San Diego — Fascinating… The world of “blogging” is truly a magical place. I thought my last entry on sharpening would end this series and i could get back to ranting about this or that. Ha! Now I get virtually no hits and less feedback from photo-related stuff, lots of hits from my political rants, but now I’ve gotten some really fascinating emails re this “escape” series (for me) on knives and knife sharpening. One email asked an interesting question: what did I think was the best knife type? And another asked which I thought was the best blade design for a fighting knife. Hmmmm, now the fact I would get those questions is interesting to me. As i said, I thought the last post would be the end of this discussion but it looks like it is good for one more.
I’ll take the first question first. Deciding on the best knife requires more data in the question. Best for what? Best kitchen knife, best camp knife, best pocket or carry knife? The answer is, “It depends…” Don’t you just HATE that answer?
But actually that is the same answer I give for questions about the best camera; it depends on what you want to do with it. A simple answer is that the best one is the one you have with you when you need it. Assuming, that is, you take very good care of all of your knives then the truth is that you can do virtually ANYthing with almost any knife… if (and it is a big IF) you (a) know how to use it and (b) it is properly sharpened.
I think a better way to approach it may be to ask what is the most useless knife (apart from the one you left at home)? For my tastes, the modern switchblades and balisongs are the most useless. They scare the stuffing out of untrained folks and liberals but as working knives they are not strong enough and as serious fighters, while being flashy to twirl around and look dangerous with, and are quite capable of dealing death in surprise rushes and attacks, they are really no match for an all out fighting knife in the hands of a trained and skilled user. At least that is my opinion of them. But that is avoiding the point – uh, so to speak… sometimes I can’t help myself.
If fighting and heavy camp chores are not part of the intended functions for a knife than in my opinion one of the best all around blade designs is a drop point. It allows for cutting and slicing, is the best skinner since it can easily avoid cutting the tissue beneath the skin, and the unsharpened back makes it easy to grip and control in a variety of ways for a variety of uses. It is a great general purpose design.
However if those limitations above (fighting and heavy camp use) are actually part of a knife’s intended uses, then that leads us to the next question about the best or most deadly fighting knife design. If fighting is truly a part of the knife’s uses then it is hard to argue that such use is not the most serious since it is a life-and-death issue.
Do remember, in the hands of a trained fighter, even a box knife can kill you. For that matter a ballpoint pen can be deadly in the hands of someone who knows how to use it. In fact, let me start this discussion with some deadly serious advice for you. If the question was asked in the same vein as asking which camera is best because the questioner thinks the results are totally a product of the tool, and the belief is that if you just have a good fighting knife then you are home free, I have some terrible, ghastly, unpleasant news for you.
You could be armed with a broad sword, but unless you were trained in how to use it, if you were facing a trained fighter with a pocketknife or even a little prison-style homemade shank, they would most likely carve you into spaghetti before you knew what was happening. Knife fighting is not some genteel duel of honor; it is brutal, bloody, painful business. The simple box knife noted before can open up an arm to the bone with a single well-executed cut. (It has to do with tissue compression and trust me, you do not want to see this demonstrated…) If that includes a major artery or vein you are in deep trouble.
Knife fighting is not about little nicks and slices though you might get a bunch of those too. It is not a case of death by a thousand little cuts, it’s a case of having muscle flayed to the bone, getting your throat slit, your head removed, or being disemboweled all in the blink of an eye. Knife fighting has moved far away from band-aid territory into the arena of many stitches and a very painful recovery where every time you move some major but sliced muscle you will have an instant reminder of just how stupid that was to get involved. And that is assuming you survive and have not been killed outright or left to let your human brain analyze all that is happening to you as you bleed out long before help can arrive.
Unless you are used to pain and shock and can control your natural reactions to them, the first time a bad guy carves a slice in a muscle somewhere on your body you will likely be stunned with the pain, want mostly to just throw up, and in most cases be instantly defocused on the fight, refocused on the site of the pain, and therefore out of the fight… and therefore, fair game for whatever the street savages desire to do to you.
