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Swiss Army Knife Society headquarters in San Diego

Some are born to weirdness; others have it thrust upon them

The original knife contained a blade, a screwdriver, a can opener, and a punch.
  • The original knife contained a blade, a screwdriver, a can opener, and a punch.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear M.A.: I have a Swiss Army Knife that has a broken blade. People keep telling me that I can send it somewhere and get it repaired FREE! But nobody knows where. Is this true or a baseless rumor? — Joan the Ripper, San Diego

If what you own is a true Swiss Army Knife and not a U.S.- or Far East-made knock-off, you are indeed entitled to free repairs for life. But much better than gratis fix-it service, you are also eligible for official recognition as a member of the spiritual family of Swiss Army Knife owners— more than 150 million worldwide. You may not realize you’re living in the city that is home to the repository for all trivia related to the fabled blades: the Swiss Army Knife Society. Center of the action is International Swiss Army Knife Headquarters, a spare room in the home of San Diego schoolteachers Rick and Jan Wall.

Some are born to weirdness, some have it thrust upon them. The Walls definitely were blindsided. In the early ’80s, Rick Wall, from a large family of Swiss Army Knife fans, hiked the Sierras frequently with a group of friends who were also aficionados of the versatile tool. They jokingly referred to their little group as the Swiss Army Knife Society. In 1986 the “society” published a collection of Wall’s humorous (and thoroughly fictitious) stories of history and lore, the Swiss Army Knife Companion, and placed a classified ad to sell some copies. Wall promptly learned a lesson Matthew Alice learns each week — never underestimate the public’s ability to miss the joke. Instead of book orders. Wall was deluged with requests for society membership. At this point, he could have done what Matthew Alice does — whap his forehead with his palm, roll his eyes, and wonder what goes through people’s minds. But instead he accepted the challenge and began issuing membership packets: a parchment certificate, wallet-size membership card, and eventually a quarterly newsletter, the “Crimson Cutter." Around 5000 people now claim SAKS membership. Wall says the earliest members fell into one of two general camps, the “John Muir-types” and the “John Wayne-types,” but lately he’s heard increasingly from the Sly Stallone contingent. Swiss Army Knife fans are a diverse lot.

The original knife, a wooden-handled affair, was developed by a German-Swiss master cutler in 1891. The “Soldier’s Model," issued to Swiss Army recruits, contained a blade, a screwdriver, a can opener, and a punch. This was followed quickly by the Schoolboy, Cadet, and Farmer’s models, with appropriate custom tools. But the breakthrough came with the familiar red-cased model, patented in 1897, the lighter, sleeker “Officer’s Knife,” containing six blades and a corkscrew. The secret of its compact success was its ingenious spring mechanism that made each tool fully operational yet allowed the knife to be carried comfortably.

By 1908 the Victorinox company had French-Swiss competition from minister-knifemaker Reverend Theodore Wenger, who began producing similar pocketknives. Victorinox and Wenger are still the only companies licensed to make authentic Swiss Army Knives. To tell the real from the bogus, look for the white cross on the case and the manufacturer’s name stamped on the shank or tang of the largest blade in the set.

By now, no one can really say how many different models of the knives are available — more than 300 is a safe guess, including at least 10 designed for left-handers — since various combinations of gadgets are assembled for different markets. The largest models have 19 different blades and tools. Certain attachments are available only in Europe (cheese cutters, orange peelers). Some models have parcel hooks, floral hooks, blades for cutting tangled parachute cords; some contain watches, nail files, scissors, toothpicks, tweezers, magnetic fish-hook removers, magnifying glasses, divot replacers, or ballpoint pens. They also come with metal cases and in colors other than red.

But what about the Swiss Army Knife makes its owners wish to be linked by newsletter with others in Alaska or Thailand or Fiji? Serious devotees of bladed tools and weapons sneer at the ubiquitous red knife as a mere toy. But it may be just this “gadget” quality that fascinates Swiss Army Knife fans. Mainstay of the “Crimson Cutter” are stories of the ingenious uses to which the knives have been put.

One lady wrote to say she uses the corkscrew to get the knots out of her grandchildren’s wet shoelaces. Another man uses it to remove the cotton from pill bottles. Swiss Army Knives have been used to adjust a malfunctioning assault rifle, to perform emergency surgery, and once by a pilot to cut his way out of his crashed plane. They’ve accompanied adventurers to the poles, the Himalayas, and into space. (They’re considered “optional equipment” for NASA’s astronauts.) But there are also tales of loss. One owner watched helplessly as a bear raided his Yosemite campsite, consumed all his food, and swallowed his Swiss Army Knife. Matthew Alice’s 15-year-old “Classic" model slid down a sink drain in a cheap hotel in Frankfurt, Germany.

And now back to your question, Jane. Where you send the knife depends on who made it. Mail a wounded Victorinox to the Forschner Group, 151 Long Hill Crossroad, Shelton CT 06484; Wengers go to Precise International, 15 Corborate, Orangeburg NY 10962. Have other questions, knife tales, or want to join the society? Write the SAKS at P.O. Box 91157, San Diego 92169; $10 for membership; $7.95 for a copy of the Swiss Army Knife Companion.

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