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Survival Saw Comparison
An ongoing subject discussed in the outdoor enthusiast community is the usefulness of "survival" saws. Also known as wire saws, rope saws, pocket chainsaws and flexible saws. For the most part the idea is to carry a lightweight cutting tool that will help us start a fire and build a shelter. We decided it was time to put some of the more common "flexible" survival saws through the practical survivor test. We will test the folding saws and bow saw types on a separate article.
Commando saw The cutting blade is 20 inches long.
Unbelievable saw The blade is 21 inches long. The total length of the saw is 37 inches
Sabercut saw The blade is 20 inches long. Total length of the saw is 40 inches.
The first question that should be on our mind when deciding to purchase equipment is will this item be reliable ie. dependability. The item will be useless to us if it fails when we need it most. After that we deal with cost, weight, portability, usability, and maintainability. The chart above covers the cost and weight of the different saws. Where the testing comes in is reliability and durability.
* Reliability - trustworthy, reliable, dependable - will it hold up to the tasks we need to perform and for how long.
* Portability - Carried or moved with ease: things such as weight and size are very important to a person carrying the items in his pack.
* Usability - besides capable of being used, we want to talk about how much energy we have to exert to use the tool. How easy it is to use the saw and lets not forget comfort.
* Maintainability - A maintainable tool. This goes with durability but when we refer to saws we can think of things such as can I sharpen the teeth on the saw etc.
* Cost - Self explanatory we all want to save money. But comparing the cost versus reliability can be tricky.
The saws tested could be broken down into two sub categories. Wire type and chain/link type. The sawing/cutting section on the Commando saw and MIL-S-9964 military saw is a spiral serrated wire versus the more chainsaw-like type saw design of the Sabercut and Unbelievable saw. The handles on the saws are different as well. The Unbelievable saw and the Sabercut saw have handles and straps that can be used without needing assistance of fabricated handles.
How robust are the saws?
We decided to run the saws through two test runs. One would be using the saw in the configuration seen in most articles and videos. Most people tend to place their fingers through the rings on the saw. Not only is this painful but it could cause damage to the hand. Others attach parachute cord to the rings. We felt the best solution was to cut two small handles made of sapling. Note: Using the saw in this manner adds strain to the saw and to your body. By keeping the saw straight you lower the chances of breakage also increase longevity of your tool.
The second set of tests were executed using a "bow saw" configuration. This is the recommended on the packaging of several saws for "best results".
This is accomplished by cutting two notches on the ends of the wood to insert the wire. We then take the branch or sapling and bending the sapling into a "U" shape. after cutting two notches at the ends of the wood.
Either a small knife or the saw can be used to cut a notch into the branch. We stabilized the saw by putting the ring through another piece of wood and stepping on the wood. After the notches are cut into the ends and fitted, we bend the wood and install the wire saw "blade".
Test Run One
We began testing with the commando wire saw by Rothco. The commando wire saw consists of 8 strand braided stainless steel wire. Product description: "w/a 48 kilo breaking strain, cuts wood, plastic, bone."
Most people carrying a survival saw plan on using it to build a shelter and start a fire. Choosing a spine or support beams for a shelter would require using green wood. We decided to start testing with this in mind. We started by sawing wood with a diameter of about 5 inches.
Commando Wire Saw
The stranded wire cuts at a good rate. The cutting speed decreased slightly once the green wood fills the serrated strands and occasional binding occurs. Before we could finish the cut the saw fell apart.
As the saw cut further into the wood it became lodged in the wood several times. We would pull the saw out of the cut and try to restart sawing. On the third time the metal link holding the saw to the ring separated.
MIL-S-9964 "Military Saw" by Bestway Products
Next in line was the MIL-S-9964 saw by Bestway Products. The first thing we noticed about the MIL-S-9964 saw is the rings are attached with a heavy duty bolt. This allows the user to replace the wire/blade if needed. The pouch includes and extra blade. The teeth on the spiral blade did not look or feel as aggressive as the commando saw strands.