Bottom line, and you really need to believe me here: if you are not trained to fight with your knife, and I do not mean reading about techniques or watching them on TV, I mean spending training time with real sparring partners launching real and painful attacks with training weapons, then do not dream of pulling a knife on an attacker who seems to know what they are doing. And if you do not know enough to be able to judge whether or not they likely know what they are doing then assume the worst and get the hell out of there or they will likely kill you or leave you sort-of alive but very much the worse for wear. And they will now own your fancy fightin’ blade even if it looked like the perfect Klingon weapon.
So lets just assume this is just an intellectual discussion about a type of tool and not that i am trying to tell you what sort of knife to get so you can go out and do battle with it.
From the ancient Sumerians down to 17th century Europe, various cultures toyed with modifications to their bladed weapons based on materials available and the armor of the enemy. All of the designs in the hands of trained warriors were very efficient killers. But other than the exceptions mentioned in the first installment of this series, most of the designs for small blades, that is, knife blades as distinguished from sword blades, fell into very limited categories usually based on a mixture of sword design and the major need to be a multi-functional tool. Long and short fighting blades alike were designed primarily for either a thrust (light, usually straight blade with a diamond cross section, a needle sharp tip centered on the grip axis and the balance close to the quillion or cross guard); or they were designed for the cut or slice (heavy single edged blade with major curve to the belly and the balance toward the tip), neither of which made for a very efficient working tool.
Masters at Arms had schools all over Europe and in the early Americas teaching ‘gentlemen’ how to use both bladed weapons and firearms since dueling was all the vogue. But dueling between gentlemen had rules and ‘seconds’ were on the scene to assist their principal as well as to enforce those rules. Then, as now, when you were attacked by thugs, bandits, street vermin of all types, there were no rules for them to follow except to steal what you had even if it meant killing you because failure for them meant more hunger and hardship. When you live in a time or place where under the best of circumstances life is hard and painful, you become calloused to it and have little or no thought for what you are inflicting on those who have what you need and are silly enough to prefer to keep it.
Life was extremely hard back then, few of us could survive the life most people had to live. And many lived on the very edge of survival, barely eking out a precariously thin living by removing goods from others often with little regard for the results. To kill some apparently (to them) rich gentleman for a scrap of bread was not seen as a problem.
However from the other side of the encounter, it is also important to understand that in the early 19th century in America, suicide was considered a mortal sin. And allowing yourself to be murdered by not fighting for your own life was considered akin to suicide by the moral perspective of the day. Plus not fighting to save your family was simply unthinkable. Together, it made life and death fights not all that rare an occurence and one for which you wanted to be prepared.
A firearm would seem a better choice and they did have them. But firearms were expensive, notoriously unreliable, single shot, and often inaccurate (except for expensive hunting rifles and dueling pistols) so a bladed weapon was highly favored as never misfiring and never needing reloading. But good swords were also very expensive, and they required real training and practice to use efficiently. Worse, they are less than convenient to carry (and were, in some places, illegal). So the knife found itself suddenly occupying an interesting niche in the pantheon of weaponry apart from its more utilitarian duties.
Many men in the late 1700s and early 1800s had fought in the War of Independence or the War of 1812 and had also fought against the native Americans in some incredibly brutal up-close-and-personal encounters against a foe truly into pain and endurance, so were not particularly squeamish about a little blood… or a lot of blood for that matter, though it was generally preferably that it was leaking out of someone else.
For anyone who has ever been in a real fight to the death with any sort of weapon, or no weapons for that matter, one thing is crystal clear: the main goal is not to kill the opponent, but to not let the opponent kill you. Staying alive is what matters most of all. And to avoid the approbation and reputation that would flow from allowing yourself to be murdered by some scumbag cutthroat, you needed a reliable, efficient, easy to carry and draw defense weapon.
