Many manufacturers of battle blades are selling image over substance. Whether it's the staged photos of pseudo-SEALS in knife fighting stances that grace the pages of magazines targeted at the armchair commandos or the movie poster shots of a camo'd-up Sylvester Stallone gripping a Rambo combat knife. Most of it is hooey. The common soldier today is not going to be fighting mano-a-mano with a knife wielding opponent like in a medieval sword duel. As a civilized society we've gotten beyond that. These days we've got pistols, sub-machine guns and Apache gunships to take care of the close-in fight.
Still, there may be times when Soldiers have to use a knife for self defense. For example, when the enemy breaches a defensive perimeter. In WWII the Japanese raised the nighttime human wave attack to a new height, overwhelming Marines and Soldiers with sheer numbers. Experienced Marines on Iwo Jima and Okinawa would sleep in their foxholes with their combat knives stuck in the dirt next to them, ready to grab without fumbling. They learned bitter lessons in places like Guadalcanal and Tarawa that it wasn't if the Japanese would try to infiltrate or overwhelm their positions, but when. Perimeter breaches were common in Korea and Vietnam ("Charlie's inside the wire!") and those tended to be free-for-alls from the start, with Soldiers using whatever was at hand - guns, knives, entrenching tools, axe handles, 5 gallon jerry cans, tent poles, Claymore mines and 105mm howitzers filled with beehive rounds. Perimeter breaches have been reported in Afghanistan, and some have been pretty nasty. In one noted case Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun of the British Gurkha regiment ended up using a machine gun tripod to beat off Taliban attackers. The only thing he didn't have at hand was his famous Gurkha knife - he'd left that back in his hooch.
And yet these incidents are relatively uncommon in today's world of combat. While a battle blade does need to be able to fill the role of a defensive knife, more importantly it needs to be a good, sturdy, all-purpose working knife. A Soldier's duty in the field is mostly mundane tasks involving lots of manual labor. Things like setting up tents, filling and stacking sandbags, laying commo wire, camouflaging fighting positions, pulling maintenance on weapons and vehicles, moving equipment from one place to another, etc. The soldier needs a knife that helps him in these tasks, something that can cut heavy rope and commo wire, break strapping bands on crates, chop tree limbs, sharpen aiming stakes, pry open stuck lids, slice open MRE pouches. One day I watched a kid pry open a Sun Microsystems computer case with an Air Force survival knife. He was "gonna' do maintenance on it" (the computer, not the knife). The battle blade will end up being used in ways the designer can't even imagine.
So what are the design requirements for a battle blade? A battle blade has to be sturdy, large but not too large, comfortable in the hand, able to hold a good edge but easy to re-sharpen, have a good general purpose blade shape and a good sheath. It needs to be a jack-of-all trades and a master of most. It needs to be handy, well balanced and well made. And oh, did I mention it needs to be sturdy? Let's toss in affordable, too. As a general rule the US military does not buy battle blades for the troops. Battle blades are an individual purchase item, and $100 is about the upper limit of what a common Soldier can afford to pay for a knife.
I'm not even going to pretend to claim that I have owned, tested, used, handled or even seen in-person every battle blade currently available. However, I have owned and/or tested a lot of them. Far more than I'd like to admit to my dear wife. My tastes in designs have changed somewhat over the years, shaped mostly by my personal experience in the Army. Here are some general observations:
- Time, materials and manufacturing processes march on. Knife manufacturers generally do a better job today than they did just a few years ago.
- There is no substitute for good design. Period.
- Some designs are ageless because they work, some are ageless because the marketing guys just won't let go.
- Price is not a reliable indicator of performance. A good battle blade does not have to be expensive.
- Sheath designs and materials have evolved right along with the blades. While not really lovely, modern battle blade sheaths are far better than they were just a few decades ago.
So let's take a look at a few battle blade examples I'm personally familiar with. I believe these knives are a small but representative cross section of fixed blade knives that were available to the common soldier during my time in the Army, from the late 1970s to the early 2000s.
