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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Knife You WANT vs The Knife You NEED (Part 1)

When people ask me to recommend a bushcraft knife I tend to recommend budget friendly knives and ones which are easy to maintain and keep clean, that tends to mean, kydex or plastic sheaths, handles of plastic or rubber and stainless steel. I have written about choosing a knife a few times and you can refer to the Bushcraft Basics pages for advice on choosing a knife or to some of my other articles in the Countrymans weekly and on survival knives for the Camp4 website HERE

Hultafors craftsman and Mora companion, very cost effective and perfectly adequate bushcraft knives. 
While a simple Mora companion or similar knife, when combined with other bushcraft tools such as an axe and saw, is all you NEED for every possible bushcraft task and will cost no more that £15 at the very most. 

If you never upgraded from a Mora you would not be at a disadvantage, unless you wanted to stab your way through a car bonnet or pound your knife into a tree and use it as a step, which seems to be the craze on youtube, A Mora's stick tang won't be up to this abuse. The Mora will do every SENSIBLE thing you need it to as long as it is used along side an axe and saw and isn't pressed to tasks which are too much for it.

A Mora companion blade with it's stick tang
That stick tang might be the first reason that someone would look for an upgrade though, a more robust full tang so the knife can be used for heavier batoning, and thicker steel for strength. Maybe you want wooden handles and a leather sheath just because they look nice even if from a butchery and game preparation perspective these materials aren't desirable as they might soak up blood and dirt and contaminate a carcass you are working on and preparing to eat. 

As you gain in experience and use your knife regularly you will decide for yourself what you want in a knife. You may have specific requirements based on the kind of work you most regularly undertake with your knife or maybe you want a knife that is specifically made to fit your hand.

You may have a particular preference for a certain grind; maybe you do a lot of game prep and want a full flat or hollow grind on your knife which is best for processing meat. Maybe you primarily use your knife for intricate carving and want a short, sharply pointed blade with a Scandinavian grind for wood working. Maybe you want something which combines these features in a 'one tool' package which can adequately perform all your camp tasks without being too specialised.

Outdoors-men have been having knives made to their particular specifications for generations, to suit their specific preferences or because they felt that the knives commonly available at the time were unsuitable. Some examples of particular knives that have become standard patterns amongst knife makers and for use in the outdoors include;

Kephart Sheath Knife

He may be a legend but it looks
like he needs to  work on his
trigger discipline.
By Unnamed photographer -
Western Carolina University,
Hunter Library Special Collections
Public Domain, 

Horace Kephart is one of the fathers of national parks in the United States and Mount Kephart in the Smokey Mountain National Park is named after him. He was trained and employed originally as a librarian but wrote often about hunting and camping. Many of his writings were compiled into a single volume and published in 1906 as Camping and Woodcraft. He regularly commented about knives and the specification of his ideal knife in his writings, including this from Woodcraft and Camping; 

“On the subject of hunting knives I am tempted to be diffuse. In my green and callow days (perhaps not yet over) I tried nearly everything in the knife line from a shoemaker’s skiver to a machete, and I had knives made to order. The conventional hunting knife is, or was until quite recently, of the familiar dime-novel pattern invented by Colonel Bowie. Such a knife is too thick and clumsy to whittle with, much too thick for a good skinning knife, and too sharply pointed to cook and eat with. It is always tempered too hard. When put to the rough service for which it is supposed to be intended, as in cutting through the ossified false ribs of an old buck, it is an even bet that out will come a nick as big as a saw-tooth — and Sheridan forty miles from a grindstone! Such a knife is shaped expressly for stabbing, which is about the very last thing that a woodsman ever has occasion to do, our lamented grandmothers to the contrary notwithstanding.”
“A camper has use for a common-sense sheath-knife, sometimes for dressing big game, but oftener for such homely work as cutting sticks, slicing bacon, and frying “spuds.”  For such purposes a rather thin, broadpointed blade is required, and it need not be over four or five inches long. Nothing is gained by a longer blade, and it would be in one’s way every time he sat down.”
“Such a knife, bearing the marks of hard usage, lies before me. Its blade and handle are each 4 1/2 inches long, the blade being 1 inch wide, 1/8th inch thick on the back, broad pointed, and continued through the handle as a hasp and riveted to it. It is tempered hard enough to cut green hardwood sticks, but soft enough so that when it strikes a knot or bone it will, if anything, turn rather than nick; then a whetstone soon puts it in order. The Abyssinians have a saying, “If a sword bends, we can straighten it; but if it breaks, who can mend it? ” So with a knife or hatchet.”
“The handle of this knife is of oval cross-section, long enough to give a good grip for the whole hand, and with no sharp edges to blister one’s hand. It has a 1/4 inch knob behind the cutting edge as a guard, but there is no guard on the back, for it would be useless and in the way. The handle is of light but hard wood, 3/4 inch thick at the butt and tapering to 1/2 inch forward, so as to enter the sheath easily and grip it tightly.”
If this description is not enough he also designed this knife for production by the Colclesser Bothers and the knife was produced and sold. Only two are known to still be in existence, one in a museum and one in a private collection but we have pictures of them to refer to, you can see a picture of the original knife further up the page and many modern knives copy his pattern almost exactly; 

