Making the Cut…A Guide to the Bush Knife

by ahanagata

My Knife can Slay a Dragon…fruit. (that’s the ESEE Model 5)

   Cast Away and in survival mode Tom Hanks named a volleyball and made it into his best friend; I named my knife ‘Churchill’ and he’s my best friend in the back country. While it can be fun, that damn Wilson will just watch you build a shelter; but Churchill will actually help me. It’s said that it’s the oldest tool known to mankind, without it we would still be living in caves. Its versatility is unmatched by any other single tool, and it is a must for anyone stepping off the beaten track. Knives have been made out of all manner of materials and have had all types of purpose. People have written large tomes on knives and have not managed to make a dent in the subject. For our purposes here, we’ll be taking a look at the types of knives you’ll most likely use or need for the sort of activities on this site.

   Since there’s an endless array of different types of knives you can buy I’d like to narrow the field down a bit. There’s three basic knife categories I’d like to cover, If you own one in each category you’ll be able to do everything I do on this site that involves a knife. Those three categories are your main survival/bush knife, skinner/dinner knife, and your EDC or Every Day Carry.

   We’re going to be looking into the first category today; The main work horse, the big bastard on the hip, your bush knife. There’s bound to be scores of debates on whether or not to even carry one and even more on what it should be made out of. First off, it’s heavy. You’re already carrying a bunch of gear, who wants an extra heavy piece of metal strapped to their hip? No one. The problem is, the loss of the weight is great…until you need it. You curse yourself and wish you’d have packed it. Split wood with a swiss army knife or multi-tool, I dare you. Okay, okay so 99% of the time you might not use it. I hope I don’t need my car insurance or AAA membership either but I still pay the dues.

   Now, in order to really be a good bush knife I think it should be able to take some heavy wear and tear. After all this piece of equipment is what you’ll be trusting with your personal survival. It should be hefty enough to withstand prying a coconut open, batoning wood, and it should hold an nice edge for a reasonable amount of time through various tasks.

   How can you tell if it’s tough enough? Do a little homework on who makes the blade and what they feel are it’s intended uses. In short, call the company and ask them if their knife is well suited for batoning or prying open a coconut. A good company will offer a warranty if their knife should fail you; a warranty will do you no good in a survival situation, but it’s a good sign that they believe in their product. If they were being returned all the time they wouldn’t be in the knife making business would they?

   Knives come in all manner of sizes and shapes, which one is the right one for you? The one that fits the above categories and feels nice in your hand. I stay away from knives that don’t have a full tang, anything less makes me nervous. The tang is simply the part of steel that is inside the handle. Full tang means it’s the same piece of metal as the blade and it runs through the entire handle of the blade. I like to be able to see the tang sandwiched between the handle (scales they’re called), even when it comes to my chef’s knife. The only exception to that rule is the trusty Ka-bar. The Ka-Bar has a stacked leather handle with a hefty steel rod type tang that runs the full handle length and has stacked leather washers for the handle. The marines have been beating it like it owed them money since WWII and they fell in love with it. While I think there are better choices, it’s a nice entrance into the bushcraft/survival knife world because it’s pretty reliable and fairly inexpensive.

   When choosing your knife’s shape I generally stay away from anything labeled combat, fighting or tactical. Those, while they can be great knives, are geared toward self defense or combat. Although they might be tough, a knife for fighting is designed to be lean, light and fast and might not be suitable for the sort of stress you might put on it while building a shelter, right tool for the job. I like my knife to be stout and heavy. It might suck when it’s tugging on my belt, but it’s worth it when I have to really hack or pry on something. I get bonus uses out of it for not needing other pieces of equipment my knife can do; so some of the weight gets leveled out on a whole. Obviously you want it to come to a point, but you don’t want it to be thin for much of its length; thin is a weakness and you don’t want your knife tip to snap off. I also stay far away from any of those fantasy looking knives. Sure they might look cool on your wall, and they might make you feel like the long lost son of Gondor; But you’re not an elf or a dwarf and we’re not storming Mordor. (I wouldn’t take any of those to Mordor either, I’ve been told one does not just simply walk into Mordor)