After a lot of sawing and struggling, smoke began to come from the wood. This is as far as we were able to cut when the saw began to bind/hang repeatedly. We tried pulling with both hands and were unable to budge the saw. The only option was to pull the saw out of the cut and insert the blade in the same groove. The MIL-S-9964 saw's design is more robust and it showed during the testing. However the speed of the cut was unacceptable. Perhaps this type of blade design can cut through other materials more appropriately.
Update: We received a note from Bestway Products which readers might find helpful.
"We try to stress the importance of keeping the blade as straight as possible. The best way to use it (other than as a bow saw) is to hold it like you would a drawn bow and use your legs and torso to move it back and forth. The worst way is to pull it back and forth with your arms in front of you. As you discovered, it will bind part way through the cut when simply looped around a branch. The blade life will also be reduced due to fatigue from the bending.
An advantage of this type of blade is that it will cut harder materials such as aluminum and mild steel which the other saws don't. A similar commercial product we make, the pocket saw, was used on Chuck Yaeger to remove the neck ring on his flight suit after he was severely burned when ejecting from an experimental rocket plane after reaching 104,000 feet."
Third in line is the Unbelievable Saw from Supreme Products. The teeth on this saw look very aggressive and alternate sides on each link. There are at least two models from this company. One is geared towards the outdoor enthusiast in a round tin "The Pocket ChainSaw" and this model for work around the yard "The Unbelievable Saw". The hard plastic handles on the unbelievable saw looked comfortable and sturdy.
Although the chainsaw teeth are much thinner than the Sabercut saw, the triangular teeth look like they would slice through wood nicely.
We found a fallen tree with about a eight inch diameter. The cut begins smoothly but binds a few times. It seems the longer we used the saw the smoother it would cut. Perhaps there is a short break-in period for the unbelievable saw. After a few cuts, the saw performed almost flawlessly.
It was evident that the amount of energy needed to cut a piece of wood of this diameter would be much less using the Unbelievable saw. Another positive point is that the saw did not hang/bind towards the end of the cut. It finished the cut smoothly.
We took the saw out for several days of testing and it held up beautifully and kept cutting like new. As with other areas of survival, it helps to be in good shape while cutting the wood. Even with a well built saw such as this one, a lot of energy can be expended while cutting. Note: Remember if using this saw in a winter survival situation, remove layers and try not to sweat. Work at about sixty percent capability.
Last but certainly not least we take out the SaberCut Saw by Ultimate Survival Technologies. This company produces several products for the outdoor enthusiast community. We really liked some of the products we have used so far. The craftsmanship on this saw is evident from the moment you open it. It comes with a carry pouch which is nice for transportation.
The blade resembles a chainsaw chain. The chain segments in this chain are constructed from riveted metal sections with sharp teeth. The teeth alternate direction in pairs so the chain can be used in both directions. Below we show the teeth from the Unbelievable Saw (top) next to the SaberCut Saw.
Testing for the Sabercut was done on the same size and types of wood as the Unbelievable Saw. Cuts with the Sabercut saw start smooth and it goes through wood quickly. However there were several times that the saw would hang towards the end of the cut. The Sabercut chews through wood at a very fast rate. Another thing we liked about the Sabercut is the possibility to carry a small chainsaw chain file to sharpen the teeth. We did not sharpen the saw for this test as it would be unfair.
Note: We have been told that some people have broken the webbing handle has broken with time. We did not run into this issue.
Below we show a cut from the Sabercut saw on the right and the Unbelievable saw on the left. Notice the difference in size of the cut.
Obviously the wire saws are smaller than the chainsaw / link type saws. However the difference in weight and size are minimal as the table at the beginning of the article shows. The benefits of added speed and lower energy exertion of the chainsaw saws far outweighs the disadvantages lost by a small weight and size difference.
