The USMC KA-BAR straight edge knife is one of the most recognizable knives on the planet. But iconic doesn’t always mean good. So, we’re here to see if KA-BAR knives are (still) worth the hype.
First, we’ll start with a little background on KA-BAR including where they started and where their knives are made today. There’s a lot of history here, and it’s worth bringing up.
After that, we’ll talk about the features and specs of the modern KA-BAR straight edge in terms of camping and everyday carry. A lot of brands have emerged in the decades since the original KA-BAR was invented so it begs the question, do KA-BARs hold up against modern knives? Let’s find out!
Table of Contents
Click on any of the links below to jump to the desired section!
- First, Is KA-BAR a Brand or a Type of Knife?
- A Real Classic: The KA-BAR USMC Straight Edge Has Been Around for 80+ Years
- Switching Gears: Are USMC KA-BAR Knives Any Good?
- KA-BAR FAQs
- There Are Other Cool KA-BAR Products, too!
First, Is KA-BAR a Brand or a Type of Knife?
Technically, it’s both! Here’s a little history.
The KA-BAR Company Is the Original Maker of the KA-BAR Knife (and It’s Been Around Since 1898)
The New York-based company that makes official KA-BAR has been around since 1898 and was originally known as Union Cutlery Co.
However, KA-BAR knives weren’t designed until 1942, when the United States Marine Corps issued a contract for a general purpose combat knife. Union Cutlery submitted their design and was awarded the contract after the Marine Corps made a few minor changes.
The knife became immensely popular among Marines and other servicemembers, and in the early 1950s Union Cutlery changed their name to KA-BAR to capitalize on the success.
If you’re curious, you can learn more about the KA-BAR company here.
So, Where Does the Name “KA-BAR” Come From?
Supposedly, a hunter sent Union Cutlery a thank-you letter after he used one of the brand’s knives to defend himself against a bear. When someone at the company tried to reference the letter at a later date, all that was legible was “K- a B-ar”, hence: KA-BAR. And who wouldn’t use that as a marketing story?
Whether this legend is true is debatable—but if you want to hear an indisputable KA-BAR story, check out why Marine Corps veteran James H. Stogner was awarded the Navy Cross (52 years later).
Other Companies Have KA-BAR Knives Through U.S. Military Contracts
The reason there’s a little confusion surrounding KA-BAR knives and the KA-BAR brand is because Union Cutlery wasn’t the only company to make them!
During and after World War II, the need for more knives far outweighed the capacity for one factory to produce them. So, the U.S. Military contracted several additional companies to produce the knives.
Even if these knives weren’t made by Union Cutlery, servicemembers didn’t bother to distinguish them so the name eventually came to refer to any knife that looked similar—including knives that weren’t even made for military contracts. Naturally, this might explain why there are so many different spellings for the knives (e.g., Kabar, Ka Bar, etc.).
Today, Official KA-BAR Knives Are Made by KA-BAR, the Company (Confusing, We Know)
Officially (and probably unofficially), U.S. military contracts for KA-BAR knives ended decades ago. That said, the Marine Corps, Army, and Navy all allegedly have thousands of old-but-fully-functional KA-BARs still.
Since the 1980s, authentic KA-BAR knives have exclusively been made by the company of the same. However, there are probably many companies around the world that produce knockoffs or eerily similar designs.
A Real Classic: The KA-BAR USMC Straight Edge Has Been Around for 80+ Years
KA-BAR knives are almost instantly recognizable by anyone who knows a smidge about recent military history (or knives). And they’re nearly as iconic as AK-47s, M4s, or M1911s.
It First Saw Action During World War II
Like we mentioned earlier, KA-BARs were designed for combat in World War II, and specifically the Pacific Theater of the war. Marines carried KA-BAR knives as they stormed beach after beach fighting Imperial Japan. When they finally returned home, the knife’s popularity swelled.
Before the end of the war, the knife was also adopted by the U.S. Navy (as the Mk. 2 utility) knife. And eventually, the U.S. Army bought limited numbers as well.
Do Marines Still Use KA-BAR Knives?
KA-BAR knives haven’t been standard issue since the end of World War II, but they’ve seen some use in just about every U.S. conflict since.
Switching Gears: Are USMC KA-BAR Knives Any Good?
