Question of the Day: Batoning Revisited

Batoning revisited

Author and survival expert Len McDougall takes umbrage with my position on batoning.

The following exchange took place in the comment section of my Cold Steel Mackinac Hunter review. It seemed like it was worthy of bringing to the forefront of our discussion, so I am posting it here.

Len McDougall:

“A dozen other knives on the market easily match or surpass this folder. My pet peeve is “batoning.” This idiotic practice was invented by people who, in fact, have no real use for a knife, so had to make up a “use” that they think tests quality. It does no such thing, and not one woodsman, back to and before, the days of Daniel Boone would, or did, perpetrate such an abuse on their single most important tool. A 21st-century kid did not just suddenly discover some new task for a knife that had gone unknown for a thousand years hence. AXES carry a warning that they are not intended to be used as splitting wedges – how stupid do you have to be to think that a knife could stand up to pummeling without breaking? And they ALL break, kids. NEVER use your knife as a splitting wedge – unless you’re using your laptop as the hammer. “

Len McDougall is a prolific author of books on survival, tracking, and related fields. He is a contributor (or more, I am not completely sure) at His credentials as a survival expert are bulletproof. That said, while I agree with his assessment of the Mackinac as a knife, I respectfully disagree with his position on batoning.

I replied:

Thanks for checking us out. You have an impressive CV and a nice website.

I don’t disagree that there are better options at the price point than the Mackinac Hunter. The review is 3 years old, and as I have gotten more familiar with Cold Steel knives, I think that the Mackinac stands out as one of the few fairly good knives from CS amid a sea of mediocrity.

I do have to respectfully disagree with you when it comes to the utility of batoning. No one is arguing that it is more efficient than a hatchet or a machete. For extended use, either of those tools is vastly preferable. If you are car camping or around an extended base camp they are great. My CRKT Halfachance lives in my Jeep when it is not tagging along on a boat-fishing trip. However, most of my outdoor activity revolves around being a wade flyfishing guide.

I am already schlepping tackle, lunch, water, and a spare rod up the mountain with me. I don’t have space or weight available to be carrying an axe or machete up unless I know for sure that there is a tree I want to clear.

That said, I need a knife that can handle some wood processing in an emergency or survival situation. I might need to build a fire or cut poles to make a shelter or fasten a travois (pole drag stretcher) to move an injured client. I bush knife ought to be able to handle cutting a couple of <3″ staves or prepping kindling from larger stock.

I don’t disagree that this is miles from the Mackinac’s stated purpose. I used it for batoning to demonstrate the robustness of the tri-ad lock and the overall strength of the knife. The fact that the knife was undamaged was a testament to its strength, rather than recommendation for use.

Thanks for reading, I would love to interview you sometime.

Clay Aalders
Managing Editor

Some readers, most notably Spencer (who hasn’t commented in a while…I hope all is well buddy), fall clearly in Mr. McDougall’s “No Baton” camp. Others have agreed with me when we have discussed the topic before, that batoning is not an unreasonable task for a bushcraft knife provided you are smart about it.

As far as when it comes to testing and review, I firmly believe that it is a valid test for the overall strength of a knife’s construction.

What say you?


  1. cmeat says:

    fixed blade= expected capability.
    folder= would expect eventual weakening. nice element for testing, though. just not a knife i cared about (leek…).

  2. Terry says:

    From a survival perspective, it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that you may have to use your knife to process wood for a fire, though that is definitely not an ideal situation. The best thing we can do is to be prepared for the possibility that circumstances leave us stranded in the wild with only the tools on our person, and sometimes all we have is that knife. While certainly less than ideal treatment of a knife, it is not outside the realm of possibility that knife may fill that role in given situations. With that said, I will take a good hatchet into the woods anytime, when given the choice and preparation time.

  3. JSmith says:

    I’d rather have a chainsaw and a log splitter, but sometimes you gotta run with what you have. The axe analog is off because only the bit is hardened. The poll of an axe is to thin and soft to take metal on metal pounding.

