Bushcrafters, homesteaders and other back country folk often feel compelled to accumulate cutting tools. This is not without reason. A good knife can get a skilled bushcrafter by in many circumstances. Whether it’s striking sparks on chert to make a fire or hacking brush and saplings to build a lean-to and bed, a knife is the foremost essential tool. Following that would be the axe or hatchet, essential choppers not quite held in such high esteem as knives but equal in importance, for nothing cuts wood and brush more effectively than a skilfully wielded chopper. A clever person with an axe and some time can fell trees, pare them into logs, carve out notches in them, remove bark and build a cabin–true long-term shelter. In the old days, when folk actually lived by the land, the essentials of bushcraft included a large knife, a small knife and an axe or hatchet. We’ll get more into that later.
Today, however, there has been a profound move in bushcraft away from the chopping tools. In fact, one can find countless forums and video sites (such as Youtube) where you can watch persons parading an endless selection of knives and showing how well they cut and split wood. Likewise, often those very same persons will endlessly debate the merits of various knives’ grips, steel and technical aspects. There is a keen interest in finding the ONE PERFECT TOOL–the knife that does it all: works as an axe, a pry bar, a food processor, a skinning and gutting tool, and which is impervious to all forms of rust and rarely needs sharpening but takes an edge easily. Alas, such a tool shall never exist. Indeed, the quest for such a tool has created a huge fashion for knives that “do it all”, but in fact don’t do anything particularly well.
The Ka-bar BK2 comes to mind. Hey, as far as quality goes, the knife has it in spades. And for a mere $75, it rivals dollar-for-value very similar knives such as the Ontario RAT 5 and the ESEE 5PBK. It’s a mid-sized brute of a knife, sixteen ounces of tough 1095 cro-van steel. But as one owner of the knife wrote: what exactly is it? It’s too stout to be a good huntsman’s knife. It’s too short to be a good chopping tool. It’s too heavy to be a good military knife or self-defense weapon. The knife claims to be a camp knife, and it can easily be applied to basic tasks such as cooking or clearing brush or hunting and fishing or getting firewood, but there are other tools that do any of those other tasks much more efficiently. So, what exactly is the purpose of such a beast? Kind of everything, but that also means kind of nothing. Which leads to the question, why own one?
A lot of persons who have read to this point are going to think I don’t like knives from Ka-bar or Mr. Becker (the creator of the BK series). Not true. My first really good knife was a Ka-Bar USMC I inherited from my grandfather. I liked it so much I’ve had two. And I currently own one of the smallish BK-17’s, which I’ll get into later. But the simple fact is, bushcraft nowadays is riddled with “tacticool” products, and that is the underlying appeal of many knives that are out there, and the obsession for the knife that can do everything.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “tacticool” is slang meaning something that makes a person look and feel cool and dangerous, regardless of its practicality or the person’s ability to use it. Currently, bushcraft is full of tacticool toys and techniques. And tacticool “ain’t my thing”.
Take batonning. Batonning wood is one of the most popular bushcraft skills right now. If you don’t already know, batonning is using a knife as a wedge to break apart lengths of wood. Almost any bushcraft knife review is going to show someone trying to baton wood with his/her knife. After three decades of living by the land, I can honestly attest batonning wood is one of the singularly most useless skills a person can develop. How on Earth did bushcrafters come to feel it was essential? Never once, in decades of wilderness living, did I have even a remote need of it. I mean, honestly, can you imagine a couple bushcrafters out in the sticks. The weather has turned foul and they are stuck. And one says to the other: “Quick! Grab logs and start batonning. Our lives depend on having perfectly coifed wood for the fire!”
Likewise, batoning has about zero place or purpose in the building of any kind of shelter or bushcraft tool. It has never come up, not for myself, nor for any of the many bush folk I have known over the years. I could imagine needing to split wood to make shingles for a cabin roof, or split logs to make roofing, but I damned sure wouldn’t waste an expensive good knife on it. I’d use a hatchet as my wedge and hammer it horizontally into the log with the back of an axe or a stout log.
The one place I can think of for batonning is splitting a small log to make a flat surface to work a fire bow. Though I have never had the need. There are way easier ways to start a fire, since quartz and chert can be found in most places I venture and they make a spark readily enough if struck with good carbon steel. (As you may imagine, I consider making firebows another essentially useless skill.)
