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 Origins of the Word “Bushcraft”

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.

Scandinavian Knives

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.

Original Bushcraft knife on display in Oslo museum
Traditional Scandinavian style knife of explorer Roald Amundsen currently on display in the Fram Museum in Oslo.

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.

Trade Knives

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;

Pathfinder Trade Knife
Pathfinder 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.

Nessmuk

George washington
George Washington Sears – Public Domain, Link

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.

Old survival knives and axes

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.

Kephart Knife

Horace Kephart

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.

Figure 2 A contemporary magazine
A contemporary magazine advert for the Kephart knife.

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

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.

Ray Mears Woodlore Knife
Figure 3 – The original Woodlore knife

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

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.

Figure 4 Skookum bush tool
Skookum bush tool

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.

Written by
Geoffrey Guy
Join the discussion