Final Thoughts on the Perfect Field Knife (PFK)
By Gary Zinn
Hege Custom Perfect Field Knife. Photo by Jennifer Boleyn.
Anyone who has read my knife articles on Guns and Shooting Online may recall a recurring theme, my search for what I call the perfect field knife (PFK). As I reported in a recent article John B. Hege Custom Perfect Field Knife, that search is over.
Along the way I had experience with two commercial knives that contributed much to my final PFK concept, plus there are two others that are highly relevant to the subject. I will briefly discuss these knives, for one or another of them could be someones PFK.
First, I will briefly review my concept of a PFK, which may be summarized in four words: simple, tough, compact and versatile. The custom knife I had built based on this concept is pictured above.
Simple and tough, together, starts with a fixed blade, full tang blank using a proven knife steel. Add a quillon as a finger guard, milled into the steel at the boundary between the cutting edge and handle. Then fit the tang with durable handle scales, shaped as desired, and it is done.
Compact does not mean tiny. I settled on critical dimensions of a 3-1/4 to 3-1/2 inch sharpened blade length, overall length close to eight inches and the finished knife weighing less than five ounces. The blade length is enough to do most outdoor cutting chores, while the eight inch OAL gives room for an adequate handle. Keeping the knife weight under five ounces and adding a sheath weighing about 1-1/2 ounces makes for a comfortable carry weight.
Versatility comes from an intelligent blade design, complemented with a comfortable, secure and ergonomic handle. I will say more about this as I discuss each knife.
Please note how I measure blades and handles. Blade length is linear measurement from the tip to the base of the sharpened edge of the blade. Handle length is from the back of the finger guard to the butt of the handle. Measuring the blade and handle this way gives their true working lengths, with space taken up by a ricasso on the blade or a finger guard on the handle being irrelevant. Overall length (OAL) will be from tip to butt, of course. OAL will exceed the sum of blade and handle working lengths.
Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter
Image courtesy of Cold Steel Knives.
I have had a Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter for several years and have used it a lot. It is a good, general purpose, knife and has attributes that got me thinking seriously about the idea of a PFK.
Summary of Features:
If one wants a serviceable everyday carry outdoor knife without frills or glamour, the Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter will work. It is the lightest and most inexpensive of the knives I am featuring here, but the steel is solid and serviceable and the handle is tough. The knife has performed much better than I expected for the price I paid. This knife has blade and handle working lengths that I emulated for my PFK.
The only limitation is that I do not trust the relatively thin, hollow ground blade for forcing heavy cuts. However, if one were to badly damage or lose a Pendleton Lite Hunter, it wouldn't be very painful to buy another and get on with life.
Kershaw Model 1082 Field Knife
Image courtesy of Kershaw Knives.
This knife was pivotal to the development of my PFK concept. From it I learned some things that I very much wanted in my PFK and other things that I definitely wanted to change.
Summary of Features:
The blade of this knife grabbed me. It looks a bit unusual, but this is the most versatile blade design I have ever used. Accordingly, when I designed my PFK, I emulated most of the Kershaw Field Knife blade profile. The shape of the quillon, the curve of the edge and the front and peak of the blade spine on my PFK are based on this blade.
The Kershaw also solidified my specifications for a simple and tough knife; i.e., full tang construction with a quillon to serve as a finger guard. However, I came to dislike the handle. I could never get comfortable with it, because it is short and narrow. Also, the spine has a thumb rise that I do not like, because it gets in the way when I try to use my thumb or forefinger on the spine.
I eliminated the thumb rise in my PFK design. The handle required a complete rethinking. After some false starts, I decided to use a slightly modified version of the handle design found on the original Canadian belt knife. This worked beautifully on my PFK. Incidentally, anyone seeking a PFK with a longer blade should consider the original Canadian belt knife. It is seriously underrated.
I liked the blade so much that I wanted to call the Kershaw Field Knife a PFK, but the handle just did not suit me. For someone with small hands, or who is okay with a minimalist style of knife handle, the Kershaw might be fine.
CRKT Ken Onion Skinner
This knife is new on the market and I have no direct experience with it. I am including it here because its design objective, dimensions and features fit my PFK concept and parameters so well.
Summary of Features:
*Note: Not having a knife in hand, I could not quote my preferred measurements of blade and handle working lengths. From close examination of images of the knife, my best estimate is that the approximate working lengths of the blade and handle, respectively, are 3-1/2 and 4 inches.
Knife designer Ken Onion creates knives that are often somewhat unconventional, but almost always very functional. Here, he was going for a do-it-all big game hunting knife. Accordingly, he spent over five years developing the knife, putting prototypes in the hands of hunting guides and taxidermists and using their feedback to refine the design.
Dr. Jim and Mary Clary have written a review of the Ken Onion Skinner. That would be a good place to start for anyone wanting to learn more about this knife.
Image courtesy of helle.no.
I found this knife after my custom PFK was built. If I had discovered the Symfoni earlier, I might have declared it my PFK and stopped right there.
Summary of Features:
This knife features a laminated blade steel in a classic drop point pattern. Both the blade and handle are right at my PFK target lengths. The handle's contours and girth make it very comfortable and secure in the hand. It is the best handle I have ever found on an eight inch OAL commercial knife. The Symfoni is the most expensive of the four knives, but it is worth the price. It is a working knife in design, with quality materials, careful workmanship and styling that gives it class.
The only feature of the Symfoni that might be questioned is its lack of a finger guard at the front of the handle. I do not have a problem with this; the handle is so well shaped and secure in my hand that I have no fear that my finger will slip onto the blade. If a finger guard is a must, Helle has four other knife patterns, with blade and handle lengths very close to the Symfoni, that have finger guards. I have done an in-depth review of the Helle Symfoni and Alden Hunting Knives.
Full vs. Hidden Handle Tangs
I specified a full handle tang for my custom PFK, yet three of the knives featured here have hidden tangs. This may seem inconsistent, so let me explain.
Hidden tangs are sometimes viewed as being second rate, but I do not agree. A hidden tang that extends one-half to three-fourths the length of the handle is generally considered sufficient for adequate strength. The Onion Skinner and Symfoni have three-fourths tangs. I am not sure of the length of tang in the Pendleton Lite Hunter. However, I have used that knife pretty hard at times over the years and have had no handle problems, so I would bet that it has at least a half-tang.
My reasons for designing my custom PFK with a full tang were purely practical. When making a custom knife, a full tang can be formed with the desired profile of the handle built-in. Also, it can be milled with a quillon that serves as a finger guard. Then all that remains is to attach handle scales and grind and sand them to fit the profile of the tang. This is the easiest way to hand build a fixed blade knife. That a full tang is somewhat stronger than a hidden tang is a bonus.
Conversely, for commercial knives such as the Pendleton Lite Hunter and Onion Skinner, a hidden tang makes more sense than a full tang. The synthetic handles of these knives are easily injection molded around the tang, making for efficient mass production and a tight handle to tang fit.
I find it interesting that Helle knives are made the hard way. Most Helle knives use solid wood handles over hidden tangs, which must be difficult to mill and fit properly. Helle pulls this off successfully, whatever their reasons for taking this challenging route.
I learned a lot during the quest for my personal PFK. I do not claim that my ideas of what makes a PFK are the last word on the subject, but at least they may serve as a starting point for someone trying to identify or design a knife that is just right for them. That knife is somewhere out there, whether a commercial product or custom creation. Enjoy the process of finding it.
Copyright 2015, 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.