The idea behind this article is pretty simple. I always carry a SAK and a folder. I wanted to see how I would feel carrying just a SAK or only a single bladed folder. For six days- three outdoors and three in the city- I’ll carry a Spyderco Paramilitary, then I’ll do the same with a Victorinox Huntsman. By the end of the twelve day trial period I will, hopefully, have some useful conclusions.
Why did I choose those particular knives? First of all, I think that they are both excellent representatives of their class and they’ve proven their worth to me over time.
The Huntsman, with its excellent tool selection and rather compact size is probably the closest thing to the perfect SAK for both urban and outdoors use. Sure, I usually prefer a Farmer for the woods and a Compact is enough for most of my urban needs, but I needed a SAK that could manage everything reasonably well. I didn’t want to choose one of the bigger locking models from Victorinox or Wenger (or one of Wenger’s Sécurité knives), because I wanted to do this test with one of the classic “little red knives”.
The Paramilitary has all the features that I look for in a folder: one hand opening, excellent blade steel, awesome handle ergonomics, a good lock with a blade big enough to tackle almost any chore. I didn’t choose a more traditional folder in part because there is already a very good SAK and slipjoint comparison article and also because I wanted a knife that could be opened with one hand and clipped to a pocket.
I don’t intend to bash any of the knives or prove one of them useless. As much as I am a SAK lover, I also enjoy “tactical” (I hate that word) folders a lot.
Enough senseless rambling, lets get these babies on the field!
Part 1: The great outdoors
I left Buenos Aires for the mountains with my Hunstman in my pocket and the Paramilitary in my pack waiting for its turn. With the first hours of wandering through the hills and forests came the first surprise: I didn’t miss the Paramilitary as much as I thought I would. I usually carry it (or a similar knife) as a back up for my fixed blade, but the Huntsman seemed to be doing very well.
Since I had a fixed blade on my belt all the time, a one hand opening knife didn’t seem all that necessary. If I needed to get a knife quickly, all I had to do was reach down to my waist and take it out of its sheath. Anything that was too much for the Huntsman’s blade was easily handled by the stout fixed blade. Perhaps if the size gap between my bushcraft knife and the SAK had been greater the Paramilitary would have been a bit more needed.
Besides the main blade, I must say that the Huntsman’s most valuable tool in the woods is its saw. A smallish non locking blade like the one on any SAK doesn’t seem to be too effective if you have to deal with branches and cut firewood, but that little saw really shines. I don’t carry an axe with me because of the weight, so battoning and sawing had to manage all my wood cutting, and did so without any problems. On the second day of the trip I used only the saw to cut all the wood needed. I was glad to see that it could, with some ingenuity, handle all my needs. Sure, there were some cuts that would have been made faster and easier by battoning my fixed blade, but the saw was great, none the less. If there is a single advantage SAKs have over other folders outdoors it’s, at least in my experience, their saw. The Paramilitary wouldn’t have been able to cut all that wood, and battoning a folder never seemed like a great idea to me. Did I mention how good Victorinox and Wenger saws are?
The rest of the tools came in handy as well. Probably the only two that I didn’t use were the corkscrew (I have a zero alcohol rule in the wilderness) and the can opener. The screwdrivers were used to tinker, “fix” is too strong a word, with my camping stove and the scissors were really nice to have around for all those little tasks that would have been a bit tricky to perform with a knife.
At the end of the first three days I was very happy with the way the fixed blade and SAK combo worked, in fact it took a lot of will power to put the Huntsman back in my pack and take out the Paramilitary.
Those guys at Spyderco sure know their heat treat! The Paramilitary seemed to keep an edge forever. I was invited by some local guys to put my money where my mouth was about my skill to skin game preserving the hides perfectly and without a single trace of meat, I worked on a whole young cow that was about to be butchered and I didn’t have to sharpen the knife even once. It did a flawless work and I got to keep the hide (all 40 kilos of it, around 80 pounds) as a prize, you can imagine how thrilled they were at home when the hide was delivered a few days later. Cleaning the Paramilitary was rather easy because of its open construction. I’m not sure I would be able to do such a good job with my Huntsman, edge retention aside, it would have gotten really filthy with all the blood and fat, and the lack of a lock could have been an issue. Truth be told, if I have to do something like this I’ll probably use one of my fixed blades, anyway, so I don’t know how much of an advantage this is.
Half way through the second day of carrying the Paramilitary I started missing some of the tools on my SAK. As good a knife as it is, the Paramilitary seemed to cover a niche that I didn’t need covered. Let me try to say this a bit more clearly, it wasn’t able to manage any of the tasks that my fixed blade couldn’t handle and it wasn’t able to do fine work better either. It just seemed to compete, if you will, with my fixed blade for the same chores, and I’ll take a fixed blade over any folder every time.
