While the knife is the most useful and primitive tool known to mankind there are few styles that have reached a legendary status in the 20th Century. One of these is the KA-BAR knife, but what led to this legendary status and what can you do to get the most out of your KA-BAR?
Today we’re going to look at the development and uses of the KA-BAR or the Mk 1 or Mk2 combat knife and the M2 Fighting/Utility knife. These blades are very similar and eventually grew into what we call a KA-BAR today.
How to use a KA-BAR
The KA-BAR knife can easily be used to cut, pry, dig, and make camp. Its 7 inch blade and clip point design allow for it to tackle a variety of mundane tasks while still providing a formidable defensive/offensive weapon.
Modern KA-BARs are heated for durability and made from either 1095 carbon steel or D2 tool steel. These steels are known for being able to hold an edge and maintain rigidity under stress.
Before we dive into the functions of the KA-BAR let’s look at the history and use of this style of knife.
History and Use of the KA-BAR
Militaries throughout history have issued a variety of blades to their troops, and the United States was no different. However many of the issued blades were theater or task specific. There was no standard-issue knife other than various bayonets.
Then the World Wars thrust the US into broader conflicts. With trench warfare becoming a major focus of the first part of the 1900s the US developed two trench knives to help US troops dominate in the close quarter fighting.
The first “knife” developed was the 1917 trench knife. While not a knife at all, the 1917 features a triangular blade and D-guard modified to act like a knuckle duster. It was an excellent piercing/stabbing weapon.
However, the triangular blade pierced too well and while similar style blades were banned by the Geneva Convention, the knife’s major reason for replacement was performance related.
The average US serviceman was not used to a specialized tool like the 1917. This led to the blades being stuck into wood when not in use. Due to the triangular nature of the blade this made them extremely hard to extract without breaking the blade. There was also the problem of no usable edge for non-combative roles. The 1917 trench knife was entirely devoted to combat.
This led to the development of a new knife. This was the 1918/Mark 1 trench knife. This knife featured a double edged blade in addition to a cast brass hilt with a built in knuckle duster. The “knuckle-knives” were an improvement compared to the 1917, but still hampered the individual soldier.
The knife was a mass of snag hazards. While the spiked knuckles, skull crusher pommel, and double-edged blade were all useful in close quarters combat they created multiple points for the handle to catch on the rest of the user’s equipment.
The handle also locked the user into a specific grip. This was because of the finger stall placement on the handle. This knuckle design also made it hard to access the knife quickly and easily since the fingers had to get into their individual stalls.
The blade itself was very narrow. This was perfect for a fighting blade since it would aid in penetration. But when it was co-opted for use as a utility knife the blade was bent or broken when used as a prying tool for crates or when opening ammo cans.
This persisted up into the Second World War. Various fighting knives and machetes were issued but none hit the golden medium of being both a fighting and utility knife. This was a big concern to the Marine Corps. And like many concerned war fighters they decided to look to the civilian market to fit their needs.
This resulted in two blades being privately purchased for use by the Marines. These were the L76 and L77 patterns from Western States Cutlery Co. Both of these knives featured a leather handle and a clip point bowie style blade.
The ordinance office took note of this and the development of the future Mark 2 Fighting Utility knife was started. Early on there were a number of manufacturers of the knife, with numerous different variations from company to company. The largest manufacturer being Cammilus Cutlery Co.
The name KA-BAR originated from the Union Cutlery Co.’s trademark. They were one of the other military contractors to provide the knife during and after the war. And by 1944 the name KA-BAR was used to describe the knife no matter who manufactured it.
The knife itself was well received and has continued to serve as an issued blade in the US military to the present day.
Now let’s get into the major variations of the KA-BAR at least in regards to modern M2 style knives.
Variations and dimensions
There are three major variations of the standard KA-BAR knife. These apply to the sheath, the edge, and the handle. Other variations exist in the forms of blade finish, blade-to-tang symmetry, handle/sheath coloration, among other things. But for the major performance factors we only need the sheaths, blades, and handles.
Let’s start off with the sheath. The KA-BAR has two sheath options today, leather and kydex. The leather style sheath is the longest running version of the sheath and generally comes in two major colors: brown and black.
The leather sheaths feature a single snap closure to keep the blade in place beyond the fit of the leather. These sheaths require a bit more care than other sheaths. If you have a leather sheath for your KA-BAR make sure to keep it well fed with an appropriate leather treatment to keep it pliable.
The kydex features multiple lashing points to attach the sheath to the rest of your gear if you don’t want to wear it attached to your belt/belt harness. The kydex keeps the blade in the sheath from friction and has a secondary retention clasp on the nylon frog.
The next major difference is the blades. All standard KA-BARs have a 7 inch clip point blade. The differences come in when we start to deal with edge styles. KA-BARs have two different edge patterns. There is the plain edge (my personal preference) and the partially serrated edge.
The second edge style features a set of serrations near the base of the blade. Their purpose is to power through tough fibrous material that the rest of the blade might not be able to handle.
This brings us to the handle. The KA-BAR has two major handle materials. The first material is leather. The leather handle consists of a stack of leather washers that are treated after being cut to the handle profile.
The leather handles require regular maintenance especially in wetter environments. When the early KA-BARs were issued as diving knives, the leather washers would degrade over time. Similar situations happened in the Pacific theater leading to a new style of collectible, theater modified KA-BARs.
To help deal with this issue modern KA-BARs now feature a kraton handle. This generally comes in three colors: black, sand, and foliage green.
