Colonel Rex Applegate is a name that should be familiar to anyone who collects close combat knives.
Born in Oregon on June 21, 1914, his family roots extend all the way back to the American Revolution and the early pioneers of the Oregon Trail.
At an early age, he learned to shoot and hunt from his uncle, Gus Peret, a renowned professional hunter and exhibition shooter for Remington-Peters.
“COLONEL REX APPLEGATE WAS A LEGENDARY AMERICAN AND PATRIOT WHO LITERALLY LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR MODERN MILITARY AND TACTICAL CLOSE-COMBAT TRAINING.”
Applegate’s Military History
In 1940, Applegate graduated from the University of Oregon, where he participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, and entered the Army as a reserve officer in the Military Police.
He later competed with 10,000 other reserve officers for 100 regular Army commissions. He finished 11th, clearly distinguishing himself above his peers and prompting a transfer to the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps.
He was then personally recruited by Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan for an assignment in the Coordinator of Information (COI), which later became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the nation’s super-secret wartime intelligence organization and the predecessor of the CIA.
Applegate personally coordinated the establishment of the OSS’ training center, Area B, at what is now the presidential retreat at Camp David. He cross-trained with the British Commandos and Special Operations Executive (SOE—the British counterpart of the OSS) and worked closely with W.E. Fairbairn and E.A. Sykes, veterans of the Shanghai Municipal Police and designers of the iconic FairbairnSykes Commando Dagger.
In 1942, Applegate was transferred to the Military Intelligence Training Center (MITC) at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, where he trained American intelligence operatives in all aspects of close combat before sending them off to war.
After World War II, “the Colonel” lived in Mexico, where he imported arms and served as an advisor on riot control to the Mexican army, before ultimately settling back in his home state of Oregon.
Applegate remained extremely active until his death, authoring numerous books on close combat, riot control, and patrolling. He designed combat knives, and was the foremost proponent of handgun point shooting for tactical applications.
Colonel Rex Applegate was a legendary American and patriot who literally laid the groundwork for modern military and tactical close-combat training.
Meeting “The Colonel”
I first heard of Col. Applegate when I was about 13. I was interested in learning about knife fighting and one of my martial arts training partners lent me “Kill or Get Killed”— the Colonel’s classic book on close combat that he wrote during World War II and revised several times thereafter.
I read that book cover to cover several times and extracted everything I could from it, including teaching myself how to point shoot Applegate style with an air pistol. About 20 years later, I was working for the U.S. government trying to resolve the fates of American POW/ MIA from the Vietnam War.
I had grown frustrated with the politics of that issue and wanted to make a career change, so I approached Paladin Press, “the most dangerous publisher in the world,” to see if they had any openings. I had been a Paladin customer since I was a teenager and, by that time, had written two books for them.
Paladin’s owner, Peder Lund, was intrigued by my resumé and flew me out for an interview. He wanted to establish a video production department within the company specifically to work with Col. Applegate and asked if I was interested.
For me, it was a dream come true. I met the Colonel at the 1994 Soldier of Fortune magazine convention and helped him with his booth while he decided if he could work with me. Thankfully, I passed muster and got the job.
I established Paladin’s video production department in late 1994 and ran it for 10 years. During the first few years, I had the privilege of working very closely with Col. Applegate on several video projects.
The Colonel was impressed with my genuine interest in close combat and took me under his wing, giving me personal training in point shooting and other topics.
Ultimately, we became good friends and co-authored the book “Bullseyes Don’t Shoot Back.” Needless to say, working with him was an incredible honor and one of the highlights of my life.
My Applegate Combat Knives Collection
When Col. Applegate worked with W.E. Fairbairn during the war, they realized that the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger had some serious shortcomings. In 1943, they collaborated together on an improved design, as well as an enhanced version of the OSS Smatchet.
Although the war ended before these designs could be brought into production, the Colonel knew they had merit and was determined to make them a reality.
The improved dagger design, dubbed the Applegate-Fairbairn (A-F) Fighting Knife, was first made on a small scale by knifemaker T. J. Yancey in the 1980s. When Yancey retired, custom maker Bill Harsey took over, making custom versions of the A-F and working with Applegate to refine the design.
To make the knife more affordable to soldiers, the Colonel licensed the design to Al Mar, Blackjack, and Boker, all of whom produced them commercially.
During my first visit to the Colonel’s home, he took me out to the range at his family homestead—now a state historical landmark—in Yoncalla, Oregon. I told the Colonel I’d taught myself how to point shoot from his book when I was a teenager, so he was curious as to how well I had learned.
After running me through several hundred rounds with a variety of different guns, he was pleased with my performance. When we got back to his house that afternoon, he pointed to a pile of Blackjack A-F knives and told me, “Take one; you earned it.” That was an auspicious start to my Applegate knife collection.
In the mid-1990s, Col. Applegate was also working with Gerber Legendary Blades on a folding version of the Applegate-Fairbairn. He approached renowned custom knife makers and fellow Oregonians Bill Harsey and Butch Vallotton to help develop the folder, and they co-authored the first prototype.
Later, the Colonel refined the design and Harsey assumed primary responsibility for translating his knife concepts into prototypes. Harsey marked the Colonel’s handmade prototypes “001” to identify their status.
Paladin’s Peder Lund, who was also friends with Harsey and had commissioned several knives from him, put in a standing order with Harsey. With Applegate’s permission, every time Harsey crafted a 001 prototype for the Colonel, he was to make a second copy, numbered 002, for Lund. More on these later …
When Gerber’s production version of the A-F Combat Folder was released, I purchased one from the Colonel. It was laser-engraved “First Production Run” and came in a nylon belt pouch that was different than Gerber’s thumb-break version.
