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RECOIL ICONIC: The KA-BAR Knife

After the outbreak of World War II, the Marine Corps found itself in need of a better knife. Knives throughout the Corps reflected trench daggers from World War I, with knuckle guards, the U.S. Navy Mark 1 Utility knife, various machetes, and the Raider Stiletto.

Two Marine officers were tasked with finding a modern and effective fighting knife and asked several military knife and tool manufacturers to submit designs for the war effort.

The officers eliminated quite a few of these designs and decided that the U.S. Navy Mark 1 utility knife would make a good starting point. One manufacturer seemed to be more responsive or easier to work with than the rest: Union Cutlery.

Union lengthened and widened the blade, while using a thicker bar of steel from which to grind. The famous “blood groove” was adopted to lighten the blade, and they chose a stacked handle made of leather washers to improve the grip. 

In keeping with Mil-spec metal treatments, the blade, pommel, and steel cross guard were parkerized rather than polished. Lastly, the profile of the blade was changed to a clip point, as featured on the classic and uniquely American Bowie knife.

INSTANT APPEAL

Marines received their first shipment of knives from Camillus Cutlery Company on January 27, 1943. The knife proved easy to manufacture and turned out to be a hit with the sailors working alongside the Marines as well. 

The Navy adopted it as a diving/utility knife, known as the U.S. Navy Utility Knife, Mark 2. This bit of inter-service rivalry caused the Marine Corps to rename the M1219C2 as the USMC Mark 2 Combat Knife. Other records of the time reflect the official USMC name as “Knife, Fighting Utility.”

Camillus Cutlery has produced over 1 million Ka-Bar knives. Other manufacturers during World War II included Robeson Cutlery Co. and, of course, the Union Cutlery Co. For some reason, the big Ka-Bar on the ricasso of the Union-manufactured knives made an impression on the Marines, and by 1944, all Marines were referring to their USMC Mark 2 Combat Knives as simply “Ka-Bars.”

This didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1952, Union Cutlery Company formally rebranded as Ka-Bar Cutlery Inc.

THE POSTWAR KA-BAR

As a generation of veterans mustered out of service, they took their Ka-Bars home with them because they were solid working knives. Footage from the war and the popularity of war movies exposed the Ka-Bar to those who didn’t serve, and when people wanted a hunting or camping knife, they often went with a Ka-Bar from these influences.

The U.S. Military continued to keep the Ka-Bar in service, and Camillus was still their number-one supplier, followed by Utica Cutlery Co. and, after Vietnam, Ontario Knife Co. These companies and a few others like W.R. Case made the same knives for the civilian market too. 

ICONIC

For the price of $70 to $100, a good Ka-Bar can’t be beat for an all-purpose field knife. There’s a licensed version made in China for a lot less, but it’s best to stick with a U.S.-made version for better quality steel and other materials.

There are higher-end versions of the Ka-Bar design that have used D2 tool steel in the blade, and some have been made with synthetic handles as a high-tech upgrade to the traditional stacked leather washer handle treatment more commonly found. A number of custom knife makers have even used the pattern to make a more decorative style, incorporating Damascus steel or even super steels like S30-V or BG-42. 

Whether you save it as an heirloom or use it everyday, there’s something special about the Ka-Bar.

We still think that the original Mil-spec varieties make for a good all-purpose field knife. With a proper edge, it can be used to skin game. It’s tough enough for most bushcraft chores like making kindling or fashioning wooden stakes. 

If you find yourself without a hammer or mallet, the butt can be used to pound tent stakes while the blade is sheathed for safety. 

Lastly, it makes for an effective fighting knife and weapon. One of the earliest examples was used to kill a bear, and a number of historical military stories cite the knife as being used effectively as a weapon, not just from WWII through Vietnam, but as recently as the Battle of Fallujah.

We’re about 20 years out from celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Ka-Bar knife, and because it performs so well, that knife will still be in service somewhere around the world another 100 years from now.

As simple and plain as it may look, the Ka-Bar is clearly no ordinary knife. It’s a true American icon. 

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