Let’s be blunt about pocket knife safety

A sharp blade can be a useful tool when setting up camp, fishing or cooking. It can also be dangerous when used carelessly.

Policies vary among packs, troops, councils and camps when it comes to what blade types and lengths are allowed. The BSA sets no official standard on knife length.

But there’s one rule everyone agrees on: pocket knife use requires responsibility.

A tool, not a toy

Bears can start carrying a pocket knife after completing the Whittling Chip requirements. Boy Scouts must earn their Totin’ Chip, which also gives them the right to carry and use axes and saws. These rights, however, can be revoked if the Scout fails to be responsible.

Some big no-no’s:

  • Throwing a knife
  • Using a dull or dirty blade
  • Handing a knife to someone blade first
  • Cutting while others are within your “safety circle” (arm’s length)
  • Carrying an open pocket knife
  • Carving into something that doesn’t belong to you
  • Cutting toward your body

Treating pocket knives with respect and using them accordingly not only ensures the Scout’s safety but also keeps others safe.

Sharp and clean

Part of pocket knife safety means maintaining the blade’s cleanliness and sharpness. To clean, open all the tools and use a toothpick or moist cloth to wipe dust and lint from inside the pocket knife. If you used any water for cleaning, apply a little light oil to the knife’s joints afterward.

Normal use dulls the blades, so get a sharpening stone. Hold the knife at a 25-degree angle against the stone and push the blade along it or move the blade in a circular motion. Sharpen both sides and wipe the blade. Check its sharpness by holding it under a bright light. If the edge of the blade doesn’t shine, it’s sharp.

A sharp knife is safer than a dull one because a dull blade can slip while cutting.

The right blade

The BSA recommends picking the right knife for the job.

Your Scout Shop has many knives to choose from, including single-bladed models and ones with all the bells and whistles. (OK, none has literal bells and whistles, but they have everything else you’d need.)

Single blades:

A little bit more:

The “Be Prepared for anything” models:


  1. Sadly it looks like the scout store has dropped my favorite Boy Scout model, which was similar to the Cub Scout Tinker. It was black, and had enough tools on it to be useful without being too bulky. For the past several Eagle Scouts in our troop, I would give them one engraved with their name, our troop number and the date of the board of review.

    • For our troop’s Eagle Scouts, we’ve begun a new tradition of giving them the Eagle Scout knife by Buck knives, with the same info you had: Name, Troop #, City/State , BOR Date. It’s $50 from Buck and the engraving is included in the price. I have no affiliation with Buck Knives. Bill Huddleston, Scoutmaster, Troop 1532, Annandale, Virginia

  2. When teaching my Bears knife safety to earn their Whittlin’ Chit only one boy nicked himself – mine!

    To help teach them I made cardboard jack knifes. I cut out and glued together the sides and used a brass fastener as the hinge for the blade.

    • I believe that in some cases that a bear might be a little young for the Whittling Chip. I feel the Webelos One tank is more mature rank for handling knives. Just my 2 cents.

  3. Something I have noticed also about knifes and scouts. I have went to more than one camp and have noticed that of the different ones I have been to they seem to have junk knifes in the trading post. By that I mean that they are knifes that you can not sharpen and that they will not hold an edge!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    When camps are inspected national inspectors should be checking all knifes to insure that they can hold an edge. If they cant hold and take an edge, they should not be sold, dull knifes are a DANGER to anyone.

    • It is even worse than that. We went to a very well known camp in Oregon last summer, and they did not even sell Scout Knives. Even worse, the knives they did sell were junk, totally unsuited for whittling or really any other use other than they looked cool. We finally prohibited the boys from buying any knife without leader approval.

  4. When teaching my Bears the Whittlin’ Chit, I wore a long sleeve shirt and had a plastic ketchup bottle tied to the inside of my arm. Then when I was demonstrating the incorrect and unsafe ways to use a knife with the help of a parent (police officer), I acted like I cut myself repeatedly and would squeeze the bottle, spraying ketchup all over. It definitely got their attention as well as the parents who were there as well. Definitely a lot of theatrics but it got and held their attention. We then went through all of the safe handling drills and other items needed to earn the Whittlin’ Chit.

    To date, I have only had to take one pocket knife away from my now Arrow of Light ranked scouts, and that was another scout approached him from behind while he was whittling and he did not stop when his friend got within the blood circle. I reminded both of them of their pledge, as well as the importance of announcing yourself instead of walking up behind someone.

  5. Buck Knives has a licensed custom order 500 Duke knife for Eagle Scouts. Not sure if a weblink would get posted, but you can google using my first sentence and get right to the site.

  6. The new Scout requirement 5 “Demonstrate your knowledge of pocketknife safety.” muddies the water. Why are they demonstrating their knowledge of pocketknife safety if they aren’t allowed to carry and use a knife (because they don’t have Totin’ Chip)?

