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When it comes to choosing your “bushcraft knife”, remember not all knives suitable for bushcraft are going to have the word “bushcraft” emblazoned all over them. Just as when Nessmuk and Horace Kephart were designing their knives they didn’t call them bushcraft knives, there are many knives designed and made today which will be perfect for bushcraft but won’t be marketed as a bushcraft knife. For this reason, don’t rely on a google search for ‘bushcraft knife’ to lead you to the best bushcraft knife for your adventures.
In this article, I review some of the best and more than capable bushcraft knives. Any of these will serve you well but read on to learn more about the capabilities, pros, and cons of each individual kife and design.
With so many knives marketed specifically as bushcraft knives and so many others which are perfect for bushcraft even though it’s not in the name, you are spoiled for choice. Those here are some of the best production knives available across a range of styles and for a range of budgets, there should be something here for everyone.
My close second choice from among these though would be the Helle Temagami, but it is a very hard choice. The Mora Bushcraft is a budget-friendly, extremely capable knife in a very compact package and I do use one very frequently and I wouldn’t be disappointed in any of these. The Temagami’s traditional style of curly birch handle scales and leather sheath combined with fantastic laminated steel and a well thought out handle that will protect your hand from cold as well as offering a full-length tang is a real win from a design and production perspective.
The key though, whatever knife you choose, is to get out there and use it. Dirt time as influential survival expert Tom Brown Jr. calls it is the most important thing when it comes to survival skills and bushcraft, get out there with your knife and live it!
Run Down of the Best Bushcraft Knives
What you can trust is this list of products which feature some of the best production knives suitable for bushcraft that are available today. This list features knives at a range of price points from the budget, but still excellent, Mora knives to the more expensive semi-custom options offered by Bark River.
Many people start their bushcraft journey with a simple Mora companion knife, these can be had for just a few dollars and are perfectly functional knives and if you never upgraded from a Mora to a more expensive knife with added features you would not be at a disadvantage. The light weight simple design of the Mora knives is sufficient for all SENSIBLE bushcraft tasks.
The Bushcraft model does offer a few upgrades from the basic model such as a more tactile, rubberized handle, ‘triflex’ steel and a sheath which includes a sharpener and fire steel to give that extra bit of function demanded by many buschrafters.
Even this upgraded bushcraft model still features a stick tang and this might be the first reason that someone would look for an upgrade to their bushcraft knife. A full tang, which reaches the whole length of the handle and is visible at the butt end of the knife does add strength, as does a full-width tang.
Realistically though the full-width tang can be a disadvantage and you will notice that even Moras newer Garberg model which features a long-awaited full-length tang doesn’t feature a tang that reaches the full width of the handle. This prevents your hand coming into contact with cold steel and chilling you in extremely cold temperatures and you will see it is a universal feature of Scandinavian knives.
So don’t for a second think that the stick tang of this knife reduces its suitability for bushcrafting, it is a stellar knife in every respect and won’t stretch or break your budget like some of the other knives featured here.
Also, consider that Mora’s pedigree when it comes to knives is faultless and they have the benefit of years of making some of the most cost-effective and user-friendly knives on the market. The Scandinavian grind is ideal for the kind of light woodworking demanded of a bushcraft knife and versatile enough to be pressed to food prep and camp cooking.
You might want to shell out more for a knife with wood or bone handle scales or thicker blade steel or one with the flat grind that makes it better for working in the camp kitchen but don’t underestimate the Mora. This is arguable the best bushcraft knife, and definitely one of the most versatile, available today.
This knife is one of the greatest survival knives of all time, but it is also a fantastic bushcraft knife. Issued to Swedish Airforce pilots as their survival knife since 1995 the original F1 features a blade of laminated VG10 steel. Laminated blades offer a very hard edge of harder steel sandwiched between softer steel which gives the knife more flexibility and protects the more brittle edge, and this gives a knife excellent edge retention as well as strength. This particular version of the F1 features a blade of ‘3G’ steel, laminated powder steel, which is an upgrade from the original VG10 and offers a harder edge of 62 HRC on the Rockwell hardness scale.
The convex edge of this knife might not be the typical grind for a Scandinavian knife but actually, over time even knives with ‘perfect’ flat bevels become slightly convex over time with repeated sharpening. The benefit of this kind of convex grind is that it keeps plenty of metal behind the edge of the blade making it very strong and therefore unlikely to roll or chip even if the blade steel is quite hard.
