USMC Ka-bar knife, standard model
USMC Ka-bar knife, standard model

A Ka-bar is the 7-inch fighting and utility knife used by the US Marines in World War II, and has been carried into battle by generations of Marines since. The knife itself is a Bowie knife with a seven-inch (17cm) blade originally designed as a hunting knife around 1890, and would have been considered unremarkable at that time. In 1942, soon after the United States' entry into World War II, Americans soldiers experienced the problematic nature of "US 1917/1918" stilettos and "Mark I" daggers that they were issued initially, and realized the need for knives suited to trench warfare, and the Ka-Bar design was chosen from a catalog of hunting gear. The Marines bought a great many knives of myriad designs from a large number of suppliers during the war, but it was the Ka-Bar that was most common and popular. It was chosen for continued purchase and issue after the war was over. The sole change made to the design before it was manufactured for issue was that blade, guard, and pommel were all finished in a non-reflective matte black or grey phosphate finish instead of the brightly polished steel of the original. Marines today often give the blades, guards, and pommels of their knives a few coats of non-reflective matte black spray paint to reduce reflected light and give them a little more protection against saltwater corrosion. Ka-bar today makes Army and Navy versions as well. They are virtually identical to the Marine version except for different initials at the bottom of the blade and different symbols on the sheath. Its moderate carbon and low chromium steel mixture allows the blade to hold an edge very well. The knife's success can be attributed to its balance of weight, length, and price.

The final shape was designed by Major Howard America. He made the earlier forms slightly longer for combat use, introduced a small fuller to make the blade lighter, and introduced the pinned pommel and stacked leather handle as standard. Millions were made in the Second World War by KA-BAR, Ontario, and several other knife companies. The knife is cheap, easy to replace, and adequate for most tasks. Ontario Knife Company is a current contractor for the United States Marines. The knife saw service even as a diving knife in the Second World War, though the model in use at the time disintegrated rapidly in salt water. The various forms of this knife are still very popular with hunters, fishermen, hikers and outdoorsmen. In combat the knife has seen service opening cans, digging trenches, cutting wood and roots, and hand to hand combat.

The name came from the manufacturers of the knife, the Union Cutlery Company, who stamped their trademark into the side tang. More than one million of these knives were manufactured during WWII. The Ka-bar remains a favorite, virtually obligatory piece of equipment with US Marine infantry at present, and it has become a symbol of the Marines. The US Marine Reconnaissance units, however, generally prefer the Gerber Mark II. US Marine Corps Boot Camp includes considerable time spent on knife fighting techniques, as well as other edged weapons.

The KA-BAR company was founded in 1898 as Tidioute Cutlery Company; following its financial collapse and take-over it was renamed the Union Cutlery Company. KA-BAR was initially a trademark but in 1952 the company renamed itself KA-BAR Cutlery Inc. The headquarters are currently located in Olean, New York. Alcas Coporation manufactures KA-BAR, as well as Cutco Cutlery solely in the factory in Olean .

The origin of the word “Ka-bar” is uncertain. The company claims it is a corruption of “Kill a Bear”, an ability attributed to the knife by a customer. A competing etymology, displayed in a museum at the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, VA, is that it originally stood for “Knife Attached - Browning Automatic Rifle.”

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