by Leon Pantenburg
The term “Survival knife” starts discussions! A while back, a question was asked about what to carry in the hollow handle of a survival knife. Specifically, what survival items are so important that they should be included as part of the knife?
This leads to another question: What useful items can you actually put in that handle space? Is having that tiny bit of extra space worth weakening the entire knife? After all, the logical place for the knife to fail is where the blade meets the handle, and some hollow handle knives will break under the stress of hard use.
Then, suppose you do pack the handle with assorted items. Will you be able to get them out under the duress of a survival situation, or will the stuff have shifted and settled into a blob of useless junk? A knife handle is hardly the place to store something fragile!
What Is a Survival Knife?
Any survival knife question should start with yet another question: What do you consider a survival knife, and what do you anticipate using it for?
There seem to be some extreme views in this topic. The 1980s Rambo movies, starring a steroid-infused, testosterone-exuding Sylvester Stallone, started the whole hollow-handle Bowie-type survival knife cult.
Rambo, according to the “First Blood” scriptwriters, could apparently pack anything he needed for wilderness or urban survival in the hollow handle of his knife/sword. (Remember in the first movie, when he pulled out that suture from the handle and sewed up his arm? And where’d he get all the stuff to make booby traps? And how about that spear he made with his knife to stab a wild pig?) As the Rambo movies progressed, the knives got bigger. First Blood [Blu-ray]
The Rambo movies spawned a slew of cheap, imitation copies, and some people bought them to include in their survival kit. Don’t mistake the junk for some of the high quality products on the market.
Some excellent hollow handle examples are made by knifemaker Chris Reeve in Boise, Idaho. My first exposure to Reeve’s products was when I stopped into Criner’s Cutlery, a little knife shop off the main drag in downtown Boise.
Reeve’s hollow handle knives are made of a single piece of steel, so there is small danger of breakage. The workmanship is superb and the blades maintain a sharp edge, and according the shop owner, are easy to sharpen. The shop had a Reeve-made skinner they loaned out to customers to try, and all reports were excellent.
Another excellent quality hollow handle survival knife is the Buck-184 Buckmaster. Resembling the Rambo knife, it is a hefty piece of steel and a quality piece of work.
I never bought a Buckmaster, but one of my elk hunting buddies, Phil Walker, did. An incredibly skilled hunter, outdoorsman and great friend, Phil harvested deer and elk every year with monotonous regularity. When Phil sauntered back into camp with that elaborately-casual grin on his face, it meant the rest of us had a meat-hauling job ahead.
Phil’s gear was all top quality, and had been refined over the years so it filled all his elk hunting needs. Phil’s elk rifle was a Ruger Number 1 in .338 Winchester. The hunting cutlery he carried included an 8-inch Old Hickory butcher, a Wyoming knife Wyoming 5″ 3/4 Skinner Blade Knife With Black Polymer Handle/carrying case blade cover Md: WKSP. and (Phil being a native Texan) an honest-to-God bowie knife.
Those wouldn’t have been my equipment choices, but it’s hard to argue with success.
My personal philosophy on survival knives is at the other extreme. I believe that survival knife design isn’t as important as proximity and ease of carrying.
You can’t carry a Rambo knife everywhere, so when (fill in the apocalyptic acronym) happens, that tiny, keychain Swiss Army Classic on your keyring may be all you have to work with. Victorinox Swiss Army Tinker with Free Classic Knife
What design is best?
I was lukewarm, at best, about the hollow handle/storage concept until I was asked to design such a knife. My buddy, the late Dr. Jim Grenfell, of Bend, Or., took up metalworking upon retirement. Jim, a Korean War fighter/bomber pilot, with 43 combat missions, was a graduate of three military wilderness survival schools.
If he thought the idea had merit, I was willing to pay attention. Per my recommendations, the prototype blade ended up being a carbon steel, drop point design, five inches long; 3/16-inch thick, about 1-3/4 inches wide, with a straight taper edge. The handle was taken from a cheaper model and welded to the knife tang.
The completed knife works very well. I gave the prototype to my brother Mike for his 40th birthday, and it has been used extensively for deer and elk hunting. Jim passed away before he could finish my knife, so I still don’t own a hollow handle survival knife!
