Knives are hot these days, what with Rambo running amok on the silver screen. It stands to reason that many will find their way into Christmas packages. But if you're going to give somebody a knife, for heaven's sake, don't make it a survival knife. These things are a fad, and just about useless.
"I guess they're good if you want to chop down a tree, but I don't see much use for them otherwise," said Marv Walls, who is selling his share of survival knives at Angler's Sporting Goods in Annapolis.
Walls said people generally buy knives bigger than they need. "Any knife with a blade over about four inches long is, in my opinion, pointless," agreed John Schelin of Schelin Guns in College Park. "With a six-inch blade, you use the last three inches, and the first three sit there. It's that much more to sharpen."
I've never thought of myself as a knife nut, but I glanced at the dresser the other day and discovered a modest little knife collection dwelling there.
These knives, acquired over the last decade or so, are all good and useful. Each has a purpose and holds a memory or two. The most expensive cost about $25 seven years ago, and the cheapest, a Sears Craftsman folding knife, was 50 cents at a yard sale and is a whale of a knife.
There is great satisfaction in having nice knives, keeping them sharp and whipping them out when the appropriate situation arises.
Assuming that I probably know a little more about knives than I think I do, and after cross-checking some concepts and prejudices with such folks as Schelin and Walls, who know a lot, let me pass on a few ideas about inexpensive knives that might make nice gifts.
*The best pocket knife is a Swiss Army knife.
"I wouldn't leave the house without mine," said Schelin.
"Anyone who goes more than 30 miles without a Swiss Army knife doesn't deserve to get home," said a Washington photographer who then reached in his pocket to discover, to his horror, that he was 40 miles from home without his.
There are a few products around claiming to be Swiss Army knives. The one to get has the following inscription at the base of the big blade: "Victorinox/Switzerland/Stainless/Rostfrei" on one side and "Officier Suisse" on the other.
Of the many models, the best I've found is the Spartan, small enough to carry easily in the pocket but with the best features of its more cumbersome kin. The Spartan has two cutting blades, 2 1/2 and 1 1/2 inches, an excellent can opener, a bottle opener, two screwdrivers, a wire stripper, corkscrew, and a leather punch. I just bought one on sale at Herman's for $10.99.
These knives are beautifully made and are more useful than money. The steel is moderately hard and takes a keen edge with modest work on the stone.
*The best fish knife is a Rapala.
These stainless steel filet knives with blond wood handles and leather scabbards are available in many department stores and most sporting goods stores, and no fisherman should be without one. The Rapala with a six-inch blade is a buy at $13.97 at Best Products.
The beauty of a Rapala is the ease with which it sharpens. If it gets dull after you clean 30 or 40 bluefish, hit it a few licks on a stone or steel, and it's razor sharp again. This is a mystery, since most knives made of steel hard enough to hold an edge are tough to sharpen. Rapalas take and hold an edge.
They are beautiful, well-made knives. Each blade bears the signature of the manufacturer, "F. Marttini, Finland," lending a little class to the act.
*The best hunting knife is a Buck.
There would be a dispute on this. Some favor a Schrade, others like a Kershaw or Gerber. All are good, but when you run with hunters, you see mostly Bucks and rarely hear a discouraging word.
When deer hunting, which is the only kind of hunting hereabouts that requires a knife that won't fit in the pocket, I carry a nonfolding Buck with a 4 1/2-inch blade in a black leather belt sheath. This knife is so strong you can cut bolts by banging on the blade with a hammer.
If there is a complaint about Bucks, it's that they're so hard they are difficult to sharpen. Schelin said Buck recently softened its steel slightly, which may ease the burden.
One reason people have trouble putting an edge on a Buck, Walls said, is that they use too shallow an angle when drawing it across the stone. A Buck edge is beveled at about 20 degrees, he said, so that to sharpen it, the knife must be raised a bit more toward the vertical than one might instinctively think.
My Buck was dull as a butter knife. While we chatted the other day, Walls, son of a straight-razor barber, worked the blade over a pair of crock-stick sharpeners. After five minutes or so, the Buck was sharp as new, which made me feel a little silly.
*Some other knife advice:
The best kitchen knife, according to my wife, is a Sabatier Chef Au Ritz with a five-inch carbon steel blade. I've used this knife and agree it's a beauty. Schelin also recommends Henkel kitchen knives. Both are available at Woodward & Lothrop.
A wonderful big-fish filet knife is a Swibo, a 9 1/2-inch Swiss-made knife available only at restaurant supply houses.
Any outdoorsman who doesn't already have one would appreciate a lock-back, wood-handled pocket knife with a three- or four-inch blade. Buck, Kershaw, Gerber and Case all make good ones.
Finally, back to survival knives: What, exactly, are you going to do with the fish hooks, monofilament line, compass and magnifying glass you extract from the handle after your car breaks down on the Southwest Expressway?
I'm convinced that what Washington needs is an urban survival knife. It would be just sharp enough to cut French bread and spread melted Brie. In the handle, for emergencies, would be a Valium, a Metro farecard and the phone number of a good lawyer.