The full-length tang is surrounded by a handle of thermorun plastic leaving an exposed pommel but no other steel to chill your hand. Its 3.8-inch blade is perfect for bushcraft and this knife won’t ever let you down
The Temagami is another cultural mash-up, made by Helle one of Norway’s largest and most popular knife makers, designed in association with celebrity survivalist and outdoorsman Les Stroud and named after a province in north-eastern Ontario, Canada.
For its modest price, it is a fantastic knife featuring triple laminated steel which some other companies would charge a fortune for. It features a slightly clipped point and Scandinavian grind as well as a very well thought out handle and tang. Similar to the More Garberg the designer and producers understand the need to keep the cold steel of the blade out of contact with the bare skin of the user’s hand as much as possible.
To achieve this a full-length tang is fitted into a curly birch handle through a slot in the upper edge of the handle, that slot however only reaches two-thirds of the way through the handle leaving the bottom edge of the handle to be contoured perfectly to fit the hand and not allow the tang to contact the skin. This method, just as with the Garberg protects the user’s hand from the cold tang while still offering the strength of a full tang blade.
Les Stroud’s real-life survival skills twinned with Helle’s generations of experience has produced a really fantastic knife without any negatives as far as I can tell. If you’re looking for the best bushcraft knife and love that classic elegant look and feel of a real hardwood handle, then the Helle Temagami has to be at the top of your list.
4. ESEE PR4
The PR4 is based very closely on Horace Kepharts design for his ideal knife and features a 4 inch cutting edge and a blade of 1095 Carbon steel. This optimum size it meets Kepharts requirements for a smaller knife and the spear point isn’t overtly ‘stabby’ nor in anyway oriented towards combat. The pouch sheath will ride quite high on your belt and of course just as with any other sheath you should consider how you will carry this knife to make it comfortable and accessible.
The PR4 is part of ESEE’s Camp Lore series which includes other traditional knife designs suitable for bushcraft and camping. The individual knives in the series take their names from their designers, in this case, Patrick Rollins; hence PR, and from the length of their blade giving the PR 4. The series includes the CR2.5, a small bird, and trout style knife designed by Cody Rowen of Rowen Manufacturing the company behind the production and heat treat of ESEE knives.
The RB3 designed by Reuben Bolieu and a departure from ESEE’s typical saber ground blades featuring a Scandinavian grind perfect for woodworking and bushcraft. The JG3 is the final knife in the line-up designed by James Gibson the lead instructor for Randall’s Adventure & Training, a company closely associated with ESEE. The JG 3 is reminiscent of French trade knives and features a drop point blade that would be perfect for skinning and preparing game.
The PR4, is the largest and most robust of the series and of the whole series is the most versatile, while it is very similar to Horace Kephart’s original design there are a few differences, such as the saber grind, looking at the surviving Colclesser brothers original knives, we can see that they had a flat grind. The saber grind on this knife increases the thickness of the steel behind the edge of the knife and makes it stronger, although it also reduces its slicing ability somewhat.
The micarta handles are scalloped and sculpted to provide a secure grip even if the knife is wet and will also be hygienic and will not chill your hand too badly. ESEE’s reputation for exceptional quality control on their knives guarantees you a knife that will last you a lifetime, and their lifetime warranty backs that up.
5. Mora Garberg
The Garberg is Mora’s answer to a full tang knife, it was released in 2016 as the answer to countless requests for a full tang knife from the Swedish knife making giant who has been making knives since 1891. There is a trend in survival knives for thick spines and full tangs nowadays.
Please do be aware that the kind of things she was doing to her knife was definitely abuse and no knife should be put through that; in a bushcraft scenario you will have other tools such as an axe or saw to do the heavier work and in a survival situation you would be very foolish to abuse your most essential tool in a way that will guarantee to damage it if not completely destroy it. The fact that the Garberg isn’t completely destroyed by these silly tests though is a testament to its strength.
The full tang and thick blade is a significant upgrade to the standard companion knife from Mora in terms of strength but it honestly doesn’t make it more useful than the companion for most sensible bushcraft tasks. In fact, that deeper blade on the Garberg reduces its utility as a carving and whittling blade compared to the pointier companion or bushcraft models.
It certainly is stronger and more robust than other Mora bushcraft knives and has received rave reviews and is actually a fantastic knife to use, its handle completely encompasses the tang of the blade, except for the exposed pommel, and this actually may cause some people to criticize this knife and claim it doesn’t have a full tang because the tang isn’t the full width of the handle. In actual fact, though this just shows that the designers have done what they know is best for an outdoor knife by providing a handle that won’t chill your hand by exposing it to the metal edges of a tang.
