Know Your Knives: The Nessmuk Knife

nessmuk-knife

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.

Nessmuk_George_Washington_Sears

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.

nessmuk-woodcraft-and-camping

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.

nessmuk-knife

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.Image from "Woodcraft and Camping"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.

marbles-woodcraft-vintage

I can also see a bit of Nessmuk DNA in the elliptical shape of the Canadian Belt Knife.

no1big

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.

image: www.barkriverknives.com

image: www.barkriverknives.com

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.

image: www.kosterknives.com

image: www.kosterknives.com

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.

Image courtesy of David C. Andersen

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.

blind-horse-nessmuk

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.

Image courtesy of David C. Andersen

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.

comments

  1. Spencer says:

    Most of them look pretty good to me, but if I could chose only one it would be the Koster Nessmuk. That wide chopping blade is the clincher, and though it pains me to state this it could even be used for batoning!

  2. stuartb says:

    Back to basics, Sears sure nailed the outdoors essentials of axe, fixed and folder. I wonder what his firearms triple play was?

  3. Sgt. Adams says:

    I like Nessmuk’s approach to camping cutlery. Remember, he was not headed out for a fight but a camping trip.

    The axe would take care of larger tasks from firewood to splitting a deer’s rib-cage or pelvis.

    The Nessmuk knife looks fine for skinning and slicing up food.

    If it was me I’d take a Swiss Army pocketknife but I suppose they weren’t invented by his heyday, the two blade pocketknife would give a good bit of utility.

    This trio of edged tools is both light and practical.

  4. Robert Evans says:

    Condor has a bigger version with the coolest name in the knife world: the Lochnessmuk.

    1. I think KA-Bar’s Parangatang has an even cooler name!

  5. Craig says:

    For me, the ‘Nessmuk’ style knife made by Dale Larson Jr. of ‘LFF’ Larson Forge And Finish is perfect. 9″ OAL, forged from 5160 and quenched in oil at 675 F. Mine has finger grooves and the hard wood handles are removable. You can email him and tell him I sent you. (No financial interest here).

  6. Denzel says:

    StuartB,, Woodcraft and Camping makes one mention of Nessmuk’s rifle on page 83, “My rifle was a neat, hair-triggered Billinghurst, carrying sixty round balls to the pound, a muzzle-loader, of course, and a nail-driver.”

    1. Vlad Vicious says:

      So it would be about 42 caliber (.415″).

      Good for deer and barking squirrel. Excellent choice, but no surprise there.

  7. Pop says:

    I’ve a Condor Nessmuk knife and it’s a good one , for the price it’s outstanding

  8. Larry Canter says:

    I’d like to find out how WIDE the woodcraft’s blade was. I like to try to re-create the old knives when I can; but it’s hard to get exact dimensions from the old drawings and pictures. Does any body know where I could find out? Seems that the LENGTH of the blade and overall length were the most important. I’d sure appreciate the information. Thanks.

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Know Your Knives: The Nessmuk Knife

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