The right bushcraft knife is an essential tool for the bushcrafter.
A good bushcraft knife is an absolute necessity for the bushcrafter and often replaces a lot of heavy, bulky gear. For example, a strong knife and a club, allows you to baton through reasonably sized tree limbs, often negating the need for an axe, saw or machete. Although, it is always best to have the right tool for the job, it’s just not realistic. You can’t expect to have the proper tool for every task you might run into, especially in a survival situation. The right knife, although not always perfect, fills the roll of many different tools in many different situations. Carrying the right bushcraft knife can make life easier and can literally be a life saver in a dire situation.
So, what is the right bushcraft knife?
There isn’t one.
Well, there isn’t just one. The “right bushcraft knife” depends on your environment, conditions, and likely tasks. Camping on the beach often requires a stainless steel blade with a lower hardness or Hrc. Considering the possible lack of freshwater, the salt in the air and the likeliness of swimming in the ocean and cleaning salty fish with your knife, a carbon steel blade would corrode too easily. A softer, tougher steel is probably better suited for the rocky, course sanded beach, as opposed to a hard, more brittle steel blade, whose edge would likely chip. A softer rolled edge can often be easier to repair in the field than a chipped hard edge. On the other hand, I would advise the same camper to use a hard carbon steel knife if camping in dryer wooded areas. The harder steel will handle chores like splitting and carving hard, dry wood better and longer than a softer steel. Because the conditions won’t be as corrosive, the stainless properties aren’t needed, but a high carbon content and hardness is preferred. Of course, this is a generality as there are many different stainless and carbon steels, each with the ability to be heat treated to suit. I will get further into the various steels later.
First things first, this is the anatomy of a Bushcraft Knife.
What should you look for in a bushcraft knife?
The functionality, strengths and weaknesses of a bushcraft knife, or any knife, depend on its:
- Fit and finish
- What does it look like?
- What is it made of?
- How well is it made?
- Are there any extra features other than a blade and handle?
Consider your environment, conditions and expected tasks when deciding on the necessities.
I would resist the temptation to carry a really large bushcraft knife. Let’s face it, not one of us is Crocodile Dundee. It’s just not necessary. Sure, a huge bushcraft knife looks cool and is fun, but it will function poorly at many necessary fine tasks. If there is a chance you might encounter more than you can handle with the average sized bushcraft knife, I would strongly recommend carrying an axe or machete, in addition to your bushcraft knife. Don’t beef up the knife, trying to make it something it’s not. Similarly, a small blade is nimble and great for intricate work, but an extra inch or so is often necessary to baton through a wider tree limb. I recommend your bushcraft knife blade be between 3.5” (89mm) – 6” (152mm), depending on your comfort and expected tasks.
Blade Design & Shape:
A bushcraft blade should have a long flat cutting edge that turns up to meet a tip, roughly centered to the width of the handle and your grip. The tip shouldn’t be excessively narrow and pointy or blunt and rounded. The flat blade is very versatile making it easy to do things like chopping, batoning and push cuts. Plus, you wont come across slicing or slashing that can’t be done well with a flat blade. So, you won’t need the fat, swooping belly found on most skinning and butcher knives. The idea behind the centered point is versatility. Not only is intricate work much easier when the point of your knife is centered in your grip, but it also makes using your knife to drill and hollow things out easier. Because the tip of a bushcraft knife is so heavily used and abused, it has to be strong but still functional. It should be broad and strong enough to not fail under hard use, but thin and sharp enough to be useful. This design is universally good for things like construction, harvesting, carving, skinning, butchering, digging and food preparation. Especially, if properly maintained and sharpened. The best blade designs for bushcraft knives are:
- Spear Point
- Drop Point
This refers to the blade’s grind or primary bevel, its secondary bevel (if one exists) and the angle at which the bevel(s) are ground. Extremes in either direction are usually too specialized for all around use. Again, your bushcraft knife’s geometry should depend on your expected environment, conditions and intended use.
Let’s start here. The blade grind or Primary Bevel refers to how the blade has been shaped above the cutting edge or secondary bevel (if present). The primary grind thins the blade stock down from its width at the spine, to that of the cutting edge or secondary bevel. The best grinds for bushcraft knives are strong and versatile. Specifically, the best grinds for bushcraft knives are:
- Convex Grind (Primary bevel only.)
- Scandinavian / Scandi Grind (Traditionally primary bevel only. Often found with secondary bevel.)
- Flat Grind (Almost always secondary bevel only.)
- Chisel Grind (Not common. Primary bevel only.)
