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Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Edge

There have been volumes and volumes written about survival knives. Long boring discourses on point types, metallurgy, folding versus fixed, stamped versus hand forged, on and on until it would cross your eyes. Some survival experts would have you carrying a monster blade capable of butchering a moose; others recommend a bewildering array of knives for every purpose that leaves you wondering where you could possibly carry them all.

There is indeed a place in preparedness for large fixed blade knives and full suites of specialist knives, but the average person is unlikely to be carrying either on a day to day basis. In fact, in some places in Manitoba you will contravene bylaws and leave yourself open to large fines if you carry a blade longer than 7 cm (2.5 inches), and to carry a blade in a manner where it is obvious that your intent was to conceal a weapon can result in a charge under the Criminal Code.

So what is the one best survival knife? The answer is simple: The knife you always have with you. It doesn’t matter if you own blades that would make Rambo weep in envy if they are in one place and you in another.

For me, that means an everyday carry knife that will not contravene laws, that will be useful for a variety of situations and that I will carry all the time. In my draconic opinion, that comes down to just two choices for most people: The multi-tool or the venerable Swiss Army Knife. And while I own a multi-tool, the SAK is my personal preference, and I believe it should be the preference of most people. Why do I say that?

I thought you’d never ask...
The multi-tool does have one striking advantage in that it consists of a strong pair of folding pliers (with additional tools in the handles) that offer a gripping strength that Swiss Army Knives can’t match. That said, the multi-tool is often quite heavy (weights of well over half a pound are not uncommon), offers a smaller range of implements, and is generally more expensive than a SAK with comparable functions if pliers are excluded. Additionally, the greater weight and size of the multi-tool makes it harder to manipulate the handle-carried tools, especially for individuals with smaller hands or limited strength. Most importantly, that greater weight also means it is far more likely to be left on the bedroom dresser at home than would a pocket knife.

To give manufacturers their due, there have been efforts to make the multi-tool lighter and more compact, but this has resulted in tools that either offer far fewer accessories, are more fragile, or are more expensive (Titanium ain’t cheap!). Unfortunately, a simultaneous move has been to go the other way, adding more to it in the form of bit sets, turning an already bulky tool into a bulkier one.

In contrast, the SAK is lighter than a multi-tool in most of its incarnations (my Huntsman model, pictured at the start of this article, is ~ 80g), although the flagship model, the ‘Champ’ weighs in at a silly 221 grams. On the whole however, there is such a large variety of knives in so many sizes and degrees of complexity that you're sure to find one to fit your exact requirements.

The usual suspects are present: blades, screwdrivers, can and bottle openers, wood saw, tweezers and scissors to name just a few, but it doesn’t end there. For example, there are knives designed with activity specific tools (e.g., the Equestrian which has a hoof cleaning tool, or the Hunter, with gut hook). There are Swiss Army Knives with integral LED flashlights, a feature I have yet to see on a multi-tool. There are even knives that have removable USB flash drives!

Further items such as magnifying lenses and pens are available, and if you really must have it, there are knives with pliers as part of the tool set, although far from as robust as those of a multi-tool.

In closing, let me make clear that I think multi-tools are great for what they are. The same is true of the SAK. In all honesty, both are far inferior to a purpose built tool intended for a single specific task. Both are far, far better than having nothing at all.

So you need to ask yourself two questions before you choose either:

What combination of features are the most useful to you?

Which of the two is more likely to be in your pocket or purse when you need it?
Personally, I think that most of the time the honest answers to those questions will lead you to some version of the Swiss Army Knife.