The Wirecutter’s Fixed Blade Recommendations—Swing and a Miss

The Wirecutter recently added to their catalog of outdoor tool recommendations by doing a survey of the "Best Outdoor Knives."  The article, however, has a bunch of flaws, and seems to miss the mark for just about every recommendation. 

Here is the article. 

I am not an expert outdoorsman or a fixed blade pro.  Here is the sum total of my experience.  I have probably started between 750 and 1000 fires with nothing but found wood, some lint from my clothing, a firesteel, and a knife, but that's a drop in the bucket to others.  I have hiked with a fixed blade for years and a few probably have closed to 150-200 miles on them.  All told I would say I have hiked with a knife of some sort for close to 1,000 miles.  But again, this is not even close to real adventurers.  My most rugged terrain is temperate forests of New England and Ohio, with a bit of Maine seacoast thrown in for good measure. 

For advice on this I consult with a few people.  First, I tapped a friend of mine, Kyle Ver Steeg.  I think it is safe to say that Kyle is a real-life adventurer.  In addition to doing overseas trips as a doctor in rural and storm ravaged areas, Kyle served as a guide for the Amazon 2000 adventure.  He has a lot of experience in the rainforests, in the temperate forest, and in the mountains.  In addition, I relied on information gleaned from Jim Nowka, who in addition to writing a book or two on survival scenarios, has been a diver and a general all-around crisis solver for years.  Jim also develops knives for his company the American Knife Company.  His Forest knife is one of my all time favorite fixed blades.  Jim and Kyle did the Knife Journal Podcast together.  I also relied on information from Ethan Becker, based on a number of interviews.  Finally, I took information from my interview with TM Hunt, designer of the M18, and from other people’s interviews of Mike Stewart of Bark River Knives.  In terms of books, I rely generally on Mors Kochanski's Bushcraft and John "Lofty" Wiseman's SAS Survival Guide.  As I said, I am not expert, but when I have questions these are the sources I go to.


 Follow Mors:  The article referenced Mors Kochanski, which is 100% right, but then it seemed to ignore his advice about knives.  In Bushcraft, Mors does a good job laying out his ideal blade.  You want a blade as long as your hand is wide with a continuous curve to the cutting edge, something with a comfortable unrestricted handle, and something that is easily field-serviceable.  The #1 choice was none of those.  Scandis are great out of the box, but they are hard to maintain in the field.  By comparison my flat ground Ka Bar BK9 went two years only being sharpened on found sandstone, and, thanks to an actual cutting bevel, something Moras sometimes omit, it was fine.  Also, the rubberized, tacky handles found on Moras are exactly the opposite of the handle design Mors references.  

Outdoor Where?:  Its pretty clear, based on the pictures, the knives, and the experts consulted that the article is really trying to answer the question: What is the best outdoor knife for a temperate forest?  In the rainforest, as Kyle and Jim have discussed many times on the Knife Journal Podcast, a machete outperforms a chopper everyday.  Furthermore, if you are in a place with lots of large hardwood trees, even a temperate forest, you are probably better served by having an axe than a knife.  In a desert, the issues are entirely different.  Weight is a major concern.  But the article deals with none of this and simply assumes a temperate forest as the location.  Knives, especially folk knives (khukiris, bolos, parangs etc.), vary from region to region for a reason. 

Bushcraft Only:  The size, thickness, and design of the knives that finished highly in the recommendations all focus on bushcraft, but for a lot of people going outdoors means hunting.  A lot of these knives, especially the ones that were recommended, aren't great for hunting.  The thin scandi grind of a Mora does well in wood carving, but chips like crazy if it hits bone.  The lack of a drop point hunter on the list also means that skinning tasks are more difficult.  This is not coming from me--I am not a hunter.  This is Kyle's input, but Kyle is right--this entire list assumes the person is doing nothing but bushcraft.  That's a good place to start, but the article needed to acknowledge there are other things to do outdoors.  

For me, I do a lot of yardwork with my fixed blades and I find that they excel in that role.  But the thin edges on the Moras do not hold up.  This job, yardwork, seems like a better bet for most people, than doing some spoon carving while through hiking a 75 mile trail.  

The One Tool Myth:  Look I get it.  I too love the romantic notion that I could conquer the wilderness with just a knife and my crafty woods skills.  But the premise of all Wirecutter reviews is what is best for most people.  What is best for most people is not single knife, but a trio of cutting tools—a small axe, a small knife, and a collapsible saw.  The premise here--mass market targeting--is entirely at odds with the nature of the recommendations--the use of a single, skill intensive survival blade.  Recommending blades for the average person based on the skill set of Dave Canterbury is like hoping that a 16 year old can learn to drive with his or her first car being a Lamborghini Avendator.  Its a recipe for disaster. 

