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Knives Out! How the Italian Stiletto Knife Became Famous

Italian stiletto

Before there was the famous stiletto heel, there was the stiletto knife.

This ultra-thin, sharp knife became famous during World War I and II as a weapon. These days, like the footwear named after it, the Italian stiletto knife has an undeniable sense of style. The stiletto, or “little steel,” is a piece of history and genius design.

But what is a stiletto knife, and how did it come to be? We’re here to walk you through the whole story.

Through the Chainmail

Ever wondered why the stiletto is so thin? Well, to answer this question, we have to understand the origins of this knife. Back in the Middle Ages, when knights wore chainmail and plate armor to protect their skin from swords, stilettos had a sharp advantage.

The needle-like point on the stiletto could jab right through the gaps in a knight’s armor to take out an enemy at close range.

The Gunner’s Stiletto

Before making its way into wide popularity as a knife, the history of the stiletto takes a detour into firearms. An alternative version of the stiletto, the gunner’s stiletto, had marks along its length so someone could use it to measure the angle of their cannons. Gunners could also use this as a tool to measure the depth of their gunpowder.

Keep in mind that, before the stiletto’s use in the World Wars, it wasn’t best known for its sharpness or utility as a knife. Even at its earliest conception, it was more of a piercing rather than cutting or slicing weapon.

Stealth Mode

The stiletto’s utility continued even as chainmail and knights’ armor came to an end. From the 16th to the 19th century, it became a weapon of choice for assassins and mobsters—in other words, people who needed a quiet way to take someone out.

This Italian blade came to the United States through Italian immigrants, and it led to so many murders in New Orleans that the city outlawed it in 1879. It was called the “Italian switchblade” knife, and even today, people use the stiletto for its switchblade-like capabilities (though hopefully with less murder).

These days, there’s no federal ban on the stiletto, but it’s still illegal in certain states. If you’re thinking of buying one for your personal projects, you should check out the regulations in your area to make sure you don’t get in trouble with the law. 

World War I

As the nature of battle changed over the years, so did the weapons. We saw how the introduction of firearms gave the stiletto knife a secondary function as a measuring tool. But when battle called for stabbing weapons again, the stiletto knife returned to its full glory.

Much of the fighting in World War I happened in trenches, leading to a rise in so-called “trench knives.” This mix of government-issued and handmade knives and daggers gave certain soldiers the cutting edge when they needed to fight up close. Among these trench knives was the stiletto knife, back again and better-crafted than ever.

While long-range weapons had some limitations due to their large size, soldiers could use a small stiletto to sneak up on sentries, making sure their mission would stay secret.

World War II

With the second World War came another call for stiletto knives. This time, British and U.S. innovations helped upgrade the knife into something that could both stab and cut, though with the main emphasis still on the thrust.

These new versions of the stiletto were necessary for two reasons.

First, as in World War I, soldiers needed something they could use in up-close scenarios. And second, as in some of its earlier uses, the troops wanted something that could kill without a sound. This way, they could be secretive about their ground raids.

On the Heels of History

By the time stilettos were popular as weapons in World War II, the word also embraced the pages of fashion magazines. The stiletto shoe design had taken over.

The design originated from Europe, and the designers named it after the dangerous, pointy Italian stiletto knife. Like the knife, the shoe’s heel was super-thin.

When the shoe came to the United States, the term “stiletto” just referred to the heel of the shoe, like one might now say “bell” sleeves. And over time, the shoe itself adopted the name “stiletto.”

Stilettos had a short decline in popularity until their big break with Manolo Blahnik in the 1970s. Following the theme of danger and slender aesthetics, Blahnik called his stiletto “The Needle.”

Italian Stiletto Knives Today

It won’t take long to figure out where stilettos have gone today. They still exist, and they have the same time-tested look that propelled them to fame and notoriety throughout the years.

These days, you can get an OTF or out-the-front stiletto for your adventuring or collecting needs. This knife will retract into its own body so you can carry it safely and keep it in a small compartment. This also lets you use the knife with one hand if you need to.

These days people use stilettos, like other pocketknives, as multipurpose tools. Their small size and convenient retractability make them a great tool to use on a camping trip or for a personal project.

Try It For Yourself!

The Italian stiletto has certainly made its mark on history, evolving through the different ages of hand-to-hand combat. Its small size and thin profile made it the perfect weapon for everything from Medieval fighting to silent raids.

If you’ve taken an interest in the history of the stiletto, you can order a well-crafted one as a collectible piece. And if you’re going on an adventure anytime soon, an OTF stiletto can be a great thing to bring with you. And if you have questions or want help finding something, just let us know.

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