Image result for esee kephart
ESEE camp lore PR4
Image result for bark river kephart amazon
Bark River Kephart
Image result for condor kephart knife
Condor Kephart Knife
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Ontario Blackbird SK-5

The 'Nessmuk'

By George Washington Sears -
Public Domain, Link
George Washington Sears, known by his pen-name of 'nessmuk' was an American writer and outdoorsman who published a book on 'woodcraft' in 1884 which has become a seminal text on camping, bushcraft and the outdoors. In it he describes his ideal cutting tools including the knife he recommends. Many have since copied it and applied it's shape to knives now sold as bushcraft knives, perhaps without truly understanding how Nessmuk himself used this knife. 
Nessmuk was an advocate of travelling light and making use of basic tools and superior skill to make your trips rather than relying on porters and heavy gear, a point he returns to regularly in his writing. The tools he recommends to the light weight camper include a small double bit hatchet, a sheath knife and a pocket knife. if we carefully read what he had to say we will soon realise that 99% of the jobs we do with our bushcraft knives today Nessmuk performed with his pocket knife. His sheath knife was strictly reserved for skinning and preparing game and was kept razor sharp for that purpose and that purpose alone. As a skinning knife it has a shape we would recognise but is very different from your average modern day bushcraft knife.

The picture to the left from woodcraft shows nessmuks tools of choice and if you search for 'nessmuk knife' now you will find a range of beautiful modern interpretations of his knife but many of them will not faithfully represent his knife except in basic outline. The hunch backed blade is reminiscent of butchers carving knives or skinning knives but most of the modern copies have the thick spine and grind of a 'survival' knife meaning it is not the specialist tool Nessmuk had in mind but rather an all round bushcraft knife forced into the shape of his old skinning knife. The knife that would have been his utility knife for whittling, carving and other chores would have been his pocket knife. Pocket knives don't get good press among bushcrafters as a whole nowadays, the reason being the inherent insecure nature of the blade and handle. A blade that folds might fold when you don't want it to and is inherently weaker than a fixed blade knife and therefore doesn't inspire confidence when doing tasks which might require more strength or force. However a pocket knife tends to be what we have available to us most of the time and if you want to practice bushcraft more than just casually I suggest a strong pocket knife which can be used at all times so that you can take advantage of opportunities for a little foraging, whittling and collecting even when you can't justify carrying a sheath knife.

A modern take on nessmuks outdoor tools, the Camilus Bushcrafter, it may share it's outline with nessmuks original design but you can clearly see the Scandinavian grind and thick blade steel. The two or three bladed pocket knife would have been his main utility blade(s) here represented by a Case Stockman.

A few other examples of modern 'nessmuk' pattern knives include;

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Boker Nessmi miniature nessmuk style knife

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Condor 'Nessmuk' Knife


Ray Mears is probably the person who has had the biggest single influence on modern bushcraft and on the public perception of a 'bushcraft knife'.

Image result for ray mears knife
Ray Mears knife was made famous in his TV programmes and was originally produced by custom knife maker Alan Wood. 

