What is a Trench Knife?

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The world of knives has a rich history, which means some of them seen today come from the ancient days. The remaining ones are either modern or have cultural or tactical origins that are not more than 500 years old.

Belonging to the latter domain is the trench knife, also called the knuckle knife, that originated in the First World War. This knife is a tool that is specially designed for hand-to-hand close-quarters combat, typifying the trench fights of the First World War.

It features a double-edged blade and a handle with a knuckle duster, suitable for unarmed fighting in trenches. This combat knife aims to slay down or seriously debilitate an adversary in a confined area. Let’s learn more about it.

How Does a Typical Trench Knife Look?

Carl Malamud

The salient feature of this tool is its length, which is short due to which a fighter can use it easily in close quarters. The edge of the blade is tremendously sharp and the blade itself is typically straight. You may find it grooved with a single medium.

The original trench knives were simple weapons used for personal defense or altered bayonet blades or swords. However, the army tacticians took no time in recognizing that a trench knife for a special purpose is highly desirable.

Apart from having a terrific blade, several models featured a heavy, powerful pommel that effectively helped in punching, particularly for blowing the skull. A few knives came with a handguard that could be doubled to have another surface useful for punching.

The trench knives with knuckle buster, these days, are seen with handles formed as brass knuckles. As a result, they offer a solid grip along with protection to your hand.

What was it Used for?

Soldiers used trench knives for passing over the wall to reach the opponent’s trenches. This was the time when the fights were confined to the trenches. Their blades were deemed as reliable for use in confined and congregated trenches.

Due to their short length and noiseless operation, trench knives were being carried as silent tools. Spies and others who crossed the walls usually used these knives first to move guards and patrols away due to which the opponent would not come to know of the looming attack.

These silent tools were preferred for raiding trenches, as they gained no attention and consequently no possibility of enemy alert. Thus, in their early days of initiation, the trench knives were close combat weapons for assaults and raids on the trench borders of the enemy.

One of the popular trench knives used during the First World War was the Nahkampfmesser, the German Army’s close-combat tool. The design of a trench knife originated during the war, proved so helpful that the armies continued to order new designs and give them even after the trench warfare.

Military kits often carried these tools, including the imitations of popular models from both the world wars. By the onset of the Second World War, the trench knives were known as combat knives. The Axis armies widely used the Nahkampfmesser and other models based on it.

They were issued to all soldiers as a utility as well as general-purpose combat knives. On the other hand, the Allied armies issued these tools only to their top soldiers who did not have the bayonet.

Evolution of Trench Knives

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The early trench knife models were the brainchild of armies themselves or sanctioned blacksmiths. Typically, they were shortened versions of bayonets meant for military use. The first trench knife that the military approved was the brainchild of a French lieutenant colonel.

The United States shortly recognized this tool and made their model that was as per the French design. The first formal American trench knife was known as M1917 that was based on the models of trench knives of the French army.

It had a metallic knuckle guard, wooden grip, a triangular stiletto blade, and a circular pommel. However, the knife soon proved to be disappointing. This led to M1918, an improved version implemented in a few months.

Still, the M1918 was almost similar to its predecessor with the major difference in the build and look of the knuckle guard. Both being useful for stabbing, their broken blades disappointed the soldiers quite often. This limited utility led to the testing of different trench knives and opting for a replacement.

This introduced the Mark I tool, which was distributed to marine raiders, army men, and aerial force during the Second World War. It had a full-tang design and a heavy hilt of bronze.

This trench knife also had a knuckle duster guard of cast bronze that was especially for protecting the fingers rather than to be used as an armament. It also prevented the tool from falling from the hand while fighting.

On the other hand, the pommel was added to bash particularly in the head of the opponent. Reflecting on the ferocity of unarmed trench warfare, the pommel was able to do so due to a cap extension that also acted as a secondary tool when the blade was cracked or damaged.

Mark I also came with a proprietary scabbard of metal, which accommodated the blade along with a jumbo-sized knuckle duster handle. These knives along with their steel sheaths had a black finish for keeping reflection at bay. However, the American versions seemed to have a better finish than the French models and were a bit larger in dimension.

The main reason that made the trench knives so reliable in trench combats was their easy as well as swift maneuverability in constricted spaces. The other reason was its silent operation. Still, the trench weapon, Mark I, had its limitations but as a utility knife.

According to the military users, the Mark I blade was not effective for opening ammo crates or ration cans. It was just not designed for utility use. Further, the handle was quite heavy, as it was made of cast bronze. It was unmanageable as a weapon.

Further, the blade used to snap at the time of prying. It was also costly to design the handle with a knuckle duster. Soon, better combat knives were introduced.

