I recently read one of Brad Thor’s books (The Apostle) wherein the main character refers to his knife as “Plan B”. In the context it’s used it’s pretty funny, but – when you think about it – it’s also pretty realistic. How many times have you needed to perform some chore and you’ve reached for your knife to do it? The versatility of a simple well-designed knife can be awesome. It can be a utility tool; a cooking tool; a hunting tool; an eating tool… But if you pick a poorly made knife (no matter how cool it looks) or you don’t care for it properly, in the long run that knife may fail you. Proper care and maintenance is often overlooked and we’ll discuss that just a tad, but mostly we’re going to focus on design characteristics that will suit your need. The challenge to you – the reader – is to figure out what your need is.
For the purposes of this article I picked out ten different knives from seven different manufacturers (there are two KA-BARs and three SOGs). Each knife was designed either for combat or for survival and we’ll discuss the characteristics that may make them more suited for one than the other. For now, let’s identify the knives used for this discussion. I’ll list them as biggest to smallest using the measurement of their blades:
Buck Knives Buckmaster: 7.4”
KA-BAR Becker TacTool: 7”
SOG Knives SEAL Team Elite: 7”
Gerber Silver Trident: 6.13”
Chris Reeves Neil Roberts Knife: 6”
BLACKHAWK! Blades Nightedge: 5.9”
Mil-Tac M3: 5.5”
KA-BAR Short USMC: 5.25”
SOG Knives Team Leader Survivor: 5”
SOG Knives SEAL Pup Elite: 4.85”
It’s easier to identify up front that two of these knives are the “big and little brother” of a family. The SOG Knives SEAL Team Elite is the “big brother” to the SOG Knives SEAL Pup Elite. The handle, blade and sheath designs are all very similar. The main difference is the blade length.
Although we have two KA-BARs listed, they are nothing alike. The KA-BAR Short USMC is a shorter version of the venerable well-known KA-BAR combat / utility knife. The KA-BAR Becker TacTool is nothing like it and the only thing they have in common is the company of manufacture.
So let’s start with the biggest one: The Buckmaster from Buck Knives with its 7.4” spear point bowie style blade. Long ago, when I was young and foolish (as opposed to my current age and foolish) I thought that this “survival” style of knife was just the coolest thing since sliced bread. What I came to learn was that the most functional features of the knife are the hollow handle and the long sharp edge. The buttcap is good for pounding and the sharpening stone that is integral to the synthetic sheath is pretty handy. That all said, the compass inside the buttcap is all but worthless and I never have figured out anything productive to do with the removable “anchors” that screw into either end of the full hilt.
Because of the way the whole knife is weighted, it’s not the best tool in the world for chopping but I’ve found little (non metal) that it won’t cut. I don’t recommend trying to saw anything though because those “teeth” on the back are merely grooves milled into the blade’s spine. They aren’t really saw teeth and all you (mostly) accomplish sawing with them is working up a good sweat.
The best knife in this bunch for chopping is the KA-BAR Becker TacTool. The blade comes across as a sharpened 7” pry bar with some serrated section and the gut hook in the spine. That “gut hook” as I refer to it is also excellent for catching and quickly pulling-through-cutting fishing line, twine, paracord, etc. What are the down sides to this tool? It’s one of the heavier ones listed. While that makes it good for chopping it makes it worse for carrying. There’s no storage in the handle, nor is there a utility pouch on the sheath. In all fairness, none of the other knives below have storage in their handle and the Buckmaster (above) doesn’t have storage on the sheath either. The sheaths for both the Buckmaster and the Becker TacTool have slots in the synthetic sheaths so that you can use Velcro bands (or zipties) to attach a pouch to the face of the sheath. While the pommel (buttcap) of the Buckmaster is good for hammering, the one on the Becker TacTool is not. It’d be great for crushing a skull or breaking open a coconut (I imagine), but not so much for hamering.
The other 7” blade in the bunch is the SOG SEAL Team Elite. The aggressive bowie-style blade has a couple inches of serrations near the choil. The synthetic grips wrap around a full tang and have comfortable finger grooves that fit my hand pretty well (average size hands). There are ridges along the spine but nothing on the spine is sharpened so if you need to put pressure on the back to push the blade into a cut (or through meat) then you can.
If you like the design of the SOG SEAL Team Elite but don’t think you need the full length 7” blade or don’t like the idea of humping around that larger knife, take a look at the SOG SEAL Pup Elite. The design is all but identical with the exception that the blade is only 4.85”. There is a slightly shorter length of serrations near the choil and the same ridged spin. The handle has a different shape – but it’s not even noticeable unless you compare the knives side by side or in photos. The sheaths for both are nylon with hard inserts and utility pouches on the face. The SEAL Pup Elite’s sheath has a wrap over cover that secures by way of a plastic buckle so that the knife is totally enclosed. It can be wrapped back out of the way if you don’t want to go through a two-step process to get to the knife.
