“‘At’s not a knoife…’at’s a knoife.” –Mick “Crocodile” Dundee, brandishing a camp knife at a terrified and out-cutlered mugger.
The definition of a camp knife is a big, heavy knife that can do most of what a hatchet can do and much of what a knife can do. The concept is not new. Mountain men carried heavy butcher knives (and skinners, and patch knives), which would qualify nicely as camp knives. In 1849, the Ames Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts manufactured a Rifleman’s Knife for American soldiers, and today we’d call it a camp knife. In World War II, the Marine Corps issued a Hospital Corpman’s Knife to medical personnel, and a Bowie knife made by Western Cutlery, the W49, to some of its Raider units. (This is the knife that Robert Redford carries in Jeremiah Johnson.) Both would qualify as camp knives, and both are very useful.
In all likelihood, “camp knife” became an official term when the late, great Bill Moran forged his own versions, and the writer Ken Warner picked up on the term and gave it to the rest of us.
In order to be useful, a camp knife can be neither small nor light. About the shortest useful blade length is 8 inches, although 9 is better, and I would not turn away a 10-incher. The blades should be broad and heavy–1/4-inch stock makes a good thick blade. You can chop with them, butcher with them, whittle, perform emergency amputations, take the head off a zombie, or settle those annoying disputes that come up in camp in a satisfyingly emphatic manner.
The camp knife shown here is a prime example of the breed, and is from Lamont Coombs, of whom I wrote this summer. What Mr. Coombs whomped up has a 90-inch 9-inch drop-point blade of D2 steel, bronze hardware, drop-dead gorgeous ironwood for the handle slabs and a substantial weight of 1 ½ pounds. It’s sharp as a razor, and almost too pretty to use, but there’s not much you can do to damage it. If you need heavy-duty cutting done with a minimum of effort, here is your huckleberry.
There are a number of factories that turn out very good camp knives (mostly on the tactical side), but the best one, in a walk, that I have ever used is the Jerry Hossom Forester knife made by Spyderco. It is a superlative knife, but now discontinued, although Spyderco has some for sale. The Forester has a 9″ blade, a handle that is an ergonomic marvel, and a great sheath. If you can grab one you have a real jewel.
If there’s one drawback to camp knives, it’s that they’re damned annoying to carry on your belt–too long and too heavy, and perpetually in the way. Tote yours in a back or fanny pack, however, and all will be well.
The camp knife is not a tool you have to have, but it’s been around for a very long time, and can do a great deal that a standard-size knife can’t, which is why people still make them and use them.