Detailed information on the history of the stiletto and its many variations, including the “U.S. Marine Raider Stiletto”, the “Mark I Trench Knife”, the “Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife”, among others.
History of the Stiletto
Stiletto is an Italian word meaning “small dagger”. Due to Italy’s long history of turbulence, after Rome fell to invading Barbarians, for centuries afterward all weapons were forbidden and Italy existed as a chaotic mass of independent states fought over by European monarchs and petty Italian princes. Due to the long ban on weapons, it was necessary for people to conceal any that they used, which made smaller weapons such as the stiletto come into widespread use. (Knights in the Middle Ages also regularly used stilettos, mainly as a way to finish off opponents since the sender blade could easily side through chainmaille or cracks in armor). Folding stiletto (similar to switchblades) are still manufactured in Italy today.
The stiletto has a dim blade perfect for stabbing, while its length provides deep penetration. Stilettos regularly have cross sections that are either diamond-shaped, square, or triangular, while some have wavy “kriss” styles. Handles are usually made of round iron or steel that is commonly forged with a twist pattern to help improve grip ping ability. Usually the guards are small, or there is no guard at all, since a large guard would make the stiletto more difficult to conceal, or make the weapon snag on clothing as it is brought into play. The overall design of a stiletto makes it cheap and easy to manufacture. A stiletto can even be forged from raw iron since a sharp edge isn’t necessary.
At certain times in Italy, the stiletto became so popular that even when other weapons could be carried legally, the stiletto was still preferred and considered a gentleman’s weapon of self-defense.
Stilettos were used in countries other than Italy as well. In WWI the most popular stiletto-like weapon was the “Mark I Trench Knife” which was issued to U.S. Troops. The Mark I had a nine inch triangular blade and wooden handle fitted over a narrow tang.
Stiletto-like knives were also issued during WWII. The “Fairbairn Commando Dagger” or “Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife” was issued to British troops but was only slightly similar to a true stiletto. The Fairbairn was forged with a narrow tang and fitted with an oval brass guard, plus the knurled handle was also made of brass and held in place by a pommel nut which screwed on to the threaded end of the tang. Fairbairn designed the knife to be used specifically for “close-contact fighting” and “surprise attacks” and wanted the blade to be slender enough to easily pass through an opponent’s ribcage.
U.S. Marines also used stilettos. The weapons were manufactured by the Camillus Cutlery company, which produced over 15,000 stilettos. This stiletto was identical to the Fairbairn model with the exception of a zinc-aluminum handle that was cast to the tang rather than using a brass handle as in the Fairbairn model. The handle was designed to be heavy in the hilt to prevent accidental dropping. But soon troops realized the zinc handle was even more brittle than the blade, usually breaking even when it was casually dropped on the ground. (If you own a Raider Stiletto, you may notice excessive flaking and cracking in the hilt, to prevent more damage coat it with petroleum jelly).
The W. R. Case Cutlery company also produced stilettos that were designated “V-42” (now regularly known as the “V-42 Stiletto’ with V standing for “victory” and the 42 for “1942”, the year it was made) for the 1st Special Service Force, which was an American-Canadian airborne Commando unit also known as the “Devil’s Brigade”, who used the V-42 as its trademark weapon. This stiletto had a seven inch narrow blade like the Fairbairn and U.S. Marine stilettos but was fitted with a leather washer handle and a pointed “skull crusher” pommel. Criticism of these stilettos as being fragile may be unfair as they may have been used as utility knives or for excessive prying rather than for their intended purpose. Surviving stilettos of these models are quite valuable and highly prized by collectors.
If you would like to see a stiletto in action, watch the movie Gladiator — at one point in the film Commodus stabs Maximus with a wicked stiletto.
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