The purchase of good-quality knives for long-term use can be a huge challenge for preppers. Buying a knife is a lot like hiring a lawyer: when you ask how much a good one will cost, the answer you get is often, “How much would you like to spend?”
A good knife for general usage often starts at $80 to $100, and prices can quickly escalate into the hundreds of dollars. Knife aficionados on the online forums often speak of spending several hundred dollars for the “perfect” survival/tactical/combat knife from a famous custom maker. To collectors and to some users, this is a reasonable price, but many of us on a tight budget can see better uses for such a sum of money. For one thing, we want every adult in our family or survival group to have one or more good, dependable knives. Additionally, anyone who has used knives in the outdoors knows that no single knife can do everything — we often need a few knives to properly address the large and small jobs that require a knife or other cutting tool. Most of the knives discussed in this article have a maximum price of $25. Many knives in this price range are simply junk, but there are exceptions, some of which are described here. I have personal experience with all of these knives, unless otherwise stated. I’ve owned them, used them and learned some of their strengths and weaknesses. They come from a variety of places, but none are made in China.
Let’s start by looking at what many of us consider to be the essentials, in terms of knives. Rather than looking for a single, “perfect” knife, some of us try to select a knife “kit” for each adult, to better handle a variety of tasks.
THE KNIFE “KIT”
My approach to the knife kit is to obtain one large, fixed blade knife for general use and big tasks, one medium-sized fixed blade or strong folder for general utility, and a multitool or multiple blade pocket knife for small jobs and for tasks requiring special tools, such as scissors, a screwdriver, a can opener, etc. My personal kit consists of three tools: (1) a 12-inch Tramontina machete, (2) either a custom knife I made from a Frosts of Sweden “Mora” knife or a Svord Peasant folder, and (3) either a Leatherman Tool or a Swiss Army “Recruit” pocket knife. I find that these knives allow me to tackle any of the tasks that are appropriate for a knife. My entire kit (with the Swiss Army knife and the Svord Peasant Knife) can be purchased for well under $75.
COMPROMISES IN LOW-COST KNIVES
There is some truth in the old adage: “You get what you pay for.” The companies selling high-quality knives for low prices have to make compromises to do so. Generally, this means that most of the money and effort goes into the blade. That’s good, because the blade governs much of the knife’s capabilities. It is possible for a budget-minded user to address shortcomings in handles and/or sheaths with a few basic tools and a little bit of time. Don’t expect Kydex sheaths or exotic handle materials in the low price range. In some cases (most machetes), no sheath will be included, and you may need to make your own or to have one made. Other sheaths may be suitable for carry in a pack, but not on a belt, again requiring the user to make or buy their own sheath if that is not acceptable. Handles may require some sanding or other finish work for best comfort and performance.
Most knives in this price range have thin blades. This is not necessarily a huge disadvantage. Many of the knives carried by mountain men and those who followed to settle the western United States had thin blades. In general, thin blades take a fierce edge with less effort than a thicker blade, and they slice well. A thin-bladed knife is often a good choice for dressing wild game or for preparing food.
Thin does not always mean weak. Machetes are usually thin, yet they are tough and springy. Some small, thin knives can be tougher than you may expect. Some thin-bladed sheath knives can be “batonned” — pounded on the spine with a heavy stick — to cut down small trees or to cut larger pieces of wood in a pinch. This is abuse, but some knives — especially many of the Mora fixed blade knives — seem to tolerate it without damage. Thin-bladed knives are usually lighter and easier to carry than thicker knives. This is a big factor in a knife chosen to go in a G.O.O.D. bag. Conversely, some thick knives are poor slicers and are heavy enough to feel clumsy for almost any task other than chopping.
Sheaths for smaller knives can be made by the prepper, with either leather or Kydex plastic. Kydex has the advantage of being weatherproof. It is also possible to heat it and form it to make a sheath that holds the knife in place without any straps or keepers. For a very inexpensive sheath — especially for larger blades, such as machetes — the plastic in trash cans for home use is very good. It can be cut, drilled and riveted, much like leather, but it’s very weather resistant and long-lasting. Trash can plastic is less expensive than either leather or Kydex, yet it can be made into an excellent sheath.
Low-cost “Mora” knives from Sweden are very popular with outdoor people, especially in recent years. These fixed blade knives come in a wide variety of styles, in both stainless and carbon steel. Handles can be wood or plastic, and sheaths are almost always made of plastic. The blades tend to be somewhat thin, and the blade grinds are different from what most knife users are accustomed to. Most knives have a primary bevel and a small secondary bevel that forms the sharpened edge. With Scandinavian knives, there is no secondary bevel. The primary bevel — which may be about 1/4-inch (about 11mm) wide — is laid directly on the sharpening stone. The resulting edge can be surprising sharp. Many people who are not fans of knives have trouble correctly sharpening a knife with a traditional secondary bevel. When they buy a Mora and learn the simple sharpening method, it may be the first time that they’ve owned a really sharp knife.