History aside, we have to ask: are KA-BAR knives actually good for modern applications? Like we said at the beginning, “iconic doesn’t always mean good,” and the vast majority of us aren’t being sent off to war.
So: let’s put that question to bed!
KA-BARs Are Designed for Combat, but That Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Be Used for General Purposes
Look, we all know the “your-equipment-was-made-by-the-lowest-bidder” spiel when it comes to military gear, but KA-BAR USMC knives really aren’t bad. They feature a full-tang steel blade made of a tough steel that tends to hold its edge well. For most, that’s all you need.
That said, these knives were designed for combat. While your average modern pocket knives tend to be compact and short, KA-BARs are long, heavy, and relatively cumbersome.
This doesn’t necessarily mean KA-BARs won’t work for general tasks. They can get the job done…but the problem lies with optimization.
But Again, KA-BAR Knives Aren’t Explicitly Meant for Camping…
Like we said, the KA-BAR USMC knife is bulky. Modern, high-quality knives are usually more compact and versatile.
Here’s a question: What’s easier? Grabbing a four-inch Kershaw Blur out of your pocket or the 11-inch KA-BAR from your gear bag (since it can’t fit in your pocket and only some states allow open-carry knives)?
KA-BAR recognizes this, of course, and you’ll find many of their newer designs are more in line with what you’d find from other brands. Their BK18 knife is a good example (see our quick review below) but the fact remains: USMC KA-BARs aren’t designed for camping or portability.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy a KA-BAR USMC. They’re really cool knives with a storied history. Plus, you can always get a combo-edge USMC KA-BAR, which is a little more convenient for utility tasks (e.g., cutting rope, making tent stakes, etc.). Just remember that serrated knives are harder to sharpen.
Above all though, these knives work for camping but they’re not the best choice.
Sidenotes: if you want to learn more tips for camping, check out our post on debunking terrible camping hacks!
…And They’re Not the Best for Everyday Carry
Like camping, there are better EDC knives. Simply put, KA-BARs are too big for most people’s everyday carry (and what is everyday carry, by the way?).
A classic USMC KA-BAR knife is almost a foot long (about 30cm). That’s not exactly EDC friendly, and it’s illegal to openly carry in some states. Smaller knives like this high-end Benchmade Griptilian 551, budget friendly Civivi Praxis, or classic Victorinox Spartan (see our Victorinox Spartan Review) are much more portable, fully function, and perfectly legal in most jurisdictions.
Again, KA-BARs are friggin’ cool. But they’re not exactly practical.
Before we finish up, let’s answer some lingering questions.
How Is a USMC KA-BAR Knife Made?
KA-BARs are blanked out of a single block of steel and heat treated in the United States. Click here for a full breakdown of how KA-BARs are made.
The Blade Is Made of Carbon Steel With a Narrow Full Tang
KA-BARs are made with 1095 cro-van steel, a type of highly durable carbon steel with moderate corrosion resistance.
If you’re curious, KnifeUser does a good job explaining 1095 cro-van steel’s pros and cons), but generally, as long as you clean and dry the blade after use, it’ll last.
As for the tang, there are some misconceptions out there on the big ol’ internet. For one, KA-BARs do not use rat tangs—they use narrow full tangs.
What’s the difference? Rat tangs are welded to the blade (which isn’t very durable). A blade with a narrow full tang is still made from one piece of metal, and therefore, significantly more durable.
As for the handle, most KA-BAR handles are either made with leather or high-quality nylon, depending on the model year, purpose, and so on.
Lastly, most, if not all KA-BARs have a matte finish that protects the blade from corrosion and limits reflection.
Where Are KA-BAR Knives and Products Made?
It’s fair to wonder where KA-BAR knives are made considering how many brands build their products outside of the United States. But…
KA-BAR Knives Are Still Made in the USA
Classic USMC KA-BAR knives are all made in the United States still. However, KA-BAR outsources production of some of their leather sheaths to Mexico while most or all of the tactical black options are made in Taiwan.
We thoroughly researched the quality of the foreign made sheaths and really found no significant difference. Oh, and if you want a badass belt that can support a heavy sheath, check out our Trayvax belt reviews!
How Much Do USMC KA-BAR Knives Cost? It Depends
Where you look seems to play a huge role in how much you spend for a USMC KA-BAR knife. If you buy the knife directly from KA-BAR, expect to pay around $130 for the knife and sheath (you should qualify for free shipping).
