by Ken Cook
When the subject of “Military Knives” comes up, our minds instantly provide mental images of everything from the famous USMC Kabar and the 1918 Trench Knife to any one of a multitude of production knives and even some (relatively) high end custom knives like the Randall Model 14, the Lile Sly2, Al Mar’s SERE/Attack and so on.
At various times during my career in the Army and the Marine Corps I carried most of the knives mentioned above but there was one knife that I carried throughout the entire time that was the unsung hero and full-tilt workhorse of the whole crowd. The Demo Knife.
What’s a “Demo Knife?”
The term Demo Knife is an affectionate but completely inappropriate and dangerously inaccurate nickname bestowed on a knife manufactured for the US Military by Camillus Knives and made entirely of stainless steel. The term “Demo” is short for Demolitions. Decades ago, the rumor got started that because the knife in question was stainless steel, it was non-magnetic and therefore could be used to de-activate mines without setting them off. Regardless of the persistence of this rumor, the steel used to make the knives is indeed magnetic. Still, the rumor persists and like it or not, the name is stuck like glue and I continue to refer to the knife by it’s incorrect name only because I know that my insistence on accuracy would fall on deaf ears. (There is at least one non-magnetic stainless steel that I am aware of, and this knife is not constructed with that particular stainless steel.) For the troops, it will always be “The Demo Knife.”
Click for a little information on The REAL Demo Knife.
Regardless of what the user chooses to call them, Camillus simply calls these knives “Model Number 1760” for the “U.S.” marked model and “Model 1763” for the “USMC” version. The US Military, in its own unique and even less prosy style officially refers to this little gem as the “U.S. Military Knife (United States Government Spec MIL-K-818D” or less musically, the “Knife, Pocket NSN: 5110-00-162-2205.” Whether the term “Demo Knife” is accurate or not, I think it’s safe to say this was a knife desperately in need of a good nickname!
(All you Active Duty apes copy that NSN down and go pester your Supply Sergeant until he orders one for you. Don’t be afraid to use doughnuts if you have to, this knife is definitely worth it. Stick to doughnuts though, you can buy your own for the price of a pizza!)
Over the years several different companies have manufactured the Demo Knife for the military. The one pictured below is a U.S. Navy version, as far as I know, and has bone scales. A slight variation! But not really the “Demo Knife” we are talking about in this article.
(Remember, if a picture does not load, you can refresh your web browser or you can right click on a picture and then choose from the pop-up window, “Show Picture” and everything should be fine.)
The list of makers includes but is not limited to: Stevens, Kingston, Ulster, Imperial, Western, Case, Queen and Camillus. I’ve personally seen a few examples from Ulster and Imperial, but for my money, just as I firmly insist that the Victorinox is the only “real deal” Swiss Army Knife, the Camillus is the undisputed “real deal” Demo Knife and always will be. (Apologies to all of you poor misguided Wenger fans.)
At first glance this ugly duckling looks like what you would imagine a cheapo “Camp-King” four blade folding knife to look like if you stripped the cheap plastic scales and stamped tin bolsters off of it. The notable exceptions that cause the casual observer to take a second glance are the small “U.S.” or occasionally “U.S.M.C.” or even “U.S.N.” or “U.S.A.F.” stamped in the side of the bare steel, roll stamped “diamond grid” scales, the unusually elongated bale, and an odd and faintly greenish sheen to the bare metal of the primary blade. Though many users mistakenly believe the scales are aluminum and original Army specifications called specifically for aluminum scales (The Army decided that it was time for the Marines to share the wealth in 1949.) the Demo Knife as we know it today is constructed entirely of stainless steel.
While completely lacking all the finer touches that the modern pocket knife connoisseur looks for, (and expects to find!) the Demo Knife is the sort of no nonsense, stripped down, “bullet-proof” tool that every good Soldier, Sailor or Marine is always on the lookout for but seldom finds. In the military hierarchy of need, it ranks right up there with 90 mph tape, the P-38 can opener, the OD Triangular Bandage, and “Hefty” trash bags as unquestioned “Don’t-Leave-Home-Without-It” gear.
Well-loved by those who have carried one and learned by experience how good they are, the Demo Knife is one of the most indestructible tools ever made and for all it’s plain and ugly utility, it is one of the most enduring and widely used knife designs the US Military has ever seen. Oddly, it’s also one of the least well-known knives in modern military history.
Although I’m not entirely certain exactly when production of this knife began, included is a photograph from the archives of Camillus Knives, depicting one of these knives dated 2/3/45.
The knife bears the legend “U.S. Marines” stamped in the side and an attached tag is marked “Sample Knife, Pocket, Utility.” This proves at least one of these knives existed in 1945 and also clearly shows that the knife was originally designed as a Marine Corps item rather than military wide “General Issue.” I admit to taking a certain amount of pride in my Corps for that. (Semper Fi, Devil Dogs!)
