Collecting the Model 1961 Soldier Knife, Part 2: Fun and affordable collectibility meets Swiss Made.
The Speedy Pro of the SAK World. Design Perfection.
This is the second part of a two-part post on the Model 1961 Soldier SAK and its civilian cousin, the Pioneer. If you’ve come here before reading Part 1, you might want to go back and read it first. If you’ve read Part 1 already, then you’ll know that the Pioneer first appeared in 1957, which coincidentally was the same year the Omega Speedmaster was introduced. Four years later, the Pioneer had served as the basis for the design of the Model 1961, which was then issued to the Swiss armed forces in June of 1962, becoming the fifth of six distinct generations of actual Swiss Army Knife.
This article expands on the collection theme I suggested in Part 1, which is collecting a Soldier SAK from each of the six major varietal eras that the Model 1961 went through. Before I step through these variations, a note about my qualifications. My knowledge of these knives is based on my own observations, conversations I’ve had with other collectors, and reading other blogs and the few published books on the subject that exist. I am not Victorinox’s historian or archivist, and I’m not even from Switzerland. Mystery SAKs, factory-serviced specimens, and knives of one generation that appear to have features of another generation abound in the world of SAK collecting, and the Soldier SAKs are no exception. Although I’ve been obsessed with and have studied Victorinox pocket knives since I bought my first one as a high school student in 1979, the prudent collector will always consider multiple examples, consult other sources, and learn to trust his own gut. So much for my disclaimer; let’s start with version 1.
Version 1, 1962-1965.
For the first three or four years of issue, the Alox scales of the Soldier SAK were a lovely red anodized color, carrying on a long Swiss tradition. I’ve read that the part of the Model 1961’s spec calling for red scales was dropped after 1964, but other sources report that it went through 1965. Regardless, all but one 1965 Soldier knife I’ve ever seen are red-scaled, and red Soldiers of various years are found into the 1970’s. It’s not hard to imagine that either the factory was using up existing stocks of red scales, or an originally red-scaled knife with a broken blade was repaired at the factory and emerged with a new blade that had a later year-stamp on it.
In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the Waffenkontrolle and the stamp it used to denote acceptance of a piece of issued kit. For this first generation of the Model 1961 SAK, the Waffenkontrolle approval stamp was subtly incorporated into the Swiss cross and was horizontally oriented (with the knife stood on end). The bottom pivot was hollow, allowing for user-installation of a bail or for the knife to be strung on a lanyard and used as a plumb bob. It may seem quaint to us in this day and age of infrared range finders and GPS-based targeting, but the Model 1961 knife aided in establishing trajectory when converting a soldier’s rifle to grenade launcher use.
The Victorinox maker’s mark on the first generation is the most familial, showing the knife-making family’s last name, the Canton the company was located in, and the brand reference, Victoria, which was the company founder’s mother’s name. The Wenger maker’s mark is a little plainer, telling us only the company name and the town of manufacture, Delémont.
Version 2, 1966-1971.
The red conversion coating on the first Soldiers proved less than durable or perhaps too expensive, apparently, so this part of the spec didn’t last. Version 2 is the same knife as version 1, except the red Alox scales are replaced by non-colored (i.e., silver) Alox scales. The Waffenkontrolle stamp stays horizontally oriented through 1971 and the hollow bottom pivot carries over.
Specification notwithstanding, SAKs from this era are regularly encountered with red scales, probably from factory service. Some collectors are bothered by this, but most take it in stride. In my view, this is sort of like your 145.022-69 Speedy having a service dial and handset on it. To me, it’s still an Omega, and the quality of the factory service work is top notch and actually improves some functionality (like luminescence, for example). But to a serious collector its value has been largely destroyed. Not so with the factory-serviced Soldier SAK, where the only real value destroyer is implements that have been clumsily modified or abused to an extreme. This is not to say that pristine, untouched specimens aren’t more valuable than the same knife found in a well-loved state; they are, and serious collectors will pay serious sums for them.
My own version 2 Soldier is from 1971 and is something of a mystery SAK. Its W-K stamp, which should be horizontal, is rotated counter-clockwise, and almost 90°. In short, it’s crooked. I’ve asked a more experienced collector that I know and he agreed with my hypothesis that this was either a mistake or my particular SAK is a transitional knife, since by 1972 the W-K stamp was consistently rotated 90 degrees, but clockwise.