    Most knives I know of are fully heat treated and the spine should be as strong as the edge. I used my fixed blade to break down small, split logs into kindling routinely without issue.

    I think it’s a valid test and if my “most valuable tool” can’t handle it then I sure as hell am looking for one that can.

  4. stuartb says:

    Its good to find the limitations of a knife and I’d rather that was your test knife not mine. Wether we then choose to beat up a knife depends on circumstances; up the creek, no paddle is a different game from camping out of the back of a Jeep with an axe, a roaring fire and an onion themed gentlemans folder in your pocket.

  5. sean says:

    I dont think that someone just “made-up” batoning a piece of wood with their knife just for funsies. While I would say he’s right that there are muuuuch better tools than that for the job, it would most definitely be wise to know if your pocket knife could actually help keep you warm (i.e. split small pieces of wood to start a fire) if the absolute worst thing that you could imagine, happened.

    besides, testing knives to their breaking point is fun to watch.

  6. VaqueroJustice says:

    I’ve never been an advocate of batoning as a standard practice.
    As a way to use a less than adequate tool to split wood in an emergency
    its place, imo.

    No, batonning with your only folder in a survival situation might not be the
    smartest move, but being without a fire could be deadly.
    It’s also possible to hurt yourself pretty bad while batoning, if you aren’t

    It’s another tool in the toolbox, but a risky one, better used with a matchete
    or a stout fixed blade. I’ve done it with a tomahawk, coincidentally
    a cold steel hawk, and had no problem.

    I don’t mind seeing it used as a testing practice, though, but it’s a destructive
    test, potentially, for most knives. I’d like to know if a particular blade can
    handle the abuse, though.

  7. samuraichatter says:

    A fixed blade should be able to handle stresses that one would encounter while batoning. There are a bunch of other real world blade uses/tests that one might encounter that put as much stress or more. In my view one reason to get a fixed blade vs. a folder is so it can handle more stress.

    This is one area where over-alloyed/over-heat-treated (or bad heat treated) blades fair worse then their softer counter parts. Softer steels (like the kind often found on axes) will smush and deform when pushed too far. Super-hard knives and swords will crack and even sometimes shatter. Dinged and bent blades can usually be worked on to bring them back to functional status; a blade in two pieces is done.

  8. LUXCANCAN says:

    I see this as sort of like man vs wild which incidentally is the first time I have seen batoning in my life. A lot of man vs wild is dangerous practices for entertainment but if you read between the lines you can take away some useful information. Batoning is demonstrating an emergency technique in the event you have one knife to do it all. And that is very realistic. Some people will hike with just a knife so practicing an emergency technique and also your equipment I think is sound. Then I want to add that batoning is fun and rewarding. Flipping my sebenza and banging my dual otf around is all rewarding and have no benefit. Sometimes we want to do things for fun. I mean using a fire steel when a bic lighter is all you need is also another example. I think the guy is afraid of people learning the wrong technique when there is more efficient or proper way of doing things in the first place. I do like the residual effects of the popularity of batoning. Knives are getting better. On a side note, I have read that you can baton a unlocked folder to save the lock. Use the blade loose but I have not tried it myself.

  9. Double L says:

    Most fans baton because they enjoy doing it,not because of an emergency situation.I would not hesitate to use any tool i had on me in an real emergency situation but it’s obvious the vast majority of fans are not in emergency situations when they baton,but rather right outside in their suburban fenced in backyards,or at a park within eyesight of their suv and other campers.In the event of an real emergency all they’d have to do is walk inside and call for help or leave in their car.Fact is the closest most fans will ever come to a real emergency situation in the wilderness is from them cutting themselves trying to use a tool that was not designed for the purpose the fan was using it for and inexperience.

  10. Cyclicalmotion says:

    I’m with Mr. MacDougal.
    Let’s be honest, we primarily live in North America.
    If I were to push that modifier, we live in primarily Forest and prairie lands.

