Bushcraft tools for the common man…As seen in the Woods Monkey Gear Review in the May/June 2011 Issue of Self Reliance Illustrated!
When you look at many magazines on the news stand, or browse the various knife forums on the internet, it’s easy to get the feeling that you have to drop a couple hundred bucks on a custom blade to be able to make it in the wild…
While there are a lot of great reasons to get a custom knife ranging from unique designs, top quality materials, and superior fit and finish, it’s also true that our forefathers made do with some pretty simple and inexpensive cutlery for a long, long time. If you’re working on a tight budget, or you just like to keep a spare blade or two around in your pack or vehicle, there are some great deals around to be had. Let’s take a look and check out a sampling of offerings that can be found for under $30!
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “$30? Either he’s nuts or we’re going to be looking at junk not fit for the field”. Well, lest you stop reading too soon, rest assured that there are some great bargains out there in knife world that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Now, before I go into my picks let me say that this is by no means a definitive list. I did not include the ubiquitous Mora or the Green River knives. They certainly both are contenders for this list but they’re also knives that a lot of folks already know about so I passed on them for this article. So, with those caveats in place, let’s take a look at five models that I’ve found to be good working field blades that won’t run you over $30 with just a little bit of shopping around.
Buck Bucklite MAX
When Americans think knife, Buck is one of the first names to spring to mind. Buck has a long history of providing high quality, good value blades to outdoorsmen and they’re newer Bucklite line is a superb example of that tradition. Made in both a large and small model the Bucklite MAX knives feature 1/8 inch thick, hollow ground, drop point blades of Buck’s Boss heat treated 420HC steel. Handles are of an ergonomic Alcryn MPR rubber and are available in black on the basic models and orange on the Boone and Crocket Club editions. The MPR rubber covers a full tang so the Bucklite’s are sturdy knives. For this article I acquired an orange handled Bucklite MAX for evaluation. The bigger Bucklite carries a 4 inch blade and is 8 ¾ inches overall. Weight is a feathery 5.5 ounces. The Bucklite’s come with a nylon sheath with a hard plastic insert that’s quit decent.
It’s hard to believe the Bucklites are American made knives that cost under $30. The MPR rubber handles feel good in the hand and are comfortable in a variety of grips. Buck’s 420HC isn’t fancy but it’s stood the test of time and combines excellent corrosion resistance, with good edge holding ability, and easy resharpening. I had very good luck doing typical camp chores like notching and sharpening sticks, cutting up meat, cheese and veggies, cutting cordage and just plain old casual whittling. You get an awful lot of value out of these knives and I’ve heartily recommended them to a number of folks since first working with them. The small model can be found for about $19, and the large around $24, add a couple bucks more for the orange handled version as seen here. That’s an outstanding deal for a US made, full tang field knife and goes to show you don’t need to drop big money to be well equipped.
Cold Steel Finn Bear
If Buck is a company you think of as a traditional American knife company, then Cold Steel is the one that comes to mind for unique approaches to things. Cold Steel has never been afraid to think outside the box and try new ideas and they’ve come up with many popular designs over the years. Sometimes that was something as simple as reimagining historical designs and putting their own twist on them, and that’s the case we have with the Finn Bear. The Finn Bear is based upon the very successful puukko design of Finnish industrial artists and designer Tapio Wirkkala. Original Wirkkala’s are a little tough to find and are fairly pricey. Luckily for us though, the Finn Bear is the Wirkkala for the common man! Featuring the same basic lines and handle ergonomics of the original, the Finn Bear is made of much humbler materials and brings the design into easy reach for the average guy.
With a 4 inch blade and 8 ½ inch overall length, the Finn Bear is an easy knife to pack, especially when you consider its 2.8 ounce weight. The blade is made of Krupps 4116 stainless steel with a Rockwell around 56-57 that make it durable and easy to sharpen. The grind is a shallow hollow grind and it strops up quickly to a razor sharp edge. The handle is a much simplified one piece Polypropylene version of the Wirkkala design. The Finn Bear comes with a basic, stiff Cordura nylon sheath
I’ve used the Finn Bear a good bit over the past few years and I really enjoy it. It takes the ergonomics and design of the Wirkkala and puts it into a package that’s readily available and very affordable. The Krupps steel has good edge retention and is a joy to maintain. It’s held up well to batoning and heavy use too. One of my first experiences with the knife was watching a friend baton chunks off of a frozen oak log that I thought was way too big to be attacking with a knife. The Finn Bear not only handled the weekend of abuse in 7 degree weather, it came away no worse for wear. No breakage, no loosening of the handle, and no edge deformation! We had a number of high end blades develop chips and cracks that weekend from the hard wood and extreme temperatures so I walked away with a good respect for the lowly Finn Bear. Since that time I’ve used the knife a lot and time hasn’t done anything to diminish my opinion of the knife. It’s simple, sturdy and inexpensive. Its MSRP is only $19 and street prices are down around $13. That’s pretty hard to beat no matter how you look at it!
