Remember the 1980s? It was a decade filled with the smell of Aquanet hairspray, the sounds of synthesized rock songs and action movies with stars like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone. It was a decade of excess and over-the-top culture. For the knife carrying outdoorsman, the ‘80s also were marked with a distinct style of blades that flooded the sporting goods market, the hollow-handle survival knife. These knives were the ultimate survival tools in the hands of Hollywood action stars. But, just as the ‘80s came to pass, so did the trend of so-called “Rambo” knives and those with hollow handles.
For years, cheap hollow-handle knives were found everywhere from flea markets to discount knife catalogs to budget camping stores. Even now they are still found in countless online knife store inventories as the novelty of owning one never truly went away. These mass-produced blades regularly broke or disjointed at the hilt, were made from inferior materials, had questionable construction with single roll pins holding the tang in place and were not well suited for actual outdoors use.
Only a handful of knife makers continued to make quality hollow-handle blades like Lile, Randall and Martin Knives. Recently, I was discussing the modern hollow-handle knife with Hank Martin of Martin Knives and after hearing about the solutions his company discovered to common hollow-handle problems, I became intrigued.
I figured it was time to revisit the idea and wanted to treat the hollow handle blades available to me like those of full-exposed tang construction. Has modern manufacturing addressed the stereotypical problems of lesser quality blades? Martin Knives sent me one of their MCE2 knives to try out and told me not to go easy on it. As the photos from my testing will indicate, I did not.
Also reviewed are a Randall Knives Model 18 and an RMJ Tactical Shrike Tomahawk both with hollow handles.
Hollow handle knives are typically made from the blade tang, guard, a hollow compartment handle with a cap and a guard. In the late 20th century, Chris Reeve Knives produced a one-piece line featuring a knife made from a single billet of steel with an aluminum cap. This eliminated the problem of blade separation from the handle and wiggling loose guards. Chris Reeve Knives no longer produces this design but similar one-piece blades are available from production companies.
Other manufacturers improved on the weak design by soldering the components together and pinning the blade in place with multiple roll or push pins. Martin Knives greatly improved the design by threading the blade into the handle and using an aircraft grade epoxy to create one of the strongest connections possible. In fact, multiple destruction tests done by Böker knives, maker of their production level Apparo design, resulted in the blade breaking not where it was expected to at the ricasso but rather at the shearpoint where the blade was viced into place.
The Böker engineers could not break the handle from the tang at the connection. The RMJ Tactical Shrike features a hollow over-molded handle. The handle not only provides a water-tight compartment for a honing stone or survival components, but the handle serves to protect the user from electrical current as well. This feature is ideal for military and law enforcement personnel who may use it for breaching rigged doors.
The handle material runs through the weight reduction holes in the Shrike’s handle and will not separate.
Randall’s #18 has been around since the Vietnam conflict and the company’s reputation for quality is due in part to the reliability of this model. In my research, I found no accounts of handle separation and many avid users attribute it to the use of silver solder reinforcing the construction of blade, guard and handle. The design flaws of the past are no longer an issue and modern strength is achieved through improved design and construction.
“The knives by Randall and Martin Knives will cost more than your mass-produced knife but with price comes the understanding of craftsmanship and quality materials.”
WHAT TO CARRY?
When First Blood came out and featured the Lile hollow-handle blade, everyone watched with great attention. Stallone used the space in the handle to hold matches, fish hooks, and line and possibly other small survival items. Since then, outdoorsmen have found ways of packing handles with everything from folding saws to small flashlights to water treatment tablets to emergency cash.
As the hollow handle knives lost popularity, they were replaced with knives featuring sheaths holding fire steels and sharpening stones or other provisions to hold a multi-tool or spare magazine. In re-examining the hollow-handle knife, we can replace items previously carried with those offering better technology.
