When I was a teenager in the 1980s I used to read every word and scrutinise every picture of the catalogue produced semi-annually by a company called Survival Aids. It was full of hard-to-find survival equipment. There were two products in the catalogue that I wanted more than anything else – a DPM Ventile smock and a Wilkinson Sword Survival Knife. For a young lad with little pocket money, however, they were expensive and therefore unobtainable. Later on I did manage to get hold of one of the knives and I enjoyed using it compared to the cheap survival knives I’d had in the past. To be honest, though, back then I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had relatively little skill with a knife.
Recently I was surprised to learn that the Wilkinson Sword Survival Knife is still available. I was surprised because Wilkinson Sword (the sword and knife maker as opposed to the razor blade manufacturer) ceased trading in 2005. The final production version of the Wilkinson Sword Survival Knife was something of a redesign of the original, officially renamed the Dartmoor Knife CSK185, the latter being an acronym for Combination Survival Knife with a blade length of 185mm. After the company went under, the remaining stocks of Dartmoor knives were sold off. It is these knives that are available from www.dartmoorknife.co.uk Knives are available in various states of finish, right up to mint condition and boxed. I recently had the opportunity to try one of these out.
Even in 2005 the Dartmoor was something of a throwback. The Dartmoor was a revised version of the original Wilkinson Sword Survival Knife, designed in the 1980s by Ray Mears. In the picture caption on page 15 of his ‘Survival Handbook’, published in 1990, Mears writes “The Wilkinson Sword survival knife, designed by the author to combine the ideals of a woodsman’s knife with the requirements of the expeditioner”.
Survival knives polarise opinion – hated in some quarters, an invaluable tool to others. The Wilkinson Sword Survival knife is no exception but those who love them still have their knives in use after many years of service. The Mk I and Mk II Wilkinson Sword knives are collectors’ items that are hard to come by.
A large knife is just a bit too ‘Rambo’ isn’t it?
Taking their lead from Jimmy Lile’s original ‘Rambo Knife’ design, many survival knives produced during and since the 1980s have been pretty large. At 310mm long and weighing 0.815Kg with scabbard and survival kit, the Dartmoor Survival Knife is sizeable but by no means the biggest. Only recently has Bear Grylls re-popularised smaller survival knives, first with his custom Rob Bayley knife and now with Gerber. Since the bushcraft revolution of the nineties and noughties, many of us have grown to love small knives with blades no longer than the width of our palms. So, to many people nowadays, a large knife just seems wrong, brash, uncouth even. But is this view based on experience or on fashion?
It’s worth remembering that survival knives are not bushcraft knives (at least not in the sense that we use the term today). A survival knife is a product designed first and foremost to help you out of an unspecified difficult situation whatever or wherever that may be. With this broad brief, survival knives are often designed to be jack-of-all-trades (sometimes making them master of none). Just because a survival knife won’t carve like a little Mora clipper or fell trees like a Gransfors Small Forest Axe doesn’t mean it has no value. Moreover, in survival situations, carving spoons or felling trees are rarely top priority. Put yourself in the middle of nowhere, possibly with no idea where, having to address the basic priorities of survival. It is with this general situation in mind that survival knives are conceived. It is also with this in mind that survival knives often include additional survival kit.
So what is included with a Dartmoor Survival Knife?
As well as the knife and sheath, you get a small selection of useful survival kit:
- Button compass;
- Snare wire;
- Fishing line;
- Fishing kit – hooks, swivels, weights;
- Scalpel blade;
- Fireflash (old style);
- Sewing needles.
The Wilkinson Sword Survival and Dartmoor knives have a full tang but the tang has a cut-out. Contained in the handle, within this cut-out, is a small tube designed to contain items of survival kit. A criticism of the Dartmoor knife that I have read somewhere on the web is some of the survival kit – particularly the snare wire and fishing line spool – doesn’t fit in the knife handle. The negative implication was that these items have to be carried separately from the knife and the rest of the kit. What is less than obvious is that there is actually a storage compartment on the sheath (something added to the Dartmoor sheath that wasn’t a feature of the original Wilkinson Sword Survival Knife). This storage compartment is clearly explained and illustrated in the knife’s instruction booklet, so I’m not sure why it remains such a mystery.
I managed to fit the snare wire and the fishing line into the storage compartment on the sheath with no problems. With the exception of two of the half-dozen overly-large fishing weights supplied with my knife, the remainder of the survival kit fits into the handle. If you simply replace the supplied weights with smaller and more dense weights, then everything easily fits on the knife. I’m told by the supplier that some knives were kitted out with cylindrical weights which fit into the kit much more easily. Either way, it’s no big deal for you to swap the weights to the type you want. You may well want to customise the fishing kit anyway.