  7. I am always disappointed when I go to the Scout Shop and find all the BSA knives are made in China. A Scout knife is an heirloom item to be handed on to our children. It would be great if BSA could get American made products, especially he long lasting items like axes and knives.

    • They do sell Norwegian HELLE knives, but at those prices, I’d wait until they are a lot older.

      Personally I like the Opinel #7 in carbon steel. They are made in France, and have an easy to use locking mechanism. If the WOSM version was in carbon steel instead of stainless, I would get that version.

      For American made knives, I’m partial to KaBar and their Becker line.

    • Case makes some awesome scout knives. For whatever reason they are NOT sold in BSA stores. Go to Case’s website to find them. I have a couple and love them.

  8. I wish the BSA would 1) sell only Lockback knives, 2) sell only Made in the USA knives 3) Clarify the “folding” vs “fixed” blade knife debate….

    I always mention in IOLS and OWLS that Whitlin’ Chit and Totin’ Chip are probably the only Scout awards that do NOT have definite requirements (set up a tent, cook a meal, etc. ). “Demonstrate ” can mean a lot of things.
    Many Cubs fortunately learn tool use (respect the edge, respect the tool) from a parent or relative or other adult friend. Most W/C and T/C is taught by the area’s “traditional” means.
    I always favor the W/C be taught by a Boy Scout (Den Chief?), Big Brother sort of thing.
    One year, we did a Whitlin’ Chit Station at the Webelos Weekend. I taught the Boy Scouts, the Boy Scouts taught the Cubs, utilizing the collection of folding pocket knives I have. We taught about 50 Cubs, Bear and Webelos. Went thru a lot of Ivory Soap bars (at least 50 !) , leaving a BIG pile of soap chips…. Using small mesh bags, I don’t think our family bought soap for three years !
    I do not favor the blood drama, but if it works for you… Likewise, I do not favor the plastic/cardboard “practice” knives, instead I would like the Cub to handle and get the feel of the real thing… but that being said…..
    One Cub came up and declared that he wanted to earn the Whitlin’ Chip but was afraid to even touch a knife. The Scout instructor went out into the woods and came back with a stick that looked like a knife ! He whittled it a little, adjusted it a little, and voila ! A wood knife ! The Cub practiced with this for some minutes and with the patience of the Scout, began working with the real thing. I noticed (from a distance) none of the other Cubs made any mention of this little drama. The Cub eventually carved a recognizable soap bar automobile .

    For your critique and adaptation, here is my curriculum : https://www.dropbox.com/s/gtu8g107a5e4t1v/ScoutWhitlinChip2.docx?dl=0

    See you on the trail.

    • 3) Clarify the “folding” vs “fixed” blade knife debate.

      Let me clarify it for you then. There is no National rule either encouraging or banning fixed-blade knives nor is there a National limit on blade length. However, individual councils, camps, chartered organizations, and units, can set their own rules banning fixed and/or folding knives, specific lengths, or even banning all blades of all size, and that’s their right, and some do.

      So: if you have a fixed blade knife, for instance I have this wonderful knife from Harbor Freight in an amazing hand-made leather belt sheath crafted just for that knife: https://www.harborfreight.com/3-inch-ceramic-paring-knife-98183.html — it’s been great at camp and during hikes/campouts. However, some places and groups have banned fixed blade knives and so even though they’d be ok with my knife if I brought it in with cooking gear, they frown on wearing it on my waist. It cuts rope and vegetables with equal facility.

      Anyway, if you have a fixed blade knife then then follow your unit and chartered org rules regarding whether you’re able to wear/use it. If you go to a district/council event, call up your council and ask if there’s a council rule. If you go to a summer or other camp, call ahead and ask if there’s a camp rule.

      If someone official asks you to remove your sheath knife, just nicely and politely comply, then afterward look into whether or not that person was correct or not. If they were wrong, then things will get explained and you can return to wearing that knife. If they were right, then things will get explained and you should bring a different knife next time.

      Remember, individual police municipalities may also frown on fixed blade knives, and although your knife may be allowed at a Scouting event, you might not be able to wear it to the supermarket, and if you have a jacket that hangs down and cover it up then you might be technically carrying a concealed weapon and there may or may not be more particular rules covering that which could put you in hot water and which are entirely unrelated to Scouting.

      There you go, debate solved! 🙂

  9. Bryan you say “Boy Scouts must earn their Totin’ Chip” and you say it “gives them the right to carry and use” knives, axes and saws.

    While I certainly agree that everyone (youth and adults) should be educated and aware of safety rules and protocols before using sharp tools, I can’t find anywhere in the Guide to Safe Scouting that says formally earning and/or possessing a Totin’ Chip is required for using sharp tools on BSA outings.

    • Totin’ Chip is not Nationally required in order to carry a knife/whatever. However, individual councils/camps/chartered orgs/units can sometimes add additional rules and this is one of those places — it’s a pretty common rule. So if a camp or whatever requires that you have it, then you have to have it.