Now, often enough you have to split wood for other purposes. I hand split cords of wood every winter for the wood stove. But I did that the right way–with a hefty maul. Two years ago I decided to carve a longbow. The first step was selecting a tree. I found a smallish maple growing straight and branch free the first eight feet and cut it down–with a Swedish saw, not a knife. Geez, trying to do that with a knife would have been about ten times more painful than it needed to be. Before I could work it, I had to season it. To do that, I split the log lengthwise, then wired it back together so it could slowly age in my woodshop. Note I did not split it by batonning, which would have been ridiculous–trying to keep a straight path for eight feet of log. I used a one handed sledge to hammer in a couple wedges, stepping them along the log’s length. Bottom line: the right too at the right time for the right job. At no time for splitting wood has a knife ever been the best tool. That would be a desperate fall-back tool, at best! And I can’t even imagine where it would be necessary, short of making the base board for a fire bow.
As a survival skill or a bushcraft skill, batonning has no use whatsoever. You are more likely to need a fishing pole to catch a deer than you are to actually need to baton wood.
Alas, contemporary bushcraft is riddled with such cool but useless skills. Cough! Cough! C-spoon carving-ough!
The push to the ONE PERFECT TOOL won’t yield a knife. In fact, I have no doubt it won’t ever yield anything except “tacticool”, a plethora of skills and gear which seem very Gryllis-esque or Ram-bowie (remember that big saw tooth-backed knife?), or make you think you look very awesome, but really amount to about zip.
Useful Cutting Things
Let’s assume that the people of the last, oh, I don’t know . . . 50,000 years had some idea how to live on the land. Getting by took work, and work is hard, so they wanted to minimize the effort. Ergo, they looked for the right tool for the right job. In the American and Canadian wilds throughout the Pioneer Era, the right tools were typically a big knife, a small knife and an axe or hatchet. In my experience, I’ve learned countless times that is really the ideal set of bushcrafter tools. Let’s take a moment and examine each.
I am a fan of big knives for the bush, and the reason is simple. If I have only one tool at my disposal, and I need that tool to do as much as possible, the tool that’s best suited is a big knife. Something about the size of a leukko or smallish American bowie (about 13 to 16 inches). Much smaller and you’re into the mid-sized knife range, and much larger and it’s just too big to carry comfortably or be of much use in a variety of tasks.
A large knife can be an effective hatchet. It’s not nearly as comfortable or effect as a hatchet because the shock of impact will not be softened by a resilient haft, and it’s not as efficient because it’s weight is oriented toward the hilt instead of the head. But it will do in a pinch, much better than a mid-sized knife and far better than a small knife.
A modestly large knife is stout but can be well edged enough to serve well for skinning, gutting and butchering fish and game. A small knife is much better and safer because it allows for nimbler handling with less extra edge, but a large knife will do in a pinch. I have found that with some experience a well made large knife, in fact, serves the purpose very well.
A large knife will pull double duty as a self-defense weapon. Many bushcrafters (especially in less wild parts of the world) might not feel that that is so important, but there are few people in the world who know the intense pleasure of being charged by a black bear, or grizzly bear, or moose, or wild dog, or insane beaver. I’ve had all those experiences and more. Let me tell you, a good knife is a comfort in such situations. If nothing else, it lends confidence, and exuding confidence can often turn around an animal thinking about aggression. It’s worked for me many times.
Big knives also have some tool applications if the proverbial fan is hit. They can serve as a drawknife, effectively sever lines in a single swipe, and make useful pry bars if push comes to shove. As I said, other tools do all those tasks better, but since you’re not likely to be carrying all those other tools in the bush, a modestly large knife is about the single most useful tool you can have on your person.
The small knife has a set of different but important applications due to the way it’s handled. Using a small knife is much like using a pencil; it becomes precise because it puts your hand closer to the point. A small knife is especially useful for fine cooking tasks, such as mincing. It is also adept at cleaning and butchering game. It is a best for carving tools, such as a fire bow and board, or a longbow, or a notch in a lean-to post or a tent stake. All these tasks can be done adeptly with a modestly large knife, but they can be done better and more safely with a small knife. There is just less extra blade beyond the cutting area to injure oneself on (a major source of hunting accidents and fatalities), and you can choke way up on a well designed small knife to make it even more precise.
But there are many things a small knife is poor at, i.e., cutting wood. If a large knife is a poor wood chopper, a small knife is a truly lousy wood chopper. A small knife is not great at trimming off even small branches, either, as you might need to do if making a spruce bough bed. A small knife is often not the best prying tool, nor is it great for any other hefty cutting job or duty as a pry bar.
But for any precision butchering, carving, and many other more common and more essential tasks, a small knife is the tool par excellence.
