I like a small, light sheath knife. It is always open and “get-at-able,” ready not only for skinning game and cleaning– Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1906
fish,but for cutting sticks, slicing bread and bacon and peeling “spuds.” It saves the pocket knife from weand messy work,and preserves its edge for the fine jobs.
I enjoyed knives long before I got started in marksmanship. When I was a boy scout long ago, I used to linger over the pocket knife counter at the local Army-Navy store with my dad. It was a wonderful moment when he gave me my first real Swiss Army knife.
I still have it to this day, tucked away with my other memories of him.
Since then, I’ve built up quite the collection of blades. While hiking the Appalachian trail in 2005, my father sent me on my way with a USMC Ka-Bar as a field
In 2007, I purchased a folding Benchmade Griptillian from the base exchange. It accompanied me on many a hike and trip out to the field. I later replaced it in 2010 with a Leatherman Skeletool, a gift from my then girlfriend (now wife). I still carry that Skeletool with me every day.
There’s something special about a knife.
On the one hand, it is such a simple and ancient tool. It’s merely a chunk of metal with an edge. Yet, it is simultaneously one of the most useful things we can carry afield. Mankind has employed edged tools for nearly as long as we’ve existed.
Like rifles, there is a knife designed for just about any situation. Also, like rifles, we must be considerate of how much we are actually able to carry with us into the field. With that in mind, most of us are served by carrying one or two “general purpose” blades.
So what does that type of all-around knife look like?
Field Knives vs Tactical Knives
To be honest, there’s a bit of controversy here. A lot of folks in the bushcraft and knife enthusiast community think that “tactical” knives are just an excuse to use inferior materials and workmanship. “It’s all in the mind,” they say.
While that may be true for a lot of inexpensive “tactical” blades on the market, especially the ones you might find at a gas station, there are some definite characteristic differences between a fighting knife and a field knife.
A fighting knife has a primary purpose of piercing and slicing soft tissue. I happen to have a good example in my collection, a Spartan Blades Breed Fighter/Dagger.
This blade is relatively thin and narrow. The double-edged spear point is great for cutting or stabbing. Such blades shapes were ideal for dispatching sentries by inserting the knife between the ribs or bones to cut the mushy bits beneath. The weight balances towards my hand, which makes it quick handling and fast
In contrast, let’s look at a dedicated field knife. My Becker BK-16 is a handy blade designed to do work. The blade is somewhat short but thick and strong. The back side is flat for pounding with a baton or pushing with my off hand. It’s isn’t terribly long or “pointy” but it does the job. This kind of knife is great for woodwork, use as a digging tool, or prying apart objects. The weight balances towards the blade for more control during chopping or carving tasks.
What you’ll find as you go down this path is that, like rifles, things become compromises. You start looking for certain features that work better for this situation but don’t hurt as much in that situation.
Dedicated field knives have a variety of uses:
- Splitting wood
- Food Prep
- Shelter Building
- Fire Making
- Prying Tool
The classic USMC KA-BAR is actually a nice compromise example. It has a bit more balance towards the hand for quicker handling in a fight, but the blade profile is long and strong with a flat backside for doing field work as well. The clip point, the name for the downswept look towards the point makes for a strong and piercing tip.
So let’s talk about the ideal field knife.
What to Look for in a Field Knife
I’ll be the first to admit that while I’m an enthusiast for the topic, I’m not an expert. Luckily, one of our readers knows a lot more about the subject than I do.
I reached out to Mark Cutright, of Cutright Knives, to help fill in some of the blanks. Mark has been making knives for over 15 years and started working within the bushcraft realm in 2008. As he developed an interest in firearms, he came into contact with teams training at a facility local to him.
These folks came from a variety of backgrounds including Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, Marine Force Recon, the CIA, and various other reconnoissance units. Everyone showed interest in his work and offered their input.
Mark’s takeaway was that knives are a highly personal thing. Everyone has their preferences for tip style, grind, size, and profile. But they did share some common attributes.
But the thing these groups have in common is high quality and no-nonsense in design and materials.– Mark Cutright
Since knives are an ancient tool, there’s been a lot written over the years concerning the qualities of a field knife. I opened this article with a quote from Horace Kephart, one of the great American outdoorsmen and “father” of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Kephart, like George Washington “Nessmuk” Sears before him, was a fan of the trinity system. In other words, he preferred a moderately sized fixed blade knife, a small hatchet or axe, and a large folding knife. Between these three items, he could accomplish all the camp tasks he needed, to include making more tools.
Kephart designed his own knife and asked local blacksmiths to produce it for him. This was his description:
Its blade and handle are each 4¼ inches long, the blade
being1 inch wide, 1/8-inch thick on the back, broad pointed, and continued through the handle as a hasp and riveted to it.
The handle of this knife is of oval cross-section, long enough to give a good grip for the whole hand, with no sharp edges to blister one’s hand. It has a ¼-inch knob behind the cutting edge as a guard, but there is no guard on the back, for it would be useless and in the way.
