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The Smatchet: The Enormous Fighting Knife of World War II

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Armies stopped using swords when the First World War broke. The advancement of firearm technologies basically rendered them obsolete, but armies never really discarded their edged weapons. In fact, up to now, a bladed implement is still a part of a soldier’s kit, with utility being its main usage. But back in World War I, a myriad of exotic, strange and frightening edged weapons were deployed in response to the brutal close-quarter fighting in the trenches. Daggers made a reappearance, with some having brass knuckles for hand guards. It was the situation that defined the blades, and the same was true in the Second World War.

In the battlefield of World War II, dagger-type and bowie knives were the most commonly carried edged weapons, though large machete type bladed implements also saw actions. In the pacific theater, knives like the Filipino bolo saw widespread deployment. It was the favored weapon of the ill-equipped guerilla units, being readily available, portable and silent. And in Europe, special forces also wielded their own version of a hewing blade. It was made to complement the smaller commando daggers, and with a blade length of approximately 16 inches, it resembled a sword rather than a knife. It was known by its catchy name, smatchet.

The Blades of the Special Forces

The F-S Commando Knife.

The F-S Commando Knife.

William E. Fairbairn was a man no one wants to cross. He first served in the Royal Marines before going to the Shanghai Municipal Police. There he engaged in hundreds of street fights, leaving his body scarred from brawls and knife wounds. His hands-on experiences in real-life violence helped him innovate firearms shooting techniques, and developed a training system for various special forces.

And together with Eric A. Sykes, they designed a fighting knife for commandos and clandestine units.

The Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife was always associated with the British Commandos, and was designed to suit their needs for silent killing and close-combat. The knife is suited for surprise attacks, with the dagger blade meant for penetration and quick kills.

But the F-S knife had a big brother.

To complement the dagger, Fairbairn was often credited for introducing a larger and more imposing edged weapon.

Unlike the delicate blade of the F-S knife, this bladed weapon featured a robust leaf-shaped blade. It resembled a sword, or a machete rather than a knife, and was called the “smatchet”, due to its function as a “smashing hatchet”.

Construction

The overall appearance of the weapon. Source: https://www.defensemedianetwork.

The overall appearance of the weapon. Source: https://www.defensemedianetwork.

It was described by the Office of Strategic Services as a cross between a machete and a bolo. And observers noted its resemblance to a different Filipino bladed weapon known as the barong. Yet the similarities were coincidental, as it was based on trench knife designs in the First World War. Trench knives came in many shapes, and the variant carried by the Royal Welch Fusiliers were basically swords. To address the needs for a hand-to-hand weapon in the trenches, the Welsh Swords were short swords with leaf-shaped blades. Years later, the large leaf shaped design will be adopted for the smatchet weapons.

Unlike the Welch Swords, with an overall length of more than 20 inches, smatchets were shorter. The overall length, with the grip included was 16.5 inches. With such a large blade, a smatchet weighs 1.5 pounds, compared to the smaller F-S knife, which only weighs 10 ounces.

The single edged blade was matted, to avoid detections during night raids and was made for pure combat and not utility. Later models however have double edged blades. The handle was made of wood, although rubber and bakelite were also used for grip materials. And like many fighting blades, the smatchet had a metallic pommel for clubbing. It was kept in scabbard made from materials like canvass with rubber, leather, nylon, or even wood.

Again, due to its size, some people consider it as a sword rather than the knife. Yet the actual usage of the weapon is like a cross between a knife and a sword.

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Actual Use

Illustrated guide on the weapon usage.

Illustrated guide on the weapon usage.

As Fairbairn once said:

“Its balance, weight, and killing power, with 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.”

In his book Get Tough, Fairbairn discussed the usage of the strange bladed weapon, complete with illustrations as guides. Again, one could describe the fighting system as a cross between swordsmanship and knife fighting. Seven techniques were taught by Fairbairn, which include the following: trust to the torso, slicing across the right and left of the neck, cutting the wrist and arms, and two strikes of the pommel (uppercut to the chin and downward hit to the face). And observer may notice a resemblance to an unrelated form of weapons system in Asia Escrima.

But one might wonder how it performed in real-life situation.

A British soldier holding a smatchet.

A British soldier holding a smatchet.

British special forces loved the smatchets. Anecdotal reports coming from urban combats in Norway revealed the effectiveness of the weapon. When fighting in the city, chances of close-quarter fighting were high. And in the narrow confines of house-to-house, and room-to-room combat, rifles could present a liability. The long barrels of rifles proved awkward when moving in small spaces, and in these scenarios, knives have an advantage. And against the British soldiers trained in the use of large bladed weapons, the enemy struggling inside a small space stood no chance. As what individuals claimed, smatchets were more efficient in killing the enemy than rifles.

The size of the smatchet also gave it an advantage.

The bladed weapon was small enough to be wielded in tight spaces, and large enough to inflict serious damages.

Similar Weapons

The Moro barong.

The Moro barong.

Based on its build and size, the smatchet could be considered as a “hewing knife.” They belong to the family of chopping blades that exceeded the size of a normal fighting knife, and close to being a sword. And knives like these could be found in other armies around the world.

Again, the smatchet was described as a cross between a machete and a bolo even though its origins were traced to Trench Knives. But it bore a striking resemblance to another Filipino weapon, the Moro barong. The said edged weapon gained notoriety in the Filipino-American War, when Moro warriors staged bold frontal attacks using the barongs. And like the smatchet, it had large leaf-shaped blade. Other bush knives in Southeast Asia never had leaf-shaped blades, but their usage in combat were comparable to the smatchet. The same could be said to the Kukri, the signature weapon of the Gurkha.

References:

1. Zimmerman, Dwight Jon (21 July, 2013). "The Smatchet: Fairbairn’s Other Fighting Knife". Defense Media Network.

2. Smatchets, Kukri & Bush Knives (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.fairbairnsykesfightingknives.com/smatchets--kukri.html.

3. Joubert's Welsh Trench Sword (9 June, 2018) https://laststandonzombieisland.com/2018/06/09/jouberts-welsh-trench-sword/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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