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Definitely, Officer Material

Even at my most militant moments as a 10-year-old, I did not seriously consider a soldier's life. I lacked the motivation, somehow. Uniforms held no fascination. Marching struck me as a self-consciously artificial way of going around in circles (or squares). And while it is true that I'd had, in more infant times, a potato gun, actually hitting targets was never a strong point. Not many people can entirely miss a passing bus or a six-foot-tall elder brother standing stock still with his hands up.

But who knows? The opportunity to prove myself officer material never did present itself (I would obviously have been a nonstarter in the ranks). But I dare say that if it had, I might have been found to have one or two appropriate attributes.

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Well, one, really.

I owned a Swiss Army knife.

Looking back now, I realize that the habitually low-slung character of my school shorts was probably due to this prized possession. I would rather have been parted from my shoes than go anywhere without it weighing down my right-hand pocket. (My knife likely predated the introduction of lighter aluminum to replace heavy nickel-silver alloy.) My fingers would periodically check to make sure it was still intact: the springy scissors, the tweezers, the toothpick, the corkscrew, the screwdriver-cum-bottle-opener-cum-wire-stripper.

All part of me.

You might think that the mere ownership of a Swiss Army knife has little bearing on one's military potential, but let me inform you otherwise. What Karl Elsener (the canny inventor of this compendious miniature tool kit) officially registered a century ago this month was not just a knife, but what he called the "Officer's Knife."

For six years previously, he had been supplying the Swiss Army with pocketknives for soldiers. Because these were "robust and relatively heavy," according to the company history, "Elsener developed specifically for the officers a lighter and more elegant knife" with a couple of extra attributes.

The historical account adds: "The Swiss officers do not receive their knives from the Army as the recruits do, but many of them purchase them privately at cutlery shops, where the simple Soldier's knife is also available."

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So mine - privately purchased - was an "Offiziersmesser," no less. No simple soldiery for me, thank you very much.

What seems inexplicable now, given my inseparability from that knife, is its disappearance. I had it for years, but then, at some unconscious juncture, no longer. Before this, I do remember breaking the spring on the scissors and having it repaired. They are, incidentally, the finest small scissors in the cosmos, and the only ones with which I personally can trim the nails of both hands. The minute tweezers are likewise everything that is required of their kind, when so many tweezers you encounter don't even meet at the end. I speak of these features in the present tense because some relations perceptively sussed out my need just a few years ago and gave me a new Swiss Army knife.

As with any good idea, while the original medium pocketknives remain classically available (in 100 variants), all kinds of sophisticated developments have been made. One would imagine, for example, that the "Swiss Champ" (pictured below) - with its 31 features - might be about as far as it was possible for a pocket "knife" to go. This magnificent, layered sandwich of inventiveness sports such extras as a magnifying glass, hook, Phillips screwdriver, chisel, pliers, ballpoint pen, and a pin - if you can find it! (I was baffled in spite of a lengthy search, so I phoned the British importers who, after due consultation with their technical department, discovered the pin's hiding place.)

Cleverest of all are the multifunction features. The nail file, for instance, is also a nail cleaner, metal file, and metal saw. Or the fish scaler (well I don't, but maybe I'll meet someone some afternoon who does) and hook disgorger (ditto), which is also a ruler calibrated in centimeters and inches. The mini-screwdriver secreted within the spiral of the corkscrew is another touch of brilliance.

BUT the Champ is not the Victorinox be-all and end-all. You can also buy the knife with a watch. And you can buy it as just one of the items in a large survival kit. Admittedly, this kit is no longer pocket-sized, but it does fit into a pouch and boasts a flashlight, writing paper, eight matches, a signal mirror, and a distress whistle. Oh - and a comb. So that when you are finally rescued, you can reorganize the thatch for the cameras.

To cap it all, I am told that there is something called the SwissCard, for business people (ex-officers?): It's 2-1/8 by 3-1/4 in., and 1/5th of an inch thick. It contains various of the Army knife features (pen, toothpick, tweezers, scissors) plus a letter opener. It's a multi-tool disguised as a credit card.

What is left for Victorinox to add to its product? A self-renewing bar of Toblerone and a sprig of edelweiss? But those would be gimmicks.

The Knife's Early Life

Karl Elsner was a hatmaker's son who decided to become a cutler. After years of apprenticeship in Germany, he went home to Switzerland in 1884. There he decided to compete with Solingen of Germany to make pocketknives for soldiers in the Swiss Army.

Elsener's knives looked a lot like the one shown above, which is still standard-issue for Swiss Army soldiers. Inside were a blade, awl, can opener, and screwdriver.

It was a heavy knife for rough service. Elsener decided to make something lighter and more refined for Army officers. He added a second blade and a corkscrew. He registered the new design on June 12, 1897.

Orders for the "Schweizer Offiziersmesser" (Swiss Officer's Knife) began pouring in. Elsener added a wood saw and scissors. He put a bottle opener on the screwdriver blade, and a small screwdriver on the tip of the can opener (which was patented in 1951). Then came the nail file, toothpick, tweezers, metal saw with file, fish scaler, ruler, key ring, magnifying glass....

The knives became truly international when they were sold in American military PXs from 1945-49. That's also when "Offiziersmesser" became something easier for Americans to pronounce: the Swiss Army knife.

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