Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gaining an Edge

The knife is not man’s oldest tool – that would likely be the club. A knife is kind of wedge, though it probably did not develop from the stone axe. Perhaps it was a broken rock or a sharp-edged shell that gave some ancient brain the idea of a cutting tool. However it came to be, the knife, in all its many variations, has served us long and well.

I miss the good old days when I could carry one of my stockman folders or a Swiss Army knife on a plane in my pocket. With the TSA and the inconvenience, I can drive most places I need to go any more so I still carry knives. I’ve been carrying pocketknives about as long as I’ve had pants with pockets. I just don’t go anywhere without some kind of cutting tool. For years my standard was the three-blade stockman folder. I have a Craftsman stockman with some very tough plastic scales about the color of ivory. That knife has gone all over the country with me since sometime in the early seventies I would guess. The blades are still sound, and the main clip point is probably the sharpest blade in the house. It is standard carbon steel – not stainless – it’s not as pretty as it once was, but it is just as useful and effective.

Back around 1990 I worked in Dallas on the top floor of an office building near Prestonwood Mall at Beltline and the Tollway. The building security/information guy had a desk outside the elevators, and, as I passed him one day, I noticed he had a lockback out on his desk. I paused to ask him about it, and he was happy to show it to me, explaining about the blade and the scales – which I think were some kind of fiberglass – but my memory is getting a little foggy. In any case, it was a one-hand opener. I found that fascinating. A few days later I was passing by a display case of knives and saw one that looked similar while costing considerably less than the price the guard had mentioned. The scales were regular plastic, and it lacked any studs or cutouts. Still, I thought a lockback would be nice to have; I bought it. It took me about fifteen minutes to figure out how to open and close it with one hand. I was able to get the cheap stainless steel of the blade nearly as sharp that of my old stockman. The nice thing about the lockback was the slender profile and the weight, and the fact I could open it with only one hand. I started carrying that knife around a lot.

I had bought and carried other knives between the old stockman and the cheap lockback, but they did not capture my imagination for one reason or another. One or two migrated to the tool box. A few more may have gotten lost or been given away. The lockback, though, started me on a quest of sorts. I began to buy knives. Again, some didn’t do much for me, and they went away, often as Christmas or birthday gifts. Others I still have but don’t use or carry very often, if ever. Still others rotate in and out of my pocket or on and off my belt pretty frequently. I even have a few that are displayed on the shelf but not carried at all. This last category consists of fancy knives with etched blades or simple knives that have some special sentimental value. The old Craftsman was up there for a while, but it did not stay. No matter what happens, it is a knife that deserves to be carried and used from time to time. The “shelf” knives will enter no further into my discussion.

I used to look down on Swiss Army knives, “Boy Scout” knives, and similar gimmicky blades. One day, on a whim, I popped about $20 for a Wenger – one of the two “official” Swiss Army brands. This Wenger had no corkscrew – a definite plus. The even bigger plus was that it had a little saw blade. For a while I think I used that saw blade more than any other tool I had. I would use it to prune tree, cutting green limbs and dead limbs all out of proportion to the size of that little booger. I honed the main spear-point blade until it would shave hair, and I had a fine little pocket tool kit. It was often my carry-on knife for trips by airliner from 1997 to as late as November, 2000.

The “other” Swiss Army knife is Victorinox. I just pulled one out of my pocket. The model I have does not have a saw. It has a small blade and a large blade – both spear-points, scissors, large slot screwdriver/bottle opener, small slot/can opener, Phillips head, awl, package hook, tweezers, and toothpick. It also has that cool “Officier Suisse” stamp on the base of the big blade. The Victorinox is slightly longer and slightly slimmer than the comparable Wenger. I still love the Wenger, but the Victorinox gets carried a little more these days, unless I know I’m going to need the saw blade.

The SAK is, of course, the official MacGyver tool, but Tim Leatherman found them a bit too limited. He wanted to add pliers. Now we have all kinds and brands of multitools from Leatherman, Gerber, SOG, et al. If I could keep only one of my knives –

Sorry about the interruption, I blacked out for a few minutes. Where was I? Oh. Uh, hang on … I’m feeling a little woozy again.

Let me put it like this: if the average person could have only one knife, I might suggest the Leatherman Wave. My preference for the Wave comes primarily from the fact that it has two locking blades that can be accessed one-handed without opening the tool. This makes it a fairly handy, if slightly bulky pocketknife. In addition to the straight and serrated knife blades, the operator also has access to a saw and a file. When the Wave is opened there are a number of screwdriver blades available in addition to scissors.

I’m not sure when I bought my Wave, but I know when I broke it. It was late summer of 2005 – about five years ago now. I was trying to take a cotter pin out of a piece of equipment. I used the Wave pliers to un-brad the pin then slipped the tip of one side of the pliers into the eye of the pin, pulled, and the tip of this high-priced Leatherman snapped off. To say I was upset is an understatement. Oddly I was even more upset when a pair of ancient $2 Japanese needlenose removed the pin with almost no effort. I emailed the Leatherman Company in a frothing-at-the-mouth rage. I had bought a Leatherman tool because I thought it was the height of quality American workmanship. Ha! I figured I’d go out and buy a Gerber and pitch the Leatherman into the back of the tool box.

