Thursday, December 07, 2006

Camp and Field Knives

Last week, at the gun show, I bought a new knife.

No, not a "gunshow knife", a real decent camp knife, hand made up in the Prescott area by Lynn & Cook Knives. This is my second knife from them, and I've been very happy with them. I think they make excellent knives, and they make them to the exact specification you want.

In particular, I bought a similar model to this one:

This is a Lynn & Cook Saturn; which I ordered in 3/16" ats34, no scalloping on the blade spine, dark red, heavily figured redwood burl scales with mosaic rivets, and a hand tooled leather sheath. I don't have it here for a pic right now, because mine was a custom order; so I could get exactly what I want (it's usually in 5/32" 440c, with the vine pattern on the spin, and a kydex sheath).

Coincidentally, I've also had a couple of readers email me recently about camp and field knives.

Now, what exactly is a camp and field knife?

Well, to my mind that would be a general purpose sheath knife, with a general utility edge (meaning one that is useful for multiple purposes, nothing specialized), including a fair belly; a strong shape, point, and grind; and a blade length between 4-1/2" and 7-1/2". For me it also means a full smoothe edge, no serrations.

I already have a few knives in this category; but this one caught my eye on the table, and when I picked it up it felt great in my hand (which is one of the most important factors in picking out a knife), and it was gorgeous; so I plunked down my cash, and they promised delivery in time for Christmas.

Camp knives tend toward the shorter side of that blade length range, usually in the 4.5" to 6" range; because shorter blades are more useful for fine work, and the general utility work around the camp, as well as use as a skinner if necessary etc... Longer blades are a little more difficult to control, and harder to use in tight quarters.

Field knives on the other hand tend toward the longer end of that range; for extra slashing, slicing, and chopping power.

So, what do I recommend specifically in camp and field knives?

That's easy, though there are a lot of choices in factory knives.

The "default" choice a lot of folks make, is a Ka-Bar pattern knife; and I think that's a good one, though I like the shorter 5-1/4" Kraton handled versions rather than the longer 7" original leather versions.
That one is a Ka-Bar 1258, and if someone wants a Ka-Bar, that's the model I recommend. I have one of those, and a Ka-Bar Bob Dozier fighter, model KBD-1.

As I said, I myself own a few Ka-Bars, and I think they're great knives, but they aren't my first choice. The hilt design provides no lanyard loop, and the hilt is somewhat poorly designed for precise control. It makes a great combat knife, but there are better choices for camp and field knives. Not that they won't do the job, they definitely will; they're tough, and they're sharp, and that's what you need.

I HIGHLY recommend Ontarios "Rat" Series of knives; which stands for "Randall Adventure Training". These are hard core field knives, inspired by the handmade custom knives from Randall, Brown, Emerson, Busse, and others; but costing a whole heck of a lot less.

My personal choice in this line would be the RAT-5, RAT-7 (above), or TAK.

I also like the Becker line, from Camillus; especially their "Companion" model here:

Then there are the Anza:

and Chris Reeve knives:

All of which I'll highly recommend. Honestly, nobody makes a tougher knife than Reeves; though the ergonomics of his one piece knives don't suit me entirely.

Still though, not my first choice... actually not my first five choices. When I go out in the field, it's with one of these five knives, in no particular order.

1. Swamp Rat Camp Tramp:

I'm not sure if you can still buy one of these from SRKW anymore; their web site has removed all product links. I'd be irritated if you can't because I no longer have mine, and I want another. It appears the only way to see their product line is in their forum link here.

This is honestly one of the best knives ever made. Coming from the same folks that make Busse Combat (Jerry Busse and his family), and built to the same standard of toughness and utility as his legendary battle master knives (though obviously nowhere near the same level of fit and finish), this is almost the perfect long field knife. The only problem I have with it, is that it is quite long, and quite heavy. Damn near indestructible though; and I wouldnt hesitate to recommend any Busse, or Swamp Rat knife; and that new M6 mischief (check that forum link) looks real interesting.

2. Cold Steel SRK

Another of my favorite knives of all time; I'm on my third SRK, the first one having been lost on a FieldEx, and the second being stolen. This knife has nearly ideal proportions, with a 6" blade, a 4.5" hilt, a good solid finger guard, and a nice 3/16" thick have duty Carbon V blade. There areonly two things I would change on an SRK: make the blade just a bit deeper with a bit more belly, and make the hilt maybe 1/2" longer with a full cross hilt rather than just the finger guard.

Which would make it a lot like the camp tramp actually, only shorter, a bit lighter, and a bit more maneuverable... 'cept it's a hell of a lot cheaper (though the steel isnt as good on the SRK).

