My dad gave me my first Swiss Army knife when I was 13: A memorable event, partly because knives are cool when you’re 13, and partly because I think it may be the only gift he’d ever given me that he picked out himself.
I didn’t own it for long. Within a month, it had been stolen by the neighborhood bully. I attempted to escalate the situation by getting hold of a switchblade, but a week later, the bully’s older brother had stolen that. Leery of encountering some third, even larger brother, I ended the whole sad saga there. (For the record, no one got stabbed, at least not that I’m aware of.)
To me, the official Swiss Army knife — as manufactured by Victorinox — remains the ultimate dad gift. It’s something your mother wouldn’t entirely approve of (“He’ll cut his own wrists open!” were my mother’s exact words) with a sheen of practicality to it, a paternal nudge to say — in my case, at least — “Hey, perhaps you could stop wearing eyeliner and writing poetry, and maybe learn to build a garden shed, instead?”
There’s a double whammy of manliness attached to it (it has the words knife and army!) and a bonus shot of well-designed efficiency in its Swiss heritage.
The name is no gimmick, either: The Swiss Army knife really was issued to Swiss troops as far back as the late 1800s. As well as a blade, it housed a reamer, a can opener and a screwdriver, the latter being essential for troops needing to disassemble their rifles for cleaning.
The tool’s history goes back even further, with a similar device — described as “one of those… Sheffield contrivances” — referenced in chapter 107 of Moby Dick in 1851. But it’s the Swiss Army version that’s become the gold — or rather, red — standard the world over. Any man could easily reel off a list of at least half a dozen of the standard tools to be found within: The large and small blade; the scissors; the nail file; the corkscrew; the saw; the “thing for getting stones out of horses’ hooves.” (It should be noted, though, that despite what most people think, that spiked tool isn’t actually a hoof pick at all — it’s a punch for making holes in leather and other tough fabrics).
These tools are so familiar to us that they’ve become an easy metaphor, most often a shorthand for describing anyone or anything that’s good at multiple functions. “Wanted: Swiss Army knife,” will read any job description searching for some hapless sucker to do the jobs of five different people. It’s a compliment, a nod to your well-rounded skills and tidy adaptability.
The Swiss Army knife itself can certainly handle any situation — from basic DIY to a lifesaving tracheotomy — with just the handy gizmo in your pocket. MacGyver was never caught without one. And IRL, astronaut Chris Hadfield used one to break into the Russian space station, Mir. (“Never leave the planet without one,” he allegedly quipped later.) Even Navy SEALs— recipients of the most intense training and top-of-the-line equipment the U.S. military has to offer — have a boner for them.
For good reason, too: They’re Batman’s utility belt for the average Joe, a secret stash of tools and improvised weapons designed to carry you through that inevitable moment when the bad guys from Die Hard take over your office building, or whatever other disaster daydream gets you through your morning meetings.
In any event, they’re a comforting fantasy to cling onto: Ordinarily, you may barely be able to navigate the grocery store, but with your trusty knife in your hand, you could be dropped into a nightmare scenario like Liam Neeson in The Grey and come out the other side unscathed, your nails filed, your horse’s hooves stone-free.
Which is silly, really, because if there’s one thing we all learn within a week of owning a Swiss Army knife, it’s that they’re mostly completely useless. This is why comedians Eddie Izzard and Jerry Seinfeld have both done bits about them, each pointing out the same idea: That as a military weapon, a more comically overstuffed yet less-threatening device — not the two-inch knife! — is hard to imagine.
The blade is too thin and blunt to really slice through anything; the teeny scissors are barely able to handle a single sheet of wrapping paper; any small branch the saw could actually cut through, you could probably snap with your bare hands.
Certainly, the knives peddled by popular TV survival experts aren’t sporting tweezers and nail files: Both Bear Grylls and Ray Mears’ branded knives are simple, sturdy, single-bladed bushcraft knives.
Even within the “prepper” community — those who hoard tools and canned goods in preparation for the end of the world — the actual practicality of the Swiss Army knife is fiercely debated. “Of all the knives I own, I am fondest of my Victorinox Swiss Army Knives model ‘SwissChamp’ — literally, a survivalist’s toolbox that fits in your pocket,” boasts PrepperForums.net member “Verteidiger,” before proudly listing all 28 of its functions, including a wire crimper, a sewing eye and a fish scaler.
Literally the first response to his comment: “In my opinion, this knife is a novelty item.”
Still, almost every man owns — or at some point, has owned — the fabled red multitool. After losing my first Swiss Army knife, I replaced it with a larger version that had more than a dozen different functions (although I don’t recall ever using it for anything practical beyond poking down the weed at the end of various joints). Back when publicists would mail journalists press releases accompanied by a thumb drive full of additional info, I was sent one that was housed in an adorable, two-inch Swiss Army knife. A less impressive version of this, it nevertheless included a small blade, a 16 GB thumb drive, a pen, an LED light, scissors, a nail file and a screwdriver. Three jobs later, it’s still with me, sitting on my desk, even though I have never once used it for anything. (I only discovered that “the pokey thing” at the end was a pen while writing this piece.)
But I would argue that none of this really robs the Swiss Army knife of its meaning —which has only grown stronger over time. Namely, that we’re still men, and the practical hunter-gatherer instincts of our ancestors are still somewhere within us, even if we’ve gotten soft and don’t actually know how to fashion a shelter, set a squirrel trap or even change a tire anymore.
Like the implied practicality of the knife itself, this is a promise of pure, childlike bullshit. But we cling to that feeling anyway, because we know that, eventually, it’s surely going to come in handy.