A couple weeks ago I did a review of general surplus military equipment that was still very usable for camping and other recreational outdoor activities. That article spawned a conversation about knives and how old they had to be before you replaced them. I didn’t realize that AGE determined service life (I guess it does in we humans). So, I set about finding an old beat up surplus knife or bayonet that I could salvage for current use. My son showed up at home with an ugly worn and abused M3 Trench Knife. It was the perfect piece to work with. You should see it now.
Before I tear into it I wanted to look at some various surplus knives I’ve found available through different searches and opportunities. All of them are still quite serviceable even though they may not be the prettiest things out there. With a little bit of work they can be cleaned up and serve well – and you can get them for bargain prices!
Goverment Issue (GI) Stainless Steel Folder
The Government Issue Stainless Steel utility knife, shown to the right here, is an almost ideal pocket knife for camping and weekend hiking trips. It has a blade that is easy to maintain (as far as sharpening) and provides several other tools we find essential:
- A bottle opener (can you say cold beer around a campfire?)
- A can opener (gotta open those cans of baked beans)
- A screwdriver
- An awl
Add to those utility items the fact that it has an integrated hanging hook, which makes it REAL easy to hang on a down-sized D-ring if you want to carry it that way, and the stainless steel handles. This is a very basic but handy utilitarian knife design. They can be had fairly inexpensively and are something you can usually find at gun shows.
The rightfully famous “Ka-Bar” can also be had from surplus supplies in copious quantities. Usually to be had with the original leather sheath stamped either for the United States Marine Corps (USMC) or the United States Army (US Army), the knives hold up better than the sheaths do if they’ve been cared for at all. Like the sheaths, the most susceptible part of the knife to damage and deterioration is the leather. Many “combat” knives were made with leather washers stacked on the tang to serve as the handle and then held in place by a butt cap. With exposure to water, oil, other chemicals, cold, heat, etc those leather washers could rot, shrink or become brittle and crack off. One of the biggest challenges with a surplus blade may well be repairing or creating a new handle around the tang. That brings me to the M3 Trench Knife my son brought home with him.
An original M3 w/ scabbard.
Pictured to the right here is an original M3 Trench Knife with its scabbard. That nicely shaped handle is comprised of stacked leather grommets / washers. Although I don’t have a photo of it in the original condition my son’s knife was in, let me describe it for you: there was light surface rust on all visible metal surfaces. The handle was a crinkly messed up mixture of dried masking tape and crispy electric tape. Both layers of tape had been around the handle for a long time and not in controlled environments. When I asked I found out that my son received this knife from a mechanic during a short visit he enjoyed in Oklahoma. His car had broken down and during the conversation with the mechanic/tow truck driver knives came up. The guy had this knife under his truck seat forever (or so he made it sound). He offered it to my son with the comment that it needed “serious fixin’ up”. He was right.
The first thing we did was strip all the tape off the handle. Under it about half of the leather washers remained. They were so rotted and worn that they broke off in my hand under very little pressure. Our next step was to clean the steel. The surface rust came off under a steel wire brush with no issues. We debated duracoating the steel after that but my son decided he wanted to keep his investment in it minimal. I had a can of high-heat flat black BBQ paint in the shed and that’s what he sprayed it with. A good idea? Well, it drys pretty hard and provides a clean looking finish. It may not be the most durable, but he’s happy with it and will care for the blade properly so it will suffice. Before spraying it we taped the bayonet locking lugs so that the paint wouldn’t seize them up. Surprisingly they were still functional… and still are.
After removing rust and spraying with high-heat paint, the handle was wrapped first with tan paracord and then braided over with OD green paracord.
Our challenge then was to fill the tang in a fashion that would make it comfortable and look half decent. I had previously used string to wrap a handle on my younger son’s walking stick and I figured we could do the same thing using paracord (550 cord) on my other son’s knife. We had two colors of paracord on hand: Desert Tan and OD Green. Which underneath? Which on top? The knife hadn’t been handed to him with any sheath or scabbard so we knew we’d have to get a sheath for it. The choice was a Deluxe Airborne Sheath from BLACKHAWK!. My son chose the OD Green one so we decided to put the OD Green paracord as the outside wrap of the handle. You can see the progression of the wrap in the accompanying photo. First we wrapped a double layer of the Desert Tan paracord with no braid or turns. It was a simple wrap that ended in a single knot to which we applied low heat. The paracord material melts wonderfully and bonds with itself under light pressure. Starting at the butt end we wrapped down to the hilt and then back to the butt cap. Under the paracord wrap, on either side of the tang, is a single length of paracord that added just a bit of fullness to either side of the tang flat. That made our end result more rounded than squarish. (Like these technical terms?)
After we had secured the Desert Tan under wrap, we braided on the OD Green paracord. Starting at the hilt and with the center of our length of paracord, we wrapped around the handle, turned the cord 180 degrees around itself and then pulled it back around. On each side we turned the paracord 180 degrees on itself and we did our best to keep the turns in the center of the handle flat. You can see from the accompanying photo that the end result was a decent enough looking handle that will provide a fairly secure grip. We wrapped from the hilt to the butt cap and then, rather than tying a single knot we ran a double loop single knot and pulled it TIGHT. Again, low heat was applied to just barely melt the paracord and light pressure was applied to get it to bond with itself. Once it had cooled off we tested it by pulling on the ends but they were secure.
Using a jump-rated sheath from BLACKHAWK! we "finished" the knife project to my son's satisfaction.
My son is delighted with the “new” appearance of this surplus blade. Once he had dressed the edge the smile on his face just wouldn’t go away. For the cost of a sheath and some paracord – neither of which is overly expensive – he’s got a very serviceable field knife. Additionally, he has a personal interest and connection with this knife. It’s one he’ll show off to his friends and say, “Isn’t this a cool looking handle?” From there I’m sure the story will continue about how it was done… and more “hobby” skills will get shared. So don’t discount those surplus knives when you’re looking for your next camp or field knife. Many of them are still great blades, but – just like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree – they need a little love and care.