~ The Wilkinson F-S Fighting Knife - Its Origin & Development ~

The True Story Behind The Development Of The Most Influential Knife Design Of The Twentieth Century

Monday the 4th of November, 1940 was in all likelihood just another day at the office for John (‘Jack’) Wilkinson-Latham, (Managing Director of Wilkinson Sword Co Ltd). But for all those who collect, study and admire the F-S Fighting Knife this is indeed the beginning of our story and the introduction of the four characters that would inspire, design and ultimately manufacture the original Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.

The location of No53 Pall Mall, South West London was the office of Jack Wilkinson-Latham ( J.W.L.). We now know from the original Pall Mall board meeting ledger (below) that Mr Wilkinson-Latham was joined by three other gentlemen for this now historic meeting. The first (‘Mr S.’) was Eric Anthony Sykes...the ‘S’ in the F-S knife. The ‘WEF’ belonged to William Ewart Fairbairn, hence ‘The F-S Fighting Knife’. Up until 2010 and the discovery of this ledger book, it had always been thought that only these three gentleman had been in attendance. However the ledger book clearly indicates the identity of the fourth gentleman (‘Mr R’). The logical recipient of this initial is Mr Charles Rose. Mr Charles (‘Charlie’) Rose was at that time head of the Experimental Workshop. His engineering expertise would no doubt have been invaluable and most likely the very reason that John Wilkinson-Latham wanted him in attendance that day.

These four men and their combined efforts would ultimately be responsible for the creation of what we all now know as the F-S Fighting knife. Before we elaborate on the details of the knife itself, let us first (albeit briefly) introduce these four uniquely talented gentleman.

John (‘Jack’) Wilkinson-Latham (1891-1952, at right) had joined his father’s business in 1907 and quickly found his calling, being elected as a director just eight years later in 1915. In 1940 at age 49, Jack was arguably at the top of his trade. His company had a long and enviable history in fulfilling military contracts, not to mention an unparalleled worldwide reputation for outfitting officers, gentleman, explorers and even big game hunters with all manor of items. Like many of his generation Jack Wilkinson-Latham would be called upon ‘to do his bit’ during World War Two and do his bit he did, as Wilkinson continued to supply the military with many items of war.  From offensive like the F-S knife and bayonets to the defensive - flak-jackets for pilots!

Charles (‘Charlie’) Rose (no photograph available) first joined Wilkinson Sword in 1922. At some point he left the company to work in the growing automotive industry but returned to Wilkinson in the late 1930’s, staying with the company for a long and successful career eventually retiring from Wilkinson Sword in 1969. This very private gentleman by all accounts was an outstanding engineer of vast experience and was appointed Wilkinson’s Engineering Manager in 1943. Known to not suffer fools gladly, he was very well respected by all who knew or worked with him. He worked on numerous projects throughout his career at Wilkinson’s including the No5 Jungle Carbine Bayonet and the No7 Bayonet with unique swivel pommel. For our interest here is his work as Head of the Experimental Workshop and in particular his work throughout the war on the F-S Fighting Knife.

These esteemed Wilkinson men were joined by two new arrivals to the shores of a Britain now reeling from the full effects of all out war. With long careers/association with the famous Shanghai Municipal Police (S.M.P.), their skills in small arms and unarmed combat were already well known. Both of these ‘retired’ men were also newly commissioned officers to the ranks of the British Army. William E. Fairbairn and Eric A. Sykes may have been retired but life was most certainly not finished with them!