   What is it made of? Metal right? Yes, but what kind of metal? No, not death metal, speed metal or even black metal. You can’t go wrong with 1095 carbon steel, o1 or a similar tool steel. This is a tool and should be forged out of a material suitable for tools. Sure, if you dip it in the ocean and leave it in the sheath it’ll rust to shit. But, they hold a great edge and they’re easy to sharpen. Now, this is dependent on the maker and how they heat treat it, because you can give a great piece of meat to anyone and watch them ruin it when they cook it. Stainless steel does not make a good knife for our purposes, if it’s stainless it’s a piece of poo and poo goes into the toilet, not on your belt. I hope. A lot of knife makers advertise the hardness of their knife and that it won’t lose it’s edge. If it’s too hard, it’ll chip and break. Carbon steel won’t chip or break like stainless. Just keep it well oiled, and learn to sharpen it. You can also use Tuf Cloth to keep the rust off your blade. Less common is the D2 steel. It’s exotic, and it’s touted as the best of both worlds between carbon and stainless. It has both lots of carbon and lots of chromium so it’s tough, but doesn’t chip as easily and is resistant to rust. Here’s the rub, you can’t go too big with D2, it has a hefty price tag and it will rust. It won’t rust nearly as much as normal carbon steel, but you still have to care for it. Anything else is probably unsuitable.

   Be wary of any gimmicks. Usually if someone is selling a gimmick, they’re doing so because the knife itself isn’t very good. Now, I know of some knives that have some ‘gimmicks’ and are great knives. You just have to be wary if someone’s really hard selling gimmicks instead of the knife. For example, if a retailer is hard selling you some crappy array of survival gear that you can stuff conveniently into the handle of the knife they might be skipping over the fact that this knife has no tang, is made most likely in China and is a piece of crap.

   Don’t buy Chinese knives, unless you know your knives well and it’s at a Chinese price. They just don’t have the same quality control over there. There’s a reason why company’s have things made in China. It’s cheap as hell. With knives, you usually get what you pay for.

   Have a knife picked out, and you’re in the back country? Keep this in mind, it’s generally more difficult to sharpen a knife in the field; it’s even harder if you didn’t pack in a full sized stone. Sure you can sharpen your knife on a river rock, though that takes a good rock the know how. When you’re far from home, or in a survival situation, your knife is an exhaustible resource. It’s going to eventually go dull, they all eventually lose their edge. The easiest way to make that last is what I call the three basics; Fire, Food and Shelter. If you’re not using your knife for one of those three, you don’t need to be using it. Even then, ask yourself if your goal can be achieved by other means.

   Not too long ago I went on a hike with a group and there was this guy whom I suspect has watched too many episodes of Man vs. Wild. There he was taking his knife out constantly and jumping on top of rocks seeking out the best adventure pose so we could all see how manly he was. He walked around picking up sticks and relentlessly whittling branches and the like then just tossing his chewed up stick in the bushes. Knives are dangerous, and falling is easy to do on uneven terrain. Exercise caution out there, only take your blade out if you need to. Don’t be that guy…unless you want to be the butt of a joke, and get made fun of on the internet.

   On a closing note, before you purchase any knife to take outside your house; be sure to read your state and local laws regarding such a knife. Don’t trust the word of the person selling the knife, they might tell you anything to make a sale or might be misinformed. Laws can vary depending on whether it’s okay to own vs legal to carry and where you can carry it. I’ve also found that occasionally law enforcement officers have been misinformed about the current knife laws either because they misheard/read the law or because they’re referring to statutes that are outdated. On that note, what’s legal today might not be legal tomorrow, a good rule of thumb is to check on local and state laws every year. Police officer’s are humans too, and can make mistakes; most are just doing their job to the best of their ability and it’s a hard task to memorize every law on the books. If a law enforcement officer informs you your knife is illegal, you can present your case and the law, but be careful to not come across as combative or argumentative. If you believe your knife was wrongly confiscated, politely ask for a receipt for the tool and try to collect with it later with a neutral party at the station. If you’re still not sure if your knife is legal to carry (because legalese is confusing!) contact a local attorney who has experience on the subject.

I’m Out Savages, Until Next Time! Live Wild. Eat Well.

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© 2012 TheSavageGentleman.