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There are very few tools that are more useful than a good blade.  Every well equipped survival kit should contain a few certain edged tools: at least one knife, a machete, and a hatchet or one-handed ax.  But even more so, these tools can be used around the house daily.  There is an overabundance of all three of these tools available at an even wider assortment of prices today.  The purpose of this article is to help the neophyte sort through all of this.  What I think a basic survival kit should contain is the topic of a separate article.

NCIS rule #9- never go anywhere without a knife.  I started carrying a knife regularly, and learned the basics of knife care, when I was first in the Boy Scouts; age 11; of course the knife I carried was my scout knife.  The issue scout knife was good for what it was; an 11-year-old’s pocket tool kit/basic pocket knife with a 3” knife blade, a can-opener, bottle-opener, straight-blade screw-driver (Phillips screws were not as common then), and an awl (this was used for opening knots and splicing rope).  You could do worse, nothing at all.  Yet it serves to illustrate a few key things about a survival kit and knives; the items contained in your kit should be functional, portable, and necessary; and a knife is just that, it is not a machete or ax or a saw or screw-driver or a pry-bar.  Men on the frontier often carried more than one knife.  If they did, one was a fixed-bladed knife of considerable size and weight; the other would be much smaller and often a folding pocket knife; they also carried other basic tools such as a hatchet.

My philosophy about knives mirrors my philosophy about guns; you can never have too many and you get what you pay for; having said that, I think that the necessary minimum number of knives to own is three: a pocket knife, a one-handed folder, and a large, fixed bladed knife.

First, a medium sized, multi-bladed, folding pocket knife.  My first choice is a 4” “stockman’s” knife.  The stockman has three blades consisting of one main blade and two smaller blades.  I have an Old Timer® stockman that I use for skinning small game.  The main blade is pointed enough for the starting cut across the hind-quarters and the clip-point blade is excellent for peeling the hide off the meat when required.  The third blade, which is straight, is good for cutting rope and similar cuts.  There are several manufacturers that still offer the stockman style knife: Buck®, Case®, and Schrade® (Old Timer) to name a few; all of these are good quality knives.  For many years, Buck has used 420HC steel for their pocket knives.  This is good steel for this type of knife because it holds a decent edge, is stainless yet does not have too much chromium to make the blade brittle; more about stainless steel and blades a little later.  A Buck series 300 stockman is also an excellent choice.

The next knife I recommend is a 4”-5” one-handed folder.  Almost every knife maker today makes at least one knife that would fit this niche.  I have several one-handed folders ranging in size from 3” to 6”.  Consider this knife to be your back-up blade; much the same as a back-up gun; while small enough to be easily carried and utilitarian; it is large enough to defend yourself with.  As far as the specific design of one-handed folders I have this to offer: the thumb-stud version is the way to go.  I do not like the styles that have a hole in the back of the blade to actuate the knife.  A hole in the blade weakens the blade and your thumb is more likely to slip off the blade with a hole opposed to a stud when opening the knife.  Also pay attention to whether or not the knife comes with a pocket clip; some do not; the pocket clip is part of the beauty of the design.  I have a 5” model M21-04G made by CRKT® that is as fast as a switch-blade.  This particular knife also has a double locking mechanism; while this locking mechanism takes a little practice to get used to when closing the knife; the increased safety is worth the slight inconvenience.  It is very well made and I highly recommend it.  Many one-handed folders have serrated blades; I do not recommend this style.  Once a serrated blade is dull, it is very difficult to properly sharpen.  Cold Steel makes the Vaquero series of one-handed folders, all are excellent.

The last knife of the minimum three should be a well made fixed-bladed knife with a 7” to 9½” blade.  This knife’s main function is a fighting knife.  This knife should have a guard and the grip should fill your hand.  The Ka-bar® that Marines have carried for decades is a good example of a minimum here; you could do worse and a lot better.  Here you will need to pay attention to two things; the type of steel used and whether or not the knife is of full tang construction.  Full tang construction means that the handle part of the knife is a one piece continuation of the blade with scales permanently affixed to each side to facilitate a better grip; as opposed to just a skimpy rod welded to the butt of the blade and wrapped with leather like the Ka-bar.  An excellent example of the top-of-the-line in this category would be a Cold Steel® Trailmaster.  A recommendation: if you plan on hunting or do hunt medium sized game such as deer, a knife with a 7” to 8” fixed blade of medium weight is best for certain aspects of gutting the game.  This blade should be heavier than a fillet knife but not as stout as a typical Bowie style knife.  I have found that when gutting deer-sized game a knife of this size works the best for those “hard to reach” places in conjunction with a 5” two-bladed folder.

