“If it ain’t broke, fix it ’till it is”

bamboo_parang_sheathIt is easy to look at the standard, off-the-shelf Malaysian parang and mistake design evolution for flaws.  Someone new to the jungle might quickly draw up a list of its failings and mentally redesign the parang into something heavier, full tanged, stainless steel bladed with off-the-scale rockwell hardness; ending up with something more in common with an axe.

I’ve seen some survival knives that have gone this route, some are even designed for two handed wielding (!) and are heavy enough to fell an ox….but I’ve never had the need to fell an ox, or wield a parang two handed.  The main task a parang is used for, in the jungle at least, is cutting green vegetation and the hardest task I put it to is cutting dead bamboo.  If I need to split heavy logs for firewood than I use gluts.  So why over design something for a purpose is shouldn’t be put to in the first place?

The parang is made of carbon steel and, in the humidity of the jungle, will rust.  So why not go with stainless steel?  But here’s the thing, rust is on the surface only and can be easily taken off, so it’s not such a big problem particularly if the parang is in daily use.  Also, carbon steel is easier to sharpen than stainless steel.   Similarly a very hard edge to the parang is not as advantageous as it might at first appear as it would make sharpening the parang more difficult.

Which brings us to rat tail tangs – these appear to be a design flaw but have advantages that a full tang does not.  A rat tail tang means that the parang is more forward weighted and also reduces the shock waves coming up through the parang when you’re chopping.  But, perhaps more importantly, a rat tail tang means that you can fix (or attach a new) handle very easily in the field….something that it is far more difficult to do with a full tanged blade.

knife_handle_repairThe belief that a heavier bladed parang is superior to a lighter blade is also not necessarily the case.  As an analogy, imagine trying to play badminton with a tennis racket and you’ll get the idea.   The parang is used with a lot of wrist movement and, if it is too heavy, your wrist will get tired fast.

When I first started using a parang here in Malaysia I suffered from the same (slightly arrogant) assumption that I knew better and that there were ‘obvious’ flaws in the local parangs my Malay friends were using  (which, for me, were the lack of retaining pins and the use of the rat tail tang).  Years later and I can see the advantages that these supposed flaws offer and the problem that I imagined (i.e. the blade coming out of the handle) was not such a huge problem as it is so easy to fix should it happen.

Of course, you may be thinking, the idea of a blade flying out of the handle (due to the lack of retaining pin) is a bit scary however, when it happened to me, the blade came out with the force of the downward chop and didn’t altogether leave the handle so it’s perhaps not quite as bad as you might think.

…saying that, I still keep my distance when following behind anyone swinging a parang just in case the blade does fly out, or (and this is more common) the handle slips out of the person’s hand.

All this is not to say that retaining pins, stainless steel, full tangs etc are necessarily ‘bad’, rather that the Malaysian parang design has some intrinsic benefits to someone in the field as long as you know how to take advantage of them.