The USMC KA-BAR Knife was developed early in World War II. On 9 December 1942, one year after the United States entered World War II, Union Cutlery submitted a Ka-Bar branded knife to the U.S. Marine Corps for issue to fighting personnel. Although the original design failed to meet USMC requirements, the company was able to work with the Marine Corps on improvements. The Navy already had a fighting knife, by Camillus, the Mark 1. A revised design based on improvements to the Camillus Mark 1 was accepted as the "USN Fighting Knife, Mark 2." The identical knife, except its markings, is called "1219C2 USMC" by the Marines with nomenclature "Knife, Fighting and Utility." The Marine Corps version was manufactured by Union Cutlery, stamped Ka-Bar, and was issued as the standard USMC fighting/utility knife. The first batch was shipped to the USMC from Union Cutlery on 27 January 1943.
The knife was so successful in the field that Union Cutlery could not meet the entire demand. As a result, several other manufacturers were licensed to produce the same knife during the war. Despite the ownership of the name by Union Cutlery, all knives of this general pattern became known as Ka-Bar knives. Over one million knives were produced by Union Cutlery alone during World War II.
After WW II the Ka-Bar was no longer officially issued to the USMC or other forces. However, it continued to be popular as "hand me downs" or by unofficial purchases at the PX. And not just in the Marines -- all services plus Seals and other Special Forces were fans of the Ka-Bar. The knife was definitely used in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War and continues to be sold and used today (see Vietnam photo below). The success of the Ka-Bar and its close association with the legendary United States Marines made the Ka-Bar name a powerful marketing brand for Union Cutlery. In 1952 the company changed its name to KA-BAR Knives Inc.
USMC Ka-Bar Knife Design
Blades made to original specifications are hi-carbon steel hardened and tempered to resist breaking under severe pressure and to accept and retain a super sharp edge even in the field. The blade is stamped KA-BAR, OLEAN, NY in capital block letters and the pile side tang with a bold U.S.M.C. Later in the war the KA-BAR Fighting Knife was also adopted by other branches of the service and were stamped accordingly.
The leather handle of the Ka-Bar Knife is formed by stacking 22 slotted genuine cowhide leather discs over the rectangular tang and then compressing them under great pressure to turn the discs into a solid unit that resists absorbing moisture or contamination of any kind and is highly shock proof. The leather discs are locked together under pressure by topping them off with a 3/8" solid steel pommel pinned right through the tang from side to side. With this accomplished the knife is assembled into one virtually indestructible piece and ready for the finishing operations of adding five grooves around the handle for a comfortable, slip resistant grip, polishing the leather and finally hand sharpening and honing the blade to a razor edge.
During the war production period 1942-1945, the USMC Ka-Bar Knife went through several changes and modifications, the most important of which involved the design and method of fixing the pommel to the tang. The first World War II plans specified a pommel about half the thickness of the final dimension approved and it was to be screwed on to the end of a threaded tang. This was soon improved, so as to better meet the extreme demands placed on the knife, by steel pinning the double thick pommels right through the tang.
The material in this section is adapted from the Ka-Bar product brochure.
Sergeant David E. Weimer with Ka-Bar on his equipment suspenders, 3rd Marine Division, at Phu Bai, 10 April 1967. That position on the equipment suspenders is designated for a compass case or first aid pouch, but many soldiers and Marines carried a Ka-Bar as in this photo.
Ka-Bar 1976 USMC 200th Anniversary Edition
In 1976 production was reintroduced to commemorate the Marine Corps 200th Anniversary of service to the United States. The original Ka-Bar factory in Olean, New York, along with some of its original craftsmen, undertook the job of creating a “full dress model” of the original – a Limited Edition Commemorative that would prove to be most meaningful to the Marines. Using the original blueprints stored in the company archive files, the recreated knife was a true work of art that retained the look, feel and performance of the original battle ready combat knife. The first one of its kind, serialized with the number "1", was presented to the Commandant of the Corps and is now on display at the USMC Museum at Quantico.
Where to Buy a KA-BAR Knife
After the success of the 1976 USMC Anniversay Edition, the Ka-Bar went back into production and continues to be available from the Ka-Bar company through dealers. Amazon.com lists several Ka-Bar models
and related accessories.
If you want to buy a genuine World War II era Ka-Bar knife, be very careful. Go to the web sites of reputable militaria dealers who very carefully describe what they are selling and provide photos of all the markings and other details. Similar caution applies to buying from eBay where the seller's listing should include all the relevant information along with photos. Check the Olive-Drab.com Militaria section to help you find out more.
KA-BAR Knife Books and Internet Resources
On this page KA-BAR Knives tell their own story of the history of the Ka-Bar knife.
KA-BAR: The Next Generation Of The Ultimate Fighting Knife
by Greg Walker gives readers an inside view of the exacting design criteria, cutting-edge materials, extensive factory tests and exhaustive real-life field tests that went into the historic redesign of the blade, handguard, handle, pommel, and sheath of the ultimate fighting knife of the future. The new knife excelled at these rigorous tests, earning the right to be called a KA-BAR. An appendix is the "original brochure" for the Ka-Bar.
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