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The City Slicker’s Guide To Bushcraft On A Budget: Your Knife Is Your Life (Part 1)

There are two technological advancements that ushered humankind out of primitive civilization.  The first is fire, which we will cover later.  The second is the knife.

In the earliest days, knives were made of either bone or stone.  However, knives of those materials would never last long, and it was impossible to maintain a sharp edge.  It wasn’t until humanity began to venture into working with metal (a process known as metallurgy) that the knife became a tool that could last for years, staying sharp enough to execute necessary tasks that made civilized life possible.

The metal knife has always been an absolute necessity to woodsmen, as it was and is key for survival.  Without a knife, you can’t do basic tasks that will allow you to hunt, process game, make traps, make fire, make shelter, process water, and cut cordage.

In essence, the knife is your portal, your key to the woods.  It is your first response and last resort.  You may live and die by the quality of your knife.

This is the one tool in your pack that deserves a financial commitment, as going out there with a stainless steel kitchen knife will only get you so far.  You’re going to need something that will do reasonably well even if all your other tools have failed.

In this article, we will be discussing the attributes that make up a good knife.

The Steel

Benjamin Franklin once said, “There never was a good knife made of bad steel.” This statement is extremely, painfully true.  All too often, novice survivalists and bushcrafters try to save money on this all-tool.  To their detriment, they retire to home early, carrying frustration and a broken knife.

Why has this occurred?  There are two reasons: one is because the knife was not constructed to do the job that was required of it, and the other is because the knife was not made of the right kind of steel.

Cheaper knives are commonly made of low-quality, inexpensive steel, the same kind of steel you would see in your everyday production kitchen knife.  Usually, if you buy a cheap “survival knife,” you will not see any indication of what kind of steel was used to construct the blade.  This is a bad thing.

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Usually, a good knife maker will have the type of steel etched, engraved, or inscribed on the blade, or they will state it in the promotional materials for the product.  They do this because, first, it shows the quality of the knife; and second, it allows the purchaser to know what to expect from the knife (durability, ease of sharpening, how long it will hold an edge).

Keep an eye out for these types of steel, as these are what you will want to purchase:

  • 440C – This has been seen as “the knife maker’s steel” for the fact that it is easy to work with, yet it holds up well when performing tasks.  Though it may not hold an edge as well as other types of steel, it is also not difficult to sharpen.
  • ATS-34 – This type of steel is a higher grade of stainless steel and should hold up very well.  If you need a knife that will endure tough conditions, allowing you to beat on it relentlessly, this is an excellent type of steel.
  • 154CM – This is known as the stainless “super steel,” as it is highly corrosion resistant, it maintains an excellent edge, and it is very, very durable.  The price tag, however, may make this cost-prohibitive.
  • High Carbon Steel (10-series)– This type of steel is what you might often find in “tactical” knives, for the simple fact that they are near indestructible, yet they are not stainless, meaning that they are subject to rusting.  This is perhaps why you will often see them blued (turned black like a gun) or they will have some kind of coating around them.  The reason why lots of tactical knives are 10-series high-carbon steel is because the carbon content makes them extremely hard, but they are usually used quickly and placed back in the sheath, not coming into prolonged contact with moisture.  Nevertheless, if you find a high-carbon steel knife that is rated somewhere between 1095-1050, with some type of coating on the steel, then you’ve got yourself a darn good knife.

Of course, there are other types of steel, but these are the most common among knives that are worth their salt.

Construction and Design

It is recommended to have a fixed-blade knife rather than a folding one.  The reason for this is simple: a folding knife may be compact, but it cannot perform the same tasks as one with a fixed blade, due to the moving parts and weaker construction.  Though the folding knife does have its place, it is best as a secondary knife for smaller whittling chores.

However, just because it might be a fixed-blade knife doesn’t mean that it’s invincible and impervious to wear and tear.

The design of your knife is just as important as the quality of its steel.  The reason is that the design dictates where the stresses will wreak the most havoc on the knife.  For instance, if your knife steel stops at the handle, then your knife will most likely break… at the handle.

This is one reason why sellers of cheap knives will market a “survival knife” where the manufacturer simply places an empty compartment in the grip, while the knife steel stops at the top of the handle.  Of course, it may be a selling point to the uninformed buyer to have a “compartment to hold cool, awesome survival stuff”; however, it makes for a bad knife.  Why does this happen?

Knife steel is expensive, so having the tang – or the body of the knife – stop at the handle results in cheaper production costs, while selling the buyer on the extra feature.  Unfortunately, the knife will be useless for the simplest of camp tasks.

Basically, you will want your knife to have a full tang, meaning that the high-quality knife steel extends all the way to the bottom of the grip.  If you are able to break a knife with that design, then perhaps you should stop using it as a trailer hitch.

All kidding aside, it is seen as the strongest design for a knife, and though you might be able to break a full-tang, you would have gone through five half-tang knives in the same process.

Now that I’ve finished discussion how your knife should be constructed so that it doesn’t break, in the next segment, I’m going to talk about how your knife construction can assist you in your bushcrafting tasks. See you next week!

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