Historians and collectors of military antiques alike, have always been intrigued and beguiled by the Schutzstaffel, or SS. Relatedly, there are few pieces more emblematic of the SS, at least to collectors, than an untouched, premium quality SS dagger. Without focusing on the SS organization’s origins, this article focuses on the construction and analysis of the so-designated early period Model 1933 dagger (“M33”).
I. Prototypes and First-Runs
The M33 is so-called, because it is believed that the dagger was designed in late 1933. Prior to introduction of the standardized dagger, there were first-runs or prototypes that were likely issued to early SS leaders to wear (these are often referred to as “Christmas Daggers” in the context of SA—Sturmabteilung daggers). Period pictures show these early daggers with unique grip eagles being worn in early 1934. These first-run pieces featured a multitude of grip eagle and motto designs, and all included the Ernst Röhm dedication. Most Röhm dedications though, were ground off after night of the long knives later that year. These daggers rarely, if ever, surface on the open market (SA or SS), as only a handful of SA and even fewer SS have survived the last near-century.
The known prototype SA daggers were produced by Carl Eickhorn and Ernst Pack. The only known SS prototypes were produced by Ernst Pack. These daggers will be more fully explored in a forthcoming article.
II. Early Production Makers
While it is difficult to define “early” pieces, we will define “early,” for purposes of this article, as pieces produced between 1933-1936 (or thereabout), with solid nickel fittings to the scabbard and dagger itself, as well as solid nickel grip eagles. These daggers are undoubtedly better quality (and more collectible) than those produced in the mid-period and late-period. Namely, early pieces show significant hand-enhancement, as well as an impressive finish to the blades.
The known and accepted makers of early period M33’s include the following firms:
120/34 (35) RZM;
121/34 (35) RZM;
Klittermann & Moog.
While collectors often see SS daggers for sale from a previously unknown maker, most of the time, these pieces are not authentic. ERM has also handled an SS piece by the firm of Puma, which was, from a limited inspection, a correct, period piece. There are also a few “RZM” marked blades, which conform to the early dagger traits such as including all solid nickel fittings, but are undated or marked for a period after 1936. Examples include: M7/29 RZM and 324/37 (38) RZM. These daggers also include a unique characteristic—an exclamation point “!” at the end of the SS motto etched into the blade’s obverse. While these pieces could rightfully be declared as “early quality” construction, they are a study unto themselves and therefore, closer inspection of these pieces will be saved for another day.
III. The Grip
Early M33, like all M33, include a dark, real wood grip. These grips were dyed black (via boiling in aniline) during the period—lacquer or paint were never used. The process used to dye the wood seems to have made the wood brittle, resulting in a higher percentage of chipped grips than seen on similarly aged Sturmabteilung (SA) daggers. Despite common collector use of the word “ebony” to describe these grips, we do not believe that true ebony from diospyros trees was used as these grips are simply not the correct density for ebony trees in the diospyros genus.
While each maker has certain characteristics that can be found on their grips, each grip produced is somewhat unique. Moreover, despite what you may read elsewhere, a small gap between the corner of a grip and the crossguard (what many call a “poor fit”) does not automatically demonstrate that a dagger has issues or is comprised of a conglomeration of salvaged M33 parts. A combination of age and an imperfect fit at the point of construction may combine to create a poor fit.
Notably, early M33 grips often lose some of or a majority of their dark color over the years and based upon the storage climate over the past century. This trait seems to be more common on daggers stored in “difficult” climates that experience large temperature and moisture changes. Additionally, certain makers M33’s seem to be more susceptible to this phenomenon. On grips with deep chips or imperfections, collectors often see the grip’s natural wood color, which is often a lighter brown—certain maker’s dying processes apparently held up better than others.
Each M33 grip was fit with an adler/eagle over a mobile swastika in a wreath, as well as a circular “button” made of metal coated with a variety of enamel-like materials. The button displays the SS runes in silver surrounded by black. The rune button, on certain daggers, will have aged such that the runes themselves appear to be a more bronze/gold color, likely due to the copper or other composite used to produce the buttons. The adler on early M33 pieces will always be made of solid nickel or “neusilber” (“new silver” is the direct translation to English) as the Germans called it, which is a combination of nickel and additive metals. Because the adler is a relatively soft metal alloy, certain examples will present with significant wear, such that the details are partially or wholly lost. Both the adler and runic button were hand-fitted into the grips and therefore, while high quality is to be expected, perfection should not. Small imperfections to the wood around the adler are much more common than imperfections around the runic button due to the adler’s irregular shape. Absent impermissibly large gaps or other indications of replacement, small gaps between the eagle and the grip-wood should not be considered dispositive of the dagger’s originality.
