“Knuckle Duster” – The WWI Trench Knife

The Shelby County Museum & Archives is lucky to have in its collection two great examples of trench knives, also known as “knuckle dusters.”  Both dating from 1917 and made by the A.C.Co. (American Cutlery Company), they are on display in the Seales room at the museum.  With a unique three-sided blade, the “knuckle duster” was used in close combat situations.

The guard was designed to protect the hand with small metal points around the outer edge, which provided the knife’s nickname “knuckle duster”. The knives were used to punch using the guard, strike with downward force using the blunt handle of the knife, and stabbing. The devastating blade penetrated an enemy and sped blood loss due to the three separate incisions created by one thrust. Medics and other medical personnel were unable to close the three incision wounds with clotting agents or surgery easily, and many soldiers died from excessive blood loss.

It is this excessive blood loss and inability to seal wounds due to the three sided blade that begins other discussions as to why the weapons are no longer in use by the military. Cleary, the weapon worked well against the enemy, but even in warfare the loss of life to these blades was considered high. The blade is not named upon any manifest to discourage use, but it is article 23 of The Hague II Laws and Customs of War on Land July 29, 1899 that seem to reveal the limitations on this type of weapon.

The Hague sections regarding the treatment of soldiers of hostile nations discuss injuring enemy combatants during warfare. Article 23 provides against the following actions, “…To kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army; To employ arms, projectiles, or material of a nature to cause superfluous injury.”[1]  The end result is that the weapons are no longer typical for military combat in conventional warfare, nor have they been since the end of trench warfare during World War I.

[1] Library, 2008 Lillian Goldman Law. Laws of War : Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague II); July 29, 1899. n.d. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/hague02.asp (accessed 06 21, 2016).

-Special thanks to Darren Denney, Graduate student at the University of Montevallo, for the above summary of the “knuckle duster” trench knife.