The small knife versus the large knife: "
The small knife versus the large knife:
Analyzing the value of knife sizes in a wilderness setting.
Note, I am still on Hiatus. This is a reposting of an article.
The one tool almost all survival skills enthusiasts and bushcrafters seem to focus on over any other is the knife. Discussions about trapping methods, blankets, tents and fire starting devices are set aside whenever the “knife talk” begins at any campfire. To many this has become a dull discussion, more of an ego-fueled debate amongst men who must compromise for either their lack of genuine skill or something else along those lines. To others however, this subject has become an obsession, which plagues their minds daily. I know some men that have awoken from a fitful sleep, just to describe to me a new knife design that popped into their head in mid-slumber. I suppose it is a passion that I have fueled for myself, testing and handling literally hundreds of designs from countless brands and companies, with an unheard variety of steels and handle materials. When I ran out of knife brands I wanted to play with I commissioned custom knife makers to make me new ones!
Over time I have gotten a sense of what I consider a good knife. However that flows with the more I learn. I explain to many people that the perfect survival knife is the Holy Grail for almost anyone interested in Survival, Bushcraft or any other form of outdoor skills. People want it, and strive for it constantly, but it is unlikely to ever be found. Why? Because someone won't like it. Sure, you may get a few hundred fanatics, but then the critics will be found. This is not a criticism on either side. I have a few knives that many people hate. And many out there have a few knives I hate. A knife is a personal choice, that must suit the user, and not the masses.
However, the one argument that never seems to go away is the debate between a large knife and a small knife. This debate comes from a long history of doctrine, based more on opinion and theory than fact. I am speaking about both sides, so no, I am not attacking any one knife size. Yes, there are indeed medium sized knives, however the big argument seems to focus on the smaller belt knives and the larger knives. The two extremes interestingly enough!
Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I do not flow with one opinion or the other. I carry both large and small knives, and for certain situations (which I will explain later), I prefer one over the other. I am not a devout of any knife dogma out there, especially when it comes to size, and if anyone tries to tell me what I must do to be “right” I will always politely smile, nod and continue on the way I choose to. Why? Because a knife is a personal thing, and no two people are alike.
To fully understand the differing opinions on knife size, you need to understand the minds that such opinions originate from. The two opinions stretch far back, and as mentioned before, have become dogmatic “rules” among the “cliques” of such mindsets.
Let us explain the origins of those that carry a small knife first. Among many cultures in the Northern hemisphere, an axe was -and is still- carried in the throughout the wilderness. This, coupled with a saw, could perform all the heavy chores. From felling tall lodegpole pines for shelter frames, to splitting firewood, to even butchering moose. In such situations, the need for a knife was small tasks. Such tasks included skinning of game, dicing of vegetables, shaping wood into spoons, toggles. Trap pieces and such. The job did not ask for a cumbersome blade, but a light and small knife capable of doing delicate work. Besides, in such cold weather, a large knife is prone to damage, due to being thinner than the axe.
Now of course, there will be some exceptions to the rule, such as the Inuit Snow knife, and the Swedish Leuku Knife. But even these are not considered extremely large. Most of these Northern climate large knives are light, and not made to do more than cut meat. One knife design however that originated many years ago was the “Big Camp Knife”. Not as ancient as the Leuku, but capable of doing many things. There are even written records of Metis Buffalo Hunters cutting down standing dead pine trees, with their Hudson Bay Knives, for firewood, They immediately sectioned the wood and split it into kindling. Soon after (in these accounts), a buffalo would have been shot nearby and the men -without sharpening or even stropping their big knives- would set off to skin, quarter and butcher the bison. Obviously this shows what a large knife was capable of in a region where mostly smaller knives were carried. Later, the Bowie knife came into being, and that is when North America's fascination with big knives really seemed to stem from.
However, the large knife has it's oldest history in tropical regions. Be it a Panga, Parang, Golok, Bolo or other type of Machete, a long blade -sometimes thin and sometimes thick- has been used and is still used by almost every Tropical culture in the world. Even “uncontacted tribes” are often photographed with steel machetes in South America. The long blade in these regions was not fighting dense or frozen wood, but dealing with springy saplings, tough bamboo and snaky vines. Such material would just bounce or deflect an axe. However, the thin, long blade could slash more than chop, making it more effective. This made it superior to the axe in almost all tropical climates.
Now, due to soldiers and explorers, the larger knives of the tropics began to get more attention over time. Notice how during the Second World War the United States began to pick up Machetes? This was due to the war in the South Pacific. As well, any expedition story of South America or Africa eventually mentions a machete-like knife being used. By the Vietnam War, the Malaysian Parang and Latin Machete were becoming common-place blades for soldiers from different nations. Combine America's ancestry of the Bowie and Canada's history of the Hudson Bay Knife, and you can see why the Machete and other large knives were quickly taken by the civilians as “outdoor knives” for our woods.
