Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Double Edge Death: From Police Weapon to Commando Symbol

Last summer we featured the Fairbairn combat smatchet, a fat bladed weapon that was one part axe, another part short sword. Designed by William E. Fairbairn it became a little known weapon in the inventory of British soldiers during World War II. Fairbairn would also design the now ubiquitous double edged dagger now synonymous of English commandos.


However, the knife that would be carried with pride and cache by British special forces was born in the most dangerous city in the world, Shanghai.


Fairbairn, a true innovator of special warfare, is largely credited with creating history's first true SWAT team in Shanghai when it was the focal point for trade and intrigue from the late 19th century through World War II. The Chinese city gathered businessmen, traders, criminals and society elite in a compact area known as the Shanghai International Settlement. 


To keep order and police this collection of the rich and ruthless, the Shanghai Municipal Police was stood up. However, as riches flowed in, opportunity for crime rose. Coupled with its position as a place for nations to play games of power, Shanghai quickly became a place of stunning crime, a city of contract killing, drugs, prostitution and gambling.


Even with cops from Russia, Britain and France each patrolling their national sectors, crime became so audacious that a special police force was needed to deal with the chaos of hundreds of murders and thousands of armed robberies annually. Leading that special force was Fairbairn and his choice of tools for the elite, a compact, double sided knife that was good for one thing, killing in close quarters.


Fairbairn's SMP Reserve Unit was in essence a 1930s SWAT team that handled extreme criminal events with cutting edge techniques and tools, automatic weapons and riot shields were joined by the dagger.


Helped by long-time friend and fellow special warrior E.A. Sykes, Fairbairn's knife started simply. The daggers needed to be compact and easily disguised in a slender scabbard. They needed to kill effciently as well. 


Where did the Shanghai armorer go for steel? It's widely believed that quality steel from large, sword-like Lee Metford bayonets served as the start for the small daggers. The bayonets were cut down and reground to the specifications laid down by Fairbairn and Sykes.


Each knife was hand made for patrolmen working in Shanghai. Made with a variety of handles, from bulbous shaped ivory to simple squared off wood, every Fairbairn fighting knife was one of a kind.


However, years later, after Fairbairn had left Shanghai and World War II was in its earliest stages, the knife was resurrected as the Commando dagger. It was 1940 and Fairbairn was summoned to produce a knife worthy of combat. Along with the head of Wilkson Sword manufacturing Fairbairn and Sykes sat down to talk specifics.


To illustrate the need for a double-side dagger, its said that Fairbairn and Sykesm neither young men at the time, got up and in mock combat with rulers demonstrated the points of a special fighting knife.


Eventually, knives would roll off the assembly line with the distinct slender pointed double-side blade with a narrow metal, looped rope Coca Cola-shaped handle. It remains the symbol of the Commando.


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Comment by Captain Rick Sutton on March 13, 2016 at 4:47pm
I have been reading and studying Fairbairn's excellent "get tough" fighting manual in HEMA. It's extremely effective as a self defence system
Comment by John L. Sands on November 11, 2011 at 2:49pm

Excellent Article: I was a collector of edged weapons and I had 5 Sykes-Fairbairn commando knives. Each had a leather sheath with butterfly tabs that were to be sewed onto calf of the wool trousers of the commando's BDU.

Two of the blades had been shortened. When I asked my British Commando colleague about it he explained,"The steel blade was nitrated which made it very hard. Our troops used to show off to you Americans by laying a US penny on the bar and with one stab, running the point of the blade completely through the copper. Nine times out of ten it would skewer the coin. Sometimes the tip would break off and the knive had to be shortened and re-nitrated by the armorer."

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