Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Going through the Process, Part I: Criteria

The scoring system developed out of a weird system I use to evaluate all sorts of things--new cars, houses, everything.  Before I crunch the numbers I usually start researching stuff, and before that I try to make a list, either in my head, or when I am feeling especially nerdy, in writing, of the criteria for my next purchase.

Right now I am looking for a fixed blade.  I know comparatively little about fixed blades.  Generally they are not practical for everyday carry use, but I am not planning on carrying this everyday.  I thought it might be interesting to go through that process in writing.  I am also, selfishly, looking for tips from everyone out there, as the tips in the comments have been uniformly excellent.  Figuring out EXACTLY what you want is really important.  A lot of gear purchases I have made when wrong because I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted.  As a result, I spend a lot of time now figuring out exactly what I want.  This is in part because funds are tight, but it is also because often times the hunt pretty fun it is own right.

At first I thought I just wanted a utility fixed blade, something that could go from paring food to chopping branches.  While there are some knives out there that COULD do that, I decided that in reality I would always be carrying a smaller folding knife to handle food prep chores.  I also realized that I am getting this blade as part of a survival bag that I decided to put together after Hurricane Irene.  I should have learned my lesson when the Ice Storm pummeled the Northeast a few years ago and we were without power for five days, but I didn't and Irene came around and I realized I was STILL unprepared.

I think "unprepared" might be a bit of an overstatement, but I was not prepared to the degree I would like.  We had water and food for a week, we had cash, we had first aid supplies, we had a FEW of flashlights:


Yes, there are some real clunkers in there (like the big Mag and the Mini Mag) but there are also a pair of customs too.  But we were critically short on firewood (i.e. none) and I had very little ability to acquire some if the need arose.  It was summer, so I wasn't too worried, but in the winter, we'd be a little stuck, forced to resort to pruning shears and garden equipment.

A big fixed blade chopper would be ideal for my use--something that can take off a limb of a fallen tree or help break up big pieces into smaller pieces for removal and transport.  Sometimes a full sized axe is overkill or can't skillfully be used at a specific angle.  I'd like to cut off limbs a good deal away from the house and lugging a full sized axe isn't practical.  In the Ice Storm branches covered the roads for days and some were miles away from the house.  In a pinch I could chop them away and keep going, if I had a good fixed blade.  As it is right now, I'd just have to pull them out of the way.  Sure, I could carry a chain saw in my car with gas, but that is a bit impractical for a person that uses their car 99.9% of the time as a commuter to and from the court and as little room to spare.

So criteria #1: Good at chopping

There is a raging debate out there about the utility of a wood splitting technique called batoning and whether it has any real practical value.  I don't have to decide which side I am on to know that I want a knife that can hack down a tree branch if needed.  Most of those blades can baton as well, which is an added bonus as far as I am concerned.

I have been thinking about the size of the knife and it seems like chopping is hard to do with less than 5 or 6 inches of blade.  Since I will be carrying another, smaller folder I think erring on the side of big is the way to go.

Criteria #2: At least 5.5 inch blade

I am going to pack this with my Pygmy Falcon II so it would be nice if it had some attachment system to use with all the straps and MOLLE on the PFII.  This means I also don't want the thing to be too long as it would make it awkward to carry.

Criteria #3: Attachment points
Criteria #4: No bigger than 8 inch blade

There are also a few things that would be nice.  I want a sheath.  Having a little guy around makes keeping an unsheathed knife within arms reach impossible, so I can get one without a sheath and save up for a custom sheath, which is not a bad plan, or I can get one with a sheath.  Honestly, this wouldn't even be a consideration, but for the Busse family of knives.  Busse knives, along with their two subsidiaries Swamprat and Scrapyard Knives, make some of the finest, toughest, most refined hard use knives in the world.  Their reputation among knife knuts is second to none.  They multiple proprietary steels, including the very well received INFI steel.  And they aren't outrageously expensive given what you get.  But, and here is the sticking point, they don't come with sheathes.  So if I get one I need to budget in another $50-$100 for a sheath, taking away some of their pricing advantages when compared to other custom knives.

