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What tools go in a hollow-handle survival knife?

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I don’t like hollow handle knives, but a question was asked about what to carry in the grip space. Specifically, what survival items are so important that they should be included as part of the knife?

By Leon Pantenburg

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This leads to another question: What useful items can you actually put in that handle space? Is having that tiny bit of extra space worth weakening the entire knife? The logical place for the knife to fail is where the blade meets the handle, and some hollow handle knives will break under the stress of hard use.

Then, suppose you do pack the handle with assorted items. Will you be able to get them out under the duress of a survival situation, or will the stuff have shifted and settled into a blob of useless junk?

What Is a Survival Knife?

Any survival knife question should start with yet another question: What do you consider a survival knife, and what do you anticipate using it for?

Rambo, according to the scriptwriters, could carry just about anything he needed in the hollow handle of his survival knife!

There are some extreme views in this topic. The 1980s Rambo movies, starring a steroid-infused, testosterone-exuding Sylvester Stallone, started the whole hollow-handle Bowie-type survival knife cult.

Rambo, according to the “First Blood” scriptwriters, could apparently pack anything he needed for wilderness or urban survival in the hollow handle of his knife/sword. (Remember in the first movie,  when he pulled out that suture from the handle and sewed up his arm? And where’d he get all the stuff to make booby traps? And how about that spear he made with his knife to stab a wild pig?) As the Rambo movies progressed, the knives got bigger.

The Rambo movies spawned a slew of cheap, imitation copies. Don’t mistake the junk for some of the high quality products.

Some excellent hollow handle examples are made by knifemaker Chris Reeve in Boise, Idaho.

Reeve’s hollow handle knives are made of a single piece of steel, so there is small danger of breakage. The workmanship is superb.

Another excellent quality hollow handle survival knife is the Buck-184 Buckmaster. Resembling the Rambo knife, it is a hefty piece of steel and a quality piece of work.

I never bought a Buckmaster, but one of my elk hunting buddies, Phil Walker, did. An incredibly skilled hunter, outdoorsman and great friend, Phil harvested deer and elk every year with monotonous regularity. When Phil sauntered back into camp with that elaborately-casual grin on his face, it meant the rest of us had a meat-hauling job ahead.

Phil’s gear was all top quality, and had been refined over the years so it filled all his elk hunting needs.  Phil’s elk rifle was a Ruger Number 1 in .338 Winchester. The hunting cutlery he carried included an 8-inch Old Hickory butcher, a Wyoming knife and (Phil being a native Texan) an honest-to-God Bowie knife.

Those aren’t my equipment choices, but it’s hard to argue with success.

My survival knife philosophy is at the other extreme. I believe a knife’s design isn’t as important as proximity and ease of carrying.

You can’t carry a Rambo knife everywhere, so when (fill in the apocalyptic acronym) happens, that tiny, keychain Swiss Army Classic on your keyring may be all you have to work with.

What design is best?

I was lukewarm, at best, about the hollow handle/storage concept until I was asked to design such a knife. My buddy, the late Dr. Jim Grenfell, of Bend, Or., took up metalworking upon retirement. Jim, a Korean War fighter/bomber pilot, with 43 combat missions, was a graduate of three military wilderness survival schools.

If he thought the idea had merit, I was willing to pay attention. Per my recommendations, the prototype blade ended up being a carbon steel, drop point design, five inches long; 3/16-inch thick, about 1-3/4 inches wide, with a straight taper edge. The handle was taken from a cheaper model and welded to the knife tang.

The completed knife works very well. I gave the prototype to my brother Mike for his 40th birthday, and it has been used extensively for deer and elk hunting. Jim passed away before he could finish my knife, so I still don’t own a hollow handle survival knife!

Space matters: Suppose you’re considering buying a quality hollow handle, and you want to make the best use of the space. How much actual volume is there?

A hollow handle on a survival knife has about the same space as a waterproof match container. The tradeoff between the tiny space and inherant weakness in the design is not worth it!

