Green River Knives

By Mike Hudson

Russell Green River Knife #4215
Russell Green River Knife #4215. Image courtesy of Dexter Russell.

Next to his rifle, the hunter's best friend is his knife. For more than 40 years, my second best friend has more often than not been a member of the Green River family of carbon steel blades.

John Russell founded his Green River Works on March 1, 1834 on the banks of the Green River near Greenfield Massachusetts. The Green River knives he turned out there quickly became a favorite of emigrants, buffalo hunters, Indians, miners and settlers. It is estimated that between 1840 and 1860, 60,000 Green River knives were shipped west.

Green River knives were also the most widely traded of all knives to the American Indian tribes. They came from the factory packed in wooden kegs and were traded for furs and goods all over the Great Plains. The kegs of knives were shipped by sea from New England to New Orleans and then taken up the Mississippi River. From St. Louis they were shipped by wagon train to New Mexico and then along the Santa Fe Trail to the West Coast.

The largest distributor was Upper Missouri Outfit, which was actually a French firm run by Pierre Chouteau. His company began the westward distribution of the Green River knives in 1838. By 1846, distribution all over the continent was perfected and the Green River knife became a staple on the American frontier.

In his "Life in the Far West" (Blackwood's Magazine, 1848), writer Frederick Ruxton was the first to note that the mountain men of his time carried hunting or skinning knives with "Green River" stamped into the blade. The popularity of the knife on the frontier was such that American, English and German cutlery firms began stamping "Green River" on their own products in order to capitalize on the success of Russell's original.

The knives were produced in different patterns suitable for particular tasks, such as buffalo skinning, fishing, or camp use, but they shared in common a simple hardwood handle secured by three brass rivets and high quality steel imported from Sheffield, England. The mass production techniques employed by Russell allowed the firm to meet demand and keep their knives reasonably priced, which further contributed to their popularity.

Green River knives have been in production for more than 170 years. The quality and affordability that made them all the rage on the American frontier still provide great value today in a knife that is as handy in the kitchen as it is in camp.

These days, the Russell factory is located in Southbridge, Mass., producing a wide array of knives that include all of the old frontier patterns. For around twenty bucks you can own the same knife carried by Kit Carson and Jim Bridger.

"The blade is Type C1095 carbon steel, very similar to Type O1 tool steel," said the improbably named Buck Raper, manager of engineering at the Russell works. "We have heat treated and tempered it to a Rockwell hardness of 55-56. It can be treated to a higher Rockwell, but we think this is the best tradeoff between brittleness and flexibility for a knife blade."

I have owned a number of Green River knives over the years, but the pattern I like the best is the 4215, marketed these days as the Traditional 5" Hunting Fishing model. The 2017 MSRP is $22.65.

Nine inches overall with a five inch, flat ground blade and a four inch handle, the one I ordered last week came with a needle-like point and a razor sharp edge. The roughly cross-hatched walnut handle was scored a bit too roughly for my taste, so I gave it the once over with some fine steel wool.

The knife only weighs 3.4 ounces and the 1/16" blade thickness gives some tyros used to he-man Bowie or survival knife patterns a false impression of flimsiness. It is anything but flimsy.

Have you ever tried to dress and skin a rabbit, or anything else, with a Bowie knife? There is only one John Rambo and you ain't him.

If you want a pry bar, get a pry bar. If you want a sharp and easy to sharpen blade that is at home slicing the fat off a piece of brisket, opening a bag of dog food, or feathering kindling for the campfire, get a Green River.

Those used to stainless steel knives seem to have a hard time accepting that a carbon steel blade does not retain the mirror polish it comes with for very long. With any use at all, the blade will begin to turn grey and eventually almost black. Short of keeping the blade saturated in oil all the time, there is really nothing to do about this. It does not affect the sharpness of the blade, or its ability to be resharpened.

The Russell 4215 is most often compared to the Swedish made Mora knife in the outdoor magazines and message boards. Price wise, there is not enough difference between them to argue about. The steel used in the blades is identical, as is the blade thickness, although the Mora blade is about an inch shorter. Both feature simple wooden handles, although the round Arctic birch grip of the Mora might make it better suited for lefties than the right hand beveled Green River design.

The full tang of the Green River, meaning the blade steel goes all the way back through the handle scales to the butt, makes it inherently stronger. Mora knives used to feature a full tang, but some years ago they switched to an epoxied half tang design to keep down the price.

Beyond that, the Mora comes with an ill-fitting plastic sheath and the Green River with no sheath at all. If you want a sheath, you have to buy an accessory #4 leather sheath from Dexter Russell ($20.80), or make one yourself.

I have owned Moras and they are fine knives. However, 170 years of outdoors tradition and the Made in U.S.A. logo on the blade combined to make my most recent knife purchasing decision a no brainer. For me, at least.

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Copyright 2017 by Mike Hudson and/or All rights reserved.