The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife (Commando Knife) in World War II
British Commando Training, WW II. Click photo for larger image.
The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife is named for the two British officers who designed it, based on their experience with the Shanghai police. Major W.E. Fairbairn had been chief of police in Shanghai before the Japanese capture of the city. Eric Anthony Sykes worked with Faribairn in Shanghai where they developed the "Defendu" system of police training and combat fighting. Defendu is credited with being the first modern fighting system, a "kill or get killed" approach that was practical and effective. Both were recruited by the OSS to train American and Allied commandos and resistence fighters, including the Jedburghs. Starting in 1941, their knife was a standard commando weapon in World War II for U.S. and British Commonwealth forces to the point where it was often called simply "the Commando knife".
The Fairbairn-Sykes is based on the classic dagger design, but made of modern stainless steel that can be lighter and thinner than any antique weapon. The knife was designed to allow a trained commando to strike accurately at an opponent's vital organs, driving deep to do fatal damage. It was thin enough to slip between the ribs, was sharpened on both edges to slice in any direction. It is well balanced for throwing, a last resort technique since a thrown knife is lost if it fails to hit and kill the target. [Photo left: Olive-Drab]
Although it remained in use for many decades after WW II, the knife has been criticized for some of its design qualities. Specifically, some experienced knife fighters find it too light weight so that it may not penetrate readily through heavy clothing or might bounce off a bone. It is also prone to break off if overstressed. These factors have led to the adoption of heavier designs based on the KA-BAR combat knife used by the USMC.
Several patterns were produced by Wilkinson Swords and others. First pattern knives, never produced in large numbers, had a 7.5 inch blade with a flat area (ricasso) at the top of the blade, under the S-shaped cross guard. Pattern 2 knives have the two inch wide straight cross guard, diamond knurled pattern grip, rounded ball end and may be stamped "ENGLAND" on the handle side of the cross piece. Like the one shown above on the left, 2nd pattern had the knurled brass handle for good grip even when bloody (this knife is not for the squeemish).
Later knives (3rd pattern, photo right) had ring grips and will have a black matte parkerized finish. Third pattern knives may be stamped "WILLIAM RODGERS SHEFFIELD ENGLAND" or "BROAD ARROW" or just "ENGLAND". Numbers or letters may also be stamped on the knife, such as "B 2" or "3". Leroy Thompson's book (see below) is the authoritative reference on markings.
The 2nd or 3rd pattern Fairbairn-Sykes knives measure 11.75" overall with a 7" blade and weigh 9.5 oz. All Fairbairn-Sykes knives are issued with a leather boot sheath with a metal tip and an elastic loop to hold the handle down. It also will fit the U.S. M-8 or M8A1 bayonet sheath.
Thanks to Colin MacGregor Stevens for his help with this page.
Where to Buy the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife
The Fairbairn-Sykes knife is popular with collectors for the same reason a cobra is fascinating -- here is silent death. There are many commercial reproductions of this knife, as well as books and manuals discussing the history and fighting training, such as these Fairbairn-Sykes
listings from Amazon.com.
The original wartime Fairbairn-Sykes knife shows up regularly on eBay as well as at militaria dealers and knife dealers. If you want to make sure you are getting an original World War II era knife, study carefully and investigate your seller. For more information, consult the resources below.
Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife Books and Internet Resources
Kill or Get Killed
by Col. Rex Applegate. This is the best and longest-selling book on close combat in history. Reprinted and in current use by the U.S. Marine Corps as an official training manual, it details methods of self-defense, offensive close combat including knife fighting, combat shooting and crowd-control techniques in riot situations. Colonel Rex Applegate is widely regarded as the father of modern close combat and combat shooting, and this book is considered the standard by which all other books on the subject are judged.
The Source by Peter Robins. The history of the famous collaboration between Eric Anthony Sykes and William Ewart Fairbairn which led to the Fairbairn-Sykes knife and WW II's most successful close combat systems for both armed
and unarmed combat. See also the biography of Col. Rex Applegate, their most famous student, on the American Combatives web site.
by W.E. Fairbairn is Fairbairn's own description of his history and the hand-to-hand fighting system that made him world famous in military circles. It includes his famous "how long to die" charts showing the effectiveness of various stab woulds in killing an opponent. This is the real thing from Fairbairn's deadly serious experience.
There are many fine websites that have additional information on this
topic, too many to list here and too many to keep up with as they come and go.
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