The only thing that can be considered a fault is the price, it’s not expensive in the grand scheme of things but it is so much more expensive than all the other Mora knives that you might ask if this knife really is worth the extra money?
That will ultimately be up to you and your wallet and this is a fantastic knife for the money especially when compared with knives from other manufacturers.
The Forest was the first knife for The American Knife Company established by Jim Nowka with the aim of producing high-quality knives. This knife, like the Skookum Bushtool, was specifically designed according to the description of an ideal or best bushcraft knife given my Mors Kochanski.
Its continuous curve is perfect for working wood and as well as a full tang the knife features a solid metal pommel that could be used for striking, grinding, and smashing if required. These features alone make this a very strong
choice for a bushcraft knife. The A2 steel isn’t a ‘super steel’ but is perfectly adequate for a bushcraft knife and is easy to sharpen and maintain in the field.
The Micarta handles are very robust and shaped to perfectly fit and fill the hand without any unnecessary contours, grooves, or finger guards which limit the versatility of knives for carving and whittling. These always make it difficult to adjust your grip and inevitably a handle that is contoured to be held in the fist will be less comfortable in a chest lever grip or other grips. Not so with this knife which can be comfortably held in just about any position.
These knives are built for, and to the specifications, from The American Knife Company and as such you can expect a high-quality product. Bark River are a semi-custom knife maker producing dozens of models in hundreds of handle materials and several blade steel options and quite rightly have one of the best reputations of all American knife makers. They have done a good job on this knife and it will be a real asset to you in the woods and wilderness.
It is an expensive knife though, perhaps more expensive than its A2 tool steel and micarta handle really justifies. Other than its price, its sheath maybe it’s the only drawback; not in terms of its quality or materials but because it rides so high on a belt that the pommel of the knife will poke you in the side and could cause considerable discomfort so if this is the knife for you then you might want to consider an after-market sheath that will be more comfortable or a danger to allow it to hang below the level of your belt.
There is no doubt where this offering from TOPS takes its inspiration, it’s in the name and also clear from the appearance of the knife. The quality of TOPS knives is a matter of well-established fact among collectors and users of knives alike and this knife will certainly do everything you require of it for bushcrafting. It’s 1096 carbon steel blade and ‘sudo-Scandi’ grind which features a higher than usual Scandinavian style grind but with the addition of an edge bevel as well.
TOPS don’t make any pure Scandinavian ground knives and because the grind height on this knife is that bit higher than it would be on a traditional puukko it does actually need this extra bevel to add strength to the edge which could be fragile with such a fine, narrow edge.
Although it bears the puukko name it’s design history is much more multicultural than you might expect. The designer is Goran Mihajlovic, a Serb who grew up in Germany and who now lives in Columbia and owns a nature reserve called Tanimboca. While the blade profile is similar to traditional Puukkos the handles are more typical of American knives with red lined Micarta scales secured in place by Philips head screws. These screws don’t require any proprietary tools to remove the handles and this was an important design criteria for a knife designed as much for use in the jungles of Columbia as it is for the boreal forests of Finland.
The hot, humid jungle climate requires you to take very good care of your blades and tools to avoid rust, especially if your knife is made from a steel like 1095 which can rust quite easily, being able to clean dirt and grime and to make sure there is no moisture trapped between the handle scales and steel tang is really important. Being able to apply oil to the tang by easily removing the handle scales could be a really useful feature in the rainforest, although using stainless steel might also have been a good option if this knife was designed for humid conditions.
It might be strange to be discussing using a puukko in the rainforest but the designer Goran Mihajlovic obviously has great taste in knives as he prefers Puukko knives as they are so versatile and offer great performance in a wide variety of cutting tasks.
The Tanimboca Puukko features a divot in its handle for use as a bow drill bearing block, something I would avoid using it for, using an unsheathed knife as a bearing block is just plain dangerous and having to unthread your sheath from your belt to contain your knife while you use it to light a bow drill fire is just going to get annoying.
While TOPS knives do have a great reputation one thing that often lets them down is the cheap, poorly constructed nylon sheaths that some of their knives come with, luckily this knife is paired with a high-quality leather sheath which won’t let you down.
The traditional Mora knife may look a bit old fashioned compared to some of the there more modern offerings like the Garberg and the Bushcraft but this style of knife has been used by Swedes for generations and when combined with other bushcraft tools such as an axe and saw really will do everything you need in the woods. From skinning to working wood it will excel, the Scandinavian grind is particularly good for working wood and the lack of any finger guard really shouldn’t be seen as the disadvantage that some people might fear it is.