The Paramilitary performed very well, as one would expect from such a good knife from a reputable company, but the combination of SAK and fixed blade just seemed to work better than the “tactical” folder and fixed blade combination. I could have tried using just the Huntsman and the Paramilitary without a fixed blade, but I felt that it would have been un-realistic, because I always carry a fixed blade knife outdoors (and everybody should!).
If I had to choose one of the two knives in an emergency (assuming that I can’t have a fixed blade) it would be a hard choice. The Paramilitary is easier to open without fine motor skills and is certainly the toughest of the two, but I’m not sure how much abuse it can take. The tools on the Huntsman, on the other hand, give it a lot more flexibility and take a lot of pressure off the blade. You don’t need to baton a folder if it has a wood-saw. If other Victorinox and Wenger models are taken into account, like the bigger locking models (specially the one hand opening ones) or the alox models with saws (like the Farmer or Pioneer Harvester) it gets tougher and tougher for a folder to win. I must admit that I’m a little surprised myself with these conclusions, since I thought I would feel “underknived” with the Huntsman and would miss the Paramilitary a lot more.
Part 2: The urban jungle
Back from the woods and mountains and into this damned crowded city again. Anyway, I attached the Huntsman to a Victorinox belt hanger (I have a phobia about loosing SAKs) and I was off to the university. On my way out I ran into the mail man with a package from our very own Tim, so the Huntsman’s first task was opening a box with some more SAKs.
If SAKs are useful outdoors, they are absolutely essential in the city, where we are surrounded by lots of gadgets with the bad habit of malfunctioning. Like everyday in my life since I was a little boy, I used every tool in my Huntsman for a plethora of different things, from trimming my nails to fixing a sewing machine. That’s what I love about that little red marvel, you don’t even feel it in your pocket and it’s always there to bail you out. Only once did I have to resort to the SwissTool in the whole three days.
However, there where a couple of times when a one hand opening knife would have been nice and for the heavier cutting tasks a bigger blade and more hand filling handle would also have been welcome. I cut lots of thick leather, raw cow hide (I have weird hobbies) and rope everyday and although the Huntsman could take it, I would have preferred the Paramilitary for those tasks.
Another two very important areas for a city knife, at least for me, are emergencies and self-defence. These are two things I’m not sure a regular SAK can handle. By emergencies I mean things like cutting people out of their shoes or safety belts in a car crash, or cutting their clothes to get to an injury. You want a tough locking blade for those things, and quick single handed deployment is important, too. I’m not a mall ninja who day-dreams about saving the day, I’m a SAR worker and although most of my expertise is geared towards outdoors emergencies and natural disasters, I have been the first responder on a couple of urban accidents just because they happened in front of me or near my house. Self defence can be an itchy topic, so I don’t want to get into it too much, lets just agree that it’s not one of the Huntsman’s intended uses and that the Paramilitary would probably outperform it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t feel ill equipped with an OH-Fireman or OH-Trekker at a car crash or other similar accident, but they aren’t part of this test.
A great, and sometimes overlooked, advantage of a SAK in an urban environment is that some people don’t even consider them proper knives and don’t feel threatened by them. Even some of my friends who are knife users are biased against some types of folders (like automatics and balisongs) because they are pictured as “bad guy knives” on TV. A big one hand opening folder can get some strange looks at some places, yet you can open a SAK at a kindergarten without getting so much as a raised eyebrow.
Finally the Paramilitary got its turn. I felt strange walking out of my house without a SAK in my pocket for the first time in years (actually, I cheated and threw a Farmer in my backpack). Having a substantial folder close at hand was great, again I was amazed with the edge retention of S30V, I did lots and lots of cutting and it kept shaving hair off my arm.
Although most of the cutting chores that had seemed like a bit much for the Huntsman, or were uncomfortable to do with it for a long time, were easily performed by the Paramilitary I soon began missing the extra tools. Just go a day without a SAK and you’ll see how often you use it! A few times throughout the day I had to use the tip of a $100 folder to struggle with tasks that would have been a walk in the park for a $15 SAK. Luckily I didn’t damage the blade, but I proved that a cheap SAK, even a humble Spartan, close at hand will really make your folders last longer.
After carrying each of the knives on their own, it was clear that the best thing was to carry them together. At least in the city the Paramilitary (or a similar knife) is very useful and anything it can’t handle can probably be fixed with some of the features on the Huntsman. The SAK also allows you to keep a low profile at places where a bigger knife would draw unwanted attention and still be able to cut open a box or replace the crappy knife supplied at a mall’s food court.