There are a lot of knives available today that are junk mainly due to the steel used to make them.  Stainless steel with few exceptions is not good for knife blades.  The exceptions are the aforementioned 420HC used by Buck and AUS-6/8; 6 being slightly softer than 8; both are serviceable but I really don’t recommend either because you can do better.  “440” stainless steel is very popular for cheap knives; the emphasis being “cheap”; these are the junk I mentioned.  440 is used a lot because it is readily available, inexpensive, and easy to machine.  Unless you plan on buying a dozen at a time and using them for throw-a-ways, save your money for something better; and this goes for all knives.  High-carbon steel such as 1095 makes an excellent blade; yet there are even better steels available if you have deep enough pockets.  Cold Steel uses several different proprietary steels that are excellent; but you can easily spend $200.00 or more on one of their knives.

There are two particular knife styles I would like to mention before moving on; those would be the “butterfly” knife and the “switch-blade”.  The butterfly knife style was first developed in the far-east in the 19th century to the best of my knowledge and the style may be even older.  The butterfly knife is “kind of cool” looking but the one-handed folder is better because it is much safer and faster even if you practice for hours a day with a butterfly.  I speak from experience here as always.  I would also like to recommend steering clear of switch-blades as well.  Aside from legalities, well made switch-blades are very rare and even still the mechanisms are prone to breakage.  I learned this from a collector of the style; he had quite a few.

I would also like to offer my opinion of “multi-tools”.  Multi-tools such as the “Swiss Army Knife” and Leatherman® style multi-tool may be acceptable where weight and portability are paramount concerns.  First, it has been my experience that the knife blades that come with these tools are mediocre.  Next, the other tools found on these gizmos sacrifice a good deal of usability for compactness.  The only tool found on either device that comes close to measuring up to its’ standard counterpart is the pliers on the Leatherman.  I think that if you deem it necessary to carry some basic tools you could do much better by actually carrying a small, prudently outfitted tool kit.  I will cover this more in depth in a separate article also.

Everyone should own a well made machete; a personal favorite tool of mine.  Surprisingly, a well made machete is not that expensive; one can be had for $20 to $35.  For a while, in the 90s, first quality machetes made in Columbia were being imported and sold here for under $10 at many hardware stores; whether or not these are still available I am unsure of, but I do have one and have used it extensively with no complaints.

Many historians have maintained that the ancient Romans and their legions conquered the entire Mediterranean region and beyond because of two reasons: 1) The Romans were the first to formally train their inductees; the originators of “boot-camp”.  Prior to them, if a man joined an army, his training consisted solely of battlefield experience (if he survived) and what he could learn from his companions.  2) The Roman sword; a heavy, double-edged, blade with an aggressive point 16” to 18” in length.  Most of the training Roman inductees received consisted of how to use the sword with efficient effect.  While most machetes are single-bladed, they are the same size.  Interesting historical note: I have read that the entire Roman army at its peak numbered about 300,000 men.  Whether or not this figure is accurate I don’t know; but I do find it interesting that a mere city with an army of that size could conquer and maintain control over such a vast region; a region that comprises over twenty countries today.

You will not be disappointed with a machete made from 1095 steel.  I think that is the optimum steel for a machete.  When I was a boy, I was told that a machete did not need a sharp edge; this is erroneous thinking.  Any blade should have a keen edge; and 1095 steel holds a keen edge well.  Machetes are available in a number of different makes, sizes, styles, and configurations; some even have guards.  Cold Steel® even markets a “machete” that mirrors the design of the Roman sword.  My only two recommendations are (other than 1095 steel construction): do not buy a machete with a blade longer than 18”, a longer blade is awkward to use; and a saw blade back on a machete is not that useful, carry a folding camp saw instead.  Actually, I think the optimum machete blade length is 16” for the average size person because a machete is a one-handed tool; unlike a sword, like a katana, which is a two-handed weapon.  If you buy a machete without a guard, I would recommend finding someone capable of fabricating a guard for your machete.