With careful purchasing you could get this three tool set up for under $100.  With that budget I would get a Husqvarna 19" Carpenter's Axe ($55), a CRKT Mossback Hunter ($35), and Geber Sliding Saw ($12).  That puts you at $102, but you are vastly better equipped than if you just had a medium sized fixed blade.

Blade Shape Problems: The article poo pooed clip points when they were mentioned in the comments as having a reputation for being weak.  Its odd, because the article’s #1 choice is, in fact, a clip point blade.  Furthermore, the Buck 110, one of the best selling knives of all time, and a knife designed for outdoor use, is a clip point (and, gasp, a folder).  Similarly, one of the other best selling knives of all time, and notable outdoors knife, the Ka Bar USMC, is also a clip point.  There is simply no combination of experts and experience that one person could rely on that would override the knowledge and experience of millions of people over decades of use.  If the Buck 110 and the USMC have done well outdoors for something like a collective one billion man hours, its probably worth considering why.  

Also, as a nitpick, I think there is a difference between a bowie blade shape, with its trailing point and pronounced curved clip, and the traditional clip point as seen on the Garberg or other knives.  That is a minor taxonomical sin, but worth mentioning.   

Steel Problems: If the blade shape mix up is a sign of a problem, the steel confusion is confirmation of it.  The article claims: "Carbon steel is usually considered to be of higher quality than stainless steel, but we found that the 14C28N still had an extremely tough edge." 

Really?  That's curious.  First, it is completely unclear how the article goes about defining “quality.”  Hints indicate that the article means “edge retention,” which is fine, but only one aspect of steel performance.  In that regard, I'd stack up modern, high end stainless steels against anything in the world in terms of edge retention.  M390, ZDP-189, 20CV--all do exceptionally well in a lot of areas.  Very few carbon steels, and none that aren't exotic high speed tool steels or 3V, can hold an edge as long as ZDP-189. 

This was a running theme throughout the article and a true problem.  40 years ago, people perferred carbon steels to stainless steels because stainless steel couldn't get that hard, but ZDP-189 runs 65-66 HRc while 1095 is at least ten points less.  Only SM100 and something like REX121 or Maxamet are harder, but these are clearly not the steels the article contemplates.  This just baffled me when I read it.  Not just wrong, but really really wrong.  And then there is the fact that the article correctly lists the TOPS knife as having an “upgraded steel option” and that steel happens to be a stainless steel, 154CM.  Even if you have no knowledge of steel, you will spot this internal inconsistency in the article—in one place the article says that carbon steels are generally of higher quality, but then says that the TOPS upgrade, which runs a stainless steel blade, is better.  Also, the #1 recommendation runs a stainless steel.  From the perspective of logic alone, this is indefensible.   

The Mora Testing Problem: Moras are hard to review.  When they come out of the box they are razor sharp and the scandi grind only accentuates that.  But over time that edge crumbles quickly and it is hard to get a Mora back to its original super keen edge, as it is with all zero ground scandi blades.  Cedric and Ada discussed this on his channel at length.  

Additionally, because of their rubbery handles Moras tend to get chewed up over time and their plastic sheathes lose tension.  In short, they make an excellent first impression and a dreadful 50th impression.  A G10 handled convex ground blade will last much longer and perform much better over time than a Mora but because reviewers are generally crunched for time, Moras do better in reviews than they do in real life. 

Where are the Drop Points?  Bob Loveless is one of the two greatest knife makers of all time and his biggest innovation was the drop point.  This is one of the most useful blade shapes in the world and yet it was not mentioned at all.  How can it be that the most popular fixed blade pattern in history--the drop point hunter--is not referenced once in an article on outdoor knives?

Where are the Convex Ground Blades? Canterbury points out that scandis and then flat ground blades are best for carving and this is true, but again this assumes that the only thing you are doing outdoors is fire prep.  During the Chopocalypse, I used a chain saw, a splitting maw and 3 fixed blades for approximately 24 hours of work, exclusively on green, hardwoods.  This wasn’t fire prep but clearing ground after we had some massive tree felling.  In this situation, the convex ground blade held up exceptionally well and it was BY FAR the easiest to get back to sharp.  Now, convex blades are generally more expensive, but there are some that aren’t wallet killers.  The Fallkniven F1 is on their list and for reasons beyond me, he thought it was too costly for what it was.  That is an all-time great knife.  There is no quesiton in my mind that he missed the boat when it came to convex ground blades because it was focused on doing only a small set of outdoor tasks.

Sheathes Matter:  Again, I am not an expert on fixed blades, but, if I have learned one thing over the years it is this—the sheath is as important as anything else on a fixed blade.  If I were breaking things down I would probably break them down something like this: handle 35%, sheath 35%, blade 30%.  You carry a knife far more than you use one and carrying a knife is a crappy sheath is not only hard to do, it can be dangerous.  A crappy sheath could result in injury or a lost knife.  Sheathes really matter.  Want proof? #1 mod people do on fixed blades is a custom sheath.  

