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Survival knives

Thick or thin? What’s the best blade design for you?

Thick or thin? What’s the best blade design for you?

One of the things to consider before investing in a knife is how thick the blade should be.

by Leon Pantenburg

I’m that guy who hunkers down by a museum display case to check out a knife, powder horn or some pioneer artifact. Besides being a history nerd, I also have a more than passing interest in knives.

This Bark River Saex combines an old design with modern materials.

This Bark River Saex combines an old design with modern materials.

IMO, you can tell a lot about practical knife designs by looking at the cutlery that was carried for day-to-day use. Used to be, steel was expensive and hard to come by. A family might only have one or two knives, and they were used for everything. Subsequently, the designs tended to be extremely practical.

For example, the Saex design apparently was developed by European  peasants several hundred years ago. The Scandinavian EDC was a four-inch fixed blade with a design that goes back a thousand years to the days of square-sailed wooden ships and Viking raiders.

Probably no design was more researched and used than the Green River and Russell knives carried by the mountain men during the 1830s. These knives were a hot trade item, and sold by the barrel.

The Mountain Man, bottom, bears a strong resemblance to the replica Russell.

The modern Bark River Mountain Man, bottom, bears a strong resemblance to the well-used replica Russell.

The buyers knew what they wanted. Essentially, the trappers, Indians and settlers wanted a butcher knife, with a six-to-eight-inch blade. The knives frequently came without a handle, and the buyer would fabricate one out of wood, bone or leather.

I’ve seen originals of all these knives, plus swords and daggers from medieval periods. (Incidentally, I’ve never seen a choil on a knife made before the twentieth century.) Many of these originals resembled the inexpensive, but excellent, modern Old Hickory carbon steel butcher knives.

The point is that all these well-used originals had relatively thin blades, by today’s standards, even the butcher knives used to process buffalo and other big game. If there had been a demand for thicker blades, somebody would have supplied them.

On the other hand, thicker blades came to be associated with fighting knives. The original Bowie knife was designed in the 1830s for knife fighting, and took part of its design from the butcher knives widely used at the time. The Bowie had a thicker blade, with a pronounced hilt as a hand guard and to keep the hand from sliding onto the blade.

The World War II Marine Ka-Bar has a thick spine. But I think this was more because of steel shortages than anything else. The reasoning, IMO,  was probably that a lesser quality steel had to be thicker to withstand the rigors of combat.

A few years back, I sharpened a Ka-Bar from the the WWII era, and it was quite a job. The steel just wouldn’t hold an edge like it should.

Today, you can get any shape, style, design and handle you want. It seems like there are two schools of thought on blade thickness here: thick or thin.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call a thick blade anything over 1/8-inch.

If you’re thinking about investing in a knife that will have to do a multitude of outdoor survival-related tasks, what do you want in thickness: Thick or thin?

Here are some thoughts:

What is the main purpose of this knife, or what can you expect to use it for?

This Cold Steel SRK has served me well for more than 20 years.

This Cold Steel SRK served me well for more than 20 years.

In 1991, I bought a Cold Steel SRK to use as a backcountry big game hunting knife. My blade budget was limited, but I needed a reliable hunting knife that could gut, skin and quarter an elk or deer. Because I would be far from the roads, weight was an issue.

The knife also might be used in a survival situation, so it would need to be sturdy and hold an edge well.

My SRK was used hard in the Idaho backcountry for more than 20 years. It was the only knife I carried, other than a Swiss Army Classic, and it did everything.  The SRK  has field dressed more than 50 deer (it was loaned out a lot) and has been used on elk. Never, during this field work, did I need a thick blade.

Better slicing: I bet you’ll slice more potatoes and tomatoes with your camp knife, than you will stab bears. You will probably clean more fish than field dress elk.

Thin blades slice better than the thick ones. They also work better for butchering and skinning game animals.

A better story concerns Pat Simning, one of my hunting buddies. Several of us adult scout leaders bought $8 Mora 840 Companions several years ago when the troop bought a large quantity. Pat has used his Mora on deer, elk, caribou, moose and wild hogs. He is a physician and can easily afford a better knife, but he likes the thin blade’s slicing and skinning ability. (I let him try out my Bark River Snowy River on the last elk hunt. It’s his now.)

And don’t forget spreading peanut butter on crackers – this may be the most common task for any field knife!

Batonning wood: I think this is another fad, like choils. Who came up with this idea that you need to chop wood with a mid-sized knife? If I foresee the need to chop wood, I’ll take an axe. As it is, you can baton firewood with virtually any thickness of blade, including a butter knife.

Lateral strength: A thick blade has it over a thin blade when it comes to twisting or prying open ammo cases, rations boxes or other combat-related tasks. Military people should consider that when knife shopping. For the rest of us, though, probably the only situation where lateral strength is in the picture would be in field dressing and quartering a deer or elk.

The right knife can make all the difference when handling a downed big game animal.

The right knife can make all the difference when handling a downed big game animal.

Disjointing the hind quarters on an elk or deer is pretty straightforward – you cut the muscle around the leg until you can bend against the joint. Then, it’s relatively simple to cut the connective tissue and ligaments around the joint and pop the socket out.

I’ve done this many times with different knives, and never once did the blade fail. In nearly 50 years of hunting, fishing, long distance backpacking and canoeing,  and other outdoor activities, I’ve never broken a blade.

Toughness: All things being equal, it would seem that a thicker blade is tougher than a thin one of the same steel. But a thin blade of high quality may be more durable and able to resist user stress than a thick, lesser quality blade.

I prefer thinner blades. With today’s superior steels, a blade doesn’t need to be thick to be tough.

But you may decide you want a thicker blade.

Whatever. Above all, the blade design you choose has to work for you.

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Survival knives

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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