A small ferro rod can replace an equal diameter of wooden matches and provide many more potential fires. Recently, in the mountains of Hope, British Columbia where First Blood was filmed, I used the MCE2 to start fires with locally harvested resin wood (A.K.A. Fatwood) and the small ferro rod carried inside.
For wounds, suture material can be replaced with steri-strips or Dermabond surgical glue. Monofilament line can be replaced with braided fishing line or Kevlar thread that is much stronger. If space is truly at a premium, the handle can be double-wrapped with line starting with braided fishing line first followed by the #36 braided bank line or paracord of choice. The average hollow handle, 4.5 inches for argument’s sake, will hold between 15 and 18 feet of #36 line. All of these items were once and continue to be considered “last ditch” items and should never be thought of as a complete kit but supplemental items instead.
Additionally, wet/dry sandpaper can act as a sharpening system, a cut-down Reynold’s oven bag and water tablets can provide the container and means to treat water and firearms takedown tools can be carried if paired with a handgun or rifle. RMJ Tactical uses the spare space in the hollow handle of their Shrike to house a sharpening stone which may be needed if the tool is used aggressively for rescue and breaching applications.
The extra space of a hollow handle goes unnoticed until it is needed. Just as the inside of a cooking pot is used to nest a fuel canister or camp supplies rather than being carried separately, small hard to come by items can be carried and forgotten about until they are needed.
WHICH IS BEST?
It is fairly easy to identify a quality hollow handle blade and the premium price is, in this case, a good determining factor. The knives by Randall and Martin Knives will cost more than your mass produced knife but with price comes the understanding of craftsmanship and quality materials. If knives are considered to fall into production, mid-tech and full-custom categories, these survival knives are custom made and carry better than average warranties. Some of the older designs are fetching high prices on online auction sites for their collectability but also their durability and rareness. Other hollow handle knife makers are out there offering mid-tech designs trading off price for materials used and quality.
The Böker/Martin Knives Apparo, for example, can be purchased for less than $150 online with no waiting during production (at the time this article was written). In a worst case scenario, if you can’t find a hollow handle blade to your liking and still want to have some supplies on hand, you can always duct tape or zip tie a small Nalgene 2-ounce bottle to your knife sheath with the small contents inside. This will let you carry some last-ditch gear with your blade. Otherwise, you can tuck certain items in your wallet as a last-ditch kit similar to the contents specified by the USRSOG group in their “Final Option” kit.
Before hollow handle blades are dismissed based on assertions from years of inferior design failures in the field, the current offerings should be examined and reasons why they may be the best option should be considered. After extensive testing of modern hollow handle designs, I can confidently assert they are strong enough to handle survival skills training and outdoor needs. There are some great leftovers from the ‘80s like Bon Jovi, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Nintendo and added to this should be the hollow-handle knife. It isn’t a design for everyone but it may be the right one for you.
The hollow-handle knife can be adapted for use by many occupations and for different types of recreation. Carried as first-line survival gear (worn on the pants belt instead of the pistol belt) it provides the user with basic survival gear. For those who can utilize the smallest items to the greatest advantage (SERE), the hollow handle can carry items in a compact manner. One could argue a firesteel could be lost carried on the outside of the sheath but is less likely to disappear when carried inside the knife handle. One benefit is certain, in saltwater conditions; the hollow handle prevents a ferro rod from deteriorating from exposure if carried externally.
Also, the hollow handle can eliminate the need to carry a supplemental pouch on the outside of the sheath to prevent snagging or hanging up and streamlining the profile of the gear carried. Other applications will be determined by the variety of contents one can carry in the hollow handle. Speaking of handles, one criticism of round handled knives is the inability to “night index” or in other words determine which side of the blade is sharp in the dark. If a handle is cord-wrapped by whipping, there will be two strands of cordage running the length of the handle. This slight ridge underneath the wrapping provides the “night index” for tactile edge awareness or for those who make a habit or have fantasies of cutting objects in complete darkness.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.