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One-Time Delicatessen Owner Builds the Army a Better Bayonet

October 30, 1986|H. G. REZA | Times Staff Writer

OCEANSIDE — Charles Albert Mickey Finn used to carve sandwiches, but for the last three years he has plied a new trade--designing knives. Now, the former delicatessen owner has produced an Army bayonet that promises to carve, among other things, wood, ice and metal like no other bayonet before.

The bayonet, seen by some critics as a medieval weapon, is once again in vogue among the world's armies, and the U.S. Army is no exception. But the renewed interest in the ancient weapon has less to do with bayonet charges and more with meeting the practical and, some would say, less than glamorous needs of today's fighting man.

For example, the Israeli army determined that a bottle opener saw more use by soldiers in the desert than the bayonet. This presented an obvious problem to the military-industrial complex--how to synthesize the household utensil with a weapon designed for stabbing people.

Much to the Army's delight, Finn, working out of a cramped industrial building here, met that challenge and several others. Now, the low-tech weapon has received a high-tech face lift.

Recently, the Army awarded a $15.6-million contract to Finn's company, Phrobis III Ltd., to manufacture the new bayonets. Eventually, 320,000 of the weapons, with six-inch blades of forged steel, will be issued to U.S. troops.

Instead of simply attaching to the end of a rifle, the Army's new bayonet will perform what Army planners call "multiple individual soldier tasks." Put more simply, American troops will no longer have to carry a bottle opener into combat.

Critics of the old $18 bayonet pointed out that its singular purpose was to kill. By contrast, Finn's bayonet, officially designated as the M-9 Multi-Purpose Bayonet System and priced at $49.50 apiece, rivals the Swiss army knife in versatility. The old bayonet's twin blades were almost impossible to sharpen, but consider the new weapon's features:

- A serrated top edge saws through rope, wood, ice and aircraft skin. The M-9 is designed to cut through helicopter sheet metal to free trapped pilots.

- The top knife edge can be used in tandem with the scabbard as a wire cutter to cut barbed wire.

- The glass-filled handle is insulated to withstand electrical shocks of up to 240 volts.

- The blade can cut through the steel bands used to seal ammunition boxes.

- It includes a built-in bottle opener and whetstone for sharpening the blade.

Although the bayonet has been a standard infantry weapon for more than three centuries--it was invented in 1640 in Bayonne, France--the Army gave up on the current double-edged bayonet in 1976. There have not been any bayonet charges by U.S. troops since the Korean War. In Vietnam, machetes and power saws were more common in the jungle.

Although the weapon fell out of favor, the bayonet, with the words "Follow Me" printed above the point, is the insignia of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Ga. But until 1983, when the secretary of the Army ordered the resumption of bayonet training, the only emphasis placed on the weapon was symbolic.

Even as late as 1985, no mention was made of the bayonet in the Army's inventory of current and proposed weapons. This is likely to change in March, when the first 600 of the new bayonets--incorporating the first design change since 1961--will be issued to the 75th Ranger Battalion at Ft. Benning.

Bill Thetford, a retired infantryman and spokesman for the Army Infantry School, said the new U.S. bayonet is the best in any military arsenal. Thetford said the Army's old bayonet is more likely to amuse, rather than frighten, an enemy soldier.

"Bayonet assaults have largely gone by the wayside in modern warfare. But a good bayonet is invaluable for esprit de corps. If a soldier is ever forced to get down to a bayonet fight . . . when the enemy spots that weapon, it ought to look like a weapon. And the visual impact of this (new) knife is that it is a weapon," Thetford said.

The development process of the new bayonet was relatively short by government standards.

Bids for the weapon were solicited in August, 1985, and Thetford said that it will only be 18 months from the time the bids were received to the time that the first bayonets will be delivered in March.

"The development process for this new weapon is almost unheard of," Thetford said.

The Phrobis knife won out over entries from Britain, Spain, West Germany and two other U.S. firms.

"Ours was the highest bid, but we were the only company whose product went through the entire testing period without any breakage and failures," Finn said. "Most people tried to convert something that already existed in an attempt to meet the Army's requirements."

Finn, 48, has been involved in research and development work for the U.S. military and private industry since 1975, when he gave up his delicatessen. Because most of the government work he does is classified, Finn declined to talk about his company's other projects for the military.

However, his firm, which employs 10 people, has developed such things as emergency signaling devices for private industry. Finn has been designing knives for three years.

The Army attempts to instill esprit de corps on the bayonet assault course by teaching its troops that there are two kinds of bayonet fighters--the quick and the dead. The new bayonet's versatility is not expected to change this.

"That's still true," Thetford said. "Our troops will continue to be quick and ready to handle any situation that requires the new bayonet, whether it's cutting through barbed wire or opening a bottle."

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