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From the Archives of RuggedAmericanGear: Knives of the Wildland Firefighter

(Jake Middleton is our newest Staff Writer at TTAK. For the past several years he has been running a blog RuggedAmericanGear.com, but is winding it down. We are going to be absorbing Jake’s knife posts as well as some of his favorites into our own archives. The following was a guest post by wildland firefighter Jake Mehaffey, and ran in November, 2015)

Throughout the summer I spent more than a fair bit of my time when not working fires writing, I had one project that I worked on for the majority of the summer, it was called “The Dirtball Code” and it contains advice for aspiring wildland firefighters that I wish someone would have told me when I started. These hard won bits of knowledge come from many-a-source including, other firefighters who I respect, unwritten rules, and a particularly interesting few days spent with the Jackson Hotshot Crew. I preface my first piece of my “American Made Wildland Firefighter” series with this because the first rule of “The Dirtball Code” is of my own addition and it reminds the aspiring dirtball to always carry a sharp knife.

Richard Mann (who I will reference often as he is my favorite contemporary gunwriter) mentions that as his second and third rule in his piece “How to be a Real Gun Using, Outdoor Kind of Man” so if my writing doesn’t inspire you to pack steel, at least Richard’s should. “Carry a knife. Always. The only time you should not have a knife is when you are naked, in a bed or when you’re swimming

Knives of the Wildland Firefighter

The wildland firefighter is usually out in the forest, regardless of whether said firefighter is working a fire or staging for the next conflagration. It behooves that person to have a knife, always.

Knives take many forms, and every firefighter has their own style as to what they feel like they need. I carry three knives at work, which is probably something I could trim down to two blades, but I have three. I carry a deep pocket knife which is occupied by my ever present Case Large Stockman with its beautiful orange synthetic handle. A folding bush knife which is an amazingly effective discontinued Kershaw 1050. And my favorite multi-tool ever made, which is my Leatherman Supertool, which came to me in a field when I was working on a cattle ranch just outside of my hometown.

The EDC

case-classic-pattern-340

My Case Large Stockman is my “go to” tool for any cutting task because of its three well-chosen blades. The clip blade is the most used piece of equipment other than my hand tool on a fire, from cutting open zip ties for undoing “toy hose” which is a ¾ inch cotton garden hose sized pipe used for mop up after we get the main blaze held up.

Sometimes when the State of Washington is nice enough to purchase us new hose we are overindulged with brand new zip-tied sticks of the workhorse of wildland fire suppression. And since we work around a lot of inmate crews, it isn’t always the best to whip out your brand new Chris Reeves Sabenza or Buck CSAR folder.

Although the inmate crews that I have worked with have all been very professional and have quite high standards for themselves and their crews. But I still try and be as least imposing as possible, and my case is not only gorgeous, but very unimposing in a situation like that. Like Jake Middleton, I like having this traditional slipjoint in my pocket for times like that, or when I am in plain view of the public. I don’t really need to use a knife, as I keep my Pulaski shaving sharp, but it is quite awkward to choke up on Berta’s three foot handle and wield the 3 ¾ pound head with as much precision.

Case’s Tru-Sharp has been my steel from them for years, not because I don’t like carbon steel, I love carbon steel , but it isn’t good when you sweat in full gear at 105 degrees in the summer. You will end up with a rusty tool by the end of July. From my understanding Case uses something similar to 440 type steel for their stainless, and it works just fine, actually it didn’t rust at all through my whole season this year, and my other Cases have never rusted in many years of pocket carry. If nothing else if one finds themselves sitting in the forest on endless staging assignments this knife is beautiful to look at. The blades all go in without rubbing on one another which must take some quite creative grinding by the craftsmen at the Case factory.

The clip blade is obviously the main workhorse of the Stockman. I use this for everything from opening boxes to cutting zip-ties or maybe even cut an apple (I cut my apples because it’s therapeutic).

The sheepsfoot blade is an interesting tool, from what I understand it was developed for use in the nautical industry, so sailors wouldn’t cut themselves in the rocking seas of their office. I use it to whittle, because it is made of the thickest stock on the knife, its straight profile cuts through leather without the cutter having to worry about the dance of a curved blade. I could use it to slice clothes if there was a trauma without cutting the person I was trying to assist. I use it for some light carpentry, or making traps or gigs to practice my bushcraft when I’m staging.

I have never needed to use the spey blade in the woods, since I don’t kill any game, or neuter any calves at work anymore, this particular blade is seldom used, but I trim my cuticles with it if that counts. I like the belly of the blade to trim my cuticles because I can just allow the knife to make the incision through the cuticle and rock the belly to simply trim even the toughest of cuticles. In all seriousness though, the spey blade is something that, when used right, is one of the handiest skinners that I have ever used. I recall when I was ranching, that when calves would die we would try and ween another calf on the deceased calves mother, and for this the cattleman is required to take the cape of the dead calf and affix it to this new calf. To achieve this, the spey comes in handy because of its down turned point when I did this often it would only take me about five minutes to slip the cape off and affix slip holes so we could tie the cape onto the next calf. One can also convert a bull calf to a steer calf in about 15 seconds with this blade and I think it’s the best patterned blade for that particular job.

You never know what you are going to run into in the woods, but I’d be comfortable carrying this knife and this knife only if I had too. The only problem that I have ever had with this knife is that the spine of the blade doesn’t align quite perfectly to the back spring, which doesn’t even bother me as the fit and finish of my Case Large Stockman is as near to perfect as an EDC could be for me.

