As long as there has been bush and bushmen and stuff that could be made sharp, outdoorsmen have had a love affair with knives. A good knife will last a lifetime, but I would bet your typical bushcrafter, hunter, fisherman or woodsman has at least a half dozen good knives lying around. Yet the allure of the knife is no wonder; it is the all purpose outdoors tool with which a skilled person can hunt, clean game and fish, make tools from fishing poles to bows and arrows, build shelter, strike chert and start a fire, even build shelter and stay warm. A reliable, well-made knife is the first step in all these things. Thus, I admit I myself have had a number of good (and not so good) knives over the years. Like many country boys a couple decades ago, my teen-age go-to gear for getting outdoors was my .22 rifle, my army surplus Alice pack, sleeping bag and canteen, and my bush knife, except where many were into the big Buck folders back then, I’ve always been partial to fixed blades, and my first “real” knife was, I think, a Ka-Bar Marine Hunter, about 11″ long and light. That knife saw me through of lot of adventures back in the bayous of Louisiana, and with it I prepared many catfish and squirrel for a meal. (I say “I think” because I do not recall the name of the maker, only the look of the knife, and it was exactly like this.)
A few years later, after my grandfather passed away, I was given his old Ka-Bar USMC knife from WWII, and I took that knife with me to the Alaskan wilderness where I became a bushman in earnest. It was a great knife of the infinitely useful bowie style which I carried and used for many years, but as things happen, I lost it one day on the trail. I don’t even know how. That morning I was travelling a snowy trail through the taiga and had it. Come noon, I sat down in a little clearing to make a fire and tea and didn’t. I still miss that knife.
But over the years I’ve owned many other great knives. Other Ka-Bars, a classic Buck folder, a couple of the famous Grohmann S-4s, the rare and exceptional Crowell-Barker Competition Knife, and even a small, light, tough Gerber folder that I almost always carry when doing chores around the homestead. But of all the knives I’ve had the pleasure to own, my absolute favorite has been the venerable Trail Master by Cold Steel.
The Trail Master is a stout knife in the classic design, following in form and function the famous American Bowie. I like classic knives, and classic tools. They may not sport the latest innovations, but the requirements of bushcraft has not changed in thousands of years, and often it is the old and proven things that are best when the proverbial fan is hit.
It is a big, beefy knife, 14.5″ long with a spine that is 5/16″ thick. The blade is 9.5″ long and the handle is a full 5″. There is a brass guard and a lanyard hole at the base of the tang. Despite the knife’s size, it is not very heavy due to its flat grind, and weighs in at just barely over a pound at 16.7 ounces. Every aspect of this knife has been carefully honed for form and function.
The hilt is made of a polymer called Kray-Ex, a very grippy material. It is also dimpled to add to the grippiness. You’d have to oil your hand and fall asleep to lose hold of this knife. It is excellent stuff and entirely impervious to the effects of water.
The hilt is long at a full five inches. I’m a big guy and I have big hands, but the grip still gives me lots of clearance. That is useful, especially if I need to use the knife as a chopper. It allows me to give the knife more “swing”. And if you know anything about the martial art of the rapier, it also allows you to back your hand down the hilt and gain more reach.
Folks that believe a bushcraft knife’s ability to chop wood rave about how they can use the lanyard hole to attach the knife to their wrist so it doesn’t slip out of their grip and hit someone while they are chopping. First of all, if someone tends to let tools slip out of their hands while they’re chopping wood, you go someplace else and leave them be because that person is an accident waiting to happen. Decades I’ve been chopping wood and never had a tool just fly out of my hands. Now, I’m going to knock this whole thing about using knives to chop wood. A knife is not an axe. It may be used as a back-up for an axe, but a knife IS. NOT. AN. AXE. Axes have soft steel designed to handle the stress of smashing into wood. Knives have hardened steel designed for holding an edge and cutting. Use an axe or a hatchet for a woodcutting job. But the lanyard hole is very practical for other things. If I’m canoeing, I will fasten the knife to my belt or a floating pack to ensure it doesn’t get lost, should their be a mishap. If I’m fishing on the water, I might slip a lanyard through the hilt and over my wrist. That’s what a lanyard is supposed to be used for.
The stout blade can be used as a chopper, if needs be, but let me say again, I think all this hype many bushcrafters place on using their knives to chop and split wood is faddish nonsense. I’ve spent more than thirty years of my life in wilderness areas–real deep wilderness like the Alaskan bush and Canadian north woods–and never once had a need to baton wood for a campfire. And while I often had to chop a little wood, I’d rather the right tool for the right job–and nothing beats a hatchet for that, of if you can spare the weight, an axe. But in the bush, it’s essential to be flexible, and the Trail Master is that. If need be, it can be a solid chopper. While out hiking this past autumn, I stumbled upon a perfect site to hunt deer, a little brushy hillock overlooking a couple hundred yards of meadow all around. Because it was only a day hike, I was only carrying minimal gear: a fanny pack with some water, a sandwich and compass, and my Trail Master. But I decided right then to use that site as my hunting spot. Using just the Trail Master, I was able to fashion an excellent blind in a nearby thicket of spruces that was all but invisible, and took a deer there a few days later. A hatchet would have been better for the job, but the Trail Master worked beautifully.
