More about smatchets

I’ve had a few questions from readers about the World War II “smatchet” combat knife developed by William E. Fairbairn for Allied special forces, after I mentioned it in passing last week.  (You can read more about this remarkable man and his contribution to self-defense here.)  Here’s an authentic smatchet, issued to Corporal R. T. Petteit of the Z Special Unit, which was active in the Pacific theater of war.  It’s now in an Australian museum.  Click the image for a larger view.

The smatchet is a very large, very specialized knife.  Its sole purpose is combat – it’s not easily adapted to any other role, due to both sides of the blade being sharpened.  It’s been compared to the ancient Greek xiphos sword, although it’s shorter than sword length, of course.  (See here for an interesting discussion about the xiphos and its use.)  Fairbairn codified simple techniques to use the smatchet in his 1942 book “All-In Fighting” and its later American edition, “Get Tough!“, which are now out of copyright and available as an e-book from various sources on the Internet.  (Here’s one, if you’re interested.)  In that book, he said of the smatchet:

The psychological reaction of any man, when he first takes the smatchet in his hand is full justification for its recommendation as a fighting weapon. He will immediately register all the essential qualities of a good soldier – confidence, determination, and aggressiveness. Its balance, weight and killing power, with the point, edge or pommel, combined with the extremely simple training necessary to become efficient in its use, make it the ideal personal weapon for all those not armed with a rifle and bayonet.

I had the good fortune, in my younger days, to spend some time with a man, an acquaintance of my father’s, who’d been trained to use the smatchet by William Fairbairn himself during World War II.  He said they were taught to use it in simple, uncomplicated ways.  As near as I can recall, he said, “If you try to get complicated in a knife fight, you’re going to die.  Keep it simple, and be as brutal as you need to be to finish it fast.  The longer it goes on, the more likely you are to get hurt, too.”  Given his extensive combat experience, attested to by several medals, I wasn’t about to argue with him!

He also described the philosophy of knife fighting, as taught by various instructors during his training for the British Commandos.  Again, from memory, it went something like this.  “The first rule of a knife fight is, don’t get into one, because you’re as likely to get cut as the other man.  Rather kill him without warning.  However, if you have no choice, and things do turn into a knife fight, then you need to cut down your enemy’s ability to fight back.  Don’t try for the big kill all at once unless you have to, to stop him raising the alarm.  Rather slow him down by hurting him, then move in once he can’t defend himself.”  They were taught to “peck” at their opponent.  Specific moves he recalled included:

  • Cutting the forehead, which bleeds easily and profusely, so that the blood blinds your opponent (“he can’t stab you while he’s wiping his eyes”);
  • Cutting at fingers and hands, knees and elbows as the enemy tries to stab or hit you with his weapon, keeping him at a distance (“if you cut off enough fingers, he can’t hold his knife”);
  • Slicing attacks at limbs and the torso as you move around each other, taking advantage of the enemy’s movement to provide an opening for your blade (“if his arm muscles or tendons aren’t working, he can’t stab you, and if his leg muscles or tendons aren’t working, he can’t move”).

He said that obviously, if speed and silence were of the essence, you didn’t want to waste time in a long-drawn-out fight.  You had to attack quickly and silently, and dispose of your enemy before he could raise the alarm or fight back.  For that, he said, the smatchet was an outstanding weapon.  Its big, leaf-shaped blade appeared to cause paralyzing pain when it was thrust into the body, much more so than the thin, needle-like wounds caused by the better-known Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife.  Yes, he spoke from experience . . . and he taught a very interested young man some of what he’d learned, using sticks rather than blades.  As I was to find out, many of the techniques were easily adapted for use with the panga, a machete-style blade that’s common in Southern Africa, and was widely employed in tribal conflicts.

There have been several copies made of the smatchet by modern knife-makers (such as Boker’s version), but none of them appear to be readily available at present at reasonable prices.  The most easily available and affordable version is Cold Steel’s Shanghai Warrior knife (shown below), the blade of which is almost identical in shape and cross-section to the smatchet (albeit a little shorter than the original).  Its name is, of course, a tribute to Fairbairn, who learned his “trade” on the streets of that city before World War II.