This knife weighs only 4 ounces. It was made by a country blacksmith, and is one of the homeliest things I ever– Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft
saw;but it has outlived in my affections the score of other knives that I have used in competition with it, and has done more work than all of them put together.
This seems like a good start for a description. In another portion of the book, Kephart mentions that the blade should be about the width of your palm. This typically works out to between 4″ and 5″ of length.
I asked Mark Cutright about his preferences, and he came up with a similar list of criteria:
- Blade length of about 4¼”
- 1/8″ to 5/32″ thick
- Either clip or drop point, so long as the tip is centered
- Single finger guard without a choil
- Full tang construction
Let’s look a bit more closely at some of the construction trade offs.
Full Tang vs Rat Tail
Full tang blades are very popular right now. If you aren’t aware, a full tang means that the steel portion of the blade remains the full thickness from tip to the bottom of the handle. This is the “ultimate” in strength and durability. There isn’t really any weak points where the steel becomes thin. The handles, or “scales,” of the blade are simply bolted or riveted to the sides.
A rat tail construction, on the other hand, means that the steel under the handle narrows significantly so that the handle fully encompasses the tang. Today, we see this as inferior and weaker. But that’s not necessarily true.
This rat tail configuration appears in medieval swords, the famous KA-BAR, and even popular bushcraft knives like the ever-popular Mora (not the Garberg line, though, which uses a full tang).
Your primary tradeoff here is weight. A full tang blade is heavier but stronger. A rat tail is lighter and probably strong enough for most tasks.
I still prefer a full tang, though.
Field Knife Thickness
The thickness of a knife has a lot of effects. The thinner it is, the better it is for slicing, carving, and doing detail work. The thicker it is, the stronger it becomes for putting up with abuse like splitting wood, chopping, and prying.
This is why you often see experienced outdoorsmen carrying more than one tool. Kephart and Nessmuk carried relatively thin blades for doing their detail work because they also carried small axes for doing the heavy chopping and splitting tasks. Neither
What do I mean by a big knife? Two great examples are the Becker BK-9 and the ESEE Junglas. I happen to have the Junglas II.
The theory here is that you can carry a large knife for doing double duty at tasks usually reserved for axes as well as things you might do with a machete, such as brush clearing. This really depends on a lot on your environment. Such blades are typically fairly thick to put up with the abuse.
Again, the tradeoff is weight. The thicker the blade, the heavier it becomes and more difficult it is for detailed tasks like carving.
The Pointy End AKA Knife Tips
There’s really three options here: drop point, clip point, and spear point.
Drop points are classic and are what you see on my Junglas II and BK-16. The advantage here is that you have more area at the front of the blade for applying pressure. If I’m batoning through a log, I can beat on that portion of the blade and not chip up the baton.
Clip points, as seen on my BK-10 and KA-BAR, were made popular with the classic Bowie Knife. This design is aesthetically pleasing but ultimately weaker. The primary advantage is that it is slightly “pointier” for stabbing, which is useful in a defensive knife.
The spear point is less common. You might typically see these on fighting knives, like my Breed dagger. They have strong points great for piercing and stabbing but give up slicing power and control. The characteristic here is that the fattest part of the blade is right down the center axis, with the edge curving inwards on both edges symmetrically until it reaches the point. To me, the primary drawback here is that I wouldn’t use this type of knife for batoning or detailed carving work where I might want to put my thumb on the back of the blade.
Keep in mind that there’s a bit more to the point that just the style. A spear point, for example, can be very “pointy” like my dagger, but may also be a little curvier. That gets us to the shape of the edges and grinds.
Field Knife Grinds and Edges
You’ll come across a lot of different styles of grinds.
- Hollow – concave shape that leads to very sharp blades (think razorblades), but a relatively weak edge
- Flat– Tapers from the spine to edge on both sides, common for wood crafting knives. You’ll see this on my BK-16
- Sabre – Similar to the flat grind, but the taper starts further down the blade and leaves more mass in the knife. my BK-10 and KA-BAR use this.
- Chisel – Only a single edge bevel for a very sharp cutting edge
- Double Bevel – Uses another bevel angle before approaching the edge. Really, this can be a combination of other grind types.
- Convex – The bevel curves outwards rather than inwards (like a hollow grind). Great for splitting tools like axes.
The truth is that most knives on the market are some variety of double bevel. Even if the main part of the knife is a full flat grind, for example, the cutting edge may shift to a hollow grind. I asked Mark about his preferences.
Just like a hammer is to drive nails and pound stuff, so
tois a knife specific to the task at hand.
These days, you can get just about any kind of geometry you want on a knife even from a factory produced blade. With that being said, I really prefer the full height flat grind for the majority of my blades. Like all things in life, there’s a compromise, but a full flat grind in the appropriate thickness really delivers a lightweight blade for a given style.
Sometimes you want some heft though, or maybe you need extreme toughness. For that, the saber grind is great. It’s more like cutting with a splitting maul compared to
a fullheight but it’s tough and offers the additional weight.
The hollow ground can accomplish a lot depending on how deep or shallow it is. It’s near the bottom of my list as I do a fair amount of batoning wood, but for a hunter its great.
