Stiletto is an Italian word derived from the Latin stilus (stylus), a pointed writing instrument used for engraving clay tablets. In the modern lexicon, a stiletto is a knife or dagger with a long, slender blade that tapers to a needle-like tip. The exact origins of this blade design are lost in history, but many experts believe it to be an offshoot of the rondel dagger, a weapon developed for penetrating chain mail and passing between the joints of heavy plate armor.

The stiletto was a favored weapon among Italian assassins during the medieval period, and was eventually outlawed, but it remained a popular weapon among criminals through the end of the 19th century. Its ability to penetrate heavy leather clothing while being easy to conceal made it a desirable and stealthy tool.

A Famous Legacy

Though Italian in origin, the impact of the stiletto reached across cultural divides. During the Second World War, famed British close-quarter combatives instructors William E. Fairbairn and Eric A. Sykes designed the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife:

Fairbairn-Sykes knife (Source: Greynurse / Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0)

The F-S Knife was designed based on the fighting concepts the duo developed while serving in the Shanghai Municipal Police. It employed a stiletto design with a double-edged blade that tapered to a needle point. This knife saw use by the British Royal Marines and SAS, and is the sole symbol found on the “Commando Dagger” badge worn by those who have completed the British All-Arms Commando Course (AACC).

American forces also found use for the stiletto. The U.S. Marine Raider Stiletto was patterned after the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife and was the first knife to be designed by a Marine Corps officer, Lt. Col. Clifford H. Shuey. Unfortunately, Shuey changed some of the material specifications from the F-S Fighting Knife to reduce costs and the demand for strategic materials, which led to durability problems with the Raider Stiletto.

Case V-42 Fighting Stiletto, a reproduction of the original design. (Source: Smoky Mountain Knife Works)

The V-42 stiletto, also based on the F-S Fighting Knife, was issued to the First Special Service Force (a.k.a. Devil’s Brigade), a joint Canadian/American commando unit. To this day, the V-42 is depicted overlapping crossed arrows on the crest of the United States Special Forces. Even where the stiletto is no longer in use, the historical impact remains evident.

The U.S. Special Forces crest, depicting a V-42 stiletto atop crossed arrows.

Kershaw's Modern Stiletto

The Launch 8 was designed for Kershaw by Matt Diskin, a widely-known maker of high-end custom automatic knives. It was based on the classic Italian folding stiletto that many of us grew up admiring through pop culture. Movies like The Warriors and The Outsiders depicted the stiletto switchblade as a staple weapon among rebels, and many of our parents kept these often-outlawed treasures safely tucked away with the family heirlooms.

The classic auto stiletto usually had a bayonet-style blade with a single saber grind and false edge. The Launch 8 has a more symmetrical shape reminiscent of the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, but with the classic false edge. It’s unknown whether or not the Launch 8 was inspired by the F-S Knife, but even the handle profile, right down to its coffin-shaped pommel, is instantly reminiscent of the F-S design.

The Launch 8 handle is constructed out of gray anodized 6061-T6 aluminum. The 3.5-inch blade is CPM 154 steel with a stonewashed finish. This stainless steel offers corrosion resistance properties combined with toughness and excellent edge retention capabilities. When opened, the knife measures at a workable 8.25 inches.

The pivot pin for this spring-loaded auto is hidden beneath a carbon fiber handle inlay, giving the knife a clean, classic look. The push-button release/lock is located on the carbon-fiber side just below the pivot pin. The Launch 8 has a snappy release that will cause the knife to “launch” right out of your hand if you’re not prepared with a good grip on the handle.

With a closed length of 4.75 inches and a weight of just 2.3 ounces (68 grams), the narrow Launch 8 is compact and hardly detectable in the pocket. Its steel pocket clip can be mounted on either side for a tip-up carry.

Hands On

After unboxing our review sample, we noticed it was missing the carbon fiber inlay. This was likely a pre-production oversight, but an oversight nonetheless. However, this gave us a good opportunity to see how Kershaw’s customer service handled the issue. We called them up and explained our dilemma, without offering any indication that we were anything but a regular customer. Within 48 hours, we had a new carbon-fiber handle insert in our hands and had it installed in less than a minute. Three days later, a second brand-new Launch 8 arrived in the mail, followed by an apologetic phone call from a Kershaw representative. We’ll put an A+ in the grade books for Kershaw’s customer service.

The reversible pocket clip may be one of the most robust clips we have ever come across. Using a left-side pocket-carry, this author found himself frequently catching the clip on the seatbelt when getting out of a vehicle. Having experienced this problem with other knives in the past, including other models from Kershaw, the number of bent pocket-clips this author has experienced would exceed the word-count limit for this article to list out. After at least a dozen seatbelt snags with the Launch 8, not once did the clip bend, loosen, or lose tension.

We used the Launch 8 as a daily task knife to see how well it would hold up. We opened packages, cut up cardboard boxes, dug out splinters, and pretty much everything in between. The blade is still as sharp as it was out of the box and has yet to see a stone.

The stiletto blade is designed for penetration first and foremost. The thin, needle-point blade is ideal for penetrating clothing and slipping between ribs and other bone structures, making it an excellent choice for self-defense. Heavy-duty cutting tasks can be a little more challenging because the blade geometry causes the cutting action to slow as it draws toward the point.

The Launch 8 rendition of the stiletto blade design has a little more belly than its predecessors, which helps with cutting, but it’s still limited. We found a push cut to be much more effective with the Launch 8 than a draw cut. This is because pushing essentially reverses the blade geometry and allows the belly dig in as the blade moves forward.

Closing Thoughts

The Launch 8 is a beautifully-designed auto with characteristics reminiscent of the old-world stiletto and the iconic military fighting knives of the past. Its quality craftsmanship and durable design are an attractive addition to any knife collection, and the lightweight materials and slim design make it a joy to carry. With a price tag of $160, it’s a hard knife to pass up if you're a fan of this classic style.

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