The Fairbairn-Sykes Knife: Review & History

The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife is a rare breed: It’s one of few WWII-era weapons still in service that perfectly preserves its original design. To make this review worthwhile, I got my hands on the real McCoy: A late-war, third-pattern surplus example exported from England to the U.S. just after Hitler’s demise. Let’s take a look at this legendary Commando Knife.

Fairbairn-Sykes Blade Specs

  • Edge Length: 6.94”
  • Blade Width: 0.87″
  • Blade Length: 6.94″
  • Edge Thickness: N/A
  • Spine Thickness: 0.18″
  • Blade Shape: Stiletto
  • Blade Steel: Carbon Steel (10 series or 5160)
  • Edge Grind: Full Flat, Double Edge

Additional Specifications

  • Handle Material: Cast Alloy
  • Handle Length: 4.34″
  • Handle Diameter: 0.80″
  • Overall Length: 11.83″
  • Weight: 248g / 8.75 Oz
  • Sheath: Leather, Brass, Elastic Fabric
  • Country of Origin: Great Britain
  • Model: NSN 1095-99-963-2037 / NIIN 999632037, “Knife, Fighting (Commando) c/w sheath”

The Fairbairn-Sykes Knife: Review

Holding this knife in my hand feels special. I’ve anticipated this for a long time. I wanted a Commando Knife since I took an interest in the militaria of WWII in my youth. It carries a history that’s deep, clandestine, dangerous, and fascinating. This particular wartime example sports inspection mark “2” near the pommel, indicating it was possibly made by the defunct Perry Bar Metal Company of Birmingham, England.

There were three distinct variants of the Commando Knife. First-, second-, and third-pattern, abbreviated “P-1,” “P-2,” and “P-3.” This is a P-3 knife; its design was first manufactured in October 1943. It’s this exact design that remains in production today, under government contract with the British Ministry of Defence, or “M.O.D.”, through Sheffield Collectable Knives.

The lateral striations seen atop the blade are machine marks left by the blade grinding process at the forge. These late-war examples had rougher finishes than early- and mid-war (P-1 and P-2) knives.

Surprisingly, the type of carbon steel originally used to forge these knives remains a mystery. These blades might’ve been made from a 10 series alloy, like 1050 or 1075. The original maker, Wilkinson Sword, was known to use both. But I believe original F-S knives were forged from 5160 steel. It would’ve been a perfect candidate for making this specialized knife.

5160 is a spring steel with high ductility, so it’s strong but flexible. It can be bent repeatedly without cracking — a critical attribute for a thin blade made to pierce flesh and bone. It can be heat-treated, annealed, and hot worked into its final shape. It would’ve been a great steel for mass wartime production, wherein rapid manufacturing was required.

This steel contains Chromium, which provides extra hardness and some rust and corrosion resistance. The 10 series alloys don’t contain Chromium, yet WWII-era blades seen today have little to no rust nor pitting. More evidence for my speculation. And 5160 hardens to 57 to 58 HRC, which yields toughness and edge retention (or, this case, tip retention) without introducing brittleness.

At the time, 5160 was widely used to manufacture automobile leaf springs. To efficiently craft hundreds of thousands of knives, it would’ve made sense for Britain to use this alloy: It was well suited for the job, and already being used to make parts for military vehicles.

In pursuing efficient mass production, the P-3 knives lacked some of the earlier models’ flourishes. P-1 and P-2 blades were festooned with a ricasso, while the utilitarian P-3 blades merely had a continuous flat grind from tip to crossguard.

Early Fairbairn-Sykes knives also had stunning brass handles with complex knurling. But brass quickly became a critical material for making ammunition. So, the P-3 knife’s handle was cast of a “non-strategic” alloy. The knurling was replaced with 27 concentric rings; they were easier to make and provided better grip.

Problems with getting the black handle paint to adhere to the alloy meant that a thin copper coating had to first be applied as a sort of metallic primer.

On postwar P-3 exports, you’ll often find the black finish has worn off the peaks of the handle’s rings. This creates an attractive dual-tone patina on the grip, as seen on this fine example.

One trait all three generations of F-S knives share is their blade shape and intended purpose: None of these knives were sharpened at the factory with a fine cutting edge, but the tip of this Stiletto is wicked. Even after 80 years, this example is still capable of puncturing flesh with relative ease, as my wayward forearm found out.

The long blade tricks you into thinking this knife is forward-heavy. But all the weight is in the handle, with the center of gravity just below the crossguard. It’s an incredibly quick blade that doesn’t fight thrusts or flicks with any inertia. It’s clear the Commando Knife’s designers spent much time refining the balance of this knife.

The underhanded stabbing grip feels just as controlled and deadly; it’s easy to imagine the targeted lethality such a knife could — and certainly did — impart upon unfortunate members of the Wehrmacht in the trained hands of SOE and OSS operatives.

Captain W.E. Fairbairn’s original publication, Get Tough! How to Win in Hand-to-Hand Fighting, contains all the knife fighting tactics British Commandos and the U.S armed forces learned in wielding the F-S knife.

