The Complete History of Swiss Army Knives

Swiss Army Knife

Multi-tools are handy.  You not only get your pocket knife (or pliers, hammer, hatchet, or whatever other tools), but you also get a plethora of other handy tools.  They’ll never replace a full toolbox, but when you’re in a pinch or have some little project you’re working on, it’s far more convenient to reach into your pocket and grab your Swiss Army Knife or other multi-tool than it is to hunt for the toolbox.

They’re also great if you like hiking and camping.  Thanks to things like Swiss Army Knives, you can save a lot of space that would otherwise be spend packing a bunch of individual tools.

Many of them fit comfortably on keychains as well, at least of the Swiss Army Knife variety.  Leatherman-style multi-tools are more difficult to stick on a keychain.

Today, we’re looking at the history of Swiss Army Knives, which I’m considering to encompass all pocket knife-style multi-tools.  Most of this will still be taken up by a history of Victorinox, however, as there are so few companies that make SAKs in the modern world.

Table of Contents

TL;DR Timeline

  • 210-300 BC: Archeological evidence shows that Romans had multi-tools, though it’s difficult to judge how widespread they were.
  • 1891: Karl Elsener produces the first multi-tool pocket knives for the Swiss army, allowing soldiers to open cans and even do maintenance on their rifles without needing a bunch of separate tools.
  • 1893: Paul Boechat & Cie (eventually Wenger) begins contracting with the Swiss Army produce their version of the Swiss Army Knife, too.  Wenger and Elsener (eventually Victorinox) become the chief producers of these new multi-tools.
  • 1897: Elsener patents the Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife.  Meanwhile, Wenger is hired as the general manager of Paul Boechat & Cie.
  • 1900: Paul Boechat & Cie is renamed Fabrique Suisse de Courtelle et Services.  They build a new facility that’s 18,000 square feet.
  • 1908: The Swiss Army agrees to split their contract between Elsener and Wenger, dictating that each company would be responsible for supplying half of the army’s knives each.
  • 1909: Karl Elsener changes the name of his company to Victoria, after his mother, who just died.
  • 1921: Stainless steel is invented, and it’s known internationally as Inox.  Elsener renames the company to Victorinox.
  • 1929: Theodore Wenger dies and the company’s majority share goes to Kaspar Oertli.
  • 1931: Carl Elsener II takes over Victorinox and introduces the first all-electric automation, allowing knives to be made of consistent quality.
  • 2001: The World Trade Centers are destroyed and the Pentagon hit.  Multiple laws are hastily written and passed, limiting the sale of knives especially around airports.
  • 2005: New international airport regulations have harmed the sales of Swiss Army Knives to teh point that Wenger is acquired by Victorinox.  Both companies continue to produce their own knives under the umbrella company, Victorinox AG.
  • 2013: The brands officially merge as far as knives go; Wenger can still produce watches under its own brand.
  • 2016: Victorinox relaunches the Wenger brand of Swiss Army Knives.

Ancient Rome and the First Multi-Tool Pocket Knife

Roman Swiss Army KnifeThe history of folding pocket knives that also act as multi-tools is sketchy and elusive.  The only evidence that I could find at all that they existed before the 19th century was a Roman archeological find.  While there are folding pocket knives from the medieval period, it seems that multi-tools were just not used by many early peoples.

Regardless of the somewhat dead-end my rabbit hole brought me to, we do know that multi-tools existed in Rome.  Between 210 and 300 BC, at least one Roman had commissioned a multi-tool pocket knife.  It had an iron blade, a fork, a spoon, a toothpick (just like modern Swiss Army Knives!), a nail-looking thing that probably opened small bottles, and a small hook for eating snails.

Eat your heart out, Victorinox!  (Do people still say that?)

With such scant archeological evidence, it’s unfortunately difficult to tell how popular these Swiss Army Knives (Roman Army Knives?) actually were.  The one that turned up has a lot of silver in it, meaning its owner must’ve been a wealthy man.  Even though cheaper knives may have been made for individuals of lesser means, we have yet to find concrete evidence of this.

Even so, it’s easy to see why Romans would want them.  At its height, the vast Roman Empire stretched from Portugal in the west all the way to the Persian Gulf in the east; from Great Britain in the north to Ethiopia in the south.  All in all, it was something like 1.7 million square miles!

Obviously, traveling this expanse was long and arduous.  Given the hazards of the roads, it was also quite dangerous.  Most people never traveled far from where they were born in ancient days, but if you really needed or wanted to head out on an adventure (or to war, to spread the gospel, to engage in diplomatic relations, etc.), then it would be convenient to pack as many of your tools into a single knife as possible.  It’s easy to see why someone with means would decide to just take all his most useful stuff with him in something easy to carry rather than burden himself with multiple satchels.

Karl Elsener Creates the Swiss Army Knife

Karl Elsener VictorinoxStepping out of Rome’s shadow and into the modern world, we come to find that Karl Elsener opened a cutlery factory in Ibach, Switzerland in 1884.  To create employment opportunities for locals, the soldier’s knife was invented.  This early model of what would become known as Swiss Army Knives was a heavy thing, but soldiers could use it to cut and slice as well as open canned food, disassemble a rifle, and punch holes in their belts.

The cheap cost of the knives meant that the Swiss Army was obligated to abandon the Soligen knives they’d been importing from Germany and order knives from Elsener.  That’s not to say that the knives weren’t good, though.