On the other hand, many popular third-party dealers sell official KA-BARs online and oftentimes, these knives are much cheaper.
They’re Easy to Find Online
Even a quick online search will show that many options can be bought for around $80 to $90, though some are a bit more.
The most likely explanation for the lower cost is that retailers buy KA-BARs in bulk at a much lower cost per item, then turn them around for a profit. This is pretty much what most general retailers do.
There’s another possible explanation, too: most online retailers seem to carry older models. If you’re looking to buy one, don’t worry, this is almost completely irrelevant considering the design of classic KA-BARs has barely changed in eight decades.
USMC KA-BAR Knives Have Solid Online Reviews
As we’ve mentioned before, KA-BAR knives are a little outdated. There are better knives on the market, both in terms of value and performance. But again, they’re definitely not bad and across the different outlets you’ll generally find that KA-BAR knives earn better-than-average reviews.
We’ll freely admit that modern knife brands like Kershaw (check out our Kershaw Blur review), Spyderco, and Bradford USA (to name a few) make better knives with equally better reviews.
However, it’s important to remember that KA-BAR isn’t trying to fool anyone either: while the company does make use of modern production methods, the design is still almost 100 years old. In other words, there’s a nostalgia factor at work here, too.
Bonus: There Are Other Cool KA-BAR Products, too!
One more thing! Before we wrap up, there are few other nifty products that KA-BAR makes that are worth checking out!
The KA-BAR Tactical Spork Is Great for Camping! (Yes, You Read that Right)
Okay, stay with us for a second, but KA-BAR makes a “tactical spork” that pulls apart to reveal a steak knife.
It’s a great camping piece that’s compact, surprisingly durable (but not indestructible), and only costs about $5–$10. We’ve used them extensively, and while there’s better camp cutlery out there, the KA-BAR tactical spork offers a pretty good value. Plus, it’s pretty neat.
There are two things to watch out for, though. One, there’s a drainage hole on the spoon side that can make things awkward if you forget to clean both pieces. And two, the tactical spork is made of a food-safe polymer: it’s perfectly durable for eating and cooking, but we wouldn’t use it for any larger purpose.
You can also find tactical spork 3-packs (they’re great stocking stuffers!).
How Does the Ka-Bar Spork Work?
Simply pull the two ends apart, then use it like you would a regular spork and knife.
What Is the Tactical Spork Made of?
The KA-BAR spork is made of food-safe grilamid, a high-end plastic with a huge variety of applications. While we weren’t initially in love with the idea of a plastic knife, we haven’t had any issues using it to cut things like steak, veggies, or packaging.
It’s also dishwasher safe; just remember to separate the two pieces.
What Is the Blade Size of a Kabar Spork?
The blade length is about 2.5”, or a little over 6cm.
KA-BAR’s BK18 Becker Harpoon Is a Solid EDC Knife
If you want a modern KA-BAR, the Becker BK18 (AKA the “Becker Harpoon”) is a solid fixed-blade option for everyday carry. It’s super durable for the price, handles well, and looks great. And before you ask, KA-BAR owns Becker.
The BK18’s blade is about 4.5” long (11.4cm) while the entire knife is 9.3” (23.6cm). The blade is made of 1095 cro-van steel, which is the same as the classic USMC KA-BAR knife. Finally, the handle is made of Ultramid.
As is the Becker BK2 (aka the “Becker Campanion“)
If you want a slightly larger fixed blade, the KA-BAR Becker BK2 (or Becker Campanion) has a 5.25” blade. Otherwise, it’s essentially the same knife as the BK18.
And that about wrap’s things up! The storied USMC KA-BAR knife is an acceptable choice for camping but leaves a lot to be desired as far as everyday carry. That said, it’s an outstanding collector’s piece and makes for a fantastic gift!
If you think we missed something, be sure to let us know in the comments or on social media! We’re super active on Instagram and Reddit. If we like your take, we’ll include it in our article (with credit, of course!).
The operators of Renegade Camping may receive a commission for purchases made through links on our site. But that doesn’t mean we’re shilling random crap! We thoroughly research and/or own all the products we review on our website. We want to build unshakeable trust with our readers, and that means offering honest, transparent reviews and guides. Cheers!– The Renegade Camping & EDC team
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