The saws are easy to use but they require a lot of energy to make the cuts. Although there are other goals that can be achieved using the survival saws, most people will use it to cut wood for fire and shelter. During our testing the chainsaw type saws were far more effective at achieving our particular goal. As with other survival / bushcraft activities sawing with the tested tools required a certain level of physical exertion. Being in fair cardiovascular shape is helpful if not crucial. People should keep that in mind when purchasing this type of saw. It never hurts to ask yourself the question, would I be able to use this saw if I was injured. Ultimate Survival Technologies carries a fire starting product called the Blastmatch. This product helps the user start a fire one handed. We tested the product a few years back briefly, we need to go back and put it under further testing and add new pictures to the article link provided.
During our testing the Sabercut saw would begin its cuts quickly and cleanly but as the angle of the cut would change, the saw tends to bind more often than the Unbelievable saw. Perhaps sharpening the teeth on the Sabercut will help with the final cuts.
As far as comfort the handles on the Unbelievable saw were comfortable and easy to use. Same goes with the Sabecut saw. The straps are a nice touch in case the hand is injured. We were able to cut just using the wrists to hold the saw. The wire saws all have to be modified with makeshift handles or in bow saw configuration. Note: bow saws can be used with just one hand.
While we are on the subject of comfort, lets move on to the second part of the test. We wanted to give the wire saws a second run configured as a bow saw. Using a green sapling we build a handle for the wire saws. Since we did not steam bend the wood, we had to slowly bend it using two standing trees as a fulcrum point.
Once the stick is broken in properly, we can saw notches at the end to hold the saw. A multi-tool or Swiss Army knife saw comes simplifies this task. Take the time to properly align the notches with the "bend" of the wood.
We begin our second test set with the commando saw. Despite the broken ring attachment, we were able to build a bow saw with it. Following manufacturer suggested configuration we decided it was time to compare cutting speed. The Commando saw was first up for testing. The more aggressive wire strands of the Commando saw cut at a steady pace. We used a branch from a fallen tree to perform a timed cut with each saw.
It took thirteen minutes to cut through a branch of approximately 8 inches in diameter. We did not experience any hangs while using the commando saw during multiple cuts. The commando saw performed well during the bow saw testing.
We repeated the same cuts with the MIL-S-9964 saw, the Unbelievable saw, and the Sabercut saw. The same cut with the MIL-S-9964 saw took over 18 minutes to perform the same cut. The spiral saw is robust but the blade's spiral tooth pattern does not cut through wood quickly.
Note: The same cut with the Sabercut saw and Unbelievable saw took approximately one minute. Several times while reading survival forums, the phrase "during a survival situation, you will have nothing but time". If a backpacker falls into cold stream and they need to start a fire quickly, does this theory stand? Although we can see other possible uses for wire saws, most survival situations would require a faster solution. A question that comes to mind is "do we sacrifice a few ounces of weight for faster cuts?".
We appreciate the durability of the MIL-S-9964 saw and the option to replace the wire blade. If a longer and more aggressive saw wire/blade was an option, the saw would be a stronger contender. The capability of exchanging saw blades is already there, so it would seem logical to add different style blades to the package.
All right, this leaves us with maintainability and cost. Although we did not need to sharpen the saws, it seems the sabercut saw and the unbelievable saw can be sharpened using a file. A round file for the sabercut saw and a flat file for the unbelievable saw. Perhaps sharpening the sabercut saw would minimize the hangs toward the end of the sawing. We may test this theory later and add that to the article.
We did not notice a decline in cutting speed on the saws during the testing. Both the Sabercut saw and the Unbelievable saw are able to quickly cut through wood. Each design has its strong points. We would feel comfortable carrying either saw in our kits. We talked to members of the community and some prefer one saw, and some prefer the other.
If there are any companies that produce a wire saw that they feel can outperform the saws we tested so far, please contact us. We would love to test it. So there it is, take a look at the chart above, we feel most of our readers are smart enough to make their own decisions. You decide what fits the Practical Survivor in you.
* We will cover folding saws and bow saws on a separate article.