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WWII Airborne Switchblades


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#1 Allan H.

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 07:56 PM

When I was a kid, the definitive military knife and bayonet collectors' reference was "U.S. Military Knives, Bayonets & Machetes Book III" by the venerable M.H. Cole which came out in 1979. To me, when collectors would speak about the book, or cite it as a reference, they always seemed to do so with a reverent tone as if they were quoting scripture. This book became so ubiquitous with knife and bayonet collectors that it was eventually just called "Cole volume three” or even just “Cole.” Everybody knew exactly what book was being referenced. It is actually funny to me that even though I have perused its pages so many times, I couldn't
remember the full title. I'll bet most of you couldn't recite the entire title either, but you know exactly what book I am talking about.

The book is still considered by many as "the Bible" for military knife and bayonet collectors. The only copy that I could find on Amazon was listed with a whopping $2,100 asking price! Evidently somebody thinks that this book is extremely valuable. As for me, I thought that the book was amazing too. Our local library had a copy and I would check it out every chance I got. I would spend hours looking at the line drawings and memorizing the information that I found in those pages. It was right at the time that the book came out that I began to focus my military collecting interest to WWII US airborne items, so I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the switchblades found on page 144 of that hallowed tome.

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#2 Allan H.

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 07:59 PM

My interest in all things airborne led me to look for information and artifacts from the source. As I started chasing down WWII paratrooper veterans, I made sure that I asked lots of questions about uniforms, weapons, and equipment. Of particular interest to me were the paratrooper switchblade knives carried by those men who went into the fight via parachute. Perhaps it was a youthful fascination with switchblades, but I think it was more an interest in the things that were unique to the paratroopers. There weren’t that many paratroopers that still had their knives, but there were a few. More still had clear recollections of those blades. These recollections included some very interesting stories, but I digress.

Over time, I was able to see a few dozen switchblade knives and was able to acquire a few as well, but I was running into a HUGE problem. The issue was that the knives that I was seeing and acquiring were NOT what “Cole Volume III” showed on page 144!

One of the first switchblades that I picked up was a Schrade knife with a bone handle. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a bail like No. 1 in Cole. At first, I assumed that the bail had just broken off, but there weren’t any indications that the knife was damaged. It wasn’t until I met Mark Bando and compared notes with him that he showed me a box of switchblades. These mint in package knives didn’t have bales either- Bando calls them “staples.” This box and its contents are now posted on his “Trigger Time” website- http://www.101airbor...equipment2.html I should mention here that the vast majority of switchblades that I have found in veterans’ hands have had the bail in place. One of the other issues with the Schrade knife was that Cole’s reference didn’t make any mention of the patent numbers on the other side of the blade’s ricasso.

 

The photos here are taken from Mark's excellent website.

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#3 Allan H.

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 08:01 PM

The No. 2 and No. 3 examples in Cole’s volume III are “Presto” marked switchblades. Both have metal handles with a bone grain and a black painted finish. The difference between the two is the relative size of the knives. Cole’s No. 2 has a three inch blade and No. 3 has a 3 and three-quarters inch blade. The overall length of the larger blade knife is almost nine inches long when opened, compared to the smaller knife which is just over seven inches. The issue that I have here is that again, I have never encountered one of these metal handled knives in the hands of a veteran. I have seen a few in collections where the current owner has claimed that it came “directly from the vet,” but I have no first-hand experience with one with veteran provenance. I will compound my issue with Cole here with the longer knife. How was a paratrooper going to carry this? I would think that it would be impossible to insert into the knife pocket on the “Coat, Parachute Jumper,” known by collectors as the jump jacket.

I find it interesting that I have seen a few examples of a bone handled “Presto” knife in the hands of several veterans. Bando has also found a number of them. While Bando has specialized in 101st Airborne veterans, I didn’t refine my search to 101st vets. On his “Trigger Time” website, Bando states that he has only encountered two types of switchblades in the hands of veterans- the Schrade and the Presto- both with bone handles. (ibid). I should note here that Schrade did make a larger sized switchblade that is close to the same size as the Presto example No. 3, but with bone handles. Neither Bando nor I have encountered the larger sized examples in the hands of veterans.



#4 Allan H.