The USMC Combat Knife
|A current production USMC Combat Knife by Ka-Bar|
When you say 'combat knife' or 'battle blade' this is the knife that comes to mind for most people. And for good reason. It was an excellent design when first produced in 1942 and is still a pretty good design today. What it has going for it is an outstanding blade size and shape. In fact, this blade size (7") and shape really have not been improved upon in the 70 years this knife has been in production. The knife was designed by the USMC as a general purpose utility knife and the Ka-Bar knife company manufactures them today pretty much the same way they were made back during WWII. In fact, Ka-Bar was one of the original manufacturers chosen by the USMC. The Marine Corps designed the knife specifically to leverage the existing production skills of the American knife industry. The USMC combat knife was really just an up-sized leather handled hunting knife, the same kind of knife the US cutlery industry had been producing for decades.
However, this is a knife design born of compromise. In 1942 steel was a strategic resource and everything made of steel - from C-ration cans to aircraft carriers - was designed to use as little steel as possible. An ounce saved in design could lead to tons saved in production. The Marine Corps opted for a stick (hidden) tang design to save steel. While an acceptable compromise in 1942, it also introduced a weakness into the design and there were a number of reports of the knife failing where the blade goes into the handle. Additionally the leather handle and sheath were prone to rot, particularly in the hot, humid environments the Marines found themselves operating in as they island hopped across the Pacific.
Still, this was the right knife at the right time. Not just for WWII, but for Korea and Vietnam. Most successful modern battle blade designs follow the classic lines of the USMC combat knife, and for good reason. In over 70 years the 7" bowie-style clip point blade style has not really been improved upon. It is the classic American battle blade.
USAF Survival Knife
|USAF Survival Knife currently made by the Ontario Knife Company|
As a kid I used to think this knife was hot stuff, and I wanted one real, real bad. When I went on active duty in 1979 one of the first things I bought at the PX was an Air Force Survival Knife (made by Camillus, if I remember correctly).
Although the blade was short it had a good profile and the handle was fairly comfortable. The saw back was useless - it was designed for cutting aluminum aircraft skin, not wood. The sheath looked cool, but it was a joke. It was made of leather so thin that it was almost too light to safely hold the knife.
The first time I took it to the field it started to come apart. The handle loosened up and the cross guard rattled. I was not impressed. Thinking I got a lemon, I bought a second one. It did the same thing. I either traded them off or lost them. I don't remember for sure and frankly don't much care.
I understand these are still fairly popular with the military and you can order them through the supply system. I'd take one if someone gave it to me, but I wouldn't spend my hard earned money on it. I just pray no Air Force guy ever had to use one of these in a real survival situation.
Glock Field Knife
|Glock Model 78 Field Knife|
When I deployed for Desert Shield/Storm in 1989 I took along a Randall Model 14. At the time I thought the Randall was the pinnacle of battle blades. Ever since I was a teenager I'd wanted a Randall, particularly the Model 14. I found one for sale at the old Cumberland Knife and Gun Works in Fayetteville, NC just outside of Fort Bragg. Although I really couldn't afford it (it cost me something like $140 in the early 1980s) I just couldn't pass it up. Roberta blew a gasket and we ate ramen noodles for the rest of the month but, dammit, I had my Randall!
|Somewhere in the middle of the Saudi desert, 1989. That's me on the|
right. If you look close you'll see my Randall Model 14 on my
pistol belt nestled between the ammo pouch and canteen.
The t-shirt is a whole other story.
Now, the problem I found with a fancy and expensive knife is that you are afraid to get it dirty or scratched. I was afraid to take the thing out of its sheath. The other issue was the handle. With its deeply cut finger grooves the knife was uncomfortable in all but the basic underhand grip. I soon realized that I needed something I wasn't afraid to use. One day I found a Brigade Quartermaster catalog laying around in the mess tent and spied the Glock field knife inside. Fifteen bucks. What did I have to lose? I sent off the order and, to my complete surprise, the knife arrived about three weeks later.
I was impressed. The blade profile adheres to the tried-and-true bowie-style clip point. Although the blade is narrow the steel is sufficiently thick. It closely resembles a bayonet. The handle is nicely shaped and comfortable. The sheath is impressive and deceptively simple in design. The knife locks into the sheath very securely and without the need for a keeper strap, and it attaches very securely to the standard pistol belt.