I have a friend who is retired SAS and a survival instructor. And you know, not only is he a genuinely good guy, but I respect his opinion. The man knows his stuff. And he’s fond of smaller knives. He has a good point. They’re a bit nimbler for delicate tasks like fashioning wooden tools, or butchering game. And if you’re thinking of your knife as a weapon, a small knife can be a bit faster in the hand. But thirty years of wild living has taught me in the most practical ways that a big, well balanced knife is preferable for the bushman. The additional heft makes them inherently more efficient choppers. The size makes them more useful levers and hammers. And while it is exceedingly rare, if I am going to end up having to fend off a critter, I want a big knife. Plus–and this is just my theory but bear in mind I’m a psychotherapist and have a good grasp of how the human mind works–I think if one were forced to use a knife as a weapon against a human, you might be able to avoid a fight altogether due to the intimidation factor of a big knife. The best fight is the one you can avoid. The second best is the one that’s unfairly stacked in your favor, thus I like the reach of a big knife. So, either way, I want a big knife. But the thing about the Trail Master is, while it is a big knife, it is not very heavy and it is extremely well balanced, so much so it feels lighter than it is and it is very capable of tasks requiring speed or nimbleness.
Normally, when I shoot a deer I like to butcher them with my Grohmann S-4, which is a smallish knife with a curved blade and concave hilt designed to be held across the palm with the thumb on the base of the blade’s spine. It can be sharpened razor sharp and has always proven great for butchering tasks, and even separating fat and flesh from hides if I’m tanning skins. But this year I took my deer so far back in the woods that I had to pack it out over some very treacherous ground. That meant I had to shed all its unusable weight. I had only my Trail Master on me, and I used that knife to gut, skin and quarter that deer on the spot. The hefty blade was no hindrance, and actually a boon at separating joints, which it handled with ease.
Once I packed the hundred pounds of meat back to Twa Corbies Cottage, I got my S-4 and started the butchering task, but the knife was dull. The Trail Master was still very sharp so I just continued butchering with it. After rendering all the meat, I spread the hide and used the Trail Master to pare away the fat and flesh. I can honestly say the job went as smoothly as if I had done it with the much smaller Grohmann which is ostensibly designed for butchering game. I’m not knocking the S-4, which is a decent knife, but in the future I’m just going to turn to my Trail Master for butcher’s and tanner’s work.
The Trail Master is made of SK5 high carbon steel, a true high quality metal that balances a hard edge against a resilient spine with great panache. The moderately hard steel is extremely durable and takes takes an edge with only a little work and holds it well. The farrier work I do with horses has taught me how to sharpen things from scraper sharp to scalpal sharp using only hand tools, and I find sharpening the Trail Master can quickly be done using medium and fine grade Japanese waterstones to refine and hone. You may finish on a leather strop, your bare palm or on an 8000 or so Japanese waterstone. In the field, I carry a small 1000 waterstone to keep the edge up. The stone is the best, but it needs to sit in water for about five minutes to be really effective. But you know, the SK5 steel keeps its edge and rarely needs field touch-up. This autumn I’ve cleared debris from trails, built the deer blind, and butchered two entire deer, and the blade is still sharp enough to slice newspaper. I haven’t even had to touch it up yet.
SK5 steel is a high carbon steel, so it will rust, but it is not prone to rusting. You can use it all day on a rainy day and it will be okay. In the field, I keep a small 35 mm film canister (stock up on those while you can still get them) with a couple cotton balls soaked in pure mineral oil. At the end of the day (sooner if I’m working with something moist or in wet conditions), I wipe the blade down with the mineral oil. If home, I keep the knife out of its sheath, wipe it down with a dry cloth, let it sit a couple hours to ensure it’s fully dry, and wipe it down with WD-40. “WD” stands for water dispersal, and while a lot of folk bad mouth WD, I’ve used it with success since I was a kid in humid Louisiana to keep my knives and tools rust-free, and it’s never failed me. But it is toxic, so clean it off if you’re going in the field and use pure mineral oil.
Some knife aficionados have complained that the Trail Master does not come in a stainless steel like Aus-8, but I do not. Every steel has its pros and cons. Stainless tends to be harder to sharpen and people forget it too will rust if not looked after. I am quite happy to have an edge-taking, edge keeping steel like SK5. I’ve been out on many a wet day, and with minimal maintenance the Trail Master’s never taken a fleck of rust. If you want to spend the money, Cold Steel does make the Trail Master in San Mai steel, but it is about twice the price. San Mai is stainless steel folded over carbon steel, intended to provide both rust resistance and edge-taking ability. It is extremely good. However, like I said, it is twice as expensive. You could buy two Trail Masters in SK5 steel and have two knives that would last a life time with modest care. I have a philosophy in regard to my field equipment: spend enough you know it’s quality, but not so much you’re afraid to use it. The SK5 is exactly that.
Finally, the Trail Master comes with a superb, elegant Secure-Ex sheath. Secure-Ex is a tough plastic that is similar to Kydex but lighter. It can be easily adjusted to ride high or low on the belt and the sheath is slotted to accept loops for different carry positions, such as horizontally on a belt or upside down on a pack’s shoulder strap. The old sheaths were a bit loose, but the newer ones are snug and reliable and the blade snaps securely into them.
The Cold Steel Trail Master is a solid knife that does it all and does it well. There are specialized tools that would do any of the tasks I’ve described better, but not a lot better. Not enough to bother carrying or buying them, in my opinion. When I’m heading afield, it’s the Trail Master I always grab.
ADDENDUM: I have now owned the Trail Master for several years, and I can say without hesitation this is by far the most perfect woodsman’s knife I have ever owned. It is large enough to do any chopping task, yet small enough to handle fine carving, tool making and butchering. The convex clip point has proven to produce and hold an incredibly tough and sharp point. And, to my surprise, I discovered just two weeks ago that the dealer had made a mistake and actually sent me one of the last of the old O1 steel Trail Masters. O1 is one of the finest knife steels that has ever been made and the demand was so great for it that Cold Steel recently began producing the Trail Master in it again. Unless I specifically need a hatchet, this is the one tool that always goes into the woods with me, and I’ve used it for everything from feathering sticks, butchering deer and harvesting mushrooms. It is nearly perfect!