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SWISS TRADITIONS

Do Swiss soldiers really use the army knife?

You may be wondering whether members of the military in Switzerland actually carry Swiss army knives and, if so, what do they use them for?

An iconic army knife is part of Switzerland’s lore. Photo by Patrick on Unsplash
An iconic army knife is part of Switzerland’s lore. Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

The iconic, multi-bladed army knives with a Swiss cross logo are as much part of Switzerland’s image as cheese, chocolate and yodelling.

Looking at the cutting-edge models available today, it may be hard to imagine that when these knives were first issued to Swiss soldiers in 1886, they were very simple  — basically just a blade with a black handle.

Swiss cutler Karl Elsener, founder of the Victorinox company, began making more functional knives, equipped with a blade, reamer, can opener and screwdriver, in 1891. By the end of the century, an improved version, the officer’s knife, featured a second blade and corkscrew.

In 1891, the army ordered 15,000 knives to be distributed to its soldiers. At that time, however, Switzerland had no capacity to produce that many pieces and, in what could be considered as an early example of outsourcing, it placed the order with a German manufacturer.

This means that, paradoxically, Swiss knives were made in Germany – just like the quintessential Swiss mountain girl, Heidi.

Soon another cutlery manufacturer, Wenger, was also commissioned by the army to produce the knives, with the contract split evenly between the two.

This has eventually led to a knife-to-knife combat between the two companies, with Victorinox, as its name suggests, being victorious, and taking over its rival in 2005. From 2014, the army knife has been manufactured exclusively under the Victorinox name.

READ MORE: Victorinox cuts Wenger Swiss Army knife brand

What do the soldiers actually use the knives for?

In the early days, the knife’s primary purpose was to help troops perform basic tasks such as cutting string and wires, opening a can of food, as well as assembling and disassembling their service rifles.

To this day, each new recruit receives a basic ‘Soldier’ knife at the beginning of their service. This particular model features a can opener, screwdriver, blade, wood saw, cap lifter, wire stripper, reamer, and key ring — all the accoutrements  needed to defend Switzerland.

All these recruits receive a ‘Solider’ knife. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Although this was not the original intention, most of the hundreds of models of army knives today are used by civilians.

In fact, these once strictly military tools, are now geared toward specific users like campers, fishermen, hunters, handymen and even computer repairmen.

Karl Elsener would no doubt be surprised to discover that his original, no-fuss knife now features a wide variety of modern attachments, such as USB flash drives.

He would also be shocked to find out that Victorinox has branched into decidedly unmilitary products like Swiss Army perfumes, watches, and luggage.

And speaking of the military…

Swiss Army products are separate from a similarly named brand, Swiss Military, which manufactures watches. It is based in Aargau.

Even more so, it is also unrelated to a namesake Swiss Military company, based in…India.

Here is some more information about Switzerland’s army:

Women in Swiss military can finally wear women’s underwear

Swiss army bans WhatsApp due to privacy concerns

No marching orders: Swiss soldiers told to do military training at home

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SWISS TRADITIONS

Do Swiss cows really get airlifted down from the Alps after summer?

'Flying cows' is possibly one of the more curious myths people hear about Switzerland. But is there any truth to it?

Do Swiss cows really get airlifted down from the Alps after summer?

If you talk to foreigners and ask them a surprising thing about Switzerland, many will mention the “flying cows”, and pictures of the animals being taken by helicopter up and down the Swiss Alps are not difficult to find.

“The cows in Swiss are taken to the highlands by helicopters for grazing during summers and brought down back again by helicopters in the winters!” wrote one person in an English-speaking forum.

The pictures of airlifted cows can be found all over the Internet, adding fuel to the myth – but the images are not fake.

So, are cows airlifted in Switzerland once the summer is over?

Yes, cows really get a free helicopter ride up and down the Alps, but only when necessary.

Injured cows that cannot make the journey walking will not be left to die in the cold mountains during the winter season. Instead, they are taken down to the area where the rest of the herd will join them via helicopter ride.

Healthy cows going down the Alps are also a sight worth seeing. In the alpine regions, the yearly march of the cows from grazing in the Alps is called “Alpabzug” (something like “drive from the mountain pasture”).

In the French regions, the march is known as “Désalpes”.

Farmers and shepherds will wear traditional clothes and decorate their cows.

The event takes place in early autumn, usually late September or early October. It is determined by the lack of grass, or if any cold spells start, so it depends on the region and can vary year by year.

The Désalpes festival

The event becomes a party in Switzerland, and people meet up in their villages to see the cows on their journey from the Alps.

They share food (especially cheese) and wine, and there are musical presentations (such as an alpine choir), yodelling, and of course, the cow bells making it known that they are coming through.

The cows leading the procession are usually the best dairy cows and receive decorated headdresses. The event has become a significant tourist attraction in the Alpine regions.

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