Of all the classic knife patterns to have originated in the Americas, the Nessmuk knife is one of my favorites. Named after the chap who popularized it, George Washington Sears, the Muk is still unique over a century after it first appeared. Sears was a contributor to Forest & Stream Magazine (later merged with Field & Stream) in the 1880’s, and he used the pen name “Nessmuk” in honor of a Native American he knew as a child. The following is what I have learned of his eponymous fixed blade over the years.
Sears was a small man, and was very conscientious of the amount of gear he carried. Some have dubbed him the father of modern ultralight camping, and he favored a complementary set of three tools during his outings. This “Nessmuk Trio” as it came to be known consists of a small double-bit axe, a moose pattern folding knife, and his now infamous fixed blade.
I say infamous because no one knows what happened to his original knife, or the exact dimensions and construction of it. Considering how popular the pattern has become, Sears wrote surprisingly little about the knife in his book Woodcraft and Camping (free e-book here!), never mentioning things like blade length, or type of grind, etc., but between the illustration and the description we can glean a few things.
The [knife] shown in the cut is thin in the blade, and handy for skinning, cutting meat, or eating with. The strong double-bladed pocket knife is the best model I have yet found, and, in connection with the sheath knife, is all sufficient for camp use.
So a medium sized hunting knife, with a thin blade and an emphasis on slicing ability. Given the era it would have undoubtedly been constructed of carbon steel. Based on the illustration it would appear to have a stick-tang with a crown stag handle, which would have provided some much needed grip considering the lack of a finger guard.
The most defining characteristic is definitely the hump of the blade, which is there for myriad reasons. Not only does it create a more robust tip, but it can also be used as a rudimentary spoon. I have also heard of people using it as a handhold in order to use their Muks like an improvised draw-knife.
Of course the primary purpose is as an aid for skinning. It can be used to lift the tip of the knife after getting under the skin to keep from piercing vital organs, and can be used to scrape fatty tissue from the hide to prepare it for tanning.It is useful to remember the purpose of Sears’ belt knife in the context of his “Trio” of tools, as the way we use our knives today can be quite different than was typical in the late 19th century. At the time, carving and detail work would have been done with the pocketknife, with the fixed blade reserved for skinning animals and food prep. Splitting and chopping were done with the small axe, so there was no need for a thick, full-tang knife suitable for batoning. In fact, ‘ol George would likely frown on the modern trend of “sharpened pry-bars” and the like. Here is another quote pulled from Woodcraft and Camping:
The ‘bowies’ and ‘hunting knives’ usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking, but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of ‘Billy the Kid,’ than the outfit of the hunter.
The Nessmuk pattern lives on today through the numerous interpretations available for sale, but its influence runs deeper than that, informing blade patterns that emerged later. Horace Kephart, another famous woodcrafter whose name is lent to a blade shape, was an admirer of Nessmuk’s blade, as well as the Marbles Woodcraft, which debuted in 1916 and looks like a Muk with a clip point.
I can also see a bit of Nessmuk DNA in the elliptical shape of the Canadian Belt Knife.
NESSMUK IN THE MODERN ERA
There are many modern examples of Nessmuk’s knife, some more faithful to the original mission of the knife than others. Many incorporate a small offset drop to the edge of the blade, which acts as a vestigial finger guard. Most production examples also come with full tangs instead of a stick tang.
This interpretation by Bark River Knife & Tool is one of the most traditional in terms of its outline that I have seen, with no finger guard present. The A2 blade is quite thick compared to the original at 0.195 inches and is 4.75” long.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, this Koster Nessmuk has a .286” thick blade of 3V steel at 5.25” long with an extreme edge offset. On a knife this large, the blade hump also serves to give the blade a more forward weight balance to aid chopping.
The handmade Smith & Sons Pioneer (full review here) lies somewhere in the middle. There is only a small edge offset that is created by the index finger groove. The D2 blade is probably thicker (5/32”) and shorter (3.75”) than the ur-Nessmuk, but it feels faithful to the spirit of the original.
Many modern Nessmuks, like the Blind Horse Knives example pictured below, come with a scandi grind. To each his own, but I dislike this trend. The Nessmuk blade shape is pure slicer, and a scandi is less suited to this than a thinner grind.
For an affordable Muk, Condor makes a nice one, but the example I reviewed here had a rather obtuse convex grind rather than a thin, slicing profile. It is still a solid tool and they are available for less than $40 which includes a high quality leather sheath.
No matter the price range, there are many ways to get your hands on this classic and influential pattern. Let us know if you have any favorites in the comments.