The edge was about as sharp as a butter knife when I got it but after a half hour on a sharpening stone it was acceptably sharp, and stayed that way for the rest of the war.
It ended up filling the battle blade role perfectly. In one memorable session we had to slice open and empty hundreds of sandbags as we were moving out of our defensive positions and preparing to redeploy back to the US. By this point I was sadistically searching for opportunities to abuse this blade, and the idea of testing it on hundreds of sand filled polypropylene bags was too tempting to pass up. It did just fine, thanks. Of course I had to resharpen it afterwards, but I'd have to do that with any knife abused in the same way.
This isn't the best battle blade, but it is pretty damned good.
Gerber Mk II Survival Knife
|Gerber Mk II Survival Knife circa 1977|
The double edged dagger is, historically, the most common form of battle blade. It is nothing more than a shortened sword and it predates every other blade design. For thousands of years it was the only battle blade design.
For over 30 years Gerber produced one of the best modern interpretations of the dagger in their Mk II 'Survival' knife.
This is another knife I lusted after as a kid. It showed up a lot in the early editions of Soldier of Fortune Magazine. It seemed every edition had shots of clandestine American operators in Central America sporting one of these on his pistol belt. It was the coolest battle blade! They were tough to find and I spent over a year searching high and low for one. I think I finally came across this example at a gun show at the old Masonic Auditorium in Toledo.
I was overjoyed to find it, but I shoulda' saved my money.
It's not a bad knife. In fact it is a very nicely executed knife. This knife was made back in the days when Pete Gerber still ran Gerber and they produced excellent knives. The grinding on the blade is complex and expertly done and the handle has an outstanding shape and feel. The sheath is one of the best production sheaths I've ever seen. Overall it is a first rate knife that approaches custom-level quality.
Too bad it's not really useful for much more than stabbing things.
The story is that the knife was designed in 1966 by retired Army Captain Bud Holzman when he was working for Gerber. This was Holzman's interpretation of the classic Sykes-Fairbairn commando knife. It was immediately popular with troops in Vietnam and was sold through the PX system. However, sometime in the mid-70s the design became too politically incorrect for the PX management. It was scary looking and judged too 'brutal' by the wussies that ran the Exchange system. It was all about the newer, kinder and gentler volunteer Army, and PX managers were shifting focus away from actually serving soldiers to maximizing profits at the perfume and jewelry sales counters. I ain't jokin' here folks. Anyway, in an effort to keep the knife in PXs Gerber carved some serrations into the blade, modified the sheath to take a sharpening steel and repackaged it as a 'survival' knife. Things were soon all good with Exchange management and Soldiers could once again buy this at their local PX.
Survival knife? Survive what? A zombie attack?
I carried this thing to the field exactly once, and very quickly realized it was about useful as bass boat in the Sahara.
Buck Model 119
|Early 1980's vintage Buck 119|
The Buck 119 (also known as the Special) is perhaps the most popular fixed blade knife ever produced. It is Buck's #1 seller in their fixed blade lineup and has been in their catalog since the early 1960s. It is a simple and rugged design - a 6" bowie style blade made out of stainless steel, a tough yet comfortable phenolic handle and a polished aluminum pommel and guard. The whole package, including a leather sheath, ran about $30 when I picked this one up. Today this same knife will cost you just under $50 at your local Wal-Mart.
I bought the knife pictured above in the early 80's. As you can see it's had a tough life. I wanted a lanyard hole so I took it down to the motor pool one day and had a mechanic put it on a drill press and drill a hole through the pommel. The leather sheath didn't last long and it was quickly replaced by a generic stiff nylon model. It lived on my pistol belt for a number of years and suffered all the abuse that comes with being taken for granted. It turned out to be a pretty good battle blade. While I don't have any really cool war stories to tell about this knife, the fact that is spent so much time on my hip is a testament to its usefulness.
This knife has two flaws that keep it from getting top marks. First is the design of the blade tip. Buck's bowie-style blades from this era had an exaggerated upswept tip. It's actually worse than it looks in the photo. This means the knife isn't all that good for stabbing or puncturing things. Next is the shiny aluminum pommel and guard. With the Army it is all about concealment - blending in. Shiny metallic items tend to stand out. I usually ended up wrapping the exposed parts in OD duct tape when we were in the field. Buck later came out with an OD green rubberized handled version of this knife that was pretty popular with the troops. I'm regretting not picking one up.
