I’ve been puzzled by something for a long time, and talked about it with Miss D. this evening. I’d like to put the question to my readers, and ask for your input.
Most of us have used wilderness and survival tools such as a hatchet, a machete (which I knew as a panga in South Africa), a fixed-blade belt knife, a folding pocket knife, and so on. However, when I came to this country I was surprised to see the number of people who insisted on buying very expensive tools in those categories – knives from Bagwell, or Randall, or any of a number of custom and semi-custom knife makers. Even more common brands such as Cold Steel charged more than I expected for their knives and tools.
In Africa, the lesson I learned from an early age was that tools of this sort are disposable items. Sooner or later (and probably sooner under hard use) you’re going to break it, bend it, lose it, or have it stolen (either by other people, or by a jackal or hyena wanting to gnaw on the blood-scented handle of a skinning knife, or something like that). For that reason, ‘designer’ or name-brand tools were not very common among my contemporaries. They mostly carried cheaper tools, ones they could break or lose without worrying about the cost; and they usually carried or had available multiple copies, so that when one was gone, they could replace it without difficulty. I used wilderness tools according to that philosophy for many years. It became second nature for me to expect to lose or break one from time to time, shrug my shoulders, and pull out the next one. They worked as well under normal conditions as the more expensive tools, and I was never heartsore at losing one when the time came.
I was therefore surprised to realize that friends here routinely took multiple-hundred-dollar knives, axes, tomahawks, etc. on hunting camps and cross-country treks. Sure enough, I saw them broken or lost from time to time, amid wails about the financial cost involved. I stuck to my African habits. For example:
- When it comes to folding pocket knives, I use them mostly for small utility jobs like cutting string, opening parcels and packages, etc. Any cheap pocket knife will do for that, provided it’s kept sharp and the mechanism is in good working order. The most I’ll spend on one is $20-$30. Lower-cost models from Cold Steel, Gerber or Kershaw (particularly the latter) suit me fine, and there are really cheap Chinese knock-offs if economy’s the thing, although their quality leaves a great deal to be desired. I treat the latter as throw-away items.
- My favorite general-purpose belt knives (for skinning, whittling, striking against firelighters, even for use when eating) are Mora knives from Sweden. At $8-$12 apiece, they’re very affordable. They’re the sharpest blades I’ve ever known straight out of the factory, and they’re tough enough for most routine jobs. This one is currently my preferred model, mainly because it has a finger guard – something I find important, given the extreme sharpness of the blade. I have several of them ready for use right now.
- My heavier-duty belt knife, for tougher jobs in the field, is the Glock field knife (model 78) or survival knife (model 81). The latter is the same as the former, but with a saw-back to cut roots, etc. Both are very tough indeed, come with a polymer sheath, and are reasonably priced at $28-$35. (The olive drab knives are frequently cheaper than the black, for some unknown reason. Since a knife is a working tool to me, not a fashion statement, I buy the cheaper option.)
- Machetes have to stand up to a lot of abuse. Frankly, I find the expensive ones don’t do much better than the cheaper ones under normal use, although under extreme conditions I daresay the former would have an edge (you should pardon the expression). One that I really like from a design and utility point of view is the Cold Steel gladius machete. Not only is it sharpened on both edges, meaning you can simply turn it over in your grasp and continue chopping when one edge gets blunt, but it’s modeled after the Roman legionary gladius or short sword, making it a very viable defensive weapon against snakes and nasty aggressive critters (even those on two legs, in a pinch). On the other hand, you do have to be more careful when using it, as the back edge can cut you or a companion if you mishandle it.
- As far as small camp hatchets go, I again buy cheap units (like, for example, this one), and carry a low-cost but effective sharpening tool to keep its edge (and that of my machete) in good cutting order. This tool is also very useful to dismember animals. A Mora knife can take care of the hide, sinews and muscles, and the hatchet can cut through bone, joints, etc. The combination makes it unnecessary to spend a lot of money on a high-end skinning and butchering knife. (Some cheap hatchets have poorly-shaped blades. I find it worthwhile to re-shape them using a grinding wheel and/or files, then re-sharpen them. YMMV.)
- I choose to spend more money on a good-quality wood axe, to fell small trees, break up larger branches, and to use its blunt top as a hammer if necessary. This tool might have to work very hard, and a better-quality blade will hold its edge longer and not suffer nicks so easily. The haft will also probably be of better quality and last longer. My personal preference is for Gransfors Bruks Swedish axes, but there are many other choices.
I can put together an outfit with one each of all of the above items of equipment for less than the cost of a single knife from a high-end manufacturer (never mind a custom bladesmith, who may charge several times as much again). I think I get much better value for my money that way. What say you, readers? Do you think it’s worth paying higher prices for better-quality tools in these categories, knowing that they’re going to be not just used, but probably abused, and are easily lost or damaged? Are my African habits out of sync with the American way of doing things? Let us know your views in Comments.
(I apply the same perspective to many aspects of camping, preparedness, self-defense, etc. I’d rather have a strong, practical but low-cost tool, instead of spending much more money on a high-end product that I know will inevitably suffer damage or be lost in due course. Even in firearms, for the same price I’d rather have several Glocks than a single high-end 1911 pistol. That’s heresy to some people, I know, but . . . )