In the chapter on the 1900’s in his monumental work Cutlery from its Origins to the Present Day, Camille Page writes: “Estaing knives: knives with this name were designed in 1780 by Admiral Estaing for use on board his ship. These knives can be used for dining, for cutting or for defense. There is some doubt though as to the true origins of this highly original knife that is no more no less than a straight folding knife. A first of its kind since up until then knives had been either straight or folding, but certainly never both at the same time. But let us attempt to penetrate the veil of mystery by exploring the legend of this unusual character.
Born in the castle of ravel (Puy-de-Dome) in 1729, Count Charles Henri d’Estaing joined the military establishment at a very young age. Musketeer to the king in 1738, aide-de-camp of the Marechal de Saxe in 1742, he was promoted to Captain in the Rouergue regiment in 1745 at just fifteen years old. Wounded for the first time during the War of Flanders, he was promoted to major in 1747 and two years later became ambassador’s secretary to the English Court. Soon he was in America, followed by the West Indies and Pondicherry. He participated in the taking of Madras (during which he was again wounded) and then went to Reunion. Appointed governor of the Leeward Islands, then vice admiral of the seas of Asia and Africa. He played a heroic part in the American War of Independence, took Grenada in 1779 and was wounded once more in Savannah. Appointed governor of Touraine, he became commander of the French National Guard in that terrible year of 1789 (The French Revolution), before finally being promoted admiral of France in 1794. However, he was arrested on the 28th of April of the same year during the Great Terror and guillotined, despite his republican and avant-garde convictions.
Estaing sailed all over the world and was clearly a man whose sixty-five years of life were amply filled. He was curious about everything. How could one not be I this century of Enlightenment that saw such illustrious names as Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Bach, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. A freemason, interested in both symbolism and the hidden side of things, it was clear that not just any knife would do for this man. The original model has never been found, and we have no detailed description of it. However we can get quite precise idea from the two models from this era exhibited in the Cutlery Museum of Thiers. One is composed of a long blade with an ivory handle that swivels on an axis partially fold over this blade. The handle of the second model does not pivot; instead the blade slides partially into the handle, enabling it to be used in the position required. Why such s particularity? Well, certainly for the simple pleasure and originality of it, but also for convenience. This knife enables one to carve a superb leg of lamb before sitting down at a table to consume it, after having folded the blade back down to a manageable size. It makes for easier carrying, enabling one to have an effective weapon for self defense since the admiral was rarely far from the front line.
But was such a mechanism the fruit of his own imagination? Or did “secret” knives inspire it? Or from “butterfly” models seen in the West Indies during one of his voyages? Or else from knives seen in London or America? Unfortunately, Admiral Estaing took his secret with him to his grave.
The ingenuity of such a system certainly did not escape the notice of the cutlers of Thiers, which was not far from the admiral’s estate. They modernized this knife to make it suitable for hunting, and today this is a particularly popular model.