Condor Tool and Knife Sapien
Condor Tool and Knife has a history that traces back through its German parent company into the late 1700’s. In more recent time this El Salvadorian company has been a major provider of machetes and tools to much of Latin America and their most recent venture has seen them branch out into knives for the U.S. and European markets. The brainchild behind many of these new designs is fellow knife writer and compatriot Joe Flowers. Joe has come up with a string of designs for Condor but the one that I think best suits our purposes here is his Scandinavian influenced Sapien. The Sapien has a good bit of puukko in its roots but it melds that style into a sturdy full tang design. The edge is essentially Scandi with a slight secondary bevel for durability. The 4 inch blade is ground from 1/8 inch thick 1075 high carbon steel and the knife is 8 ¼ inches overall. The handle is of well contoured Guatemalan walnut scales epoxied and pinned into place for durability. Weight is 6.08 ounces. The Sapien comes with a heavy duty fold over leather sheath, probably the sturdiest of all the knives discussed here today.
Most of the inexpensive field knives I’ve talked about use stainless steel blades and synthetic handles. For the folks who love good old carbon steel and walnut though the Sapien is a nice option. To add some corrosion resistance the blades are coated with a black epoxy. Some folks like that, others don’t. If you don’t care for it it’s easily removed with a product like Stypeeze. Handling characteristics of the Sapien are quite good. The rounded handle works well in a myriad of holds and the overall size makes for good control when carving and notching. The visible full tang blade gives a good deal of confidence in the product too and it holds up well under rough use. The Sapien carries an MSRP of $39.98 but street prices come in around $27 making it easily fit within our budget.
Gerber Metolius Fixed Blade
Jeff Freeman has done a lot of design work for Gerber Legendary Blades over the years but his Metolius series really reaches out to outdoorsmen. Inspired by the Metolius River wilderness area in Oregon these are knives that yearn to take you back to the woods. I’ve worked with the Metolius folder in the past and was anxious to get my hands on its fixed blade brother for this article. The Metolius Fixed Blade features a 3.75 inch drop point blade with a distinctive hump to it along the forward portion of the blade. The blade itself is made from 9Cr18MoV steel and features a plain, non-serrated edge. Gerber likens this steel to 154CM in its properties. The handle has what Gerber refers to as a SoftGrip over mold, and features deep finger grooves to provide a positive grip under adverse conditions. Overall length is 8 ½ inches and the weight comes in at a solid 7.7 ounces. The butt of the Metolius features a stylish triangular shaped lanyard hole. The Metolius comes with a basic nylon sheath.
My field time with the Metolius Fixed Blade compared favorably with the time I spent with its folding brother. The blade shape lends itself well to hunting tasks as well as general camp chores. It works well for your typical cutting, carving and slicing required on the trail, and its sturdy point was great for drilling and prying into wood. The big advantage of the fixed blade over the folder for me was that I wasn’t hesitant about doing light chopping and batoning with this sturdy blade. While the Metolius Fixed Blade carries an MSRP of $50, you can find them for about $29 with some shopping around and that’s a pretty good deal for another great design from Jeff Freeman.
Marttiini Condor MN15 Puukko
While I passed on the Mora’s since most folks know about them I did include another Scandi pattern knife that often tends to get overlooked. Marttiini is a Finnish knife maker that makes a wide range of knives from very traditional to very modern. Their Condor line features somewhat more Westernized designs and they tend to be very affordable. The MN15 puukko discussed here comes with either a black Kraton handle or a birch wood handle and carries a 4 ¼ inch Scandi ground blade of high chrome stainless steel. Marttiini’s stainless blades are relatively low Rockwell, in the low to mid 50’s, and some folks don’t care for that. Personally, I’ve had good luck with them and have found that the durability and ease of maintenance makes up for any perceived lack of edge retention. Overall length on the MN15 is 9 inches and that encompasses a good sized, hand filling handle. The wood handled MN15 features some simple but attractive etchings giving it a more traditional appearance over the checkered Kraton version. The guard and bolster are actually plastic with a metallic coating but they’re sturdy and functional. The MN15’s comes with pretty nice sheaths for the money. They’re a fold over leather design with a dangler loop and feature a stiff plastic insert for safety.
My first experience with the MN15 was on the same brutally cold winter trip where I saw the Finn Bear abused. The MN15 held its own on that trip, and has done well ever since. I recently traded off my old Kraton handle MN15 for the fancier wood handled model and I like the upgrade. They function the same but the warmer wood handle and brown leather sheath appeal to me. The Kraton handled MN15 is about $20.98 and the wood handled on comes in at $29.98, just sneaking into our $30 budget. It’s a good knife in either handle configuration and a nice option if you like a Scandi edge.
Bushcraft on a Budget
A limited budget doesn’t mean you have to settle for poor quality. There is certainly a difference between cheap and inexpensive, and with a little looking around you can find some very good buys that offer good performance but that won’t cost you a lot of bucks. The knives covered here are just some examples of ones I’ve worked with personally and know to work, but there are definitely others out there. If I missed your favorite, drop us a line here at SRI or leave us a message on our Facebook page and let us know what it is!
If you liked this article and would like to see more articles like it in print form for when you aren’t around your computer check out the Woods Monkey Gear Review in Self Reliance Illustrated!
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