The classic butcher knife has been used on the American continent for centuries, but did you know that it only has been in relatively modern times that the common person could have a dedicated kitchen/utility knife and a hunting/combat knife?
Our ancestors didn’t have the money, luxury or affordable steel to have several different large knives, and throughout history this has been shown in the way simple utilitarian knives have served multiple roles.
A famous early example is the medieval seax, which was the catchall blade of the poor and working class. These simple belt knives were used in everything from cutting food at meals, to cutting up game, to self-defense. Simple to make and affordable, they were the classic butcher knives of their era, and the tradition of a one-size-fits-most belt knife carried over into the New World.
The working class knife of early colonists and Americans eventually became the simple butcher knife. Commonly found in a 10-inch length, these knives have a gently curving blade, a gentle tip and are quite suitable for the sort of pre-industrial-era cutting chores a common person might encounter. This isn’t to say there weren’t dedicated fighting and hunting knives back then; there certainly were, but they were out of the reach of many of our ancestors, and they really weren’t needed.
There is a trend to buy too much knife when considering the needs of a basic belt knife, and in doing so we stray from the wisdom of those who came before us. I know I am guilty of this. My most common woods knife is a modern Ka-Bar-style blade that in retrospect seems ungainly. Consider the practical logic of the butcher knife as a belt knife. They are inexpensive — a fraction of the price of a quality hunting or combat knife. They are relatively lightweight in comparison to other modern belt knives, and they are designed to do what we do with most of our fixed blade knives, namely cut meat and butcher game.
A Trip Back in Time
Image 200 years ago; you had to have a butcher knife, but a heavy hunting or combat knife was an expensive luxury unless you had a desperate need for that piece of kit. Life on the frontier or a small subsistence farm was hard, and cash money was often scarce. For a person who rarely strayed off the farm or out of town, simple working utility was the order of the day. Even the cheapest blades were hand-forged, and before the Industrial Revolution blessed us with cheap, high-grade steel and iron, metal could be a precious commodity outside of population centers. When somebody needed a knife, they reached for the most efficient cutting tool they had, which was that butcher knife.
We can apply this wisdom to the modern day, as there are a great many different similar knives we can readily carry as general knockabout belt knives. Certainly, a good butcher knife can top the list, as can a seax style blade if you can find one. Or you can use my favorite all-purpose blade: the Swedish mora. Like the English/American-style butcher knife, the mora is an all-purpose working class blade that is as much at home in the woods as it is on the farm or the fishing boat. Cultures all over the world have created simple knives and used them in ways that our modern world would not consider them.
The blades a homesteader or off-gridder have on hand now are some of the finest ever made, and also some of the most affordable.
So, why should we consider reverting to such simple tools as the butcher knife? I would argue because it is an inexpensive tool, because it is the simpler tool, and because it is a household tool. In today’s legally oppressive world full of people who seek to strip decent people of their weapons, household knives are some of the last ones to be targeted (yes, even England is going a bit over the edge in that regard now), but the reality is, aside from the simple utilitarian nature of butcher knives, keeping one or two extra on hand will give you spare knives in an emergency, tools to share with group members, or simply reconnect you to the simpler times of the past.
Put one in your kit, and carry it in the woods. It’s fun and useful. You’ll like it.
What is your favorite all-purpose knife? Share your thoughts in the section below: