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The Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife

A British soldier with a Fairbairn-Sykes knife (Photo: Reddit)
A British Commando with a Fairbairn-Sykes knife (Photo: IWM)

In this article, we are going to write about a slightly lesser known but still classic weapon, the Fairbairn–Sykes or F-S fighting knife. How did a need for such a special weapon arise? From 1939, the German war machine swept through Europe with the Blitzkrieg. After the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the European mainland in 1940 (Read our earlier article - The “Miracle of Dunkirk”), Britain was unable to open a second front to relieve the Soviet Union since they had lost most of their equipment during the evacuation. The U.S. had already entered the war, but they also needed time to build up their forces. As a temporary solution, the British created a specially trained volunteer fighting force called Commandos, drawn from the British Army. They were tasked to carry out small-scale raids to harass and tie down German forces in western Europe. In addition to Commando raids, clandestine missions were executed by the operatives of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Beside small arms and close quarter combat techniques, they needed a good knife to ambush and eliminate enemy sentries silently. This is how this unique, double-edged stiletto came into being.

A first pattern Wilkinson F-S knife with its sheath (Photo: www.fsknife.com, Roy Shadbolt)
A first pattern Wilkinson F-S knife with its sheath (Photo: www.fsknife.com, Roy Shadbolt)

Who were the inventors of this weapon? The knife was even named after them. It was two British police officers and long-time friends, William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes, who were the driving force behind the project. Let’s have a look at their personal stories first. Their lifelines crossed in Shanghai or Shanghai International Settlement, to be more precise. The city was a vivid cosmopolitan commercial center but was also known as the most dangerous city in the world. It became the sixth largest city of the globe in the 1930s. The forefather of the Shanghai International Settlement was created by the British in the 19th century. Later, the Americans, French, Japanese and other nations joined them through concessions. This mix was made even more “colorful” when the fighting between the Chinese nationalists and communists got more and more tense which manifested in political killings, kidnappings and riots between the parties. On top of this, organized crime was also strongly present in the form of prostitution, drugs, gambling, assassinations, etc.

William Ewart Fairbairn (Photo: Wikipedia)
William Ewart Fairbairn (Photo: Wikipedia)

These were the circumstances under which the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) had to operate. Reflecting the multinational character of the city, the SMP consisted of officers from all kinds of nationalities. There were many Chinese, Sikhs, Japanese, British, Irish and Scottish among their ranks. After the Russian Revolution, many White Russians joined them, too.

Fairbairn served with the Royal Marine Light Infantry from 1901 (he lied about his age, since he was only 16 at that time), and then joined the SMP in 1907 as constable. One night, he was attacked, beaten up and stabbed by a group of Chinese criminals, and ended up in hospital. This experience motivated him to train in different oriental martial arts (judo, jujutsu, etc.) and combined them with European boxing and wrestling techniques. Several police officers suffered similar attacks which made him develop a new, simplified but highly effective fighting system called Defendu for the police. This was published as a police training manual in 1926 which was re-published in book format as Scientific Self Defence in 1931. The Defendu’s main goal is to end the fight as quickly as possible with a series of interconnected "ungentlemanly" moves. He not only trained the police in close quarters combat but also in shooting methods and, in addition, invented new equipment (pistols, bullet-proof vests, etc.). He introduced realistic shooting exercises in special shooting grounds. Officers had to shoot at moving targets in different lighting conditions while being distracted by firecrackers and other unexpected surprises.

Fairbairn demonstrating the Defendu fighting system (Video: YouTube)

In light of the numerous hostage situations and riots, he created an anti-riot team called SMP Reserve Unit which became the forerunner of today’s Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams. Members of the team were unsatisfied with their knives and developed their own Shanghai fighting knife from earlier British bayonets. Fairbairn’s friend, Eric Anthony Sykes was a volunteer and later the commander of the Reserve Unit’s “Specials” detachment comprising the snipers of the unit. They probably got to know each other when Sykes worked for different arms companies in Asia. He also served as a sniper in WWI. He then moved to China as the representative for Remington and Colt. He joined the SMP Specials team as a part-time volunteer in 1926. He worked for the SMP until his and Fairbairn’s resignation in 1940. They returned to Britain together the same year and were commissioned into the British Army in the rank of second lieutenant.

Eric Anthony Sykes (Photo: blog.coleshillhouse.com)
Eric Anthony Sykes (Photo: blog.coleshillhouse.com)
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This was the occasion when they were asked to train the newly formed Commandos and SOE agents. The basis of the training was the Defendu but was modified for military needs and constituted the new Close Quarters Combat System. Fairbairn said: “I was in police work in the Orient for 30 years. We had a tough crowd to deal with there so you had to be prepared to beat every trick in the book.”…“In modern warfare, the job is more drastic. You’re interested only in disabling or killing your enemy. That’s why I teach what I call ‘Gutter Fighting.’ There’s no fair play; no rules except one; kill or be killed.” The Commandos received their training at the Commando school at Achnacarry, Scotland. Interestingly, a book about the system’s non-lethal version designed for women was published in 1942 with the title Hands Off!: Self-Defense for Women.

Fairbairn showing stabbing techniques (Photo: YouTube)
Fairbairn showing stabbing techniques (Photo: YouTube)

During the training, a need arose for a fighting knife tailored for the unique needs of the special forces. In November 1940, Fairbairn and Sykes visited the Wilkinson Sword Co. Ltd. in London to discuss the design and the production of the knife. It replaced the BC-41 knuckleduster-dagger and other non-issue equipment. Before the 1,500 pieces of the first pattern arrived (disguised as “hunting knives”), Wilkinson delivered 144 actual hunting knives. The knife was designed with the intention to kill guards quickly and silently through stabbing a vital organ or artery. This is a reason why sometimes this knife is called a killing knife instead of a fighting knife. The blade had to be able to be drawn quickly from the sheath and penetrate even thick clothing. In case of sneaking up on the guards from behind, the aim was to either grab the head of the enemy while covering his mouth with our hands and go for the neck and use a carotid thrust, or to stab the kidney of the target simply by pulling him towards the attacker.

