The year 2012 will mark the 70th anniversary of the KA-BAR, arguably the most famous knife in U.S. military history. Designed and authorized for the Marine Corps in 1942, the ruggedness, dependability, and ability to hold a sharp edge made the 1219C2 Combat Knife, as it was originally called, the prized possession of every Marine. It soon was issued to all the services; even Underwater Demolition Teams – the precursors of the SEALs – had them. By the end of World War II, more than a million KA-BAR knives were produced, making it so ubiquitous that the term “KA-BAR” came to be a generic term of knives of similar design, regardless of whether or not they were manufactured in the KA-BAR plant.
The name “KA-BAR” was trademarked in the 1920s. The story of how the knife received that name has many variations, all centered on a letter sent to the manufacturer, then the Union Cutlery Company based in Olean, N.Y., by a fur trapper thanking it for the high quality of its product. In semi-literate English, with poor penmanship and phonetic spelling, the trapper wrote that at one point in checking his trap lines, he was attacked by a wounded bear. When his rifle jammed, he had to defend himself with his Union Cutlery knife that he used to “kill a bear.” But his penmanship made the phrase read as: “k a bar.” Thus the knife became “KA-BAR.”
The overall length of the KA-BAR is 11 inches. The inch-and-a-quarter-wide Bowie-style carbon steel blade is 7 inches long, single edged, and has a two-and-a-half-inch “blood groove” notched on both sides. The hilt is composed of compressed leather washers grooved at regular intervals for better gripping. The ricasso, the flat section of the blade just above the guard, is imprinted on one side with the service branch and on the other with the manufacturer’s name.
As its later designation, USMC Mark 2 Knife, Fighting Utility, indicates it was as much a tool as a weapon. It’s been used for everything from prying or cutting open ration tins and ammunition boxes to driving nails and tent stakes, blazing trails, digging foxholes, shaving, cutting wires – you name it. In one of the more unusual cases, it even provided protection as body armor. In its company website, the KA-BAR Knives company posts testimonials from users around the world, which can be read at www.kabar.com/testimonials.
One such testimonial was provided by 1st Lt. Gary Scott Blount. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Blount, serving as a field artillery platoon leader in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, had to evacuate his troops after a nearby enemy ammo supply depot was deliberately set afire. During that evacuation, he accidentally fell into an Iraqi fighting position. He wrote, “The fall would have broken my leg and possibly severed it … but I was wearing my KA-BAR in a low hanging bayonet sheath. The knife absorbed most of the impact along with my body armor.” It wasn’t until the next day that he was able to examine the knife. When he did so, he discovered the blade had been bent about 20 degrees.
Dave Perry, a Navy SEAL in Kilo Platoon during the Vietnam War, had an experience with a KA-BAR that could have gotten him and his team in trouble. During his tour of duty, he was stationed at the Rach Soi Vietnamese Naval Base located in the Mekong Delta. On one mission, he was part of a team inserted to conduct an ambush. Ambushes are paradoxically one of the most boring exciting operations in existence. Sometimes it seems that the greater challenge is fighting boredom during the waiting than fighting when the enemy is encountered. Shortly after the team had taken up position, Perry, who had located himself behind a large banana tree, took out his KA-BAR and, to quietly while away the time, began sticking the blade into the trunk of the tree. He’d extract the knife and then slowly rebury the blade into the soft trunk right beside the previous cut. He continued working the KA-BAR in and out of the trunk for quite some time. Then suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, the weakened tree toppled to the ground, making so much noise that the team had to abort the mission. Perry’s commander was not a happy camper.
Whether used as a weapon or a tool, in the hands of an expert, military knives like the KA-BAR are among the best knives in the world. But, as this author learned years ago in the Boy Scouts, the most dangerous knife in the world is one with a dull blade.