80 Years of the USMC Ka-Bar

The Ka-Bar is officially an octogenarian.
May 31, 2023  
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Categories: Knives and Axes

There’s no more recognizable American knife. The Ka-Bar is it–nothing else comes close. This is the knife equivalent of the 1911. The Ka-Bar went to war in 1942, and likely hasn’t left the battlefield since. It needs little introduction for our readers, so I’ll dive in.

These new Ka-Bars come with a variety of blade stamps--many branches of service and other kinds of commemorations.

These new Ka-Bars come with a variety of blade stamps–many branches of service and other kinds of commemorations.

The Origins of the Ka-Bar

The United States Marine Corps picked up the fixed blade Ka-Bar at the end of 1942. The United States joined World War II and the country was dealing with a mix of issues: supply shortages, production demand, antiquated designs, and tactical changes. Those heading to Europe and the Pacific were bringing hunting knives from home—which highlighted the inadequacies of some of the knives issued early in the war.

Some old Ka-Bars have markings on the crossguards.

Some old Ka-Bars have markings on the crossguards.

After the Marines adopted the Ka-Bar, the Navy followed suit. The Marine eventually designated the design the USMC Mark 2 after the Navy designated their version the USN Mark 2. Like the old 1911s of this period, the Garand and other guns, the Ka-Bar was produced by multiple companies. The design was built by PAL, Union Cutlery, Robeson, and Camillus.

Ka-Bar’s Ties to Tradition

Knife evolution is historically slow. While there are big leaps with materials and occasional changes for tempering techniques or grind angles, the basics tend to stick around. Many fighting knives of this era were long and double-edged. The pointy, stabby designs are meant for thrusting. The blades are thin, not easy to sharpen, and less about utility and more about punching holes in your enemy.

Some period knives, and one reproduction. A Cattaragus 225Q, an MK2, a Marble's, and a Fairbairn Sykes and a newer MK1.

Some period knives, and one reproduction. A Cattaragus 225Q, an MK2, a Marble’s, and a Fairbairn Sykes and a newer MK1.

Hunting knives, though, were different. The blades were wider. Weight was mitigated by the addition of convex blood grooves. Most were either flat or convex grinds that maintained the structural integrity of the edge.

The Bowie clip-point was still in fashion. The Ka-Bar kept the false edge to allow the knife to have more punching potential. Even with the width of the blade, this point made it a more versatile fighting knife.

Material Scarcity

The origins of the design are part of the genius of the design. This isn’t a full-tang knife. It could have been, and that would have made the design stronger, but this was a time when metal conservation was top-of-mind and the goal was to make something strong-enough that also conserved steel.

The knife used 1095 carbon steel for its blade. That’ll make you cringe if you are a blade-steel snob. 1095 is about as utilitarian as steels come these days. It is easy to work with, wears well, can be sharpened easily, and has more than a century of history as a dynamic material for cutting tools.

Note how far back the crossguard on the MK2 is bent. When I was a kid, I thought this one had been bent. Not so.

Note how far back the crossguard on the MK2 is bent. When I was a kid, I thought this one had been bent. Not so.

The crossguard, blade, and pommel were parkerized. That provides the basic protection that a carbon steel blade requires—all but the cutting edge—minimizing the potential for rust. Minimizing, but not eliminating. The old Ka-Bar design will always require some care.

Consider the stacked leather handle. These leather discs may well be the best grip material ever conceived for comfort and feel. I get it—that’s an opinion—but a well-worn stacked leather handle absorbs shock, provides a really good grip surface without being overly aggressive, and isn’t as cold-to-the-touch as some plastics or even other natural materials.

With a bit of oil to wipe down the blade and a bit of oil on the handle, the Ka-Bar will go for a long time.

Originals came in one of two styles of sheath. One was fiberglass, the other leather.

Originals came in one of two styles of sheath. One was fiberglass, the other leather.

If you’re in the market for an old Ka-Bar, look for shrinkage in the leather washers. The pommel is peened on with the handle being compressed, but if the leather dries out, it will shrink and the crossguard can pull away.

Buy it and back the bang

Where to Find a Ka-Bar for Sale

 

 

The Ka-Bar as a utility knife?

The original design was meant to function as both a fighting knife (for any Marine that wasn’t issued a bayonet) and as a utility knife. The fighting function is easy enough to envision. The blade length was increased (over most of the commercial hunting knives and previously issued utility knives) to 7 inches. This was considered at the time to be the magic length—long enough to hit internal organs—but light enough to carry.

Two recreations of the old Ka-Bar designs for the MK1 and the USMC, and an old MK2. The MK1 is much more of a utility knife than a fighting knife.

