A dog is a man’s best friend, and his knife is a close second. With that said, I am often surprised when price is used as the limiting criteria of a new blade. What would you think if someone called a breeder and said what’s the best dog I can get for under $30?
by Doc Montana, a contributing author of SurvivalCache.com
Or perhaps dropping the comment that it was possible to get five lesser dogs for the price of that one. Or what if your neighbor eyes your papered pooch and noted that a pound puppy can do anything your dog can do for a tenth the price? So let me get this straight; you’d rather have a whole pickup truck full of dogs rather than one best friend? We should extend the same loyalty to our knives that we do for our dogs since there are few things in life with which we spend more of our precious time.
Bushcraft is a term used to describe “skill in matters pertaining to life in the bush,” at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But what does “life in the bush” mean? Basically it originally meant the outback of Australia and later Africa, but now the word bushcraft extends to mean those skills used to survive in the wilderness regardless of geography. And if knowledge is the door to survival, then the bushcraft knife is the key to that door.
The important aspects within the definition of bushcraft are both inclusive and exclusive. In order to assess the merits of a knife designed for bushcraft, one must limit the scope of the knife’s capabilities to those within the realm of bushcraft, and exclude those knifley functions not in the privy of bushcraft. The categories of edged tools extends from swords on the long end, through machetes, Bowies, survival blades, fighting knives, hunting knives, and on the shorter, stout blade-end of the spectrum is where bushcraft knives are found.
The expectations of bushcraft include, according to various resources on the subject, “firecraft, tracking, hunting, fishing, shelter building, the use of tools such as knives and axes, foraging, hand-carving wood, container construction from natural materials, and rope and twine-making.” Putting a finer point on each of these topics (pun intended) requires a knife with the talents and fortitude to thrive in the bush doing just such tasks.
General Knife Design
The common attributes of bushcraft knives have evolved over centuries of use and experimentation. Everything from blade shape, edge grind, blade thickness and length, steel type, and handle shape have converged into a highly recognizable knife.
The blade of a Bushcraft knife is like a bionic upgrade of your index finger. The length common to bushcraft blades is four to six inches, or about the width of a man’s palm. The Spyderco Bushcraft clocks in at 4.1 inches with all but a couple tenths are a Scandi grind cutting edge. A perfect pointer finger replacement. The blade thickness is a robust 0.14 inches or 3.6mm. The blade width is necessary for prying, twisting and batoning tasks of bushcraft.
Traditions in bushcraft blade steel have chosen edge retention and ease of sharpening over low maintenance stainless options. Tool steel is a popular bushcraft choice and the Spyderco Bushcraft uses O-1 tool steel. Tool steel grades are designated by a letter followed by a number. The letter represents a defining characteristic of the steel such as A for air hardening, D for High carbon and chromium content, H for hot working, and in the case of the Spyderco Bushcraft, O for oil hardening. Oil hardened steel experiences less distortion during cooling than water hardened steel, but more than air hardening.
The number designation references the particular alloy of the steel. O-1 tool steel is a high carbon steel and unlike its stainless counterparts, O-1 steel in general is susceptible to staining and discoloration over time and use. Some folks in bladecraft would argue that D2 steel, a very popular and fine choice used in many bushcraft and survival knives, is less likely to stain or rust, but the edge qualities of D2 are slightly less refined than O-1 steel with the ease of resharpening slightly less, and some would argue the ability to get a true hair-splitting edge.
Since a bushcraft knife is really an extension of your hand, expect to use it daily if not hourly when living the bushcraft life or even just working outdoors. That amount of hands-on with the knife negates much of the worry about one day pulling a rusted blade from your sheath. But in the end the difference between high quality knife steels is found in the final few percent of performance, which is often where and when it really matters.
The handle shape of a traditional bushcraft knife is rather uneventful. The grip is a somewhat non-directional bulbous platform that lacks the fancy accoutrements found on survival and fighting blades. No carbide window breakers. No compass pommells. No obvious finger grooves. No heavy brass bolster to keep your hands from sliding onto the blade. The handle or grip of a knife is the main contact and control surface between human hand and blade. Complete and predictable control of the bushcraft knife’s edge must be possible regardless of the rotational direction of the blade. The fairly uniform grip on the Spyderco Bushcraft encourages a comfortable and secure grip throughout a variety of different holds. The cross sectional diameter of the handle is greatest in grip’s center, and just slightly less so at expansions at the extremities.
As a knife’s intended use moves from fine to gross motor control, or from shaving to chopping, the design causes the balance point to shift from handle to blade. A scalpel is for extremely precise control so the balance point is far back on the handle. While a sword has the balance point farther into the blade. The balance point of the Spyderco Bushcraft is found in the handle at a little over a third of of the knife’s total length or pretty much exactly where your index finger naturally hugs the handle. The density of the handle can skew the balance point with lighter materials shifting it towards the blade, and heavier grips, as is the case with this Spyderco, more towards the handle to where I believe is the ideal location for light-touch bushcraft bladework. But no matter how you measure it, the balance of the Spyderco Bushcraft is a near-perfect blend for controlling the blade with precision and force.
