Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Machete Bowie Survival Knife…And Other Weighty Matters Related to Survival

 You’ve probably heard the saying that a survival knife is the knife you have on you in a survival situation.  Though quaint, the saying is so fraught with variables that it is perhaps less a submission of fact as it is an admission of fate.  In other words, a peanut folding knife is nice for slicing spines off tender nopalito pads but if you happen to find yourself lost in the jungle let us hope you’re carrying more than a tiny jackknife.  Ultimately, the subject of what constitutes a proper survival blade falls along the same lines as what makes for a pretty girl.  Gather ten young fellows and then parade a couple dozen maidens in front of them and opinions on who is the loveliest will most likely vary greatly.  Of course, that’s what makes the world go around.  And so it is with the survival knife.  One person will find the classic KA-BAR® the optimum design while another will opt for a Scandinavian edge and someone else will prefer a Malaysian parang and still another a classic 24-inch blade machete.  In the end the best determinate factor is you; and besides at some point the blade becomes only one part of a consortium of supplies, needs, and ultimately luck.  So it is that experimentation with knives can become on the one hand a ghastly obsession and on the other an exercise in analytics.  Regardless, allow me to submit the machete Bowie for your perusal as one more option in that mine-field of what might constitute a good survival knife.  This knife started out as one of two Tramontina bolo machetes that had seen hard use and been relegated to a shelf in the barn.  A few years ago I cleaned up both machetes but decided to experiment with the design.  But then the blades went back on the shelf for about 24 months awaiting the next stage in their transition from bolo to something else.  A few weeks ago I decided to finish working on one of the machetes and what you see pictured is the result.  Those of you familiar with Tramontina machetes know they are thin bladed and intended for whacking nothing more than light shrubbery, vines and an occasional clump of reeds or stand of small bamboo.  That’s not to say that some have attempted to chop down more robust plants with these machetes but that is taking them beyond their intended uses.  Travel throughout the American brushlands and desert regions and then south into the transition zones then farther south into the jungles and you’ll find 24-inch thin bladed machetes the most popular carry by far.  Tramontina is but one manufacturer amongst a dozen or so makers.  All of them produce good brush whackers.  They’re made of moderate grade carbon steel with the numbers 1060-1074 the most frequent.

Truth is that very few survival knives sold these days will ever be used for anything even remotely approaching an emergency.  As such they are not much more than curios or toys bought to daydream, romanticize and otherwise play.  The game is called “Waiting for Doomsday” and although our current depletion of resources, pollution of water supplies both above ground and underground and our ever warming climate makes such a scenario truly conceivable, the facts remain that regardless of what preparations people take an abrupt collapse will precipitate a level of chaos that will diminish human populations to miniscule numbers in short order.  In the 1970s it was called “The Survival Movement” but that morphed over the years to become what are now called “Preppers.”  Steeped in the duality of eschatological fear and modern-day angst the Survival Movement/Prepper fixation has morphed even further into the world of modern capitalism.  Why just talk about it when we can make money off of it.  I’ll sell you bug-out-bags stocked with supplies; I’ll sell you books on surviving/prepping; I’ll sell you guns and knives; I’ll sell you generators and solar panels; I’ll sell you anything I can convince you that you need.  And then I’ll deposit the checks in the very same banks I claim will collapse “just around the corner.”  Forgive me folks, but the older I get the more profoundly enigmatic things seem to be.

 The Machete Bowie has a 9 ½ inch blade and is 15 ¾ inches overall.  The Tramontina blade is quite thin measuring 1.5 millimeters.  I’ve never seen any reason to modify a blade that thin into anything other than how it arrives from the factory.  Attempting to turn one section into a “Scandi” blade doesn’t make all that much sense to me.  First of all the steel is too soft for performing any sort of fine woodcarving on woods with a specific gravity over 0.70 and that includes a lot of tropical hardwoods.  Second the blades thinness allows it to be sharpened as is to perform rudimentary woodworking if needed.  In remote regions I’ve seen indigenous peoples use machetes in remarkable ways.  Give a fellow a 24-inch blade machete and he’ll use it to do everything from cut reeds for his hut to make a bow and then fashion a set of arrows and then build a trap and then when he’s relaxing he’ll use that same machete to carve a figurine from a piece of soft wood.  He’ll carry his machete everywhere he goes and is quick to pull it out of its sheath if he feels threatened.  On a few occasions I saw the results of a machete fight.  The word filleted comes to mind.

The Machete Bowie has a mesquite handle.  I cut a branch in half then using a farrier’s rasp I leveled both insides of the handle.  Be sure and leave the inside sections rough so that the epoxy will hold.  I then experimented a bit further and used fiberglass carpenter’s tape folded over and over to form an inner seam between the two wooden scales.  I saturated the tape with epoxy then pinned the scales through the tape with two nails.  All was going well until I started my final shaping of the handle and I couldn’t stop the fiberglass from frizzing up.  At last I smoothed things out (and the epoxy saturation helped greatly) and I decided to “paint” the entire handle with epoxy.  The results are pleasing—at least from my perspective—and the handle is now waterproof.

Do I consider this knife a good survival blade?  Yes I do.  Do I hope I ever get the chance to use it as a survival blade?  No, I don’t.  So what will this knife be used for?  Well, around here it will make a good woods roaming companion.  I can slice away nopal pads to open up a trail and keep from getting pricked with spines.  I can whack the thorns off a branch of retama or granjeno to make a walking stick.  I can gut a wild hog; I can make a snare trigger; I can make a simple spoon; I can make a tripod to hold my cooking pot.  This knife is like a few dozen others I’ve made that, for me at least, work a heck of a lot better for the type of foliage I’ve got around here than any Scandinavian blade or other 4-inch “bushcraft” knife.  You see, one shoe does not fit all.  If I were in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or in Manitoba or maybe in the Colorado Rockies this knife would not be my choice of carry.  But in the Texas Brushlands or a few miles west in the Chihuahuan Desert or out in Sonora or maybe in the limoncillo transition zones in Mexico or in Costa Rica then this knife would do for me what I would require in a knife.  And if heaven forbid I needed it to survive then it would work fine…if nothing untold came to pass.  And in that case a knife isn’t going to do you any good regardless.


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  2. How long was the machete blade before you modified it? I wouldn't mind making one like that myself.

    1. John, It was 14 inches long. So in order to make the knife above you need to use the rear hole on the existing tang and then make another hole forward of that. You will essentially have moved the tang forward. But the steel is already heat treated so you can't just drill a hole into the steel. Instead I used a Dremel tool to open up a slit that I then opened up further with a small rat tail file. That enabled me to place the front pin. I've got another bolo machete that I'm going to make into a sort of pirate sword or something along those lines. It's been 106 degrees outside the last few days (only goes down to about 80 at night) and so I haven't been able to work on that project. Heat index has been around 112 in the afternoons. Anyway, when I make that conversion I'll post more pictures and details. Thanks for commenting.

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