There aren’t many edged weapons that can boast of having their R&D done in wartime by actual use in combat, but the Applegate-Fairbairn knife is one. Currently produced by German knifemaker Böker, the “A-F” is currently in use by German Special Forces and boasts a development history going back nearly a century and stretched across three continents. To talk about what makes it special, though, we need to start with the men who created it.
William E. Fairbairn, along with his partner Eric A. Sykes, ran the Shanghai Municipal Police Department during the extreme violence of the 1920’s and ‘30’s. During that time, the duo pioneered the concept of close quarters battle (CQB), SWAT teams, “shoot houses” for training, point shooting and many other things we now take for granted. They also developed a dagger to meet the needs they encountered — but more on that in a minute.
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These were lessons paid for in blood: Fairbairn was credited with participating in over 200 gunfights and was reportedly covered head to toe in scars from knife fights. After being beaten unconscious one night in an alleyway, he became a serious student of fighting; studying several martial arts and earning his 2nd-degree black belt in Kodokan Judo from founder Jigoro Kano. His and Sykes’ work, however, was mostly in Shanghai until after the Dunkirk debacle, when the English saw an imminent need to train the Home Guard and summoned the pair home to England.
The First Knife
In such times, a hard man is good to find, and that’s exactly what Fairbairn and Sykes were — so much so that many of the aristocratic Brits, apparently not yet aware of the character of their Nazi opponents, looked with horror on their dirty fighting techniques. Fairbairn, who had obviously seen a larger, meaner elephant, quickly earned the nickname “Major Foul Blow” for his disdain of Queensbury style fighting, which was evident in his “gutter fighting” method. During their time training Commandos, the Special Operations Executive and others, the dagger Fairbairn and Sykes had first conceptualized in Shanghai went into production by Wilkinson Sword in January 1941 as the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. Nearly a foot long overall, the twin edges of the ¼” thick, 7″ blade plunged down to a needlelike point designed for penetration. The round handle — originally knurled, but ringed in later models — had a narrow flare at the pommel. The handle is reminiscent of a fencer’s foil and for good reason since a good deal of Western knife fighting — such as the John Styers combatives system taught to U.S. Marines — had some foundation in classical fencing.
This knife would have come with Fairbairn when he was loaned out to America’s fledgling Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where founder “Wild Bill” Donovan assigned a young Lieutenant (later Colonel) Rex Applegate to him as part of Applegate’s duty to learn “all there was to know about close combat with and without weapons” and develop a combatives program for the OSS. After learning to respect the much older and smaller Fairbairn the hard way — by getting tossed across a room after being “voluntold” to help in a demo — Applegate applied himself to learning all he could from Fairbairn and then refining it.
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As early as 1943, Applegate and Fairbairn were working together on a knife design that would address the shortcomings they saw in the F-S and had a prototype by 1944. The imperfections of the F-S included the round handle, which could be quite slick. It also made it difficult to tell by feel which way the blade pointing. Applegate wrote later they had received reports of soldiers trying to cut the throats of enemy sentries using the flat of the blade. According to Wiley Clapp, a trusted friend who was close to Applegate, the Colonel once confided he had almost done the same thing when creeping up on a sentry, but reached down to feel the guard first.
Making It Rugged
Another area that needed improvement was the blade profile: the F-S blade was long and narrow and had to be thick in order not to break easily, but the steep angle of the blade grind made it hard to sharpen. Even so, the finely pointed tips were easily broken; a friend of mine has the dagger his father was issued in the OSS, the tip of which he, too, had broken off.
Despite the room for improvement, several variants of the F-S were adopted for military service during WWII, including an OSS model featuring a distinctive spatula scabbard (no, really, they were made by a housewares company) as well as a modified version for the Marine Raiders and a still-more-modified knife called the V-42 used by the First Special Service Force, aka “Devil’s Brigade.”
His time with Fairbairn over, Applegate was reassigned to the Military Intelligence Training Center, where he continued teaching and refining what he had learned from Fairbairn, using the immediate feedback that came from being able to rotate students and instructors into the field and back to report on what techniques worked and which did not. This closed-loop feedback was the critical piece for Applegate, who considered that sort of real-world combat testing the only way to know what really worked.
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Although Applegate talked with other makers about his knife design after the war ended, including Randall and Al Buck, it largely lay dormant for 30 years or so until he had a series of different makers produce it, include Bill Harsey, Al Mar, Blackjack and others before settling on Böker.
Based in the legendary German cutlery center of Solingen, Böker has been in business for almost a century and a half, with roots stretching even further back to the 1600’s. It offers several variants of the Applegate-Fairbairn knife, including limited edition versions with varying blade or handle materials, the all-black model in use by the German Special Forces and the original version which features a forward-swept brass crossguard, grooved Delrin handle and bead-blasted 6″ blade. Although customarily marked with a facsimile of the signatures of both men, the black Applegate-Fairbairn knife is cloaked completely in non-reflective black except for the gleam of the finely sharpened cutting edge. Shorter than the F-S, the 440C blade is also wider and the larger handle has an oval cross-section.
Both the F-S and Applegate-Fairbairn have a balance point about an inch back from the guard, which is intended to make the blade feel lively in the hand. Applegate this ensured in his knife by having removable weights installed in the handle, which is held on by a hex-head screw.
Both knives are intended to be held the same way, gripped diagonally across the handle like a fencing foil. The primary difference in grip is that the A-F’s swept-forward crossguard (a feature also found on the Al Mar-designed Gerber Mk II dagger, another obvious progeny of the F-S) lets the thumb wedge against the guard to create a more secure, and safer, grip. For comparison, the grip taught by Styers to the Marine Corps (a version of which was also written about by David Steele), butts the tip of the thumb up against the steel guard, a sure way to injure the thumb when used seriously. This also probably explains the leather pad found on the rear of V-42 crossguards. The forward angle of the A-F, though, lets the thumb lay on top of the guard instead of being butted against it.
Instead of the leather scabbards that traditionally came with the Applegate-Fairbairn knife, the black version comes with a more-modern Kydex scabbard with a Blade-Tech Tek-Lok. The scabbard has a slight flare at the top for ease of re-holstering the blade and is molded closely around the guard, and snaps into place to hold the knife firmly and safely until withdrawn. The Tek-Lok can be used on belts just over 2″ wide and is adjustable for both width of the belt, so it doesn’t flop, and for high how or low it clamps around the belt. The scabbard can also be adapted to IWB carry and is secure enough for inverted use, making for an extremely versatile carrying system.
Other than the scabbard, all else remains as Applegate had envisioned some 70 plus years ago. And isn’t that the mark of excellence — designing something that doesn’t change much for the better part of a hundred years?
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Jeremy relied upon the following sources and recommends them for further study:
Combat Use of the Double-Edged Fighting Knife, Col Rex Applegate
The Close-Combat Files of Colonel Rex Applegate, Col. Rex Applegate and Maj. Chuck Melson
Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Dagger, Leroy Thompson
Special thanks to Wiley Clapp and Michael Janich
For more information, visit: www.bokerusa.com