Three Points of the Compass has written before about his old British Army Knife found languishing at the back of a drawer. Another knife provided to the armed forces offers a different tool set and is possibly of more practical use to a hiker, backpacker or those drawn to bush-crafting. This is the 108mm long Victorinox German Army Knife. It is especially suited to those who use a small wood stove to heat water or cook with on trail. Note that I am not referring here to the larger and heavier Victorinox model supplied to the German Army that replaced it in 2003.
The original 108mm German Army Knife, and the Safari series derived from them, have a number of special features not found elsewhere within the Victorinox stable that make them both interesting and practical. It is a peculiar series and Victorinox did not elaborate on the design much beyond those mentioned here. Sadly, the company has now discontinued the 108mm series but most of the quite small range can still be found on the second hand market.
The 84.9g German Army Knife, or GAK, was produced in its millions, by both Victorinox and other manufacturers. The specifications for the army knife were laid out by the German military in the 1970s and Victorinox was initially awarded the contract. There were many other manufacturers of the knife over its lifespan however and some twenty other makes have been identified.
Some people have rated the versions of German Army Knife made by Klaas, Adler and Aitor as being almost of comparable quality. Other makes of the knife have received scathing reviews. If you have any doubts, simply look for the Victorinox version, with Victorinox tang stamp, these are of uniformly high quality though some may have had a hard life before finding their way on to the second-hand market.
Unfortunately there have also been some cheap, fake knock-offs produced since production of the originals ceased and whereas the construction and material quality of the original and authentic produce is pretty high across most of the authentic suppliers, the cheaper fakes are of dubious quality- caveat emptor!
So popular was the German Army Knife that a civilian version was later released by Victorinox. With the same olive drab nylon scheme (what Victorinox termed a ‘military’ handle) but no German Eagle on the scales, this was known as the Trooper. I have no idea why but my one comes in just a tad heavier than the actual GAK on which it is based, weighing 87.1g, including 1.4g saw guard. Another variant has ‘NATO’ on one nylon scale and is known as the Nato Trooper. Also released with red nylon scales, the knife was then called the Safari or Safari Trooper. You will frequently see these names interchanged or combined with no heed as to scale colour. These were all two layer knives. Such was their success that Victorinox tweaked the features and released one and three layer 108mm variants. Some of these are shown below.
The 108mm German Army Knife was the first released by Victorinox with textured nylon scales, these are not only robust but also provide good grip. The use of nylon scales was an unusual step for Victorinox and the first time that they had used this material. The size of handle is good in the hand and not at all fiddly, it can be held with confidence and in comfort. One specification made by the army was that all tools open in the same direction, away from the lanyard hole, creating another Victorinox oddity however they all feel very natural to use in this manner. No key ring or shackle was fitted by the manufacturer on any of these knives other than on a few of the uncommon Fireman model.
All of the 108mm variants have an 84mm long spear blade. This is a good size blade with lots of belly and a 75mm cutting edge. Victorinox advertised this as a ‘double thickness jumbo size’ blade
The combo-tool is a combination of an efficient woodsaw with a flat screwdriver tip and can opener/bottle opener at the end. The woodsaw, that cuts on the ‘pull’ stroke, was frequently covered with a removable, light (1.4g), folded tin blade guard that protects the hand when opening cans/bottles etc. A nail file was added circa 1985 to the combo-tool, this created a second-generation German Army Knife (GAK 2). This file can also be used for striking matches.
The five turn corkscrew is longer than is normal with most Victorinox knives. A corkscrew is largely superfluous these days, especially with the growing prevalence of screw-top bottles of wine. A corkscrew was included on the original Victorinox Officer’s Knife in 1897. I find a corkscrew of more use these days for loosening knots in cordage. Beside that, it is a handy place to store one of the micro Victorinox screwdrivers that are so useful for tightening the screws on my glasses.
The German Army Knife has a 50mm awl/reamer with a wickedly sharp 40mm edge. This is longer than the awls found on most other Victorinox knives and will puncture cordura, trail shoes and boots for repair or leather belts with ease. Opening centrally on the handle it can be grasped and twisted into whatever it is puncturing with little danger to the person holding it. The only thing that would make it better, and I do wish it had one, is a sewing eye.
A further variant on the Safari Trooper is a three layer knife that has a clip-point blade added between spear blade and combo-tool. This was made with olive green scales for the Mauser company (around 240,000 units) and had the weapon manufacturer’s name on the additional blade and side of scale. A similar and very rare (4972 units) version of this extended version was also produced for the Walther company which had black scales.
The two-layer 77.4g Safari Pathfinder is a simplified version of the civilian equivalent to the second generation German Army Knife. As with the first generation GAK, there is no nail file (or match striker) on the combo-tool. However the back tools are excluded. There is no awl/reamer or corkscrew. So it makes for a good, compact tool that retains considerable functionality.
A heavier option is the three layer 112.3g Safari Hunter that adds another blade to the Safari Trooper. This is a special curved gutting blade, equally useful for slicing vegetables and fruit in the hand. The rounded tip to the gutting blade (69mm cutting edge) makes it safer to use where there is a risk of stabbing someone, perhaps cutting off seatbelts, pack strap or clothing in the event of accident or trauma etc.
The gutting blade on the Safari Hunter was also made available with a serrated edge on the uncommon (2380 units) Fireman version. This featured crossed fireman’s axes behind the Swiss Cross logo on the scale. The fully serrated blade on this variant was intended for emergency cutting of seat belts etc. This ’emergency’ blade was also fitted to other larger knives later produced by Victorinox.
The Hunter was alternatively available with real Stag antler scales (0.8780.66), later replaced by imitation antler (0.8780.06). I have never been a fan of these scales and have not sought one out. The real stag handled versions are quite uncommon, probably less than a thousand units, and may have been a trial or premium offering before the company switched to large volume production with imitation material.
The 1978 advertisement shown here illustrates just some of the range of 108mm knives on general sale to the public at that time. Presumably the less well-equipped Solo and Pathfinder didn’t find much favour with the hunting or ‘sportsmen’ fraternity.
If the 112.3g Hunter is amongst the heaviest of Safari options, then the single layer 50.4g Solo is the lightest and simplest variant in the 108mm range. You couldn’t get any simpler. It just has the large single blade. If this is all you require, a blade, and no extras that make it into a multi-tool, then this is a comfortable, well sized option. This size of knife fits well in my hands and provides a blade of usable size with no great weight penalty. There was also a 52.5g Solo Plus variant (US designation- 53843) that had a corkscrew as a back tool (no awl). This last knife was originally called the Adventurer (0.8710).
Extremely rare (fifty units) was the two-layer Swiss shArK released in February 2011. This combines the tools of the Solo Plus with an extra blade- a serrated edge blade with rounded tip. The odd name is etched onto the main blade. Three Points of the Compass doubts he will ever see an example of this 81.3g knife, which is shame as it looks a great combination. Though it would be even better if the corkscrew were exchanged for the reamer.
So, in summary, the Victorinox 108mm range is a small yet interesting range of knives and provides just enough tools to be useful in the backcountry. No scissors, which is a game changer for many, and the knives often include a corkscrew, which is of decreasing practical use these days. However these knives remain a favourite of Three Points of the Compass if seldom actually taken on trail. I much prefer one of the smaller 58mm range from Victorinox or a Leatherman keychain tool, especially for longer hikes.
Many genuine Victorinox versions of the original 108mm German Army Knife and some of the latter variants are still available at reasonable prices second hand and are worth snapping up while you still can. Be aware that some of the more uncommon variants may be more difficult to track down and a premium price may be asked.