For comparison, the $500 Ray Mears Bushcraft Knife was commissioned due to the fact that a 10 year waiting list for the $700 world famous Woodlore Knife was excessive to say the least. The Ray Mears knife is very similar in design, size and blade steel as the Spyderco, and that is not just a coincidence. Everything about a bushcraft knife is deliberate. For instance, the Ray Mears knife has a tapered tang that moves the balance point forward, and since the wooden scales on the Ray Mears knife are slightly less dense than the synthetic grips on the straight-tanged Spyderco the balance point of both knives are identical.
The Spyderco Bushcraft:
The Spyderco Bushcraft handle is made of a fiberglass resin laminate called G-10. In addition to extreme durability, compared to many other handle materials G-10 is agreeable to gripping across a wide range of temperatures, absorbs no water, does not conduct electricity, ignores many chemicals, and puts up a good fight when too close to a heat source. The Spyderco Bushcraft uses a scaled tang design where two plates or scales of G-10 are attached to the full tang, and in this case two brass rivets and a brass-lined lanyard tube complete the knife.
The Spyderco Bushcraft encountered a setback in handle design in 2009 during its first run. Spyderco, in the interest of following bushcraft traditions, used a spalted maple wood for its Bushcraft scales. Regardless of the valiant efforts of Spyderco, the wood shrunk and split forcing a stop in production and a sell-off of remaining inventory as factory seconds. Personally, I am quite happy about that. In the pursuit of the world’s best production bushcraft knife, Spyderco believed that only organic materials should be used for the handle for as far as I can tell no more reason than because that’s the way it’s always been done. In other words, the motives of Spyderco were pure and in the best interest of the knife user. But if you think about it, only recently have synthetic handles become a bushcraft knife-worthy option. Not due to updated bushcraft techniques, but because the available synthetics are superior in many ways to organic ones. And in the case of G-10, vastly superior. Spyderco was vulnerable due to the internet-publicized failure of the handle scales as pictures, video and endless forum posts chronicled the disintegration of the grips. That PR disaster, in my opinion, caused Spyderco to re-release an even better bushcraft knife handle in 2010 than if they had gone down the synthetic scaled road in the first place. In a humorous twist of fate, the original wooden handled version of the Spyderco Bushcraft is a highly sought after collectable right now commanding more money than it’s initial retail price.
The Spyderco Bushcraft weighs 7.7 oz (217.7g) and the sheath weighs 3.3 oz (93.7g). However in the hand, the intense solidity of the Spyderco Bushcraft gives the feeling of extreme material density equating to extreme strength. In fact, the Spyderco makes lesser breeds of bushcraft knives, and the yapping short-tailed partial-tang bushcraft-wannabe blades feel like steak knives from a chain restaurant.
Oddly, the two mainstream entries into the high-end bushcraft knife world, the Spyderco and the Benchmade, have exactly the same weight, but only with the Spyderco do other reviewers commonly mention the heavy feel. I would take that as evidence that the Spyderco feels more solid in the hand, but as the owner of both the Spyderco Bushcraft and the Benchmade Bushcrafter, I wonder if the handle color has something to do with the hefty perception as well. Black just feels heavier than green.
The Scandi or Scandinavian grind of the Spyderco Bushcraft is the simplest form of grind, The Scandi grind maintains a uniform angle from the moment it leaves the parallel sides of the blade to converge on the business edge of the steel. Scandis by definition have no secondary bevel although some folks like to add them. But that would undo one of the main benefits of a Scandi grind on a bushcraft knife in that is it is easy to determine the proper sharpening and shaving angle because it is obvious in both sight and feel since there is only one bevel angle to deal with.
The front end of the blade rapidly converges into a chisel point preserving the robust strength of the blade’s thickness while still forming a functional tip for drilling, scraping, twisting, punching, and scratching. Although a smart bushcraft knife must have some prying abilities, it is not a pry bar. Instead, leave your pry work to dumb tools.
Another consideration with complex grinds on bushcraft knives is that the art of sharpening is expected and even fun when you have the time to do it. But secondary bevels require more attention and care, and may be considerably more work to change back to a simpler grind when you come to your senses. Plus, if you’ve got to do a quick blade touch up as your half-gutted squirrel attracts flies, you don’t want to search for your reading glasses in order to dress the bevel correctly while using a local river stone.
The blade has a quarter-inch hole just north of the handle and below the spine enough to not affect the blades’s strength. While likely included as Spyderco’s trademark “spider hole,” it also serves some obvious functions. One option is to use the hole in tandem with the lanyard hole to tie the knife to a branch making a fine spear. Or you could use paracord to secure the blade sharp-side out onto a branch or tree trunk. Cover the edge with a little of your salty sweat, and then return a few hours later to pick up the carcass of whatever animal bled to death licking the sodium off the knife blade.