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 08:02 PM

Cole’s No. 4 is a dainty knife marked “Pronto” made by Colonial. This knife has a shorter blade and smooth black plastic handles. The knife also has a bail that appears to be more of an afterthought from the manufacturer than something made to a military specification. Even Cole admits “this is probably not a government issue knife as it appears entirely to [sic] light and flimsey [sic] for hard usage.” If Cole questioned it in the first place, why did he include it?!?!



#5 Allan H.

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 08:03 PM

Finally, we get to Cole’s No. 5 switchblade knife. This knife is a Schrade like his No. 1 example, but it departs from the original in a couple of ways. The most glaring difference is that the handles are made from black plastic instead of bone, but the plastic still imitates the grain of the bone. The other difference is that this blade is marked “Schrade/ Walden/ NY USA.” There are no markings on the back side. Back around 1980, a number of boxes of these knives surfaced on the collector market. The knives were mint and packaged in a heavy paper wrap. They also came with a length of parachute cord with the ends of the cord looped and then zig-zag stitched to make a large loop. The markings on the boxes according to Cole were “74-K-62-50” and “6 Each, Knife, Parachutist’s Snapblade, w/ thong.” The third line is “Schrade Walden Cutlery Corp., Walden, NY” and the final line reading “DA-1I.009-QM-18023.”

I believe that Cole got it right, that this is a military issued knife. While Cole doesn’t put a date of manufacture on this knife, we can draw the conclusion that the knife is post-WWII manufacture. Wikipedia’s history of the Schrade Knife Company states “The Baers (Albert Baer owned the Ulster Knife Co.) purchased Schrade Cutlery Company in 1946 from C. Louis Schrade and renamed it the Schrade Walden Cutlery Corporation, a division of the Imperial Knife Associated Companies group.” While Wikipedia is sometimes maligned for questionable content, the source of this statement is documented- "The Official Price Guide to Collector Knives" by C. Houston Price & Mark D. Zalesky. Personally, I believe that this knife was procured for the airborne forces during the Korean War.



#6 Allan H.

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 08:11 PM

I guess that I ought to mention that M.H. Cole added an example of a parachutist knife with a hawk bill in his fourth volume. As in his 3rd volume, Cole doesn't provide any evidence that the knives were ever issued, but as this knife doesn't conform to the known examples in the hands of WWII veterans, I would assume that the knife is only a curiosity, rather than an actual paratroop-issued knife.

 

The purpose of this thread is not to trash M.H. Cole, as his volumes have been the basis for a lot of outstanding collections and he really was on the cutting edge of knife and bayonet research. However, I do think that it is crucial that collectors study what was actually issued and carried by the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who used them.

 

I'd be very interested to see some discussion on the subject here and would invite those with first-hand, veteran-provenanced pieces to share those as well.

\

Allan



#7 Bellumbill

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 10:41 PM

Allan -

 

I think all of us who even have had a passing interest in WWII US Army paratroopers has in some way had a "love affair" with this knife!   

 

My question has always been to what extent these were issued to paratroopers in WWII - Was every paratrooper issued one from 1941-1945?  Were they issued early on and then discontinued? I have talked with many WWII paratrooper veterans who have either no recollection of this knife or declare unequivocally that they were never issued one.  I have heard stories that they were withdrawn from issue after too many "leg" soldiers were stabbed or cut in bar fights, I have heard stories that to company officers purchased boxes on their own to hand out to their own troops - those may not have had bales as they were privately purchased.  Then you have to consider the PX where versions of this knife were sold to individual troopers.  

 

I have several in my own collection and, though I really like them, I have always questioned the efficacy of the knife - It seems to me they are fairly flimsy for cutting through the very heavy parachute webbing - shroud lines certainly, but not the webbing.  It seems to me they were likely an early thought about a solution to a problem that was either solved by other means (the later quick release harness) or just didn't end up working out to well as to be practicable.  I recall reading in one of my reference books that originally all paratroopers were to have been issued at .45 pistol because the difficulty in getting to rifles and SMGs after landing.  Obviously an idea that didn't end up being followed.  I think the M2 might have had the same end.  

 

Interesting thread - I had no idea that is what the Cole books were going for now!  Wow!

 

I'll be interested to see how this thread develops.

