Story and Photos by Reuben Bolieu
The knife is arguably the most valuable cutting tool in survival.
In the United States, we loosely use the term Survival Knives to describe knives used in the outdoors when lost in a wilderness environment. These types of knives are usually geared toward the “one knife, do all” spectrum, able to complete most tasks in a pinch but not one thing specifically.
In the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand they use the term Bushcraft Knives. What’s the difference?
Think of Bushcrafting as long term wilderness living – depending on skills and knowledge. These are skills which make life outdoors not only bearable but comfortable, while teaching a deep respect for nature.
Canadian teacher/author Mors Kochanski and British TV host/author Ray Mears are arguably the most well-known leaders on the subject of Bushcraft Living Skills. Their books, TV programs and classes clearly illustrate the use of a knife, saw, and hatchet for successful wilderness survival.
Since there is not enough room in this article to elaborate on all the tools required for bush living, the primary focus will be on the knife.
Think about what exactly makes a good Bushcrafting knife. Comfort and function have to be considered when selecting a knife solely for Bushcraft. The simpler is better rule definitely applies here.
Sharp carbon or stainless steel and a comfortable handle are required for a good bush knife. Blade length varies between 3- to 4.5-inches. The blade should have a point sharp enough to penetrate deep into wood; for drilling with minimum effort. Spear points and Drop points are both quite popular for this type of design.
Thickness of the blade is usually in the range of 3/32- to 5/32-inch. The spine of a carbon or stainless-steel blade can be used as a striker for a ferrocerium rod, or for scraping tinder from manmade or natural materials. Flat spines are better for batoning wood since they won’t tear up your baton like a knife with a false edge or a saw-back would. They also give better energy transfer while being pounded on by a baton when splitting wood.
Handles should be fairly simple and free of any predetermined finger notches, to optimize the freedom needed for the many different grips and positions required in basic Bushcrafting. Natural materials like wood and stag are favored over synthetics like Micarta, Carbon Fiber, or G-10. However, this is a matter of personal preference.
Unless you are doing a lot of heavy-duty stabbing, a small guard is sufficient for a good bush knife. There really isn’t much danger of the hand slipping onto the blade while practicing Bushcraft skills. Many would rather forgo a guard altogether, for carving and crafting.
The grinds on Bushcraft Knives vary from Scandinavian – with one large single bevel – to a convex edge. While most American made Bushcraft Knives feature a flat grind with a convex or V-grind, as long as the edge is sharp and easily maintained, you will be off to a good start!
Always cut away from yourself and others. Never use your leg or any body part as the support or cutting board. Safety lies within the correct techniques.
By far the most common way of holding a knife is known as the forehand grip, also known as the forward grip.
Hold the knife in a firm fist type grip, with the blade protruding from the top of the fist and the edge facing away from you. This is a good grip for cutting heavy vines and tree roots. Making a point on the end of a stick can also be done with this method – but not restricted solely to it.
Safety must be noted when following through.
Whittling wood with this grip is very efficient, especially when making fuzz sticks for a fire. Be sure to keep the arm flexed and use your whole body in a slow, smooth motion, while applying constant pressure. This will help keep fuzz sticks nice and even.
On the safety side of things, keeping your arm in a locked position will save you in the long run from unnecessary jarring of the elbow, which can lead to injuries such as tennis elbow.
Avoid placing the thumb on the spine while whittling, this will put uneven pressure on the project and result in less than desirable fuzz sticks and less control. This is definitely a place where practice makes perfect!
While executing this type of grip, the knife is turned sideways in the hand. The edge is actually facing the knuckles of the hand, outwards, and the thumb rests on the flat side of the blade or handle for support.
Bend the elbow and position the hand (with the knife) across the chest, with the knife spine and finger knuckles facing the chest, edge facing out. Then, bring the project hand up to meet the cutting edge.
The cut is accomplished by using your shoulders and back muscles with a chest out motion, pulling your bent arms away from each other. This makes for a powerful cut and removes larger chunks of material, fast.
The position is unique because it can also be used for fine tip work when combined with a thumb assisted push-cut from the opposite hand. The advantage of this kind of position is that you can have it at chest level, right under your eyes, for very controlled cuts.
Most of all, it is a very safe grip because the knife is not flailing around when you follow through. I find myself favoring this grip more than others, on a daily basis, opening mail/packages, making pot hooks, cutting clamshell packages open, cutting cord, and putting a fine tip on a piece of wood.
This type of grip is a good example of how finger grooves and over prominent rear guards can be undesirable.
Using a baton (thick chunk of wood), in conjunction with a knife, is a very effective way of getting heavy work done with a small tool. Limbing small trees and splitting wrist thick pieces of wood can easily be done with the help of a stout baton.
Placing the knife edge at the thickest junction of the branch you want to sheer off, give the knife spine a solid whack while the knife hand firmly controls the follow through. The energy transfer is similar to using a small tomahawk or hatchet. This is why the spine on a good Bush Knife should be flat and not sharpened.
For splitting wood, simply place the knife (edge down) on the wood with one hand and proceed using the baton to hammer the top of the knife blade (spine) into the wood with the other hand. Once the knife sinks in deep, continue hammering the tip of the blade until the wood is cleanly split.
Be aware of any rocks or gravel, directly under and in the path of the knife, that could damage the cutting edge while following through.
If the wood is small enough in diameter, give the wrist a twist to complete the split if possible. This will save your blade edge from dulling when contacting the surface underneath.
When batoning in a cross-grain fashion, make sure to baton the spine directly over the wood to ensure the best possible energy transfer and lessen the stress on the knife – as well as the shock on the hand supporting the knife handle. It is a good idea to baton at angles which will create a V shaped notch, weakening the wood enough to break it easily. This will save energy and your knife from unnecessary hard use.
This technique is used to take down small trees, up to wrist size in thickness.
Applying tension, bend the tree and hold firmly with one hand. At the point of the greatest bend is where the cut is started – at a 45-degree angle.
There is no sawing action required, just a rocking back and forth motion of the blade, cutting the fibers under tension. The most important part of this is the end of the cut when the tree is ready to snap. Restrain the tree from falling prematurely, which will result in more work than is necessary to finish the cut.
Done correctly, this should take no more than ten seconds.
Bushcrafting knife skills are a matter of technique and skill over knife grinds, materials and brands. Practice and get good with what you have. If it isn’t working, try something else. It really is a matter of the Indian, not the arrow!
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Adventurer, writer, photographer, gear designer and survival instructor for Randall’s Adventure & Training, Reuben has spent most of his life hiking and backpacking through the wildernesses of the world. He has traveled abroad in extreme environments, from Alaska to the desert heat of Egypt – as well as the humid conditions of Southeast Asia and South America. He continues studying primitive survival techniques, construction and uses of knives and edged tools from places such as: South America, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, and numerous countries in the South Pacific and Scandinavia. Reuben has published many articles on survival, knife and tool use, woodcraft, shelters, and remains a lifetime student of survival.
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