This is not a knife snob article. I am a big fan of cheap knives, and I don’t consider them really that inferior. To some degree, a knife is a knife is a knife. The point of this article isn’t cost or quality. My question is what style of knife or short sword is best for a survival situation. On one person you can carry a big knife and a little knife, and maybe an even bigger knife on your back, but coupled with a battle rifle, a pistol, ammo and supplies, a lot of blades sticking out of your form isn’t going to be a net positive. You have to choose, and choose well.
The Bowie Knife
The “Bowie” knife is about as American as you can get in a fighting knife. It was the invention of the famous pioneer Jim Bowie who eventually died in the siege of the Alamo. The legend and culture of Bowie Knife grew out of a bar fight following a famous duel. Bowie survived the fight, which had turned into a gunfight (called the “Sandbar Fight“), with only the use of his belt knife, despite being shot several times. That actual knife was something like a butcher knife, and not the Bowie Knife design we think of today. But the legend was born and with it, going on two centuries of fighting knife culture. The “Bowie Knife” as a design evolved into some basic features, including a clipped point, a false partial second edge on the back, and a metal handguard. The Bowie Knife concept has been carried into knife designs since the early 1800s, and has led to inspire mainstream and custom knifemakers for generations.
The Rambo knife is a modern Bowie. In fact nearly every fixed blade fighting knife you’ll find in the American market will be some version of a Bowie. On Ebay you can find very usable Bowie Knives for $20-$30Bowies on the knife sight BudK for similar money, and a little more for nicer stuff. I am kind of a knife junkie and in re-researching for this article I was able to buy some gorgeous Damascus pattern steel Bowie style knives on Ebay for well under $100 including shipping. Is it “real” Damascus? Who cares they are pretty!
Bottom line. If you don’t have a good, solid belt fighting knife, there is very little excuse to not have one a week from now, regardless of your budget.
My favorite Bowie, and one I have carried for many years, is from Ontario Knife. It is from their Bagwell Bowie collection, called the Hell’s Belle. It was maybe $189 when I bought it ten years ago, and it is one of the more expensive knives I have ever bought. Ontario appears to be not make that knife anymore, which is kind of a shame. What I like about the Hell’s Belle is that it comes with a belt button sheath, not a loop, so you can stick it in your belt at an angle. It hides nicely under a jacket. The coffin style also handle gives you a much firmer grip than straight handled knives, and the overall feel of the knife is very wieldly.
When you think about the reasons for how the Bowie is designed, you have to ask yourself if the most popular knife design is actually the best when it comes to a fighting knife. The balance point of a Bowie is generally near the handguard. This makes it very fast for a large knife, and you can stab and slash with a Bowie very effectively. It presupposes that you are fighting an opponent who also has a blade, so the handguard can deflect a slashing strike without injury. Though many people will argue that a small knife is “all you need” in a real knife fight, the traditional Bowie is the king of the big knives.
But! …should it be? In a real survival fight for your life, when you have been overrun and your guns are out of bullets, is the Bowie your best choice? I’m not sure.
The Kukri flies right in the face of everything Bowie. Originating in Nepal, the Kukri knife came to fame shortly before the Bowie, in the early 1800s, in the Ghurka war of 1812. In modern times it is probably most recognized as the preferred blade of Alice from the Resident Evil movies. She carries two on her back, and she is quite good with them. Interestingly, the Kukri was also featured in the original Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in 1897, as was the Bowie. They appear in the same scene, but the Kukri does the damage.
Overall the Kukri doesn’t get the media attention and exposure like that of the Bowie, but it has crept into knife culture nonetheless. I have always been a fan of the big bent knife, and over the last decade or so the knife market has been invaded by a number of what I would call bastard Kukri imitators. These knives have the curved teardrop blade shape of a Kukri, but not the customary thickness and weight, which is part of what makes a Kukri a Kukri.