 

Best,

 

Bill K.



#8 doyler

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Posted 29 January 2016 - 11:01 PM

Great topic and I agree many of us have had that "affair" with the knife and the men who used them.This brought back a lot of memories.

#9 sactroop

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 01:02 AM

There's no reason I can think of for someone to spend over $100 for a copy of Coles Vol.III as a reference source.  In the last few weeks I've seen three copies sell for less on Ebay.  They can be found from other sources at similar prices.

Recently Vol. IV has been less available, but still can be had for less than $200.  



#10 sactroop

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 01:39 AM

Allan, I also admire the M2's.  Unfortunately, where I live I have to admire them from afar.  Regarding your interviewing of the paratrooper vets, have you run across any information about issued fixed blade knives other than the M3's?  I'm wondering how common issuing of the knuckle knives were, and if other knives were issued before the M3 became generally available.



#11 Allan H.

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 05:37 AM

I would like to thank everyone for their comments thus far as I had hoped that what I wrote would evoke some discussion. I'd like to start with a response to  Bellumbill's questions and comments. For starters, I am in complete agreement that there were loads of paratrooper veterans that I met who did not have a knife, nor did they recall ever having them. Most of these men were those who trained later in the war.  Most, if not all of the "early paratroopers" had a pretty clear recollections of the knives. Most of the soldiers who still had the knives were former members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions, though there was also a fair number of 11th Airborne veterans with them as well.
 
I could probably start an entire thread on stories related to the switchblade. I've heard stories about the knives being used as weapons in Phenix City, Columbus and in other locales. I've mentioned my favorite switchblade in this thread- http://www.usmilitar...m2-switchblade/ It is by far the worst condition blade in my collection, but it is the last one I would ever get rid of. I even had a 507th PIR vet tell me that the Germans never found his switchblade when he was captured in Normandy as it was in the throat pocket of his jump jackets and his captors didn't look there.

 

I know that some units had their switchblades confiscated after "incidents" and know that some units had the blades turned in and issued with the parachutes, but a number of veterans from various units still had switchblades in their possession 40 plus years after the war.

 

SACTroop- I agree on the value of Cole's reference. It was a pioneering work and deserves the praise that it has received in the decades since it was written. There have been other books written on the subject with more information and accuracy, but none of them have surpassed the status that Cole v3 has enjoyed in that period of time. As for the questions regarding different knives, being issued, my experience has been that the 82nd A/B veterans seemed to have more of the M1918 knuckle knives issued to them than other units, though there is good photographic evidence that the 509th and 503rd PIRs had them in numbers as well.  

 

Allan



#12 SKIPH

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 07:11 AM

I saw one of Cole's books, either 3 or 4 on ebay a few days ago with a Buy Now price of $2000.  Thought that was absurd.  Good topic Allen!  SKIP



#13 Persian Gulf Command

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 09:24 AM

Even though these comments have dashed my enthusiasm for owning the one black painted longer version I possess as an issued piece of Airborne issued equipment, I am going to remain hopeful that it was intended to be a GI issued item. 

 

It would be a great contribution to this thread if someone could verify that a Paratrooper carried one of the metal handle versions.

 

I do agree that they seem to have been lacking the robust character necessary for their intended use but that seems to be the case with many pieces of GI equipment.  Is it possible that the metal handle examples were intended to have one use only, as a cutting tool, which could be operated by one hand during the jump only?  Never intended to be a fighting knife or for other necessaries in the field.  The fact that there are so many of these metal handle versions remaining in both the 3" and 3 3/4" inch seems to indicate that there was a military contract for their production or a manufactures anticipation that there would be a need by Airborne troops.

 

I am sure many are aware that the German Fallschirmjager were issued a gravity knife for one handed operation with the sole purpose of cutting the lines.  These were also rather fragile and not the first choice as a edged fighting weapon. 


Edited by Persian Gulf Command, 30 January 2016 - 09:26 AM.


#14 bayonetman

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 10:48 AM

Frank Trzaska, in an article in the February 1999 issue of Knife World  (reprinted in Military Knives, A Reference Book) stated:

 

" After the U.S. entry into the war, handle materials were changed due to the scarcity of jigged bone.  Handles were changed to sheet metal during the mid years.."    



