In all likelihood, the knife is humanity’s oldest tool – or at least some version of a handheld cutting device is. But it isn’t just old, it’s also stood the test of time. For generations and generations, mankind has continued to use knives in nearly every venue of life – from normal everyday situations, to some of the most dire and intense.
While we view knives first and foremost as tools, there’s no denying their inextricable connection to human conflict. As long as they have been used as tools, they’ve also been used in combat in some form or another. And the story of knives as weapons is as complex as it is long. Which is why we’ve taken the time to trace that story alongside humanity’s in the following complete guide to the history of fighting knives.
Blades Back Through Time
As you might imagine, all bladed tools can be traced back to the same Paleolithic origin, as that ancient period – during which humanity emerged from caves and begin to create their own structures, eventually leading to the development of civilization – marked mankind’s first technological jump forward. The tools were simple and unrefined, Knives of all sorts would remain the same for centuries.comprised primarily of stones or flint with rough edges, which were used to make jagged cuts and chops, rather than intricate slices.
Over time, the shapes would change from irregular rocks to more recognizable arrowhead-shaped blades, though these were still exceedingly dull in comparison to knives we would see later on. Often, these stone knives would be adorned with leather wrappings and sometimes fur on their handles, creating the familiar dagger shape we know of today. In large part, however, knives of all sorts would remain the same for centuries. That is, until the end of the stone age.
The Bronze Age (3,000 B.C.E.)
Named for the emergence of simple metalworking, the Bronze Age (beginning roughly sometime after 3,000 B.C.E.) changed the face of knives almost entirely. Stone was largely abandoned as a blade material (with rare exception), as metals like copper and bronze made for much more effective and durable cutting tools. And while the technology was still largely rough in its execution, the era of bronze really marked the moment at which knife-making began turning into an art.
Probably the most notable metal blades to come out of this time were the Beaker period copper daggers. Simple in their construction, these knives consisted of a flattened copper triangular blade with beveled edges, an integrated tang wrapped in a riveted handle, and a pointed tip. As time passed, the copper used in these cutting tools would be swapped for the more durable bronze, though their form would remain largely the same. While a major step up from the stone tools developed prior, these blades were a far cry from what would be developed in the ages following.
The Iron Age (1,200 B.C.E.)
It’s interesting to see how intricately human civilization’s progression is intertwined with the development of tools of war. And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the Iron Age. With the creation of steel, humanity entered its first real golden age – a time at which civilization began to take huge leaps forward. This is also the time of the Roman Empire and, by proxy, one of the most violent periods of history as the Romans expanded throughout Europe, by any means necessary.
It is at this time that we begin to see a larger number of recognizable knife blade shapes emerge. For instance, in Northern Europe, archaeological digs have turned up examples of an Anglo-Saxon warrior’s blade known as the Seax – a long dagger-style knife carried through the Middle Ages used both as a close combat weapon and an all-purpose utility blade. Two other knives, both daggers, called the Rondel and Bollock, also emerged – though their form was more needle-like,It is at this time that we begin to see a larger number of recognizable knife blade shapes emerge. clearly intended for stabbing and piercing instead of cutting (as would be useful with a utility blade).
Perhaps the most important and recognizable knife to come out of this period, however, is the Roman Pugio. Like its larger counterpart, the Gladius (a short sword), this was a standard-issue close combat tool carried by Roman soldiers. At the height of the Roman Empire, these blades were as commonplace as any other weapon and, in fact, were the very weapons chosen by the conspirators who betrayed and assassinated Julius Caesar. As it turns out, the two primary purposes of this particular knife seemed to be that of assassination and suicide.
Of course, fighting knives of this period were not relegated to western culture, as in the East many examples can also be found. One that has stood the test of time is the Japanese Tanto. Featuring a straight blade with an abrupt angle toward the tip of the knife, these blades are the stout counterparts to the Japanese longswords. And while they were often used in close-quarters combat, they were also widely used in performing seppuku – a ritual suicide intended to restore personal or familial honor.
Though the Roman Empire eventually fell, the rest of the world just kept on chugging along. Kingdoms rose and fell, new developments continued to come to fruition. Interestingly, the time between the fall of Rome and the industrialization of the world also coincides with the creation perhaps the widest array of fighting blades – likely a byproduct of the combination of regional developments both in culture and warfare and the world moving away from the idea of kingdoms and into the beginnings of globalization.
The Pre-Industrial period (which is a large one, granted) is the time at which some of the most recognizable knives ever built were initially made. And while the history is certainly sprawling and hard to follow, the blades have some very clear origins. We’ve endeavored to highlight some of the most iconic ones here, as well as give a bit of history on their birth, purpose, and more.