Generally twice the approximately one pound weight of a heavy Bowie, the lumbering Kukri is a crushing, destructive blade. When a Kukri is razor sharp, the downward cutting power of the front heavy blade is a force to be reckoned with, and one that is not easily stopped. To me, if I am fighting for my life with only a blade in hand, I want a weapon that will strike down in one blow, and of all the wieldly fighting knives, I have always felt that the real Kukri is the king. The Indian Ghurka Regiment is still armed with the Kukri to this day, and you may remember the story from 2010 of a retired Ghurka soldier who still liked to carry his Kukri. Bishnu Shrestha took on a band of 40 men trying to rob his train, armed only with his Kukri knife.
The downside to the Kukri is if you miss. Over-committing a heavy weapon on a miss can leave you vulnerable for a counter strike. Therefore, try to avoid knife fights! Because unless you have trained yourself to knife fight, most likely you won’t have the moves to use a lighter knife effectively. Though I do tend to carry my Bowie much more than my Kukri, I just have a gut feeling that if I was in a real knife fight for my life, I’d rather have the Kukri. If I hit, I want the knife to do some damage, break bones, really ruin the day of whoever was stupid enough to go up against an old fat guy with a Kukri. Stabbing is probably the most lethal of knife fighting strikes, but it is a lot easier to have your blade deflected stabbing forward than it is to block or parry the wide swinging arc of a crushing Kurki.
You don’t have to spend big money on a Kukri from Nepal to get an real example of what makes the knife so effective. I bought one on Ebay for about $30 with shipping and it is a full tang, 3 lb. monster. The only thing is that it isn’t sharpened hardly at all, so you’ll need to use a grinding wheel on it before getting it cleaned up sharp with a stone. BudK has the same knife right now for $19.95, plus shipping. I will embed the video from BudK here in the article.
I bought my primary Kukri from Nepal. There are dozens of sellers on Ebay selling from Nepal and the knives all seem to be about the same, with slightly different looks. I can personally vouch for Ex-Ghurka selling on Ebay. They are not the cheapest, but there stuff is for the most part very clean and well made. A quality Kukri with handmade wood and leather belt sheath and the two extra little utility knives will be under $100 with shipping. Right now the dollar is very strong and there are knife sellers from Pakistan and China that have severely cut their online prices, so shop well!
Beware of the bastard Kukris that I mentioned above. They are made by Cold Steel, United Cutlery, Kabar and many other well recognized US brands. You can tell a bastard Kukri by its sheath more than anything. A real Kukri comes with a wood and leather handmade sheath. A bastard comes with either a canvas sheath, or a regular stitched leather sheath. The big difference in the bastard Kukris is weight. They are much lighter because the blades are very thing, and I feel like they are just Kukri looking machetes, and in fact they are often sold with the name machete. A real Kukri has a blade that is about a 1/4″ thick at the base. It is a serious piece of metal.
Katanas & Short Swords
I went to a Renaissance fair the other day and stumbled upon a Damascus knife maker who specializes in what I would call short swords. At 3 lbs., 25″ long with an 18″ blade 3/16ths thick, the sword I ended up buying is like a Thor’s hammer of swordlike blades. And though I kinda wish I got the pointier version, the handle and hand guard on this sword were much more fit for battle than any of the others in his selection. The merits of any sword are dubious. In the Civil War, even the officers would drop their swords before going into battle. Swords get caught on stuff and are always in the way, and their benefit in hand to hand combat is questionable. Nonetheless, this shortsword is a beast and I think I would decide to carry it in a survival situation. I won’t get into what constitutes “real” and “fake” Damascus here. This guy uses a hammer press to compress his layers, though they may be welded as well.
I compare that sword to my long Panawal Sirupate Kukri, which has a 20″ blade and is 27″ overall, and my “fighting” Katana, which was handmade in China and is Damascus steel like the short sword. The Katana has a 27″ blade and is 40″ overall. Both the long Kukri and the Katana weigh 2 lbs., 6 ounces, not quite the weight of the short sword, and all three blades have a very different feel.