There’s also a smaller version, the Shanghai Shadow, which is about 2.5″ shorter than the Warrior.  Both are relatively low-cost, but still appear to me to be pretty effective blades for what they are.  I don’t like the ring on the end of the hilt, which is presumably there for use with an Oriental knife technique of some kind;  but I find them usable despite its presence.  I have one of each.  The hilts aren’t the best or most easy-to-use shape, but wrapping them with overgrip tape makes them much more comfortable.  A couple of passes with a sharpening steel or stone or the equivalent, and they’re ready for action.

The smatchet won’t do as a general-purpose knife.  I wouldn’t take one camping with me:  something like the Kershaw Camp Knife or a short machete would be far more versatile for that environment.  However, as a fighting knife, I submit the smatchet design is tested and proven, and has a lot to offer.  Yes, I know it’s extremely unlikely any of us will ever get into a knife fight . . . but I’ve been in a couple, in my younger days, so I take even a remote possibility seriously.  (Yes, I have scars to prove it.  Ask my wife.)



  1. Fairbairn, Shanghai policeman and soldier forgot more about knife fighting than most "experts" know. Right up there is the kukri, which is a different sort of blade, but still one worth considering. As I sit and type, there is a kukri, crafted from an automobile leaf spring in Nepal, sitting near my right hand.

    There are a lot of liberals who pine and ache over firearms who have no appreciation for what can be done with a smatchet (or a kukri, or a tomahawk/war hammer). Maybe they'll do what the Brits do and ban knives? That stopped all of the stabbing in London didn't it?

  2. The Romans had the Pugio, a wide, heavy, double edged dagger for just the same purpose as the smashet. For when close-fighting is really needed, and the short gladius is too long.

    Later, the Italians would have the Cinquedea, for much the same purposes, especially in combination with a rapier or other long, narrow sword. Slash and poke with the rapier, but chop-chop, hack-hack with the dagger.

    The Arkansas toothpick was a derivation of this design, wide at the base for chopping, narrowing to a point.

    And, of course, basically a short shafted assegai. Chop-chop-thrust, chop-chop-thrust. Close in killing.

    Come to think of it, I have an unmounted boar spear head that I've used to chop-chop-thrust… Hmmmmm…..

    As to Cold Steel, yeah, their handles need some work, but I've got their big kukri-machete and that thing will remove fingers, faces, kneecaps quite nicely. And works well on brush and other things…

    The ring at the end of that Cold Steel knife? Wrap some leather or paracord around it to help make it a non-slip pommel.

    Hmmm. Gonna have to put one or two on my Christmas list…

  3. @LL: Oh, yes. A leaf spring kukri is a very deadly thing indeed. Like you, I have one close to hand, bought from Himalayan Imports, who bring them in direct from their bladesmiths in Nepal.

    It's noteworthy how leaf springs have been enthusiastically adopted by local blacksmiths all over the world to make heavy knives and chopping implements. In Africa, a Mercedes-Benz truck leaf spring is the bee's knees. One of them, heated and hammered to stretch it out, will make two or three heavy-duty machetes, that will give a kukri a run for its money in the chopping game.

  4. How stupid am I? Let me count the ways..
    Back in another century I lived in fairly close proximity (a half-day's drive) to Colonel Rex Applegate (ret) in Oregon.
    Possessed of a love of knives and seized by the audacity of a younger man, I phoned The Colonel's number.
    He answered!
    I finally regained my composure enough to stumble through the rumor I had heard that he was selling his version of the Smatchet.
    He said, "Yes, I have one left." IIRC he was asking $200. I gulped and he said, "It's the last one, and it will be a collector's item."
    I wimped out.
    $200 for a knife was a lot for me in those days. Plus I wanted to use my knives, not collect them.
    So, how stupid am I?
    I do not own a Smachet handed to me by Rex Applegate and I never got to shake his hand.
    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

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