Carter Rila's

Carter's Cutlery Commentaries

March 2005

A Call for Rationalization
Carter’s Classification for Combat Cutlery

The Military Misconception

There seems to be a mass delusion among the general public and some knife collectors that any knife ever touched, carried, or coveted by a military person therefore becomes a "military knife". Under this criteria, stretched far enough, everything made since 1900 or so is a military knife. Well, that is ridiculous. When everything is "military" then nothing is gained by using that term.

This confusion does not run rampant in arms collecting; that of bayonets, swords, and guns, because military issue patterns have long been studied, are well documented and most are property marked.


A Caution

None of these remarks are meant to criticize whatever a collector of US or other knives wants to collect, If he wants to collect "association knives" such as Australian jungle daggers or Sykes-Fairbairn stilettos then go for it. I myself collect only working type knives and not all of those. I do not care much for TL-29 electrician knives and have only a few, but I have over a hundred of utility type pocketknives of all sorts, military, civil, and foreign. And "jungle knives" of all nations, plus civilian machetes.

So collect what you will; let us just sing on the same page of the music.


Primary and Secondary

In classic knife texts, now obsolete, such as Harold Peterson’s American Knives, the distinction was between primary and secondary; the first, being knives known to have been officially designed and sanctioned and those brought from home by the combatants.

The most well known examples are the hunting knives of the Indian Wars, the Ames knife of the Mexican War, for the former, and the multitude of Bowies carried during our War Between the States. Even the Trench Knives of World War I easily fit into this sort out. Where it breaks down is in considering the vast number of different patterns used by the members of the U.S. Armed Forces since the beginning of U.S. participation in WW II. As the runup to WW II began, the standard U.S. combat knife was the Mark I with the brass knuckles hilt adopted in 1918. This knife besides being useless as a field utility tool used too much strategic material to be continued in service. Although carried in WW II, both in the original scabbards and in those for the later knives which replaced it.

A Functional Sort?

There can be a functional sort as well between knives primarily issued for fighting and optimized for that purpose, and those for general use which may be fought with as a last defensive measure. In either case, I hope that I would still have ammunition enough to defend myself and I certainly do not consider the offensive use of sharp items in modern times to be a rational response for the average mal-trained service person. Leave that to the specialists in sneak and peek and sabotage.

So if herein I mention a fighting knife, it is meant to be an example, not a definition as such. The most commonly known dual purpose knife is the seven inch blade Fighting-Utility Knife originally developed by the US Marine Corps, popularly known as a "k-bar" regardless of maker.

Sorting It Out

How then, to sort out all the myriad of official, documented, and undocumented knives attributed to use by US military personnel. Note the distinction, the US military is an organization, not a person, so cannot use anything literally.

I propose the following as a rational and useful categorization.

Let us first begin with some definitions and thoughts therein on the topic.

Adopted See Official

Association Knives: Those knives of allied nations, which were often carried and used by U.S personnel in their duties. This includes items ranging from needle knives to sleeve daggers to Smatchets. Most of these items are highly prized because of their association with special troops; OSS, Commandos, Raiders, but most of them were never made or stocked by the US. A few exceptions were made for the OSS; two entire books by John Brunner and Keith Melton cover the subject thoroughly. Paradoxically, authors keep showing these foreign items in works on US cutlery. Well, stop it! J We have enough of our own patterns to write about. There is now an excellent book covering all this by Ron Flook on British items so go get it.

Branch Wide: Considering service wide the Signal Corps is an example of a branch, and so are the Navy’s Bureau of Aviation and Medical Department.

Commercial Patterns: Knives made on the same dies and machinery as prewar items. May or not be militarized but are still recognizable as civil designs.

Documented Items: Have a paper trail that proves they were issued. Stocks catalogs, box markings, specifications, etc. (see official)

Field Made: Closely related to home shop is this group. These are items made by a service person to kill time, to sell or trade to visiting troops in transit, etc. Many of these can be distinguished by the sometime use of service issue blades. But the most distinct feature is the fine fit and finish, after all, they were made in fully equipped machine shops, afloat or ashore by trained machinists and the use of various metals and Plexiglas mostly contributed by shot down Japanese aviators. Some of this material was made in the States.

Fighting: Optimized for fighting purposes sometimes to the exclusion of any usefulness for field living.

Home Shop: Items made in the US by civilians for sale or gift to service personnel. They vary in fit and finish from saber knives to the crudest items. Most of this latter is not and never will be documented and much was unmarked or marked very ambiguously. How can you prove if such a knife was or was not militarily used?

Militarized: Slight changes to eliminate strategic materials such as brass or copper, the adding of non-reflective finishes, etc. to essentially commercial patterns. Examples are RH35 and RH36 hunting knives made by Pal Blade Co.