IV. Crossguards and Pommel Nut
Early M33 were equipped with solid neusilber crossguards and pommel nuts. Each of the two guards included stylized, parallel lines, cast and in some cases, hand finished, for emphasis. The pommel nut on many M33 will present with nicks, dings, and as collects often say—“signs of having been opened,” such that the M33 can be taken apart. Sometimes, the pommel nut will appear as a slightly different color (where both the guards and pommel nut have accumulated a patina). While this may, at first, present collectors with a bit of quandary, we at ERM believe that certain (if not all) pommel nuts may have been created with from a slightly different alloy than the guards, because the nut needed to be tougher in light of its delicate screw threads, which attach to the blade tang. This unique feature is most notable (in the ERM team’s experience) on M33 produced by the RZM maker M7/29, where the pommel nuts appear to be more steel-like than nickel-like.
Early M33 lower crossguards will usually include a roman number stamp—either I, II, or III. These distribution stamps correlate to the distribution center for which the M33 was produced. I represented the Munich distribution center; II represented the Dresden distribution center; and III represented the Berlin distribution center. Certain early M33 should not have any distribution stamp, including but not limited to: (1) Pre-production/Prototype SS daggers; (2) Himmler honor daggers; and (3) certain rare-maker M33 (i.e., E. Gembruch). Additionally, model 1936 “chained” SS daggers should not present a distribution mark. But this rule, like all in the hobby, includes an exception for M36 daggers with an SA (Sturmabteilung) stamp to the reverse lower crossguard. Finally, certain early M33 produced by Eickhorn will include a “bench mark” as it called, which is a single digit number from 0-9.
V. The Blade
The most important aspect of any M33, in a collector’s eyes, is the blade. These works of art were hand finished with a cross-grain, creating a beautiful (and hard to describe) luster! The center ridge on these early pieces is often more rounded/smoother than the sharp ridge appearing on later production pieces, including M36 daggers.
The obverse of each blade includes the SS motto: “Meine Ehre Heiβt Treue.” The motto was acid-etched into the blade by hand. While at first glance these mottos all appear identical, many makers had slightly different templates for the motto etch, resulting in slight differences in the motto design. Moreover, there are a few early, prototype pieces, which exhibit noticeably different mottos. The same is true for the early, prototype SA daggers’ mottos, often called the SA “small A motto.” The prototype SS motto is slightly smaller and has a little more “curl” to each letter than the standard motto later adopted.
Critically, and often underestimated in importance by collectors, the SS motto etch was subsequently darkened by the producer so that it exhibited a nice contrast with the remainder of the polished steel blade. Each maker had their own means of darkening the motto, some of which were darker (with some lighter), and some of which held-up much better over the subsequent decades. Böker is particularly well-known for having heavily darkened their mottos, which held up extremely well. The consistency, originality, and darkness of an M33’s motto provide a great way to evaluate an M33 blade.
The reverse of each blade on an early M33 will bear the maker’s trademark, which was also acid etched and darkened, like the motto. Despite rumblings to the contrary, the reverse and obverse darkening may not always match due to depth of the etch, wear, etc. This issue is most apparent on Himmler and Röhm honor pieces.
VI. The Scabbard
Early M33 scabbards are comprised of the upper and lower fittings, as well as the scabbard body shell. The fittings on early pieces are neusilber and the body shell is steel. The upper fitting also includes a neusilber ring for carrying. The scabbard fittings were secured to the body with four (4) neusilber screws (flat-head). Inside the scabbards are “runners” that protect the blade and connect to the throat of the upper fitting. These runners are often made of brass on early pieces; they are also seen made of steel. The runners protect the blade by limiting the points of contact between the blade (and its precious hand-finish) and the interior of the scabbard. The runners were made in a wavy or "S" shape so the blade would only be touched in two (2) places. Notably, each of the runner's center was often slightly indented to protect the motto (and sometimes honor engraving) running down the blades center.
The body was anodized (as collectors say) or “blued,” such that the steel takes on a black hue. This is a chemical process similar to that used to finish the steel on guns and not only “colors” the steel, but also protects it. Not all makers used an identical process, resulting in slightly differing hues and depths of black. Each maker though, did apply a clear lacquer over the blued surface. This clear lacquer is often missing from early scabbards in its entirety, likely due to the passing of nearly a century since production.
 Approximately 4 of these prototype SS daggers are known to the ERM team.