Moving to the next knife down the blade-length list we get to the Gerber Silver Trident. (The “trident” is often viewed as the logo for or in reference to Navy Special Warfare – SEALs. This can be a marketing tool although some of the knives using such a name or logo are specifically designed for maritime use by Navy SpecWar personnel). The Gerber Silver Trident sports a 6.13” blade on the primary edge – but it also has a sharpened edge on the first (about) 4.5” of the spine. So the term “spear point” is much more applicable here. There is about a 2” section of serrations at the base of the primary edge, a full hilt, synthetic grips and a buttcap that takes hammering well. Except for the USMC Short, every knife in this article has a lanyard hole near or on the butt end.
The Silver Trident’s sheath is nylon with a hard insert and incorporates two security devices. The first is the snap-strap that is common on most sheaths. The second is a flexed plastic “lock” that fits into the groove molded perpendicular to the blade in the hilt. In my experience, during testing, this “lock” is NOT sufficient to keep the blade secured in the sheath, but it helps. If you’re performing some chores and have to sheath the knife so you can use both hands, the “lock” will hold until you finish what you’re doing and can snap the strap. The “lock” should NOT be counted on to keep the knife in if you’re running, climbing, etc. As a general utility field knife the Gerber Silver Trident is one of the best in this group. It’s challenge is that it will NOT do well chopping at all – it’s weighted wrong for that. But it’s a knife… not a hatchet.
Working our way down the blade length list we come to the Neil Roberts Knife. Manufactured by renowned knife maker, Chris Reeves, the Neil Roberts Knife was initially made to honor the first Navy SEAL to die in combat in Afghanistan. The 6” blade sits in front of a double choil and pretty ergonomic handle shap. The design is full-length tang, flat slab. The hilt is soft-swell and offset as is becoming so popular in recent years. The micarta grip slabs are cut to fit the handle shape pretty well and milled out to allow for good clearance around the lanyard hole. The only criticism I can make is that the pommel is poorly shaped for hammering. There’s little that can be done about that given the overall design. The sheath is nylon with a hard insert and utility pocket, manufactured by Spec-Ops Brand.
I like this knife’s overall feel and design quite a bit. I haven’t had it in the field a lot because I view it more as a collectible than a working blade. It would certainly serve the purpose well, but since it’s design and name honor a fallen warrior I prefer to leave it in my collection box, still in it’s own box, and remember our fallen warriors anytime I find myself handling it.
Next on the list is the BLACKHAWK! Blades Nightedge. I have to admit that this is one of my favorite field knives, having only one deficit (in my preferences): the pommel can’t be used for hammering very well. The full tang flat design provides for exceptional strength. The ergonomically curved handle fitted with palm-filling grip slabs feels pretty good in my hand. The soft-swell partial hilt provides the protection (from my own stupidity) that I like and, because it’s offset, it also provides a place to put your thumb if you’re pressing down into cuts. There are two holes milled into the hilt ends. If you use those, in conjunction with the lanyard loop hole, to lash the knife to a pole, you COULD use this in an attempt to spear fish.
Now, I have to add this in: The last time I wrote anything that suggested using the knife as a spear I received several emails that made good points. One was that trying to spear fish was a good way to lose your knife if the pole with knife attached washed down the river. Common sense applies here. Another point made was that you’d be just as well off using the knife to properly sharpen a spear tip onto the wood so that you didn’t have to use the knife at all. Good point. If you do this, harden the sharpened spear tip over a hot flame so that it doesn’t soften as it gets repeatedly wet. Unless you are REALLY good, it’s going to take you a LOT of attempts to spear a fish.
The Nightedge has a 5.9” primary cutting edge with about a 4” edge option on the spine. BLACKHAWK! has options for that spine edge. You can get it all serrated, all sharpened (double bevel) or chisel sharpened (one side flat). I like the serrated option. The sheath is nylon with a hard insert and a utility pouch on the face. I have carried this knife quite a bit in the field and it’s never let me down.
The Mil-Tac M3 is next on the list and I have a particular fondness for it – because I designed it. When I first talked to Craig Sword at Mil-Tac about designing a knife my intention was to create a knife “without all the bells and whistles”; just a blade that would handle the abuse every knife should and would perform as necessary in the field. I wanted a medium-length blade – neither too long nor too short – a comfortable grip and overall rugged design. I submitted the specs and some really ugly drawings and Mil-Tac worked their magic. The end result was the M3.
