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Cutting Edge

What Makes a Perfect Knife?
Here Are My Answers

By Tamia Nelson The Knives in My Life

May 13, 2014

I almost never leave home without a knife. And I almost always use it before I return. Whether I'm carving a wedge of cheese off a larger block or slicing a lethal tangle of monofilament into manageable lengths, my knife finds regular employment. And that's not all. A knife is more than a tool. It's a type of insurance policy, and though — as is the case with every sort of insurance — you hope you'll never need it, it's good to know it's there. Just in case.

Here's a for‑instance: A long time ago, on a river far, far away from where I'm now sitting, three lives hung by a thread. Or, more accurately, three lives were imperiled by a thread — a thread of taut line that ran from the shore to a swamped canoe. And one of the three lives that hung in the balance was Farwell's. Since he's sitting just opposite me as I type this, it's obvious that the story had a happy ending. But this happy ending depended on someone having a sharp knife on her person and knowing just how and when to use it.

A once in lifetime thing, you say? Well, you're right. Yet three lives might have ended much sooner if there'd been no knife within reach. Sometimes you only get one chance in a lifetime. You either have what you need to meet the challenge or you don't. That's insurance for you.

Anyway, as you've probably guessed by now, I was the woman with the knife and the knowledge of how to use it. My climbing apprenticeship had taught me a thing or two about rope and its ways. It also taught me about the need to keep a sharp knife within easy reach. Which is why I won't leave home without one, whether I'm embarking on an amphibious trek, portaging my Pack canoe to a local beaver pond, or snowshoeing across trackless drifts and thickly wooded slopes beyond the reach of skiers and snowmobilers.

That being the case, you won't be surprised to learn that …

I'm Very Particular About My Knives

As I see it, any knife worth bringing with you into the backcountry must …

  1. Take and keep a sharp edge.
  2. Have a sharp point.
  3. Hold up under heavy use.
  4. Have a comfortable grip.
  5. Be long enough to do the job, …
  6. Yet short enough not to get in the way.
  7. Have a sturdy, secure sheath.

Most of these things are self‑evident, I suppose, though the second item on my list will certainly elicit skepticism (or even outrage) in some quarters. Sharp points are now uncommon on knives designed for paddlers. In this, canoeists and kayakers are following the lead of divers, who have long favored knives with blunt or chisel points, for the good reason that a sharp point is a dangerous thing when you're being buffeted by a strong current. And if I regularly ran water that required me to spend half my time upside down, in places where I could count on being tossed around like a lone sock in an otherwise empty washing machine, I'd probably get just such a knife. But I like to keep my head above water when I can, and I find a sharp point useful for a variety of chores, from drilling holes in leather straps to dislodging ticks. There are better tools for all these ancillary tasks, obviously, but I can't be sure I'll have them with me when the need arises.

And I'll always have my knife.

Furthermore, a sturdy, well‑thought‑out sheath does much to mitigate the danger posed by a knife with a sharp point. Heavy leather is good, particularly when the sheath incorporates some sort of point guard. But leather isn't perfect. Once it gets wet, it stays wet a long time, and even rostfrei (stainless steel) knives will eventually rust. If you think your knife will be spending much time under water, a plastic sheath is better than a leather one.

Give some thought to convenience and security, too. A sheath must retain the blade in all orientations. If a sharp edge is exposed when you hold a sheathed knife upside down and shake it vigorously, the sheath is useless. And no sheath should get in your way when you paddle or portage. Check this before you hand over your money. Not all sheaths measure up.

Enough generalities. Let's get down to specifics. The knife that saved Farwell's life subsequently fell victim to a house fire, along with a great many other things. I was sorry to lose it, but its replacement, a Gerber A400 drop‑point Hunter, was my constant companion for years, afloat and afield. Here it is:

Gerber A400 Hunter

You're not seeing double, by the way. This is a composite photo, showing the Hunter sheathed and unsheathed. I think you'll agree that it's weathered the passage of time well, though if you look closely, you'll see where the rocks of the Hudson River Gorge left their mark on the sheath. You'll also notice that there is no retention strap. The knife is held in the sheath by friction alone, and while the blade has never slipped out — not even during my swim in the Narrows — friction is a poor second‑best to a strap.

Nor is this the Hunter's only shortcoming. The sheath is (understandably) tight, and extracting the knife can be difficult, especially when your fingers are stiff from long immersion in chilly water. The knife's balance is also poor, and the grip is both slippery when wet and cold to the touch. Despite these drawbacks, however, the Hunter was my primary paddling blade for many years. In time, though, I grew less tolerant of its failings. So I started looking for something better.

And I found them. Them, you'll notice, not it. Few chefs would be happy with just one knife, after all. Why should paddlers be any less discriminating? As I've mentioned in the past, I habitually wear a fixed‑blade knife on a belt around my waist. Of late, however, I've gotten into the habit of clipping a folding knife to a tab on my PFD, as well. The fixed‑blade could serve in both capacities, of course, but I'd have to swap it round when I'm ashore. I find it easier to carry both.