Before we move on, a word about mid-sized knives. These knives are the do-it-all’s of the bushcraft world. They are small enough to use nimbly but large enough to have some leverage for bigger jobs. A mid-sized knife can stand in well for either small or large knives in many applications. Just be aware that they are jacks-of-all-trades, and that always comes with the caveat: master of none. If you’re going on an outing for a few days, and circumstances won’t be too demanding, a mid-sized knife is fine. If, on the other hand, you’re going to be in the bush for an extended period, a mid-sized knife will have you working harder to to accomplish the same tasks In such circumstances, it becomes important to save labor and time. In such a case, the right tool for the right job is worth its weight in gold. Plus, by going with the large/small knife combination, you have an extra should one fail.
I do find, however, that a mid-sized fixed blade or folder is perfect for the homesteader working around the property. They are beefy enough for the innumerable tough tasks where they will be called upon (like clearing branches from fences a half mile from your workshop) but small enough that they don’t get in the way. Even so, if I have a more specialized tool handy, I’ll use it. If I have to tackle a tough job, it’s worth heading back to get the best tool.
The Axe (and Hatchet)
The third tool in the trio of old time bushcraft essentials is the chopping tool–the axe or hatchet. There are numerous designs: bearded axes, double bladed axes, axes and hatchets with spikes on the opposite side, or hammers. For myself, I prefer the plain and simple single-bladed axe or hatchet with a flat back side for bushcraft. It’s safer than a double sided axe and the flat side of a hatchet can always serve as a hammer or pulverizing tool, if need be.
The old timers went for the axe or hatchet because they had to think practically. They worked hard to get by on the land and needed to get the job done as efficiently as possible. With hunting, farming, trapping, harvesting, and the innumerable other tasks of pioneer living, they needed to get their tasks done in a timely fashion, too. Hard experience taught them: the right tool for the right job is better than a one-size-fits-all tool. The axe and hatchet were the right tools for cutting wood and many woodworking applications. They still are, despite the modern fad for using knives to do it. Even the poorest hatchet is exponentially more efficient at chopping wood than the best knife.
If I am going to be operating from a base camp I’ve gotten to by horse or canoe or truck, and weight is not a huge consideration, I’m quite content with a large axe. If I’m heading into the bush on foot, I much prefer a descent hatchet. The one I usually keep with me is light but tough and effective: a Fiskars hatchet: synthetic handle and stainless steel head that takes and holds a good edge. I can’t begin to tell you how much wood I’ve cut, or how many chickens I’ve beheaded, with that hatchet. It’s built camps for us, cleared brush, made lean-to’s, provided small bits of wood for my Solo wood stove, and more. But any hatchet with a descent haft and head would do.
The Physics of the Chopper
Anyone who understands basic physics or ballistics can easily understand why a knife, any knife, can never compare to an axe or even a small hatchet. Let’s work it through. My physics is a little rusty, so correct me if you see an error, but . . .
Let’s compare a simple hatchet to the Ka-bar BK2. The BK2 is 10.5 inches long. Let’s say half that mass in the in the blade. Let’s also say you hold your hand halfway down the grip to gain some leverage and strike with the center part of the blade, about 6 inches from your hand.
A Fiskars hatchet is only 14″ long, but almost all of its 1.28 lbs of mass is in its blade. I swing at a tree with my hand at the base of the haft, putting 12 inches of space between my hand and the hatchet head. Doubling the distance to the hatchet head doubles the speed of the swing. That creates four times the impact energy. On top of that, the hatchet head has double the mass of the BK2 blade, and that creates four times the impact energy. Thus, a mere 14 inch hatchet delivers eight times more impact energy at cutting wood than the vaunted BK2.
If I stack up the Ka-bar BK2 against my Fiskars axe, which is 24″ long, I have quadrupled the distance from hand to axe head, and increased the mass of the axe head almost five times compared to the BK2’s blade. The swing is now up to four times faster, delivering SIXTEEN TIMES the energy of the BK2. And the axe head is five times heftier, delivering about TWENTY-FIVE TIMES more energy! The result is the axe delivers about FORTY TIMES more impact energy.
Now, these are very basic calculations that do not take into account an individual’s strength, or the increased acceleration time required to swing a longer, heftier shaft, wind resistance, edge quality, etc., but you get the point: an axe–even a hatchet–is exponentially more efficient at processing wood than a knife. So much so, they cannot really be compared. In most cases, carrying them is well worth the weight. The ancestors who lived on and by the land knew this instinctively, and they used a large knife, small knife and chopper for their daily bushcraft.
If I’m going into the sticks for just a day and I don’t plan on needing to make shelter and a fire, the one tool I’ll always grab is a large knife. I have a couple, but I am especially fond of the Trail Master bowie by Cold Steel. I live in wild country where I could encounter anything or any kind of challenge. It’s up to it all.
