In Praise of the “Rambo” Hollow-Handled Survival Knife
Kevin Felts 10.26.16
What was your first hiking, camping, backpacking, wilderness survival knife?
Around 1984, I am pretty sure it was 1984, I went to GI Surplus in Orange Texas and bought my first survival knife. The store is no longer in business, which is a shame.
When I got the knife home I was so proud. It was like a turning point in a young man’s life. I had bought my first knife.
The knife I bought was a Valor brand name. At the base of the blade it is stamped “Valor Miami, USA” on one side. On the other side it is stamped “440 Stainless, 599 Japan, camo”.
Overall length: 12 1/4 inches.
Blade length: 7 1/8 inches
The knife came with:
- Leather sheath
- 2 leather leg tie straps
- Survival kit in the handle
- Sharpening stone
- Compass in the handle cap
Rambo, First Blood
Released in 1982, Rambo: First Blood ushered in the era of hollow handle survival knife. The movie glorified an individual who could venture into the wilderness with nothing but a knife. Using only what was in his knife, this person would be able to build a fire, hunt, and survive.
Building on the Rambo hollow handle survival knife fad, companies flooded the United States market with both high quality and cheap knockoffs. Chances are the cheap knockoffs greatly outnumbered the quality reproductions. There were all different types of knives, different sizes, different types of built-in compass, just all kinds of stuff to pick from.
The hollow handle Rambo knife craze was capitalism in its purest form. People wanted a product and manufacturers delivered. What would have been nice is if the companies making the knives had taken a little more pride in their products.
Knife blade technology has come a long way in the past few decades. Things were a lot more primitive in the 1980s. Rather than using a carbon steel blade, manufacturers opted for blade made from 440 stainless. While a knife blade made from 440 stainless resists rusts, it is difficult to sharpen and does not hold an edge.
Today we have 440A, 440B, 440C and 440F. Along with proper heat treatment these are supposed to hold a good edge.
Due to my experiences with 440 stainless back in the 1980s and 1990s, I pretty much refuse to buy a knife if it has a blade made from 440 stainless. I do not know if it was the grade of 440 stainless or the lack of heat treatment that made the knife blades so bad in the 1980s.
My Valor survival knife came with a nice sharp edge, but the edge went dull rather fast. Once dull it was difficult to sharpen and would not hold an edge. I would work on the blade for what seemed like hours to obtain a “somewhat” decent edge. Then with a few uses the blade went dull again.
The survival kit was your typical hollow handle knife survival kit: wire saw, matches, fishing hooks, maybe some fishing line. Small and cheap stuff to encourage a sale.
One of the first things I did was take the saw out and try to cut a tree branch with it. The wire broke in just a few minutes.
I took the fishing line out, but I carried better in my backpack. The hooks were enough to catch a perch, so I kept some of them. The matches were cheap so I replaced them with strike anywhere. A full length match would not fit in the handle so I broke the matches in half. At one time I carried matches dipped in wax in the knife handle.
A buddy of mine bought a similar knife. He took the survival kit out and filled the handle with kerosene. I thought it was a good idea. On a camping trip he took his knife out, poured the kerosene on some twigs, struck a match and got the fire started.
The sharpening stone that came with my hollow handle survival knife was about as cheap as cheap could get. Within a few months the stone had worn down in the middle. There are better modern day options, such as diamond stone.
My primary backpack has a foldable diamond sharpening stone.
In the end, I took the sharpening stone out and put a magnesium fire starter in its place. I would rather have fire than some cheap sharpening stone. Also, a good knife can be sharpened on a rough rock.
Times have changed
With the internet and public reviews, knife companies are forced to up the quality of their products. Rather than going into a GI Surplus store and blindly buying an unknown product, people can spend just a few minutes searching the internet and find reviews.
Hollow handle knives are still be produced and still being sold. They are cool to have and fun to play around with. Whoever buys one needs to be aware of their limitations. The hollow handle survival knife is weak where the blade attaches to the handle. It is not a pry bar.
If you are thinking about buying a hollow handle survival knife, go ahead. There are limitless options on sites like Amazon and eBay.
The main thing is to have fun. Have a child you want to teach outdoor skills? Buy them a hollow handle survival knife, take them camping, and have fun. Build some quality memories that will last a lifetime.