Give Some Serious Thought To Sheaths for Your Knives
by Jim Williamson
While strolling around a knife show, I was reminded of how mediocre the overall standard of knife sheaths is. Most manufacturers try to get by with whatever they can provide at a given price point, while custom makers are often not too fond of doing leatherwork. Many farm that out.
Kenny Rowe of Hope, AR, makes a lot of sheaths for the custom set, and its widely known that the celebrated Randall Made Knives (PO Box 1988, Dept. GWK, Orlando, FL 32802; phone: 407-855-8075; on-line: www.randallknives.com) are sheathed, according to the time they were made, in leather from Heiser, Johnson, or Sullivans Holster Shop (operated by Greg Gutcher). The last remains the current producer. These superior sheaths have long been a part of the Randall legend. Few knives can boast such nice leather, as theyre shipped from the maker.
This shortage of nice sheaths isnt good: not only does the appearance of most suffer; a poor sheath may actually let the knifes point pierce the leather if the wearer falls. Include parachute jumps among falls in this context. So many paratroopers have been injured that some units now order that their soldiers use rigid (usually metal) sheaths.
Ive noticed that many naïve hunters, anglers, and campers wear their knives too far forward. Some say its easier to sit down that way. Ive not had a problem with a knife worn well back on the hip, where the point wont injure one if it bites through the leather, Cordura, etc., surface. The casual family camper is especially liable to injury, not being too familiar with sharp tools.
A Yuppie new to the woods is often long on wonder and enthusiasm, and short on experience and common sense! There was a time when many budding outdoorsmen learned woodcraft in the Boy Scouts, but too often, todays Scout troops seem more concerned with urban social issues than with camping and trail work. This is reflected in the recent Scout manuals that Ive browsed.
Although some cultures do use metal or wooden sheaths, the knife isnt necessarily worn well forward on the waist. The Argentine gauchos, for instance, wear sheaths to match their silver-handled knives, but they wear them at their backs.
Some Europeans compromise: many German sheaths that Ive seen over the years have metal tips. I have one in Bavarian style from Anton Wingen, a famed Solingen company that has since gone out of business. I got it while still in elementary school, but this Cub Scout already knew to wear the knife well back on my hip. True metal sheaths are hard to come by; the best option being perhaps the German models now sold widely on the military surplus market. Celebrated cutlery firms, including Robert Klaas, even Puma, made many of these knives. Paratroopers often favor them.
Some, mainly soldiers, like to wear a knife suspended from a pack harness. That does get it off the belt, possibly allowing an additional canteen or other vital item to go on the waist. But it causes other problems. The knife may snag brush or equipment, will fall out if worn upside down if the snap is accidentally unfastened, and when one takes off the pack, he takes off the knife.
Backpackers often find that a pack interferes with carrying a knife on the belt, and they wind up carrying the knife in the pack. Pretty inaccessible! A sheath that hangs low may solve the problem, and Fallkniven (on-line: www.fallkniven.comno US address; ask your dealer or ask for dealers on their website) offers one in typical Scandinavian style. The Canadian Grohmann company (Grohmann Knives Ltd., PO Box 40, Dept. GWK, Pictou, NS, Canada, B0K 1H0: phone: 902-485-4224: on-line: www.grohmannknives.com) also has one, although the Fallkniven entry hangs lower, if it matters. Sometimes, it does! I have one of their sheaths like this for their S1 knife, and am very favorably impressed with it. These deep pouches are contoured to the knives they carry, and Ive never had one fall out. More on pouches in a moment.
What about keeper/retaining straps? I think theyre needed, except on those deep pouches. Some have the strap around the top of the handle. Others have a lower strap, and some (like Randalls), fasten diagonally. All work, but the diagonal ones, in particular, may be cut as the knife is sheathed. Keep that in mind, and guard against it. All told, I think the strap should pass around the upper end of the knife handle. That keeps the handle from sagging away from the sheath, where its more likely to snag brush, ferns, etc.
Some factories do offer good sheaths. Weve noted Grohmann and Fallkniven. Add Buck and older Puma brand knives. Some Gerber knives have had solid sheaths. SOG and Muela (a good Spanish manufacturer) have rugged synthetic examples, as well as leather.
The Scandinavian-style sheaths with very deep pouches that expose only the butt of the knife are quite popular. Theyre fairly standard at Grohmann, and many fillet knives come with one. The sturdiest that Ive seen are from Fallkniven. I have one for an S1 model, and it is very well made of heavy leather. It dangles from a brass attachment, and the belt loop is wide enough for most belts. The knife is fitted to the sheath and is unlikely to drop out. Some sheaths of this type use flimsier leather (even plastic!) and arent molded to fit. Id avoid them. Theyre too apt to lose the knife, and some also arent rugged enough to provide much protection in a fall.
Synthetic sheaths of Kydex and similar molded thermoplastics are much in vogue with the military and those who want to look tactical in the woods. Ive been using examples from Fallkniven, which makes them optional on some models. Initially, I thought they were cheap looking and noisy if scraped by brush. They are, but they withstand mold, fungus, and mildew much better than does leather, and they give protection in a fall.
At sea or in coastal areas, their ability to stand up well to salt air without much care must endear them to those who may have to survive anywhere in the world if their military plane goes down. I suspect that its a good idea to clean them often (with fresh water) if they see much salt air. But they certainly stand up better than leather, and are much less apt to be pierced accidentally by the blade tip.
As far as I know, they withstand cold weather without cracking. Fallkniven uses them for their F1 in Royal Swedish Air Force service, where the F1 is the official pilots survival knife. Both knife and sheath had to endure severe winter trials in that frigid nation before adoption. The F1 and their larger S1 also passed grueling US tests, and are authorized for aircrew use.
Look at the edge of any leather sheath that you plan to expose to serious use. Is there a strong welt, well stitched? Is the leather heavy enough to be safe under the most rugged conditions that you expect to encounter? You want to be able to fall down without the knife piercing the sheath.
Normally, I prefer strong conventional stitching, but some like the sheaths rear edges to be secured with lacing. In my experience, this feature is popular with those who like floral stamping on their holsters and cowboy boots on their feet. If you do opt for lacing, be sure that it cant be cut by the blade or pierced in a tumble.
Some like rivets along the edge. If well done, they do add strength, and Randalls Model C sheaths have used rivets to reinforce the stitching. The Model C is the sheath they supply for their heavy combat and survival knives, like the famed Model 14. However, most other riveted sheaths Ive seen werent constructed as well. Those for the USMC Ka-Bar type knives are okay as factory sheaths go, and have been used by the US military since 1942.
What about belt loops? Some are just slit into a single layer of leather extending up behind and above the well of the sheath. Some German ones are too slender, and the leather on them is often brittle. I much prefer a thicker, wider loop that wont wear through for the life of the sheath.
As for care, use shoe polish to keep the leather supple. The cream sort seems to nourish the leather best. Using neats-foot oil can make the sheath lose its innate stiffness, and it can bend too easily. Above all, the sheath must protect both knife and wearer. It should be good looking, too. It must retain the knife under all circumstances, unless it is intentionally drawn. Getting a sound sheath is a key element in choosing an outdoors knife. Not only will a good one give visual pleasure, it makes wearing a knife in the woods much safer, and keeps it readily at hand, ready for any adventure or for routine camp use.
If you cant find a knife you like that comes with a good sheath, get the current annual edition of Krause Publishings Knives, which lists custom sheath makers. Some of these makers also advertise in the cutlery magazines, sold on many newsstands and in bookstores. Standard custom sheaths without exotic materials or decoration are available for roughly $25-$35. Theyre a lifetime investment in outdoors safety.
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