#15 Allan H.

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 12:25 PM

Gary,

 

Thanks for the input and maybe Frank will chime in as I would be very interested to learn more about the subject. I'm not quite sure why jigged bone" would become a scarcity, so am assuming that it wasn't so much a case of scarcity as it might have been the amount of time that it might have taken to work bone into handles. I'd actually question why the handles would change from a non-critical material (bone) to a critical metal (sheet steel). I would also like to know why Presto would have changed over to metal handles while Schrade never did. Since I'd say that around 80% of the knives I have encountered have been Schrades and 20% bone handled Prestos, I would have assumed that the bigger manufacturer would have changed over first. This obviously is not the case. It would also be nice to know what is meant by the mid years- mid war or mid 1940's?

 

I want to be very clear here. I am NOT saying that the metal handled Presto knives were not issued to paratroopers in World War II. What I am saying is that since specializing in WWII airborne from around 1979 to present, I have yet to encounter one of these metal handled Presto knives that I could confirm was WWII issued. In the interest of full disclosure, a number of years ago, I did run into a FSSF veteran who told me that he had a Presto knife and that it was painted black. I assumed that this was the metal handled Presto. Once the veteran was able to produce the knife, it turned out that it was a bone handled Schrade where the metal bolsters and blade had been coated with black paint. The veteran then said that they darkened the metal so that they didn't get a shine off the blade. I should also mention that most of the Forcemen that I talked to said that the FSSF never had switchblades issued!

 

Of course, we are talking about men who were trying to remember details some 40 years after the fact. Many just couldn't recall details about their knives. My only recourse was to see what those veterans (who still had examples) had in their possession. To a man, everyone of the switchblades that I have observed were bone handled  knives.

 

I should finish this post by saying that these knives were meant to be a tool and not a weapon. Of course, even in the 1940's gang members were portrayed as switchblade wielding thugs, so it is natural to think that some soldiers would equate the knife with a weapon.

 

I am thrilled to see the discussion taking place here.

 

Allan


Edited by Allan H., 30 January 2016 - 12:27 PM.


#16 Allan H.

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 04:15 PM

Just for giggles, I thought I would add this US Army Signal Corps photo of a paratrooper's gear. I'm sure everyone has already seen this, but am wondering how closely it has been observed. I have taken the liberty of adding a couple of circles to the photo. The larger circle shows an M1918 knuckle knife sitting behind the .45 auto pistol and holster. This is a similar configuration to other soldiers' set ups with an M3 trench knife showing up behind the holster. In order for the knuckle knife to be worn here, the guards have to be ground down, otherwise it would be quite painful to have it worn in this position.

 

The smaller circle shows what is obviously a switchblade knife which doesn't have a bail.

 

Allan

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#17 bayonetman

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 04:35 PM

I have one of the metal handled versions that the neighbor who gave it to me about 50 years ago said he won it in a poker game on board ship coming back from Europe in 1945.  Although I cannot confirm the story, I have no real reason to doubt it.

 

The blade has been over sharpened and shortened so it has little value to a collector.  Top one in the photo.  It might have had a bail (shackle) when it was new.

 

The lower one I picked up locally from a family.  They knew nothing about it, just the name of the serviceman that it came from.  I have located a little about him, he was a paratrooper but didn't get into the main war.

 

Pair small.JPG

 

Markings small.jpg


Edited by bayonetman, 31 May 2016 - 06:29 AM.


#18 1SG_1st_Cav

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 05:46 PM

Great information!



#19 dustin

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 06:11 PM

Gary,

 

. I'm not quite sure why jigged bone" would become a scarcity, so am assuming that it wasn't so much a case of scarcity as it might have been the amount of time that it might have taken to work bone into handles.

Supply versus demand. Pocket or jackknives were a highly procured item from all services, one navy contract alone was awarded for a quantity of 1.5 million. That's just one of hundreds of orders. Jigged bone was antlers and only grow at a certain rate plus harvesting it from the animals only retains so much volume. Some Contractors had a pride in some lines of their knives and did not deviate plus cost of raw materials, it would be more cost effective to use alternate materials such as cellulose acetate and stamped sheet metal as in this case. 



