Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hardworking Pocket Knives

Pocket knife aficionados know that the various “folders” come in different styles. Each style originated in order to accomplish particular tasks ranging from woodworking to, as the story goes, castrating animals. Some pocket knives are more popular than others; we would expect as much. But oftentimes the popularity of any specific folder depends on what is viewed as “in” at the moment as opposed to what works the best for any explicit chore. In my life and in my part of the country I’ve seen the preferred type modulate over the decades. Years ago most vaqueros carried single-bladed sodbuster pocket knives. Sodbusters were inexpensive and ranchers would buy enough to hand one out to every vaquero on his payroll.

I picked this sodbuster up at a local hardware store a few months back. Including sales tax it came to about ten dollars. It has Imperial written on it. So far it hasn’t given me any trouble. Time will tell.

Then later the stockman became more popular. In fact, I still see a lot of stockman knives in use. I use the sheep foot blade on the folder above as a scraper and the other two blades as general purpose blades. This one is marketed under the name Magnum and is distributed by Böker.

Now it seems the so-called “tactical” lock blade has taken the stage. I don’t use this knife made by Benchmade much other than to pack it when I’m in an area where the meanest varmint walks on two legs. The blade is a bit thick for optimal bushcraft use (at least in my opinion) and I’ve got other and less expensive folders that perform better on those tasks. Even so, I’ve used this knife over the years to do everything from making skewers to gutting deer. The one pictured above is a “first production” model—but that does not mean all that much to me.

There’s a saying amongst some ranch hands that you’ll know a fellow by the way he opens his knife. All I know is that woods rats tend to be rather solitary and aren’t too interested in impressing anyone with any sort of one-handed flick out of the blade. To each his own but old hands tend to open their pocket knives slowly not being particularly interested in doing anything fancy. A pocket knife is simply a practical piece of gear; in fact, it’s probably the most important piece of gear they own. They’ll use it for a lot of chores from cutting the twine on a bale of hay or trimming a leather strap or pinching a mesquite thorn out of a boot or maybe removing the rattlers off a rattlesnake’s tail.

If you happen to cruise any of the knife forum sites they will invariably have a section dealing with what is called “Traditional Folders.” Those are pocket knives that fall under the category of “slip-joint” or “non-locking blade.” As a kid all my older male family members carried some sort of slip-joint. In my clan it seems the most popular were knives that could be employed for trimming the spines off nopalitos or young prickly pear pads. They could also serve to sever the juicy fruit from a pitaya cactus. Those slip-joints were usually small with razor sharp narrow blades. When nothing else was handy they’d also make dandy steak slicers and worked wonders on a juicy piece of fajita (fa-hee-tah) sizzling off the barbeque pit.

Over the years I’ve developed a preference for the style of slip-joint called the muskrat. Don’t let the muskrat’s long, narrow blades mislead you. They are robust and can take abuse. Not that I’m one who abuses his knives but you’ve got to do something remarkably foolish before you snap a muskrat’s blade.

A few weeks ago I used one of my muskrat pocket knives to gut and clean a respectable catch of speckled sea trout my sons reeled in over the course of several nights at the Laguna Madre. Its thin stainless steel blades were perfect for the saltwater and made for spectacular fillet work.

Like a lot of pocket knife carriers I use my muskrat folders for mundane tasks like opening a box or dicing onions at the camp. But they work nicely for making trigger assemblies on survival traps and….well, the list is long and varied.  The neat thing about the muskrat folder is that you’ve got two identical blades lying next to each other and that allows you to use one blade for food handling and the other blade for other chores.

Note: It’s a good idea to keep your blades clean regardless of what you use them for.

The knife above is well known to most bushcrafters. The Opinel is made in France. It has a unique twist-open and lock mechanism that allows the user to extract the blade from the wooden handle and ready it for use. The blade locks by simply rotating the lock-ring mechanism back to its original position. This is an Opinel model number six with a three inch long blade. It cost me about twelve bucks when I purchased it a few years ago. The blade is exceedingly thin and can be sharpened into something akin to a razor blade. But the knife is delicate and the blade is carbon steel and rusts up about as fast as a boxer sweats in the ring. This is one of my favorite leatherworking knives and has seen hard use.

Most of my pocket knives are inexpensive and that word should not be misconstrued as to mean “cheap.”  As I’ve noted in a previous post we ought not to confuse the two words—especially in a world market where the costs of labor vary dramatically. These knives have not let me down and that’s what counts.

I feel incomplete if I can’t carry a pocket knife. And from time to time I’ll switch styles and tote something else. But invariably I come back to my muskrats. The two pictured above are marketed by Böker under the name Magnum. Someplace down the road I’ll probably try another brand that I’m fond of but for now these lightweight little folders are handling the job just fine. And yes, I’ve got plans to post articles on those other knives.

One more thing friends: This is a busy time of the year and that’s why the posts have been sporadic. I’ve got lots of ideas for short articles and those will be coming along in time.       


  1. Great little thread. I love Opinel Knives, they are amazing to take on picnics and excellent for cutting through cheese and bread. I recently bought one of these, http://www.aboveandbeyond.co.uk/.opinel-no-8-outdoor-knife_3123840015786.htm as I like the blade, however I am going to try and add a wooden handle as I prefer the more traditional approach.

  2. Gosh, I'd never seen the Opinel Knives with those type handles. They do look nice. I agree. The Opinel knife is way underrated. The carbon blade takes a razor edge and they are excellent for around the house and in camp.

  3. They're low cost, chic and steeped in history, what's not to like about Opinel knives :)

  4. I really like this blog. Thanks fors haring with us great blog.

    Out The Front Knives

  5. The only problem is that most of the knives you cited are imports. There still are knife companies in America, why not support them?

    And in another post, you correctly stated the superiority of 1095 steel. Why did you switch to stainless?

    1. Most ranch hands can't afford the prices of American made knives and so I try to focus on the knives used not only by me but also by the people who work the ranches around me. Besides, it's not always easy anymore (given the Outsourcing situation by American corporations) to distinguish what is American and what is foreign. I'm not sure what you mean by "supporting" someone. Does that mean that my labor and my money should be used to "support" (as in welfare?) others who then profit at my expense? You see it's a two way street. As for stainless versus carbon steel: I prefer carbon for most tasks related to whittling but a good stainless steel knife will work just fine for harvesting nopalitos or even gutting a deer. Most of the ranch hands, by the way, use stainless steel knives because not only are they cheaper but for the tasks that they do they are sufficient.

  6. It means you should support American companies whenever possible. And if you buy Case, Moore Maker, or most of the Buck line, you do just that. There used to be others like Schrade and Camillus but they are out of business now thanks to people buying imports. Why support a communist country like China? I don't really have a beef with stainless, however the quality ones are just as expensive as the 1095.

    And for those who gripe about the price of USA made knives, buy used ones on e-bay.

  7. Add Utica Cutlery and Bear and Son to the list of companies here in the USA still making slip joints and employing Americans to do it. How much longer they will be in business if people keep buying imports, I don't know.

  8. Great post I loved it I now know much more about eventbrite! Very well written keep up the good work.


  9. Great Eastern Cutlery makes FANTASTIC old school, carbon steel knives in the USA. IMO they're all worth the high price tag. But if you're on a budget their "Farm & Field" line of pocketknives are priced right.

    1. I'll check the GEC Farm & Field knives out. Thanks for sharing the info.