Until the 1880s, Swiss soldiers carried a single-blade pocket knife, but the introduction of the Schmidt-Rubin rifle in 1889 created a need for soldiers to carry a screwdriver to disassemble their weapons for cleaning. Victorinox founder Karl Elsener began making a knife that featured a screwdriver, leather punch, can opener and knife blade for the Swiss army in 1891.
Six years later, Elsener developed a new knife, which boasted six tools (including a second, smaller knife blade and a corkscrew). The Swiss military declined the new knife, but Elsener was able to market it successfully to army officers. This officer's version is the knife typically associated with the term "Swiss Army Knife."
A "Swiss Army Knife" refers to a multi-function knife tool made by either Wenger or Victorinox, the two companies that supply the Swiss military. According to Victorinox spokesman Urs Wyss, similar knives made by other makers should be referred to as "Swiss style."
There are two types of Swiss Army Knives, the Soldier's Knife and the Officer's Knife. The Soldier's knife is standard issue for Switzerland and Germany's military. The Officer's version boasts a wide variety of features, including the iconic corkscrew. According the Victorinox publication "Swiss Army Knives: A Collector's Companion," the generic term "Swiss Army Knife" was created just after World War II by American servicemen, who found its official German name "Offiziersmesser" too hard to say.
Both Wenger and Victorinox have used innovation as a primary means of retaining market share.
When Elsener released his original Officer's Knife, it was soon copied by German makers, but he was able to retain market share by adding a variety of tools to the design, such as toothpicks, tweezers, saws and scissors.
Wenger and Victorinox both faced stiff competition from cheaper Asian-made versions of their products after World War II.
They responded by adding new tools to their products and perfecting existing ones, such as the redesigned can opener Victorinox patented in 1951 that also serves as a screwdriver. This version is standard on most of their knives today.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, both companies saw a sharp drop in sales because their core market of travelers could no longer carry their trusty knives aboard airplanes.
Wenger responded with a new line of knives with ergonomic features (the Ergo line), while Victorinox concentrated creating demand in the technology sector, with knives designed for computer repair (Cybertool) and featuring flash drives with USB ports (SwissMemory and SwissFlash).
Lengths of closed knives range from just over two inches to nearly 4.5 inches. Width can vary from the Victorinox SwissCard, which is made to fit in a wallet like a credit card, to the Victorinox SwissChamp, which is over four inches wide. Both Victorinox and Wenger make larger knives that include nearly all available tools for collectors. The Wenger Giant, for instance, boasts 87 implements and is nearly nine inches wide.
The design of a typical Swiss Army Knife starts with the same basic features, a large and small knife blade, can opener, bottle opener/screwdriver, an awl, corkscrew and toothpick. In many designs, other features are added to appeal to a specific group. On the Wenger Golf Pro model, for instance, the company added a divet tool and shoe spike wrench to its traditional design to appeal to golfers. The Victorinox Angler adds a combination ruler, hook remover and fish scaling tool and a pair of pliers.
Some variations include cigar cutters, flashlights, ink pens, files, magnifying glasses or hacksaws.
The Swiss Army Knife saw a resurgence in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s with the television series "MacGyver." The title character, Angus MacGyver often used his Swiss Army Knife to thwart terrorism or rescue himself from potentially fatal situations that naturally arise in the standard international intrigue of the fictional series.
Wyss said that while many believe MacGyver carried an intricate model with numerous tools, he actually wielded basic versions of the knife.
"MacGyver did not use always the same model of Swiss Army Knife, but the most in use was the Huntsman and Tinker version," he said.
The Huntsman has nine implements, the Tinker has six.