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Four Tools for the Infantry

Added 26-2-02
Updated 30-4-10

        This page describes four tools that will increase the effectiveness of Infantry and make the soldier's job easier. These are:-

        The Kukri,
        The Billknife
        The Combat Shovel
        The Digging Axe.

        When my father served in Malaya he carried a kukri, mainly because it is difficult to scramble back into an armoured car with a long machete on your belt. I grew up familiar with his kukri, and as soon as we could find a source my brother and myself brought Kukris of our own. I've not a drop of Nepalese blood in me, but consider the kukri to be the traditional family weapon.
        Quite simply, the Kukri is one of the best fighting/survival knives of its size. It can cut with the power of a hatchet, but also be used for skinning or fine carving. Many users consider them stronger and safer than hatchets.
        In combat the kukri can attack with both point and edge, and its shape allows it to bite deep on a draw cut. You only have to hold a real kukri to know stories of taking off heads or limbs with these 12” blades are not exaggerated. The kukri is quicker to draw than a tomahawk and less likely to stick in a target.
        There are several models of “high-tech” or modernized kukris on offer. I've not used any of these myself, though I have heard opinions that some are not as good as the originals. What is certainly true is that you can buy six or seven original kukris for the price of one of some of the modernized versions.
        Probably the best known of these kukris are the offerings from Cold Steel. I'll repeat that I've not had a chance to use these, but will make the following observations:-
        The traditional kukri has a grip that widens towards the pommel and has a raised ring of material that is positioned between two of the fingers. Both these features aid grip, and are absent from the Cold Steel version.
        The Cold Steel kukris also lack the traditional notch(es). My father's blade has a single square notch, while mine has a semi-circular cut out with a central post. You'll see lots of explanations for this feature, including “religious purposes” –anthropologist for “I don't know”. One of the practical uses for this notch is that it acts as a dripping point for blood and tree sap, preventing it reaching the grip.

        This is an opportune moment to dispel another myth – that the Gurkha must always draw blood if he draws his knife. Since the kukri is a utility knife that is used to chop wood, cut up chicken etc you can see that this is not very practical if the user is to avoid anaemia. This “tradition” started around the first world war, when Gurkhas about to be posted to France were constantly bothered by civilians wanting to see their famous knives. Gurkhas are polite folk, so someone came up with this new “tradition” to discourage gawpers, probably an officer familiar with Japanese traditions.
        My Kukri is probably Indian army surplus –certainly it has got “India” marked on it and shows signs of heavy use. It is about 1lbs 6oz in weight and is noticeably heavier than my father's –about 4oz more. The grip is also of a lesser quality of carving and material, although the appearance has been improved a little by applications of linseed oil. Two modifications had to be made before it was serviceable.
        Firstly I ground the top part of the butt plate so that there was not a point to rub on my palm.
        Secondly I had to regrind some of the bevel to give a better cross section for cutting. My friend Dave had to do a similar job to his kukri (shown in the picture above) so this may be a feature of the Indian issue weapons.
        Many western users find the grip of a genuine kukri too short. I've small hands so I've not noticed this as a problem, but many British officers in Gurkha regiments have the grips of their knives extended. If kukris are to become general issue, this must be addressed.
        A general issue kukri should have the following characteristics:-

Nice page on modifying a Kukri.

        Most large knives are either Wood-knives or Brush-knives. The Kukri is a Wood-knife. You can use it to cut a trial through the undergrowth, but prolonged use can be very tiring. On the other hand the kukri is idea for the quick construction of shelters or other structures. The kukri therefore compliments machetes rather than replaces them.
        Brush knives are proportionally much lighter than wood-knives and rely on velocity and angle for cutting power rather than weight. This strategy reduces user fatigue during prolonged cutting. The downside of this is a tendency to bounce off denser branches or rocks.
        While conventional machetes have served well, I have an alternate design that offers several advantages:-

        The most novel feature of this design is the hilt, however. The tang is formed into a “U” shape and over this is placed an oval section tube, forming a socket. This in fact allows the Billknife to become one of three different tools.

        The Billknife is therefore a highly versatile tool that offers a wide range of capabilities.

        A concave edge is idea for cutting brush, but can cause problems when cutting wood, Although the Billknife is not a wood-knife, it should have some capability for shelter construction. For this reason the edge should include a convex section.

        Other forms of blade may be more suited to the proposed handle type. The upper knife in the picture on the left is a 12” bladed Machete from El Salvador (marked Corneta, Imacasa, No.127). Although not a machete the knife below has a yataghan-style edge, and this may be a good design should the blade be made thinner and longer.