Two recreations of the old Ka-Bar designs for the MK1 and the USMC, and an old MK2. The MK1 is much more of a utility knife than a fighting knife.

As a utility knife, the Ka-Bar is a solid performer. The blade is a good slicer and easy to keep functionally sharp. The grind angle is fairly wide—a 20-degree angle. The is solid for chopping, splitting, prying—anything you’d ask a basic camp knife to do.

Though it has a thick stick tang, that is still the weak point of the entire design. This isn’t my first choice for batoning. I’ve done it before, and will do it again, but I’m far more inclined to wail on a Becker Campanion than I am a USMC Ka-Bar.

The Ka-Bar may be the perfect epitome of that odd balance between the stasis of a life at war and the actual frenetic pace of the fight. The knife’s reputation was built in battle—that’s the legacy we celebrate and remember, but it is the brilliance and dutiful performance of the knife in every other task that really made it such a useful tool.

The USMC Ka-Bar

The current production models differ from the originals in one crucial way. The endcap is pinned on and not peened. Peening was done after the endcap was forced down, and the steel tang was then deformed by peening it over. Once peening is complete, the handle isn’t going anywhere.

The old MK2 is peened. The new USMC Ka-Bar is pinned.

The old MK2 is peened. The new USMC Ka-Bar is pinned.

Pinning, on the other hand, is a bit easier. Compress the leather, until a pre-drilled hole in the tang allows for the pin to be inserted. This holds pressure against the underside of the endcap, which secures the pin and keeps it from shifting.

Which is stronger? I’ve seen some Ka-Bars from the 40s that are broken at the endcap. This is rare, though. Theoretically, if a new USMS Ka-Bar were to break at the pin, it would be easy enough to replace. You could even do it with a simple bench vise (if it would open up to about five inches).

Ka-Bar Variants

There are many. So many. This is, after all, a knife that’s been in production for more than 80 years.

The main variants focus on blade serrations, blade length, and sheath materials. There are shorter versions, and the Big Brother (which is absurd). There are lots of commemorative blades, too, and presentation builds that pay homage to the long legacy this knife has with the military.

The D2 Extreme uses the dog's head hilt design--not common on many Ka-Bars.

The D2 Extreme uses the dog’s head hilt design–not common on many Ka-Bars.

If you are looking for that pure homage to the original, and one in a leather sheath, this is the one: the USMC Ka-Bar. If you don’t want to imply that you were a Marine and would rather have one with no military markings, the Single Mark Ka-Bar has a naked leather sheath and no branch affiliation stamped into the blade.

I was not a Marine, but I respect the hell out of what they d0 (and did with these knives), so I went for the traditional model with the leather handle and sheath with no hesitation.

Though the blades look similar, one is 1095 and the other is D2. Both will hold their edges well, but the D2 is easier not as easy to sharpen.

Though the blades look similar, one is 1095 and the other is D2. Both will hold their edges well, but the D2 is easier not as easy to sharpen.

For those who want something with a more modern edge to it, Ka-Bar’s Extreme line is perfect. The D2 Extreme builds on the Ka-Bar tradition by combining D2 steel, “powdered metal” handle furniture, and a Kraton G grip (a fancy elasticized rubber like substance that provides a solid grip, a softer feel, and extreme wear resistance.

These were available for a long time—several years—with a section of blade serrations. Recently, Ka-Bar released the straight-blade version. The crossguards on these are more one-sided.

Ka-Bar knows how to keep the tradition alive, but the company has done well with modernized versions of the classics, too.

Ka-Bar knows how to keep the tradition alive, but the company has done well with modernized versions of the classics, too–like this D2 Extreme.

If, like me, you’re inclined to carry your knives, the choice will be a mix of the aesthetic and the functionality. If you want slightly more functionality and don’t care about the historical homage, the Extreme is a fantastic knife.

D2 is known for its rigidity, edge retention capabilities, and it is almost as easy to maintain as stainless. The blade is the same length and width on both, but the D2 Extreme is slightly wider.

The Kraton handle won’t last forever, but it will outlast the leather you ignore.

The back of the sheaths. The difference in the two styles is all about adaptability.

The back of the sheaths. The difference in the two styles is all about adaptability.

There’s a price difference, of course. The D2 Extreme will be north of $125 (prices vary depending on what kind of sheath option you want). The USMC will likely be closer to $90.

Either way, both of these are well worth what you’ll pay for them. Take care of them, and they’ll be the type of knives you pass on. Maybe more than once.

For more information on the Ka-Bar Fighting Knife, visit Ka-Bar Cutlery.

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David Higginbotham

David Higginbotham

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