Mora knives are very low in price: often in the $10-20 range. The traditional Moras, with a simple hardwood handle and carbon steel blade, are among my favorites. Others may prefer a stainless blade and plastic handle for a low-maintenance knife. In any case, the area at the base of the blade should be looked at carefully. Some Moras have a small gap here, where bacteria and/or moisture can get in, under the handle. In these cases, I simply clean the area with alcohol and apply a small amount of a good grade of epoxy, such as JB Weld, to seal off the opening. If the opening extends down into the handle, I use enough epoxy to completely fill it, with the intention of strengthening the knife as well as sealing the handle/blade junction.
Some Moras come with simple but functional sheaths, while others may not be suitable for daily carry. I generally make a simple leather or Kydex sheath (usually Kydex) as a replacement. By the way, Kydex does not require a suite of expensive tools. My “presses” are made from scrap wood and mouse pads, and I assemble the sheaths with regular rivets made for leather, or with pieces of narrow-diameter, soft copper tubing (from the plumbing section of big hardware stores) flared to make eyelets. I’ve even used pliers to turn large paper clips into heavy-duty “staples” for sheaths.
A good source for Swedish Mora knives is Ragweed Forge. “Ragnar,” the owner, offers the best selection of Mora knives I’ve seen so far, along with information about sharpening. His customer service is very good, and the prices are fair.
The Ahti “Finman” is a Finnish fixed blade knife, It is very similar in design, and in price, to the Mora knives. Ragweed Forge offers one version, with a stainless blade and a green handle and sheath. It needs to have a handle gap — at the base of the blade — filled with epoxy, but it is a very practical and useful medium-sized fixed blade knife. The stainless blade and rubberized handle make it a good all-weather tool. I frequently carry mine as a pocket knife — in casual pants with generous front pockets.
Another Scandinavian brand to consider seriously is Marttiini, from Finland. Many of us are familiar with their “Rapala” line of fillet knives for fishing. My Rapala is very light in weight and the long, narrow, flexible stainless blade takes and holds a very good edge. It came with a traditional wood handle and a superbly practical plastic-lined “dangle” sheath of good leather. A sharp, thin blade is extremely useful for more than fish, and mine has been our only kitchen knife on some of our trips. It served very well in that role. All it needed to make it ready for use was a tiny amount of JB Weld epoxy around the base of the blade, to seal the handle. It cost me under $15: a bargain. I found it in a large sporting goods store.
OPINEL AND COLD STEEL KNIVES
Opinel folding knives are wonderfully useful. Consisting of little more than a hardwood handle, a blade, a pivot pin, and a rotating collar that locks the blade open, they lock open with authority and are one of the simplest, strongest designs available. The Opinel’s blade has a nail nick and the knife requires two hands to open it, like a traditional pocket knife. Because the lock does not engage when the blade opens — but must be engaged manually — Opinels may be legal for carry in jurisdictions that ban some “tactical” folders. The blades are flat-ground and are very thin at the edge. As a result, Opinels can be made scary sharp in very little time and are wonderful slicers that hold their edges well. They can be found in a variety of sizes, with either carbon steel or with stainless blades. Although the blades are thin, they are stronger than you might expect and made an excellent choice for a daily-carry pocket knife. Opinels are very inexpensive, as well. Smoky Mountain Knife Works carries several Opinel folders, most of which are in our price range.
Cold Steel used to make their own version of the Opinel: the Twistmaster. With a Zytel handle and a “Carbon V” blade, the Cold Steel version was stronger than the French original, although it tended to be a bit thick at the edge and didn’t slice quite as well as the Opinel. The Twistmaster corrected the one shortcoming of the Opinel: in wet conditions, the hardwood handle could swell, making the knife very difficult to open. The Zytel handle of the Cold Steel was unaffected by moisture. Both the Opinels and the Twistmasters (if you can find a used one) are recommended as pocket-sized cutting tools, just as long as you don’t try to use them as a chopping tool or a pry bar.
SVORD PEASANT KNIFE
Svord Knives in New Zealand makes the Peasant Knife: a folder that has become one of my all-time favorite knives. It’s one of the simplest folders available. The knife consists of two post screws, a blade, two handle scales, and one pin. It can be completely dismantled in a few moments for a complete cleaning. The carbon steel blade has a flat grind, similar to that of the Opinel, and its cutting abilities are similar.
There are no springs in a Peasant Knife. It uses a long tang that sticks out of the closed knife and lays along the back of the handle when the knife is open. The user’s hand holds the tang in place and keeps the knife from closing. The tang makes the closed knife somewhat longer than most knives in its size class, but I use it to draw the knife out of my pocket. The Svord Peasant Knife is available with wood, plastic or aluminum handle scales. I purchased mine with the plastic handles, and I believe that the plastic handles are the best choice for preppers. They are strong and light and are textured for a good grip. A wide variety of Svord Peasant Knives can be found at Knife Center. All are in our price range.
