The question often arises about the suitability and durability of the F~S as a combat knife. Were the WW-II F~S a fragile and undependable knife? Yes and No. At one time I believed the FS was the ultimate fighting knife. I have since outgrown that view, and setting aside the romance, looked at them a bit more realistically.
A man who is a skilled knife fighter, knife maker, and X-Special Forces soldier once corrected me. He said “there is no such thing as a knife fight, there is only a killing.” Another person once wisely opined that whatever knife you have in your hand can be, perhaps must be, a fighting knife. If I were forced to make a choice I would now crown the Bowie as the best format for a fighting knife. I would name the F~S as the most effective "killing" knife. An entire book could be written to explain why I say this but let it suffice to say that a skilled knifer will understand the difference in techniques used in defence and offense as compared to those specially honed for killing.
To return to the original question of breakage, the narrowness of the F~S blade that makes it such an effective killing knife is also its source of weakness. The F~S was not alone in its reputation for failing at a critical moment. The USMC stiletto also had a lot of problems with blades breaking. The blades are only about 1/2 the thickness of the Wilkinson FS. In addition, the handles of the USMC Stiletto were fragile. The USMC had a superior handle shape with flattened oval profile (Just what W. E. Fairbairn wanted) but the handle material was brittle and only got worse with age. Today it is hard to find one that has not disintegrated. We have one USMC Stiletto in our collection in pretty good condition and another one with both sides of the guard broken, shortened to almost nothing, and a broken and re-tipped blade.
Perhaps some of the best made WW-II daggers were the OSS stiletto, but some of the early ones had soft blades. The later ones have a brinnell mark in the blade just below the guard to verify the hardness of the blades.
Any dagger is inherently a poor cutting knife so it is very important to be able to slide the blade between the ribs rather than get it stuck cross-wise. Therefore orientation of the knife in the user’s hand was important. We hear stories of Commandos who either jammed their thumbnails on the guard, or failed to make a lethal strike, because in the dark of night they oriented their knives incorrectly. The thumb plays a major role in orienting the blade so it lies flat-wise in the hand. One option is my favorite guard i requested on my Parkinson knives that have a thumb relief ground into both sides of the guard similar to the guards on some of the X-daggers, or the thumbprint idea used in the famous “Black Devil’s” V-42 Stiletto. V-42s had fragile tips. We own one that had the blade broken trying to pry open a door. The blade was replaced with a British one.
Other than the First Pattern F~S my all-time favorite stiletto is the Case V-42. This knife had a thick, needle-tipped, hollow-ground blade. It also had a wide leather-backed guard and a thumb pad ground into the ricasso. None of the reproduction V-42 have come close to matching the excellence of the originals. Apparently no one wants to grind that narrow of a blade with four hollow grinds. It is an awesome knife, the likes of which we'll probably never see produced again. How is it that with all of the technology available today no one will make an accurate reproduction? The closest replica was one made by Case Knife Co. for the American Historical Society around the 1980s.
Getting back to the F~S issue, most of the broken ones I have seen were broken near the tip, rather than at the tang. Despite the tang’s scrawny dimensions and apparent weakness all of the broken knives in my collection are broken at the tip. Now, this may be because any that broke at the tang were either thrown away, or were returned for replacement of the blade.
Urban Legend has it that some of the knives with broken blades were sent back to the manufacturer to be refurbished with a new blade. This was done on a regular exchange basis. Many later post-war production knives have also suffered bent or broken tips, mostly from abuse. Throwing the knives, or using them to pry with, was, and still is, a sure recipe for disaster. I have seen some war-time knives bent at the guard, again probably from some bored soldier trying to stick it into a tree.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all something new shows up. I jumped at the chance to buy a somewhat run-down Tom Beasley knife from a dealer at a very good price. In the photos he posted there were two dark stains across the blade about ¼ inch below the guard. When it arrived I tried to use some acetone and swabs to clean off the “stain.” Imagine my dismay and surprise to find out the stain was the residue left by silver soldering the blade back together! The black stains were created by the hardened flux. Whomever made the repair was a skilled metal worker. How had this postwar knife suffered a catastrophic failure such as this? I didn’t have a clue. The only thing I can imagine is someone accidentally stepping on the blade at just the wrong spot. The knife was found in an old Vets tool box. I can imagine his anguish at having such a valuable knife broken and, even with the skillful repair, the constant reminder the marks would always leave him of some momentary error that caused the irreversible damage.
This story serves to remind us of the importance of practicing responsible stewardship when in the possession of valuable historical artifacts. We are never the real owners, of these objects, only the temporary keepers of such treasures. It behooves us to treat them well and pass them along to the next generation in as good condition as possible.