Company legend claims that a fur trapper wrote to the company praising one of their blades. The trapper was accosted by a bear when his gun jammed, leaving him armed only with a knife. Said trapper proceeded to take down and kill the wounded bear with his knife. However, the trapper’s penmanship was kind of lousy, so that all that could be read from the phrase “kill a bear” was “K a bar.” With a name and story like that coming out of nowhere, the company saw a winning brand name (though they wouldn’t change the actual company name until after the war. They had shit to do, like make a few metric asstons of knives.)
The fighting knife commonly called the USMC KA-BAR was born in the beginning of WWII. Pearl Harbor kick-started an American wartime production machine that needed a laundry list of gear and needed it yesterday. WWI-era trench knives were used for this initially, and while they were decent enough weapons, they were lousy as tools, and both were needed. For a while, a stiletto-looking copy of the British Fairburn-Sykes fighting knife was used by Marine Raiders, but they proved even more useless as tools. As usual, supply was the lumbering paperwork dinosaur it’s always been, and troops often bought their own knives, usually hunting styles.
Eventually the supply pogs got their shit together and took data and suggestions from veterans of the Battle of Guadacanal for a design that would become the K-bar. The initial bits were all there: The clip point, almost like a scaled-down Bowie knife, the small crossguard, stacked leather handle, and thick pommel. There were a few early design flaws, almost all of which revolved around “it breaks too easily with (insert feature here), let’s fix it.” While not all Kbars were from KA-BAR, it was the company that bore the knife’s name that was generally agreed to have made the best.
Then, as now, the Kbar was issued first and foremost to warriors armed with pistols, carbines, and machine guns (riflemen already had bayonets). Today, it is most currently issued to S.A.W. gunners in the USMC.
There have been surprisingly few variants in design over the years. One of the most interesting is called the Stone skull & cobra knife. One of the design problems that cropped up in the Pacific campaign was the leather handle rotting after prolonged exposure to seawater. Enter E.W. Stone, Sr., a sailor aboard the USS Holland. After several Marines and Sailors commented on the problem, Stone used scrap aluminum from downed Japanese fighter planes to form new handles for these blades. Checkered and hand-molded grips based on snakeskin patterns helped assure they wouldn’t slip from the user’s hand in wet weather, and distinct skull-shaped pommels made for useful percussion tools & weapons.
Stone knives are one of the more obscure bits of WWII memorabilia, with a number of fakes and copies in circulation. Stone’s son Bill maintains a website with some nice looks at the originals.
As for my personal Kbar? I have 3, actually. One is in my bugout bag. One was my Grandfather’s from his time in the Pacific theater during WWII. One was a gift from my little brother, which I took into combat (and at one point used to disassemble a particularly belligerent grenade launcher that had gone down at an inopportune moment, but that’s another story) and is kept at hand to this day.
So that’s a look at the Kbar. Happy Veteran’s Day, Semper Fi.