      And Totin’ Chip doesn’t always give the “right to carry and use” knives/whatever. For instance, a boy can never take their knife to school, even on “Take Your Knife To School Day” (since it doesn’t exist).

      Anyway, that’s my two cents. 🙂

  10. I would like to point out that, while we DO teach Cubs and even older Boys to carve away from themselves, that actual woodcarvers often carve towards themselves for certain cuts and detail work. Some things just can’t be achieved any other way. I make sure to explain this to the boys I teach (of all ages) so that they know it’s much safer to cut away, but that they will sometimes see it done other ways and that’s not always wrong. When boys want to earn their Woodcarving Badge, they may find they need other cuts, and we don’t need to have them terrified of it. If they are using proper safety equipment and a properly sharpened knife, they will be fine. I also demonstrate (for the older ones) what it should look like when done safely. Please don’t make them think that’s a hard-and-fast rule. Stubbornly cutting away from themselves on a piece of wood that isn’t going to cooperate when trying to make certain figures is going to cause more hurt than just adjusting their grip and changing their angle of approach.

    • “If they are using proper safety equipment and a properly sharpened knife, they will be fine.”

      Right. A sharp knife will cut what you want, when you want it cut. A dull knife won’t, but you’ll force it. Sometimes, that extra force can cause things to go more badly awry if the knife slips or if something breaks. 🙂

    • These look like fine knives, but why not offer a Buck knife, made right here in the US and guaranteed for life, at 1/3 to 1/2 the price ?

      • Don’t know, ask National Supply. Personally I’m partial to Ka Bar’s Becker line of knives. Have the BK21 since one BSA publication stated a Kukri was the best type of survival knife. I LOVE THE BK21! Truly a multipurpose tool: chopping and fine work with practice.

        As much as I love the BK21, it is big, and some places have placed size restrictions. Looking at BK16 now.

    • Can anyone speak to the quality of these knives? My gut feeling is that if I’m going to spend that much I’ll go with a Benchmade or similar.

  11. Also in this discussion, one needs to know where you can carry a knife. I carried my knife when I went to school in my Cub Scout uniform. That would not be possible today.

    • Times have indeed changed. I wore a Buck 110 in my belt throughout High School and never had a problem. Couple teachers even asked to borrow it. Couldn’t do that today. I should add I always carry a couple of knives and did so at my kid’s schools without issue.

  12. Frankly I’m amazed that so few Scouters actually know and understand the guidelines covering knives. Too often, too many just take the word of those Scouters that have been around a while.

    It’s your duty to the scouts to understand the guidelines.

    We are in this program to enable the scouts not disabled them.

  13. When we teach Wittling chip in our pack for the last 3 or 4 years we found a plastic knife kit that the Cubs get to assemble. This teaches then how a pocket knife works and we then go over all the safety points with these. You can also carve a bar of soap with them. When we feel they are handeling it properly we introduce the real thing and go over everything again. This has worked for our Pack it might for yours. We got the knives from knifecenter.com they cost between $8 to $10 each not cheap but a lot safer or search for plastic folding knife kits and check prices and tell them you are with Scouts and see if there is a discount.

    I recommend when you are about to have the boys carve a bar of soap, purchase the soap in advance and open them up and expose them to the air to let them dry out for a couple of weeks. The bar get harder and the soap does not stick to the knife as much.

  14. After 25 years of working with Cubs, I would love to see the Bear pocketknife requirement changed to reflect the most common ways any of us use knives – that is to cut things (a rope, an apple, a block of cheese, etc.), and to sharpen a marshmallow stick. Carving is an advanced skill that should be learned well after the basics are learned, not the same day. (How many of us are all that good at wood carving?) To visualize something in three dimensions is not easy for a Cub aged boy. I had a boy cut himself deeply when his bar of soap broke, which happens a large percentage of the time, especially with Ivory soap. If they really insist on teaching carving at such a young age something softer like a block of floral foam would be more appropriate and just as inexpensive at a craft supply store. Sharpening a stick is a skill that involves cutting away from oneself, and produces an item that a boy finds immediately useful – a much better choice than carving soap.

    • Well said, DR. I like your explanation about actual use and need. Styrofoam will carve, but it sort of shatters, and the mess is not as enviro-friendly. Soap chips can be recycled in your bathroom and kitchen!

  15. The current Bear Claws requirements allow two options. One is to carve 2 objects. The other is to demonstrate safe use of a knife in a number of common tasks (opening an envelope, cutting string, opening a package, etc.) Personally — I like both requirements and think both should be done. I don’t care if you count a marshmallow stick as a carved object… I wouldn’t have a problem with that one!

  16. Fixed blades are safer for outdoor tasks. Current polices by BSA and councils are misguided and a huge disservice to Boy Scouts outdoor skills.

    Banning rather than having sensible guidelines or even an official knife is very short sighted.

    Scouting youth all over the world use dependable fixed blade knives, while scouts in the USA are treated like little babies.

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