Finger guards are often mis-sold as a vital feature of a knife but if you are careful and paying attention when you are using your knife there really is no excuse of accidentally grabbing the blade. Another reason to have a finger guard is to stop you slipping up onto the blade if you are using the knife for stabbing. Now just take a good look at this knife… it isn’t for stabbing. The closest to stabbing you should be doing with this knife is using the point for lifting birch bark.
The plastic sheath can be threaded through a belt or hung on a piece of cord around your neck but doesn’t provide great retention and these knives are prone to falling out of their sheaths so do be aware of that. I get around this by using the paracord neck lanyard that I use to carry my Mora to secure the knife in the sheath, with the knife in place a little bit of the paracord can be looped over the handle in a quick clove hitch and the knife will never slip out. I don’t normally like carrying knives around my neck but this knife is so light you hardly notice it and neck carry puts it in a really convenient place to access it while you are working on craft projects.
This knife draws its inspiration from nessmuk’s knife, you can see the blade profile with its humped spine reminiscent of frontier and modern butcher knives but other than that general profile on closer inspection it doesn’t have a lot in common with nessmuks knife. The blade steel is very thick and features a Scandinavian grind instead of the flat grind that would almost certainly have features on Nessmuks knife as it was his dedicated to gutting, skinning and preparing game.
It does feature one of the best leather sheaths I have ever used, very robust, nicely tanned and very thick and sturdy. The blued steel is a nice touch and when combined with the natural micarta scales and unique shape gives this knife a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that I haven’t seen in many other knives.
Bark River has a fantastic reputation for making ’semi-custom’ knives and probably offers more options in terms of steel, handle material, and style of knives than any other company. Their knives are very well thought out and all hand made to a high standard. They also feature convex edges on almost all their knives, a grind that is incredibly strong and functional as well as being difficult to produce to a good standard. The fact that their convex edges are so good is a good sign that you are getting something special when you choose a Bark River knife.
They do make a dedicated ‘bushcraft’ model but there is just something about their Bravo 1 that I think is better. The blade shape appeals to me personally but also from a purely functional point of view offers slightly more belly for skinning and camp kitchen tasks as well as a fine point for wood carving.
Some may find the thumb ramp to be uncomfortable or restrict the grips you can use but Bark River offers plenty of options even on this model and the bravo 1 can be had without a thumb ramp as well. The knife pictures here have green micarta handles but Bark River makes their knives in an unprecedented array of handle materials and I would defy anyone to find a handle for a Bark River knife that they don’t like.
Honorable Mention: Cold Steel Finn Hawk
Cold Steel produces some very high-end knives from specialist steel such as San Mai III but it’s to them we turn for a potential competitor to the budget Mora knives. The Finn Hawk is another knife heavily inspired by traditional puukko knives, the strait spine, Scandinavian grind, and simple handle are perfect for bush-crafting without breaking the bank.
Choosing Your Bushcraft Knife – A Guide for Buyers
Now that you have seen some of the influences of modern bushcraft knives, from influential outdoorsmen and their preferences for a knife to the traditional patterns of Scandinavian knives and the American Frontier but what should you look for when choosing the knife for you today?
It makes sense to start with the steel as without it you have no knife, stainless steels wouldn’t have been an option in the trade knives of the frontier of for Nessmuk but they are now and they are not a bad option. There is a myth that they can’t be used to strike sparks from a ferrocerium rod but this isn’t true at all, stainless steel is as effective as carbon steel for scraping sparks, in fact, a key or a piece of broken glass can be used for scraping sparks too. The myth stems from the fact that if you want to create sparks between your knife blade and piece of genuine flint your blade will have to be made of carbon steel as it’s tiny fragments of that steel that will be struck off by a piece of flint and which will become sparks.
Ray Mears chose carbon steel for his knife because he felt that stainless steel lacked ‘soul’ perhaps this refers to the patina that will form on a carbon steel blade with use, something you won’t see on a stainless steel blade. Suitable blade steels include 1095 high carbon steel and its’s derivative 1095 chromium-vanadium steel which features in a lot of knives by Ka-Bar. D2, N690, any of the Sandvik steels from Sweden, 01, A2, and others. You can go down the ‘super steel’ route but this will add to the cost of a knife and not necessarily improve it’s suitability for bushcraft especially if the harder steel is much harder to sharpen and maintain.
