8 September 2012
No tool is ideal for all tasks, but there are occasions when carrying an entire garage or shop full of tools is either impossible, or impractical, so we necessarily need to compromise when we are subject to the weight constraints of foot travel. It behooves us well to expend a great deal of care in the selection of those tools we do intend to carry, for when we are far from the comforts of civilisation, or even embedded within them, the selection of the right tool can often mean the difference between life or death.
Humankind’s first tool using innovation, was probably hammering, using a found rock or tree branch as a club. Our second tool was probably the knife. No other tool has proven itself as useful to human endeavors as a sharp object with which to cut other things to pieces, like food, as well as fashion other tools. Over the course of history, we have probably developed more different types of cutting devices than any other tool. Because of the supreme usefulness of the knife, it is found at the very top of every list you can find about survival, with the possible exception of a clear mind.
When weight and bulk are primary concerns along with suitability for a specific task, we have to think very carefully about how we are going to use out tools to accomplish our needs, and design those tools to perform those tasks as competently as possible. I have developed this list based on my desire to produce a knife which would be suitable for as wide a variety of purposes as possible, without the undue admittance of factors which may render the knife ineffective. The environments I have chosen to focus on are wilderness survival, marine use (particularly in salt water environments), vagabond travel, and food preparation. I choose these environments, because I believe that the particular requirements of those environments are relatively compatible. Other environments, such as desert survival, arctic survival, and urban settings, may present their own, differing, requirements, but those requirements are generally better suited to a purpose-made tool, and in any case, a general purpose survival knife may still be called upon in these environments for mundane and commonplace tasks.
When we think of survival, where a small selection of tools will be available to us, possibly even only a single tool, we should keep in mind the follow factors.
1. First of all, a tool should be just that: a tool. There are many tools available to us that are manufactured to such a high standard of design and engineering that they are works of art in their own right, and actually discourage us from using and maintaining those tools in optimal working order. Such tools are invariably relatively costly in monetary terms, and available to only a few. They are also very attractive to thieves, and in an era when it is no longer customary in most cultures to personally exact vengeance against those attempting to steal our possessions, the appearance of wealth can be an attractive nuisance that draws unwanted attention. Therefore, a simple design is indicated, of unassuming form, that does not attract much attention to itself, any more than is absolutely necessary for function. A knife’s finish should be plain, that is, it should be chromium plated, mirror polished, coated with black (or any other color) paint. While oxide coatings are acceptable in a combat knife, they tend to be intimidating to others, and should probably be avoided. A plain bead-blasted or brushed finish is sufficient to guard against reflections. One exception I will tolerate is a titanium nitride coating, which can serve to harden the surface of the metal and prevent corrosion. Titanium nitride usually results in a gold-colored finish, but some varieties add chromium and result in a grey finish. Avoid knives that pretend too much to be “tactical”. Usually, these knives are poorly suited to survival use, anyway.
2. A knife should be robust. It must be stiff for both accuracy and safety, resilient to abuse, and resistant to corrosion and wear. There are many different commonly used materials that we can choose, all with slightly different feature sets. But the first consideration in this category is that your primary survival knife should always be a one piece, fixed blade knife.
Bearing in mind these first two strictures, for most environments, I would choose 420HC stainless steel. This is a relatively low cost, robust stainless steel that has a proven record in service from some of the biggest names in the cutlery business. Recently, it has become fashionable to choose blade steels based primarily on their resistance to wear, or edge-holding ability, but it is a little-known secret that higher wear resistance is usually achieved by compromising resistance to corrosion and toughness. 420HC is only slightly less resistant to wear than 440C stainless steel, which has long been regarded as a standard among blade steels, even if nowadays it seems like it is considered a low grade among the exotic crucible alloys now available. What 420HC gives up in wear resistance, it gains in spades in toughness and corrosion resistance, where is surpasses 440C by a very wide margin. To get better than 420HC, you have to pay a whole lot more money. 420HC is used for all Buck Knives, and has been used extensively by Gerber, as well as other manufacturers.