Over the years Wilkinson Sword Survival knives have received some negative reviews of their cutting ability. I think one of the reasons for this is that the knives used by reviewers were blunt. This may seem an obvious statement but it’s surprising that even brand new Wilkinson Sword Survival knives have always arrived quite blunt. I don’t know why. It’s all the more baffling because it is possible to attain a sharp and durable edge on these knives. If you are going to get the most out of one of these tools, you need to sharpen it. This can involve quite a bit of effort. The booklet included with the knife states, “The blade is hardened and tempered for optimum edge retention and toughness”. This type of language also normally tells you the knife is hard to sharpen. I spent several hours sharpening the Dartmoor by hand and then the knife had a much better edge and was a lot more useable.
What you don’t get with a Dartmoor knife is any means of sharpening in the field. Therefore it’s worth taking a small stone such as a Fallkniven DC4 with you to keep the knife sharp. The emphasis here is to keep the knife sharp – remember to sharpen or get the knife properly sharpened before you head out with it. Trying to get a really sharp edge in the field with only a DC4 would be a long job. The sharpening stone could be taped onto the back of the sheath. This would also give you a supply of duct tape or similar. Note this would prevent you from accessing the storage compartment in the sheath unless you removed the tape and sharpening stone. I don’t think this would be a big deal because the idea is you won’t be using the survival kit items unless it’s an emergency.
So, once the knife is sharpened, the survival kit is stowed on the knife and you’ve added a sharpening stone, the knife and kit is set up and prepared as it can be.
A Realistic Review Of A Survival Knife
The best way to review a piece of outdoor equipment, whether it is a knife or a canoe or anything else, is to go and use it for its intended purpose. So, it was thus I decided to get a good measure of the usefulness of the Dartmoor Survival Knife by heading out to the woods for a few days with little else to see how well this survival tool served me. The idea was to put myself into a mock ‘survival situation’ and try the knife out from this perspective.
I had only the clothing I was wearing – a cotton shirt, a synthetic fleece and a Ventile smock, cotton/synthetic mix trousers, socks and hiking boots. While the single-layer Ventile would give me some rain protection, I had no Gore-Tex or other similar raingear. In the pocket of the smock was a light wool hat.
For equipment I took the Dartmoor Survival knife set up as described above. This was mounted on a belt along with a pouch containing a water-bottle and a metal mug. I took a few other items – a cuts kit, a military dressing, a torch, a whistle, a hank of paracord and a compact camera. I also wore the watch I always wear.
I had no backpack or daypack, no food, no shelter, and no sleeping equipment.
Given I knew this situation was coming, I made my scenario less relaxed by not giving myself all day to get organised, build a great shelter, etc. I started my exercise at 17:00 with only three and a half hours until dark.
Prioritisation In My ‘Survival Situation’
First I scouted for possible shelters. I found a fallen tree that would do for at least the first night. The sky was clear and I didn’t expect rain. It was early May though and I expected the temperature to drop to between 5 deg C and zero, particularly with a clear sky. I would survive the night without a fire but I’d definitely be more comfortable and get more rest with one. If you try to sleep directly on the ground you lose a lot of heat via conduction. I collected some boughs from nearby evergreens to create an insulating mattress.
Then I started to collect materials for a fire. I knew I had a fireflash in the knife handle so I wasn’t particularly stressed about getting my fire going. All I needed was some material that would catch a spark. Down the hill was a pond containing greater reedmace, Typha latifolia. The dry fluffy seed heads catch a spark well. I stuffed one of my pockets full of this material. Then I collected small match-stick thin sticks, mainly birch, and some dried bracken Pteridium aquilinum. This would be the makings of my fire. I stowed my kindling off the ground within my shelter then set about collecting some larger firewood. I found another fallen tree, this time a pine, and proceeded to remove some of its limbs. I decided to use the Dartmoor to take off the larger branches and the survival knife made a good job of this heavy chopping.
After accumulating a good pile of firewood I decided I would get some of my food-acquisition assets working. In scouting around earlier I had spotted some rabbit runs. The Dartmoor comes with 6 metres (18 ft) of brass snare wire and this is enough to make two rabbit snares of six strands each. There are no brass eyelets supplied with the knife so any snares made with just the wire provided would be illegal in the UK. I had made up two rabbit snares with free-running brass eyelets before I set out so that I remained within the confines of the law (I also had the land-owner’s permission).
I found some hazel from which I would make the snare pegs. I began to saw the hazel with the saw-back of the Dartmoor and initially it made good progress but then it began to stick a little. I’ve been spoilt over the past 10+ years by using a Bahco Laplander folding saw. The Dartmoor saw-back works but no-where near as well as a specialised tool such as a Laplander. What I discovered was the saw back of the Dartmoor cuts a notch quickly but once the notch becomes too deep and too much metal of the side of the knife is in contact with the wood then the friction starts to make it stick. This is because the width of the saw is the same as the rest of the blade.
