Swiss Army Knives Were Once Made In Germany

The original Swiss Army Knife that was made in Germany. (Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

A favorite tool of survivalists, hunters, and Boy Scouts, the Swiss Army knife is the item you want if you're lost in the wilderness or stranded on a desert island, but what makes the Swiss such experts in knives? It turns out these knives were originally manufactured in Germany. It took one patriotic innovator to turn this classic pocket knife into a national symbol of Switzerland.

The Swiss Army Knife

The Swiss government had always included a pocket knife with the equipment it issued to its newly enlisted soldiers, which they started using in the late 1880s to open the canned food they were provided. It worked, but it damaged the blade and often cut the user's skin. The Swiss government decided to revamp their knives to include can-opening attachments as well as other tools for soldiers to maintain their rifles and a folding feature, but there were no manufacturing facilities in Switzerland equipped to make such a knife.

Victorinox Swiss army knife with knife chain and belt clip. (Biso/Wikimedia Commons)

Karl Elsener

In January 1891, the Swiss military placed an order for 15,000 pocket knives with Wester & Co., a knife manufacturer based in Solingen, Germany. In general, the Swiss Army was satisfied with the German-made knives, but patriotic Swiss nationals, who prided themselves on their manufacturing industry, didn't like asking Germany for help. They turned to Karl Elsener, a Swiss manufacturer of surgical equipment who retooled his factory to produce pocket knives for the Swiss Army, but Elsener was expensive, so on the verge of bankruptcy and losing out to a competing bid from a German factory, he decided that if he couldn't make a more cost-effective knife, he would make a better one.

Victorinox Swisschamp XAVT. (Dave Taylor/Wikimedia Commons)

Build A Better Product

Elsener's new design featured tools attached to both sides of the handle, which included a corkscrew and second smaller blade, and opened quickly and easily with a spring-based mechanism, which also held the tools securely in the handle until they were needed. He also added the Swiss coat of arms to the knife's handle to clearly identify it as a Swiss-made product. Sales of this product saved his company, and today, the Swiss Army knife is sold all over the world. It's even possible now to get a Swiss Army knife with a USB drive, laser pointer, and fingerprint scanners with data encryption.