Look for a blade that is tempered to somewhere between 57 and 60 Rockwell for that ‘sweet spot’ between ease of sharpening and edge retention.
Blade Shape and Size
Despite the influence, Nessmuk had on the outdoor scene and on knife designers, I would steer away from the style of knife he preferred. Now that bushcraft knives are commonly regarded as fixed blades the Nessmuk style with its design geared towards skinning and butchering game is not as versatile as other options featuring more sharply pointed blades. These are much better for woodwork, something Nessmuk would have used his pocket knife for.
Pocket knives aren’t considered ideal for bushcraft due to the inherent weakness of a folding mechanism so smaller fixed blade knives perform the bulk of our bushcraft tasks. Kephart specifies something no larger than four or five inches while Mors Kochanski suggests the blade needs to be no longer than the width of your hand, maybe something in the region of 3.75 inches. Anywhere in this bracket will be entirely suitable. Much larger and it will be too unwieldy and difficult to carve with, much smaller and it won’t span pieces of wood that you are splitting or carving and be too small to be of great use.
A pointed blade is important as it allows you to use the tip effectively for carving but that doesn’t mean it has to have a spear point like the Kephart knife or a point as pronounced as the Woodlore knife. Traditional Scandinavian knives and trade knives all feature good, strong, ‘pointy’ points despite having straight spines. This style of point is perfectly suitable for the kind of carving which is so important in bushcraft while the rounder tips of butcher style knives like the Nessmuk pattern are less versatile.
While you might want to use plastic or rubber handled knives for butchery, skinning and game prep as there is no chance it will soak up any blood, there is no particular need for this is a bushcraft knife, and with modern stabilizing methods allowing the wood to be completely impregnated and sealed with resin, properly treated wood can be as hygienic as plastic.
In keeping with the traditional and ‘rustic’ nature of bushcraft traditional handle materials such as wood, bone and antler are popular and have certainly stood the test of time as hard-wearing, attractive, and effective handle materials. There are modern options that still have the rustic look and feel of natural materials, micarta for example. In fact, as there are so many good options for your knife handle it’s easier to talk about handle materials which aren’t suitable:
Brittle plastics and rubberized handles, if they are not of high quality, are not suitable for bushcraft knives, they can crack and some rubberized handles will perish and become tacky over time, spoiling the comfort of the knife. There are benefits to rubberized or plastic handles but if you want one make sure you choose one by a reputable manufacturer like Fällkniven, Extrema Ratio, or Zero Tolerance all of whom produce excellent knives and use very high-quality plastic and rubber materials in the construction of their knives.
The only handle material to definitely avoid in a bushcraft knife are metal handles, they are featured on relatively few knives, some are of one-piece construction with handle and blade all of a single piece of material with no separate handle scales, others will feature scales of a different metal such as aluminum. While these handles may be very hard-wearing they will conduct heat away from your hand very quickly and even in slightly cold weather will chill your hand and in freezing cold conditions will be dangerous not to mention very uncomfortable to use, AVOID THEM!
Ray Mears wanted a handle of native wood on his knife, they were sold with maple handle scales, On the custom knife I had made to my requirements I also went for a piece of native English Elmwood for the handle, having a connection to the wood’s and wilderness areas you practice your bushcraft skills in through your knife is quite nice but by no means a necessity and really the handle material is down to your own personal choice and preference.
Don’t let your sheath be an after thought, it’s what you will use to carry your knife around with you, do you want one that will dangle from your belt, ride neatly up on your hip, hang around your neck? There are no wrong options but there are a few things to bear in mind. If your sheath rides high on your belt you won’t be able to comfortably wear the waist strap of your pack while you are hiking but a dangler style sheath which might mitigate this will bump annoyingly against your leg as you move around, so which do you prefer?
A neck sheath might be suitable for some lightweight knives but they aren’t all that secure and will swing around and you may find them annoying, also bear in mind that heavy knives will be uncomfortable to carry this way. Also, remember that if the sheath isn’t very robust if you were to fall it could be very dangerous as the blade could come through the material of the sheath and stab you.
There isn’t a right answer to the question of the style of the sheath as it will depend on how you intend to carry it but whatever style suits you make sure that you pick a good quality sheath to protect yourself from the blade. Leather is the traditional material for sheaths, although Sami knives often have beautifully decorated sheaths of bone or wood. Modern technology gives us the option of other materials such as Kydex and nylon as well.