Which brings me to swords; while a sword is not really a necessary part of a survival kit; I think it is great to own one.  In my opinion, the Japanese katana is the pinnacle of sword design.  I have had the privilege of receiving some formal training in the use of a katana and can honestly say that anyone who may have the same opportunity should go for it.  I can also say with confidence that if any Medieval European knight had faced off with a Samurai; the knight would have lost miserably.  The only other thing I would add is if you have an interest in owning a sword; do not buy cheap because there are cheap swords available and don’t go for gimmicks.  Cold Steel does make top-shelf katanas.  This is all I have about swords because there is a wealth of information about swords and I’m not going to rehash it.

The last necessary blade in a survival kit should be a one-handed ax or hatchet; there is a difference.  A one-handed ax is merely a small, single-bit ax with a 12” to 14” handle.  A hatchet on the other hand is an ax and a hammer rolled into one tool; I prefer a hatchet.  A hatchet also typically has a slightly longer handle; 19” or so and in my experience the longer handle is very beneficial.  After swinging a hammer for countless hours and driving literally millions of nails in my life I know you can always “choke-up” on the longer handle if necessary; yet the longer handle will keep your fingers further away from whatever you are chopping when holding the handle at the end; and a 19” handle allows beginners to use two hands if necessary.  Hatchets also have a “V” notch on the bottom edge of the ax head to facilitate pulling nails.  As with any other tool the best way to learn how to use an ax is by using one.  Clearly, if you are in a survival situation and are equipped with one of these tools, like a small ax or hatchet, you are not going to be felling 3’ diameter trees.  But you will be well equipped to cut and notch 4” to 6” diameter logs to build an adequate shelter.  There are several different styles of “hatchets” available as well; a drywaller’s hatchet and a roofer’s ax both have slightly smaller ax heads than a standard hatchet.  There are also several companies marketing replica native tribe “tomahawks”.  A standard hatchet with a 4” ax head (with the little “V” notch on the bottom), 17” to 19” handle, a true hammer head, with an overall weight of 25-28 ounces is optimum.

Now that you have chosen your blades, don’t just throw them in a drawer until you need them.  They are tools, use them; take them out as if they are your friends, get to know them.  Rule #1 about knives, machetes, and axes: they are made out of steel and oil is steel’s best friend.  You should regularly apply a thin film of oil to all of your blades.

I recommend a product called Marvel Mystery Oil.  You can also

use MMO for sharpening oil.  There are other oils available, but

MMO is about $2.50 per quart at Wal-mart and it has additives that

increase its’ cohesive properties; it should take you a long time to

use a quart of oil.  MMO is also available in small cans with an

applicator spout that are refillable and spray bottles as well.

As far as sharpening gear: you should at least have a good 8” to 10” mill bastard file and a coarse/ medium/ fine grit stone or set of stones.

The file is used to remove any nicks in the ax or machete blade; NEVER USE A GRINDER ON A BLADE!!!!  Aside from leaving the edge concave which is counterproductive, a grinder will quickly overheat the blade and compromise the temper of the blade.  The temper of the blade is what insures the blade holds an edge.  Also, typically new machetes and axes do not have a very keen edge, so start working on that with the file.  Continue the edge angle that is original; new machetes have a distinct edge that merely requires finishing.  As far as the size of stone, the larger the better; a 10” tri-stone is an excellent choice.  Tri-stones are available from most knife supply sites; such as Smokey Mountain Knife Works: http://www.smkw.com

A good supplement to the stones is a ceramic rod/ rod set; also available

from SMKW.  Of course, as with all tools, the wider the assortment of

stones and files you have at your disposal the better.