So by the early 1800s, the knife had became a more common go-to weapon for unfriendly social encounters, and was seen increasingly as a specialty weapon and not just a common multi-functional tool you dragged out in desperation after your gun was empty and the bad guys were still coming at you.
Blade makers, blade users, and blade masters all were searching for more efficient designs that would give the users of their techniques and products an edge, so to speak, in a close encounter of the deadly kind. Into that world stepped the now legendary James T. (Jim) Bowie.
Due to a lack of definitive records, much controversy surrounds both Bowie and the knife that will forever be tied to his name. But there are enough descriptions about it and enough copies made by the Bowie family blacksmiths and other regional smiths that we know certain criteria. The common saying of the day was that a true Bowie knife was long enough to be used like a sword, sharp enough to shave with, strong and heavy enough to chop with and wide enough to use as an emergency paddle (in a canoe).
As a defense against some known enemies, in 1827 Jim’s older brother Rezin had made and given to Jim a knife that was typical of the day in that it looked more like a large single edged butcher knife with a fancy grip and slightly thicker blade. Using that knife against a dedicated opponent who had just shot him twice and run him through with a sword cane, he not only carved up the opponent but carved out the starting of a legend for himself. While healing from those wounds and thinking about the encounter, Bowie got around to designing his own idea of a good knife. It had a totally new blade design element that changed knife fighting to this day and that makes it, in my opinion, the best all around fighting knife design ever made: it had a large “clip” point with a false edge that served to lighten the blade. Clip point or “false edge” designs per se were not new: what he did with his was revolutionary.
That false edge of his design brought the tip down to the center line for better thrusting. It also had a slight recurve and when sharpened, as it was in all fighting versions of the design, provided a blade that could cut during all parts of a thrust and recovery. In fact that recurved edge was sometimes called the “rib tickler” though I doubt if someone was laughing when ‘tickled’ by it. The blade was usually about ¼ inch thick (so it was heavy and strong, balanced toward the tip more like an axe than a typical knife of the time) and the main edge had a deep belly curve that sliced through tissue like a hot knife through butter and designed for saber or cutlass style cuts.
The design proved to be so functional that by varying the blade length, blade thickness, steel composition and the balance point, it could work as a great camp knife (5-9 inch blades), a good skinning knife (3-5 inches), or, of course, in fighting trim with a 10-14 inch blade (and some examples were 18 inches which made it a short sword more than a knife), was a close quarter weapon capable of delivering wounds only a saber or broad sword could do prior.
Below are two extreme examples of Bowie style blades from little to big. At the top is a Buck “Folding Hunter” with a 3.75 inch Bowie style “clip” blade. At the bottom is a custom Gil Hibben copy of an 1830-ish fighting Bowie Knife with a 14 inch blade. This follows one of the patterns James Black, the maker of Bowie’s knife used for knives “like Bowie’s” although no other documentation exists to show us what that specific knife really looked like. (The problem is that Black and others made many knives for the Bowie clan and which one was THE Bowie knife of legend is open to question; any knife that anyone in the family used could properly be called a Bowie knife. The one this is modelled on was clearly a fighting knife due to the brass “blade catcher” on the spine and the so-called “Spanish Notch” on the other edge allegedy used to help trap and break another inferior blade. It is as good a candidate as any. It would take a knife like this to accomplish the results credited to Bowie and his knife.
Sorry Crocodile Dundee, your blade was cute… but… THIS is a knife! Interestingly it was reported that several potential encounters evaporated when Bowie drew his knife so it had to be something pretty special in a day when large knives were common.
Don’t get me wrong, from then till now people have used all manner of knife blades in serious encounters. From short Italian ‘Stilleto’ styles to Japanese ‘Tantos’; from Indian ‘Kris’ daggers to Arabic ‘Jambiya’ to Gurkha ‘Kukri” blades, knives have brought death in ugly packages. But people have also been killed with penknives and even sharpened credit cards. Held properly, a business card can open up a vein. There is almost no edged implement from shovels to scythes, not to mention axes, that cannot and have not been used to deadly purpose.
