By Paul Donovan
A knife is the single most important item you can have with you in a survival situation, as it has many functions, but no one type of knife is good at all tasks. A big, heavy knife may be good for batoning (splitting) wood, but not preparing game or whittling fire sticks. Whereas a small knife comes into its own during more delicate tasks. But what makes a good bushcraft knife – a fixed blade, or folding blade? A big knife or small knife? Let’s try and unravel the ins and outs of buying a knife.
A folding knife is useful due to its compact size. However, they are not without their faults. Many do not have locking blades, so can easily fold back on a finger when in use or when being folded closed. The joint between the blade and handle can fail with continual abusive use over long periods of time. When buying a folding knife, always choose one with a locking blade, and buy a reputable brand – you’ll recognise names like Victorinox, Gerber, Buck, SOG, Kershaw and Opinel. The blade should be of high quality steel, and the handle have good ergonomics and feel comfortable in the hand.
The Swiss Army knife started this ball rolling, but the leader in the marketplace now is undoubtedly the Leatherman family. Having a knife with millions of gadgets may seem a good idea, but bulkiness and the likelihood of never using all those bits often outweighs their functionality. Ask yourself: “It looks good, but will I ever use all those bits?”
Subtle design differences in fixed blade knives make each suitable for a different task. The more you understand the anatomy of a knife, the better decision you can take in choosing the right one for you. So let’s look at the anatomy of a fixed blade in a bit more detail…
Fixed Blade Anatomy
The blade’s quality is governed by the steel it is fashioned from, and is what separates a cheap knife from a good one. Good quality steel has strength, integrity and resistance to rust – which ultimately determines how well it holds its edge. Two types of steel used in blade construction are stainless steel and carbon steel. Both have their good and bad qualities. Stainless steel is much more forgiving of abusive use, and more resistant to rust and corrosion. Its downside is that it loses its sharpness faster than carbon steel, and can be difficult to sharpen.
Carbon steel, on the other hand, holds its sharpness, is easier to sharpen, and is robust. Its one drawback is that unless looked after properly, it will rust.
Personally, I think six inches is a good all-round length for a blade, and is suitable for most tasks you ask of it. Avoid knives with a serrated portion to the blade edge, as you lose valuable working length.
The tang is the portion which the handle is attached to. A handle which attaches to a short tang will over time work loose from the blade and is liable to break, rendering the knife useless. A tang extending the length of the handle shows that it and the blade were formed from a single piece of steel, and the knife will have superior strength. If the handle breaks it is easy to form a new one over a full-length tang, while it is extremely difficult to do this with a short tang.
Avoid knives with hollow handles filled with a few bits of survival kit. These knives have no tang, so no strength. The tiny amount of kit you get does not warrant the reduction in the knife’s strength and durability. Also, avoid knives with compasses built into the end of the handle as it limits you using this portion of the knife (the pommel) like a hammer for pounding things. A knife with a substantial pommel becomes a much more versatile tool.
The knife handle should sit comfortably in the palm, with a good grip. Handles can be made from many types of materials, from rubber to plastic, wood, bone, antler, etc. It’s down to personal choice.
An essential feature of a fixed blade knife, is a quillon. This is a cross guard, between the handle and blade, preventing your hand from sliding down the handle on to the blade.
A knife should always be kept in a sheath, for its and your protection. Sheathes are available in a wide range of materials but should have two important components: a belt loop, and a retaining strap of some sort to secure the knife when it’s in the sheath.
How much should I pay?
The more you pay, the better quality knife you will end up with. Just make sure it’s a reputable brand, bought from a reputable store.
The many functions of a knife are only as good as the person using it. Skill comes from repeatedly using the knife for a variety of tasks, and learning what its (and your) strengths and weaknesses are.