If I’m expecting to be gone for a few days but know I won’t have to work with wood, I’ll go with a large/small knife combination. I have several smaller knives, but I am especially fond of the Ka-bar BK17. It is an especially stout small knife, which is important because much of the wood around east Canada is hardwood. It has a modified clip point, too, which costs a bit in point strength but such a point is far better for working with game, and hunting and cooking are my usual applications for it. I’ve found even very well sharpened drop pointed knives can have difficulty puncturing game. A long time ago I broke the guts of a deer while trying to pry a drop point into it to start the skinning. Fortunately, I had worked with enough animals I was able to rapidly get the guts out with a minimum of damage to the meat, but I learned my lesson–go with well made clip points. And in truth, since I’m not in the woods to carve spoons and baton wood, I’ve very little use for the slight additional strength of a drop point,. As an aside, the additional stoutness of blades like the Becker BK17 and the Cold Steel Trail Master more than make up for any tip strength lost due to their clip points. And their clips are very well designed, leaving a sharp but none too narrow tip.
If I am going to one of my base camps, or if I am going to be in the woods days and expect to need a fair bit of firewood, I’ll add a chopper to the pack, a hatchet if weight or space is a consideration, but an axe is better, especially if it’s cold and I’ll want more wood than just what I’ll need to fire up my little Solo wood stove.
Some persons hold tight to the one-tool-to-do-it-all philosophy. They’d rather have a single hefty knife, like the Ka-bar BK2, to do it all. But if they aren’t aiming for tacticool, then they are falling victim to a miscalculating. For what they save in weight, they’ll will more than lose in work when it comes time to get heavy camp work done.
A few people prefer a small knife along with an axe or hatchet. Now this makes a lot of sense. A hatchet or axe will handle most of the seriously hard work. A small knife can handle just about any carving or game prep or food prep task. And the combination together can do most anything a large knife can manage on its own. But there are some things a large knife does better, such as clearing brush or beheading a downed deer.
For myself, though, I still prefer the three tool combination: large knife, small knife and chopper. Each tool has its specialization, and by carrying all three, if any one fails, the other two can cover for it. I feel the additional weight is well worth the gains.
Speaking of which, let’s talk weight.
Low & High Value Weight
Let’s assume you just decide to carry a mid-sized knife. Typical weight is about 12 ounces, though a beefy model like an ESEE 5 or a Ka-Bar BK2 will weigh about 16 ounces.
What if you go with a large knife instead? A good large knife, such as the Cold Steel Trail Master only weighs 16.7 ounces. For .7 ounces more you are getting another four inches of useful edge.
What if you add a small knife to your large knife kit? Well, the stout, little Ka-bar BK17 weighs just 6.7 ounces, so the total Trail Master/BK 17 package weighs 23.4 ounces, or less than half a pound more than just a BK2 with a lot more specialized and efficient functionality when it’s actually time to be put to work.
Now, what if I throw a hatchet into that mix for some modest wood chopping? It weighs 18.7 ounces. Remember, a hatchet is exponentially better at chopping wood than any knife. And the resilient haft absorbs the shock of each blow far better than the hilt of a knife which is attached directly to the blade part doing the chopping. If you are a “weekend warrior” bushman, out in the woods once for a day or two every month, that might not be a big deal. If you do bushcraft often, or as a lifestyle, that wear and tear on the body starts to add up. In time it will start to grind your body down and can lead to problems like tendonitis. For a mere 42.1 ounces–about 1.6 pounds more than the weight of only carrying a mid-sized knife–I can make all my cutting tools so specialized that when I have to tackle each task of bushcraft I can do it with a maximum of efficiency, safety and ease on the body. To me, that is worth the slight increase in my gear’s weight. Remember: there is low value weight and there is high value weight. Gear that gives a lot is higher value weight and more worth carrying.
And even if I were to trade my hatchet for my Fiskars axe, which weighs about 2.3 lbs, if I were going to be in the sticks a good while and knew I’d need to chop a fair bit of firewood and build a more substantial shelter, that extra weight is ultimately worth its weight in gold. I’ll gladly sacrifice some low value weight for such useful tools.
I think the logic is pretty clear. For short bush excursions, your best choice is a large knife. For excursions of a few days not requiring wood work, your next best is a large and small knife, and the second best combo is a small knife and hatchet (moves to first best if there will be light wood work). For extended trips, the ultimate tool combination is large knife, small knife and chopper. Ultimately, it’s generally more useful and worth the weight to have the right tool for the right job.