Version 3, 1972-1977.
This is the same knife as version 2 but for the W-K stamp, which inexplicably rotates 90 degrees clockwise, to a vertical orientation. I’ve never seen a definitive explanation for this, and I wonder if maybe it had something to do with how the knives were packed from the factory. Perhaps it made sense to stamp them in a vertical orientation because they were arranged differently for shipping or inspection?
Although the Wenger’s maker’s mark had already changed in 1966, in 1976 the Victorinox tang stamp changes to the more modern and familiar small-v VSSR.
Version 4, 1977-1987.
Again, no change to the functional tool set, but the charming +PAT stamp on the can opener has disappeared at some point, probably in version 3, when Victorinox’s patent on the design runs out. Outside, the old, plainer Swiss cross that had been the same color as the scales yields to a silver cross on a red shield. It’s interesting to note that this is the Swiss national cross, not either of the two suppliers’ trademarked cross & shield devices.
The W-K stamp changes its appearance and moves to a small cartouche at the bottom of the knife just above the hollow pivot. Eventually the need for the Waffenkontrolle’s stamp of approval goes away entirely, due to decades of unerring quality one assumes, although the cartouche remains, blank, lonely, and unfulfilled for some time. The familiar small-v VSSR in the Victorinox’s tang stamp becomes a big-V some time toward the end of the version 4 run.
Version 5, 1988-1992.
The W-K stamp and the cartouche itself have both disappeared now, but the hollow pivot for bail or lanyard use is still present. Otherwise this knife is essentially the same as version 4.
It’s interesting to note that neither Victorinox nor Wenger ever supplied an issued Soldier SAK with a bail, but Wenger always added one to its surplus knives sold on the civilian market as the Standard Issue. Victorinox never did this, however vintage Pioneers were sold with and without a key ring attachment and some of the older Elinox-tang Pioneers used a bail. A very small number of Victorinox Model 1961’s were issued (or later sold as the Soldier) with the key ring attachment, but I’ve never read an explanation for this, and they are very rare.
Version 6, 1993-2008.
The cap lifter loses its sharpened wire scraper edge and gains the wire stripper notch instead, and here we have a great example of a false SAK evolution indicator. One might assume from this that the sharpened wire scraper edge evolved into the more modern wire stripper notch, but I have an 84 mm Salesman that dates to the mid-60’s and its cap lifter implement has both. Probably the answer lies in what was required by the specification.
More subtly, the stock used for the cap lifter and the can opener implements is slightly thinner on the version 6 SAK, and the implements have a more polished, less machined look to them. The hollow pivot that enabled use of a bail or lanyard is replaced with a solid pin pivot.
The Dutch Army Knife.
For ten years from 1983 to 1992, Victorinox supplied the Model 1961 to the Royal Dutch Army, the Koninklijke Landmacht, and also, for one year only in 1987, to the Royal Dutch Navy, the Koninklijke Marine. The latter knife is exceedingly rare and understandably commands a higher value than the otherwise identical Dutch Army Knife. These Dutch knives, or DAKs as they are known, are identical to their Swiss counterparts, with the notable exception of the inscription on the scales. Rather than the year-of-issue engraving on the blade’s tang, the DAK appends the abbreviation for the service branch, either KL or KM, with the year of issue. Otherwise, the DAK’s silver Alox scales, which retained the Swiss cross at the top, were identical to Pioneer scales coming out at the same time.
The Black Beauty.
No discussion of the Model 1961 would be complete without a mention of the Swiss Rail Soldier, also known as the Black Beauty. Considered one of the all-time most collectible Victorinox Swiss Army Knives, it is a version 4 Soldier that was produced for the Swiss Rail shop in the late 1980’s. Next to impossible to find and very valuable today, it is its rare combination of characteristics that makes it so beautiful and desirable to collectors. Rather than just being a black Pioneer from the late 1980’s, it is in fact a true Model 1961 with the Swiss national cross on the top scale; the cartouche panel for a W-K stamp; thicker, unpolished cap lifter with scraper blade; and a hollow bottom pivot. Some, although not all, Black Beauties even have the year of manufacture stamped on the tang of their blades (I’ve seen both ‘87 and ‘88). It was originally sold in a rollup traveler’s pouch that included a matching MagLite flashlight. Very handy for all your Swiss Rail adventures.