How tough is this knife? Well, I once used one to chop entirely through an aircraft fuselage (not chopping a hole, chopping all the way around a tailcone), and it was barely marred.

3. Cold Steel Recon Scout

If you want a large, traditional bowie type blade, this is the one I recommend over just about any other. It's a great, tough, sharp, easy to handle knife, that doesnt cost an arm and a leg.

They make a bigger one, the Trail Master, but at 7.5" this is really the longest I want. Oh and those changes I mentioned wanting on the SRK? Well if you made this knife the same length as the SRK, and maintained the aspect ratio, then that would be just about what I'm looking for.

4. Katz BlackKat or WildKat

I love this knife. It fits my hand perfectly, its incredibly tough, incredibly sharp, and yet it's light and maneuverable. I own the model pictured here, the BK-300 (as well as the similar WildKat), which is the 5" model, with a 5" hilt, and only 8oz weight. They make models from 3.75" to 8" in length; all with the same japanese vacuum crucible steel. They also make otherwise identical metal bolster models in their LionKing line.

Oh, and another toughness story. A couple years ago I was hiking the river canyon up in Zion. The water started speeding up on me and rising a bit faster than I liked; when I got swept off my feet, twisted my knee, and lsot my walking stick down stream. I had to cut down a 2" thick sapling to threeleg it back down stream, and this knife managed to chop through it in two to three chops on each side (very good for such a light weight knife), without the slightest bit of damage. I have used this knife regularly since I bought it a few years ago; and I haven't yet had to sharpen it; only steeling it a few times.

5. Elishewitz Nimravus

The model I own is an Elishwitz made prototype model for the Benchmade production line knives. It's in M2 tool steel, with a slightly different blade and hilt shape, hand sculpted linen micarta scales, and a custom concealment sheath.

This knife is one of the sweetest handling I've ever owned. It's thin, light, easily wearable (you don't even notice it); and it's one of the sharpest, toughest, and easiest to control knives I've ever owned.

Unfortunately, the Nimravus I have, is nothing like the production model Benchmade is selling today, and I don't know how well the new production model works. I DO know I hate the new sheath and the scales; but the blade seems to be the same (though they arent using M2 anymore either).

Actually, that brings something to mind. Although Benchmade still makes excellent knives; I've noticed a very definite decrease in quality over the past few years across their whole line. This became apparent after they started their quality color coding scheme a few years back, and has regressed steadily since.
So, those are all what I'd call camp and field knives. I'd say they're about the second most useful category of knives there are (behind a good solid pocket knife); and among the most demanding uses of them; so it's important to pick quality, and utility.

Now as I said, there are hundreds of good choices in factory knives alone; and near infinite options in custom knives; so obviously this can be nothing more than a representative sample, but there are a few general features I'd recommend:

1. 4.5" to 7.5" length: 4.5 to 6" for camp knives, and 5.5" to 7.5" for field knives.

2. Good steel, and heat treat: A very high quality stainless (like ATS34), or high carbon with a tough corrosion resistant finish (like the epoxied Carbon V that cold steel uses), and proper heat treating for the steel and grind are absolutely critical. You can't jsut say "heat treat it to 58rc", or some such, because different steels, and grinds, require different hardness levels.

4. A strong, sharp point: A modified clip, drop, or saber point, for both piercing power, and tip strength. Tantos aren't really appropriate here; because although they have a strong point, their secondary edge and point are poor for a lot of camp and field tasks like skinning.

5. A versatile blade shape and grind: I like a fair bit of belly to the blade, for slashing power, slicing power, maneuverability, and skinning ability. I also like A good length of straight plain edge near the hilt, for chopping, shaving and whittling, slicing cord, and good control for push and pull cutting work. I don't like serrated edges on camp or field knives. As to grind, I prefer hollow or saber ground blades, though a well executed flat ground blade is better if the blade is deep (like the Campe Tramp or Recon Scout). Again, tantos are not appropriate here as described above.

6. Strong, safe, and ergonomic construction: Either a one piece, full tang, or full length tang; with comfortable and durable scales or hilt that provides adequate grip and finger protection. I prefer a full cross hilt on a field knife, but a finger guard with a flat or serrated blade spine you can rest your thumb on gives you better control on a camp knife.

7. A lanyard loop or hole: Believe me, this is NECESSARY for a camp or field knife. One, when it gets wet, and muddy, and nasty, and you absolutely MUST hold on to your knife or end up dead; you have to have a lanyard. Two, you'd be surprised at how useful a spear can be in a survival situation.

Anyway, if you can meet all those requirements, you're going to get a good solid camp or field knife.

Check out my earlier piece "The Gift of a Knife" for more hints and tips on buying a knife.