William Ewart Fairbairn (1885-1960, left), upon completing his eduction first followed closer to his father’s occupation in the shoe industry by being apprenticed in the London leather trade.  Soon realizing a stronger calling he enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry in 1901 at age 15 (his ‘official’ age being listed as 18 years!). After serving in the Far East, Fairbairn’s career once more took a change in direction as he swapped his Royal Marine uniform for that of a Police Officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police Force (S.M.P.). Starting this new career as a Constable in 1907, Fairbairn’s rise through the ranks was consistent with a man of talent and motivation, seeing him reach the very senior position of Assistant Commissioner on January 15th, 1935. He would hold this rank until his retirement on February 27th, 1940 after 33 years of service. Along the way Fairbairn had become an expert in armed and unarmed combat techniques, going on to create his own style which he named ‘Defendu’ and penned a number of books on the subject, his first carrying the same title  ‘Defendu’ (North China Daily News & Herald, Ltd c1926).

Eric Anthony Sykes (1883-1945, right) was born Eric Anthony ‘Schwabe’. His father, a successful businessman of German origin, had business connections in the Far East. Little is known of his early life but what we do know is that on May 31st, 1917 he abandoned his family name of Schwabe in favor of the more Anglicized name of Sykes, a common practice within the commonwealth during this turbulent period. In Shanghai it has been reported that Sykes worked as a representative for the American arms companies of Colt and Remington. If so it is likely that this work is what accounted for his meeting Fairbairn sometime in the mid 1920‘s as the S.M.P. were customers of these and other American munitions manufacturers. Their mutual interests no doubt soon helped to forge a firm friendship. It appears that around 1926 Sykes became a Special Volunteer Constable, joining the Shanghai Municipal Police and it is reported that he was in charge of a special sniper section (?). It is worth pointing out that on October 1st 1926.   Fairbairn was promoted to Chief Inspector, a senior rank, and perhaps with his influence helped insert Sykes into this position. Sykes’ friendship with Fairbairn later resulted in a collaboration and the co-authoring of a classic book entitled ‘Shooting To Live’ (Oliver And Boyd c1942).

However making such a thing and in the quantity required was another story and the experts in that regard would clearly have been J.W.L. (John Wilkinson-Latham) and Charlie Rose. Without doubt Wilkinson’s with Jack at the helm and Charlie as Engineering Manager were perfectly placed to meet the edged weapon needs of Captain’s Fairbairn & Sykes. A recent discovery by Robert Wilkinson-Latham (grandson of J.W.L.) of an earlier design of a 1931 dagger but profusely annotated with ideas and alterations (pertaining to what we now know is the First Pattern F-S design) and most importantly having his grandfathers stamp dated ‘Nov 1940’ is compelling evidence that this drawing was not only at the meeting but was the framework around which the F-S knife was designed (right). It would seem that the ‘final’ design was set and agreed upon on that day in early November 1940.

Ideas and designs alone would not bring this fighting knife into being, for that task clearly lay in the very capable hands of Charlie Rose. As senior engineer and head of the ‘’Experimental Workshop’ it was his responsibility to produce not only any experimental or pattern knives but also to oversee all the tooling up for any production. Charlie Rose has to be one of the many unsung heroes of the F-S story. His contribution is not only significant but it is clear that his skills were a constant part of the developmental process right through to the last war-time incarnation of the F-S, the alloy gripped Third Pattern.

What is now recognized by collectors the world over as the classic ‘First Pattern’ F-S Fighting Knife (below) went into full production following an order received by Wilkinson Sword on the 14th November,1940, just ten days after the initial meeting where the design was agreed upon. The initial contract was for 1,500 knives and after a short period of ‘tooling up’ production was anticipated to be 1,000 per week although this now appears to have been more than a little optimistic, as no such production figures were reached.

The initial design and finished product was a fine knife indeed and worthy of Wilkinson’s long history in this craft. The blades were all hand-ground resulting in many subtle differences in profile. During the grinding and profiling of the blade a small flat ‘tablet’ area known as a ‘ricasso’ was left where the blade meets the cross-guard, providing a convenient place for the addition of two etched panels, one on either side. One etching displayed the Wilkinson Sword logo, the other reflected the now well-known moniker The F-S Fighting Knife (Fairbairn-Sykes). The cross-guard was two inches long and had a distinct wavy ‘S’ shaped profile. The grip (we are told) was turned and knurled from solid brass stock (although later cast) and although brass was a strategic, strictly-controlled material, the weight this provided was an important part of the design. Having the knife be hilt-heavy facilitated a more secure and purposeful grip, one that would be preferred in challenging circumstances or when conditions made it difficult to retain one’s weapon.