I dislike relying on the properties of the blade steel to ensure retention of a sharp edge, and advocate instead learning the number one most useful tool skill that every person should work at to become highly accomplished: knife sharpening. Once you know how to properly sharpen a knife, you will not fear using your tools for the purpose they were designed, and when those tools are made relatively inexpensively, you won’t worry about wearing them out by resharpening them. It should also be noted that the exotic steels are generally far more difficult to sharpen than 420HC.
For a knife used in a salt water environment, the selection of an exotic alloy can be justified, as salt water will corrode just about any steel, in time. David Boye uses a dendritic cobalt alloy which is completely impervious to rust. SOG Knives employs titanium in some of its knives for the same purpose, and Benchmade uses X15TN steel which is extremely corrosion resistant. All of these alloys are much more expensive than 420HC, however.
For the purposes of stiffness and strength, the most useful thicknesses of steel are those in the 4-5 mm range, with 3 mm being a viable option for smaller knives subject to less stress. The knife should, in any case, be of full tang construction for maximal strength.
3. For a general purpose survival knife, the most useful size is a knife with a blade about 140mm long (5.5″). This length is large enough to get your hands out of the way when you need to apply force to the blade spine, as when using a club to chop through wood, but not so long that it is unwieldy when employed for finer work. For a primary knife, the blade should not be less than 100 mm (3.93″). The handle should be about 120 mm long, giving plenty of room for most people’s hands and good balance for the blade. The blade width should be wide enough to offer some knuckle protection, and to raise the fingers out of the way when working on a flat surface, such as is common in food preparation, but not so wide that the knife becomes difficult to carry or conceal. A maximum blade width of 40 mm (1.5″) works very well. This will give overall dimensions of about 260 mm in length (10.25″). For comparison’s sake, this is comparable to the dimensions of an average 6″ German pattern chef’s knife.
There are really only two reasons why you might consider a larger, heavier tool. While a large knife works reasonably well to chop wood, the fact is that a hatchet will do the job far more effectively than even the largest knife. The other situation is for foliage clearing, as may be necessary in a tropical environment, where a machete is just the tool you need. I elect, wherever possible to carry my favorite hatchet, a Gränsfors Bruks Mini Belt Hatchet, in addition to my primary knife. With the addition of the hatchet for heavier duty tasks, a 4″ to 5.5″ blade will never be too small. The particular hatchet I favor is actually quite small, and can handle a number of smaller tasks in a pinch, as well, but it far outstrips a knife for preparing firewood.
4. The shape of the blade itself is the area where there has been the most variation over the years, but considering all the various tasks one is likely to face, it seems clear that some of the primary requirements for a general purpose survival knife should include a large belly for skinning tasks, and a robust point for piercing tasks. Balancing these two considerations with our need to provide hand relief, as well as our desire to produce a knife which is unassuming it seems obvious that the optimal design is something akin to straight-back chef’s knife, rather than the more common drop point style which is usually touted as the best style of blade.
A straight-back blade offers far more belly than most drop-points, unless the drop is minimal, while losing little in the way of strength at the tip. Even chef’s knives are usually of a drop point design. A straight-back blade carries more blade width further into the tip. If we are overly concerned about tip strength and pointing axis, we can, if desired, employ a slight drop to the point. If maximising belly is desired, we can employ instead a slight trailing point, which still maintains a very robust point, unlike knives with extreme trail.
The chef’s knife style, which places the handle to blade transition at the spine of the blade, serves the purpose of raising the hand off of a work surface, as well as providing an integral finger guard. The lack of choil brings the edge close to the hand, while still protected, for fine work. In fact, if it weren’t for the drop point and relative thinness of most chef’s knives, a 6″ chef’s knife would be quite close to an ideal survival knife.
For a knife used in a marine environment, consider a blunt or rounded, unsharpened tip. Boats have a bit of a tendency to move around at unexpected moments, and a dropped blade at the wrong time can result in a grave injury a long way from medical assistance, or a punctured inflatable life raft. Needless to say, that would be bad.