Sharpening stones and files are tools and should be cared for like all tools.  Stones are fragile and should be stored accordingly; they can break if dropped.  Files are made    from hardened steel; a file can also break if subjected to a sharp blow; a little oil  or  WD-40 applied regularly will keep a file in good condition.  Files are not saws; they are designed to be used in only one direction; hold the file by the handle and push it away from you.  Using a file like a saw (back and forth) dulls a file quickly; unlike a saw a file can not be sharpened.  While files can be purchased without a handle; it is prudent and much safer to sharpen an axe or machete with a file or stone w/handle.  The Norton® Red-Head two-sided stone is good for axes and machetes (see photo).  The best way to clean a file is with a file card; brush the file “with the grain” with the card until all the debris has been removed.  Stones get “loaded up” 

with material from the sharpening process as well; this can be

cleaned with brake cleaner and a small nylon bristle brush.  To

clean a stone: liberally spray the stone with brake cleaner and

brush until clean repeating if necessary.  Brake cleaner is great

stuff; there are a myriad of uses for it.

To sharpen a knife: First place your stone on a flat, stable surface like a table.  Next, spread a thin coat of oil on the stone.

Then, draw the knife straight across the stone as if you were trying to shave a thin layer off the stone keeping the knife at a 20º angle to the stone and using the whole blade; working from the base to the point.  An excellent gauge for a 20º angle is a standard #2 wood pencil sharpened.  Lay the pointed end of the pencil between the knife blade and the stone; that is 20º (see photo).  This is the best angle to sharpen all of your knives at.

Be sure to alternate sides of the blade with the same number of strokes on each side.  The best angle for machetes and axes is a 25º angle; they usually come that way from the factory.  When sharpening all blades always start coarse and work to fine.  Only experience will teach you when to switch; but generally when continued work with one grit doesn’t yield better results, then it is time to go finer.  Also when sharpening a blade always work towards the blade; some neophytes try to sharpen blades using a circular motion; this is totally wrong.  This practice leaves a bur along the cutting edge of the blade.  Straight, even strokes as described with a fair amount of pressure are the right way.  A good test for sharpness: when the blade shaves hair from your arm or leg it is good.

To sharpen an axe or machete: first place the tool on a stable surface, such as a table or work bench, with the edge of the tool on the edge of the table or bench.  Next, proceed to sharpen the tool by drawing the file or stone away from you while maintaining the same angle on the blade.  An axe can be positioned directly on the work surface but the machete’s blade should be supported by another piece of wood.

Always work away from yourself with even pressure working the whole blade; both sides evenly also.  It would be wise to learn to do this with both hands; holding the file or stone in one hand, while holding the tool with the other hand, for one side of the blade and then reversing the tool to the other blade side and reversing your hands for that side.  The machete shown is a Cold Steel® Magnum Kukri machete.  This particular machete has a curved blade; both concave and convex.  A flat file and stone can be used on the convex portion of the blade but a round file and stone should be used to sharpen the concave portion; a chain-saw file is good for this.

One other thing you may want to have on hand if you chose to buy a one-handed folder.  Many of these knives are made using very small screws to hold the sides together.  These screws usually require an Allen® head or Torx® head screw driver to properly tighten the screw.  These screws do get lose with extended, repeated use of the knife.  Therefore, it would behoove you to have the correct size and style of screw driver on hand to tighten these screws.  Typical Torx size for these screws is T-6 or T-8 which is fairly small; typical Allen size is 1/32” or 3/64”, also very small.

A carpenter’s note:
Wood chisels and gouges should also be sharpened like an axe.  As with any other blade, chisels should not be sharpened on a grinder.  Using a grinder and putting a concave dish on a chisel blade not only defeats the function of the tool but also compromises the temper of the tool.  A wood chisel is designed to cut differently depending on how the tool is used.  With the bevel side up, the chisel will dig into the material.  With the bevel side down, the chisel will shave material off evenly.  With the chisel positioned    perpendicular to the material, it can be used to cut clean, square, holes evenly; this is how doors and door-jambs are mortised for hinges and lock-set strike plates.  P.S. my chisels shave hair also.

This should get you started.  Like many other things, achieving a keen edge on a blade is a skill that can only be mastered through experience.  A good blade is more than just a tool, it can be a life-long friend, so treat it with respect and it will give you a lifetime of service.  After 46 years, I still have my Boy Scout


​​​​​​​Blade 101

By Tim Siewert

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All Rights Reserved

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