In my senior year of college I was fortunate enough to do some traveling and happened to find myself a Swiss Rail passenger. I don’t remember seeing the Black Beauty for sale anywhere, but I did buy a Victorinox 84 mm Golfer at a small shop in Zurich, which I still have. My enthusiasm for the brand so impressed the shopkeeper that he gave me an authorized dealer window sticker, which I also still have. Obviously the VSAK gods had placed me there during one of the few years that the Black Beauty was being sold, but I evidently failed to read the signs. Thirty years later I was able to right this wrong, and am now the happy owner of a Black Beauty thanks to a kind and generous fellow collector in Switzerland.
Fortunately for fans of the Black Beauty who don’t have a silly amount of money to spend on a rare pocket knife correcting some perceived slight from their youth, Victorinox made a limited edition black-scaled Pioneer with a special red shield in 2014. They were sold only in Europe for some reason, but they are still to be found for a reasonable price. I found mine new in the box for a couple bucks more than a standard silver Pioneer costs from Victorinox today. My Poor Man’s Black Beauty is a daily user and carrier for me.
Tips for the new collector.
Finding perfect specimens of the Model 1961 Soldier SAK gets harder with every year, and if you do find one you can be confident that it will fetch a much higher price on the market than would a decent user/carrier. Other than blades that have been drastically abused or clumsily re-profiled, I have found that there isn’t much about a good used specimen that I can’t live with. Tight springs can usually be loosened up with a good cleaning and lubrication, knife blades are easily sharpened with minimal effort, and scales can likewise be cleaned up if they are dirty or grungy.
In terms of living with your Soldier on a daily basis, a keyring or bail can make it very easy and more comfortable to securely carry your knife on a short lanyard. Since the keyring is all but nonexistent on the Soldier, you might consider adding a homemade bail, assuming of course that your SAK has the hollow bottom rivet. I’ve done this a couple times with good results, using a stainless steel bicycle wheel spoke as wire stock. It takes only a minute, requires minimal skill, and is removable if you change your mind. Of course, if you like a bail, then you might want to consider just shopping for a Wenger Standard Issue right from the get-go, since it came with one from the factory and they are very nicely made.
The last year of issue for the model 1961 was 2008, so some collectors will find it necessary to have one in their collection. Wenger continued to produce the Standard Issue until 2013, but ceased engraving the year of issue on the knife tang after 2008. In latter times, various and sundry anniversary and limited editions of the Soldier have been produced by both Victorinox and Wenger and sold directly to the public. Their values seem to be controlled mostly by the whims of the market.
Some model years are very hard-to-find, for example 1995. If you were born in 1995 and you’re hunting for your BYSAK, you have your work cut out for you. For reasons known only to some Swiss procurement agency, very few Model 1961 SAKs were ordered that year, so supplies are accordingly very limited today. It took me about a year to find a good one to give my nephew, whereas his sister would be spoiled for choice being born in 1992 (I gave her a KL 92 DAK). But still, if you are a Victorinox fan searching for a 1995 BYSAK, your odds are much greater than if you had been born in 1972 or 1974, in which years the company produced none.
At the end of the day…
If you are less than totally obsessed with the Model 1961 and its ilk, and if the concept of a birth year SAK does nothing for you, and if you just want a solid pocket tool that you could have for the rest of your life and still hand down to your grandchild someday, you cannot go wrong with a simple Pioneer. You can buy them brand new in standard silver scales directly from Victorinox for only 35 bucks. This year’s two limited edition colors are only slightly more than $50. Throw one in your car’s glove box, kitchen junk drawer, or on your workbench and you will be amazed at the use you find for it.
Finally, this post would not be complete without mention of the extraordinary community that has sprouted up around these knives in recent years. If you are looking for information or just want to plug into the support of like-minded enthusiasts, I suggest you join multitool.org (and swear the Swiss Army Knight oath of allegiance while you’re at it) and check out the SAKWiki for collectively edited factual information on any model of SAK. These two resources have been invaluable to me both in terms of digging up information and also in feeling like I’m not alone in the wackiness that is SAK accumulating. Although I’ve been an accumulator-cum-collector for 40 years now, the community that the Internet has spawned has done more for my interest in SAKs than anything else.
I hope you enjoyed reading this two-part article on collecting Swiss Soldier knives. As always, I love hearing from other like-minded enthusiasts and welcome your comments or factual corrections, so please leave your comments at the bottom or send me an email.