Alan Wood said the following about the knife he produced for Ray Mears and which was later marketed as the Woodlore knife;

“Ray contacted me to discuss a British knife specifically designed for bushcraft…
He wanted a smallish knife, handmade and as British as possible that was to become the Woodlore Neck Knife due to the sheath concept that allowed carry with a cord around the neck or slung under the arm for discrete carry or Arctic use. He wanted carbon steel as he felt stainless had no “soul”, a full, non-tapered tang and the short Nordic grind, a wood handle from native trees and a design that was devoid of frippery.”
“He still wanted the short bevel grind and explained that most people who attended his courses weren’t necessarily “knife people” and that it would be easier for them to sharpen if they could lay the whole bevel on the hone. Also, he needed the wedge-like edge that it produced for specific bushcraft tasks and controlled woodworking cuts.
The first knives were made from 5/32” x 1¼” O1 steel at a hardness of Rockwell C-56/57… I fitted the maple and shaped the handles with my normal palm swell and flared and domed butt. The wood was dyed to bring out the grain and given an oil finish with Danish Oil. The sheaths were wet moulded from vegetable tanned hide and finished with an oil/wax molten mix.
The spine was ground flat and square to be used for “Fireflash” ferrociem rods and other scraping tasks.
Contrary to popular belief the Woodlore blade shape has never been a “spear-point”. The spine has always been an arc and the edge shape has a little straight section and a parabolic flow and not a symmetrical spear shape which offers less utility.”
(These comments were originally available on Alan Wood's website which is no longer online but can also be found on the Truth About Knives Website in their page on the woodlore knife)
As well as gaining a fantastic reputation as an all round bushcraft knife the woodlore knife came with an enormous price (£495) and it's no longer available to order as Alan Wood has stopped making them although I am under the impression that he is still working through the waiting list of old orders for the woodlore. Knives following the same design specifications are still made under the Ray Mears name but most are either out of stock (the Ray Mears knife produced by Emberleaf Workshops for example with an RRP of £450) or production has ceased entirely due to the sad death of knife maker Steven Wade Cox in December 2016 who made the Woodlore Knife Pro model. Knives designed by Ray are now collectors items as much as functional tools. 

Woodlore Knife Pro
The Woodlore Pro by Steven Wade Cox features a straighter spine then the iconic downward curving spine of the original Woodlore knife. 
As with other popular knife patterns the woodlore has been copied time and again with several custom makers offering 'woodlore clones' either in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the woodlore style or perhaps to offer a more affordable option than the very expensive official versions; 
Image result for condor woodlore
Condor Woodlaw

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Böker Next Generation Bushcraft Knife

Skookum Bushtool

Although not specifically designed by Mors Kochanski it was inspired by his description of the ideal bushcraft knife in his book Northern Bushcraft. Mors Kochanski has made a video about the knives he has used throughout his life teaching bushcraft and survival skills and which explains his requirements for a bushcraft knife;

Knife maker Rod Garcia made the Skookum Bushtool after reading Mors' book and attending one of his courses to specifically match Mors description and provide a more robust option than the typical Mora knife.

Image result for skookum bushtool
The Skookum Bush Tool by Rod Garcia
All these knives are now iconic amongst knife enthusiasts and bushcrafters alike and are standards to judge other knives on but they were all born in the minds of experienced outdoorsmen and bushcrafters. For some books by the four bushcraft legends who's knives I've shown above check out these links below and I'll say it again IT'S BETTER TO SPEND YOUR MONEY ON BOOKS THAN KIT, by all means buy an expensive knife or design one and have it made to your specification but all you NEED is a Mora and you would be better off learning the skills in these books and using the change from the £400 you'd spend on some of these knives to travel into the woods and practice your skills.

As well as the very well thought out, tried, tested and proven knives shown above there are plenty on the market, some designed by very well known 'celebrity' bushcrafters and survivalists, which are quite frankly a disaster.