        A good idea from Ed Sackett:
“Just thought of a good test for knives and tools of this ilk: use them to open coconuts. It's quite a challenge, esp. if you're after the juice. I'd say if your knife makes that job easy, it's a good design.”

        For another blade shape, see here

Entrenching Tools.
The Fixed Spade.
        Many armies, including the US have adopted a form of entrenching tool that is formed from three sections and folds into a very compact package.
        While this is a very handy tool there is some doubts as to how the tool will stand up to prolonged use as a close combat weapon. For this reason I suggest that front line units such as infantry and paratroopers be issued with fixed handled shovels and the folding model be retained by other units.
        A good example of a fixed handle shovel is the copy of the Spetznaz model made by Cold Steel. To this basic model I'd make to additions.
        Adding a "unbreakable" polymer handle is also a possibility. The Glock folding shovel has a polymer handle and modern ice axes use duralminium shafts.

        I have a 1943 Swiss Entrenching tool. A well thought out feature is a small brass pin on the handle, which gives the user a tactile reference to which side the face of the blade is if it's dark.

The Digging Axe.
        Neither the folding E-tool or the above model incorporate a pick. This is a bit of a drawback since on many types of ground the most effective digging method is for one man to break the ground while two others shovel out the loose earth. For this reason I suggest the above combat shovel be issued with a pick-like tool in a 2:1 ratio. The pick would have a square or octagonal section with a chisel point.
        This pick would prove to be very useful. As well as digging it would be sturdy enough to cut firing holes in brickwork during MOUT operations.
        The main function of this tool is for digging, but to make it even more useful the pick would be backed by a light axe head. For my illustration I've shown a configuration of axe known as a “bearded axe” –a Viking design that was noted as being useful as both a weapon and a utility tool.
        Having several digging axes in a squad will prove very useful. As well as being used for digging they can construct shelters or rafts. Like the Kukri they can be used to quickly cut through the skin of crashed aircraft or used to break down doors in FIBUA.
        The pick part of the tool has applications as in “one-shot kill” ambush situations or as a sentry removal weapon, since it will penetrate bone or some forms of body armour. In this respect it functions rather like the LaGana Vietnam tomahawks, but can also be used to dig entrenchments, etc

        Chinese made WQJ-308 Entrenching Tool.
        I particularly like the wirecutter, but the film itself is a good introduction as to how useful an entrenching tool can be. I reallly want one of these!

Mike Sparks, 82nd Airborne and 1st Tactical Studies Group.:-
        “The U.S. issue e-tool blade is bolted to its handle...we could replace it with a blade Phil suggests...and....add a pick attachment facing the other way as an option to break ground.”

PW: Or you could just grind the recessed cutting edge on the side of the blade. The wooden handled folding E-tool that the “3 way” tool replaced had a pick. Always struck me as strange that this feature was discontiued.
        A pick and recessed axe edge would improve the 3 way E-tool, but I still think the sturdier fixed blade tools are better for the close combat units.

Carlton Meyer, Editor of G2mil, writes:-
“So long as they spread that weight amongst a squad. The Marines use a Mattax for digging.”

PW: That looks like a good design, but too heavy for the role I'm thinking of. The Speznaz shovel weights 27oz, and I'm thinking of a Digging axe of similar size and weight. The size and weight of Cold Steel's tomahawks indicates that this is not that unrealistic.
        A lightweight digging axe is not that radical an idea. I saw a very nice German Paratrooper's model in a museum in Chania, Crete and similar tools were used by the Romans. Every legionary carried such a tool.

Lt. John Nystrom, Indiana Guard Reserve, writes:-
Ref. Kukri- I love the idea, but hate the weight. I have an Indian stamped one, but the steel is too soft. It makes for easy resharpening/ reshaping, but it also dulls easily. I may give it another try in the field. If I do, I'll regrind the edge to improve the cutting (as you suggest) and try your improved sheath.

PW: It seems to be a feature of the Indian ones that they have weight at the expense of cross section. I doubt the previous owner of mine ever got a good edge and used brute force instead. Now that I've re-shaped mine it works fine, but I'd dearly love to find one like my father's. Lighter, better looking and probably better steel.