Leather or Kydex would be my choice for a bushcraft knife sheath as nylon sheaths don’t tend to offer the rigidity that would be capable of stopping a knife blade piercing it. Do remember though that leather sheaths need to be maintained properly to ensure they don’t shrink or crack. Very few knives will be sold without sheaths but you should consider the sheath when purchasing any knife as you are buying a ‘package’ not just a knife and a bad sheath can seriously let down a good knife. Aftermarket sheaths are available but it would be a shame to have to replace a sheath straight away if you find you aren’t happy with the one that came with the knife.
A Short History of Bushcraft Knives
While there are many knives I could recommend for you to use for ‘bushcraft’ because bushcraft is a relatively new word it’s hard to define exactly what a bushcraft knife is. For such an old and traditional set of skills, it is very strange that a collective noun to describe all those skills at once took so long to appear, or is it?
Before bushcraft became a recreational activity it was just the way people lived, by their own ability to survive in the woods and wild country; that skill set includes foraging, tracking, fire craft, knots, and pioneering, craft and in fact, were we to list every skill that could possibly be associated with bushcraft we would never get on to the topic of knives.
While ‘survival knives’ might be pressed to all these and many other tasks bushcraft is a choice, the skills might be useful for survival but when we practice it we are choosing to do so and so we can also choose to equip ourselves with all the tools we need. That might include an ax, a saw, and specialist craft tools but it will also ALWAYS include a reliable knife.
Before technology and modern comforts meant that we didn’t have to live off the land there was no need for a special word to describe the skills associated with living in the woods, fields and wild places as it was just a part of everyday life but with industrialization and urbanization, the wilderness became more an area for recreation for the majority of people or even a place to be feared.
The word bushcraft originated in Australia and South Africa where the word ‘bush’ is commonly used to describe backwoods and wilderness places, the word craft is the obvious addition to describe the skills needed to live and thrive in those places. Elsewhere words such as woodcraft, campcraft, and scouting would have described the same set of skills.
The World Wars created a demand for survival training for troops or downed pilots who may find themselves behind enemy lines or in remote areas and demand for similar skills in the civilian market quickly followed. With the increased interest in getting back to basics and re-awakening traditional skills taking over from a slightly militaristic approach to civilian survival skills training that had been popular throughout the cold war period a new word was needed to describe the practice of these skills.
Richard Graves bushcraft books published in the 1950s was one of the first major publications to use the word bushcraft, although it had appeared sporadically in other publications from Australia as far back as 1888. In the ’80s and 90’s Mors Kochanski, influential bushcraft and survival skills instructor from Canada, and Ray Mears in the UK started to use the word bushcraft in their books and television programs and the word has stuck. So too have their opinions on knives shared through their publications and broadcasts and so now ‘bushcraft knives’ if there is such a thing are often closely modeled on their suggestions.
Before them, everyone had their own opinions on what a knife for backwoods or bush living was and how it should complement the rest of the tools they carried and there have been some particularly influential outdoorsmen as well as regional knife styles which emerged over the years that have had an influence on modern bushcraft knives and it is important to understand those to help you choose as well as understand how to use a knife for bushcraft.
Long before the steel knives we enjoy using now surviving and thriving in the wild required tools of stone, bone, and wood. Without the advantage of a strong edge that can be sharpened relatively easily, retains it’s keen-ness even after hard use and is comfortable in the hand. Stone tools would have been vulnerable to breaking, chipping, and blunting against bone during skinning and game prep, much more so than steel, and once they had become blunt they normally would have to be re-made from scratch to get the same kind of performance as before.
They would also have been uncomfortable to use and the act of making them would have left people with myriad tiny cuts and sores on their hands. As fascinating as stone-age technology is there is no doubt that modern knives are an improvement and that they offer vastly increased performance over stone tools.
Influential ‘Bushcraft Knives’ and their Designers
Some of the most influential knives have come to us thanks to specific people, often well-known outdoorsmen, who thanks to their reputation have brought their knives into the public arena others are a result of years of refinement by cultures whose need for a functional knife is paramount, we’ll look at both here as we try to choose the best bushcraft knife.
When people are purchasing bushcraft kits the products coming from Scandinavia are often their first resort to find high-quality functional clothing, knives, and axes which are the result of generations’ experience and outdoor living. Scandinavian knives are very functional and in products, from Mora or Hultafors and a few others, you will see very traditional shaped knives fitted with modern handles and produced and sold at a very reasonable price.