They grew to such popularity that by 1891, the Swiss Army purchased the first major supply.  A more elegant (and lightweight) version of the knife was developed for officers and gave way to the Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife, which featured six functions including the iconic corkscrew.

Swiss Army Knives were officially patented in 1897, the same year that Elsener added a second, smaller knife.  Actually, this was also the year the corkscrew was added.

Victoria ElsenerHowever, the company that created these red knives (red was chosen so the knife could be more easily found if dropped in the snow) wasn’t always called Victorinox.  In 1909, Elsener changed the company’s name to Victoria, after his mother.  She had recently died and he wanted to honor her.

It wasn’t until stainless steel hit the market in 1921 that the company became Victorinox.  The ‘inox’ part comes from the international name for stainless steel back then.

Yes, I like useless trivia.  There are loads more in the timeline section above!

Wenger Rivals Them

The story of the modern Swiss Army Knife isn’t Karl Elsener’s alone.  They had a fierce rival that the Swiss Army also wound up entering into a contract with.

Enter Paul Boechat & Cie.  In 1893, they too began contracting with the army to produce their own version of Swiss Army Knives.  In the year that Elsener patented this Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife, Wenger was hired as the new general manager of Paul Boechat & Cie, though the company will undergo at least one other name change (it became Fabrique Suisse de Courtelle et Services in 1900) before it became known as Wenger.

Theodore Wenger was a minister who had served in the United States and was returning to Switzerland when he was hired as the general manager.  One of his first acts was to acquire a manufacturer of spoons and forks, requiring a new 18,000-square-foot facility to be built.

While Wenger was contracting with the Swiss Army early, in 1908 the army decided to evenly split the contract.  Victorinox would send their knives to the German-speaking canton of Schwyz and Wenger would send their half to the French-speaking canton of Bern.

Eventually, in 1929, Kaspar Oertli gained a majority share in the company due to the unfortunate death of Theodore Wenger.

The Largest Swiss Army KnifeWhile we think of Victorinox when we think of Swiss Army Knives, Wengers knives shouldn’t be forgotten.  It was Wenger who broke the Guinness World Record by creating the 16999 Giant.  This massive knife (which could never be part of any realistic toolkit) incorporated 87 tools and 141 functions.  Way to go, Wenger!

But Are Swiss Army Knives Actually Swiss?

After reading all of that, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, they come from Switzerland!”

Remember the Soligen knives, though?  Yeah, those things the Swiss Army abandoned for Swiss Army Knives?  They have a special function in the story, too.  Man of them were traditional folding knives, but some of them later incorporated can openers after troops were continually damaging their blades by using them to open cans of food.

While it’s difficult to find a lot of information, the picture on the right is purportedly a German multi-tool knife from the year 1880.  Perhaps there’s a larger history of these kinds of knives than previously thought, although this knife was actually used by salesmen to demonstrate various tools they had for sale.  This ‘knife’ wasn’t actually for sale or carried by anyone.  I wish it were possible to find a lot more information about them, though.

Anyway, some people claim that the original Swiss Army Knives were actually German.

I, however, argue that the Romans did it first, therefore the originals were Roman inventions.

9/11 Happens

Unfortunately, awful things happen in the world.  These things shake us to our core and impact both our own perceptions of the world and businesses that once thrived within it.  When the Twin Towers were struck, the United States went into a panic and majorly overreacted.

As Americans, we aren’t used to calamities like this on our own soil.  These are things that happen to other people, not us, so we jump to the wrong conclusions when they do, assuming that we’re somehow less safe than other countries.  As I’ve said before, politicians are quick to write laws based on flimsy ‘facts’ just to tow a party line or just to take action.

This was really bad for Swiss Army Knives because the TSA exists.  This meant that fewer Swiss Army Knives were being sold in duty-free shops, and Wenger found itself in overwhelming financial difficulties.  In order to survive, it merged with Victorinox in 2005, allowing both companies to stay afloat.

Their product lines, which remained individual for a long time, finally merged on January 30, 2013.  While all knives produced by Wenger’s facilities would be called Victorinox now, they could still produce and there weren’t substantial layoffs.

The Wenger brand has been relaunched as of 2016 and Wenger has the new slogan “A Swiss Company Since 1893.”

Where Have You Seen Swiss Army Knives?

Swiss Army Knives aren’t only for soldiers.  They’re highly useful tools that you’ve probably seen before, even if you’ve never owned one yourself.

In 1975, the British mountaineer Chris Bonington climbed up the southwest face of Mount Everest, using his Swiss Army Knife to operate the oxygen system.  The handy little pocket knife proved useful in that you could carry multiple tools in one lightweight bundle.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield advises us to “Never leave the planet without one,” in reference to Swiss Army Knives.  He used a Swiss Army Knife to dock the space shuttle Atlantis to the Russian Mir space station.

In fact, NASA issues a Master Craftsman to each astronaut that travels into space.  The Swiss Army Knife is used as a fallback in situations where a specific NASA tool isn’t readily available or isn’t working.  This echoes how a lot of us use these knives here on earth.

And, of course, if you’ve ever seen MacGyver, you’ve probably seen him use his Swiss Army Knife in ingenious ways.  He can use his SAK to do all kinds of crazy things!

Final Thoughts

Swiss Army Knives have a long and fascinating history.  If you’re specifically interested in Victorinox, there’s a great documentary you can watch here.  It’s only great for super nerds, but I’m assuming some of you are super nerds.

Remember, never leave home without your Swiss Army Knife because you never know when you’ll need to get out of a sticky situation!

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