Omitted Brands and Blades:  There was no blade from Buck, Boker, Condor, Spyderco, Benchmade, Kershaw, LT Wright, SOG, or Bark River on the list.  The article also missed the boat on some of the brands they did choose—for instance, picking the BK2 over the BK16 is a pretty glaring mistake. According to Ethan Becker, the designer of both knives, one is designed to pry open a car door and one is designed as an all around outdoor knife.  Unfortunately, the article chose the BK2 over the BK16, over the advice of the two knives' designer.  The SOG Pillar should have been in this article.  Any number of Buck knives, from the Hood designs, to the Selkirk, to the fixed blade version of the Buck 110 should have been included.  The Condor Bushlore absolutely should have been in the article.  I get that some of the omitted brands are expensive, but really, it seems impossible to discuss fixed blades without mentioning Bark River.  Perhaps when the Wirecutter does their list of recommended Italian Super Cars that come in red they will omit Ferrari and Lamborghini.  

 Skipping Folders Was Silly:  I thought it was silly to completely avoid folders.  I agree that most outdoor tasks are best performed by a fixed blade, but there are a lot of people that go outdoors with nothing but a Buck 110.  Decades of experience and millions of people can’t be completely wrong.  Similarly Kyle recommends the Victorinox Huntsman.  I found that the CRKT Homefront does well too. 

Spark Scraping was WAY Overvalued: The article eliminated knives solely because they couldn’t throw sparks.  This is crazy.  First, the vast majority of firesteels have included scrapers.  Second, this is not a technique “most people” would use.  This is not easy to do and certainly not a beginner’s thing.  For most people, I think they will use a fixed blade car camping and doing yardwork around the house.  In those instances spark scraping doesn’t matter.  If you are a hardcore through camper or survivalist, you probably have a dedicated firesteel set up.  And even if you don’t your clearly not the audience for the Wirecutter.  

The article also placed value on sharp spines for their ability to scrap wood and the like.  I get this and I think this is a nice plus, if a knife can do this, but honestly, its not a task most people will care about.  Its sort of like asking if a Lamborghini has a good sound system.  

My Recommendations

Using the Wirecutter conceit of finding the best piece of gear for most people, I would arrive at the following four recommendations: 

#1 Choice: The Ka Bar Becker BK16


In many ways, the BK16 is the perfect first fixed blade.  It is not so big that it will scare people, it is not so thick that you will wonder why its not working as well as the knives on YouTube, and it won’t cost an arm and leg.  Nylon sheathes are for the birds, but as a starter set up, they can do okay.  Plus, this is a Becker, which means the second you want to upgrade you have one million and one mods, upgrades, hop ups, and spare parts at your disposal.  The handle is as neutral as it gets and the blade is an excellent and uncontroversial drop point.  The knife also happens to be just about the same price as the Mora Knives Garberg.  Plus, the BK16 is made in the USA, which is certainly not a major issue, but all things being equal, is a nice plus factor.  The BK16 crushes the Garberg in terms of blade shape, handle design, materials, and durability.  It also happens to be able to flex into other outdoor roles other than spoon making and other bushcraft outdoor art projects. 

Budget Pick: The Condor Bushlore


For around $35 you get the Mors Kochanski knife with a decent leather taco sheath, a very good handle, and an excellent blade shape.  If you are bushcrafting its very good.  If you are using the knife around the yard, it is very good.  If you are splitting wood or making feathersticks its good.  It is uncoated so you can, if you REALLY want, throw some sparks.  If this is a beater you keep in the garage or right there in your kit next to your handmade pan flute for bushcrafting while through hiking the Appalachian trail you won’t be disappointed.  The aforementioned CRKT Mossback Hunter would also do well in this slot.

High End Option: The SOG Pillar


There are a lot of high end options--Bark River's Bravo 1 LT in 3V and the Survive Knives GSO 4.7 are both excellent, but one (the Bark River) is more expensive than I think any reasonable non-knife person would spend and the other (the GSO 4.7) has limited availability.  The SOG Pillar, however, is under $200 (just under) and has one of the best production sheathes ever.  This is an extraordinarily good knife for a wide variety of tasks.  This knife is also Made in the USA.

Small Knife: The Cold Steel Mini Pendleton


I think the article is a very good effort by a mainstream publication to get deep into the details on a very difficult set of products to review.  Ultimately, I think the Wirecutter missed the mark, but it is clear they care.  If I were them I'd either add to the article and explain that it was looking for the best all around bushcraft knife (and then define that) or I'd release a stand alone for hunting and general utility outdoor knives.  Even if they did miss the mark, it wasn't by all that much, from the perspective of the average non-knife person and it is good to see knives getting positive mainstream press.