    I, myself have done multiple survival training classes. I have never, I repeat, NEVER, had to process wood to four split sides in order to start a fire.
    I have never, NEVER, needed to take kindling from a log. Being in a forest, a quick reach into a ten foot radius usually will find me a good handful of kindling. Leaving the log for large fuel after the fire has set. I have at times taken large strips of wood out of an already broken log to flatten it out and use as a table or maybe to add a bit of intermediate fuel to a fire. Even then, I have never used more than the pressure of my hands to do so.
    If I were on a desert Island with just a palm tree and brush, I’d still be shaving cocnut rind for kindling, and harvesting brush for fuel.
    If I were stuck in the MaCaddyCaddy with nothing more than a Baobob tree and and brush I’d be shaving bark from that Baobob. I still can’t see a reason where I’d baton anything with a knife edge.

    You need to process wood to create a travois? Well I suggest you take the wood out of the limb in wedge cuts much like you would if you were felling a tree or sectioning a tree trunk with an ax.

    No wood processing tool, outside of a wedge, (which coincidentally has no other use and never possesses a refined sharpened edge) is ever used to push a straight line of movement along the grain of a piece of wood. Even in that usage, it isn’t driven as far as those who “baton” with their knife. Which demands the question, if you have gotten to the point where you can “baton” with a knife, why aren’t you driving a wedged rock with that baton, or another chunk of wood? Something that does not have the cutting utility and purpose a finely honed knife has?

    You want clean faced edges, use a saw.
    If you are surviving, give up on the cleaned faced edges, it’s survival, not project runway. (Even then, the mantra is “make it work”)

    Back to making a travois, since when do you have to split wood to drag a body? You’re limbing a tree, and lashing thick branches together. I’ve done that with an old Boy Scout Knife, no baton.

    Now, if you want to make a YouTube video.
    By all means, keep batoning.

    1. Well written and thoughtful response.

      I am not splitting wood to make a travois. I tap the back of the knife with a baton and cut a wedge around the circumference of the limb or trunk.

      I put that under the larger umbrella of batoning since it involves striking the knife, even if it is cutting and not spitting.

      1. I will snap some pics of what I am describing and throw it up in a post soon.

        Thanks again for your thorough response.

  11. You will not hammer a knife that belongs to me – especially to make kindling that does not need to be made (I’ve started tens of thousands of fires in 60+ years of living and working in timber country – my first after-school job was as a fur trapper – and if necessary, I can split kindling from a log using a folding knife and only hand pressure, per my Facebook page). You have only to check out the video “Survival Expert Len McDougall Starts A Fire In The Rain” on YouTube to see that split kindling is entirely unnecessary, at any rate, regardless of weather, season, or conditions. Lastly, again I challenge anyone – anyone – to find an instance of a mountain man or other frontiersman who hammered on his knife to split kindling in the field. The practice was invented by 21st-century youngsters who in fact have no actual use for a knife, and needed to create some sort of test of quality for their knives. Ironically, I believe that I probably started this foolish trend with a series of articles I wrote in 1997-98 about the brutally strong Ontario Knives SP-8 Survival Machete; I split an 18″x3′ green poplar (northern aspen) log into kindling with the knife, and occasionally when it became stuck in the wood, I had to hammer it through with a faggot of wood. In fact, the better the knife, the MORE LIKELY it is to break from “batoning.” A flea market class 440B Bowie will stand up to being hammered forever. A world class TOPS woodsman’s knife will not.

    1. I always appreciate your well reasoned and concisely worded input Len. Thank you.

      I think it has a role to play in both emergency and testing contexts, but agree that people take it too far and read much more into it that is necessarily valid.

      If you don’t mind I would like to compile your previous comments with this one and your videos into an “alternative expert view” post. Or I would Like to invite you to submit a full essay as a guest post. Feel free to drop me a line at if you would like to explore either option.

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Question of the Day: Batoning Revisited

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