I don’t know whether to call it a fad or a cult anymore, but the legendary outdoor writer George W. Sears seems to have a far larger following in the 21st century than he ever did during the 19th. For those that haven’t heard this about 1,000 times before, during the last half of the 1800’s Sears wrote under the pen name “Nessmuk” for a long-extinct outdoor publication called Forest and Stream Magazine. He eventually reprinted a collection of these columns as Woodcraft and Camping in 1884. At around 101 pages, the little book always surprises first-time readers for how slim it is.
As you may have noticed in Tactical Knives, newer knife writers are very fond of using Sears as a reference in their articles. At the same time, I have had more than one bewildered older knife writer come to me and ask, “What is this big deal about Nessmuk that seems to be going around?” Given Sears’ book has never gone out of print, the easiest thing for me to do is send them a copy. Of course, I usually get a second call asking, “Is that little book it!?” Yes, this and Canoeing the Adirondacks With Nessmuk, (a collection of letters) are about the extent of Sears’ writings that modern readers have to go on.
In his day, Sears was actually better known for his ultra-light canoes. Even using modern Kevlar, you would be hard pressed to come close to what he accomplished with wood and canvas. But it isn’t the canoes his 21st century fans focus on; it’s the two-and-a-half pages he penned on knives and hatchets. As every true believer knows, Nessmuk had his “trilogy” (he never used that term) of a double-bit hatchet, a stout two-blade pocketknife and a rather strange looking hump-back sheath knife. There is nothing really wrong with that combination for outdoor use, but some have turned it into a religion.
For starters, he said very little about the sheath knife other than he approved of its thin blade. No one now knows for sure where he acquired the knife or who actually made it. I have the impression Sears really didn’t care; it was simply a useful pattern that met his personal needs for a hunting knife. The two-blade pocketknife was equally just another common tool from a period of more limited choices than we have today. There is also historical documentation that he attempted, without much luck, to market a large single-blade folding hunter as the “Official Nessmuk Knife.” The double-bit hatchet is the tool that received the most ink in his book. It actually was custom made for him at a cost of $3 in 1884. While most of the replica Nessmuk sheath knives are of recent vintage, I have found copies of the hatchet were fairly common in sporting goods catalogs from the 1890’s to around WW II. Many even listed the tiny double-bit as a “Nessmuk pattern.”
I think the basic three-blade tool kit concept makes a lot of sense for the backcountry, but I feel it is a mistake to become fixated on the exact models Sears owned. After all, he penned those lines well over 100 years ago based on the equipment and camping conditions common then. Let’s keep things in perspective. While we can no longer head off into the wilderness to live off the land, we have a much wider variety of outdoor equipment readily available to all. Why not take advantage of it?
I don’t know whether to call it a fad or a cult anymore, but…
by Massad Ayoob / Aug 1, 2008