Kephart on Sheath Knives

On the subject of hunting knives, I am tempted to be diffuse. In my green and callow days (perhaps not yet over) I tried nearly everything in the knife line, from a shoemaker’s skiver to a machete, and I had knives made to order.

The conventional hunting knife is, or was until quite recently, of the familiar dime-novel pattern invented by Colonel Bowie. Such a knife is too thick and clumsy to whittle with, much too thick for a good skinning knife, and too sharply pointed to cook and eat with. It is always tempered too hard. When put to the rough service for which it is supposed to be intended, as in cutting through the ossified false ribs of an old buck, it is an even bet that out will come a nick as big as a saw-tooth—and Sheridan forty miles from a grindstone! Such a knife is shaped expressly for stabbing, which is about the very last thing that a woodsman ever has occasion to do, our lamented grandmothers to the contrary notwithstanding.

A camper has use for a common-sense sheath-knife, sometimes for dressing big game, but oftener for such homely work as cutting sticks, slicing bacon, and frying “spuds.” For such purposes a rather thin, broad pointed blade is required, and it need not be over four or five inches long. Nothing is gained by a longer blade, and it would be in one’s way every time he sat down. Such a knife, bearing the marks of hard usage, lies before me. Its blade and handle are each 4 1/4 inches long, the blade being 1 inch wide, 1/8 inch thick on the back, broad pointed, and continued through the handle as a hasp and riveted to it. It is tempered hard enough to cut green hardwood sticks, but soft enough so that when it strikes a knot or bone it will, if anything, turn rather than nick; then a whetstone soon puts it in order. The Abyssinians have a saying, “If a sword bends, we can straighten it; but if it breaks, who can mend it ? “

So with a knife or hatchet. The handle of this knife is of oval cross-section, long enough to give a good grip for the whole hand, and with no sharp edges to blister one’s hand. It has a | inch knob behind the cutting edge as a guard, but there is no guard on the back, for it would be useless and in the way. The handle is of light but hard wood, 3/4 inch thick at the butt and tapering to 1/2 inch forward, so as to enter the sheath easily and grip it tightly. If it were heavy it would make the knife drop out when I stooped over.

The sheath has a slit frog binding tightly on the belt, and keeping the knife well up on my side. This knife weighs only 4 ounces. It was made by a country blacksmith, and is one of the homeliest things I ever saw; but it has outlived in my affections the score of other knives that I have used in competition with it, and has done more work than all of them put together.

–1906 Horace Kephart


I don’t know when the popularity of big knives for wilderness use first gained popularity, though I imagine it occurred soon after Rambo came out. And from there, with each subsequent movie, gained even a stronger hold in the public mind.

From his writings, one can easily tell Kephart was an experienced woodsman, although the neophyte may attempt to dismiss him as a homely nomad with barely two cents to spare, hence his choice in gear.

I’ve come across many would be woodsman, all very eager to show off their large knives. And while their knives may look interesting and somewhat entertaining, They very often struggle with doing basic camp chores—Whittling wood for traps and other sundries, dressing game, etc. Although they may not realize they are struggling, initially, as soon as I ask them to try the task with my small 4″ knife, the notion their large knife is a good woodsman knife is quickly quashed.

I don’t shame them for thinking that way—I use to be one of them, proudly so. For whatever reason, however, we all seem to think we know better than those before us, when it comes to woodsmanship. Sure the technology and materials change, but the physics in the application doesn’t.

It seems to me the bushcraft/woodscraft community suffers the same problems dieters face, the never ending quest for the best diet pill, though the answer is and has always been there.

…Keep it simple and keep it basic!