Cheap “Rambo knives” are dangerous, but good ones do exist

Hollow-handled “Rambo” knives are one of those common purchases people pick up on the cheap. Maybe they saw some positive reviews on Amazon and thought to themselves, “it’s only $10, so even if it’s not great and doesn’t last, no biggie.” But those knives are dangerous and shouldn’t even be used as a “beater” or starter knife.

Like many preppers of a certain age, I grew up running around the woods with one of these knives. I actually still have one of the ones I carried on Boy Scout trips in my office. We’re all lucky we didn’t hurt ourselves, because the potential was definitely there.

The problem with these knives, like the $8 Harbor Freight special pictured above, is that they’ll fail on you catastrophically at the worst possible moment, quite possibly injuring you or a bystander in the process.

The danger comes from the construction method. With a few notable and very expensive exceptions, the hollow-handled knives all share a fatal flaw: the blade is attached to the handle via an internal screw, so the bond between the blade and handle is very weak.

It doesn’t take much stress — especially side-to-side stress — to snap that screw and send the bare blade flying while the handle is still in your grip. This makes chopping and prying with such a knife exceptionally dangerous.

The majority of the unsafe hollow-handled knives in this category are in the $10 to $20 range, and are available at “big box” retailers and most online outlets. As a general rule, I wouldn’t trust any hollow-handled knife that isn’t forged from a single piece of steel, no matter who sells it and for how much, but more on that, below.

It’s expensive to do it right

Despite all I’ve said above, it is possible to find a hollow-handled knife that’s not terrible, but you have to be prepared to pay for it.

The Randall Model 18 is the classic, Vietnam-era example of such a knife, and is probably what the First Blood folks had in mind when they reached out to Gil Hibben to design the movie blade. You can still score one of these if you’re willing to pay almost $500.

Then there is the Chris Reeve Shadow series, forged from a single, round billet of A2 steel. These aren’t made anymore, but you can sometimes score one on the after market. Here is a detailed article on how these knives were made, complete with cutaways.

If you want to go way downmarket and pick up a knife on this pattern that’s more affordable but still expensive, the Boker Plus Apparo is under $200 and has what is by all accounts a decently strong blade/handle join achieved with aircraft-grade epoxy. But in our humble opinion, you’d have to be high to choose this over a similarly priced or cheaper knife from our survival knife review. There is just no way that is a practical knife choice at that price, especially given that it’s old-school 440C (a great steel when properly heat-treated, but not often found in knives in that price range).

Along these same lines is the Kizlyar Supreme Survivalist X, a Russian-made knife that offers the hollow handle, serrated spine, and general “Rambo” factor, but in a better steel selection: either AUS-8 or a much more expensive D2. These are well enough reviewed out there, but call me extremely skeptical. Maybe if I had a nephew I really didn’t like I might put one of these in his stocking, but I’d wrap it with a liability waiver that he had to sign, first.

Quick Picks
Schrade SCHF1

Schrade SCHF1

A direct clone of the famous Chris Reeve Shadow, but close to ten times cheaper. Machined from a single piece of high-carbon steel. Hollow handle, spear point with serrations on the bottom of the edge.
Schrade SCHF2

Schrade SCHF2

Exactly like the SCHF1, but with a traditional clip point blade shape. Made from a single piece of 1070HC, it should stand up to some abuse.

Finally, there are the only hollow-handled knives on the market right now that I’d consider paying for: the Schrade SCHF1 and SCHF2, both of which are a single-billet design like the Chris Reeve mentioned above, but at just half a Benjamin. The knives, which are distinguished only by their blade shapes and are otherwise alike, are made of tough 1070HC steel, and have a nice, knurled grip. The reviews are positive, and given the kinds of solid reviews the rest of Schrade’s fixed-blade lineup is getting I’d imagine they’re a good enough value for the money.

Moving outside the knife world, RMJ Tactical offers the hollow-handled Shrike ‘hawk, which is what I’d personally go for if I just had to have some sort of edged tool with a survival kit inside the handle. RMJ is legit, and the Shrike is a real-world “operator” tool aimed at law enforcement and the military. It’s $480, though, so only those with deep pockets (or department budgets) need apply.

The reason good, hollow-handled fixed blades are relatively expensive and rare is that they’re hard to make and they just don’t offer much of a real-world advantage over a good full-tang design. Beyond the cool factor of having your survival kit inside your knife, they don’t do anything you can’t also do with a small survival pouch mounted on your knife sheath or belt. Why go to the expense and trouble of making something like this, when a simple belt pouch makes it pointless?


    • Grizz Lee

      My friends and I had a bunch of these, and we never had any issues with them breaking.