The Spyderco Bushcraft sheath is a basic black leather model with a single belt loop that comfortably circles belts up to 2.5 inches wide, or maybe three inches in a pinch. The loop is one-and-an-eighth inches wide so it works well with other strap arrangements. The sheath envelops all but the final one-and-a-half inches of the knife. The containment is exclusively friction-fit with no additional retention mechanisms. Nor are there any specific attachment points for a firerod or sharpener as are common to other bushcraft sheaths. Since the knife secures in the sheath in either direction, the Bushcraft will ride well for either a right or left handed carry.
Unlike tactical sheaths, this particular design requires the knife be pulled out with a thumb/index finger-knuckle grip either all the way, or far enough to grab the handle more completely. A plastic liner runs the blade-length of the sheath. While a good idea on paper, it can cause some resheathing tangles. It is fairly easy to slide the blade on the outside of the sleeve immediately stalling the knife’s entry and slicing the plastic, the leather or both. A solution that will easily become habit is that if the knife is slid into the sheath slightly off-parallel to the sheath walls, the tip will seat in the plastic raceway and the blade will pivot into position sliding home with no more resistance than when the sheath was on the drawing board.
There are six paracord-friendly grommets anchoring the sheath’s angles; one on each corner and a pair on the upper quarter. The grommets provide sturdy attachment points and sling options. While much too large to be worn as a neck knife, a shoulder rig with the handle tilted down is a possibility. Of course the half-dozen holes would provide more than enough attachment points to secure it on a pack or bag, connect accessories and cordage, or bolt-on other belt clip options.
Into the Field:
The sheath looks at home on a belt, but rides comfortably low because the knife seats so deeply in the sheath. With an overall length just under nine-and-half inches, and the necessity of the two-finger deployment method, the leverage and position of the handle works fine, but would take an extra hand to hold the sheath still upon extraction if it hung any lower. During repeated use, the sheath can act more as a holster giving the knife a loose home in between tasks, but one that might require a little additional supervision when moving about since the knife is not fully inserted.
It is often argued that the foremost purpose of a bushcraft knife is to start fires. While the blade steel is plenty hard enough and the blade spine perpendicular enough, scratching a fire rod is the easy part. A bushcraft knife must excel at creating the fuel necessary to feed a fire from near microscopic tinder shavings to batoned logs.
The scandi grind easily planes a branch into wood powder or feather sticks. With only one edge angle, changing the tilt from shave to slice can be done by feel…in the dark…with numb fingers…while scared. More complex grinds require attention that is best used elsewhere during such situations. On those good days when a firerod is available, the spine of the Spyderco Bushcraft has a nice harsh 90 degree corner that easily scrapes ferrocerium into blinding sparks. When not so lucky, the blade tip easily carves and scores wood into fire saws, fire drills, fire bows, and fire ploughs. The Spyderco will help you build the finest fire making tools, but that alone won’t help you one bit unless you know how to create fire with those tools.
And ignition is just the start (again, pun intended). Fire demands fuel, and the smaller the stick, the faster it burns. To provide enough fuel to feed your needs, you can either spend your day foraging for properly sized wood instead of for food, or fabricate your own ideal campfire lumber from larger material. But not too large. The heft of the Spyderco Bushcraft carries enough mass to make chopping through branches twice the size of the handle less a chore and more a bore. The blade length limits safe batoning to beercan diameters or less. Much more girth than that and the risk of blade breakage is too great since an off-center hammer-log strike will stress the metal beyond its muscle-strength engineering standards.
Now that Spyderco has released scaleless Bushcraft blanks, it is possible to see the location and size of the skeletonizing holes in the full tang without x-ray vision. One must respect the tools of bushcraft as much as the skills so religating a knife of this stature to that of axe head is foolish and dangerous. Just like woodcraft is totally different than wood chopping, it’s not bush chopping, it’s bushcraft.
Shelter making, snares, and cordage are three more tests for the Spyderco. The chopping and batoning limits of the Bushcraft are well within what is necessary for short-term shelters. Precision snare notching of branches is easy and the handle provides plenty of wood-grinding leverage no matter how its held. The symmetry of the scales provides positive and familiar traction whether forward or reverse grip.
The stern end of the Bushcraft handle gently grinds free the fibers incarcerated by woody stems. For bark cordage, the blade smoothly slices the bark into peelings that are then cooked up into rope. The gentle drop point blade scrapes smoothly and evenly with enough control to apply some muscle with minimal risk of slicing your cordage project in half.
Bushcraft is more than just another subset in the curriculum of survival skills. Bushcraft is the core skillset upon which many advanced outdoor skills are built. And it all begins with the bushcraft knife. So choose your bladed best friend carefully because your bushcraft knife is the tool that builds all the other tools.
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