5. Eschew serrated blades. Serrated blades are a fright to resharpen, and a plain edge blade can always be given coarse grind which will do just about as well as serrations. The only exception to this is situations where it is likely that you may have to cut through high-strength synthetic cordage or webbing, as serrated knives are demonstrably better at cutting high-tech aramid fibers like Spectra or Kevlar. Also, avoid saw teeth on a knife like the plague. They are rarely useful, unless you are a pilot, and you have the sort of saw-backed knife that is purpose-designed for sawing through the aluminium skin of a downed aircraft.
6. The handle should balance the blade well, and fill your hand. It should be thinner near the blade for fine work, and thicker near the butt for good retention. I am fond of versatile pieces of equipment, so I prefer my knives to have removable scales, so that they can be carried without scales, making them much thinner, and a bit lighter, if weight is an issue. Knives without scales can be less comfortable, but many people like to wrap the grip area with cord. This makes the handle more comfortable, and serves as a useful storage for cordage, an item which is difficult to make in the backcountry, and which should be part of everyone’s survival kit. Removable scales also allow the user to select scales which suit their own personality. I like wood, myself, particularly dogwood, a wood long regarded as an excellent wood for tool handles. The handle should be smooth, to accommodate several different grips. Knives which incorporate finger notches into the handle can be very uncomfortable to use in other grips.
I also like having a shackle opening wrench machined into the tang between the rivets or bolts used to attach scales, particularly in knives destined for marine usage, as boats often have shackles which require a wrench for opening. I also use marine-type shackles on my backpacking hammock suspension. Obviously, when scale are attached to the tang, the shackle opener would be covered, but it’s nice to have options. All knives should have a lanyard hole, especially those used on a boat. You really don’t want to drop your knife overboard into water that is miles deep, with the nearest land 3,000 miles away.
Torx fasteners work well for attaching scales, but if you want to remove the scales, you may be hard pressed to find the uncommon driver necessary for the job. You might want to consider a simple Phillips fastener, which although less attractive, it is certainly easier to find the proper tool to remove them.
A short patch of jimping, small ridges formed into the spine of the blade just forward of the grip, can be helpful as a thumb grip when performing certain tasks. Some knifes also have a patch of jimping on the ventral spine, where your forefinger would land. I prefer to see the tang of the blade extend slightly from the rear of the scales, so that you can use the knife as a hammer, if necessary, without bashing up the scales. If pressed into service as a combat knife, the butt end can also be used as a skull cracker. As a wilderness knife, however, you’ll be more likely to use it to open coconuts and the like.
With all these ideas in mind, I have designed what I believe to be the ideal multi-purpose, versatile, primary survival knife useful for wilderness environments, marine use, vagabond travel, and even general food preparation tasks. It combines all the design elements I have described above, and its name is The Lotus. There is, however, on additional consideration. A knife with a 5.5″ blade can be in and of itself intimidating to people outside of a kitchen setting, and can sometimes be slightly too large for fine work. For this reason, I advocate the addition carrying of a somewhat smaller knife to be used for general utility and eating purposes, called The Rose. I have also created from the same design a smaller version, with an 80 mm (3 1/8″) blade, and a 100 mm (4″) handle. This smaller knife has a blade width of 25 mm, which brings the edge closer to the hand for such tasks as paring vegetables. It makes a fine bird and trout knife, as well as an excellent steak knife.
But wait, there’s more! You are probably aware that it is no longer lawful to board an airplane with a knife, save for a plastic knife, or one with a unsharpened edge and round tip, commonly known as a butter knife. Also, tools of any kind over 7″ long are banned by the TSA. To work around these restrictions, for those of us who are discomfited by the idea that we might survive an aircraft mishap only to find ourselves in a forbidding wilderness without a knife, there is a version of the smaller knife that will pass TSA muster by grinding off 5 mm of the tip and rounding it, while leaving the edge unsharpened. This version has no scales, and lacks the holes necessary for attaching scales, so as to appear like any other butter knife, much like the one marketed by Snow Peak as part of their Titanium Flatware set, SCT-001. Like the Snow Peak knife, this version retains the lanyard hole. Since it is not against the rules to carry a knife sharpener, it would be possible in the above scenario to sharpen the blade in the event of an accident, assuming you survive. It may take a bit, but it’s better than nothing. Otherwise, you could just leave it as is, and use it as a butter knife.
