Sheath knives have colorful history, specific uses

From left are an SOG knife with 4-inch blade, hunting knife with 6-inch blade and bush knife with 9-inch blade.

When I wrote about pocket knives last Saturday, I deliberately omitted sheath knives. For most of us (guys, anyway), pocket knives are something you carry on a daily basis. Sheath knives are a bit more specialized and worn mainly when we need them.

I have lots of pocket knives but relatively few sheath knives.

In fact, after last week’s column I tried to round them up and found only four, one of which lacks a sheath. I know I have more but I couldn’t put my hands on them easily.

That didn’t include fillet knives, by the way, much less machetes, both of which are in different categories.

My first sheath knife as a boy was a small hunting knife with a stacked leather handle and leather sheath. The blade was probably 4 inches long. I used it on all my campouts and forest ramblings.

As an adult I settled on a Schrade Old-Timer Sharpfinger as my favorite skinning knife. But with a slender 3 1/2-inch blade, it was a bit light for utility work.

During my canoe-camping years, my paddling buddy Eddie McCalip gave me a larger version of the hunting knife I had as a boy. This one was a classic beauty with a 6-inch blade and “Leather Britches” engraved in the steel.

The design is what I would call a Bowie knife, which for my generation was the gold standard, even if nobody knew exactly what it was.

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Jim Bowie, of course, was known for his knife-fighting, including the famous Sandbar Duel at Vidalia, La.

I’ve never been in a knife fight, thank God, but I did have an encounter with a knife-wielding intruder one time.

It was 1985 and I was visiting my missionary friend David Sitton in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. I was reading in a chair in the living room one night when the screen door eased open to my right. I looked around to see a young native man wearing a black bandana with eye holes and holding a butcher knife.

I swung around, placed my foot against his chest and was about to shove him into the wall when he grinned and told me who he was — a teenaged friend of David’s pulling a practical joke.

I admonished him sternly, but was glad it was a prank rather than the real thing.

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As for the Bowie knife, not even historians are sure of its exact specifications. According to “Weapons of Mississippi” by Kevin Dougherty, it was likely 10 to 15 inches long “and had a wide guard and generous hilt.”

Clifford Hopewell’s “James Bowie, Texas Fighting Man: A Biography,” describes it as having a blade 8.25 inches long with a curved point and a cross-guard.

Curious about other frontier-style knives, I consulted “The Frontier Rifleman: His Arms, Clothing and Equipment During the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1800,” by Richard B. Lacrosse Jr. That was pre-Jim Bowie, who lived from 1796-1836.

Most of the frontiersmen’s knives were homemade, with handles made of antler, wood or cow horn, and lacking a cross-guard. Lengths varied as they were used for everything from cutting bullet patches to skinning deer to scalping enemies.

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Back to modern times: Some time after Eddie gave me the Bowie knife, my older brother Robert gave me a Gerber Bear Grylls parang. Technically it’s a small machete — with a blade just over 9 inches — but I wear it on my belt like any sheath knife and find it to be mighty handy in the woods.  

Then my son Andy gave me an SOG knife with a 4-inch blade. SOG stands for Studies and Observations Group, which makes knives based on Special Forces designs. It’s super handy for wearing because of its small, unobtrusive size, yet it’s big enough for any typical knife work.

I have to wonder how a Special Forces knife expert would fare against Jim Bowie. Sort of like pondering Mike Tyson vs. Jack Dempsey.

The reality is, for me, pocket knives have become so efficient that I only carry a sheath knife if I’m likely to use it for a specific purpose.  

One thing almost all my sheath knives have in common is that someone gave them to me. The only one I remember actually buying is the Schrade Old-Timer — and it’s long gone, lost to history.

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