Here, then, are …

The Knives in My Life

The first is a Gerber River Runner fixed‑blade:

Gerber River Runner

Yes, this is another composite picture. And like me, my River Runner is showing its age: It has a sharp point. Its successor, the River Shorty, doesn't. For the reasons I've already outlined, I'm glad I got mine when I did. The River Runner has other virtues, too. The 3½‑inch single‑edged blade is sturdy enough to use as a pry bar in a hard chance — not something I'd recommend except in a dire emergency, though — and the stainless steel lives up to its billing. My tube of Flitz and the ball of 0000 steel wool can stay on the shelf. The coarse teeth on the (unsharpened) back of the blade also give your thumb a place to park during fine or difficult work, while the serrated portion of the blade edge makes cutting even wet rope easy. You can see both in the photo below:

River Runner Close-Up

I've suggested that a fixed‑blade knife is only as good as its sheath, and here, too, the River Runner lives up to its billing. The hard plastic sheath boasts both a molded clip and a lanyard tunnel. Moreover, dogs on either side of the throat engage notches in the knife's grip, locking the blade firmly in place. A cautionary word is probably in order at this point, however: The molded clip (see photo below) is both thick and stiff. If you're thinking of clipping the River Runner to an accessory patch on your PFD, therefore, you may find the job all but impossible. I'm also seeing noticeable wear on the locking dogs at the sheath's throat. At some point, they'll no longer grip the knife securely.


And while we're on the subject of getting a grip, I'd welcome a slightly less exiguous hilt. That said, the conspicuous corrugations in the molded grip make it unlikely that your hand will slip onto the sharpened edge, and three elongated, projecting teeth allow you to orient the blade by touch alone. The grip's central grooves provide additional tactile feedback, too.

Getting a Grip

None of which should come as a surprise. Gerber is a well‑known maker of knives, with a good reputation for quality. My second knife has a less distinguished pedigree, however. Labeled "Magnum stainless" and made in China, this folder was a loss‑leader from a now‑defunct catalog merchant. But it sports a perfectly serviceable 3½‑inch locking blade, and nearly identical knives appear online from time to time. Here it is alongside the River Runner:

Family Portrait

The grip has smooth aluminum scales. It's slippery when wet, but the contoured form and adequate‑for‑purpose hilt do much to ameliorate this failing. (I've toyed with the idea of gluing some inner tube material to the scales to improve matters, but it really doesn't seem necessary.) The spring steel clip is also much more tractable than the stiff molded plastic counterpart on the River Runner's sheath.

Steel Is Real

There's a corrugated thumb rest opposite the hilt, too. It's shown in Photo A, below, and you can see another view of the hilt in Photo B. The integral blade‑lock (Photo C) functions flawlessly, and a reversible stud makes it easy to open the blade with one hand. The knife came with a small pin wrench to permit tightening the hinge. I keep it as snug as I can while still being able to open the blade with my thumb. In fact, after Farwell's experience with a similar knife in a bike crash — it was thrown out of his bar bag and sprang open on striking the asphalt surface of the roadway — I've taken to slipping a small section of bicycle inner tube over the grip and the (closed) blade in rough water. I can easily push it off and open the knife with one hand, but the improvised sleeve provides a measure of protection against the blade opening unbidden if I spend a few minutes in the spin cycle at some point in the proceedings.

Folder Triptych

All in all, my loss‑leader folder has served me well, and it continues to do so. Between it and my River Runner, I'm never without a knife. And that's just how I like it.

A final word to the wise: The knives I've described above are tools. This is how I see them, at any rate. But legislators and law‑enforcement officers often regard even diminutive blades as "dangerous weapons," and there are an ever‑increasing number of jurisdictions, in the United States and elsewhere in the world, where carrying any one of the knives I've illustrated would constitute a criminal offense.

The upshot? Before you buy a knife, and before you take any knife across a border, do your homework. Make very sure your blade won't land you in jail. Don't expect the job to be easy, though. "Knife law" is a juridical stump field, full of redundant statutes, manifold contradictions, and endless ambiguities, all of them lying in wait to trip up the well‑meaning wanderer and send him sprawling. So mind how you go. 'Nuff said? I hope so.

At the Ready

Knives are among humankind's oldest tools, and most paddlers will feel only half‑dressed without one. But which knife is best? That's the real question, isn't it? And the right answer will depend on the individual. Now that you've seen my answers, however, you may have an easier time finding your perfect knife.

~ ~ ~

In case you're wondering: In the Same Boat neither solicits nor accepts payment for product endorsements, nor do we accept product samples from manufacturers or their representatives. We write about what we purchase through normal retail channels, and nothing else, though on rare occasions we'll publish a product analysis of something we don't own and have never used, based solely on the manufacturer's claims, published specifications, or the experience of friends. When we do this, however, we'll tell you.



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