The knife handle, left, has about as much space as the waterproof match container and Nalgene vial.

A common-sized handle, if such a thing exists, appears to be about one inch in outside diameter. Interior diameter is 7/8-inch and the depth of the cavity is about 3-1/8 inches from the bottom to the start of the threads. The space is big enough to hold about two liquid ounces, or is a little bigger than a waterproof match container.

Based on that formula, ask yourself: What items, along with the knife, would do me the most good?

Here’s what I wouldn’t put in the handle:

  • Waterproof Matches: I don’t trust matches as a reliable source of firemaking. You can only carry a finite number, and matches deteriorate with time. Also, the movement and shock associated with being carried in a knife handle would eventually ruin them.
  • Fish hooks and sinkers: I tie flies and jigs and make most of my own lures. I probably have too much fishing-related stuff. Even with all that gear, and a genuine enthusiasm for fishing, there are days when a fisherman can’t buy a bite. Don’t waste the handle space on something like hooks or weights you probably won’t use.
  • Water Purification Tablets: These are left out because you must have a container to put the water in before it can be purified. Put water purifiers in another kit. Besides, unless properly packed, pills will dissolve, deteriorate or be vibrated into powder.
  • A Swiss Army Classic:  Don’t put my beloved dinky, everyday carry, do-it-all knife in the handle! A Classic doesn’t need to be kept dry, and it would take up valuable space. Besides, don’t put all your eggs in the same basket.
  • Survival Instructions: If you haven’t learned survival skills by the time you need them, a booklet won’t help. Knowledge is the most important part of your survival kit!

You could include these:

  • Drugs, man: If you have special medical needs, this might be one place to properly store the pills. Also, pain or allergy meds or other prescription medications could be literally at hand. (More about storage later.)
  • Firemaking tools: Include a Boy Scout Hot Spark or possibly a Spark-It. There should be room for some waxed firestarter, too. Include a few inches of jute twine to stop any rattling around and use that as a firestarter.
  • A glover’s needle and dental floss: In an extreme emergency, you could suture a wound with these items. But more likely, the value would be to repair equipment or clothing. The floss could also be used to clean your teeth, which is an often overlooked sanitation issue.

So, How Do You Pack These Things?

Whatever items are in the handle must be accessible. In a survival situation you may be working with cold, numb fingers, or be shaking from fear, injury or shock. You don’t want to fumble with the contents and drop them in the snow or dirt.

This works really well: Get some Nalgene vials. There is a set that chambers in the hollow handle like a shotgun shell into a shotgun. One of the vials is 3-3/8-inch high, so it is a little longer than the handle cavity. Trim the edge of the vial so it fits inside, and leave a small tab you can grab with your fingers.

Put all your gear in the vial and carry it that way. The vials also allow you to divide up the space. Pack your medications individually in cellophane, in a smaller vial, and pack it tightly with cotton. This will keep the pills from being smashed or powdered. Stack another short vial on top in the space with other meds or necessary items.

The final decision in  the hollow handle debate will end up being if the tiny bit of extra space gained is useful and worth investing in.   In the end, like in most survival-related topics, the gear choice selection will be up to you!

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  • Steve

    Personally I love my Chris Reeve one piece knives. Yes I haven’t seen any other hollow handled knives I would trust. It was too bad Reeve stopped making these as it meant the value of my knives doubled turning them into safe queens and making it more expensive for me to buy more. Here is what I keep in the handles: Francis Barker NATO Survival Compass button compass, a spark tool with spectra line wrapped around it and a sewing needle then covered in shrink wrap tubing, iodine tablets inside a tiny glass jar with a Teflon screw top (good luck finding these), fire starter taken from a military fire starting kit, fish hooks safely hooked to the fire starters. Incidentally I keep the knife in a survival sheath which has paracord and a pocket. In that pocket I keep a flint bar, additional fire starter (in a waterproof container), a knife sharpening stone, and a condom (for water carrying). Always nice to know when I grab my sheath/knife I also have all these things.

