Blades in Modern Warfare
When people say that blades have lost their place in modern warfare, they are mistaken. It’s true that we won’t be seeing sword-wielding soldiers on the battlefield (swords nowadays are primarily used for ceremonial purposes). Yet, an edged implement is still an important part of a soldier’s everyday equipment. Knives, machetes, and axes are the favorites here. Outside the front lines, they are great utility and survival tools. They come in handy when a soldier needs to chop wood, open ration cans, clean game, and do anything else that requires cutting. And we all know that soldiers need their blades when they must stab someone.
World War I, the start of the modern battle, showed the potential of knives and other bladed melee weapons in closed quarters. They complimented a soldier’s firearms and were useful for silently killing. New sets of somewhat exotic battle blades emerged during the Second World War. They were weapons of last resort, meant to be carried in secret. They were the ultimate concealed weapons for SOE and OSS operatives. We often associate the World War II battle blades with Commando Knives in the West and the Bolos in the Pacific, but, in reality, these clandestine weapons were more the stuff of James Bond movies and, ironically, saw actual use in James Bond-style exploits.
Use of Covert Blades in War
Again, when we say WWII blades, the first thing that swims into our minds is the famous Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, also known as the “Commando Knife.” These blades were issued to British Commandos and other specialized units for use in surprise attacks and close combat. Basically, it’s a modern-day version of the medieval dagger, with its double-edged stabbing blade meant for penetration and slashing.
In the Pacific, Filipino guerillas sported their local machetes, known as Bolos, to lay waste to the Japanese units. Though ill-equipped, Bolo-wielding soldiers staged asymmetric raids, which helped American forces end the Japanese occupation.
Overall, we could say that these are the blades that won the Second World War. Although operatives of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), trained for espionage, sabotage, reconnaissance and silent killing, carried a different set of bladed weapons. The same can be said of their American counterpart, the predecessor of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Defense (OSS).
Since they operate in secrecy, undercover agents require easily concealed weapons. They are also issued with the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife and firearms. For specialized operations, they needed small fighting knives that could be concealed in their clothing.
Necessity is the mother of invention. The need for small-but-effective battle blades resulted in some of the most ingenious concealed weapons ever.
Stealthy Is Healthy
One way to hide your blades is to keep them in your clothes, and this is exactly where Lapel Daggers are held. These blades are small enough to be stitched in jacket lapels for quick deployment, though they could also be concealed in various strategic locations, like pockets, boots or waistbands. They are basically miniature daggers with double-edged blades made for slashing and stabbing. They have tiny handles, though they could also be secured to the fingers with twines.
Because of the secretive nature of SOE operations, the origins of these weapons are shady. Yet they are designed for SOE Agents and other units that are prone to capture. In instances when an agent was likely to be arrested, they were trained to surreptitiously access the blade, loop the twine cord in their index finger and pinch their weapons with their thumb and index finger. When enemy policemen seized them, say a Gestapo, they would slash either the hand, neck or face before escaping. These could also be used for silent killing by stabbing the area under the jaw or the back of the head. It could even grant an agent honorable death by using it as a suicide weapon when they are captured.
These blades can be handled either by the pinch hold (between the index finger and thumb) or with a push dagger hold, where the blade will stick out between the index and middle finger.
The Lapel Dagger
The image above shows a variation of the Lapel Dagger, the Thumb Dagger. It has a slightly larger and wider blade but with a smaller handle (in fact, as others pointed out, it had no handle). Usage and concealment are the same as the Lapel Dagger. An agent will employ the same hold as with Lapel Daggers when doing slashes and stabs.
The Sleeve Dagger
This weapon is the SOE version of the medieval stiletto. With a blade length of 3.5 inches, it’s larger than Lapel or Thumb Daggers (the overall length is 7 inches). And indeed, its stiletto blade features a triangular cross-section and is ideal for stabbing. The weapon is kept in a sheath made to be strapped to the arm. And yes, you might have guessed, since it is strapped in the arm, it is obviously hidden in the sleeve, which explains the name. Sleeve Daggers are also known by their colorful nickname, “Commando Nail.”
The Insole Dagger
One advantage of bladed weapons over firearms is that you can hide them almost anywhere. Prison staffs and law enforcers know this perfectly well. Agents exploited this in WWII by creating various daggers that could slip into your clothing, as mentioned above.
We heard of the Lapel Daggers, then Thumb Daggers. We also have the Sleeve Dagger, but did you know that SOE and OSS agents also hid their knives in their shoes? We know how boot knives work. In fact, I have one. But SOE upped the ante by coming up with weapons that could slip into the shoe’s insoles.
The Insole Daggers, also known as Shoe Daggers, are made to fit the arch of an agent’s foot. It is concealed in a pocket inside the leather insoles of shoes. Like the Lapel Dagger, it had a string lanyard for quick deployment. And sometimes, covert weapons are made from farming tools.
The Tine Dagger
Tines of pitchforks were broken off and fashioned into a form of WWII shank. The result is a stabbing weapon, with an 8-inch blade. They are crude, primitive, but effective. A twine wrapping provides the grip, while thumb notches are carved to help orient the weapon during handling.
1. Seman, Mark (2001). Secret Agent's Handbook. Lyons Press.
2. Windrum, William (2001). Clandestine Edged Weapons. Phillips Publications.
3. "Thumb & Lapel Daggers, Nails, Brochettes, Etc." fairbairnsykesfightingknives.com.
4. Thompson, Leroy (March 1997). "Tiny Terrors, WW2 Lapel, and Thumb Daggers" Tactical Knives Magazine.