11th Century: While this knife has a bit of a reputation as an aggressive combat knife, it actually has much more humble origins. From Southeast Asia – likely amongst the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra – the karambit knife was based on the tiger claw, but was actually used as an agrarian tool early on. As time went by and this knife was repurposed into a weapon, the blade became sharper, more curved, and now there are even folding karambits for easier concealment. Now, what was once a peasant blade is heralded as one of the most formidable fighting knives in the world.
16th Century: The favored weapons of the fabled Gurkha soldiers – Nepalese warriors recruited into the British Army as far back as the mid-1800s – this knife is often on the larger side of the spectrum, more akin to machetes than other, smaller fighting knives. Like the karambit, these blades are said to have origins in agricultural venues and are a permutation of harvesting sickles. Interestingly enough, this blade first garnered western attention due to its appearance in Bram Stoker’s famous gothic horror novel, Dracula – in which the vampire has his throat slit by this very blade.
17th Century: While this particular dagger-style knife is widely associated with seafaring warriors during the Age of Sail (1571–1862), it actually came from the shores of Scotland around the year 1600. Designed purely for combat, this blade was made specifically for thrusting in close-quarters, making it the perfect sidearm for boarding enemy vessels. It was so effective as a sailor’s fighting knife, in fact, that navies around the world – Russia, most notably – included them as standard equipment for their midshipmen and officers.
17th Century: Believe it or not, but the Spanish had a pretty big jump on the rest of us in regards to folding knives. That’s not to say they invented them – that honor dates back to the early Romans – but they were certainly onboard long before the rest of us. This can be seen primarily in their Navaja fighting knife. These rudimentary folding blades were often quite ornate, non-locking, and used most widely by Spanish gypsies of the day, called Gitanos. In fact, this blade was actually incorporated into what could be called a Spanish martial art – known as ‘esgrimas de navaja’ – and was taught at schools around the southern parts of the country.
17th Century: One of the most purpose-driven fighting knives in the world, this Persian blade originated in what is now Iran and was specifically created to pierce through the chain mail armor that had been popularized at the time. They most often consisted of a long, curved, dagger-style blade with a full tang and a thick spine – especially helpful in adding strength for a stabbing motion. And while the length of the blade was most typically featured a flat ground edge, the tip was usually left a bit thicker, to reinforce it for piercing armor. These knives were also quite ornate and beautiful, considering their purpose.
19th Century: One of the newer blades on this list, the Bowie knife was made famous thanks to James Bowie, a famous knife fighter who died at the Alamo. Said to be the basis for most modern fighting knives, the original bowie knife was extremely simple, consisting of a large straight blade mated to a simple handle. It was not an elegant weapon by any stretch, but it was durable and long-lasting, which are excellent qualities to have in an all-purpose utility blade.
19th Century: Used by the gauchos of South America, these blades were kind of a middle-ground between the utilitarian bowie knife and the more ornate fighting knives of the past. That is to say, they featured a big sturdy blade, but they were also generally adorned with elaborate designs, both on the knives themselves and their matching sheaths. Roughly the size of your average chef’s knife, facóns were sometimes used to settle disputed between men – though the fights were not to the death. Rather, the two men would slash at one-another’s face until one conceded defeat, marked by an inability to see due to the blood in their eyes.
20th Century: The French douk-douk is an interesting example of the ingenuity of violence. Originally intended as a simple and inexpensive utility blade for working men, this easily-concealed non-locking folding blade was repurposed into a weapon of dissent during the FLN-led Algerian revolt of the 1950s and 1960s, during which it was used as a tool of assassination. This may be the one blade on our list that rapidly became a fighting knife despite its creators original intent.
The Modern Era
Mass Production Prevails
What’s especially interesting about the modern era is that the industrialization of the world paired with the embroilment in two worldwide conflicts actually led the future of fighting knives down two paths, simultaneously. First, knives would take on a less ornate and more aggressive appearance, as they were easier to build en masse without intricate forms or designs.With modernization came the need for blades that were a bit more utilitarian. And second, they would take a seemingly large step backwards in their overall purpose.
You see, in the pre-industrial era, fighting knives were often built strictly to serve as fighting tools, whereas those of the past were meant to complete a number of different tasks, as well. This meant that their form was strictly for combat and nothing else. This could be seen most pronounced in things like the karambit and khukuri. With modernization, however, came the need for blades that were a bit more utilitarian. Fighting knives were no longer single-purpose tools of war, but were intended to be used in a variety of ways, as well as being combat blades. Sure, they were still primarily for fighting, but they could also easily assist with other tasks soldiers might need outside of combat – like basic survival.
The Trench Knife
One of the earliest appearances of this new fighting knife ethos in practice is the traditional trench knife. Typically, these knives would feature a dagger-like blade, an ergonomic handle, and a wrap-around metal knuckle guard – often taking the form of brass knuckles. Some of them also had a metal-tipped hilt, often referred to as a ‘skull crusher.’ Most often given to elite infantry units – whereas standard infantry would simply be given a bayonet – these were all-purpose no-nonsense knives that were just as effective at stabbing and slashing as they were at striking and punching.
