While not seeing any deer on my annual hunt in West Virginia (I’ve hunted there just about every year since 1986, and not even seeing a deer is as odd as seeing a full set of teeth on one of the humans). I was asked by the son of a friend of mine what makes the best knife handle. This lad shows every sign of being as depraved a knife nut as I have been.
The raw material for the best knife handle depends on how you’re going to use the knife. Will it get wet a lot? Is it going to see the inside of a lot of disgusting animals and get blood and ugh all over it? Is the knife likely to be used hard and get banged around?
Bo Randall favored stacked leather washers for a working knife handle. This is still the standard on most Randall models. Eventually, the leather handle will look like hell, especially if it gets blood on it, and once a year you should rub in some clear shoe polish to keep the washers from drying out, but leather handles go on pretty much forever. I’ve seen Randall knives that have soaked up insane amounts of abuse for 50 years and they look it, but they’re still functional.
There are lots of woods that make good handles. Ebony is handsome, but will almost certainly crack over time. African blackwood looks a bit like ebony, but is less likely to crack. Hickory has as much visual appeal as a milk carton, but makes a very good, tough handle. Maple is about as tough, but can have all sorts of fancy figure to it.
The best woods are the tropical hardwoods—rosewood and cocobolo—and particularly the latter. They’re good looking, dense grained, can be polished like glass, and are naturally oily, so they stand up to water. I have a Herron filleting knife that we use in the kitchen. It’s been wet every day for 30 years, and its cocobolo handle still looks presentable.
But my favorite is desert ironwood. It’s as hard as flint, stable, comes in grades from dead plain to eye-bugging, and doesn’t cost a fortune, even for the spectacular stuff. It makes a handle that’s not only good looking, but impervious to just about everything.
Sambar stag is very good. It comes from the sambar deer in India, and unlike other antlers, does not have a soft core. A really nice stag handle has lots of dark “bark,” and there is a special place in hell reserved for knifemakers who grind it off. Sambar is extremely tough. I have a stag-handled Randall that belonged to the late Norm Strung, and I watched him many times pound the handle with a stick or a rock to drive the point of the blade through an animal pelvis. The handle is a little bit loose today, but has never chipped or broken. The drawback to sambar stag is, it’s getting hard to find and is now expensive.
Ivory. It sure looks nice, but the idiot regulations on which ivory you’re allowed to buy take the fun out of it. Also, ivory is extremely prone to checking and cracking as it ages.
Fossil ivory is a different story. Because mammoths and mastodons have already done us the courtesy of going extinct, there are no prohibitions on it; there’s a lot available; and the prices are not prohibitive. Stabilized fossil ivory is what you want. This is ivory into which resin has been infused, and it makes the ancient tooth as tough as rock. Fossil ivory is also quite striking, because over the ages the tusks absorb minerals which create all sorts of weird colors.
Micarta has pretty well revolutionized knife handles. It’s been around quite a while and began as electrical insulation. Micarta is fabric soaked in phenolic resin and formed under heat and pressure. (When you shape it on a grinding wheel it releases phenol fumes, which will cause you to die, so do the job outdoors, or somewhere you have serious ventilation.) Micarta is made out of all sorts of things: canvas, linen, paper, and wood fibers, to name the most popular. Canvas is probably the toughest, but it’s pretty homely. Paper micarta looks like ivory unless you look very closely, but unlike ivory, it will never betray you. All the micartas will outlast you, no matter what you do to them.
At the top of the heap on the toughness scale is a material called G10. G10 is made of fiberglass cloth soaked in epoxy and dried under heat and pressure. My knifemaker friend Lamont Coombs, Jr., attaches G10 handle scales with 2-ton expoxy and stainless-steel bolts. I asked him how you’d get a handle like that off a knife.
“You can’t get it off intact,” he said, “you have to destroy it. Grind it down to dust.”
If I were having a survival knife built, or a tactical knife, or something that was going to have a very, very hard existence, this would be my unquestioned choice. There are some very good rubber handles. Knives of Alaska uses a material called Suregrip which looks, shall we say, utilitarian, but it’s just what its name implies. It’s very good in the cold, when wet, and when covered with bear blood, or whatever kind of blood you prefer. Dan Winkler, who is now specializing in tactical knives, offers a rubber handle that will win no prizes for looks, but will stand up to anything. It’s the same rubber that’s used to line horse stalls, so if it can take the pounding of four steel shod hooves with a 1,000-pound animal attached to them, plus untold gallons of horse piss, year after year, you won’t be able to impress it much.
And finally. Here are a number of things that you should avoid:
Handles that are too short.
Handles that lock your hand into one position.
Handles that conduct cold.
Handles that are too sharply textured. You won’t be able to use them for any length of time.
Handles that attach to the tang with tiny screws that you will immediately lose the first time you remove them.
Handles with a sharp edge anywhere. The only sharp edge on a knife should be on the blade.
On a hunting knife, a camo handle. Put it down and never see it again. Conversely, an orange handle is an extremely good idea.
Handles that unscrew so you can dump in some fishhooks and a cyanide capsule in case things really get bad. Give me a break.
There are a great many knives on the market, including some expensive ones, that have lousy handles.