Thin, Sharp, Knives

If you look around the working world, at the knives that are regularly used to do work, you might notice some startling differences between those knives and what is prominent in the popular knife industry. Particularly the “survival”, “tactical”, and “hard use” arenas of popular knife-making (both custom and production).
In these arenas we typically see heavy knives, from thick stock, with study handles and generally robust construction. We are told that this robustness is desirable, even absolutely necessary, for these tools to withstand the rigors of hard use. And the market sucks them up about as fast as they can be made, with companies like TOPS Knives producing ever-new variants of these beefy blades for battle and conquering barren-wastes. But what is being bought, and what is actually being used, are far different. What people actually work with is often something very different. The prominent working knife is not a robust, stout, knife but rather a thin, sharp, knife.

A Pair of Traditional, Thin, Folding Knives, inset Comparison to Modern Tactical Folder Thickness

I was at a branding recently, out here in cattle country, and took note of the knives being used. For those unfamiliar, when branding calves it is also common practice to ear-mark with a notch in an ear and castrate. These tasks require a deft hand with a sharp knife, particularly when the calf is not forced into an immobilizing squeeze chute, but is rather roped out and held down. I’ve taken part in and observed this process numerous times in my life, and there is a great commonality to the knives being used: They are thin, sharp, knives. The same knives most of the cowboys and ranch hands carry in their pockets daily, and use for everything.
The thin, sharp, knife is not unique to this environment, but rather common to every other. Moving out from the traditional slipjoint folder common to the ranching west, a survey of other traditional folding knife designs would turn up a variety of styles, locks, and construction methods, but one commonality: Thin, sharp, blades. Moving from folders, to fixed blade knives, we see the same variety in design and construction in traditional designs, but a great many have the same commonality of thin blades. The traditional Scandinavian knives, as typified by the Mora so common to woodscraft, are an easily accessible example of the type.
Thin blades are not limited to small knives, either. Many old-time woodsmen, frontiersmen, mountainmen, etc. who used big knives carried ones that, rather than resembling the Iron Mistress of Hollywood, more resembled a butcher knife, being thin although long. Now, some may use the argument that we know more than they did, and thus make more appropriate choices, but that is simply nonsense. Anyone who makes a living with a tool, or depends on it for his own life, on a day-to-day basis, knows far more about selecting the right type of that tool than anyone who does not do the same, no matter the other mans “knowledge”.
If so many who’s lives depended on their knives choosing thinner blades historically holds little sway, then the fact that the trend is a modern one too should tell us something. Today, if we take a survey of the knives being used routinely, we would find many of them to be far thinner than what we’ve come to expect (or been told to expect). And not just small knives: While so many Americans and others influenced by the major knife market are of the opinion that a heavy, thick-spined, knife is required for chopping or “serious” woods work, much of the rest of the world relies on something far different; The machete, or some variant thereof.

Many Working-Class Knives, World Wide, are Thin  and Simple (if not Crudely Constructed). This Example was Found in a 50lb Sack of Livestock Feed, and has Excellent Edge Geometry and is Well Tempered.

I have seen the argument made that we in the first world know more about metallurgy and geometry than uneducated third-world residents who regularly use machetes. The idea that, because of where you live or your heritage, you somehow are more in possession of advanced knowledge than someone from a different place or background, is racist garbage. Again, all the education in the world is no substitute for what someone knows from a lifetime of dependency on a tool. That thin sharp knives, even in larger blade lengths, dominate much of the working world, and the manufacture of such tools is a deep part of some cultures, holds far more sway with me (and should with you) than some xenophobic concept of “more knowledgeable”.
Different tools are appropriate for different tasks. There is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a place for robust knives. One of the most valuable characteristics of contemporary knifemaking is the rise of robust locking systems for folding knives. The matching rise of the robust blade, however, may not be the best thing. But it is important to recognize that place, and use the right tool for the right job. For the majority of tasks for which a knife is used, a thick bladed knife is not the right tool. This includes many “hard” tasks, from woodscraft to cowboying to “tactical” environments (whatever those are). You aren’t necessarily wrong is you carry a robust knife for these, or even more mundane, daily uses, but you should ask yourself if that is truly what you need. Give some thought to whether cutting performance is a greater need than brute strength, and take a thinner knife better suited for cutting out for a spin sometime.

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5 responses to “Thin, Sharp, Knives”

  1. Kyle H says:

    To expand on my FB comment – YES YES YES – people need to remember that a lot of this “thickness equals strength” nonsense comes from wrong-material, wrong-metallurgy issues – traditional, properly made and tempered/heat treated carbon steel does not have the limitations that our fancy mass-produced products require when pooped out.

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for the breath of sanity. I find that my Mora does 99 percent of what I need to do in the woods with a knife. Sometimes I bring a small folding saw to supplement it if the situation merits. Or my Gransfors Bruks hatchet. Nessmuk would approve I’m sure.

  3. John Wright says:

    ” The idea that, because of where you live or your heritage, you somehow are more in possession of advanced knowledge than someone from a different place or background, is racist garbage.”

    Sorry, that is called reality and American exceptionalism. Any attempt to deny that is to live in a world of liberal, koom-by-yah fantasy.

    • BFELabs says:

      I’m sorry… Are you on fucking drugs?

      There are people, fucking dirt-worshipers living in palm-leaf huts, in the jungle who’ve never seen a flashlight or a fork, who possess advanced knowledge of subjects you never will. That is the nature of the world, friend. We all live different lives, and become experts at things within those lives.
      American exceptionalism? We are exceptionally good at thinking our experience and our expertise is the only one, or the most advanced, most knowing. We are amazingly good at thinking that all our science, and episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians, and political inanity over unborn zygotes and who’s particular imaginary friend belongs in schools, and our massive debt… *ahem* new and shiny cars and house, make us better than the dirt-worshipers in the jungle. We are exceptional at xenophobic, nationalistic, self-serving delusion.
      There is no such thing as American exceptionalism, especially in this day and age. I’m glad you have a convenient excuse that sounds good to you, but you’re obviously nothing but an ignorant xenophobe, who is more afraid of other cultures than you are intelligent about your own. So please, with all due respect… take the jingoism and ignorance, and fuck right off. Thanks!

  4. SkillCult says:

    I’ve shaken my head a lot over the overbuilt knife thing thoroughly tested with batons and feather stick making. Most of my life I’ve carried whatever I’ve found at the flea market, and it’s been a long time since I’ve broken a knife. I’ve also said the exact same thing about historical knives lol. Nice to see a breath of sanity. It’s like people are trying to build a knife for every contingency from cutting down a 6 inch sapling (just in case!) to killing grizzlies and scaling cliffs, but the everyday level of functionality, like cutting up some stuff to eat, small carving tasks and processing game are lost. Tactical shmactical.

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