However, before I could decide on which new Gerber to get, I received a very nice email response from Leatherman Customer Service. The person explained that, despite the fact that I was obviously a retarded idiot who was unaware of Leatherman’s guarantee (25 years if I remember correctly), the company would be happy to replace my Wave if I would ship the broken one to them. I did so and Leatherman did replace the clearly defective multitool, sending me a nice new holster along with it. I use the new holster when I go to town and the old sheath takes the abuse out here in the country. The fact is that I have used this Wave fairly hard for five years, and it is as good as new. I have no complaints about the Leatherman tool or the company’s customer service, despite the fact that Tim Leatherman himself is rumored to be a big-time leftist. He still makes a good multitool.

One thing about the straight blade on the Wave, and this applies to many stainless blades that I have had including Buck and Gerber, sometimes they are hard to sharpen. It’s a chore to get that stupid bevel flattened out and get a decent edge on some varieties of stainless. That can be hard stuff. Of course, once you get it, it tends to hold the edge pretty well. Nevertheless, good old-fashioned high-carbon takes a better edge with a lot less effort. And not all stainless blades are equal, as I mentioned, both the Victorinox and the Wenger SAK’s I have sharpen up pretty nicely. I also have an older Schrade lockback – I can’t remember the model. It was bought in the ‘90’s before the original Schrade Company went bankrupt and closed the New York factory. The stainless blade on that knife sharpens up nicely, and one reason for the ease of sharpening is that it had a good flat grind to start with. Flat ground blades are easier for me to get really sharp. I can get almost any blade to shave hair, but I want the blades to be so sharp that they scare me.

If a person is not big on sharpening knives -- and some days even I'm not, there is an elegant solution to be had. The lowly boxcutter has become the folding, locking, one-hand-opening super utility knife. I have one of these babies -- a Craftsman, by the way, with a pocketclip. It is unbelievably handy. One of the nicest things about it is that I can open it and hand it to my wife to use without saying, "Be careful with that blade." Abuse that sucker all you want, darlin'. I got a hundred more in the drawer.

When it comes to knives and multitools, I’m a big-tent guy. I have an “Edge Brand” from Solingen, Germany – I have Gerbers, the Leatherman, both brands of SAK’s, Columbia River Knife and Tool, Schrade, Buck, Ontario, Cold Steel, some custom made, some homemade, some offbrands, some freebies from the NRA, just all kinds of cutting tools. There are a ton of good edged implements from which to choose. Or be like me, choose some of each!

As far as recommendations for the best kinds of knives, I recommend a good, high-quality multitool – like the Leatherman, but not necessarily the Leatherman. I have a Gerber multitool that appears to be built like a tank and that has some nice features. I have an offbrand multitool that I picked up at a Big Box store that works about as well as either my Gerber or my Leatherman. If a person likes something a little less "tool-ish" or a little more "pocket-able" than a multitool, get a SAK.

I also recommend that you get and carry a “tactical” folder. Of the better known companies, I really like Buck, but there are many good ones out there. There will be people who think I'm crazy, but I would even suggest one of those new generation super utility knives mentioned above could serve in the tactical folder niche. But, of course, that's because I'm a crude and ignorant hillbilly as opposed to a highly trained marital arts expert, so what do I know?

It’s also a good idea to have a big knife or two. You can find high-priced kukris (or khukris or khukuris) on the web. They are a fine chopping tool. I took out a fair-sized patch of sumac with my khukri over the weekend, and it didn’t take long to do it.

The best all-around blade on a big knife is a bowie. Try to find one about the size and with lines similar to the Cold Steel Trailmaster. I cite the Trailmaster only because I know anyone can find a picture of it on the web. For a "fighting" knife, I would not recommend a bowie with an overly wide blade, as the wider blades tend to have the point below the centerline. You can see this "fault" in a knife like the Ontario Marine Raider Bowie. The Marine Raider looks like an excellent chopper and is no doubt a quite useful and effective camp/survival/woodsman's knife, just not so much as a fighting knife.

But then I'm not much on using a knife in combat anyway. Next post we might discuss knives in self-defense, and why I, an utter non-expert, think that most knife-fighting is comic book fantasy.


  1. I once had a Vietnam vet explain knife fighting to me.

    It was an interesting explanation and made a lot of sense.

    It never occured to me to hold the knife in the manner he was showing with the blade pointed downward rather than upward to slash forward and then pull back.

  2. I'm a knife guy, not a knife fighter. However, if you are using a non-Bowie, the reverse grip makes pretty good sense. A Bowie that's properly configured with a sharpened top edge can be used in a standard grip and still allow the person to make the "back cut" -- which is a lightning fast turn of the wrist that takes advantage of the Bowie's unique blade geometry.

    I don't consider a knife to be a good self-defense weapon -- not that they won't work in a pinch -- as it seems from a legal point-of-view that the user would have a lot of 'splainin' to do, as Ricky Ricardo might say. Also most knife-fighting techniques are taught in the context of what is really dueling. That is simply bogus. If someone pulls a knife on you, run -- even if that means running over the top of him. The best knife defense is superior aerobic capacity.

    The one situation where I would use a knife in a fight is if I were attacked by one or more people of superior strength that appeared intent on harming me or a loved one. The best way to use a knife in that situation is never to let the adversary know you have a knife until you have cut them. Slash the forehead or throat if possible or try to hit the joint of a limb -- elbow, wrist, shoulder, or knee -- to slash muscle and tendons. Then, first chance you get, run like hell.