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Let's talk about knives

11518 Views 28 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  JeepHammer
First off, as a matter of full disclosure, I am a "professional hobbyist" knifemaker. That is, I have a full-time job, but bladesmithing is my apprenticeship to my retirement.

Second, I do not believe that there is one superior brand, or even style, of knife that's appropriate for every situation, let alone survival. Survival and preparedness cover so many situations, that I think the best we can do is talk about the guidelines, and things to look for, when choosing a knife. Personal taste, and personal experience will color our choices as well.

So, what makes a good survival knife? If one defines survival as existing away from "home" and readily available manufactured goods, then it must first be able to do whatever I ask of any knife. It should be exceptionally sharp, exceptionally durable, and capable of taking a great deal of abuse without failure. The American Bladesmith Society has a performance test that all members must pass in order to earn their Journeyman rank... a test blade must first shave hair from the arm, cut through a free-hanging hemp rope (1 inch thick) in a single cut, chop through two 2x4's, and then shave hair again. Then, the smith must put the blade in a vise, and bend it 90 degrees without breaking (a partial crack is okay, but the blade must not fail completely).

While I am not a member of the ABS, I do use their test to gauge my own quality, and I can confidently say that a knife made to these standards will serve the survivalist very well. The test covers the areas of proper heat treating, edge geometry, the sharpening skill of the maker, and the steel itself. If any of those areas are weak, the knife will underperform, and in a survival situation, that's just not cool.

Knives are generally made of either carbon steels (which generally includes tool steels), and stainless. The paleo guys will correct me with knapped work that surpasses the maximum sharpness steel could ever get, and we can go off on a tangent of bronze-age stuff, ceramics, and synthetics... but most of us work in steel, and that meets the modern need quite well.

Stainless steel has the advantage of corroding (rusting) far slower than carbon and tool steels. It accomplishes this by adding other elements in large amounts, as much as 13% by weight, in order to alloy the steel to a "stainless" state. Chromium is the usual suspect, though there are other things in there as well. At such high alloy levels, the forging and heat treating of stainless steel is a difficult process; most blades are stamped and ground from sheets fresh from the mill, and heat treated with computer controls and precise repetition.

Carbon steel is a simpler recipe, but is easier to manipulate (forge) and can be easily recycled and modified. It will rust quickly if weathered, but can be more flexible, durable, and even aesthetically pleasing. The modern customer tends to prefer shiny to performance, so most of the knives getting cranked out of factories by the thousands are made of stainless, by machine, rather than hand-made to an individual's specifications.
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So, now the million-dollar question, what's your favorite survival knife?
I always carry my old stand-by of a Swiss army knife in my pocket, as I have done for many years, and a Spyderco police model on my pocket. I finally had to retire my first Spyderco after carrying it for about 20 years. The serrations are almost worn away from resharpening on the blade. I keep a US military MK I knife and a WW I US military bolo in my truck. For a sheath knife to carry, I have a Gerber BMF without the serrations and a Parrish custom, both of which I picked up back in the late 80's. The Parrish is a hollow handled knife, made from a solid billet of steel so it is not weak like most all of the hollow handled knives. I've used it to cut down trees on my place in tri-states before I sold it.

I've always tried to stay away from gimmick knives and stay with working knives. I have some neat ones in my collection, like my small coffin handled boot knife made by Al Mar before he died and my bolo made from damascus steel made from a meteorite with mastodon bone scales but these are more for show than work. Everytime I've gotten Randals in trade, someone talks me out of it for too many bucks. But you will find most all of my Gerbers, Cold Steels and Pumas are used.

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