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The Only 3 Blades You’ll Ever Need In The Wilderness

Image source: Blackmountainforge.ca

Image source: Blackmountainforge.ca

He was a man of his time, a writer for Forest and Stream magazine around the 1880s, and woodsman among woodsmen. George Washington Sears, affectionately known as Nessmuk, spent many of his days rambling in the backwoods of the Adirondacks in northern New York State.

And while the term “bushcraft” had not yet been coined, he certainly provided a great measure of influence on the art through his writings and practices. But there’s one particular topic from which we can gain a very fundamental lesson, and one that Nessmuk seemed to have authoritatively mastered.

It’s one thing to gain instruction and teaching from modern-day survivalist types that we often see on TV, because they’re certainly not newbies when it comes to getting by in the wilderness.  But the reason I tend to lend an ear to men like Nessmuk is because thriving off the land is just what they did and how they lived.

Did Nessmuk have an opinion on ye olde survival knife? Did he even have one?

In a way, I believe that the term “survival knife” itself is evidence of our modern times, because men like Nessmuk weren’t surviving per se. They were in the woods because they wanted to be there in the first place.

A Systemic Approach to Your Blades

At the same time, they’d probably think it an odd thing, simply because he carried a system of blades — not just one. Nessmuk knew that if his gear was whittled down to just one blade, then he was in trouble.

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There are three main reasons for this:

  • First, a blade is simply a tool. You wouldn’t build a house with just a hammer, so you should probably not expect one knife to perform all the functions necessary for sustaining a wilderness existence.
  • Second, multiple blades offer gear/tooling redundancy. Relying on only one primary blade could have you knapping chert in desperation, because it’s just not difficult to lose things out there.
  • Third, not all blades are created equal, and some are needed for very specific tasks. To ask one blade to chop off a tree limb and then skin a raccoon shortly thereafter, is going to have you either spending all your time honing the blade … or frustrated that you destroyed a perfectly good raccoon pelt.

But since we now know what kind of blade Nessmuk wouldn’t want to carry (nor expect of it), let’s ask: What blades DID he carry? Just to give you a small hint: It’s a fantastically genius system that seemed to work quite well for the guy. And it also works for self-defense.

1. Ye Olde Ax

As I said, though there are three bladed tools in Nessmuk’s gear selection, as he didn’t carry just three blades. In fact, even his “hatchet” was a smaller-sized double-bit ax.

Why was he fond of the double-bit ax concept?

It offered him a lightweight, convenient way to carry multiple blades on a single tool. Also, he would then have been able to designate one edge for heavier tasks (like felling a tree) and the other for lighter tasks (like processing firewood). Either way, this offers the ability to have two varying degrees of grinds, sharpness and purposes on the same tool.

2. Pocket knife

Had Nessmuk been able to get his hands on a multi-tool, like a Gerber or Leatherman, he likely would have been thrilled – again, based on our knowledge that he loved multi-purpose items.

At the time, the technology wasn’t available for manufacturing a multi-tool, but he did carry a folding knife. He basically used his folding knife for smaller camp tasks, such as carving and whittling. Especially in those days, you’d rarely ever see these guys packing in their utensils, but instead, you’d see them whittling utensils out of sticks while in the field.

Though, thank goodness that in these days, we can throw a light plastic camping spork in the haversack before trekking into the wild.

3. The pristinely honed “muk” skinner

There was one knife in Nessmuk’s system that was NOT used for multiple purposes: his custom-designed skinner.

For knives that are made for gutting, processing meat and skinning, men like Nessmuk would not want the edge ever touching anything harder than sinew — because those blades would have been honed to perfection and religiously kept that way with daily upkeep.

Also, Nessmuk in particular designed his knife to have a skinner profile: a wide, flat piece of steel with an edge that slightly sloped backward, a spine that sloped forward towards edge at the point, but lacking a sharp tip (which could unintentionally puncture the game, rather than assist in its processing).

Oddly enough, the size of this blade would be considered the closest thing to a “survival knife” these days … but the “muk” himself would have tied you to a canoe and left you in the middle of Lake Placid if you’d have attempted to whack away at a pine tree with it.