Years later, I added a second example of this knife to my collection through a trade with Bob Taylor, founder of Round Eye Knife and Tool (REKAT). The blade of Taylor’s A-F was autographed by the Colonel in Sharpie marker.
After the Colonel’s Passing
When Col. Applegate passed away in 1998, Peder Lund helped his widow auction off his incredible gun and knife collection. Lund also had first dibs on anything he wanted to buy.
Since he knew I was also close to the Colonel, Lund extended that courtesy to me. I was fortunate enough to purchase several guns from the Colonel’s collection—including one of his personal carry guns—and one knife: the very first Harsey-Vallotton A-F Combat Folder prototype, hand signed by both makers.
Lund took the pick of the litter—the “Fitz Special” revolver that Col. Applegate carried as a sidearm in World War II, and the .38 Smith & Wesson “Lemon Squeezer” he carried in Mexico after the war.
Both guns had “notches in their pedigree,” and the latter ultimately inspired S&W’s Centennial model. Years later, Lund gave me the opportunity to purchase both guns. I told him that I was very interested, but I wasn’t sure I could afford them.
One day, he walked into my office and handed me a plastic bag containing both guns. When I tried to hand it back, he told me, “I can’t think of anyone else on Earth the Colonel would rather have these guns go to.
You did more than anyone to secure his legacy. If you keep them, they’re yours.” They remain two of my most prized possessions today.
About a year later, Lund told me he was planning to sell his collection of Bill Harsey-made 002 prototypes of the Colonel’s designs. Again, he asked me if I was interested.
Grateful and humbled by his gift of the guns, I was not only interested, but saw it is an opportunity to balance my karma by paying whatever he wanted for them.
I paid Lund’s asking price without hesitation, and added six incredibly rare Applegate-designed knives to my collection, including: the second prototype of the A-F Combat Folder (on which the Gerber production version was based), a prototype of the smaller A-F “Covert” folder, a Butch Vallotton-made doubleaction automatic “Covert” folder, an A-F boot knife prototype, an A-F Mini Smatchet prototype, and a unique A-F boot knife prototype with a single, deep hollow grind on one side and two flats on the other.
“AFTER RUNNING ME THROUGH SEVERAL HUNDRED ROUNDS WITH A VARIETY OF DIFFERENT GUNS, HE WAS PLEASED WITH MY PERFORMANCE.”
All these knives featured Harsey’s (or Vallotton’s) painstaking craftsmanship and the same construction theme and finish. The blades were beautifully ground from 154CM stainless steel and bead blasted to eliminate reflection. Their handles were crafted from Micarta and the fixed blades featured beadblasted brass guards and custommolded pancake-style Kydex sheaths with belt slots.
The Final Piece
Over the years, I have had the good fortune to assemble an impressive collection of Applegate-designed combat knives and other artifacts. My only regret was that it did not include a full-sized version of the ApplegateFairbairn Smatchet.
When I first met the Colonel, he was still selling limited-edition versions of this imposing fixed blade that he had made by Buck Knives in 19891990.
Marked with his business name—Wells Creek Knife and Gun Works—only 750 of this version were produced. Although I wanted to buy one back then, I didn’t, and I have regretted that ever since.
In early 2020, I saw one of these rare knives pop up on a custom knife purveyor site and I couldn’t resist. I immediately bought it, and now it sits proudly beside the other Applegate items in my collection.
“I PAID LUND’S ASKING PRICE WITHOUT HESITATION, AND ADDED SIX INCREDIBLY RARE APPLEGATE-DESIGNED KNIVES TO MY COLLECTION.”
Working with, and being mentored by, Col. Applegate will always remain one of the highlights of my life. He was an extraordinary man and a true hero, and I’m honored to do my part to preserve his teachings and his legacy.
THE WRITINGS OF COL. REX APPLEGATE
Col. Rex Applegate’s initial efforts during World War II focused on developing a course of instruction in close-combat for OSS recruits and the intelligence operatives trained at the Military Intelligence Training Center (MITC).
Later in the war, he took many of these lessons and consolidated them into a book geared more toward the needs of the average soldier. That book, “Kill or Get Killed: A Manual of Hand-to-Hand Fighting,” was originally published in July 1943 by the Military Service Publishing Company and had its second printing in November 1943.
When the Colonel moved to Mexico after the war, he served as an advisor to the Mexican government on mob and riot control. He also began incorporating aspects of this discipline into “Kill or Get Killed,” yielding an expanded second edition in 1951, a third edition in 1956, and a fourth edition in 1961.
In 1976, Col. Applegate contracted with Paladin Press to publish another expanded edition, which continued as a bestseller until Paladin’s closing at the end of 2017. A version of the book was also officially adopted as a training manual for the U.S. Marine Corps.
“Kill or Get Killed” is an undisputed classic in the field of close-quarters combat and belongs in the library of every serious student of the subject.
However, it was by no means the Colonel’s only book. He also shared his vast knowledge in other titles, including “Scouting and Patrolling,” “Combat Use of the Double-Edged Fighting Knife,” “The Fighting Knife,” which he co-authored with W.D. “Bo” Randall, Jr., and “Bullseyes Don’t Shoot Back,” which I had the honor of co-authoring with him.
He was also deeply involved in Chuck Melson’s incredible book “The Close Combat Files of Col. Rex Applegate,” which was published after his death, and the production of the videos “Point Shooting” and “Shooting for Keeps,” which I shot and edited during my time as Paladin Press’ video production manager.
Col. Applegate’s published works provide a wealth of battle-proven information and an incredible insight into the evolution of modern closecombat tactics.
Although some of his works, like “Bullseyes Don’t Shoot Back,” have been brought back into print, many of his older books and videos can now only be found on the used-book market. If you can find them, buy them. You won’t be sorry.