In 1943, the American-made M3 knife replaced Mark I. It was designed to fulfill the requirements of modern warfare for close fights. While made for soldiers not having the bayonet, M3 was particularly for parachute troops and the army rangers.

Although powerful and balanced enough to be used as a throwing tool, this trench knife was not globally admired as a fighting tool. The main reason was its too narrow design for utility jobs. Even its edge was not that easy to sharpen. Even the secondary edge was too short, restricting the utility during backhand slashing strokes.

Still, one cannot deny that the aforementioned trench knives have abided by the test of time. Finally, the military used the Ka-Bar knife instead of a trench knife, which acted as combat, utility, and an all-purpose weapon.

There are other combat knives known as trench knives, which the U.S. forces tend to carry and use. Some of them are the fighting knives made by the Ka-Bar brand and stiletto-shaped daggers that the marine raiders of the Second World War had used.

There was also Mark I’s French version that was stamped on the blade with a reclining lion. Even the grip had a stamp of ‘U.S. 1918’. Many versions of this model are there with a few having grooves atop the grip. Some of them have engraved numbers and letters onto the knuckles smaller than others.

These French models were not darkened, unlike the American ones. However, the steel sheaths were painted blue.

The Mark I’s American-made sheaths were marked ‘L.F.&C. 1918’ but no marking was present on the French sheaths. Further, while the American models had eight-sided pommels, the French ones had four-sided.

Even the German soldiers used trench knives during both the world wars. These knives featured an all-metal, composite plastic, or a wooden handle.

During the First World War, although a few of these knives were secretly brought, the government contractors officially made and provided many standardized models. Many of them came with slab wooden grips and were sturdy. They also had their metal sheaths.

The German trench knives, during the first world war, were general-purpose tools that were around six inches long, single-edged, and rarely had double-edged blades. During the Second World War, the trench knives reflected the same design of those models used in the First World War.

Most of them were designed by government contractors as combat tools. Today, they are called boot knives but were rarely carried in boots. Many of them had steel sheaths featuring clips using which they could be affixed to attire or boots.

The famous Nahkampfmesser was from Germany. In Western Europe, it was a dual-purpose combat knife that the German armies used during the First World War. This combat knife, surprisingly, was designed as a general-purpose field as well as a combat weapon. During the Second World War, it was issued as a revised form, Kampfmesser 42.

Along with its Commonwealth partners, even the British military force used a myriad of trench knives during the First World War. Of these, a few were commercial versions that were based on Bowie models that we recognize today.

The rest were quite special types like the push daggers with a grip of almost cylindrical aluminum that fitted well in hands. The blade was around four inches long and projected between the user’s knuckles.

As an expected practice, during the trench raids, the British army used trench knives along with other noiseless gear such as hatchets and trench clubs. This collection was backed up with hand grenades and guns.

The British government had officially issued the standard trench versions all of which were sturdy. Most had metallic sheaths and came with slab wooden grips.

Modern Trench Knives On Sale

We were unable to find any trench knives on amazon.com unfortunately.

There are still a few websites that sell these knives.

  • WWI 1918 Replica: This is for those who want the exact copy of one of the original trench knives that the soldiers used during the First World War. Even if it is only for collection, it is worth buying it. Genuine replicas will have the mark of ‘U.S. 1918’ on their handles with knuckle buster. While the blade will be made up of modern stainless steel, it will still be double-edged.

You can buy these knives from budk.com or brassknucklescompany.com for less than $30. Atlantacutlery.com has a high-quality version available for $150.

Here is a comparison video from CountryTactcial team.

Following are some other popular trench knife designs you may come across today:

  • Serrated Trench Knife: This design looks sleek and contemporary. It was designed for the current army troops who can carry using the included shoulder harness sheath. It usually features a handguard of cast metal, serration, and a non-reflective layer on the blade for working in the stealth mode.
  • Folding Knuckle Knives: It is compact and made to be carried anywhere. The blade will be mostly of modern steel material.

brassknucklescompany.com and knockoutknucks.com have a good collection of such modern knuckle knives.

The Legality of Trench Knives

It is true that in some states or regions, carrying and using a trench knife is prohibited. This is perhaps due to the blade’s length, as people are not allowed to buy, hold, carry, or use blades of more than a specific length in public.

Another reason for the prohibition is the series of knuckle busters, as knuckled tools are specifically forbidden due to the belief of their use in criminal activities. Keeping these reasons in mind, you may be allowed to showcase a trench knife at your home, particularly if it is a military object.

So, just check out your local rules and regulations before you carry a trench knife out in public.