Sykes dagger. This is NOT a reproduction, but the real deal, and was one the of estimated 7,000 First Patterns produced between late 1940 and August 1941. This knife is likely from the early production run (late '40/early '41) of the First Pattern as evidenced by the early sheath with the snap closure and no side tabs.
I am mentioning all this so there can be no issue of a 2nd or 3rd pattern (or reproduction) knife not being as Fairbairn specified in the First Pattern. Collectors debate these details endlessly but for now, lets just say the following comments are based on the original Fairbairn design.

I am also using the DVD "Gutterfighting" as my main reference. So, we have an original F/S dagger, and Fairbairn demonstrating his knife method on video using the F/S knife. It doesn't get any more authentic sources than these!

Now, we come to the main question: was the F/S dagger really of inferior design, or did the Old Boy just maybe know something about knives and knife fighting and what was needed as for a knife for commando and intelligence agencies in WWII?

There is no doubt that many in the military in WWII did not find the F/S a satisfactory knife. I have a re-print of an May 1944 article in the American Rifleman called, "Giving Our Fighter an Edge". Even at this rather early date in the war, the article mentions the USMC had adopted the KA-BAR as their issue knife (with the exception of the Raider knife). The Army adopted the M3 knife by this time with the exception of the V42 by the FSSF (Devils Brigade)

Why this happened is not hard to figure out if one has ever been in the military. Soldiers and Marines use their knives as utility tools and rarely, if ever, weapons. Typical uses include popping open the steel retaining bands around C-Rations and ammo cases. Also, opening tin cans, cutting vegetation for camouflage, and even digging holes.
In my personal experience I originally carried the Gerber Mk II dagger as you can see in the photo I previously posted (technically that Mike posted). However, after only one or two field problems I was somewhat puzzled as to why people thought this was such a great knife. I remember specifically cutting vegetation for camouflage and the Mk II doing a rather poor job of it. My squad leader had a KA-BAR and I immediately thought that was a better field knife.

It has been stated (I can't find the source right now) that the F/S is a great knife, if used properly, and Soldiers and Marines in WWII just were not instructed in the Fairbairn system and didn't understand how the knife was to be utilized. I believe this to be the case. Jabbing the tip of a F/S into the top of a can of C-Rations should result in no surprise when tip breaks. It was a great design, it just was just made to stick into men and not tin cans.

Establishing that the F/S dagger was a good design for the Fairbairn system, what exactly was that system? Specifically, was slashing included or just stabbing? The best answer to that question has to be the Gutterfighting tape Fairbairn made for the OSS. Fairbairn clearly demonstrates forceful slashing, as well as thrusting. Fairbairn also writes in Get Tough of the importance of a sharpened edge. So, we have to conclude Fairbairn designed the F/S knife for slashing as well as stabbing.

I can say the model I possess would not lead one to this conclusion. The blade is narrow, even almost needle-like. I have read where some versions had more narrow blades than others, being produced by hand, and this one is markedly more narrow than the average F/S reproduction. The thin blade is designed that way for a purpose. Applegate mentions on p. 130 of "The Close-Combat Files" about the heart being a vital area for the thrust. However, the knife can be deflected by, or stuck in the ribs, and disrupt the heart thrust. The thin blade of the F/S knife helps prevent that. Just need to employ correctly which is the blade held horizontal to the ground. The v42 knife has even a thinner blade than the v42 and the thumb rest on the ricasso ensures holding correctly. The F/S knife doesn't have the thumb rest, but, as Fairbairn points out on the tape, if the thumb is against the guard then it is orientated correctly. Can feel the guard in the dark and this counters one of the F/S criticisms in that it is hard to orient the F/S knife in the dark.

Also, the blade on the knife I have is not sharp. Not sure if this necessarily indicates anything. I have read where some knives were issued unsharpened (which tends to confuse the slashing question). Even if it was sharp when issued that was pushing 80 years ago and who knows what and how it has been used since that time. At this time, I cannot say if this knife could be highly sharpened. It is hard to tell the quality of the metal as the nickel plating has become highly discolored and I don't trust myself to attempt sharpening. If anyone knows of a true artist in restoring F/S knives, please let me know.

The real clue to the slashing question lies in closely studying the Gutterfighting DVD. Fairbairn indicates slashing is used to the hands and arms to provide openings for the killing thrust. The main use of the knife is for a killing thrust, whether in sentry removal from the rear, or attacking a gestapo agent from the from the front. Sentry removal can require slashing as you stick the knife in the neck and slash outward. In a front attack, slashing is used to set up the killing thrust. Applegate mentions on p. 131 of "The Close Combat Files", that the slash can sever the tendons of the wrist which is effective against a person trying to protect themselves with outstretched arms. Same goes for the bicep.

So, yes Virginia, the F/S knife IS used for slashing, but only within the context of the Fairbairn system of Silent Killing.

To summarize, I believe much of the criticism of the F/S knife is unwarranted IF used how Fairbairn intended (for Silent Killing). The knife tip does is not break if not used to pry things or stick into metal, or throw into trees. The needle point is actually an aid to penetrating vital organs. It is capable of slashing as well as thrusting, and can be orientated in the hand during darkness. The supposed "design weaknesses" are as much an ignorance of how to use the knife as any blame in design. The handle being slippery when covered in blood may be valid, but is so in most designs.

A valid question may be asked as to how useful is the knife given these narrow operating perimeters. This is a fair question and my answer is so few units have a silent killing mission that the F/S knife does not have very widespread utility. It was designed for British Commando raids into Europe, as well as by the SOE, which had the mission of sabotage behind enemy lines. Even with these units, silent killing was somewhat rare and even the OSS adopted the M3 knife before the war's end.

In addition to not being a good field knife, it is also not really a general fighting knife. I would call it more an assassin knife as that more accurately described the intended role. For knife vs knife, in my experience, you want a robust knife with more length and weight for slashing and executing the snap cut. The F/S is best used with the strong leg and hand back and the weak hand protecting, and providing openings for, the knife attack. It is for a surprise attack and is used almost delicately compared with a heaver knife.

Since the end WWII we have seen a trend toward military knife designs that try to cover all bases: robustness and utility, as well as use for fighting. Some, like the M3 retain the narrow blade although including more substantial material, especially toward the hilt. Other's are a blend of the Bowie and dagger design. The Randall #1 is the classic knife of this design. These hybrids are probably the best for general military use although knives in general are declining in popularity with even special forces troops with the handgun being preferred as the backup weapon.

However, for what it was designed for, I believe the F/S dagger served the purpose and needed no modifications to "correct it's weaknesses".

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