My own choices were and are dictated by training and mission specifics. Here are a some examples of knives I carried into harms way to show an almost extreme range:
At top is a Kershaw™ “Amphibian” boot dagger. Make no mistake, in skilled hands this little knife can be deadly as any, but its forte is extreme speed and surprise. And it is not really designed to be an offensive fighter.
In the middle is a Spyderco™ folder. Wicked looking to be sure but its serrated edge is designed more for cutting webbing and cordage than slicing muscle and tendons — though it will certainly do that.
Next is a Colt™ “Rail Splitter” model 4-blade pocketknife. I bought this to replace an nearly identical one I carried everywhere from highschool to the military where I lost it. No one would seriously think of this as a weapon (except the TSA and Progressives) but I’ll bet more people have been cut with pocket knives than any other type… of course usually they have managed to cut THEMSELVES being careless rather than cutting someone else.
And at the bottom is my own knife design used on some later missions in the military. It has a few inches of the spine of its 10-inch sword point blade sharpened for back cuts and smoother penetration. The balance point of this D2 steel knife is near the grip making the blade feel exceptionally light and fast. The grip is long enough it can be used like a hand-and-a-half sword to increase the energy of a cut and the pommel is large enough to give you a good grip when withdrawing the blade from whatever it might be stuck in. It does not have the heft and balance so cannot hack like a true Bowie, but it holds a frighteningly sharp edge, is extremely fast, and being light it is easy to pack for long distances as well. It is, in my opinion, a far better pure fighter than the heavier Bowie; but its weight, balance, composition, thickness, and temper renders it nearly useless for any other function.
And just to round this out to show the versatility of the Bowie-style blade, the next photo is of a so-called “survival knife.” It has a modified Bowie styled blade and the false edge is not such a deep recurve nor is it sharpened. Above it is a “Champion” Swiss Army Knife.
The saw-back on this knife actually has proper “double set” teeth so it does really work for sawing small wrist-sized wood (unlike a lot of them) and it also produces excellent tinder from the saw dust. The original “saw” teeth on early military “survival knives” were not for wood but for escape from the Plexiglas canopies and windows in military aircraft. I did not expect to have to escape from a downed helicopter once out of the military so I chose one with a practical saw. Some modern “saw backs” are just for show. Plus, its heavy 9” blade is great for chopping and cutting wood, and the handle contains useful stuff. Even the sheath contains a very sharp reasonably sized skinning knife. I wrapped the sheath in 550 paracord and the handle in a lighter cord (you can see peeking out from under the cushion wrap from a tennis racquet) because in the type of survival/emergency situation where you would need a knife like this you never have enough lashing to construct shelters. Another modification of the Bowie designis that the clip or false edge in this knife does not drop the point down to the centerline of the grip for thrusting nor is it sharpened.
Sylvester Stallone’s character, John Rambo made this style of knife (designed by Jimmy Lile for the first two films and then by Gil Hibben) look really cool and deadly, but in fact it is a terrible fighting knife. The hollow handle eliminates the strength of a full tang construction and the saw back would get tangled and hung up in clothes or tissue and limit both penetration and withdrawal of the blade turning it into only a cutting weapon. It does its intended job very well but that job is not to be a weapon with which to dispatch enemies but rather a tool with which to make things to keep yourself alive.
The era of Jim Bowie and serious knife fighting lasted only a few years. He was killed in the Alamo in 1836, the same year Samuel Colt invented the revolver in the form of the “Patterson Colt.” Within a few short years, firearms, especially handguns, had so improved in reliability, power, and accuracy that the knife once again became relegated to being primarily an important multifunction camp/hunting/survival tool. Of course there were still knife fights, as there are still knife fights and stabbings today when something better is not readily at hand. But except for specific military needs such as the KaBar knife for Army and Marines and the British Commando Dagger and its descendant the Sykes-Fairbairn knife, it was no longer a front line weapon. Yet in many locales, fighting Bowie knives had such a fearsome reputation that they were outlawed for carry long before firearms were banned… and in some places still are.