Jump ahead by a few decades and we now have the modern era, where gentlemen become lunatics if someone disagrees with their knife choice. Some men believe they can do anything and everything with a giant knife, whereas others believe they can do anything and everything with a knife under fives inches of blade. Very few will agree with the others' points, and so they continue to bicker and even consider the other morons. Let us listen to the arguments and truly break them down by each point;
A large knife can carve just as well as a small knife. While I appreciate a “Can do” attitude, this is not the case. Yes, I have feathered kindling with a parang, shaped deadfall triggers with a kukri, and even pothangers with a machete. However, the results were not as sharp and crisp as the results made with my Swedish knives, or pocket knives. I cannot shape a mask with a knife that is twelve inches long as well as I can with a small carving knife.
A small knife can do large tasks easily. I hear this from many people. Each time, they remind me of what certain Bushcraft instuctors have done with Mora knives; cutting down wrist thick willows, splitting wood with a baton, felling 9 inch trees using the “can opener” method. All of these take considerable amount of energy, time and even strength. Though it all can be done, they are not as easy and simply chopping into the wood with a machete. Comparing the 3-5 seconds it takes me to cut through a wrist thick willow tree with a small knife to the 1 second it takes to slice through the same willow with a large knife might seem like splitting hairs, but consider it this way. If you were to make a large arch-dome shelter, or weave a smoking rack, or make a “ brush raft”, the amount of time and energy would matter to you. The 2-4 second difference starts to add up after a few hours, especially in a survival situation where you may be lacking in food, sleep or water. Suddenly splitting all of that wood for your fire becomes annoying after the fiftieth batoning.
A large knife is only carried by greenhorns. This is not just wrong, it's an insult to a lot of people. I know several old-timers who carry knives with blades longer than 7 inches. I also have studied enough aboriginal cultures in the world to be able to say “Go ahead, tell a South American native he's a greenhorn because of that machete of his” with utter confidence.
A small knife is carried by Liberal Hippies, not real survivalists. Usually said by those that just got called greenhorns. If Mors Kochanski is a Hippy I would be surprised. Not shocked, just impressed to find out. I'm quite sure many survivalists out there would like to picture the man they learned at least half a dozen things from as an unknowing idiot, not a real survivalist. By the way, little known fact, Liberals (the politicians at least) rarely carry a knife of any size on them, they just spend a lot of money on trying to find out via polls whether it is right or wrong to even know what a knife is.
A large knife is a clumsy tool, And this is truly the meat and potatoes of the anti-Large knife argument. Most people consider a large knife not as easy to use for precision work. They think such a long knife is going to miss the target and go straight into their shin or kneecap. This to me is a valid point. A large knife is capable of badly injuring you. And without a lot of practice and common sense, a large knife will injure you. However, with experience, a large knife becomes a precision tool like any other. As well, this “clumsy” feeling is caused by the knifemaker improperly balancing the knife. I have one custom Parang and a production-line “Heavy Machete”. Both of which are so well balanced, that I can look at a willow and “snip” off branches effortlessly, to clean up my stands of willows (makes them healthier and better for future uses). As well, I can sit there with both knives and do decent detailed shaping of wooden implements. I can split and carve a cedar log into a bowdrill kit with the same knife. To me, a survival-oriented knife must be capable of that, and that makes a large, balanced knife precious to the survivor.
A small knife is useless in a wilderness setting. The meat and potatoes of the anti-Small knife argument. The claim is that a small knife can't do anything useful when you are in the outdoors. However, wherever precision is needed, a small knife is superior. Whether it is gutting a fish, skinning a deer, shaping a fishing spear, or making the more complex traps, I prefer a small knife. It just does the job better. Yes, it can't chop down trees, or split wood as fast as a large knife, but it can do everything the big knife can't do.
And that really is the point ladies and gentlemen. A small knife can do what a big knife can't, and a big knife can do what a small knife can't. To me, they should both be carried; the large knife on your belt, the small one around your neck. However, that is for general purpose fieldwork. Many people however always ask the question of “what if you are lost and could only have one cutting tool with you?”.
The answer to that in my opinion is simple; I will have a large, balanced knife. With a large knife I can make my shelter, make my fire and fuel it. With my large knife I can quickly fashion a digging stick and a rabbit stick. With these two items I can begin to search for food. With my large knife I can make basic (but rough) implements. However, to me, the large knife's true value is that it can provide me shelter and fire. Those are what I need to stay alive here in the woods of Ontario Canada. Water is everywhere, and if I have fire, I can clean the water, so fire and shelter are the most important. Add that a large knife can give me those faster and with less energy spent than a small knife.
However, the only time I only have one knife on me in the wilds, is when I am simulating a survival situation. Any other time, and I have two of them on me at least, if not three (I like to carry a Swiss army knife or other folding knife in my shirt pocket for little tasks like peeling apples or gutting a bass).
So where is the situation that I like to have just a small knife? When I am in an urban environment. Carrying my parangs or other large knives is usually not acceptable in the city or towns that I go to. I will often then, carry a knife within perfectly legal limits (check your by-laws folks). In most of Ontario, a knife must be under six inches to be legally carried. I make myself less of a police target by wearing an even smaller knife such as an “EDC Neck Knife”, or simply my Swiss army knife
The point of this writing is simple; use clear thought when it comes to what knife you decide to carry, and honestly, the next time you criticize someone for carrying a knife whose size you think wrong, shut up, and watch how they use it. If you see a man using a machete to delicately carve a pair of chopsticks for his evening meal, or see a lady split thigh thick wood down to kindling with a neck knife, then maybe you just learned something.