The Big Knife

The Debate
Reading many US websites you'll get the impression that you'd need a far bigger knife than those typically favoured by bushcrafters. 6 inch plus blade lengths are regularly mentioned perhaps a hangover from the
bowie knife? There's quite a debate about knife vs axe, and sometimes you get the third tool of machete come into the mix. I've even seen a billhook suggested as being the sine qua non item for work in the woods.

Big Game means Big Knives?
The utility of big knives was shown a lot in areas where big game was part of life - an example being the American Buffalo Knife (comparable knives)
(Quotes on the usage from Tactical Knives November 2005, pp19-22, Dan Shechtman)

"Here is a knife made to order for the hunter or cook responsible for breaking out chunks of carcasses of the game animals to be served up to the trappers"

"The Edmonton hunters always use large heavy knives for the purpose of cutting through branches when traversing dense fir woods that cover a great part of that country; some of them use extremely heavy ones, half knife, half axe - like a narrow sort of butchers cleaver with a point instead of a squared end"

(on butchering buffalo) "The half breed goes through this whole process with a large and very heavy knife lika a narrow pointed cleaver which is also used
for cutting wood and performing the offices of a hatchet"

An example can be seen here
The big knife of Scandinavian tradition is also from the Sami reindeer herders and is the product not just of butchery but also of the need to take down the small trees that are common there.

The European Way 

Looking for a big knife in Nordic Europe leads you to just that - the "big knife" of the Sami. This knife seems to go by more than one name and I've found it hard picking out which is used by whom. I think that Leuku is the Finnish name, Samekniv the Norwegian and stuorra niibi in Sami. (thanks to wikipedia and the Finnish Puukko blog)
The particular knife I've bought is made by Iisakki Jarvenpaa and I bought it along with my other items from Ben's Backwoods. The knife itself is great - a solid carbon steel blade about 4mm thick with a wide bevel and a curly birch handle with a solid brass butt cap for pounding and cracking nuts. The sheath looks nice but the belt loop seems a little slim and the whole sheath is already a bit dirty and has a few cut lines near the top in only an afernoon's use. It is a prime candidate for hot waxing should I find some beeswax.
One of the reasons I bought the knife is that the majority of the woodland here consists of similar woods, albeit slightly faster growing, to those in Lappland - lots of pine and birch with willow in wet areas. The grind of the knife combined with its seven inch length lets it be used as a draw knife or scraper and when braced against your knee it makes lovely fine shavings - I'm still a little new to this technique for photos but they'll come soon.

The knife effortlessly chopped through everything a fingers width or less and would be great for quickly making and felling poles. It was rapid at chopping through a downed birch and fairly effortless as the swell at the end of the handle means you can hold it lightly and let the knife just do the work. Indeed holding this knife gives you a nice secure feeling that it could handle carving, splitting and chopping as well as felling trees up to arm thickness with a very low expenditure of effort. Much less effort would be expended than using a smaller knife even if a baton is still used. It is also lighter than even my bag axe giving me a good idea why such knives would make excellent survival tools.
The edge bevel of the knife is ground differently along the length. The straight section has a good general grind whilst the curve towards the tip is finer to allow wood shavings to be easily made. The tip itself has quite a steep grind to give the point strength when being used to chip ice, be hammered into trees or pierce anything. As it has only one bevel along its length (after a few minutes with an Arkansas stone) it will be easy to maintain the different gradients on the bevel.
The knives were developed by reindeer herders so it should be good at skinning and breaking open bones should the need arise.

I used the knife to cut up a few birch branches and some bark to make a quick brew fire - I was trying to make a pine needle tea but I underestimated the number of birch twigs I'd need as they were wet. As a result I didn't manage to boil the water as the twigs burned away too quickly without producing enough heat. I wasn't too worried though as I learned to use a match to light a piece of birch bark in my hand and not to try to move the match to birch bark in the fire lay. It sounds simple but I wasted a couple of matches till it occured to me!
I did pick up a piece of birch to try to carve a netting needle out of but as it had come from a downed tree it had begun to rot and broke rather than split - I'll give it a try carving as soon as I can.

An axe may be the tool that lets you "live like a king" but how many of us regularly fell, limb and buck trees? Surely the big knife is better for taking down saplings and bushes, makes a good kitchen too. Mine has seen as much use cutting the necks off roast chickens as it has chopping down trees and has excelled at both. I have made a couple of tune-ups to it. I have oiled the handle with olive oil as well as squaring the spine to make that part a bit more useful - the spine is good for debarking pine roots too. The original grind on the tip was also somewhat obtuse as it could be used for chopping ice and opening cans. I wanted a little more carving ability so I made the tip a little finer.


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