Sergeant Stan W Scott, No. 3 Army Commando, demonstrates the use of the F-S knife. (Video: YouTube)

In an eye-to-eye encounter, the wielder, while constantly moving, should not hit the opponent with the knife but move forward, cut and slice vital parts while pulling back. Professional users could change wielding hands in order to confuse the enemy which hand they would use. It was held correctly with the help of the thumb and the forefinger behind the hilt with the palm around the handle. The pommel could also be used to hit the enemy. A properly used knife could give self-confidence to the wielder, while, as a psychological weapon, it could already lead to the surrender of the enemy. The gruesome and aggressive nature of close quarters combat with an experienced opponent has always been a factor that could trigger the enemy’s surrender. It is worth watching some old footage where Fairbairn presents his methods himself. Dressed elegantly, his deadly knife-wielding moves might seem as a series of energetic dance moves.

British soldier practicing with the Fairbairn-Sykes knife (Photo: IWM)
British soldiers practicing with the Fairbairn-Sykes knife (Photo: IWM)

Fairbairn explained the logic behind the knife in his book Get Tough! published in 1942: “In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife. In choosing a knife there are two important factors to bear in mind: balance and keenness. The hilt should fit easily in your hand, and the blade should not be so heavy that it tends to drag the hilt from your fingers in a loose grip. It is essential that the blade have a sharp stabbing point and good cutting edges, because an artery torn through (as against a clean cut) tends to contract and stop the bleeding. If a main artery is cleanly severed, the wounded man will quickly lose consciousness and die.”

The cover of Faribairn’s book, Get Tough! (Photo: Amazon)
The cover of Faribairn’s book, Get Tough! (Photo: Amazon)

In terms of design and production, the knife had a distinctive S-shaped hilt on the earlier patterns. On one side of the ricasso, Wilkinson’s trademark could be seen, while on the other side “The F-S Fighting-Knife” was inscribed. The double-edged blade of the first pattern was 6.5 in / 17 cm long. The first models were handmade while later models were mass-produced. Wilkinson was not the sole manufacturer anymore. The second pattern had a somewhat longer 7 in / 18 cm blade. Third pattern knives also had a similar seven-inch blade, but the handle was changed to a ringed grip. Along the British Commandos, the knife was issued to U.S. Army Rangers, airborne troops, the Special Air Service and other units of the Allies including those who landed in Normandy on D-Day. Soldiers had many options where to carry the weapon. For instance, it could be hidden in their socks, attached to their belts or to the back of their hand or anywhere from where they could draw it easily.

A British soldier hiding his knife (Photo: www.cdomuseum.be)

Around 1942, the two friends parted ways. According to some accounts, Sykes felt sidelined by Fairbairn which led to the end of their friendship and their cooperation. Others say that the reason for their separation was that Sykes learned that Fairbairn wanted to join one of the commando raids to see their techniques in practice and, fearing that Fairbairn could be captured and would be interrogated by the enemy, reported his intention to their supervisors. Consequently, Fairbairn was not allowed to participate in the operation and allegedly held a grudge against Sykes.

 Fairbairn introducing the F-S knife (Video: YouTube)

When the two finished training a sufficient amount of Commando trainers, they were transferred to different Allied agencies to share their knowledge with them, too. Fairbairn went to North America to teach American and Canadian operatives at Camp X. He then joined Colonel Rex Applegate of the Office of Strategic Services to create Camp B, which became Camp David in the end. Fairbairn designed several other fighting knives, including the smatchet combat knife.

Fairbairn retired the same year and later trained police officers in Cyprus and Singapore. He died in 1960. In the 1980s, Applegate released a modified F-S knife called Applegate-Fairbairn fighting knife which aimed to address the weak points of the original design. Sykes stayed and trained Special Operations Executive agents in England. He retired in 1945 due to health problems and died soon after on May 12, 1945. 

The “F-S fighting knife” inscription on the ricasso of a first pattern knife (Photo: www.cdomuseum.be)
The “F-S fighting knife” inscription on the ricasso of a first pattern knife (Photo: www.cdomuseum.be)

The success of the F-S knife has inspired many manufacturers and armed forces to release their own versions even decades after the introduction of the original. The OSS had its own stiletto, but it was not as successful as the F-S knife and, although being a good knife, it was eventually replaced by the U.S. M3 fighting knife in 1944. General Robert T. Frederick, commanding officer of the American-Canadian First Special Service Force (the “Devil's Brigade”) developed another similar knife, the V-42 stiletto, produced by W. R. Case & Sons Cutlery Co. in 1942-43. 

An original F-S knife can be a “crown jewel” of a knife collection, but collectors have to be cautious to avoid fake reproductions. Nowadays, in addition to knives meant for “normal” use, several companies sell F-S knife-based models for representation and for ceremonies, known also as commemorative knives. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Fairbairn and Sykes have not only created an iconic weapon but they have also brought about many innovations in terms of self-defense, shooting techniques, riot control, police and military equipment. Fairbairn and his riot squads in Shanghai even made it into the Real Heroes comic strip in 1943.

Fairbairn in the Real Heroes comic strip in 1943 (sikhsinshanghai.wordpress.com)
Fairbairn in the Real Heroes comic strip in 1943 (sikhsinshanghai.wordpress.com)
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