Throughout its production the First Pattern F-S was subjected to no significant modification or change to the basic design. Although due to many subtle differences and production anomalies that one may encounter, some collectors continually try to sub-categorize the First Pattern. This is incorrect as one has to remember these knives were essentially a hand-made item, so differences are to be expected and although variations do exist there was no significant or official change in the design.

We see the Second Pattern (below) first appear in the Wilkinson order books on the 12th August, 1941, just nine months after production of the F-S first started. A comment written in both the order and contract books states “to new design”, clearly this was reflecting the changes made to the original knife and signaled the end of First Pattern production, being replaced by what we now refer to as the Second Pattern. This ‘new design’ ushered in a knife that would be made in the hundreds of thousands. In addition and at the request of the Ministry of Supply, this design would go on to be made by other manufacturers as Wilkinson was asked and supplied as of the 2nd October, 1942 a full set of technical drawings. Presumably to be forwarded to other companies, so other avenues of supply could be sought.

Other manufacturers aside, the ‘Wilkinson’ Second Pattern can be found with many differences. From finish to etchings and even slight differences in grip profile, pommel and pommel nut can be found. Although these certainly make for interesting topics of discussion, these were not different sub patterns and merely represent different options offered/supplied or anomalies within the manufacturing process. There were three distinct design changes that ushered in the new knife and gave us the now classic Second Pattern F-S. The two most recognizable changes were of course the new blade and guard profile but less obvious was the internal changes to the brass knurled grip.

The blade on the First Pattern as you will remember was hand-ground. During this process a ricasso or square section was left at the point where the blade enters the hilt. This is a very skilled and time-consuming process. The Second Pattern blades continued to be hand-ground but this time the tablet ricasso was dispensed with, the angle of the grind running full length up to the shoulder of the blade. Due to the thickness of the hand-ground blades a slight flattening was required to allow the tang to fully fit through the cross-guard, resulting in a small triangular, flattened area where the tablet ricasso had once been. The cross-guard was still the same dimensions as the First Pattern but this time the process of forming the two inch guard into a the distinct ‘S’ shape was simply dropped, leaving the guard completely straight. Both of these changes were not overly significant and were not in any way detrimental to the usefulness or function of the knife but taken together must have represented an important savings in production time.

The last and not so obvious change was to the brass grip portion of the hilt. As mentioned previously, the initial brass grip was turned from sold brass stock. Brass being a strategic material and therefore strictly controlled, it no doubt seemed prudent to conserve whatever material and wherever possible. With this in mind it was decided to cast the brass grips. This process gave more control over the amount of brass actually used for each unit and enabled modest savings to be made. At the thickest part of the grip (the palm swell) a small internal void was created. This was relatively insignificant in regards to the weight and did not appear to negatively impact the balance of the knife. The slight loss of steel from the lack of a square ricasso helped to offset this and retain the normal balance. This did allow for less brass to be used per unit, not much of a savings one might think, but when multiplied by tens of thousands of knives I’m sure it was felt an appropriate decision, especially when one considered the dire predicament Britain was in following Dunkirk and the loss of so much material and equipment. Changing or modifying the grip as we shall see is a theme often revisited throughout the war-time development of the F-S knife.

As is so often the case in manufacturing, things can and sometimes do go wrong. In January of 1943 issues were discovered with the brass grip castings and in order to solve the problem it was decided to try a two-part grip (left). One sample knife was made up to try the idea. The issues, however, must have been promptly resolved. Aside from the knife and memo that now survive no other evidence has been found to show that the project went beyond this one experimental knife.