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      • Jon StokesStaff Grizz Lee

        In my Scout Troop we definitely broke some of the very cheap bulk ones with the round, water-filled compass on the end. That’s why I got one of the slightly nicer Frost Cutlery ones, which is the only one I still have.

        But we didn’t abuse these very much, which is probably why I didn’t break the Frost one. We did most of our wood processing with machetes or saws, and in fact I don’t recall even thinking of a large knife as a chopping tool until I got into the internet knife scene.

        The main problem I encountered with these knives was that they just were bad knives. The steel was crap and wouldn’t hold an edge. So even if the blade didn’t come off, you were always trying to get an edge to stay on it.

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    • Mark Wienert

      As a wilderness survival instructor for 24 years, my clients have brought a broad variety of knives to use at camp. Including these cheap “Rambo style” hollow handle shown here. I can understand why these knives have appeal to some folks. The blades are big, scary, intimidating, and cheap. But try to carve with one of these Rambo knives especially if your not use to carving all day and your hands are soon a wreck. Sore and blistered. If you insist on using these knives then be prepared to toughen up your hands and wear gloves when carving. The hand guards on these knives are particularly uncomfortable against the skin. These are my observations of these knives proved out by my students attempting to use them at class. After 10 minutes of carving with these knives, I usually end up offering a comfortable and sharp carver to use in place of the silver nightmare. I enjoyed your article Jon Stokes, very informative with great info. Thank you.

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    • Jean Stravinsky

      The reason the handle is useful is it allow carrying fragile items like matches, and especially pills, without those rattling around or being crushed, or fattening the sheath with a pocket in front of it. Not having a large pocket on the sheath makes carrying a large knife inside the pants easier, thus more discrete for casual hikes. It makes the knife a one-item carry for single day hikes, and the knife having uncrushable items wrapped around the sheath (like cordage or a thermal blanket), crushable items secure in the handle, makes the whole package comfortable and not alarming to other casual hikers. As to pocket-carrying other items, a pill bottle in a jacket will rattle all day, and pockets can be precious real estate for other items, since a casual hike does not necessarily involve a backpack.

        Now as to why a large 8-10″ shelter-building chopping knife should be carried on a simple day hike? The rule is, the shorter the hike, the bigger the knife… A short hike may be undertaken alone, but still in an area not easily found by phone rescue, and it only takes a twisted ankle to make a single mile the other side of the planet… 

        As others have said, even under heavy chopping, the handle of a good one is no different from any other handle (most of mine have thousands of chops in them, and expensive custom ones are not always the most durable, the Al Mar SF-10 being an example), but I do find the round shape, when larger than one inch across, is actually more forgiving for chopping because of its sheer fatness. Not many of those handles are over one inch, unfortunately. If a cheap one is to be recommended, I would say a re-profiled Master Cutlery R2, as the leather sheath is actually excellent, its 420J steel easy to re-sharpen, and it holds an edge surpisingly well (combining Carbon-like ease of sharpening with stainless). Its handle has an end “lip” to stabilize an extra 3 feet layer of 550 cord (fattening the handle usefully), and it is basically indestructible, even compared to an original (as I tested)… It out-chops the Cold Steel Trailmaster because of its fatter handle (the CS handle being way too thin for proper chopping). The handle attachment -sometimes- has a mild ticking rattle, so return them until you get a tight one, plus that handle joint needs waterproofing, and finally the sawteeth are not angled down, so they require a bit of work (like the edge) to make them do proper notches. It’s a 17 ounce knife, and inside the pants it simply disappears like a long leaf, as well as being out of the weather. The lenght of the knife actually helps concealed carry, as short knives carry poorly stuck inside the pants, but here 15″ overall is the limit for a tall man, so if I had to recommend a shorter 13″ one that is not hollow handled, but can still chop, it would be the SOG Super Bowie. Anytime you see Aus in the steel name, especially if made in Japan, think “excellent”. Anything CPM is usually terrible, whatever the hype about those may be: Unsharpenable and instant wire edge when chopping. Chopping is about as fine, delicate and refined as the work is going to be under stress…

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    • Donald Evans

      I know this is an older post, but I want to clarify a few things. One, the survival knives for Rambo 1 and 2 were not made by Gil Hibben, but Jimmy Lile. Second, in 1979/80, Timberline knives came out with hollow handle survival knives extremely similar to the First Blood Knife, down to cord wrapped handle and saw tooth spine. The blade shape was different though, basically Lile made it a clip point and larger with a 9 inch blade vs 7 1/2. By the time they started pre-production on the film, these survival knives already existed. 

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