It twists and tweezes, grips and strips, magnifies, measures, mends and more. And it fits in your pocket. Lee Osborne salutes the Swiss Army knife
The Swiss Army knife wasn’t the first tool of its kind – a similar gadget gets mentioned in Moby Dick, published in 1851. The author describes “Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife, but containing not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-files and countersinkers”.
This was very much what the Swiss Army had in mind when it decided to purchase new pocket knives for its officers. They needed to open canned food supplied in rations, and also allow officers to service their rifles, which needed a screwdriver to take them apart.
Originally manufactured by a German company, the founder of Victorinox developed an improved version, which he marketed internationally. They soon became extremely popular, and a huge range of different knives developed.
The term Swiss Army knife only passed into common use after the Second World War, when American troops in Europe became fans of the product, but struggled to pronounce the original German name. Many knives went back across the Atlantic, and started a boom in their international appeal.
A glimpse at the Victorinox website will present you with a mind-boggling array of knives, from extremely simple and cheap to enormous and complex. Most have a similar core of features – a couple of blades, corkscrew, bottle and can openers, tweezers and nail files – but on top of that, a number of specialised tools are offered in various combinations.
There are knives tailored towards hunting, fishing, climbing, repairing electrical equipment, travelling, and even cigar smoking. I was somewhat baffled by what was on offer, but eventually decided on the SwissChamp, one of the larger knives in the collection, but with a good price and balance of features. It contains no less than 33 tools in eight layers.
Swiss Army knife resources
- The Victorinox website has details of the full Swiss Army knife range, as well as a comparison tool to help you choose the right knife. They can be ordered here, along with a wide range of spares and accessories, but the prices are quite high and can be bettered elsewhere. I bought mine at swisstool.co.uk, where prices were up to 20 per cent lower.
- Struggling to decide? Five different models are reviewed at bestreviews.com/best-victorinox-swiss-army-knives, providing a useful comparison of features against cost.
- For some facts, figures and stories about the development of Swiss Army knives, go to tedium.co/2015/09/22/swiss-army-knife-history
This is an extract from a longer piece which appears in Idler #79, July/August issue.