Cast with 27 concentric rings, these were now outsourced from four different foundries which supplied not only Wilkinson Sword but the many other manufacturers who were now fulfilling Ministry of Supply contracts. Interestingly, these grips have a small number 1,2,3 or 4 as part of the casting seen near in relief at the pommel area. Recent research has revealed four different supplies of these grips and it is believed that each corresponded to a number, likely for quality control purposes, although it is not known which number corresponded to a particular maker. 

The four companies that supplied Third Pattern grips are as follows:

Wolverhampton Die Casting Company

Walsall Die Casting Ltd

Perry Bar Metal Co of Birmingham

H. J. Maybry of London

It appears that there was some overlap in production and assembly of the Third Pattern (above) as earlier hand-ground Second Pattern blades were initially used. With their distinctive, higher-quality finish and small ‘V’ shaped ricasso these mark the first and earliest version of the Third Pattern. At some point in production (it is unclear when), the hand-ground blades were replaced by a slimmer and much easier to produce machine-ground version. Easily recognizable by their thinner blade, lack of a ‘V’ ricasso and lateral grind striations these knives, although of serviceable quality, it is fair to say were a shadow of the initial First Pattern design. It is also interesting to note that these knives do not carry the etching panels that all previous versions of the F-S had, no doubt yet another victim of time expediency. 

These last (machine-ground) incarnations of the F-S knife are very difficult to attribute specifically to Wilkinson Sword. With no etchings or identifying markings, to the casual observer they are very similar to the myriad of Third Patterns produced by numerous other makers. The task is not impossible though and like the brush strokes of an artist it is possible to spot the subtle details in fit, finish and manufacture that set them aside. This does in part, explain the extreme scarcity of etched Third Pattern knives as etching panels only seem to appear on the very early transitional Third Patterns that continued to use hand-ground blades as per Second Pattern production.

Early in 1944 the Ministry of Supply related complaint from the Commando training schools to J.W.L. The nature of these seem to relate to the balance and weight of the new alloy gripped F-S.  In an attempt to address this issue on February 26th (1944) J.W.L sent a memorandum to Charlie Rose to “urgently prepare an F.S. knife of the current pattern with a steel hilt”. For reasons that are unknown these changes were never implemented but the ‘Steel Hilt’ experimental knife (below left) along with the original memo (below right) have survived. This knife along with the earlier mentioned ‘Two Part Grip’ Second Pattern sample knife, represent the ‘ONLY’ documented experimental knives known to exist from this period.

Throughout war-time production the F-S Scabbard did not avoid modification altogether. The correct pattern of scabbard for the First Pattern knife had no backing to the frog and also had a snap fastener for retaining the knife. The chape is also of interest. In addition to being nickel plated it terminates in a very slight, rounded bottom often referred to as ‘button’ shaped. For the Second Pattern knife some distinct changes were made to the scabbard. The snap-fastener was replaced with a ½ inch piece of elastic (in hindsight a less than adequate solution). The back of the frog had the addition of a small piece of leather to aid the attachment of the elastic and offer more support to the frog. The earliest version of the Second Pattern knife was nickel plated as per the original design, so the chape on these early (Second Pattern) scabbards did not change, still having a ‘button’ shape at the base and being nickel finished. As the nickel plating was dropped on the knife in favor of a blued hilt/polished blade or all blued knife, so too was the chape also blued. At this point the chape also seemed to have been ever so slightly altered. No longer did it terminate in a half round but now just flattened at the base. The design of scabbard continued to be used into 3rd Pattern production.

The British military still sought such knives and many small orders were filled. One such example was the rush order for 250 knives in 1982 for the Falklands War (at right). The influence of the F-S design can been seen even today, not only in the many different historical versions being offered by what seems an endless list of makers but also in the subtle design characteristic of many finely made contemporary fighting knives being offered by both factory and custom knife makers alike. However the original World War Two Wilkinson F-S will alway be much sought after by those collectors who want the original and arguably the very finest of all fighting knives.

