Fighting knives come in many designs and types for different mindsets and styles. One of the most famous is the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. This famed dagger became a legend among British Commandos and saw use in various forms with Allied forces during World War II. However, the Fairbairn-Sykes wasn’t Fairbairn’s only design: he also created the Smatchet.
The Fairbairn-Sykes is lightweight, lithe, easily carriable and concealable, and weighs a scant six ounces. The Smatchet is a beast in comparison.
The origins of the Smatchet were shaped by Fairbairn’s background
William E. Fairbairn could be one of the most dangerous men to have ever lived. He joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry when he was 15 and in 1907, after his military service ended, joined the Shanghai Municipal Police. At the time, Shanghai was one of the most dangerous cities in the world and for 20 years, Fairbairn found himself fighting hand-to-hand, with knives or guns. He wisely learned many martial arts and studied jujitsu and judo intensively.
In the 1920s Fairbairn created an extremely modern firearms-training program, which included a live-fire shoothouse. He designed bullet-proof vests and formed one of the first SWAT teams. He became the 2nd in charge of the entire Shanghai Municipal Police Department, but even when appointed to this high position, he still conducted raids with his police officers. Fairbairn became famous enough that when World War II started, he trained American, British, and Canadian forces, including SOE and OSS agent. His vast fighting experience helped create the Smatchet.
The Smatchet was designed from the very beginning as a fighting knife. Its creation took some inspiration from the Royal Welch Fusiliers Trench knife. The Smatchet has a quasi-dual-bladed design with a very wide blade, often referred to as a leaf-shaped blade. One blade was sharpened completely, and the other often sharpened halfway down. (Some would later have trial dual-blade designs.) The weapon’s tip has a spear point design.
Weighing 1.5 pounds and having an overall length of 16 ⅛ inches with a 10 ⅞ inch blade, the Smatchet is something between a knife, a machete, and a bolo knife and closer to the American Bowie knife than the Fairbairn-Sykes.
Why the Smatchet
The Smatchet is a violent weapon designed to be effective in a fight and easy to use. Although it’s heavy and can be swung like a hatchet, it isn’t so heavy that a missed swing equals a terrible loss of energy and slow recovery time.
The user can hack, slash, and stab at an opponent and deliver a brutal wound with every movement. Fairbairn taught a handful of basic moves with the Smatchet. There was the straight thrust, slashes against the neck, slashes against the wrist and arms, and the use of the pommel to deliver an uppercut and a downward thrust.
In his book Get Tough, Fairbairn describes the weapon as such:
“The psychological reaction of any man, when he first takes the Smatchet in his hand, is full justification for its recommendation as a fighting weapon. He will immediately register all the essential qualities of a good soldier – confidence, determination, and aggressiveness. Its balance, weight, and killing power, with the point, edge, or pommel, combined with the extremely simple training necessary to become efficient in its use, make it the ideal personal weapon for all those not armed with a rifle and bayonet.”
Who used the blade
According to Get Tough, during WWII, the Smatchet was used by the British armed forces, including the SAS. It accompanied the British fighting man to Norway, where it gained a reputation for its ferocity. In the street and house-to-house fighting, the big knife proved to be a great close-quarters weapon.
The OSS, the precursor of the CIA, adopted the Smatchet in limited numbers, but there aren’t many details of how and when they used it. The British Special Operations Executive trained with the knife, as did the U.S. Army Rangers, but it’s tough to find any official records detailing its adoption. It was likely carried via private purchase with at least some Allied fighting men.
A number of companies have reproduced the Smatchet, and you can own a high-quality replica these days. It’s large and mean and, while made for fighting, is likely a great machete for camping and hiking. The Smatchet is a weapon from a time when battles could devolve into a melee quite quickly. Its purposeful design and large size certainly made a difference when it came time to slicing and dicing.
Feature Image: A Smatcher knife reproduction with slightly longer dimensions that the original. (Photo by Michael E. Cumpston/Wikimedia Commons)
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