A knife is a handy tool for eating, getting into overwrapped packages and performing a multitude of survival activities. But what if a knife could do more? What if your knife could also open a can of food, help you break down and reassemble your rifle, or drill a hole? In 1891, master cutler (knife maker) Karl Elsener engineered a pocket-sized tool with four fold-out implements -- knife, can opener, screwdriver and reamer -- to handle all of those jobs. He called it the Soldier's Knife, and supplied one to every soldier in the Swiss Army. The Swiss Army knife, so dubbed by American soldiers in WWII who couldn't pronounce the Swiss name for the tool, Offiziermesser, was the first multifunction tool.
Almost 100 years later, Tim Leatherman found that his Swiss Army style pocket knife wasn't tool enough to deal with balky cars and European travel. Using cardboard cutouts, he designed a multifunctional tool that was more handy-man friendly. In 1983, he launched Leatherman Tool Group, Inc. with a single product: the Pocket Survival Tool, a 14 implement fold open multi-tool designed around needle nose pliers. Leatherman's tool surprised skeptical retailers by garnering almost 30,000 mail order sales in the first year [source: Leatherman].
With the ground broken and the consumer demand for such a device proven, other manufacturers started designing and building multifunction tools. Gerber, producer of cutlery and combat knives, introduced their first multifunction tool, the Multi-Plier, in 1991. Victorinox Swiss Army, still owned and operated by Elsener's family, offers more than 100 different tool combinations in the original fold-out pocket design, but they've also added their own versions of pocket tool boxes.
Today, you can find multifunction tools specialized for anglers, golfers and geeks. Some have patented features such as Wenger's self-sharpening scissors or Gerber's one-hand opening. They come in two basic styles: those that you can carry in your pocket and those that you'll need to strap onto your belt.
We'll look at the functions, versatility, price and practicality of 10 different multifunction tools in this article, starting with variations on the original Swiss Army knife.