In today’s urban combat zones the little miscreants on the streets are often armed with various “cool” looking blades that are deadly against unarmed or surprised victims or between combatants using the same types of blades. Some of the more experienced and hardened among them are ‘trained’ in prison to perform a vicious sudden slashing rush that even with a small blade can be deadly for the unsuspecting victim. (And you thought prison was not educational…) But a skilled fighter would slice them into lunchmeat with a real fighting Bowie knife having over a foot of additional reach.
In addition to its fighting ability, I think the Bowie design is also a useful general pattern for outdoors and camping use. The survival knife above is a modified Bowie style as, for that matter, are most survival knives. In the shot below is a modern Bowie by old time U.S. knife maker, Schrade, following the pattern of many of the Sheffield English Bowies from the mid-1800s and later. Slightly smaller and thinner than the 1830s Bowie replica above, its 12-inch blade still can reach out farther than a boot knife or even most hunting knives, if fighting becomes necessary.
But surprisingly to some, it really is a good all around camp knife (if weight is not an issue) since it has the heft and chopping ability of a small hatchet to help make firewood or even shelter (on this particular knife the clip is sharpened more like a hatchet and it works well for gathering and splitting small campfire wood); the main edge can cut or slice like a chef’s knife; when handled properly it is a workable, though certainly not perfect skinner; and it can be used make other tools including digging sticks (do not use your precious blade as a shovel, use it to make something you can dig with) and serious weapons like spears. As a general rule, in non-fighting dress a knife is not designed to be a primary weapon but rather a tool to MAKE primary weapons.
I’ve encountered people on the trail who saw my big knife, usually lashed to a backpack, and snickered or even made some uncharitable comment about me thinking I was Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett (though none have thus far mentioned Jim Bowie which is odd to me; Boone and Crocket and most frontiersmen all carried large knives of unknown patterns, but Bowie was legendary for his). Truth is I can only wish I had those individuals’ skills in the woods so am flattered by the comparison.
I have no quarrel with those who think they are fully equipped for what emergency and survival preparedness people call SHTF or TEOTWAWKI events with a Swiss Army Knife (I have one too) or a sporty looking paring knife. The smaller belt knives popular today among hikers can provide a sense of being equipped or even a sense of being “armed” like the frontiersmen and mountain men of old and help create a sense of preparedness and confidence. And they are handy for other things. Once I saw a poperly bedecked hiker out with his plastic shovel use his little knife to cut some poison oak leaves because he forgot the roll of TP. No, i didn’t tell him… was that wrong of me?
But on the well laid out trails even in wilderness areas (how can it be a wilderness when there are marked trails running through it???) they have neither the expectation of, nor much if any experience with, serious survival needs. For an hour-or-so hike on a maintained trail I usually carry a smaller lighter knife too. They plan on carrying their own little camp stove, and enough trail mix and gorp for an army of squirrels and otherwise are dedicated to eliminating every possible ounce off of what they will carry. I’m glad i am old enough to remember what it was like to sleep on a properly made bough bed: warm and springy. To avoid damage to a given tree we might take one or two boughs from over a score of trees. But those days are gone except for in true emergencies. But in that emergency, not many people have ever been taught how to make a bough bed or a debris hut to stay warm like squirrels in winter, or how to build reflector fires to turn their little lodge into a sort of oven. Those things take a large knife to construct speedily and easily.
Even if some trouble befalls the modern trekker they seem, based on conversations with some of them, more into endurance testing than being able to live comfortably off of the land; and their modern city-bred sensibilities leave them offended at the thought of a real cooking fire or cutting wood for a shelter, and makes them throw up at the thought of killing and eating Bambi or Thumper for dinner (assuming they could figure out how to skin and butcher the meat… assuming they knew how to capture and kill it… assuming they could start a fire to avoid eating it raw).