Criteria #5: Busse or Sheath

If I am getting a sheath I want a non-leather one.  Leather sheathes are nice looking, but when they are wet they are very hard to use.  When they are wet and frozen, they are useless.  If I am using this knife it is likely I will be doing so outside in the winter.  Also all but the crappiest of leather sheathes are more money.  Let's see, more money, less performance...uh...nope.  As such:

Criteria #6: No leather sheaths

I am not sold on the need for stainless steel.  In a folding knife that I use and carry everyday, the stain resistance is nice.  It is not, however, a requirement for a knife that is primarily a back up tool.  Non-stainless steel such as 1095 can get much tougher than stainless steel of an equal price.  The 1095 steel and other steels like it are primitive but effective.  That said, there are some truly amazing stainless steels on fixed blades.  The INFI steel is not a true stainless steel, but independent testing indicates that it holds up well.  D2, again not a true stainless steel, has a good reputation as well.  And then there is VG10, Spyderco's go to steel.  It is very rust resistant in my experience.  There is a lot of a good stainless steel on fixed blades these days and fortunately, some of it is not that much more expensive (in the case of INFI, that is not true, it IS more expensive).  Seeing as this is going to be a chopper I want something that is a bit softer so that moves me away from D2 and other tool steels.  

Criteria #7: Stainless steel, if possible
Criteria #8: Softer steel, no tool steel

I really don't care about the handle material, and I don't want stacked leather.  I am also not going to pay the inevitable premium for something that is only for looks.  I am planning on keeping this blade with my survival bag so its looks won't matter.  Also, I like the kraton handle on the Recon Tanto I had in high school.  It was soft and grippy and allowed for plenty of chopping.

Criteria #9: No pricey handle materials

Next up--applying the criteria to fixed blades and generating a list of research targets.   


  1. Very cool Tony!! I have always been intrigued by Busse knives, and it looks like you are considering a broad range of tools. I look forward to seeing what kind of candidates you pull up in the next part.

  2. Having just recently spent a couple days without power or heat due to a surprisingly debilitating snowstorm, getting firewood by cutting up branches I found in the street, I'd actually recommend a combination of an inexpensive hatchet (mine is 1.5lbs, 14", and cost me $7 from Harbor Freight) and fixed blade like a Mora. I've also got a much larger fixed blade more suited for chopping (Cheaper Than Dirt Rough Use Bowie) but getting through thicker branches with that takes much longer than a hatchet and it isn't as easy to use for small stuff as the Mora. A lightweight hatchet will make relatively quick work of cutting and limbing small trees or big branches as well as splitting larger logs and a small fixed blade will easily handle more precise batonning. Moras come in stainless or carbon steels (if you're worried about rust, just apply a patina) and are surprisingly durable. If you're worried they're not strong enough, you can look into full convexed custom blades like Bark River or Turley Knives, but do yourself a favor and look into the humble Mora. For that price, you can buy back-ups for your back-ups and they'll hold up to just about anything you need to do if they're used properly. Alternately, the KaBar Becker BK2 and similar but cheaper Condor Rodan are solid fixed-blades which can easily be convexed if you choose to and should easily handle plenty of chopping.

  3. I went through a similar thought process some time ago and put some thought into exactly what tasks needed to be achieved. I allocated light weight, safety in use, and inoffensiveness to others as important attributes, and decided to go for a small fixed blade and a folding saw. After a little research, I chose a Fallkniven F1 knife and a Bachco Laplander saw. I've used them in remote areas and at home for cutting and splitting wood and have found them both to be absolutely superb tools.

    Thanks for the well-reasoned gear opinions, the Commentary is now an essential read.

  4. this video changed my mind about machetes for most of the reasons you listed. I think it clears the debate of machete or large knife vs. axe.


  5. I just got a RAT-3 and it holds up great to abuse, I even cut down a medium sapling with it.
    Video that sold me:

    I would recommend an ESEE RC 5, 6, or 7. They usually come with a kydex sheath and can be had for a little over $150 with sheath. however nothing beats a small hatchet sometimes and if you are cutting firewood, get an axe.

  6. Thanks for all of the input. I had a few of those queued up on my list of research targets, but some were totally new to me. Also, everyone should go see the machete video in Anonymous's post. That guy is a GENIUS.

    Additionally, if I am doing really heavy chopping I do have an axe (technically a maul because I only use it for splitting wood) at home and I use it all of the time (like Monday when I was processing fallen tree branches into FREE fire wood). The idea for the fixed blade is to have something that I can take out and about and cut stuff down to size (along with a small wood saw) and take them back for processing at home or the camp site.

    Thanks for all of the tips and GO SEE that machete video.