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The Smatchet: Fairbairn’s Other Fighting Knife

The Special Training Centre at Inverailort House near the remote hamlet of Lochailort on Scotland’s western coast is justly famous as the headquarters for special operations training in Great Britain during World War II. It is also there that a number of weapons to meet the needs of special operations personnel were designed. Perhaps the most famous weapon to come out of Lochailort was the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, a stiletto designed by William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes. To complement the delicate stiletto blade of the F-S Fighting Knife, the weapons team at Lochailort created a larger and more rugged knife, a smashing hatchet dubbed the “smatchet.”

“Its balance, weight, and killing power, with 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.”

– William Ewart Fairbairn, Get tough!: How to win in hand-to-hand fighting as taught to the British commandos and the U.S. Armed Forces

Few records survive regarding its origin, but many experts believe its design was based on the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ World War I trench sword. The unit used it with great effect during the Battle of Messines Ridge in 1917, and the smatchet does greatly resemble the unit’s trench sword.

Smatchet specifications vary slightly depending on the model, but in general, the smatchet has an overall length of 16 1/8 inches, and a blade length of 10 7/8 inches. With a weight of 1 1/2 pounds, it is one of the heavier bladed weapons.

Smatchet 1

The smatchet was a heavy-bladed fighting knife designed by William Ewart Fairbairn. Fairbairn instructed British Commandos, the Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services on close combat techniques. He based his teaching, and the weapons he designed, on experience gained while serving with the Shanghai Municipal Police. The smatchet’s leaf-shaped blade enabled it to be used for slashing, thrusting or chopping at an opponent. The heavy pommel could be used to deliver a smashing blow. Fairbairn wrote that, “the psychological reaction of any man, when he first takes the smatchet in his hand, is the full justification for its recommendation as a fighting weapon.” No record exists of the Smatchet’s use in combat. Imperial War Museum photo

In comparison, the F-S Fighting Knife weighs about 6 ounces and the KA-BAR weighs about 10 ounces. The smatchet’s distinctive oval blade, almost three inches across at its widest point, has a shape that resembles the Indian Plum leaf. It was originally single-edged. Later models were double-edged. The grips were made of wood (walnut, oak, teak, mahogany), rubber, or bakelite, and the pommels were either brass, heavy alloy, aluminum, or iron. Scabbards were manufactured from canvas with vulcanized rubber, nylon, black and brown leather, and leather-covered wood.

The smatchet quickly proved popular among the British special operations forces. Anecdotal accounts from raids in Norway, for instance, have individuals claiming that the smatchet was more efficient in killing Germans than their firearms. Part of the reason was that close-quarters combat, particularly house-to-house fighting, better lent itself to knife fighting, where something like the smatchet with its thrust, cut, and club capability would give the wielder an advantage over someone wielding a rifle in those confined spaces.

Some accounts credit Fairbairn with the design of the smatchet. But the most reliable accounts credit him for redesigning it as the Fair-Sword variant for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during his tenure there. What is inarguable is the existence of his training regimen for the weapon, as everyone from British commandos and Special Operations Executive (SOE) operatives to American Rangers and OSS personnel have left anecdotal records of his instructions in the smatchet’s use. Fairbairn taught seven basic techniques, including a straight stomach thrust, a saber/scissors slice across the right and left of the neck, saber cuts across the wrist and arms, and two uses of the metal pommel: an upper cut under the chin and a downward thrust onto the face.

British Commandos

British commandos during Operation Archery, a raid against German positions on Vaagso Island, Norway, Dec. 27, 1941. Street fighting during raids on Norway was where anecdotal accounts about the effectiveness of the smatchet originated from. Imperial War Museum photo

The smatchet quickly proved popular among the British special operations forces. Anecdotal accounts from raids in Norway, for instance, have individuals claiming that the smatchet was more efficient in killing Germans than their firearms. Part of the reason was that close-quarters combat, particularly house-to-house fighting, better lent itself to knife fighting, where something like the smatchet with its thrust, cut, and club capability would give the wielder an advantage over someone wielding a rifle in those confined spaces.

In his 1942 manual about unarmed and knife fighting, Get Tough, Fairbairn devotes a section to the smatchet, complete with drawings depicting its use. He went on to write, “The smatchet is now in wide use throughout the British armed forces. It is hoped that it will soon be adopted by the United States Army.” When Fairbairn went to the United States and began training OSS personnel, he successfully advocated the use of the smatchet, as well as the F-S Fighting Knife, by the OSS. Though the F-S Fighting Knife became a standard part of OSS weaponry, apparently the smatchet only saw limited use. A possible reason for that is suggested by Michael W. Silvey in his article, “The Smatchet,” originally published in Knife World magazine, where he wrote, “It has long been rumored that a shipment of 10,000 smatchets were lost at sea,” probably the result of a submarine sinking the vessel carrying the shipment.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...