National Geographic Megafactories Swiss Army Knife44:59

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Published on July 17, 2016

The Swiss Army knife

is a pocket knife or multi-tool manufactured by Victorinox AG (and up to 2005 also by Wenger SA). The term “Swiss Army knife” was coined by American soldiers after World War II due to the difficulty they had in pronouncing “Offiziersmesser”, the German name.

The Swiss Army knife generally has a main spearpoint blade, as well as various tools, such as screwdrivers, a can opener, and many others. These attachments are stowed inside the handle of the knife through a pivot point mechanism. The handle is usually red, and features a Victorinox or Wenger “cross” logo or, for Swiss military issue knives, the coat of arms of Switzerland.

Originating in Ibach, Switzerland, the Swiss Army knife was first produced in 1891 after the company, Karl Elsener, which later became Victorinox, won the contract to produce the Swiss Army’s Modell 1890 knife from the previous German manufacturer. In 1893, the Swiss cutlery company Paul Boéchat & Cie, which later became Wenger, received its first contract from the Swiss military to produce model 1890 knives; the two companies split the contract for provision of the knives from 1908 until Victorinox acquired Wenger in 2005.The design of the knife and its versatility have both led to worldwide recognition.

During the late 1880s, the Swiss Army decided to purchase a new folding pocket knife for their soldiers. This knife was to be suitable for use by the army in opening canned food and disassembling the Swiss service rifle, the Schmidt–Rubin, which required a screwdriver for assembly.

In January 1891, the knife received the official designation Modell 1890. The knife had a blade, reamer, can-opener, screwdriver, and grips made out of dark oak wood that some say was later partly replaced with ebony wood. At that time no Swiss company had the necessary production capacity, so the initial order for 15,000 knives was placed with the German knife manufacturer Wester & Co. from Solingen, Germany. These knives were delivered in October 1891.

In 1891, Karl Elsener, then owner of a company that made surgical equipment, set out to manufacture the knives in Switzerland itself. At the end of 1891 Elsener began production of the Modell 1890 knives. Elsener then wanted to make a pocketknife more suitable to an Officer. In 1896, Elsener succeeded in attaching tools on both sides of the handle using a special spring mechanism: this allowed him to use the same spring to hold them in place, an innovation at the time. This allowed Elsener to put twice as many features on the knife. On 12 June 1897 this knife featuring a second smaller cutting blade, corkscrew, and wood fiber grips was originally registered with the patent office as The Officer’s and Sports Knife, though it was never part of a military contract.

Karl Elsener used the cross and shield to identify his knives, the symbol still used today on Victorinox-branded versions. When his mother died in 1909, Elsener decided to name his company “Victoria” in her memory. In 1921 the company started using stainless steel to make the Swiss Army Knife. Stainless steel is also known as “inox”, short for the French term “acier inoxydable”.  “Victoria” and “inox” were then combined to create the company name “Victorinox”.Victorinox’s headquarters and show room are located in the Swiss town of Ibach.

Victorinox and Wenger

Elsener, through his company Victorinox, managed to control the market until 1893, when the second industrial cutler of Switzerland, Paul Boéchat & Cie, headquartered in Delémont in the French-speaking region of Jura, started selling a similar product. This company was later acquired by its then General Manager, Théodore Wenger, and renamed the Wenger Company. In 1908 the Swiss government, wanting to prevent an issue over regional favouritism, but perhaps wanting a bit of competition in hopes of lowering prices, split the contract with Victorinox and Wenger, each getting half of the orders placed. By mutual agreement, Wenger has advertised as the Genuine Swiss Army Knife and Victorinox used the slogan, the Original Swiss Army Knife.

On April 26, 2005, Victorinox acquired Wenger, once again becoming the sole supplier of knives to the Military of Switzerland. Victorinox had kept both consumer brands intact, but on January 30, 2013, Wenger and Victorinox announced that the separate knife brands were going to be merged into one brand: Victorinox. Wenger’s watch and licensing business will continue as a separate brand.

Up to 2008 Victorinox AG and Wenger SA supplied about 50,000 knives to the military of Switzerland each year, and manufactured many more for export, mostly to the United States. Many commercial Victorinox and Wenger Swiss Army knives can be immediately distinguished by the cross logos depicted on their grips; the Victorinox cross logo is surrounded by a shield while the Wenger cross logo is surrounded by a slightly rounded square.

On January 30, 2013, Wenger and Victorinox announced that the separate knife brands were going to be merged into one brand: Victorinox. The press release stated that Wenger’s factory in Delemont would continue to produce knives and all employees at this site will retain their jobs. They further elaborated that an assortment of items from the Wenger line-up will remain in production under the Victorinox brand name. Wenger’s U.S. headquarters will be merged with Victorinox’s location in Monroe, Connecticut. Wenger’s watch and licensing business will continue as a separate brand.

Many other companies manufacture similar-looking folding knives in a wide range of quality and prices. The cross-and-shield emblem and the words SWISS ARMY are registered trademarks of Victorinox AG and its related companies.

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