  • Paul

    A good article, Leon. I’m also no fan of hollow handle macho knives – ego is often the enemy of sense when it comes to selecting an essential tool for the wilderness. I’d rather have a reliable and trustworthy knife and have to carry small items in a separate pouch than have a weaker knife for the benefit of carrying a too-small survival kit in its handle. When you need to baton-chop wood there’s no substitute for a full or 3/4 tang. Also, using the pommel as a hammer won’t damage your compass because it’s not kept in your knife.

    It’s not rocket science choosing a tool that works so very much better. If I see someone with one of these gimmicky knives it screams out newbie, clueless – or worse, a sad machoman who is best avoided.

    As for survival instructions, I disagree with you. They can serve as tinder – or if things truly are dire – they can be a substitute for TP!!! Joking aside, admittedly there are better things to substitute, space being at a premium. Local currency paper money should be more useful than instructions if you need to get yourself home, once you reach a road/village. Most of us use money in everyday survival…

    I can only think of including a condom for water carrying. Put it in a sock to make it easier/safer to hold. Fill the rest of the space with beef stock cubes powdered. And/or diarrhoea tablets. I’ve always tailored the bits I carry according to environment and climate.

    RE: “a booklet won’t help” and “knowledge is the most important part of your survival kit” are two extremely contradictory statements.
    – A booklet is neither experience nor knowledge. They can only be a guide to the clueless. To people who go out into the wilderness, there is clearly no contradiction here. Once you have knowledge and experience, you’ll see this for yourself.

  • Leon

    RE: Are you stupid? Iowa State University sold me a piece of paper that says I’m highly educated.
    RE: Fishing: Here’s what I’ve written about it: https://survivalcommonsense.com/?s=fishing
    And here’s why I don’t carry fishing tackle in a light, pocket survival kit, and by extension, in the handle of a “survival” knife: https://survivalcommonsense.com/should-you-include-fishing-gear-in-a-pocket-survival-kitfeed/
    RE: “Survival booklets literally provide information that could make all the difference in a life or death situation.” Name one.
    RE: “I don’t care if this is from 2011,the ignorance here is downright painful,and could actually cost someone their life.’ Thank you for your feedback.

  • Alp

    “a booklet won’t help” and “knowledge is the most important part of your survival kit” are two extremely contradictory statements.I’m not trying to be mean,I’m not,but are you stupid?Survival booklets literally provide information that could make all the difference in a life or death situation.Not only that,but what if you forget how to do a specific thing,and that booklet has it??And not including fishing stuff??Really?The fact fish don’t always bite is irrelevant to the fact that in survival situations,there are times where you may damn well need to fish in order to get some food.I don’t care if this is from 2011,the ignorance here is downright painful,and could actually cost someone their life.

  • Gaston Marty

    For real shelter building, anything under 10″ of blade, 2″ of blade width and 1/4″ stock is really very marginal: Not many Hollow Handles made today have enough blade size. They also tend to be thicker edged than necessary: Way over 0.020″-0.030″ (Such as the Martins and Neeleys in the 050s and 060s). A Cerakoated Voorhis (they go to 11″) in 5160 is about the closest thing to a “proper” Hollow Handle Survival Knife made today: They need a new sheath, Cerakoating, and moderate edge thinning also… They would have better edge holding in stainless… The usually touted Reeve knives, even the larger 8.75″ blade models, are much too narrow-bladed to be effective choppers, and they are also thick-edged at over 0.040″… G.

  • Chuck

    Anyone looking to make there hollow handled knife a reliable chopping tool thake it to a welder and have it tig welded at the joints.

  • Must Survive

    Lol at “Drugs, man”. I like the way Les Stroud keeps fish hooks in his hat. So simple yet effective. Hollow handle survival knives have come a long way since the 80’s and are now pretty decent products.

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