When you think of a multi-function tool, you often envision one of those Leatherman type folders, with can openers, saws, and various bits and blades. From the beginning of flint knapping, to modern tools, outdoorsman across time have been using their tools in as many ways as are necessary. The Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel is one of those multi-function tools that breaks the mold.
Having a lineage going back to the Russian military entrenching tool, the Cold Steel version is built tougher and more robust, while still maintaining moderate weight and an affordable price tag. The Cold Steel shovel is a fairly close reproduction of the Russian Spetznaz tool, having been designed for entrenching, chopping, and fighting. The Cold Steel version is called the ‘Special Forces Shovel’, no doubt alluding to the Spetznaz origin. Having a carbon steel head, and hardwood handle, the shovel comes sharpened on the blades edges to what Cold Steel calls “utility sharp.” While not what I would call sharp, the edge is functional. The end user can spend as much or as little time as they want improving the edge.
Touted to have a Rockwell hardness is the mid-50’s, the edge is about as sturdy as some machete’s and hatchets I’ve owned. Not fantastic, but not bad either. Plain ‘ol useable. Regardless, I opted to use two files to get the edges up to my satisfaction. I started with a double cut bastard file, evening out the bevel and getting all things the same on both sides. I left the front digging edge with this, and only sharpened the sides more. For the sides, I used a fine, single cut mill file, getting the side edges to a very respectable edge. The reason I didn’t go further on the lead digging edge is that I just didn’t see much use for it. I fully intend this to be a working tool, and don’t foresee chopping with the front of the tool. I understand this edge is often sharpened to a razors edge when used as a combat weapon, but for me, sharp enough is plenty sharp.
The first opportunity I had to use the shovel was on a camping trip, just a few days after I received it. The first thing the shovel touched was rock, unfortunately. I was clearing an area to put my tent down, and digging up a few softball sized rocks was necessary for a good night’s sleep. They don’t call ‘em the Rockies for nothing. A little unintended contact with the edge on the rocks, and I had a couple small rolled over spots. No biggie at all, they were very minor, and after all, that’s why I didn’t spend too much time on the leading edge. A few minutes later the shovel was employed as a hammer, driving tent stakes. You do have to be careful not to damage the bottom of the wood handle, where it goes through the socket. But just take care to use the leading half of the shovel when you hammer something, and there won’t be a problem. My tent stakes went in fine, and it’s a lot easier than bashing them with a rock.
The next opportunity I had to use the Special Forces Shovel was about an hour later, while building the fire. I used the shovel like, well, a shovel, and dug out old ash and trash from a previously used fire pit. The shovel digs well, and the short but stout handle is surprisingly comfortable. After the fire pit was ready, I pulled piled of downed dead wood towards camp. Working on the downed Juniper and Mesquite with the shovel was a lot of fun. The little sucker chops well! I was very surprised at how well it did. The shovel is shaped like most shovels, with a concave center. This makes chopping a little different that with most tools, as the shovel wants to curve in the bite when it strikes, making cuts in slight curves, rather than straight cuts. This is easily accounted for by simply using opposite sided of the shovel to even out your chop, or cut in the desired direction.
The most fun, however, was sending the shovel flying through the air. If you’ve ever thrown tomahawks or knives, you know how much fun it can be. With a massive head surrounded by sharp edges, the Cold Steel Shovel is fairly easy to get the hang of. While I don’t advocate throwing or otherwise abusing tools your life may count on, casual fun throwing the Special Forces Shovel is worth getting one, if for that only! I was able to consistently stick 4 out of 5 tosses from 7 yards or so. Maybe not the most useful way to test the shovel, but truth be told, it was a lot of fun!
For an emergency or vehicle kit, the Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel is an excellent addition. Mine stays in my vehicle kit, in the event that I need to free my Jeep from snow or mud. As a dedicated chopper, there are better axes and machete’s, but as an all around tool, I doubt you could find something as versatile. There’s also a nylon cover for the Shovel, which I may eventually pick up. I was also brainstorming, and I think I may try cutting a nail puller notch into the shovel somewhere. But without all that, the Shovel gets classified in that ‘best bang for the buck’ category, where you might as well buy two because you’re gonna like it! MSRP on the Special Forces Shovel is $27.99 but with some shopping around online you can find them for as little as half that. The shovel sheath has an MSRP of $9.99 and you can even knock a couple bucks off of that if you look. To top it off, spare handles are available as well if you happen to knock one off when throwing it!
Editors Addendum: Two Decades with the Special Forces Shovel
By Tim Stetzer
Like Luke, I’m pretty smitten by the multi-functional utility of the Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel. I got my first one 20 years ago back when I was in college! It accompanied me on many a camping trip over the years and one has ridden in the trunk of my car or the back of my truck ever since. I’ve used it to dig out drainage trenches around my tent, dig fire pits and bury coals, chop roots, clear campsites, dig my car out of the mud and snow, and chop up firewood. I’ve also done a fair share of throwing of the SF shovel myself. Back in college we used to sit around the camp fire, tip back a few brews, and throw that shovel into an old dead tree for hours at a time while swapping stories of the day. I did eventually develop a stress crack in my first shovel right at the juncture of where the blade meets the socket but this was literally after years of use and abuse and probably thousands of throws. I gladly forked over the modest asking price for another SF shovel and have added a second one to my inventory since then. I picked up the shovel sheath for both of my shovels and find it to be a handy item to have. It’s sturdily made of a stiff, reinforced nylon and it protects your blade from damage, and maybe more importantly protects the rest of your gear from your shovel edge! It doesn’t take much to sharpen up the edge on the SF shovel and once you do it’s a good idea to keep it covered to save yourself and your gear an inadvertent slash.
As a side note, while Woods Monkey certainly isn’t a tactical site, it’s worth discussing the self-defense merits of the SF Shovel. As countless generations of soldiers have found out an e-tool with a sharpened edge makes a brutal close quarters weapon. While I’d hope that most of our camping trips and outdoors expeditions are safe and happy ones, it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that the SF Shovel can chop more than just roots if need be. It’s a very effective and powerful cutter and it’s fairly nimble in the hand. It also has the advantage of being a tool first and foremost so it shouldn’t be viewed as a weapon most places and you aren’t very likely to get hassled about having one. If I were in an area I couldn’t legally carry a firearm I have to say I wouldn’t feel too poorly equipped with a sturdy walking staff and a Cold Steel e-tool!
That aside, the Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel is rugged and versatile tool that has a place in any camper’s kit, or stowed in a vehicle just in case. When you look at the modest asking price there’s really no reason not to have one along. I’ve used a number of small shovels over the years, both military surplus and civilian varieties, and for the past two decades the Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel has been my go to choice. If you ever run across me at a camping event or an outdoors show check my truck, you can bet you’ll find my Cold Steel shovel tucked away in the back.