This is a good, well made and unpretentious battle blade. Not as good as some but better than a whole bunch of others.
|M7 Bayonet made by Ontario|
The M7 bayonet was introduced in 1964 at the same time the M16 rifle was adopted. It is really nothing more than a continuation of bayonet designs that had been in use on American combat rifles since the early 1900s. That's not a bad thing. We made some fine bayonets down through the years.
The M7 has a 6.5" spear point blade with a very narrow profile and a false edge on the top of the blade that extends almost halfway back to the handle. This makes it an excellent thrusting and stabbing weapon. It's actually a pretty darned good bayonet. Too bad the M16 is a lousy bayonet mounting platform.
Overall, however, the M7 was pretty useless as a general purpose field knife. The primary edge grind was too thick so it was hard to get a good edge on the thing. Even worse, if you buggered up your bayonet by using as a pry bar or a chopping tool you'd get an earful of crap from your platoon sergeant about 'intentionally damaging government property'. It wasn't worth the grief, and most M7 bayonets stayed in their sheaths.
I found this bayonet sitting in a safe in my office down in Panama in the mid-90s. I have no idea where it came from because at the time all bayonets were considered 'sensitive items' and had to be locked up in the arms room with the rifles. I suspect it was a leftover from Operation Just Cause; either some American trooper lost it during the invasion or it was seized from the Panamanian army and eventually ended up in my safe. Things like that happened all the time down in Panama - it was a weird place. I was shutting down my unit as part of the Panama Canal turn-over and we were under a lot of pressure to get stuff turned in and get out of town. Since this bayonet wasn't on anyone's books I figured the best place for it was in my duffle bag. So hey USARSO, if you are still short an M7 bayonet I know where you can find one!
In the very early 1980s we started to get reports out of Afghanistan about a really cool bayonet that the Soviet Army had adopted for the AK-47. Our Special Forces guys who were over there working with the Taliban (yes Virginia, there was a time we actually supported the Taliban) were bringing back examples as war trophies. The AK-47 bayonet was a cool concept, more a general purpose combat knife than a stabbing tool. It also incorporated a unique wire cutting attachment on the sheath. It was pretty neat and Soldiers started to ask, "Why don't we have anything like this?"
Now, the 1980s were a time of great change in the US Military. Ronald Reagan was in office and the Army started to shake itself out of its post-Vietnam malaise. Money was available again for new equipment development. Someone at the Infantry Board heard the Soldiers cries and asked, "Hey, why don't we come up with a new bayonet that is also a good field knife?"
A small R&D company named Qual-A-Tec did the initial development based on the AK-47 bayonet concept and got the production contract. Much of the early manufacturing was done by a company called Phrobis III and Buck Knives. In fact, Buck used the same basic blade design as the basis for their famous Buck 184 'SEAL knife'.
The M9 bayonet proved popular with the troops. It was new, it was cool, and most importantly it wasn't the old M7 bayonet. The M9 proved itself to be a good (though not great) general purpose utility blade. It was made out of stainless steel so you didn't have to worry about maintenance. It had a good primary bevel so you could get a decent edge on it. The sheath was a huge improvement over the M7 bayonet and included several interesting improvements It used the Bianchi-style belt attachment device first seen on the Beretta M9 pistol holsters. The body of the sheath was connected to the belt attachment using a large fastex clip so you could easily remove the knife and sheath as a single unit. And of course, it incorporated a wire cutting device just like the AK-47 bayonet.
There were early reports of blade breakage related to heat treating issues but those were quickly worked out. Over the last 20 years or so (geeze, has it been that long?!) the M9 bayonet has proven itself a decent and reliable bayonet/utility knife and battle blade.
So there you have it. I realize this is not a comprehensive look at the topic. There are far too many types of blades to tackle in one pass and tastes in battle blades vary widely. However, I think this is an honest look at some of the more commonly available blades of the time.
In the future we'll look at modern re-interpretations of some of these classic designs.