TRAMONTINA AND ONTARIO MACHETES
For a large knife, I chose a Tramontina machete with a hardwood handle and a 12-inch, carbon steel blade. The hardwood handle allowed me to customize the machete to fit my hand better, using a pocket knife and some sandpaper. I use the Tramontina machete more as a large knife than as a small machete. Although the blade is long, it is light and thin enough for the Tramontina to be used in the camp kitchen, and it will slice tomatoes or onions with ease. I sharpen machetes with a small file, and the slightly rough edge from the file seems to stay sharp longer than one would expect from a machete blade with a “spring” temper. Machete Specialists offers the 12-inch Tramontina, with the item number TR26620012.
The Tramontina is too light for a dedicated chopping tool. It could be used to cut poles for a shelter or for a stretcher, but if I expected to use it for chopping, I would choose a 12-inch Ontario machete. Avoid the “economy” version of the Ontario that is sold in some places. The original has a 1/8-inch thick blade and is a much better chopping tool. I was also unhappy with the “D” handle models and strongly prefer the original handle type. The exact Ontario machete that I recommend is sold under item number ONCT1 at Knife Center.
I prefer to use machetes as large knives that can be used to chop, rather than as dedicated choppers. Chopping makes noise that can disturb other campers today; after a crunch, it could attract two-legged predators. A small folding saw is my wood cutter of choice, although a sharp machete can be used to split damp kindling in wet conditions, or to make fuzz sticks. I tend to keep my fires small, and I generally do not need an axe or large chopping tool to prepare and maintain a fire.
A short machete is a fearsome weapon, if needed. The 12-inch Tramontina machete is not a heavy chopper, but it’s very quick in the hands and could deliver a much more serious slash than most folding knives or small fixed blades. The edge bevel at the point of the blade needs some work with a file to sharpen it properly. Someone seeking an edged weapon should probably look at the 12-inch Ontario machete. It also needs some attention to the bevel at the point. The Ontario’s blade is stiffer and heavier than the Tramontina’s blade, and it could be a very effective self-defense weapon at close quarters. Longer machetes, on the other hand, handle more like a sword than a big knife and require more skill and hand/wrist strength to be efficient defensive weapons.
SWISS ARMY KNIVES
No discussion of bargain knives would be complete without mentioning Swiss Army Knives. Both Victorinox and Wenger offer some basic knives in our price range. One of my favorites is the Victorinox Recruit. It is a Swiss version of the classic Boy Scout pocket knife. It is inexpensive and tremendously useful as a light-duty, multipurpose tool. Another Victorinox knife has a big following: the Farmer. Although it’s a little above our price range, it has metal scales instead of red plastic, and it features the wood saw: one of the most useful of Swiss Army tools. Victorinox and Wenger Swiss Army Knives are available from a wide variety of sources.
I find myself keeping one large “chopper” around and using it frequently: the Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel. Many who have served in the military know the value of a small shovel as a general-purpose digging/cutting/hacking tool. I sharpen the edges with a file to make it a more efficient digging tool, capable of chopping through roots or breaking up hard soil. It could also be used to cut wood, in a pinch. The blade would need regular attention to keep it sharp, however. Heavy chopping can also put terrific stress on a shovel handle. If I planned to do a lot of chopping, I would wrap the area where the blade attaches to the handle with some wire, or with epoxy-saturated cord or twine, to reinforce it. This is the weakest part of any shovel. The Special Forces Shovel can be purchased direct from Cold Steel.
My Special Forces Shovel is kept sharp and has a blade cover made from trash can plastic, with two pieces of nylon webbing and snaps to hold the shovel in place. A few holes drilled near the edges of the blade cover allow my Cold Steel shovel to be lashed to the side of my pack for carry.
The Cold Steel SF Shovel can also be a low-profile weapon. A sharpened shovel, spade, or entrenching tool has been used countless times in infantry close-quarters combat. It can slice like a knife or chop like an axe. If used for a while as a shovel, it will show the marks of a tool and will be less suspicious than a brand-new, razor sharp shovel. Mine travels under the radar and has never been questioned. Its scarred handle and well-used blade make it look like what it is: a small, useful shovel.
Choose your tools carefully, and they should serve you well. Don’t forget to invest in files, ceramic sticks, sharpening stones, oil, and other accessories needed to keep your cutting tools sharp and in good condition. Carbon steel knives that are used frequently with food can be kept rust-free by drying after use and wiping with any type of cooking oil. Take care of them, and buy a few extras as spares, or as trade goods. Good knives may be hard to come by after a Crunch.