Chapter 28, Use Of The Knife, describes in graphic detail the various stabbing, thrusting, and puncturing attacks an operative could use to dispatch German soldiers caught unawares, usually in the midst of a nighttime raid.

The leather sheath is simple, but effective. A brass cap protects the blade tip, and the top of the handle’s secured with an elastic band. Behind the handle rests a typical belt loop for carrying at the waist, though operatives were often seen lashing their sheaths to their legs, or stowing them in their boots.

The Commando Knife’s History & FAQ

Here’s the truncated history of this storied fighting knife, with answers to common questions collectors might have.

Q: Who made the original Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife?

Left: Lt. Col. Fairbairn, Right: Maj. Sykes

A: Two British special operators, William E. Fairbairn and Eric A. Sykes, designed the Faibairn-Sykes Fighting Knife. The pair worked for the Shanghai Municipal Police in China during the interwar period, where they endured vicious knife fights with street gangs.

They returned to England in 1940 and designed the knife for British Commandos. Fairbairn’s and Sykes’ creation was inspired by their experiences with the Shanghai Police.

The first knives were made by Wilkinson Sword Ltd. A batch of 1,500 “first-pattern” blades were ordered in November 1940, and the first 50 examples were manufactured for hand-to-hand combat training in January 1941. Later that year, 38,000 “second-pattern” examples were manufactured for mass distribution to Commando units.

During the war, over two dozen companies made the Commando Knife for the Ministry of Defence. It was rare for any knives to be stamped with identifying makers’ marks. To date, just a few marked examples are known to collectors: Some third-pattern exports stamped “J. Clarke & Son,” of which 26,000 were ordered in June 1944, and some knives made by Wilkinson Sword Co. Ltd.

Q: Who used the Fairbairn-Sykes Knife during WWII?

A: British Commandos in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and American agents in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were the first to field the Commando Knife. These men were some the first modern special operators and wartime spies: Welrod pistols, suppressed SMGs, spy tools like cigar pistols, poison capsules, and explosive coal, and the Fairbairn-Sykes knife were all part of these agents’ clandestine kits.

Q: Where can I buy an original wartime knife?

A: Britain exported thousands of surplus Commando Knives to the United States after World War II, and many can still be found today. Knife collector forums and eBay are great sources. The gentleman operating often has some excellent specimens for sale.

Like the knife in this review, postwar exports found in the states are almost always late-war (1943), third-pattern models with “ENGLAND” (or, very rarely “MADE IN ENGLAND”) stamped in under their crossguards.

Q: How do I spot a fake Fairbairn-Sykes?

A: Inspection stamps are the best way to separate an original knife from a fake. Virtually all wartime examples have a broad arrow stamped somewhere on the handle, blade, or hilt. WWII-era knives also have a number stamped on the handle, near the pommel nut. These inspection stamps include the numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, and 13. Some handles may have the broad arrow stamped above the number.

During the war, these stamped numbers identified which foundries manufactured each knife. The stamps were used to trace quality control issues during production. Be wary of fakes and reproductions. They might have numeric engravings to mislead unwitting buyers. has a guide to help you identify fake markings. You can compare original inspector’s and manufacturer’s markings with this comprehensive picture guide, too.

Q: Are authentic F-S knives still manufactured?

A: Yes, Commando Knives are still made in England, by Sheffield Collectable Knives. The company still makes government-contracted knives for the British Ministry of Defence. These modern blades retain the original “third-pattern” design introduced in October 1943 (Ministry of Defence Specification E/1323E) and shown in this review. They are carried by some British Commandos today.

To purchase a modern military-issue knife, you should contact Sheffield Collactable Knives directly, or attempt to locate one for sale using its NATO Stock Number (NSN): 1095-99-963-2037.

Be warned, though: It’s rare to find a modern issued knife for sale in the civilian marketplace. I recommend purchasing from J. Adams Ltd. Now operating as Sheffield Knives, the company is a British knifemaker founded in 1700 A.D. They’ve made military blades for centuries, and their Fairbairn-Sykes models are forged and cast to exactly match M.O.D. specifications.

For my American audience, J. Adams Ltd F-S knives can be found at Knife Country USA and Perry Knife Works. Though shipping may take longer, you can also purchase directly from Sheffield Knives.

Q: Why aren’t F-S knives sharp? How can I sharpen mine?

A: The Fairbairn-Sykes knife was designed as a stabbing weapon. Original blades had sharp edges, but they were never finely honed to be slicing instruments. Reproduction blades are often left with blunt edges to comply with shipping restrictions and weapon regulations.

For the sake of preserving its condition, I highly recommend you don’t sharpen an original knife. Reproduction knives can be sharpened with care. Because of its full-flat, double-edged grind, sharpening the blade without damaging its finish can be a challenge. I recommend using sharpening stones that can be set to a fixed angle, like the Wicked Edge Sharpener.