#20 Still-A-Marine

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Posted 30 January 2016 - 09:20 PM

Maybe part of the reason was the metal handles wouldn't crack and break like the bone? In Frank's article he says the hawkbill version was not liked by the troops so they went back to the clip point. For that reason not many were made.

Bill

#21 SFMike

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Posted 31 January 2016 - 01:55 AM

Friend of mine still has his from WW2.

He was 517th.

 

They were a tool basically for cutting lines-a wind filled canopy on the ground can kill you.

I'm not sure what kind of releases they had.

 

In  my time, the 60s, there were no such knives issued, but I saw some.

Our harness had the "Dial O Death" quick releases and also at the shoulders.

Drill was to open one of the shoulder releases as soon ans we hit the ground.



#22 Persian Gulf Command

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Posted 31 January 2016 - 09:46 AM

The preponderance of only bone/stag handle M2's still being in the possession of those troopers who have been interviewed in important to this discussion.

 

However, I wonder if it was a possibility that some of the troopers who have been interview didn't care or notice the difference between the bone handle and the metal handle versions.  After all the black metal handle versions were intentionally manufactured to mimic that bone/stag look.  The response,after many years, may have been the resulted of their memory recalling that they all  were issued bone handle M2's' because that is what they looked like.

 

I have talked to many GI's including my dad, when he was alive, and one thing I always noticed was that they all thought me a little odd when I seemed to care so much about the minutia regarding their equipment.



#23 Allan H.

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Posted 31 January 2016 - 01:31 PM

PGC,

 

I appreciate your feedback, but want to be VERY clear here. I started looking for these knives and talking to paratroopers whenever I could meet them back when I was in junior high, around 1979/80 timeframe. This was 35 years after the end of WWII. This means I have been chasing paratroopers for another 35 years. Back when I started, you could find a fair number of veterans. Most were getting up to retirement age and still pretty darned sharp. I went to a few reunions held in Kansas City and the like. I know that some veterans will tell you whatever they think you want to hear, and others will confirm that the green painted Jeep Wagoneer was EXACTLY like the jeeps they used to drive. This is why I put all of my stock in what I could see. I didn't just take someone's word for it; I looked at what they had in their possession. In all of that time I never saw a metal handled switchblade in the vet's stuff. I also am saying that there weren't that many vets that still had a switchblade, but those that did to a man had bone handled knives. Bando reported the same thing. The difference between Bando and I is that Mark was visiting 101st veterans. I was visiting with 509th veterans, 503rd vets, 82nd A/B vets, etc. or anyone else who had jumped from an airplane to get into the fight. In all of this time I never came across a single metal-handled switchblade knife. Sure, I saw plenty of them at gun and knife shows, militaria shows and the like, but I wasn't finding them in the hands of the vets.

 

Allan



#24 Persian Gulf Command

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Posted 31 January 2016 - 02:28 PM

Allan,

 

  Thank you for your lucid and candid feedback.  Like you I am very interested in what actually occurred during the war and not what the collector market has created or marketed.  We often purchase what dealers have available and market as the real deal in order to own a bit of history, because the vet obtained material is scarcely available.  Unfortunately, dealers market what they can obtain in quantities, which facilitates their business.  So if my metal handle M2 was not an actual item carried by airborne troopers, I want to know the truth.  The fact that I spent my hard earned money for one so that I can assuming I now own a true piece of history must not be a delusion based on opinions. 

 

  My personal interests hope that others can contradict what you findings suggest or confirm the same, therefore, requiring me to reassess my possession in question. 

 

  Like you I want to find out what others have observed during their collecting endeavors with significance given to any first hand information received from vets of WW2. 

 

John



#25 flyingfarmer

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Posted 18 February 2016 - 06:26 PM

I have this in my collection.  Please correct me if I am wrong, but from how I am taking the second post by Allan, then it is correct to consider the bone handle bail equipped Presto Made in USA blade as being one of the issue ones.

 

I have this one in my collection and never considered that it might be an issue M2 as it had the same markings as the metal handled one that I have and I had never seen anyone mention that combination before.  What would be the general consensus then on this.  I have really never known what category to place this in.

 

Pictured are my bone handle and the metal handle, both marked exactly the same.

 

P1050717.JPG

Thank you so much,

 

David

 




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