The image above shows from above left shows a front view of the development of the F-S scabbard. Far left is the First Pattern scabbard (minus wings). At far right is the scabbard most often seen with with Third Pattern but can often be seen on Second Pattern knives too. The three centre scabbards are somewhat transitional and are only found on early Second Pattern knives. These centre scabbards taken as a whole exhibit elements of both early and late war scabbards. The image above right shows the same scabbards but this time showing the back. For more details on specific knife/scabbard combinations go to the specific pattern of F-S.

© R. Wilkinson-Latham

© R. Wilkinson-Latham

At that meeting on 4th November, 1940 the discussion centered around the proposed production of a new fighting knife. Fairbairn and Sykes had recently retired from the S.M.P. and had been recruited and commissioned as officers in the British Army specifically for the role of training the newly-formed Commando and Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) personnel in their ‘combative’ techniques. No doubt their talents had not been over looked. With decades of training and practical experience on the unforgiving streets of Shanghai, Fairbairn and Sykes clearly would have known a good fighting knife when they saw one.

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In 1940 Fairbairn retired from SMP and boarded a ship (The Empress of Asia) bound for Canada, the first leg of his trip back to England. Accompanying him was a long time friend and professional colleague, Eric Anthony Sykes.

The Wilkinson Sword F-S Fighting Knife endured well beyond the turbulent times of the Second World War and although Wilkinson continued to make fine presentation or commemorative versions right up until the demise of the knife making side of the business in 2005, it still continued to provide F-S knives for military. The military F-S knives were supplied to such diverse nations as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and the Netherlands Commando’s.

October of 1943 ushered in the final era of the World War Two F-S Wilkinson trilogy. Once again the pressures of war, increased demand and strains on raw materials required more changes to the basic F-S design.  Once more it was the hilt that was targeted, this time the brass grip being dropped altogether and in favor of a non-strategic alloy. A move Fairbairn was reported as being most unhappy with.

In the immediate post war years Wilkinson embraced the mystique of their ‘Commando Dagger’ and as part of their promotion for the Empire razor campaign offered eye catching presentation F-S. This has become known as the Tom Beasley knife today due to the blade etching which highlights his fame as Wilkinson’s master bladesmith. The knife had an elaborately etched blade, gilt fittings, ivorine grip and special scabbard. The first issue knives (circa 1947) are known as the ‘three banner’ type (see below) as one side of the blade contained three etched banners which read “Hand Forged By Tom Beasely” (banner one), “The Famous Sword Smith” (banner two) “Of Stalingrad Sword Fame” (banner three). However due to deteriorating relationships between Britain and the USSR, what eventually became the Cold War, this last banner was dropped. This resulted in a second issue (circa 1948/9), as a result the ‘three’ banner knives are extremely scarce.

It is fitting that the last words and indeed the last picture on this page should be that of the very last Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife to be made by Wilkinson Sword as it closed the knife making side of the business in 2005. This cased knife was presented to Robert Wilkinson-Latham for his families long history with the company. This simple yet purposeful knife closes the chapter on the Wilkinson F-S.  From 1940 - 2005, sixty five years of F-S excellence.

The Very Last Wilkinson F-S Fighting Knife

Wilkinson Cutlery Company Pall Mall meeting ledger book (1912-1940).

© R. Wilkinson-Latham

© R. Wilkinson-Latham

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~ The Beginning ~
~ The Wilkinson First Pattern F-S Fighting Knife ~
~ The Wilkinson Second Pattern F-S Fighting Knife ~
~ The Wilkinson Third Pattern F-S Fighting Knife ~
~ Scabbards & Other Minor Variations ~
~ The Post-War Years ~
~ The Very Last Wilkinson First Pattern F-S Fighting Knife Made ~


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