They have no need for and would most likely hurt themselves or a friend with a big blade. But I am not into endurance or testing my tolerance for cold or hunger. My uncle taught me early on how to use what nature provides to be reasonably comfortable and to prosper even if it is for a short time waiting for help to arrive. He did that and taught that with the help of a large knife and I am just following suit. Yes, of course, it is nice to learn where your limits really are, but it is even nicer to have the skill and equipment to never have to get near them or truly test them.
i almost never am out in the woods, mountains, forests, or deserts without some sort of knife. For a short hike away from a parking lot I most likely will only have a small one though I still prefer belt knives to folders because they are a lot stronger. Here are some of my smaller knives I might grab for a short hike.
On the left is a damascus steel knife with a semi-Bowie style blade (properly called a “Trailing Point”), made by Colt… yes THAT Colt. In the middle, to be fair, is a drop point knife made by Smith & Wesson and a terrific skinner. On the right is a knife made by Chicago Cutlery that has a blade very similar to a Russell knife used by the Mountain Men so I liberated it from the kitchen and made the sheath to go with it to wear with my fringed and beaded buckskin finery.
All of these knives have seen use in camp, but not to gather or prepare firewood (except perhaps to make tinder or kindling) or to construct lodging. They do not have enough heft and I guard my honed edges too much for that unless it was a true emergency and I did not have a proper blade along with me. But on short treks away from the car to capture an image, such a need is most unlikely. In fact, truth be told, ANY need for a knife at all on such little walks is most unlikely except for an occasional splinter or cactus needle that needs removing. It is just that I feel undressed without one.
On the right is a shot taken by a student on a photo workshop in Canyonlands in the late 1970s and you can see that beaded sheath from the shjot above hanging on a beaded belt. Canyonlands is a wild place but you can easily see that at this point, I am not very far from my Land Rover (oh how I would dearly love to have that vehicle back!). When we explored deeper into the canyons I carried a different (and bigger) knife and some other emergency gear/supplies.
But if I expect to be out for several hours or especially into rough terrain where I or one of my party could be hurt and need to spend the night; I’ll grab one of the bigger ones. Call me paranoid if you wish; that is OK with me. But… I’ve spent enough time in the bush that I’ve been in such situations. They are not fun. They are even less fun without good tools.
A true survival situation usually comes on you suddenly: someone slips and falls and you hear the bone snap; one of your party suffers a medical emergency and cannot go on; and with the terrible realization that you are in deep trouble immediately comes a natural but potentially deadly emotional response: panic. Panic drains energy at a stunning rate. Even if you know how and are willing to try to start a fire or build a shelter. both enterprises require energy. And they take a lot more energy if done with a little blade than done with a big one. Don’t believe that? Try cutting down a wrist-sized sappling for a shelter ridge pole with your pocket knife. Of course it can be done, but when the sun is setting, cold is coming on fast and you are still whittling away at the wood, the panic will increase and under the stress you will start to sweat. The sweat and the dampened clothes will turn dangerous for you as the cold increases. By then you could have a shelter and a nice comforting fire going with a bigger blade that was sharp and that you knew how to use.
So, my personal conclusion is that although I own a number of knives with various blade designs and sizes, and when possible chose one of them based on the task at hand for which that design is most efficient, if I had to pick just one and that pick was the only knife I could ever carry or use for all knife related tasks, it would be a large Bowie type blade.
Actually it would probably be THE one in the shot above since I already have it and it has thus far done all I have asked of it. The only down side of that specific knife is that it is made of 440 stainless steel which though it takes and holds a great edge, when it finally DOES get dull it would be harder to sharpen properly in the field.
And yes, in photos of me in the outdoors over the years you may note different types and sizes of knives being carried. All of the photos in this post are of a few of the knives I own. Consequently I don’t have to rely on just one blade for everything – so I don’t. Knives are tools. You ideally pick the right tool for the right job. Screwdrivers are tools too but you do not choose a Phillips screwdriver when you need a flat blade or a Torx™. Same with knives.
But that was not the question…