Eventually, these blades would be replaced. However, the reasoning is a bit murky. There is a long-standing rumor that the brutality of ‘knuckle-duster’ trench knives was completely excessive and, eventually, banned by the Geneva Conventions, though factual information on this is hard to come by. Another possible reason is that these blades featured a triangular blade which, when combined with the brass-knuckled handles, served very little function outside of combat and, thusly, were replaced for utilitarian reasons. Whatever the case, they had widely stopped being used prior to WWII.
Modern Combat Knives
From around WWII until today, the form of most fighting knives has been somewhat standardized. That is to say, most of them feature similar forms – most typically somewhere between old-style daggers and the more modern bowie knife. Of course, there is a lot of room for interpretation, especially because of the wide increase in both folding and fixed blades that are available to the public. However, if you look at some of the most influential modern fighting knives, we imagine you’ll see similarities in their blade shapes, handle styles, and more.
Some of the most noteworthy examples of contemporary fighting knives are still made in some form or another today. For instance, the United Stated Marine Corps (USMC) has been issuing their soldiers Ka-Bar’s USMC Fighting Utility Knife (also known as the 1219C2 combat knife or the USMC Mark 2 combat knife) in some form or another since 1942. Similarly, Gerber Gear has offered a version of their Mark II fighting knife (which draws inspiration from the Scottish dirk) since 1966. And that’s just the beginning, as various militaries have also contracted with knife-making brands such as Ontario Knife Company, Al Mar, and many more. Nowadays, an increasingly wide variety of knife-making brands have some version of a fighting knife – or at least one that was inspired by fighting knives of the past.
Fighting Knives You Can Own
As you might imagine, there is a plethora of contemporary examples of fighting knives from around the world available today. Some of them are recreations of designs from the past, whereas others are new evolutions on those that came before them. And while not all of them are functional – there are a lot of “collector’s” imposters that look functional, but don’t actually work in practice – there are many still built to stand the test of time. We’ve outlined some of our favorites below.
Glock OEM Field Knife
Functioning as both a fighting knife and a functional bayonet, this is the fixed blade of choice for the Austrian army. In fact, it was actually developed with the input of Austrian Army Rangers. This fixed blade is as no-nonsense as they come, which is definitely not a bad thing in the least.
OKC Marine Combat Knife
Made to military specifications, this 12″ fixed blade blacked-out combat knife was made right here in the USA from 1095 carbon steel. And like Ka-Bar’s USMC Fighting Fixed Blade, this knife was crafted specifically for use by soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces – meaning it’s tough as hell and built to last.
Ka-Bar USMC Fighting Utility Knife
As iconic as they come, this is a variation of the standard fighting knife used by the United States Marine Corps, dating back to the early 1940s. It’s 7″ clip point blade is built from 1095 Cro-van steel, which is mated to a leather-wrapped handle and comes with a gorgeous premium leather sheath. As far as classic fixed blade knives go, this one is top-notch.
Ka-Bar Combat Kukri Knife
A westernized take of the machete-like Gurkha weapon of choice, this blacked-out fighting knife features a high-carbon, powder-coated 1095 steel blade and a slip-resistant Kraton handle. And while this knife is certainly battle-worthy, it also works great as a trail-clearing outdoor tool.
Gerber Mark II Knife
Based on the Scottish dirk dagger, this is a permutation on Gerber’s decades-old military fighting fixed blade utility knife. It features a black oxide-coated 6.5″ partially serrated 420HC steel blade mated to a die-cast aluminum handle. This knife is as no-nonsense as they come and will last for generations.
Cold Steel Steel Tiger Karambit
A clear tactical interpretation of the once-agrarian karambit knife, this fixed blade is built from a combination of textured fiberglass-reinforced nylon and AUS-8A steel. It’s an elegant knife with a modern twist and is very clearly built for combat.
Buck Knives 0119 Special Bowie Knife
A modernized version of the classic bowie knife, don’t let this blade’s beauty trick you – it’s tough as nails and built to take a beating. With a cocobolo handle, brass pommel and guard, and 420HC steel 6″ clip point blade, this knife is a hunter’s best friend.
Eickhorn KM2000 Fixed Blade Knife
Used by Germany’s Bundeswehr Armed Forces, this westernized tanto fixed blade is made to exacting standards out of Böhler N695 blade steel. At nearly 12 inches in length, this is the upper echelon of functional fighting knives.
8 Best Bowie Knives
The bowie knife is one of the most iconic fighting knives ever made. And it is still widely produced today. We’ve rounded up the eight best bowie knives you can buy right now.