My fear of carrying the Katana has always been that it will catch on things in a tactical situation. Even on your back, a Katana sticks out, and though it gives you much more reach in a sword fight, who gets in sword fights? Even in a survival world? The chances of you encountering another dude with a Katana who is up for a sword fight are slim and none. Most likely, if it ever came to it, you’d be fighting someone with a smaller knife, an axe, a pipe, or some other weapon. The extra length of the Katana isn’t enough of an advantage for me to risk it catching on things.
The long Kukri isn’t the right tool for the job either. I find it so front heavy that it wants to come out of your hand when you swing it. The ideal Kukri blade length is 13-14″ for me. This was the original WWII British (Indian) Ghurka blade size, and I think it is the proper weighting for a good chopping weight. I love the look of the long Kukri, but they are used ceremonially in India, not as an actual blade carried for battle.
Fighting Blades vs. Ornamental Blades
My Katana looks just like the one in the movie Kill Bill, but I bought it as a “fighting blade.” This seemingly would signify that it is made to be battered in battle without breaking. Custom swordmakers (including the short sword dude I bought from), will tell you that they are selling you a “fighting grade” blade, as opposed to what they would consider ornamental or collector blades. The difference between a “fighting blade” and an ornamental blade is nonetheless a mystery to me. I have dozens of belt knives for which I paid anyway from $5 to $200 for, and I doubt that many of them would break if I stabbed it into an attacker’s chest. And again, I’m not planning to sword fight with anyone, nor do I figure I’ll be striking shields or armor with my Bowie Knife, Kukri, or any other blade I might rely upon for my survival.
There is clearly a difference in a blade that was made for fighting and a blade that was made just to hit a specific price point, but if the knife has a full tang, or even a well done rat tail tang, I have met very few knives I don’t like, or that I felt would fall apart. There are tons of swords on Ebay and BudK for $20, and none of them are worth buying, because they blades are thin and floppy, but would they break? The same thing with the 3 sword Katana sets you see for $60 or so. They are all junk, but will the handles actually fall off if you put stress on them? I don’t know. But if you want a “fighting” sword in the sense that it will have ample weight and quality, plan to spend $125-$200 or so, and don’t be afraid to buy from small sellers with good feedback on Ebay, or the specials on BudK (no they are not an advertiser).
Ultimately, with blades you do get what you pay for, but only up to a point. A good Bowie can be had for $30 easy, and even less for that one specific Kukri that needs to be sharpened. But beyond $200 there is very little advantage to spending more on a blade from a specific maker. I like Damascus because I feel that it is more forgiving due to the layers of hammered steel, but you do pay a little more for it. Thankfully, knives are like guns. You almost never throw them away, and when you buy a nice knife, the next thing you want to do is buy another nice knife.
What is Your Fighting Knife?
This question isn’t for the knife snobs or the armchair commandos. If your first answer to the “what is your fighting knife” question is “my $1,500 custom boutique blade that I had to wait 16 months to receive,” you are most likely a knife snob. If your first answer was “I don’t need anything but a 3″ skinning knife to flay the lot of you and serve you for dinner,” you’re an armchair commando. The reality is that most of us don’t see any value in paying more than $100 for a knife, or $200 for a really really nice knife. And as for the armchair commandos, there are of course people who have trained and who are very dangerous with any blade, but you probably ain’t that, like the rest of us.
When I set out to think about this article, I realized that there are very few different types of bladed weapons that are unique and that can be carried on the person. Big, little, heavy, light, pointy, curved, long, short, hand guard, no hand guard, rubber handle, wood or stag handle. To some degree a knife is a knife is a knife and it all come down to what you like. As an example, I have an imitation WWII Ka-Bar that I got from BudK for $7.99 and I regularly carry and use it. I also have a $150 boutique “pig sticker” with no handguard made from a file, and I hate it. Blades are a passion for many people, and a matter of preference for all of us. I bought 8 knives just re-researching this article! What’s your take on the fighting knife?