The Bush-knife

I have an out of production Kershaw 1050 field knife, I picked it up at a pawn shop for $45 dollars which, now that I have seen the prices of these on Ebay, I got a good deal. The fact that it is a folder with brass pommels keeps it from being “intimidating” or even “tactical” for the same reason I carry the Case. Its lockback design is extremely robust and amazingly strong. When you grab the nail nick and unfold the 3 ½inch thick stocked blade, one can tell when the huge lock back clicks.

folding-field

This knife has no clip; there is no way to carry this other than in one’s pocket, or in a sheath. Mine is an old mag case that I picked up from an Army Surplus store. The mag case is attached to my pack right next to my Leatherman.

I did in fact EDC this in the leather belt sheath and it did everything that I asked it to do, especially when I was hunting or taking others hunting when I wasn’t on duty, I was even able to split the pelvic bone of a calf elk with this knife. I like to practice my bushcraft a lot while I’m staging, and this is my bushcraft knife so I carry it for that reason. From my research the blade is crafted from a thick, polished piece of AUS-8. . I think there are a lot of different American Made options for the robust folders for the pocket and pouch of the wildland firefighter.

I would recommend the Buck Tops CSAR-T, Benchmade AdamasFolder, and the Spyderco Police or Paramilitary. I love my Kershaw, but I could understand if someone was off put by the fact that it doesn’t open with one hand, and lacks a pocket clip. Since I EDC a Case Stockman, these don’t bother me at all. I don’t ever need to do anything that quickly, but when I need it, I need it to work without question.

The Multitool

To me, there is only one brand of multi-tool, and that is Leatherman. I could grow to love an American version of the Swiss Army, but we are Americans and Leatherman built our multi-tool. I have an older Supertool. Its worn handles can be whipped out one handed to use like butterfly pliers which is a nice deal because I can now deploy my pliers without the use of both hands which alleviates my need for one of their one handed tools.

The knives and other tools still require two hands to open, but as I mentioned before that isn’t a problem with me because of my EDC choices and the fact that I don’t use many of the other tools that often. I like the ability to pack a file on my pack without carrying a full sized bastard file. However this is a disappointment because my Leatherman’s file isn’t made of quality enough steel to cut the hardened tool steel bit of my Pulaski. I still carry a file because of that fact, however I would get rid of it if the file could cut the tool steel found on quality wildland tools.

The screwdrivers are also quite handy, the fact that I can work on pumps and tools without the need for an entire tool kit and simply carrysome specialty tools like a scrench (chainsaw tool) and my Leatherman gives me the ability to tear apart almost any piece of wildland firefighting equipment

leatherman-super-tool-300

The smallest of the three flat bladed screwdrivers was even used to take apart a watch after a minor modification to the width of the bit. The punch/awl is another handy addition to this knife although I wish that Leatherman would take after Victorinox and make the awl with a whole for sewing and more of a rolled edge for better cutting. The pliers are truly top notch. I have used the cutters without failure to buffalo my way through countless fences and the pliers for everything from uncoupling cross-threaded toy hose to make shifting a wrench to crimping down metal ties.

The tasks that wildland firefighters deal with are unlike municipal firefighters in that municipal firemen never get very far from help, we sometimes are miles away from the nearest dirt road. We need gear that can do it all and without giving up too much in weight because ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain. I love my Supertool and wouldn’t trade it for anything, unless Leatherman built a tool that had on it a spanner wrench, I would love a nice spanner wrench on my multi-tool.

 

 

Discussion

4 responses to ‘From the Archives of RuggedAmericanGear: Knives of the Wildland Firefighter

  1. East coast city FF here . Most guys carry a one hand opener in their uniform pocket and another in a bunker pocket . Can’t reach anything in your uniform with bunkers on .
    Some Spyderco’s Benchmades, CRKT , but a lot of pos knives .

    I carry a Hinderer XM 18 in my pocket ( or Spyderco of some sort) and a Strider DB fixed blade on my belt, it’s the classic sharpened pry bar . Look in a Trucks compartments most tools are prying or cutting …….

    In my bunker coat is a CRKT FD knife given to me by one of the companies owners .
    It’s there to cut me free of entanglements , miles of wires above my head in a highrise, although I’ve seen guys caught up in dryer vent wires in house fires .

    It’s also a ” beater ” type knife , cut out burned carpet during overhaul , cut melted wires on TV’s and other electrical equipment so we can toss it out the window, jimmy locks along with my shove knife , cut open mattresses and the like .

  2. I was only with the Forest Service for two seasons, so I didn’t search out specialized equipment, I just used what I had. For me it was my well worn Griptilian and a CRKT Zillatool. Benchmade was very popular among the crews I worked with.

    As far as the Zillatool goes, the absolute best multitool pliers I’ve used. Carrying it when not using it, not as great.

    A lot of guys kept a fixed blade in their pack as well. I didn’t have anything at the time that would have been appropriate. I wish I had known about Mora then.

  3. Hello Mr. Middleton,

    I am curious if you have a way of accessing Mehaffey’s “The Dirtball Code/American Made Wildland Firefighter”. The link seems to be broken and I’d love to give it a read before this season because I’ll be a rookie on a handcrew this summer.

    Thank you very much!

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