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Survival Knife Sheaths: Make Sure You Stay Safe!

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So you’ve decided what fixed-blade knife to include in an emergency survival kit or Bug Out Bag. But how will you safely carry it? Where is the best place to wear that knife on your belt? And what things should you look for in a sheath to make sure the knife isn’t lost?

Outdoorsman and knifemaker  C.T. Fischer explains the best ways to carry your fixed-blade knife, and things to look for in a sheath.

by C. T. Fischer

Even relatively frail fixed-blade knives are strong compared to folding knives. They are fast to access and tend to have more comfortable handles than folders. They are fast to access, and tend to have more comfortable handles than folders. They can also be lighter weight for their size.

Safety first: Folding knives form their own sheath. Fixed blades do not. Any knife that is to be carried must have a good sheath. Many lives and knives have been lost due to bad sheaths, which is why many experienced woodsmen refuse to carry fixed-blade knives. But, these hazards can be largely eliminated.

The primary way sheaths kill their owners is by allowing the knife to penetrate through, and cut the femoral artery or other main blood vessel. For this reason, vertical sheaths should not be worn on the belt forward of the side seam. Keep them on the side or to the rear. I’m sure many hunters have worn their knives in front as the best way to keep them from bumping against the rifle. But many have also paid the price in blood!

The second element is the sheath itself. There must be something to positively stop the knife from traveling down too deep. Remember that the knife is always harder than the sheath, and can cut metal rivets. Therefore, something must in addition to  the edge must stop the downward movement. One thing that does a good job is a guard. The next item, is the handle thickness. If a guard is present, a pouch type sheath can work, as the guard can rest on a notch in the welt.

The next option is the thickness of the handle. On sheaths that stop at the blade-handle juncture, the knife can rest securely on the edge of the leather. If the blade is significantly wider than the handle, bringing the possibility of the handle fitting in where it shouldn’t, a wood or plastic liner should be used. Kydex sheaths can be a big improvement for these knives.

Sheaths for upswept blades should have a welt all the way around the blade. If the leather is just folded, the tip tends to cut through the fold, ruining the sheath and endangering the wearer.

The next consideration is knife access and retention. Snapped-retainer sheaths tend to get the retaining straps cut when drawing and re-sheathing, and sometimes the sheath is not fastened well, or is bumped open somehow. Then, smaller, top-heavy knives are prone to falling out of the sheath. It is significant that the military requires two retaining devices on all  sheaths for airborne troops who will be tumbling out of airplanes.

One of the advantages of the snapped-down retainers is the ability to carry the knife upside down, such as attached to the

The sheath on this Cold Steel SRK is safe and effective.

shoulder strap of a backpack or web gear. This location avoids interference with hip belts or heavily-loaded web gear, while allowing rapid access.

The pouch-type sheath, if well fitted to a properly-designed knife, provides trouble-free access and eliminates the danger of leaving straps undone. The sheath should still retain the knife when turned upside down and the knife must not bounce in the sheath when running or jumping.

Various molded plastic sheaths offer many of the same benefits as the pouch sheath. They offer good retention, often with a snap-fit that is more secure than the leather pouch. Plastic does not absorb water, so in a marine environment, these sheaths are decidedly better than leather. On the other hand, plastics tend to break with less stress than leather, and may become brittle in extreme cold.

Cordura sheaths are often excellent!

(This article was originally published as part of  “Principles of Knife Selection” by C. T. Fischer, copyright 2010 by Christopher Fischer)

C. T. Fischer: Over two decades of using, sharpening, and carrying knives for food preparation, general utility work, agriculture, primitive skills, camping, wilderness survival, and woodcraft, have provided the basis for the C.T Fischer line of custom knives.

At about five years of age, Fischer began using sharp kitchen knives. At the age of 7 1/2, he was given a Boker scout knife by his grandmother.  At age 14 (after various experiences with inferior tools) an estate auction yielded a good old Collins machete (with an interesting handmade leather sheath), which he used to chop blackberry vines, poison oak, and other weeds, as well as sapplings and logs. At age 15, he  purchased his first good-quality belt knife–a Buck #619–which was his everyday companion on the homestead for several years.

Fischer started selling factory knives in 1998, and finished his first handmade knife in the summer of 1999. Three more were made in 2000, and about 17 in 2001. The 100-knife mark was reached about 2005. So far, all have been fixed-blades.

Currently, Fischer’s shop is located in Elk City, Idaho.

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