His double-bit hatchet, on the other hand, have at it. That’s what it’s there for.

If you could have only three blades, what would they be? Share your suggestion in the section below:

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5 comments

  1. Orrin M. Knutson

    Respectfully,

    Let me add two more cutting tools to the list … a folding camp saw and a quality “Multi-Tool.

    In my book, SURVIVAL 101- HOW TO BUG OUT AND SURVIVE THE FIRST 72 HOURS we explain in detail why each of these cutting tools are important.

    Yours Truly,
    Orrin
    Peace Officer Retired and Author

  2. The 3 blades I carry in the field the most are a buck 110 folder,a 5″ Gerber skinner,and an old Estwing hatchet.
    As Mr. Knutson mentions,I also carry a folding saw,and a multitool. Since neither were available at the time Nessmuk was wandering the Adirondaks , we can guess that those are two things he would have added to his choices of bushcraft/woodsman’s tools.
    I use a multitool I picked up at Lowe’s,it’s their “house brand” Kobalt,and comes with about a 3″ folding knife with a partially serrated blade, and a nylon sheath. It’s also guaranteed for life-if you break it-return it to Lowe’s and they replace it at no cost to you.
    Although it’s not a lightweight multitool like some of the Leatherman and other more expensive multitools-it is well made,very sturdy,and doe the job quite well. The only drawback is weight-it’s a heavy multitool. I carry it in it’s sheath along with the folder that came with it on my belt when on camping trips,and backcountry hunting and scouting trips. The multitool has seen a lot of use-I have one in every pack,so if we have to “bug out” we will always have at least one multitool with us.
    .

  3. Good article. I see countless videos uploaded where someone will be testing out a knife for “survival” and it’ll be a knife with a blade around 6 to 8 inches and they’ll be hacking it into 3 inch saplings to cut down for a shelter. I’ve never believed in a 1 tool serves all purposes. This article of an axe , pocket knife and skinning knife is good as it’s 3 different tools. I think things like the pocket chainsaw can be a good addition in bushcraft because of their light weight and can fit into a small hip pouch with a chainsaw sharpening file and a small 4 ounce bottle of oil and even take down a small tree if needed without expending the exhaustive energy it would require swinging a full size ax countless times. A splitting froe is another great tool to have and would not take up much room in a sheath attached to your belt and you could make a handle for it on site out in the woods when you needed it by finding a suitable sized sapling and mallet could be made to use with the froe from a sapling as well. That way you could make long flat boards if needed after taking down a small tree cutting up wooden wedges if you had the need as well as split wood. If I were to lug an ax , I’d take along a sheathed froe on the belt as well, a small pocket knife , a sheathed 5 inch fixed blade knife of 1095 carbon steel , multi-tool , and pocket chainsaw. The weight would not bother me. Considering all the things I could use those for, the energy would be worth taking them all.

  4. First of all, I despise the multi tools. But, that’s me! Three blades? The article makes sense! I use a razor sharp Gerber LMF Infantry II and use a Benchmade Nimravus as well. My favorite folder is a Benchmade Triage. My hatchet is an SOG Fasthawk. Gets the job done for me!

  5. Somethings never go out and functioned as well then and will function today, like a white shirt. I agree with the Double Bit Hatchet. Mine is the 2Hawk Double Bit Hatchet. One thing I was taught my Belt Knife was used for camp use and wood work, a specific function knife for dressing game is optional since I don’t hunt anymore except for a few birds here and there. A Multi Tool is a most defenet, so is a Saw and mine is a Wicked Tough Saw. My belt Knive varies, from my Bravo 1 To my H.I. Khukuri, but in warmer weather I go lighter since not as much wood is necessary, so my go to belt knife would be my Ratmandu or my modified Rodent 6 which I had thinned down and tge top gaurd taken off. But in colder weather my tool’s become more robust like my O.K.C. Gen2 SP-53, again my go to would be my Rodent 9 and blades more along those lines. Oh also my saw would be more along the Silky BigBoy 2000 or my Bob’s Bow Saw,. And my hatchets would be more along tge lines of a Small Forest Axe or a large Tomahawk like my three edge Warbeast. I guess it’s different strikes for different folks.

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