The Dartmoor is much more effective at chopping than sawing so I cut the snare pegs to length with a light chopping action. I also used this chopping action to point the pegs at the bottom and bevel them at the top. I notched the pegs and then created a chamfer to retain the paracord I would attach the snares with.
After the snares were set, it was dusk. So, I quickly collected some easily identifiable and available plant foods – stinging nettles, Urtica dioica and ramsons, Allium ursinum and returned to my shelter, where I left the plants. I then went to get some water in my metal mug, which I could boil once I established my fire. Rather than collecting water from the murky pond where I collected the reedmace seed-heads, I took clear running water from a stream feeding it. Even though this water would still need to be boiled, it was clear and lacked turbidity, which would otherwise have needed to be filtered out.
I now returned to my shelter and organised my fire. I cleared the ground and put down a platform of dry wood. On top of this I placed a bundle of greater reedmace seeds then dried bracken then the birch twigs. I gathered some slightly larger fuel together to add once the initial fire was established.
Even though the firestick from the knife’s survival kit is thinner and shorter than the Swedish Firesteels that have gained popularity in recent years, it can produce a decent shower of sparks. I found the best part of the knife to bring into contact with the firestick was a sharp angle of the saw-back of the knife. This easily produced a shower of sparks onto the fluffy seeds, which caught immediately and burnt quickly, which in turn ignited the dry bracken.
Firelighting is a key skill. Fire boosts morale. Once I had established my fire I could boil water, prepare food and keep myself warm. I had gathered a good collection of decent-sized branches and small logs. I fed my fire with these throughout the night and this kept me warm.
In the morning I boiled more water for a warm drink of water mint, Mentha aquatica, tea. I also wilted some nettles, Urtica dioica over the fire to neutralise the stings. I had collected these plants in passing while getting organised the previous evening. I really like fresh-mint tea and nettles are remarkably filling, so I was happy.
This breakfast set me up for some food gathering and I set off – still quite early in the day – first to check my snares. Nothing.
I then went to find some more plant foods. I checked a likely area for pignuts, Conopodium majus, and hit the jackpot. I then spent some time collecting these delicious little tubers. These formed my second breakfast. I could taste their food value and they were remarkably sustaining.
I searched for more plant foods; In collecting ramsons, Allium ursinum, which were in flower, I discovered a number of insects in the flowers. In digging for roots, I also found some grubs. I collected some of these in a small plastic bag from the survival kit. I used the fishing equipment from the knife to set some static lines, baited with some of the insects and grubs.
I then collected more firewood and improved my shelter to weather-proof it a little in case the weather took a turn for the worst. Over the few days I was out, this is what I used the knife for most – chopping and trimming shelter materials and chopping and splitting wood for the fire.
These days our diet provides us with quite a lot of water. Consequently, when you are not eating as much you need to drink more water than usual. Even though I was getting some plant foods into my system I wasn’t getting enough yet as I had been spending time on other things. I got into a routine of boiling water, putting some into my water bottle to cool then boiling more and adding some mint or chopped scots pine, Pinus sylvestris needles for a flavoured drink.
The next morning, one of the snares was knocked but nothing had been caught. I re-set the knocked snare and left. Nor had the static fishing lines produced any fish. Later I tried some hobo fishing but had no bites.
I was getting some carbohydrates from plants and this diet would keep me going for a significant amount of time. I wasn’t going to run out of cat-tails any time soon. I would need to get some protein at some point though. My shelter was good and I had a ready supply of firewood. I was happy being out in the woods at a great time of year.
After having attended to my initial priorities I was using the knife less and then only for the same tasks I had already used it for. After three days my time was up anyway. I had to go home the next day. So, on the fourth morning I dismantled my shelter and cleared up after my fire. I was unlucky and somewhat disappointed with my snaring and fishing but that is the way it goes sometimes. It’s worth being realistic about how these things work. In the past I’ve set a handful of snares and got nothing for several days then caught three animals in one morning. Other times you can get something almost straight away. For me this illustrates why it’s important also to have a good knowledge of plant foods.
Part of what interested me in going out with the Dartmoor Knife was to nudge myself out of a comfort rut. There is a flexibility that comes from using unfamiliar equipment. In a survival situation is everything going to be the way you want it? Unlikely. So it was interesting relying on a tool that I wasn’t used to. How did the Dartmoor perform as a survival tool? I think it served me very well. I was able to do everything I needed. At times I had to modify my technique to get the most out of the knife or to make up for a shortfall (such as with the saw) but I was glad to have it with me. I lived in the woods for several days and felt no worse for it. This experience highlighted for me – as other experiences have in the past – that skill and knowledge are the most important things. They weigh nothing and you carry them wherever you go. It’s also important not to become overly precious about particular tools and learn to have the flexibility to use what is at hand.
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