Emery Nelson writes:-
Phil, as someone who's spent a great deal of his life digging holes and trenches, I assert that carrying 4.5lbs. is nothing if the tool works and that 27-32oz is of little use because it won't.
        It might cut roots but it's just too light, especially in hard, rocky ground (normal ground in my view). I'd like to see a test run on this but having long experience in this field, I would reject the tomahawk out of hand.
        In fact I'd make carry 1 E-tool to each pick/mattock. If you have to dig by hand there's no better device than a pick, combined with a shovel.

PW: Be interesting to find out what weight the Roman Dolabra was. Many armies have issued tools like the digging axe that did not weigh as much as the Mattax. In WW1 and 2 the British army's standard E-tool was a pick and shovel blade set at right angles to the shaft. To use it as a shovel you had to remove the handle and hold the pick blade.

Ed Sackett, Wyoming Kukri-phile, writes:
“Digging in rocky ground would certainly require a prying tool, for which I think a dolabra-like inplement would be best. But I'd build it as a mattock, i.e., w/ a wide grubbing blade opposite the pick. This type of blade (sometimes called a grubbing hoe) can be used not just to loosen but even move soil.
         I did a little searching on kukhris, and found quite an array of spellings. I also discovered that the blades currently being made in Nepal tend to be wider toward the tip than the models we usually see in the West, and (sadly) are a lot less handsome than the Indian army varieties. But these picture sites are interesting:”


PW: A mattock, rather like the old British army E-tool might be useful, but it wouldn't be easy to carry in one peice, so might be less useful as a weapon.
        Plenty of different spellings for Kukri. “Kukhri” is another common one but I was too lazy to type the extra letter.
        There are many different styles and variations of Kukri. The site above seems to favour the heavy ones, but the Village page does show models of 16 or 18oz too, which would be my preference. I also like the pair of knives and awl that one model is offered with.

        The following is a quote from W.E. Fairbairn. He's talking about a weapon he designed called the “Smatchet”, but he could easily be talking about the Kukhri.

        “The psychological reaction of any man, when he first takes the smatchet in his hand is full justification for its recommendation as a fighting weapon. He will immediately register all the essential qualities of good soldier -confidence, determination, and aggressiveness.
        Its balance, weight and killing power, with the point, edge or pommel, combined with the extremely simple training necessary to become efficient in its use, make it the ideal personal weapon for all those not armed with a rifle and bayonet.”

        Given the survival and utility applications of the Kukhri it's a pretty good thing to have even if you do have a rifle and bayonet.
        For those of you reading in the UK that may be wondering how to get a reasonably priced Kukhri visit Aldershot Badge and Medals at

        They currently stock three different models, all for £30-35. One model is the basic Indian model that I've mentioned already. There is also the Assam Rifles model with nicer furniture and a lion's head on the pommel and the “Officer's model”, which is the same as the one in Dave's photo above.
        My only gripe about the Assam and the Officer's is that they do not have the ridge on the grip –instead the whole section above where this would be is a larger diameter. The flared section of the hilt could be wider too. Still a good grip but could be better.
        Ed likes to wrap the grip of his kukhri with strips of towel to provide a better grip and a little cushioning. In his own words:-

        “I do this if I expect to be working for any length of time in the heat of summer. The toweling soaks up sweat and is as dependably non-slip as any covering I've found. It also absorbs some of the shock of chopping. (If my cutting task doesn't involve heavy, woody stems—we should all be so lucky! -- I use a machete rather than a kukri. Probably I should wrap my machete handle too.)
        I started this practice after learning the value of wrapping sai hilts w/ cloth tape. (Cloth hilt wrappings are traditional in Okinawa for weapons like the sai.) Driven by the more-than-Scottish cheapness that's inherent in my nature, I started using strips of worn toweling instead of buying cloth tape at the notions counter.
        I advocate towel wrappings for many kinds of tools, including hiking sticks. I'm yet to try it, but I suspect that towel would help in cold weather too, esp. if you have to wield anything made of bare metal.”

        I'm planning to use gutted black paracord in a simple but fancy looking wrap to improve the grip of my Officer's model.
        The suprising thing about the Officer's model is that it only has a 10” blade. This isn't obvious in the photo above and you'd only notice this if you had a larger model to hand or were very familiar with Kukhris.
        Mine tips the scales at a shade under 15oz, is very fast and agile and because of the geometry of the blade will outcut any bowie type knife of similar size, and probably most bigger ones too. Interestingly, the Smatchet had a blade of 10 ¾” but probably did not cut as well.
        Having now handled a 10” Officer's model kukhri I now wonder if the ideal size for a GI kukhri might be with a 10-11” blade.

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