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The CIA Museum … Artifacts: Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto

The CIA Museum is home to many interesting artifacts associated with the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); foreign intelligence organizations; and the CIA itself. The following article is the third in a series that will explore the Agency’s amazing history through the artifacts in the CIA Museum. This article focuses on the Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto.

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Perhaps one of the most well-known artifacts from the Agency’s past is the Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto, issued to some OSS agents serving overseas during World War II. The OSS Stiletto was designed to be light, versatile, and effective for slashing and penetrating from any angle. OSS agents received special close combat training from Lt. Col. William E. Fairbairn, one of the knife’s designers.


William E. Fairbairn

Fairbairn was a British officer who served with the Royal Marine Light Infantry beginning in 1901. In 1907, Fairbairn joined the Shanghai Municipal Police. At that time, Shanghai was considered to be the most dangerous city in the world. Fairbairn had many close calls with gang members in the streets of Shanghai.

After a particularly close brush with death, Fairbairn decided to study martial arts and hand-to-hand combat. For the next 30 years, he worked as the training officer for the Shanghai Municipal Police. Fairbairn’s years of experience made him an expert in hand-to-hand combat and boosting the confidence of fighting units.


Fairbairn’s Combat Training Program

Fairbairn teamed up with a fellow British officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police, Eric Anthony Sykes, to develop a combat training program and design the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife.

With the beginning of World War II in 1939, Fairbairn was recruited to train British Commandos in hand-to-hand combat. The British Commandos were issued a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife and received training from Fairbairn himself.

President Roosevelt established the Coordinator of Information (COI) in 1941 in response to a need for strategic information during World War II. As a result of the attack on Pearl harbor, COI was reorganized, and on June 13, 1942 it was renamed the Office of Strategic Services. When the OSS began training agents for overseas operations, Fairbairn was recruited to develop and provide a close-combat training program — including the use of his fighting knife.

Fairbairn trained some future Directors of Central Intelligence, including Richard Helms and William Casey, at the camps located in the national parks of Maryland and Virginia.

During Fairbairn’s training program, he warned his students to avoid engaging in a knife fight if at all possible. In fact, Fairbairn names the knife as the most deadly weapon in his training manual titled “Get Tough”:

“In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife. An entirely unarmed man has no certain defense against it, and, further, merely the sudden flashing of a knife is frequently enough to strike fear into your opponent, causing him to lose confidence and surrender.”


Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto
This special version of the Fairbairn-Sykes knife known as the OSS Stiletto, with its distinctive pancake flapper sheath, became standard issue in 1943. The stiletto shown here belonged to OSS Jedburgh Capt. William H. Pietsch, Jr., who parachuted in to France in August 1944.

Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto

Fairbairn and Sykes based their knife design on a classic dagger design, but focused on making it lighter and thinner than existing blades. They designed the knife to have both a sharp stabbing point and good cutting edges. The sharp point and edges ensured a clean wound, which would bleed freely and quickly. Fairbairn and Sykes also designed the knife to be thin enough to slide between the ribs, and long and strong enough to penetrate through many layers of clothing and gear.

By the summer of 1942, housewares and hardware manufacturers Landers, Frary and Clark of New Britain, Conn., began producing the Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto. The knife was manufactured using lightweight steel. A finished knife measured 11.25 inches in length and weighed seven ounces.

The knives were issued with an unusual “pancake flapper” sheath with an O-ring to hold the knife in place. The slots in the “pancake flapper” made it easy for belts of different widths to be woven through the sheath. At the time, Landers, Frary and Clark were the largest producers of kitchen utensils in America. Apparently the same molds the company used to make its pancake flappers were also used to make the sheath for the Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto.

Since World War II, the Fairbairn-Sykes knife has been reproduced in many different variations. Today, there are more than 200 knives based on the Fairbairn-Sykes knife.

The CIA Museum currently has a Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto on display in the Afghan Gallery next to the knife carried into Afghanistan by CIA’s Gary Schroen after September 11th. The juxtaposition of the two objects is a tribute to intelligence officers at war.


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Posted: Dec 10, 2009 12:48 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:19 PM