There are two basic types of Scandinavian knives, the smaller of the two is, to give it its Finnish name, the ‘Puukko’ and is a smaller knife, generally with a straight spine offering quite a lot of ‘belly’ as the edge sweeps up to meet the spine. These knives feature the ‘Scandinavian grind’ which starts from a quarter or a third of the way up the blade and then bevels to the edge without any secondary bevel. Traditionally these bevels and edges may have become slightly convex by the act of constant sharpening and use.
These knives aren’t big there is no attempt for these knives to be a one tool style knife they are for small tasks, carving, whittling, food prep, and other small tasks and would be used in conjunction with an axe for larger tasks or with the larger style of Scandinavian knife the Leuku which is a traditional large knife of the Sami people which would be used a little like a bill hook or machete for preparing shelter poles and other heavier chopping tasks while not being so large that it couldn’t be pressed to smaller, finer tasks.
These knives tend to be carried in what would nowadays be referred to as a dangler style sheath, these sheaths would often be made of wood or reindeer antler as well as leather and in traditional Sami dress would normally be carried on a belt cinched tight around an outer coat rather than on a belt threaded through belt loops on a pair of trousers as is the usual way of carrying a knife in Britain or the USA.
Both these Scandinavian knives have been incredibly influential in the development of what would nowadays be called a bushcraft knife and many people choose to use traditional knives in these patterns even now. There are manufacturers who produce modernized puukko knives that feature plastic or rubberized handles and Kydex sheaths rather than traditional bone and leather and these are popular among modern bushcrafters, you will see a lot of Scandinavian influences in the knives recommended in this article.
For other particularly important influences in the development of modern bushcraft knives, we can look to North America and the mountain men, trappers, and traders of Canada and the United States. Not only were knives essential tools of the frontier knife but they were essential trade items; the Lewis and Clarke expedition carried, as well as the parties own personal knives, 288 knives for trade with the Indian tribes. This just highlights the value of knives on the frontier if they were valued so much as trade items.
The history of knives being used as trade goods led to a certain pattern of the knife on the frontier being known as ‘trade knives’. These were not dissimilar to the kitchen knives of the period, and in fact, most wouldn’t be out of place in a modern kitchen either. They would have had fairly slim wooden handles pinned to their tangs, which would not necessarily have been ‘full tangs’.
The edge of the knife would begin below the level of the handle, as do modern kitchen knives giving clearance between your fingers and a chopping surface. ‘English’ trade knives often featured a straight spine, while ‘French’ trade knives had a drop point and have influenced the design of some modern bushcraft knives such as some of the knives by Dave Canterbury’s Pathfinder Knife Shop, including one model called the trade knife;
‘Butchers knives’ were also popular on the frontier and were generally larger than the trade knives and featured the typical hump towards the tip of the blade that is common in this style of knife, this is a feature of a certain style of knife made famous by well-known American outdoorsman George Washington Sears, more commonly known by his pen name of Nessmuk.
The trade and butcher style knives of the frontier would all have been much thinner than modern bushcraft knives which are often over-engineered with in some cases spines which are a quarter of an inch thick. These knives were perfectly adequate for their intended tasks and heavier tasks such as splitting kindling and chopping firewood would have been left to the appropriate tool, an axe.
George Washington Sears was a 19th Century American writer and outdoorsman, known commonly by his pen-name of ‘Nessmuk’. Not an outdoorsman by trade Nessmuk had worked in factories, as a commercial fisherman, and aboard whaling vessels and took the woods primarily for recreation and for health reasons.
He wrote for the forest and stream magazine extensively and in 1884 his book ’Woodcraft’ was published and due to its popularity, it has remained in print ever since. In it he describes the tools and methods of living in the woods that he used among them his fairly unique belt knife and the other tools he used alongside it. Many have since copied or adapted his design to modern bushcraft knives, often without truly understanding how Nessmuk himself used his knife.
Nessmuk was a firm advocate of traveling light and of making use of superior skills rather than heavy equipment and tools. He makes this point regularly in his books and magazine articles and stresses the enjoyment that can be had from lightweight camping rather than relying on porters and heavy equipment.
The tools he recommends include a small hatchet with a double-bitted head, one side sharpened finely and the other with a more robust edge for splitting wood and chopping roots, a sheath knife was another integral part of his tool kit aw was a multi-bladed pocket knife.
If we pay careful attention to Nessmuks description of his tools and the way he uses them it is clear that 99% of the jobs we do today with what we would call a bushcraft knife Nessmuk did with his pocket knife and that’s because his sheath knife was for a very specific purpose. It was strictly reserved for the skinning and butchering of game and was maintained with a razor-sharp edge and probably designed with a ‘flat grind’ a grind which tapers from the spine to the very edge of the knife with the addition of a secondary bevel to add strength at the very edge.