Official, Adopted, and Standardized: Therefore documented or well known by secondary evidence such as contemporary letters or period photographs. Of course, with modern digital technology, photos may no longer be considered legal evidence. For our purposes though they should suffice.

Private Purchase: This includes a lot of miscellany from Woodman’s Pals sold in the PX for "jungle living" in the Pacific Area to home shop knives made in back lot garages.

PX Knives: General all-inclusive term to include the ship’s stores. The Post Exchange is a civilian run department store-like enterprise chartered to sell items to personnel living on military installations. Items sold therein are not usually marked distinctively, as they are the same as sold to the public.

Service Wide: An item available and stocked for issue to more than one branch of the Army or Navy, which included the Marines. The Army Air Corps of WW II was legally a branch of the Army though it was almost as large as the rest of the Army. The post 1947 Air Force has never had a branch structure such as Quartermasters or Ordnance in which officers were commissioned.

Pattern: A specific knife made to a specific set of drawings or specifications by the same or many manufacturers and which are all identical. Major examples are the Navy Mark 2’s which are all identical except for the markings.

Ideally they have interchangeable parts. This is true of firearms and bayonets. Not so much of cheap knives which are seldom rebuilt or refurbished. The Army M3 is the only real example of the interchangeable parts.

Standardized: (see Official)

Theatre Knives: These are knives made overseas for sale to the GIs. Some put field made in here but I think the distinction is valid. These knives were usually made in quantity by commercial firms on production lines. Most of this materiel is long known and includes the numerous copies of machete pequeños made in Australia and New Zealand.

Type: A general class of knife all for the same purpose but not of the same form or pattern. Examples are the Navy Mark 1’s which vary considerably but are all five-inch blade hunting knives.

Unit Issue: Items bought by individual units of a military or civil pattern for issue to their members. The Second Marine Raiders and their "Gung Ho Knives" and the First Special Service Forces V-42 Daggers are examples.

Working or Utility: This applies to sheath knives. Utility is a pattern of pocketknife.

The Categories Defined With Examples

It would be tedious and boring to list everything in a category. If you have read this far, you are sufficiently interested in the subject and intelligent enough to grasp the purpose of categories. It is just to sort out in a rational manner the subjects under discussion.

I have spent forty some years using and learning to use what once were called library catalogs. Such have now been expanded into databases and the first rule is, sort as you go. I have spent years researching and trying to understand the rationale behind the placement of similar books and data on similar items in different files. And cutlery just is not that complex. Take a look at the Federal Supply Classification Schedule sometimes. We are only dealing here with items in about five classes.


Cutlery Classification Categories Catechism

A. Service Wide or Government Wide Patterns

The most well known example of this is our old friend, the all metal           General Purpose Pocket Knife, adopted in 1945 and made under MIL-K-818 since the forties. The second most common would be the Third Pattern Pilot’s Survival Knife with the saw-back, first developed for naval issue, now a government wide GSA stock item.

B. Branch Wide Patterns

The best example of this is the LC14-B Signal Corps issue of WWII. The TL-29 Electrician’s Knife became service wide in WW II when the Marine Corps adopted it. It is now also a GSA item. Another is the USMC stiletto, and the original Engineer Pocketknife.            

C. Unit Patterns

The most-well known is the V-42 stiletto. Much less well known is the Fifth Air Force jungle knife issued to aviators in the SW Pacific. These are the small square tipped machete like knives carried in a strap-on leg sheath.

D. Commercial Patterns

1. Militarized. There are a lot of USN sheath knives in this group.

2. Non militarized. Usually come with a story that "Uncle Fred who is dead kept it in the head." Judging from ebay listings anything made since 1950 was carried in WW II. Just because it was in Uncle Fred’s junk box does not mean he brought it home from the war. Lots of surplus out there. Especially French issue Senegalese Machetes and Martin machetes made in Belgium. Think about that one! 

E. Military Market

This is where we find all those many favorites of collectors, John Ek, Gerber, Randall, nowadays Ontario, and a multitude of others. What distinguishes these from militarized is they were specifically designed and marketed for martial use. Secondarily and in peace time sold on the general market.

There are some very nicely made and interesting items in this category.

F. Field Made and Home Shop.

See the discussion under definitions. These are really difficult to sort out, but if you like these, there are a lot to be had relatively cheaply compared to others.

G. Theatre Knives

The distinction between these and service or branch is they were sold to GIs not issued.

The jungle daggers often have issue markings and fall into the service wide category or the association category. They have been seen being worn by both Army and Marine personnel.

H. Association Knives

See definition.

I. Captured Cutlery

Self explanatory. The Germans did not carry their daggers as field knives, they were strictly ceremonial items. If some nitwit insists that we consider an SS dagger a US military item because GI Joe was photographed wearing a looted one in Germany in 1945, then remember the immortal words of Mr. T. "Pity the fool."

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