History of the Survival Knife

History of the Survival Knife

One of the oldest and most important tools to humankind exists today in hundreds, if not thousands, of different shapes and sizes, comprised of a variety of materials for different purposes and use cases. I am speaking of course of the Knife – a ubiquitous tool that has followed mankind for centuries, if not millennium. Whether you’re an experienced bushcrafter or not, I can almost guarantee there are several knives in your home. From the chef’s knife to the blunted butter knife, knives are a part of our everyday lives. As I mentioned in the beginning, knives come in many different sizes and shapes, serving specific purposes. The phrase ‘use the best tool for the job’ comes to mind – you absolutely could use a chef’s knife to spread butter, but the larger size and sharper edges may make it a more difficult task than using a butter knife – a knife designed to simply spread butter or other toppings. Even in outdoor use cases, survival or bushcrafting knives come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and material compositions. There is no one size fits all solution, but it’s important to note that these choices exist because of our constant reliance on this simple, but important tool. When was the use of knives, or similar objects, prolific enough in human society that they could become a staple in every home across the world? The answer may surprise you, but shouldn’t come as a revelation, seeing as we all likely rely on a knife in more ways than one, even in our modern age.

We can all understand what a knife is useful for, and just how many uses a basic knife can have. A small folding pocket knife can be found on the everyday carry of many people, and if you ask them, they can attest to just how much a knife like that is capable of. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when humans first developed a knife, there is lots of evidence surrounding the need of a sharp cutting tool throughout early human history. Recent discoveries have found objects that could have been used as knives as long as 380,000 years ago – well before the rise of Homo Sapiens (us). Tools like this would have been extraordinarily helpful to hunter-gatherer societies, allowing them to gut, skin, and cut game. It could have been as simple as an early human ancestor accidentally cutting themselves on a sharp rock, seeing the benefits of an object that could slice skin or especially wood. The stone age, roughly 40,000 years ago, is when we begin to see a common adoption of stone-based tools, in the form of axes, hammers, and yes – knives.

The first eating utensil used by humans are attached to our bodies – our hands. The second tool for eating, however, was the knife. As meals were shared among communities, cutting your portion to then eat with your hands would be common practice. Flint and Obsidian were common materials used in early knife crafting, with only one side of the stone generally sharpened. As you can imagine, the sharpness achievable by these stone materials is nowhere close to the edges you can achieve with modern steel, so a blunt edge giving you more leverage to force a cut was required. The unfortunate aspect of these materials is they were brittle, meaning they constantly needed to be repaired or replaced. The first knives made of copper would come about in the bronze age, giving way to the abilities to make sharper edges, and as a result, more useful knives. As technology progressed, so too did the capabilities of knives as a tool. Using stronger materials like iron, and eventually steel, provided a sharper and more durable edge each time, with other additions to construction like the uses of pommels or hilts would propel knife design towards the options we see today.

In the modern age, we have only one man to thank for the ‘survival’ or ‘bushcraft’ style knives that cover store shelves today. A pioneer by the name of Jim Bowie – inventor of the Bowie Knife. His custom made knife was created with hunting in mind, and as a result, needed to withstand the rugged environments he would explore. The knife featured a large, wide blade, cross guard, and a false edge cut on both sides. Bowie’s own exploits would make this knife famous, as he was rarely seen without his knife firmly attached to his person. Although the bowie might be seen as the end-all-be-all outdoorsman’s knife, it truthfully offers more than a casual camper or bushcrafter may need. As a result, we see survival type knives that are more useful to the average outdoor enthusiast. The large heft of a bowie is one of it’s attributes that make it a force in the wild but can become cumbersome to someone spending a weekend outdoors. 

Knife design and composition has come a long way from the stone relics of the past, but the premise and need for a tool such as this has remained unchanged throughout all of human history. Back then, it was likely that the knife you had was used for everything that required cutting, but today we have the benefit of specialty knives. While you shouldn’t rely on a chef’s knife for survival, you certainly could if that was your only option – as any knife is better than no knife. What it will all come down to is the comfortability for the user, and the number of uses the user is able to find for it. Keep in mind that with added features comes the increased risk of failure on one or more aspects of the tool. This is why I choose to carry a simple single-edged knife – it’s durable, reliable, and most importantly, nearly infallible. Tools exist for a reason, and while it’s always best to use the right tool for the job, there are almost no jobs in the outdoors that some type of knife is unable to perform.

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