These flat grinds make excellent slicing blades but aren’t as robust as other styles of blades. You can see in the profile of this knife blade that is designed for skinning and butchery and while many copy it’s shaping and is marketed as bushcraft knives you will see that they often feature a Scandinavian grind and quite thick blades reminiscent of more modern bushcraft knives.
There is a huge range of beautiful modern interpretations of Nessmuks knife but most of them are actually modern survival/bushcraft knives shoehorned into the shape popularised by Nessmuk. Maybe the designers misunderstood Nessmuks use of the knife, or maybe they recognize that the blade shape and association with the Nessmuk knife will sell a product even if all that the newer product has in common with Nessmuks original knife is the profile of the blade.
Horace Kephart was a key figure in the establishment of American National Parks and Mount Kephart in the Smokey Mountain National Park is named after him. He was originally trained and employed as a librarian and was director of the Mercantile Library in St. Louis Missouri but was also an avid outdoorsman and often wrote often about hunting and camping. From his writing he compiled a book now known as Camping and Woodcraft in 1906 and in it and among his other writings he shared his specifications for an ideal knife as well as some suggestions about types of knife to avoid with his readers, he was particularly critical of the trend of using unnecessarily large knives designed primarily for fighting.
He described the bowie knives he saw many people using as “too thick and clumsy to whittle with, much too thick for a good skinning knife, and too sharply pointed to cook and eat with.”
He advocated a common sense sheath knife which he would use occasionally for dressing game but most often for “cutting sticks, slicing bacon, and frying “spuds.” He specified a knife with a broad, central point, nothing over four of five inches long and he had such a knife made for himself and knives to his design were manufactured and sold by the Colclesser Brothers of Pennsylvania.
Only two of these original knives are left in existence as far as people know, one in a museum and one in a private collection but there are plenty of modern knives which follow Kepharts specifications for the ideal knife very closely.
Ray Mears may be the single most influential person in modern bushcraft, he certainly is in the UK and his books and television programs have a significant global audience as well. His knife, made famous as he used it on his television programs, has become many peoples ‘holy grail’ of bushcraft knives and the standard by which other knives are judged.
Designed by Ray Mears and made by British knife maker Alan Wood this knife was the answer to Ray’s requirements for a British made knife specifically for bushcrafting. Rather than the flat grinds of the trade knives and the designs favored by Nessmuk and Kephart Ray wanted a knife with a Scandinavian grind, also known as a Nordic grind, which is more suitable for working wood and easier for beginners, remember his business was primarily training and teaching bushcraft skills, to learn to sharpen.
Scandinavian grinds are sharpened by laying the bevel directly on the sharpening stone and maintaining that angle, there is no need to take a secondary bevel at the edge of the blade into account and it is therefore much simpler to learn to sharpen these Scandinavian style grinds. Additionally, this style of grind is perfect for working wood and the kind of bushcraft tasks Ray had in mind.
These Woodlore knives also featured a squared spine for use with a ferrocerium rod and a slightly unusual blade profile. While Kephart favored a point in the precise center of his knife the woodlore knife features a point which is closer to the edge of the knife than the spine, the spine dips gradually towards the edge which features a straight section before gradually curving up to meet the spine. This is a fairly unusual feature for a knife and despite many, many clones and copies of the woodlore knife now being available most of them don’t copy this feature at all. This blade shape is particularly useful for working wood and carving important backwoods tools such as netting needles.
The original woodlore knife was not cheap at £495 (or about $632) and the additions to the woodlore line of knives since knife maker Alan Wood has stopped making the original are no cheaper. Whatever the price though modern production bushcraft knives owe a lot of what is now considered standard to Ray Mears and his Woodlore knife
Mors Kochanski has been teaching bushcraft and survival skills longer than just about any other living survival expert and describes in detail many of the knives he has used over the course of his career. Unlike many other well-known instructors, Mors stuck mostly to production knives until custom knifemaker Rod Garcia attended one of his courses and decided to make a knife that perfectly fit Mors specification for the ideal bushcraft knife.
The knife Rod made has become known as the Skookum bush tool and is made as close to the specifications provided by Mors as possible. The continuous curve of the blade edge and the lack of any sort of finger guard are key features of this knife and major factors in making this knife perfect for whittling and working wood.