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Don’t let the word “combat” in KA-BAR’s latest kukri offering throw you off, this is a versatile knife that can be used for just about anything. In truth, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at a kukri-style knife ever since I had the chance to borrow a kukri—or khukuri if you want to be more accurate—made by the metalsmiths at Himalayan Imports. The last time I used a kurki it was a 20-inch beast with a water buffalo bone handle and a scabbard so big it might have comprised the rest of the buffalo. It was a thing of beauty, and several times more expensive than what my wallet can handle.
The KA-BAR Combat Kukri is a far cry from that knife and in many ways this is a good thing. Let me first indulge you in a bit of a history lesson—and believe you me, writers love nothing better than a good history lecture.
Behind the iconic shape of the kukri is a fearsome reputation to match. You may have heard it referred to as the Gurkha knife, or the Gurkha kukri, and that is because the knife is intricately interwoven with the history of the Gurkha regiments hailing from the mountains of Nepal. The kukri was developed in those mountains, possibly from the western kopis, as a utility knife and fighting weapon. The knife itself was first encountered by the Western world when the East India Company went to war against the Gurkha Kingdom in Nepal. Impressed with the fighting forces of the Gurkhas, the British eagerly recruited them when the war ended, forming what would later become the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Much of the kukri’s supposed lethality in battle can be owed to the fighting prowess of these men, who earned a place among the fiercest fighting forces in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If you haven’t heard of these guys, I recommend doing a Google search.
In fact, Gurkha soldiers have been known to frighten their own allies as recently as the War in Iraq, where they fought alongside Coalition Forces. A veteran of that war, Bishnu Shrestha, brought the kukri further into the spotlight in 2010. The 35-year-old retired solder was riding on the Maurya Express near Chittaranjan, West Bengal when the train was stopped by an estimated 40 armed bandits. The criminals proceeded to rob the passengers of their valuables, including Shrestha, and attempted to assault a young girl on board. Armed with only his kukri, Shrestha cut his way through the bandits. The narrow corridors of the train meant that the attackers’ numbers mattered very little. In the end, Shrestha left three of the bandits dead on the floor, eight injured, and the rest routed. For this the veteran was awarded the Sena Medal for high courage by the Indian Army.
Few things sell me more on a product than history, and the kukri does have history. But would the KA-BAR interpretation stand up to par? I was pretty pleased when the good people at KA-BAR sent me a sample for review.
Here are the specs:
- Weight: 0.90 lbs
- Steel: 1095 Cro-Van
- Blade Type: Fixed
- Blade length: 8″
- Overall length: 13-3/8″
- Hidden Tang
- Grind: Flat
- Edge Angle: 20 Degrees
- Handle: Material Kraton G
- HRC: 56-58
- Blade Thickness: 0.165
- Made in USA
- Retail Price $113.36
One of the benefits of an American-made product is you know exactly what steel the KA-BAR kukri is made from. As much I loved the mirror sheen of the Himalayan Imports version, I had little more than an inkling what it was made of. Despite their good looks—and functionality—the Nepalese kukris are all mystery metal. The KA-BAR, on the other hand, is forged from 1095 Cro-Van. If you are familiar with this steel, you would probably nod your head at its middle-of-the-line price-to-effectiveness value. In the shape of a kukri, this metal is beastly.
The KA-BAR did not come out of the box memorably sharp, but a few licks on a sharpening stone was all it needed to become an oversized leg shaver. The kukri is a pleasure to sharpen. Some people may be anxious about sharpening curved blades such as the kukri, but I actually find it more intuitive than a straight knife. I tested the knife with both a flat (factory sharpened) and convex grind and I found the latter much more effective. Convex grinds are usually referred to as “axe” grinds because of its popularity with woodsmen, and it lends additional durability to the edge. Convex grinds are also ideal for chopping, which is the kukri’s raison d’être.
The kukri is a beast. Rarely have I had such clean cuts on just about everything I tested the knife on—meat, random shrubbery, dead wood, an old table I reduced to tinder. The KA-BAR also soaked up the abuse without the slightest complaint or hint of damage. I heartily approve.
They may not look like it, but kukri knives have substantial penetration power with their tips. KA-BAR’s version has a rather beefy point that angles a little more forwards than the traditional kukri, which also enhances its stabbing power.
Now I just need a car door for penetration tests.
If you ever held a KA-BAR made in the last decade or so, you already know what this handle feels like. The kukri’s handle is made from bog-standard Kraton G, a grippy, rubbery material that smells like it’s made from old tires. It works and it works well, just make sure to wash your hands after handling the kukri the first few times.
The butt cap is powdered metal and strong enough to smash a few windows or walnuts. The kukri also sports a guard, which may be a rare sight on more traditional knives. One thing many people have noticed is that the Nepalese version’s handle slopes towards the knife blade. With the absence of a guard, it can be easy for your hand to slide up into the blade. Of course, this is no problem for experienced users because they grip the kukri in a different way. The biggest different between traditional kukris and their Western counterparts or reproductions is the shape of the handle. The KA-BAR’s handle is straight with swelling in the middle. A traditional kukri sports a banana-shaped handle with a divider in the middle that allows the user to effectively see-saw the blade forward while cutting.
In combat—which is what the KA-BAR is designed for, after all—the traditional kukri utilizes this leverage for greater cutting power. Inexperienced users, however, will probably just cut themselves. The KA-BAR brings the ancient design more in-line with modern weaponry. Knife fights are rare in the present day, but when they happen they are frenzied events when speed of deployment matters most. The KA-BAR Combat Kukri allows you a quick and secure grip.
The first time I saw the KA-BAR kukri’s sheath, I thought that they had just tried to ram a curved knife into a something meant for a straight blade. That thought still sticks with me, although now I’m a little bit more impressed with the cleverness of the design. One issue that I do take with the sheath is that the lower strap is nearly useless and the upper strap is absolutely needed to keep the knife in place. Drawing the knife can also be awkward.
All in all, the construction of the sheathe could be improved. While it may be an innovative and inexpensive design, I much prefer a leather sheath custom-built for a kukri instead.
Practicality and conclusion
For bushcraft purposes, there are few more efficient tools than a kukri. It’s practically a hatchet welded to a Bowie knife and somehow it still works.
But of course, the kukri’s reputation isn’t born out of chopping gourds and other—possibly—edible things. The popular perception of the kukri is foremost as a weapon, and in this role it really shines. I did include a few tests using the poor man’s version of a tatami omote—several shipping tubes tied together. The kukri sliced through them without problem. It may not be the same knife that Bishnu Shrestha used on the Maurya Express, but the KA-BAR can cut with the best of them.
For enthusiasts of a traditional kukri, this offering from KA-BAR is not what you’re looking for. The KA-BAR kukri is a super-Westernized, no frills tool and weapon. At a street price as low as $70, it’s not hard justifying it’s purchase either.
If nothing else, now you can cosplay as the sniper in Team Fortress 2.
Images courtesy Daniel Xu