The American USMC KA-BAR Fighting/Utility Knife became one of the most successful knives in use. Created by the Union Cutlery Company in 1941 this all-purpose survival tool was exclusively government order and designed to be effective as a defensive weapon, hammer, can opener, digging tool, and cutting tool.
The origin of the first prototype of the KA-BAR, the 1219C2, had its roots in World War I.
World War I
The stalemate entrenchment of World War I officially brought the fighting knife back to the battlefield. The trench systems in Belgium and France extended for hundreds of miles and close-quarter fighting between the Allied and German troops continued within the environment of the trench. Soldiers were required to cut-down their 19th century long-sword bayonets that most nations still issued. These cut-down weapons enabled close-quarter hand-to-hand combat.
It became apparent during the end of World War I that a new knife design was needed to meet the demands of not only close-quarter fighting but versatility of use. After detailed comparison of the trench weapons then in use the United States and France began production of the Mark I Trench Knife, in 1918, during the last months of the war. Most of these weapons were never issued.
The Mark I was a cast-bronze knuckleduster. The pommel was secured to its cast-bronze hilt with a nut that had a significant point which if used with enough force could fracture a man’s skull. The weapon could be carried while crawling and kept securely in the hand. With a 7″ double-edge blade, it was useful for thrusting and cutting. Yet, due to expense and soldier complaints of blade breakage, the Mark I had a short production life and only 120,000 were made.
With the wars end in 1918 the evolution and development of the military fighting knife continued.
World War II
When the United States entered World War II in 1941 most Americans were armed with the pre-World War II 16″ M1905 Pattern Bayonet (later renamed M1942); and the U.S. Army had only one fighting knife – the Mark I.
The Marine Corps issued the Marine Raider Stiletto to its elite forces but the stiletto was most useful for silent killings rather than general utility tasks. Many Marines obtained their own knives before deploying. These were for the most part the hunting/utility knife L76 and L77 by Western States Cutlery.
The proposed reproduction of the Mark I was rejected and the U.S. Government requested military knife suppliers to develop specifications for a modern fighting knife utilizing the designs of the Mark I and the civilian hunting/utility knife patterns.
Several changes to previous pattern designs resulted in the 1219C2 prototype. Made with thicker blade stock, added fuller, straight cross-guard and peened pommel; it also had the now famous compressed leather washers at the handle. The 1219C2 was later coated with a non-reflective matte phosphate finish to reduce glare. (Marines to this day still add an additional coat of black paint for glare reduction and corrosion resistance).
On November 23, 1942 the United States Marine Corps adopted the 1219C2 which it later re-designated the USMC Mark 2 Combat Knife. The United States Navy also adopted the 1219C2 as the US Navy Utility Knife, Mark 2.
The Mark 2 became general issue to the United States Marine Corps, and returning veterans were impressed by its combat effectiveness.
The Union Cutlery Company stamped their Mark 2 Combat/Fighting Utility knives with the "KA-BAR" trademark, and as early as 1944 – regardless of manufacturer – all Mark 2′s became known as the KA-BAR.
Used in eight wars – World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Grenada, Operation Just Cause, Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq – the KA-BAR has hit the mark as one of the most successful knives made.
Today’s KA-BAR is made of 1095 Cro-Van Steel, flat ground, easy to sharpen, and features a 20 degree edge angle and is effective as a combat knife and utility tool. With a hardness rating of 56-58 HRC, the moderate carbon and low chromium steel combination enables the blade to hold its edge quite well.
…and the legend born during World War II continues, and over seventy years later the dual-purpose design is still doing its job.