During the first years of production, each knife was stamped with an individual serial number. This practice was halted in 1949 and the year of production has been stamped on the tang of each knife’s primary blade since that time. In 1973 the opening stud was dropped from the Screw Driver/ Bottle Opener blade, and though the original specification called for brass center liners, these parts were all switched over to stainless steel at some time between 1949 and 1973. Other than these minor alterations, the design of the knife remains unchanged since its inception.
The Demo Knife seems to have a fair bit in common with the original Swiss Army Knife made by Victorinox having exactly the same blade arrangement as the Victorinox “Soldier” model (The original “Swiss Army Knife.”) and I can easily imagine that when the US Marine Corps discovered they had a need for a small, inexpensive utility pocketknife, they started with a design that was already well proven and decided to make it “Recruit Proof.” (If a Marine Recruit can’t break it, bend it, or tear it up, it is indestructible.) Like the “Soldier” model, the “Demo” features a large primary “spear point” blade, a screwdriver/bottle opener, an awl, and a can opener with the words “Can Opener” deeply stamped in the side. The Demo’s Can Opener foregoes the small screwdriver tip found on the Victorinox “Soldier” and has a much more sinister profile because of that omission.
The fact that the can opener is so conspicuously marked “Can Opener” has always been a point of perverse curiosity for me personally. I’ve never figured out why anyone felt it was important enough to go to all the trouble to clearly label that one particular tool. You have to wonder what other dark and sinister purposes the designer feared we might ascribe to it. The mind reels at the possibilities!
I picture the original designer looking at a Swiss Army Knife “Soldier” and thinking to himself “Okay, not bad! Now how do we make it bullet proof?” The answer of course was to replace the stamped “Alox” (Apparently this is Swiss for “Aluminum”) scales and lightweight liners with solid stainless steel and add a bale that you could tow a jeep with.
Way back when the Army still issued chain mail, it was not uncommon for me to use my Demo Knife as an improvised Monkey’s Fist so I could run “com” wire or string a dipole antenna (or other interesting things) up in a tree. A length of “550” cord knotted through the heavy duty bale (Or “clevis” as Camillus refers to it.) and a great deal of care in the throw will send your line 30 or 40 feet up in the trees with relative ease. Care in the throw is vitally important as I’ve seen half hearted or poorly executed efforts leave more than one Demo Knife forever stranded in the top of a tall tree. (I picture an anthropologist in the distant future finding hundreds of these knives in the tops of fossilized trees around places like Ft. Bragg, Ft. Benning, Dahlonega GA, and Eglin AFB and then writing his Doctoral thesis about the bizarre religious rites of the strange primitive tribes of the 20th and 21st centuries!)
For all the fine and fancy custom fighting knives that got sported around on the hip or LBE of many a warrior and wannabe warrior, the mark of the truly savvy knife user was the presence of a lowly and completely unremarkable Demo Knife riding in a small, olive drab, nylon sheath on the trouser belt. The Big Blade was carried on the LBE and reserved for important jobs that it might very seldom (or never) be called to do. The little Demo Knife rode on the body where it would always be at hand and it did every mundane task of a modern Soldier’s or Marine’s life from opening C-Ration cans, getting “Com” up, skinning “Field Expedient Chow” and setting up ambushes. The Demo Knife is such a staple of military cutlery that it is even included in USMC Force Recon/ANGLICO Survival Kits where every gram of added weight must be determined to be the most valuable use of that weight possible.
As well as being one of the great knives of military history, in certain communities the Demo Knife is also the stuff of legend and verse. (Some verse than others.)
“A Special Forces Soldier”
A Special Forces Soldier
As seen by his Post Headquarters:
A drunken, brawling, Jeep stealing, woman corrupting, Liar, with a star sapphire ring, Rolex watch and Demo Knife.
As seen by himself:
A tall, handsome, highly trained professional killer,
female Idol, star sapphire ring wearing,
Demo Knife carrying Gentleman who is always on time due to the reliability of his Rolex watch.
As seen by his wife:
A stinking member of the family who comes home once a year in the back door with a rucksack full of dirty laundry, a hard-on, and three months later goes out the front door for another Year.
As seen by his Commander:
A fine specimen of a drunken, brawling. Jeep stealing, woman corrupting Liar, with a star sapphire ring, Rolex watch and a Demo Knife.
As seen by the Department of The Army:
An overpaid, over ranked tax burden who is indispensable because he has volunteered to go anywhere, do anything at any time as long as he can booze it up, brawl, steal Jeeps, corrupt women, lie, wear a star sapphire ring, Rolex watch and carry a Demo Knife.
As seen by the enemy:
The meanest mother in the valley.
I would like to extend my very sincere thanks and appreciation to Camillus Company Historian Tom Williams, without who’s eager, timely, and very expert assistance this article would not have been nearly as interesting, complete, or accurate.
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