The basic design of both knives is, as above, a straight-back blade, with two variations, a slight drop point, and a slight trailing point. The blade shapes are akin to those of chef’s knives, offering substantial belly for skinning while still leaving a robust point in all three configurations, and raising the fingers off of a work surface for food preparation and ropework, and integrating a finger guard. All three versions will also be available in a rounded point boat knife version.
The blade of the larger knife is 140 mm, with a width of 38 or 40 mm, depending on the particular point style, and a handle of 120 mm. The blade to handle transition measures 20 mm wide, providing plenty of strength. The blade thickness is 5 mm. There are two 4 mm holes in the full tang for attaching scales with through-bolts, and a 5 mm lanyard hole for attaching a 550# Type III paracord lanyard. There is a shackle opening slot machined into the tang which tapers from 4 mm to 8 mm, sufficient to fit a range of different sizes of shackles. The butt end tapers to a slight point and somewhat flat surface for hammering and nut cracking.
The blade will be flat-ground for optimal slicing ability, and with its convex edge, will offer easy sharpening. The material will be 420HC or a more corrosion resistant alloy for salt water use to be selected in the future, both with a plain finish. There will be a patch of jimping about 1″ long on the dorsal spine just forward of the handle. The blades will be delivered with a 40 degree edge angle, which offers a good compromise between cutting ability and edge strength for a wilderness knife. Scales will be available in a wide range of material options, with Phillips bolts or Torx bolts as an option. The scales will leave the tang slightly proud for hammering and nut cracking.
The smaller blade has an 80 mm blade of 23 or 25 mm width, 4 mm thickness, and a 100 mm full tang handle. The blade to handle transition is 12 mm wide. The tang also has two 4 mm holes for attaching scales, and a 5 mm lanyard hole, but is more rounded on the butt end for comfort, and lacks the shackle opening slot. Otherwise, the specifications are the same as for the larger knife. The smaller knife will be also available with the straight-back, slight drop point, or slight trailing point shapes, with the rounded boat knife point option available, in both 420HC and corrosion resistant alloy. The straight-back version will also be available as the travel butter knife described above, with rounded point, unsharpened blade, and no scale attachment holes, in both alloys.
This makes a total of 12 distinct versions of The Lotus:
1. Large straight-back, sharp point, 420HC
2. Large straight-back, sharp point, CRA
3. Large straight-back, boat point, 420HC
4. Large straight-back, boat point, CRA
5. Large drop point, sharp point, 420HC
6. Large drop point, sharp point, CRA
7. Large drop point, boat point, 420HC
8. Large drop point, boat point, CRA
9. Large trailing point, sharp point, 420HC
10. Large trailing point, sharp point, CRA
11. Large trailing point, boat point, 420HC
12. Large trailing point, boat point, CRA
And 14 distinct versions of The Rose:
1. Small straight-back, sharp point, 420HC
2. Small straight-back, sharp point, CRA
3. Small straight-back, boat point, 420HC
4. Small straight-back, boat point, CRA
5. Small drop point, sharp point, 420HC
6. Small drop point, sharp point, CRA
7. Small drop point, boat point, 420HC
8. Small drop point, boat point, CRA
9. Small trailing point, sharp point, 420HC
10. Small trailing point, sharp point, CRA
11. Small trailing point, boat point, 420HC
12. Small trailing point, boat point, CRA
13. Small straight-back, round point, unsharpened edge, 420HC
14. Small straight-back, round point, unsharpened edge, CRA
Following are the drawings of the designs, where you can see all three point designs of each size of knife, plus the rounded butter knife version. I have not yet completed the boat point versions.
I do not currently possess the wherewithal to put these knives into production, so as with many other of my works, I am releasing these specifications under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-ShareAlike-Unported license. Feel free to produce these designs and make money from them. All I ask is that you duly attribute the design and any derivative works to me, and if you would be so kind, to send me samples of your production, as well as let me know that you are producing these designs so that I can promote your work!
NB: Scribd doesn’t work very well for displaying PDF files, so you’ll need to download them in order to view them properly.
The Lotus & The Rose by Gemma Seymour-Amper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://gcvsa.posterous.com/the-lotus-the-rose-the-ideal-wilderness-water.