The 5.5” softly recurved blade allows for some “belly” that helps push into cuts. The length of the blade, placement of the balance point and length of handle weight the knife well for most reasonable chopping chores you’d perform with a “survival” knife. The handle is ergonomically shaped with G-10 grip slabs milled to the edge to match. The knife can be had in an OD Green sheath with matching grip slaps, or a desert tan sheath with matching grip slabs. Both color sheaths are made my Spec-Ops Brand. In fact, it’s the same sheath as used for the Neil Roberts Knife discussed above. The knife has a lanyard hole, flat pommel and two more holes milled in the soft-swell offset hilt.
The spine-side hilt swell has ridges to add friction for thumb placement if you’re pushing into cuts and the (albeit thin) pommel does allow for hammering. It should be noted that the very first production model of this knife – the first knife off the line – was donated to AmericanSnipers.org and was auctioned off to support their efforts to support deployed military snipers. I received my test blade out of the next six off the line. I can’t be impartial about my opinion of the knife but I don’t think you’d be disappointed if you chose it as your field blade.
That brings us to two of the three “shorties” in this group (the SOG SEAL Pup Elite was already covered). The KA-BAR USMC Short is, for all intents and purposes, a miniaturized version of the well-known KA-BAR combat blade. The USMC Short sport about 1.5” of serrated edge at the base of the primary blade, the blood-groove common to the KA-BAR, a full hilt and a pommel well-suited for hammering. Obviously such a small blade is not good for chopping much but it makes an excellent general utility field knife. The full-tang’s handle has the stacked-leather-grommet design that counted for part of the KA-BAR’s popularity. A word of caution here: those leather grommets can rot, mold and mildew. If you take this knife out and use it in wet conditions, it must be cleaned in fresh water, dried, and some type of leather oil (like baseball glove oil) rubbed into the handle. Treat the leather sheath the same way and wipe both dry before using again.
That leaves us with a knife that is unique in this group: The SOG Knives Team Leader Survivor. For all of the knives listed above that have serrated edges, sharpened spines or “saw teeth” on the spines, none of them truly have kerf-cut saw teeth on the spine. In other words, there is no efficient saw that exists as part of their design. The SOG Team Leader Survivor (hereafter referred to as the “TLII”) DOES have actual saw teeth.
The knife is 10.25” overall with a 5” blade, 5” handle and .25” of “transition” between the two. On the spine of that 5” blade is about 4.5” of saw teeth. I’ve found that one can only efficiently saw something up to about 1/3 the width of the length of the saw, so sawing anything more than 1.5” in diameter gets to be challenging. However, how many animal bones are bigger than 1.5” in diameter? What kind of firewood would you be sawing that would be larger than 1.5” in diameter? For the knife’s intended “survival” or field purposes, the 4.5” saw blade is sufficient.
The handle is nicely shaped with three finger curves identifiable, a half hilt and ridged pressure points on the spine side. The synthetic grip slabs provide for a secure grip – even when wet – and the lanyard hole is big enough to make adding on your paracord (or other material) lanyard pretty easy. The sheath on my test knife is leather and I’ve made the recommendation to SOG Knives that they change over to a synthetic sheath for a couple reasons. As much as I like leather, the saw teeth on the TLII really chews up the inside of the sheath, causing fast wear and (quite literally) tear. The snap on the snap-strap on my test sheath broke a couple weeks after I got the knife. It happened well after my initial testing period and I don’t consider it the end of the world. BUT, it would be nice to have a hard-lined nylon or purely synthetic fitted sheath for this knife. It’s size and design make it, in my mind, one of the best field/survival knives I’ve seen or used. A sheath that had, or allowed for, a utility pouch would be excellent.
Okay – so that’s our knife list. I haven’t listed any prices for a very good reason: MSRP is never what I pay – and it shouldn’t be what you pay either. Google search any knife you want to buy and you’ll find distributors for the manufacturer who sell what you want for as much as 40% below MSRP. Some stores have a “price match guarantee” so if you print out the knife price as you find it online and take that into the store that sells the knife you may be able to get the knife for that online price but without having to pay the shipping and handling or waiting for delivery.
Maintaining any knife is important. Leather sheaths need to be kept dry – or dried after they’ve been wet – and oiled as described above. Synthetic sheaths can simply be cleaned with soap and water or wiped with sanitary wipes. I try to avoid using things like “Clorox wipes” because I haven’t been able to measure what impact that bleach in those wipes does to my sheaths.
The knives themselves should be kept dry, or cleaned with fresh water (and soap if necessary) and dried after use. A light coat of oil doesn’t hurt. What I do after cleaning is put some Mili-Tec (metal conditioner) on a cloth and wipe that on; let it sit and then wipe it off with a paper towel. The paper towel only absorbs the excess Mili-Tec leaving a fine coat on the blade.
The edges of your knife also have to be maintained on occasion. If you don’t know how to sharpen the edge, take the knife to someone who does. Every knife’s edge can have a different angle (although there are a few industry standards) and sharpening serrated edges is a talent.
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