There are many that would argue that there is no need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to knives and that there are plenty of production models which will do everything you need them to. I am inclined to agree with them and in fact knives that try to re-invent the wheel or pack in too many features tend to end up not being good at anything; 

Image result for tom brown tracker knife
TOPS Tom Brown Tracker Knife

The Tom Brown Tracker knife by TOPS is an example of this. Tom Brown Jr. is a big name in Bushcraft and Survival training but he won't be appearing amongst my Bushcraft Heroes, I may be doing him a disservice and there are many people who swear by his techniques and teachings but I have spent enough time in the outdoors, working with wildlife that I just can't believe everything he writes in his books and which he claims to have done, read the Alien Killer chapter of his book Way of the Scout; you'll see what I mean. 

As well as his incredible, unbelievable, claims I just can't take anyone seriously who puts their name on a knife like this and claims that it is anything other than a heavy duty chopping tool. It's massively heavy and features a weird dog tooth which seems to have been adopted in a few other knife patterns since it first appeared on the tracker. This feature interrupts the edge of the knife meaning the section closest to the handle can really only be used for push cuts, a knife with a continuous curve or even a strait section which seamlessly curves up at the point doesn't snag on the material you are cutting and is easy to sharpen, unlike the tracker. The saw on the back is a gimmick and doesn't cut properly although this is explained away by the designers, manufacturers and fans saying that it was only ever designed to produce clean square edged notches for trap making. My questions to them are first; show me what use those perfectly square notches are? Second; if you are skilled with a knife aren't those notches just as easy to make with the blade of a knife? Third; why add a feature that detracts from the overall utility of the knife by making it uncomfortable to apply pressure to the back of the blade?

Another example of a knife that tries to hard to be different and to fit everything feature of your standard bushcraft toolkit into a single blade is the 'MSK';

Image result for msk 1
The Multi-Scenario Knife (MSK-1) by David of Ultimate Survival Tips
I don't normally like to comment on a product without having tested it myself but I just can't justify the expense of deliberately buying a knife that I know won't suit my particular preferences, especially when even in it's most basic form it retails at over $300.

First off it's ugly, the bow drill divot in the handle is the same as any other knife with a bow drill divot; a gimmick and is largely useless, not to mention dangerous, on any knife it features on. The huge deep blade might be useful in a general utility knife but won't be useful for finer carving even with the large finger choil. Finger choils are a pet hate of mine, the rationale for them is flawed in my opinion; they shift the weight of the blade further away from the grip to make it better for chopping and allow you to 'choke up' on the knife and bring your index finger closer to the edge for more control when doing detailed work, but it's this detailed work that is going to be most fatiguing on your hand. A finger choil is not a comfortable way to hold a knife so you immediately sacrifice comfort to give you more chopping power, chopping power that is insignificant when compared to even the smallest of axes. 
I know this is described as a survival knife and the argument with these knives is always that it is a one tool option and what if it's all you have. Well my counter argument to that is in what circumstance do you imagine that your knife is going to be any more accessible to you than an axe, if I had to rush out of the house in an emergency right now it wouldn't take any longer to grab an axe than a knife and in the case of a bugout bag a smaller knife plus small axe are not so much heavier than a single large knife that I would ever choose the single knife option over the knife/axe combo.

One final knife for the 'rogues gallery' of 'gimmicky' knives designed by celebrity survivalists is the Whiskey Knives Hustler designed by Creek Stewart.

I don't even know what to say about this knife, and the idea that the massively extended tang is to stick it in the ground so you don't have to lay it on the ground when you are using it to process game is frankly absurd. That's what this knife is marketed for; game prep and I really can't understand the rationale for the design. It's certainly broken the mold but possibly not it a good way.


So with some of the landmark bushcraft knives discussed in depth and some which have tried and failed to be a little different shown too what do I WANT in a bushcraft knife, I've already said that all I NEED is something like the Mora companion. These weren't necessarily an option back in Kephart and Nessmuks day but even though Mors Kochanski and Ray Mears have their names on knives made to their own design they still advocate the use of Mora knives and in fact it is my understanding that those are the knives provided for participants of their courses. 

But what do I WANT in a knife, well I'll tell you but as this post has already gone on so long you will have to read part 2 to find out, it will be available tomorrow!

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