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It’s always difficult when you start collecting something to stick to the original item and not stray to peripheral items. That certainly happened to me in collecting Wilkinson knives. Originally, I collected Fairbairn-Sykes knives, both those made by Wilkinson and those made by others. But then I started picking up the occasional Wilkinson knife, including their rather interesting safari knives and some others. That led to collecting Webley-Wilkinson revolvers, which were virtually custom guns sold to British officers who visited the Wilkinson showrooms in Pall Mall. I learned about the rare Wilkinson kukri and pursued one of those. I wrote about the results a few months ago in this column. One Wilkinson knife about which I had read snippets seemed to be quite rare and piqued my interest so I began looking for one. I refer to the Shakespear Knife, and yes, that is the correct spelling.

The knife is a “dirk” designed to the specifications of Major Henry Shakespear, an Indian Army officer and well-known hunter. In his book, The Wild Sports of India, Shakespear states:

Each of us is armed with a shikar or hunting knife, the sheath of which fits into the breast of the shooting coat. Thus the knife is ready to hand, and can be used in a moment—this moment is time sufficient to save or lose a life. My hunting knives are some 7-inches long and 1-1/2-inches broad in the blade, partly double-edged, fluted, coming to a keen point, and kept as sharp as possible. There is a spring in the sheath; when required for use, this spring is pressed open with the little finger, at the same time that the hilt is grasped. It requires no buckle, or other fastening; the steel button in the side of the sheath fitting into the buttonhole in the pocket of the hunting-coat. I think, after much experience in knives, that this is the best weapon that can be made; consequently, I have left the pattern with Messrs. Wilkinson and Co., Pall-Mall.

Close-up of the Wilkinson etching and the slot in the handle for the spring retention lever.
Close-up of the Wilkinson etching and the slot in the handle for the spring retention lever.

The Shakespear Shakeup
Shakespear’s book, which originally appeared in 1860, influenced others to have Wilkinson make them a Shakespear Knife. The unnamed author of a 1904 article titled Old Sporting Tools, states that he purchased a Shakespear Knife and found it handy for giving the “coup de grace” to soft-skinned animals and useful for skinning. However, he did not find it heavy enough to serve as a utility knife in the field, particularly in building a hide. He also states that he never had to rely on a knife when in a struggle with an animal but he felt that if he did, “a biggish knife with a small cross guard to the handle would be a more reliable weapon than the Shakespear knife.” Just as a note, Robert Wilkinson-Latham sent me a photo of an example that does have a cross guard, so at least one Shakespear Knife was made with one.

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