Space matters Suppose you’re considering buying a quality hollow handle, Rambo First Blood Licensed Bowie Knife 25th Anniversary and you want to make the best use of the space. How much actual volume is there?
A common-sized handle, if such a thing exists, appears to be about one inch in outside diameter. Interior diameter is 7/8-inch and the depth of the cavity is about 3-1/8 inches from the bottom to the start of the threads. The space is big enough to hold about two liquid ounces, or is a little bigger than a waterproof match container.
Based on that formula, ask yourself: What items, along with the knife, would do me the most good? Here’s what I wouldn’t put in the handle:
- Waterproof Matches: I don’t trust matches as a reliable source of fire making. (See related story.) You can only carry a finite number, and matches deteriorate with time. In addition, the movement and shock associated with being carried in a knife handle would eventually ruin them. Waterproof Match Storage Container Camping with Emergency Mirror & Flint
- Fish hooks and sinkers: I tie flies and jigs and make most of my own lures. I probably have too much fishing-related stuff. Even with all that gear, and a genuine enthusiasm for fishing, there are days when a fisherman can’t buy a bite. Don’t waste the handle space on something like hooks or weights you probably won’t use.
- Water purification tablets: These are left out because you must have a container to put the water in before it can be purified. Put water purifiers in another kit. Besides, unless properly packed, pills will dissolve, deteriorate or be vibrated into powder.Potable Aqua Water Treatment Tablets
- A Swiss Army Classic: Don’t put my beloved dinky, everyday carry, do-it-all knife in the handle! A Classic doesn’t need to be kept dry, and it would take up valuable space. Besides, don’t put all your eggs in the same basket.
- Survival Instructions: If you haven’t learned survival skills by the time you need them, a booklet won’t help. Knowledge is the most important part of your survival kit!
You could include these:
- Drugs, man: If you have special medical needs, this might be one place to properly store the pills. Also, pain or allergy meds or other presecription medications could be literally at hand. (More about storage later.)
- Firemaking tools: Include a Boy Scout Hot Spark or possibly a Spark-It. There should be room for some waxed firestarter, too. Include a few inches of jute twine to stop any rattling around and use that as a firestarter.
- A glover’s needle and dental floss: In an extreme emergency, you could suture a wound with these items. But more likely, the value would be to repair equipment or clothing.Glover’s Needles 10/Pkg – Size 01
So, How Do You Pack These Things? Whatever items are in the handle must be accessible. In a survival situation you may be working with cold, numb fingers, or be shaking from fear, injury or shock. You don’t want to fumble with the contents and drop them in the snow or dirt. This works really well: Get some Nalgene vials. Nalgene Multi-Purpose Snap-Cap Vial Kit There is a set that chambers in the hollow handle like a shotgun shell into a shotgun. One of the vials is 3-3/8-inch high, so it is a little longer than the handle cavity. Trim the edge of the vial so it fits inside, and leave a small tab you can grab with your fingers. Put all your gear in the vial and carry it that way. The vials also allow you to divide up the space. Pack your meds, individually in cellophane, in a smaller vial, and pack it tightly with cotton. This will keep the pills from being smashed or powdered. Stack another vial on top in the space with other meds or necessary items. So, the final decision will end up being if the tiny bit of extra space gained with a hollow handle is really useful and worth investing in. In the end, like in most survival-related topics, the gear choice selection will be up to you. Me, I’m sticking with my original premise: The only survival knife you have is the one on your person when it is needed. Recommended Reading: Surviving a Wilderness Emergency More Info: Swiss Army knives Great knives Chris Reeve Knives
- STOP: Use this exercise to reduce stress and focus your thoughts.
- Write a note to let people know where you went, before you left.
- Take your Ten Essentials on every outing.
- Dress with the right fabrics.
- Have a plan to make a tarp shelter.
- Carry lightweight, compact firestarter.
- Find the most effective fire ignition system.
- How to make charcloth, a material that can catch a spark from any source.
- Use charcloth as an effective method of catching a spark to make a fire.
- It can kill you: Hypothermia
- Hardtack: A great emergency food
ABOUT LEON: Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and a wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker, two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships, and a freelance writer for the Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Or.