HOW TO SELECT YOUR WINGMAN
Most bushcraft instructors would agree that a good quality knife is one of the most important tools to possess. While there are many ways to improvise a cutting tool (such as knapping a piece of flint or finding a piece of broken glass in a roadside ditch), taking the time now to shop for and select a knife that will meet your needs and your budget will save you a lot of aggravation and stress later.
A bushcraft knife is akin to a multi-tool in that it is required to perform a variety of duties with a single design. Also like a multi-tool, a bushcraft knife might be called upon to do things its designers never envisioned. Among the tasks expected of a knife when used in the wild will be cleaning game, batoning firewood, lighting a fire with a ferrocerium rod, providing self-defense against predators and assisting with building a shelter.
Continuing with the multi-tool analogy: A knife might not be perfect for everything, but it might also be the only tool you have with you. Given the choice, most of us would likely prefer to process firewood with an axe, start a fire with a butane lighter and clean dinner with a full set of butcher’s tools. Absent that gear, we need our knife to be able to handle it all.
There are literally thousands of options on the market when it comes to choosing a knife. It can be overwhelming to try to whittle down the list to even a few possible choices. Big chopper or small carver? Stainless steel or carbon steel?
What I recommend is to narrow your list to four or five knives and then seek them out at stores and expos so you can see them in person. When you get right down to it, knife selection is—or should be—a very personal choice. It needs to be comfortable in your hand. If it isn’t, you won’t want to use it.
There are several features or factors that should be considered when shopping for a good quality bushcraft knife.
FIXED VERSUS FOLDER
This really isn’t a debatable point. While a folding knife is surely handy for many things, you need a fixed-blade knife for processing firewood by batoning. Further, you really wouldn’t want to go up against a predator while armed with only a folding knife. Is it possible to survive in the wild with only a folding knife as your cutting tool? Sure. I know several survival instructors who could do it. But until you’ve amassed several years of practical real-world experience out in the field, stick with fixed blades.
All too often, beginning bushcrafters will select the largest knife their budget allows. They’ve seen all the movies and have intuited that a survival knife has to be enormous in order to function properly. The reality is that you probably don’t need a very large knife at all. A big knife is clumsy and awkward to use for many common camp chores.
Most instructors suggest a blade length of about 4 or 5 inches. Add on a handle large enough to be comfortable to hold, and you’re looking at an overall length of 8 to 9 inches. Next, look at the blade’s thickness. As should be obvious, the thicker the blade is, the stronger it will be. However, a thicker blade also makes for a heavier knife. Around ¼ to ⅜ inch thick seems to work well for most people. The blade is very strong without being so thick that it turns the knife into a boat anchor.
Depending upon just how nitpicky you want to get with differentiating among them, there are around 18 to 20 different blade profiles. The “profile” is the shape of the blade. Many of the profiles available today are all but worthless for a bushcraft knife. For example, avoid any knife with both edges sharpened. Double-edged knives aren’t well suited for batoning. They can also be problematic when processing game and are illegal in some areas.
A straight-back profile, where the back of the blade runs a straight line from the handle to the point, is one of the best options for a bushcraft knife. Another is the drop-point profile, where the back of the blade dips slightly just before the tip. This lowers the point of the knife, making for a stronger tip. The spine of the blade should be flat, not rounded. Many bushcrafters will use the spine of the knife to scrape sparks from a ferro rod. That’s nearly impossible to do with a rounded spine. You can also use a squared spine to scrape tinder from fatwood and other materials, thus saving your blade’s edge.
“Grind” refers to the shape of the knife’s edge. There are a handful of choices, although only a few are truly suitable for bushcraft pursuits. The flat grind— especially the flat Scandi grind is very popular. Both the flat and the flat Scandi are shaped like the letter V as you look down the blade from the tip.
With the true flat grind, the entire blade, from the back to the edge, tapers to form the V. The Scandi grind has the V starting more than halfway between the back and the edge. (The area where the blade tapers is called the “bevel.”) These are both strong edges and will tackle most chores with ease. Plus, they are fairly easy to sharpen, even in the bush, provided you have a sharpening stone or other tools with you. Many people prefer a convex grind, because it makes for a very durable and strong edge.
With this grind, the bevels are rounded, rather than flat, as with the Scandi grind. These rounded, or convex, bevels lend strength to the edge. However, the convex edge can be difficult to sharpen until you get the hang of it. A strop and sharpening compound will be your best friends in that regard.
Of course, the type of steel used to make the knife is important. All steel uses iron and carbon as basic ingredients. From there, the type of steel is determined by the other additives. While there are innumerable options in this regard, when you boil it down, it comes to one basic decision: stainless or high carbon.
Stainless steel has a high amount of chromium added to the mix. It is this ingredient that makes stainless steel very corrosion resistant. If you’ll be operating in areas with a lot of dampness or near saltwater, stainless steel might be your best choice. Look for 440C stainless steel, which is very durable.
High-carbon steel lacks the chromium of stainless steel, and therefore, it is a bit more prone to rust if it isn’t cared for properly. However, 1095 carbon steel is one of the most popular knife steels for a reason: It holds an edge beautifully without also being a bear to sharpen. Just be sure to give the blade a light coat of oil to protect it from rust and corrosion.
The “tang” is the part of the knife that extends into the handle. Some folks refer to the tang as the “shank.”
When it comes to the tang, today’s knives are made in a few different ways. A “full” tang is when the steel runs from the blade all the way to the butt of the knife at the same width. This is, by far, the strongest knife construction and is the preferred option for bushcraft. A “rattail” tang runs the length of the handle or nearly so but is only about half as wide as the blade. Most Mora knives are constructed like this.
The third option is a blade mechanically fastened to the handle, such as through the use of a nut and bolt. These include most of the ever-popular hollow-handle knives. However, with rare exceptions, these are worthless for bushcraft purposes.
Handle choice is largely a matter of comfort. You want a handle that won’t hurt your hand, of course, or that is so thick that it is difficult to control the knife. Many knives today have handles made of Micarta, a material comprised of paper, linen, canvas and other materials. It is extremely wear resistant. It also typically has enough roughness to it that it won’t slip from your hand when wet. G10 is another popular synthetic handle material that can be machined into an almost unlimited variety of textures and shapes.
Another common handle material is wood. This is also a great option, especially if you’re concerned about the looks of the knife, as well as its performance. There are some absolutely stunning handles made from exotic woods.
The two most popular sheaths on the market today are Kydex and leather. Kydex is a plastic material that is thermoformed into holsters, sheaths and other products. It is waterproof, extremely tough and won’t stretch or lose shape over time. On the other hand, leather sheaths are much quieter.
There is virtually no noise when pulling a knife from a leather sheath, whereas there is typically a click-clack heard with a Kydex sheath. Either way, make sure your knife is held securely by the sheath, even if it is turned upside down. A sheath that offers attachment points beyond the belt loop is also a bonus, because it gives you additional carry options.
Your bushcraft knife could well be the most important tool investment you make. Do your homework to make sure the knife you choose will be right for you.
Recommended Bushcraft Knives
There are many knives that meet the criteria for a good bushcraft blade. Here is just a sampling. Prices noted are averages, so shop around for the best deals.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.