History of the Swiss Army Knife

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The Swiss Army Knife is one of the most iconic pieces of cutlery to date. Its signature red scales are identifiable across the world, and it has become a staple in many individual’s every day carry. Yet it’s more than just a multitool—it is a symbol of craftsmanship and quality just as much as it’s a hallmark of usefulness and practicality within its functions. These knives have the special distinction to be considered acceptable and useful by almost everyone, regardless of profession or age, and there are a myriad number of models available to accommodate any need or requirement. I retain fond memories of my father and grandfather both carrying and using these little knives on occasion and recall my excitement when my father gifted me one of his.

Luftaufnahme_Schwyz2The birth of the Swiss Army Knife took place in Switzerland (shocking, we know), specifically in the Ibach-Schwyz region, flanked by the Staatswald and Eich Wald mountain ranges. In 1884, Karl Elsener opened up a small cutlery shop in the valley and began to create small knives and tools for the surrounding townsfolk. In the meantime, the Swiss Army discovered the need for a new style of knife for infantrymen. It needed to be durable and functional, and required a screwdriver and knife blade all in one to maintain the Schmidt-Rubin M1889, the standard issue service rifle of the time. The rifle could only be cleaned and dismantled with the aid of a screwdriver, and since they weren’t practical for a soldier to carry, something needed to change.

Elsener was approached by the Swiss military in 1890 and was contracted to make an acceptable tool that would meet the needs of the average soldier. Less than a year later, he surpassed military expectations by creating the prototype for what would later become the “Schweizer Offiziersmesser,” or Swiss Officer’s Knife, dubbed the Modell 1890. It was made of blackened wood and contained a knife blade, reamer, can opener and the ever-important screwdriver. At the time, mass production of the tool was done by a German company, Wester & Co; however, Elsener ended up retiring the partnership after he was unsatisfied with the quality of production. He continued to make various variations after regaining control of his company from Wester & Co. and resumed producing quality products for years to come.

There’s an important distinction to make between the two brands, Victorinox and Wenger, that had produced incredibly similar products until very recently. Elsener began his company Victorinox, named after his mother Victoria, and dominated the market until Paul Boéchat & Cie began producing a similar product in Delémont that eventually took on the name of Wenger, after Theodore Wenger, its General Manager. The Swiss government separated the two companies in 1908 in hopes of dissuading regional preference when the began competing too heavily. Victorinox took the brand of “Original Swiss Army Knife” while Wenger took “Genuine Swiss Army Knife” after a lengthy consensus.

Over time, Victorinox and Wenger produced separate products under separate names until 2005 when Victorinox required Wenger and became the solitary provider of knives for the Swiss Armed Forces. Victorinox decided to keep the consumer line of Wenger products in production but announced that Wenger would be fully absorbed into the Victorinox line.

Wenger Swiss Army Knife (top) and a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. Note the difference in the brand logo.

Wenger Swiss Army Knife (top) and a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. Note the difference in the brand logo.

In a 2013 press release, Victorinox stated “Eight years ago, the family-owned Swiss company Victorinox took over the long-established company Wenger, headquartered in Delémont, and has since managed it as a standalone subsidiary. Now Victorinox will integrate Wenger’s knife business.”

“Many consumers can hardly distinguish between the knife products from Victorinox and Wenger and the global fight for survival is getting increasingly fierce,” says Carl Elsener, CEO of Victorinox. “That’s why we are joining forces and focusing on one brand: Victorinox.”

Wenger is not without distinction and will separately maintain all of its outside product lines such as watches, luggage and product licensing, though under the Victorinox name. According to the press release, the only thing that will cease is the production of Wenger knives.

Victorinox, and its readily apparent logo of cross and shield, remains one of the world’s most popular and recognizable brands. Having owned many knives from the Tinker to the Cadet, I can personally vouch for the outstanding quality, durability and accessibility of these fine products; however, don’t take my word for it. Go out and find a knife to suit your needs and make the decision yourself. You certainly won’t regret it.

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