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How to choose the best knife

Handle design | Most important part of choosing a survival/bushcraft knife?

Handle design | Most important part of choosing a survival/bushcraft knife?

What’s more important on a working knife handle – the material it’s made of, or the design? For my money, the first decision should be how well the handle fits your hand.

by Leon Pantenburg

Use a knife for very long and you’ll develop definite opinions about ergonomic handles. To start with “ergonomic” isn’t the same for everyone, and one size doesn’t fit all. A knife that works for my wife or daughter with their small hands, is not going to work very well for my large hands.

The L.T. Wright Next Gen just may be the best everyday carry knife.

The four-inch handle on this L.T. Wright Next Gen fits my large hands very well. I used the knife extensively, cutting up 80 pounds of chicken at a company picnic.

And the handle for a filleting knife won’t be the same as on that knife used for gutting a deer or that a chef would use in a kitchen.

Here are some thoughts about choosing a handle:

A good place to start is by handling the knife if possible. It should feel good and comfortable in your hand. You should be able to tell very quickly if this handle will work for you.

  • Look at how each finger works as part of the grip. How well do the index and thumb fit together? These two will essentially guide the direction of blade tip. Does the swell of the handle fit the hollow of your hand?
  • Are there any spots that put pressure on any part of your palm? These have the potential to create blisters or sore spots if the knife is used heavily.
  • Is the handle long enough? The biggest complaint I hear from experienced survival-types is that handles are too short, with a diameter that is too small. My right hand palm measures four inches across. A knife handle that is shorter than that usually won’t work for me.
  • What about the angle between the handle and the blade? If you’re looking for a chopper, you might need an angled handle.

But what if you’re ordering from an online company – how do you assure that the handle will be right?

Start by measuring your hand, and then look at the specs of the knife. The handle should be close in size to your hand measurement. If possible, go to a retail store and check out a knife with a similar-sized handle. You may be able to make an accurate comparison.

One way to avoid grief down the line is to only order through a reputable company with a good product warranty.

I’ve ordered several knives that looked great in the catalog, but that just didn’t work when I got them in hand. In all these cases, I was able to return them for a full refund or trade with no questions asked.

Handle material:

You can get a handle made out of anything. But what is the best as far as safety? Here are some handle materials I have used very successfully.

The micarta handle on this Bark River Kalahari never got slippery, even when covered with blood.

The micarta handle on this Bark River Kalahari never got slippery, even when covered with blood.

Micarta: This smooth plastic-like material will fool you. It seems like it should get slippery when wet, but the opposite is true. I used my Kalahari, with a black micarta handle, to field dress a whitetail buck a couple years ago.

At one point, I had to dip my hand and the knife into the abdominal cavity, into the bloody slurry that used to be the heart and lungs, to cut the esophagus.

To my surprise, the handle seemed to get “grippier” and tacky. There was no danger that my hand would have slipped onto the blade.

The handle on this Trakker Companion never became unsafe to use.

The handle on this Trakker Companion never became unsafe to use.

Wood: Here’s another surprise material. I’ve used my Bark River Sahara to gut and skin a whitetail buck and bull elk. In both cases, the knife got covered with blood and other body fluids.

The stabilized desert ironwood handle never got slippery, and the Kalahari handle design was very safe to work with.

The same thing happened with my walnut-handled C.T. Fischer Nessmuk. The handle design, combined with good materials, made the knife safe to handle even when wet.

Last week, I used a curly maple handled Bark River Trakker Companion to completely disjoint and cut up a roasted turkey. Despite the slippery fat I got all over my hands and the knife handle, there was never any safety concern.

Composites: Just because the knife has a black, plastic-looking handle doesn’t mean they’re all the same. I have a Mora 840 Companion with a rubberized handle and my hand has never slipped when using it. I use mine frequently when cleaning panfish, and safety isn’t an issue.

The handle on this Fallkniven F1 is very comfortable to use.

The handle on this Fallkniven F1 is very comfortable to use.

My Fallkniven F-1 has a Thermorum Elastomer  handle, and my Cold Steel SRK and Master Hunter have Kraton handles. All of these have been tried and tested, and proven to work very well.

But a poorly-designed, plastic-looking handle won’t necessarily be a safe handle. Make sure you check it out carefully.

Do I want a guard or hilt?

Maybe. The original Bowie knife had a large guard to keep hands from slipping down onto the blade when thrusting. And if you’re hunting hogs or using your knife for stabbing something you might need a hilt. My dad’s Hitler Youth knife has one, and so does my drop point hunter.

But arctic survival guru Mors Koschski says a hilt gets in the way of using, and claims in his book “Bushcraft” that he hasn’t seen anyone injured using a knife without a hilt.

I don’t know. I’ve never had my hand slip from the handle onto the blade. I also don’t “choke up” on the blade to use the tip, nor will I use a choil on a blade. In the first instance, get a shorter blade. I don’t like or use choils. I think they’re a fad, and they negate the safety aspect of a well-designed handle.

In every discussion about knives, there are differences of opinion. What do you think?

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How to choose the best knife

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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