Other grinds may be poorly suited for bushcraft. The hollow grind, for example, makes an excellent skinning and caping knife, but is usually too thin and week to endure the punishment of chopping, carving and batoning.
Stemming from a knife’s grind or primary bevel is its cutting edge. The larger the cutting edge angle, the stronger but duller the cutting edge. A thin blade with a fine cutting edge is great for slicing and things like food prep, whittling and dressing game. However, the thin edge should not be expected to perform heavy duty chores like splitting or chopping wood. The opposite is true for a broader edged knife. It lacks the “hair popping” sharpness of the previously described knife, but is ready for abuse. Typically, the edge’s angles are measured per side. A knife with an overall cutting edge angle of 36 degrees means that the knife was sharpened at an 18 degree angle on each side. A secondary bevel creates a larger angle and consequently a duller but stronger edge. It also changes the cutting angle (the angle the knife is held when cutting). It is only necessary if the primary bevel angle is too small, which would result in a sharp but weak cutting edge. A secondary bevel increases the cutting edge angle from that of the primary angle, making the cutting edge stronger. Also, a knife with only a primary bevel is easier to sharpen in the field than a knife with a secondary bevel. Just lay the stone flat on the big flat bevel (or vise versa) and rub. A secondary bevel requires more control to keep the correct angle while sharpening.
It’s simply stainless steel or carbon steel, right?…Wrong!
There are many many different steel options, each having different ways to be heat treated and different characteristics resulting from each of the treatments. It is absolutely impossible to choose the best one or two steels. Anything I claim can be challenged by countless examples and arguments. That being said, I can make some generalities. Please keep in mind, these are only generalities. I get further into detail in the Bushcraft Knife Steel Page. Stainless steel is stainless because of it’s high levels of chromium, among other things, which is considerably soft. The more chromium added, the more stain resistant, but softer the steel becomes. Carbon steel doesn’t have this problem as there is little to no chromium in it to make it soft. Unfortunately, without the added corrosion resistance, carbon steel is prone to pit, stain and rust. What about the new, expensive, super steels? Buyer beware. A lot of these new, advanced steels, although impressive, are usually geared toward corrosion resistance, wear resistance and/or hardness, not toughness. This makes it very difficult to sharpen in the field and without diamond stones. It also, makes the blade brittle and the edge and tip very prone to chipping and breaking. No steel is created equal and no steel is perfect. Each has its own qualities, good and bad. Inevitably, you have to experiment, compare and contrast to come to your own opinions. These are mine. Any of these steels will serve you well in most situations.
- CPM 3v
- CPM 154cm
- CPM S35V
- VG 10
- CPM D2
With technology being what it is, seemingly invincible materials are readily available. Wood is pretty, common, has good traction and has an infinitely long track record, but is subject to moisture and won’t hold up as long as some of the synthetic stuff. You can forget bone, horn or antler all together. They crack too easily. Aside from wood, Micarta or G10 are the way to go. They won’t rot, warp or crack under even the most extreme conditions.
- Micarta: A phenolic resin impregnated paper or cotton fabric, layered and cured
under high heat and preassure. I think this is the better looking than G10, considering the infinite patterns and color combos. When ground to shape, the layers look great.
- G10: A super fiberglass, which owes its durability to a combination of thermal setting, continuous filament glass cloth and an epoxy resin binder.
These materials are common, seemingly bomb proof and affordable, which is much more than I can say about a lot of the handle materials out there.
In all cases, I strongly recommend a bushcraft knife with a full tang. This means that the knife’s steel runs the full length of the knife, from point to pommel. If the force applied to the blade is not distributed through the entire handle, there is a good chance the handle will break or come apart from the blade, eventually. There is one exception that I will mention because of its long track record and groves of adoring fans; the Mora knife or morakniv, now made by Mora of Sweden. I have no personal experience with any of the Moras, but I hear a lot of good about them and haven’t heard of anyone having a problem. There is no need for a serrated blade. Serrations only help a knife cut rough, deep and quick and give the average bushcrafter little to no advantage.
Twice the blade does not mean twice the knife. No double sided blades. Stay away from any type of saw toothed or sharpened spine. In most cases it eliminates the ability to baton, make push cuts or use a ferro rod with your knife. It is also dangerous. Saws often bind. If the saw on the spine of your knife binds on a push stroke, the orientation of the handle makes it likely your hand will slide up the blade, slicing your hand open on the knife’s edge. That could mean big trouble, especially with little to no first aid gear and far from help. If a saw is a must have, which it often is, purchase a lightweight, folding saw that meets your needs. There are many options that, in most cases, are not expensive.
Hi Shayne, Isaac, Becca & Danni