Author’s personal KA-BAR
The KA-BAR is a compromised design. It is a perfectly mediocre knife. It does not specialize in anything, but it does most jobs well.
The blade is sharp and resilient. This allows it to be used in various bushcraft settings and general knife tasks.
The blade has a decent belly which means it can cut and slice material easily. This transfers to preparing game, cutting cordage, and skinning.
The tip of the knife is moderately reinforced allowing for it to be used as a can opener, although you should be careful when doing this to avoid injury.
The blade is relatively thick. Not overly thick, but just enough to allow it to be used as a light pry bar. The combined thickness of the blade with the 1095 steel also lets you use it as an improvised trowel. You can dig small holes or root around in the ground, but don’t expect to get shovel style performance from it.
The rear or false edge of the blade is surprisingly narrow. This will allow you to scrap or lightly shave things with it if you don’t need to cut it.
The primary edge is not razor sharp, but it is durable. It will cut most expected material and remain sharp. The blade is not overly long either, providing ample area to choke up on the blade for finer work.
While batoning wood is not recommended, since it is essentially pushing a knife beyond it’s design, the KA-BAR can handle the baton method of wood splitting.
A final aspect of the knife is the flat faced pommel. This area is often used as an improvised hammer. The pommel was designed for this and should not be a concern when used in this way. However you should be careful as to where the live blade is going while you hammer away with it.
The combative aspect is usually the most focused on in regards to the KA-BAR. Taking its heritage from the Bowie knife design or similar hunting knives from American history there is no wonder that combat takes center stage when the KA-BAR is brought up.
In fact the KA-BAR is one of the three most popular fighting knives of 20th century history when we start to look into combat knives.
The KA-BAR has many things going for it in terms of combat effectiveness. But like its utility aspects, it can be hampered by its compromised design. This doesn’t mean it is a bad design, just that it is not optimized in this respect.
So we’re going to compare it to one of the bowie knives in my collection that is more combat centric.
The Handle and Combat
Let’s start with the handle. The handle is swelled in the middle to create a secure grip. This drives the hand up under the handguard or down to the pommel. Holding directly in the middle feels awkward and unnatural in a hammer fist grip.
If the KA-BAR is held in a saber style grip, it feels slightly less awkward but it drives the handle into the base of the palm. The blade feels better if the blade is turned in the hand so that the edge faces sideways, allowing you to rest your thumb on the cut away shoulder on the handle. This style of grip is shown in the US Marines Close Combat Manual FMFM 0-7 page 107.
The most awkward feeling grip with the knife is the icepick or point down grips. The knife feels out of place in this position and out of my control.
The bowie on the other hand has a narrow handle that fills my hand in both the hammer and saber grips. The icepick grips are out of the question with this knife but even when they are attempted they are less awkward than the KA-BAR.
The bottom of the handles or pommels of the knives differ as well. The hammer face of the KA-BAR will apply a lot of force over a relatively wide area while the bowie’s handle will concentrate that force on a single point.
Let’s move to the guard of the two knives. The bowie’s guard is larger and thicker than the KA-BAR’s. The guard on the bowie is designed more to protect your hand from light glancing blows while providing a striking surface.
The KA-BAR’s guard is there to keep your hand from sliding up on the blade. That’s its entire purpose. This is not a negative since blade on blade contact is less likely in a knife fight than say a saber duel.
The Combat Blade
The blades of these two knives are also very different. Surprisingly they are almost the exact same thickness at their thickest section but overall they were designed with different purposes in mind.
The bowie has a significantly longer blade at 10 inches with a wider chopping style edge. The blade narrows dramatically to a piercing point with the tip oriented towards the center of the blade to maximize its thrust potential.
The KA-BAR has a much more nuanced blade. While the 7 inches of steel it provides are not to be underestimated when compared to the longer bowie, what the bowie provides in raw power potential the KA-BAR makes up for with thoughtful blade design.
The edge of the KA-BAR’s blade is easily sharper than that of the bowie. A more acute edge has been applied to it which makes cuts and slashes more effective than the chopping cuts of the wider beveled blade.
The Ka-BAR’s tip is a trailing clip point, which means the point is more off center. This allows for better slicing and cutting action. This lends more utility to the blade while creating more surface area to cut with. This means the blade can cut more like an 8 inch knife than a 7 inch knife.
What really interests me in the differences of these two designs is actually the rear of the clip points. The bowie has a very large, flattened false edge or swedge. This reinforces the tip and will slightly aid in penetration.
The KA-BAR has an extremely well contoured falsed edge on the back of its clip point. It tapers down to an angle that is technically thinner than the primary edge of the blade. This narrow profile of the tip will allow the point to pass through material very easily.
I speak from experience on this issue because I once accidentally stabbed my hand with a short version of the KA-BAR which has a thicker point profile. The point went in and out very cleanly and the narrow profile of the full-sized KA-BAR would have easily gone deeper than its stockier sibling.
The edge and point allow the KA-BAR to hit higher than its size category. And it weighs less than the bowie knife, coming in at roughly 0.7 pounds compared to the bowie’s 1.65 pounds. This is a major factor when you have to carry it around when you’re not using it.
A full sized KA-BAR is a great option for you if you want one knife that will do a lot of tasks. It might not excel in any one task but when you need something that will at least get the job done it is worth it.
There are very few designs that can fill both a utility and self defense role. There are better utility designs out there, there are also better fighting designs as well, but you are far from out of luck if you only have a KA-BAR at your disposal.
It is the golden medium of knives. Not too good at any one thing but good enough to keep around.
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