I used to make convex grinds exclusively but stopped for the most part. They’re hard to sharpen using traditional methods and most people don’t feel very confident sharpening their own blades. In addition, and I need to be clear that I’m speaking of the primary grind (the main bevel, not the cutting edge), it’s a reliable but less efficient grind. Its use depends entirely on how wide and thick the blade is as to whether I would use it or not.
I would definitely convex the cutting edge though. It can increase the strength of a cutting dramatically, even on thin edges.
The takeaway here is that selecting your grind is a balance between the strength of the blade to put up with abuse and its slicing ability.
Field Knife Steel Selection
Like choosing a steel alloy for your rifle barrel, you have to choose the material for your knife. There are a lot of alloys out there, but the choices boil down to two categories:
- Carbon Steel
- Stainless Steel
There are different additives added to steel blends to generate different qualities. You might recognize several of these from rifle barrel alloys.
|Carbon||Used to increase hardness of the metal|
|Chromium||Improves wear and corrosion resistance; a major component of stainless steel|
|Molybdenum||Improves tensile strength, corrosion and pitting resistance|
|Nickel||Improves toughness and corrosion resistance, often used in stainless steels and dive knives|
|Vanadium||Promotes finer grain structure, which improves wear resistance and strength|
Within this realm, you have O1, 1075, 1080, 1084, 1095, 80crv2, and others. The 75, 80, 84, and 95 in those numbers roughly correlate to the amount of carbon found in the alloy. O1 is another variety of tool steel common for knife making. 80crv2 is related to 1080, but has a bit more chromium and vanadium
Don’t worry so much about the actual alloy of carbon steel you use, these all make good blades. The benefit of carbon steel is that it’s very tough, takes and holds a very sharp edge well, and is easy to maintain yourself.
The downside is that the lack of chrome in the metal means they are more prone to rust. The upkeep on a carbon steel blade is higher.
There are a lot of varieties here, such as S30V, BG-42, AUS8, and so many others that it’s really outside the scope of this article. The Knife Center did a fine job getting together some information if you want to learn more.
The big thing here is that stainless steels include more chromium and nickel. This helps prevent rust and makes your maintenance easier. However, the lower carbon content also means that the blade is not quite as tough, is harder to sharpen, and harder to keep sharp than carbon steels.
I don’t know if it’s an indicator of anything, but a lot of companies that manufacture nice stainless blades would rather have you send your knife back to them for sharpening than try and do it yourself.
Choose Your Knife
Alright, we’ve covered a lot here. The truth is that most of us are probably going to go through a lot of knives over time while we figure out what works for us. It’s kind of like buying guns, except cheaper.
Well, usually cheaper. I’ve seen several knives that cost more than nice handguns out there.
The first step is really thinking about what you need your blade to do with you. This is what Mark had to say.
f you think you need a sharpened crow bar for rescuing your family from a burning vehicle, I’d probably recommend a folding knife that features a carbide glass breaker and a serrated edge with no point to cut the restraints from them.
So where does the rubber meet the road for most folks? For a fixed blade, it’s a blade that’s 3-3/4″ – 5″. Peoples preference for ergonomics really vary, however for long term use I would avoid anything with too much of a sculpted handle. Too cool of a looking knife usually doesn’t work out for too long and it’s because our eyes tell us “Look at that beautiful knife made with 100% awesome sauce!” and after getting over the shiny newness of it all, it goes in a drawer because it’s not really much of a tool to keep. There is a good reason slip joint pocket knives like those made by Case are still around.
The key thing here is a good design, with quality materials, a company with a good reputation that they have earned by making good products and don’t skimp on the sheath. These exist at every price point.
If we’re talking about field knives, you need something that isn’t so long as to be unwieldy, cuts well, puts up with abuse, sharpens easily and holds and edge, and you’re comfortable using a lot.
So it all comes back to Kephart’s original recommendations. My personal field knife that meets these requirements is my Becker BK-16. Ethan Becker, an accomplished outdoorsman and knife designer, said this was the blade he wished he had for all the years he was fidgeting around with other designs. He’s also the only person I know who actually own’s an original copy of a Kephart knife (the other is in a museum).
Field Knife Recommendations
I asked mark about some of the other blades he recommends for field knives, and this is the list we came up with:
- ESEE 4
- Becker BK-16
- Condor Bushlore or Swamp Romper
- Morakniv Garberg Black
- Tops Brothers of Bushcraft
- Fallkniven A1
- Benchmade Bushcrafter
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include Mark’s own field knives. I’m quite fond his Model 1 and Model 2 designs. If you want to support a member of our community here, definitely check out what he has to offer!
Over to You
I realize that talking about a fixed blade field knife is a bit outside of our normal subject matter. But when it comes down to it, this blog is dedicated not just to the shooting sports, but to being self-reliant. Carrying an edged tool when you go afield aids you in that endeavor.
I’m curious if you have any knives you find yourself picking up for those journeys out there. Or perhaps you have a story to share. Let me know down in the comments.