Junk On The Bunk: Improving a Russian Spade

There’s a somewhat overlooked piece of gear that I think is important out in the bush, and that is a small shovel or entrenching tool. I can see why they aren’t as popular as Swedish hatchets or custom knives in the current “bush craft” community; those are fun to use and nice to look at. A shovel never quite made it that high in most people’s esteem, probably because it’s a working tool through and through. A shovel implies sweat and work, not feather sticks and carving spoons. Yet if we look back at those who have fought and lived in the bush for extended periods of time, a small shovel was often part of their kit.

A small shovel can do a lot of things for us, and I would rather carry one than a hatchet or axe most times. I think this is something that does require some context though. For my needs, axes and hatchets are for splitting small logs lengthwise with the grain. That’s pretty much it. A saw will do everything else I need to do from felling a tree with two cuts to preparing logs and other material for shelters. Chopping in general just isn’t something I need to do much of. This of course is all dependent on me having a saw; take that away and I’m back to whacking away at things.

So while not as popular, the entrenching tool can do a number of things for us. Off the top of my head:

  • Dig a hole for anything from a Dakota fire pit to a coyote well to a cat hole or saddle trench. I would hate to ever dig with an axe or hatchet.
  • With a sharpened edge it can chop branches off of larger limbs. To be fair the hatchet is better at this, but the sharpened shovel is a close second.
  • It can also be used to clear under brush or gather camouflage materials. I think the shovel is a better choice here since this usually takes place in such close proximity to the ground and the probability of hitting a rock is so high.
  • In a tactical setting, “digging in” has been an essential infantry activity for centuries. By carrying a small shovel with us we can create small earthen defenses almost anywhere we find ourselves or create subsurface hides.
Hasty water gathering pit dug to take advantage of a quick storm
Dakota fire pit

I’ve used a handful of different E-tools, and have some opinions on what I prefer. I of course was issued the folding shovels that the US military prefers, both the steel and polymer handled ones. They did store nicely with the handle folded, but the hinge pins can be a weak point. The steel handled version is heavier of course than the polymer one. My advice if you are looking into getting one of these is to get a new, genuine GI issue shovel. You most likely will not break it under normal use. Avoid the folding camping shovels that are imitations of the real thing though.

USGI steel folding shovel

I’ve also used the Russian Infantry spades and I honestly prefer these to the folding shovels of the US military. I have a steel version and a titanium version, and the titanium is by far the lightest of any of the shovels I’ve used. Yet for as light as it is it is extremely durable, with the main weak point being the wooden handle.

I’ve made a few modifications and improvements to mine that I’d like to share. These can be done on the steel versions as well.

For starters, the handle fitment is typical Russian military mass production; crude but effective. The handle came too small for the shovel head, with a large gap all the way around, and only secured by two wood screws. I used the shovel a few times and decided the screws had to go and the slop in the head had to be fixed.

If the problem was that the handle was just needing more sanding to fit right I would have done that, similar to fitting a tomahawk handle. But my problem was that the handle was too small to start with. I thought about cutting down a full size shovel handle but decided to see if I could make this one work.

I started out by gathering up my tools and the shovel.

The first thing I did was remove the screws and head from the handle, then using a torch I burnt off the old lacquer to get down to the bare wood. I used sand paper and sanded it down, then used a drill bit and put divots around the handle for my epoxy to grab onto. I then cleaned out the inside of the socket on the head and sanded inside it too.

Next I grabbed some 3/16” brass pin stock (this stuff is pretty handy) and cut two pins a little wider than the shovel. My plan was to drill all the way through the handle where the screws had been and out the other side, but the titanium shovel wasn’t about to let me do that, so I had to settle with the pins only going part way through to the inside of the socket.

After testing how everything fit, I mixed up some epoxy and slathered it on, making sure to fully fill the gap between the handle and the socket.

I let this cure overnight. The next day I decided to add some measuring markings to the shovel. This is something I like doing on my axes as well since it can also aid in the grip department.

I started out by measuring out the markings on the handle and marking them every inch with a pencil.

Then I grabbed a 16d nail and a pair of vice grips and my trusty torch. I heated the nail until it was glowing hot and laid it into the handle on the marks I made.

I repeated this process down the length of the handle, focusing on keeping the markings straight with each other and the handle.

With this done I cut off the extra brass pin stock and smoothed them down with my dremel.

Next I grabbed a disposable paint pan liner and some boiled linseed oil and saturated the shovel with the oil. I let this sit for about 5 days, letting the oil absorb into the wood. I also took advantage of the situation and grabbed some other wooden handled tools and did the same.

While this was sitting I decided to improve the sheath that came with the shovel as well. It too is your typical Russian gear. Made of canvas with belt loops and a leather strap, it was way too heavy for what I needed, which is basically just a blade protector since the shovel typically rides inside my pack. I used a knife and cut the stitching for all the items I wanted to get rid of.

To make a way to attach it to the shovel I ran about a foot of 550 cord through a small loop inside the cover. I tied overhand knots on each end, then tied a skip knot with it. Now I simply slide the handle inside the slip knot, put the shovel in the cover, and tighten the knot. I used orange 550 cord so I don’t lose the cover as easily if I set it down.

The final two tasks were to place an edge on the shovel and wax the cover. I did a basic chisel edge on one side of the shovel using my dremel again. I didn’t get real worried about sharpness since this is just for clearing brush. Think “lawn mower blade” sharp. Next I used a little bit of Sno-seal and rubbed it into the canvas cover. This makes for a nice little pouch that you could gather with too if you wanted.

I think the final product turned out really good. I did all this prior to my last fieldcraft course, and the shovel performed very good the whole time without wiggling loose. I even was throwing it into Ash trees during some down time at the class without issue.

26 comments

  1. This. This right here. GOOD stuff! I’ve long used my old issue GI tri-fold shovel. I’ve considered one of the Russian ones like yours, but never pulled the trigger… I think I may have just found my next project.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great set of tips! Thanks Badlands.

    Must be an echo chamber because my experience is quite similar to yours.

    I used the issue e-tool for many years. Its far from ideal but way better than using an MRE spoon or bayonet. I tried the Austrian Field Spade too. It was even more of a disappointment. It’s been given to the kids for their woods adventures.

    Never had opportunity to try the russian spades. I discovered the small shovels sold at home depot, lowes, and probably other big box stores. It’s an excellent tool and less than $10. They come with a plastic D handle, which lasts a good long time. When they eventually break, I just cut off the plastic bits and use the straight wood handle that’s similar to your photos.

    Standing by for your article on bow saws and such for camp use. I have a couple, one bought and one made up from lumber. Finding blades locally is always the challenge.

    Thanks again for a nicely done article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s always good to hear I’m not too far out in the weeds haha. I know there’s a ton of different e-tools out there, thanks for the heads up on that one. I’ve heard that the old Finnish ones (pre WWII) were what the Soviets based theirs on and that they are still some of the best, but I haven’t tried one. I can do an article on a buck saw you can make in camp, it’s a very handy tool if built right, way better than any folding saw. I’ll add it to the list, take care!

      Like

  3. Mr. Badlands,

    A small non-folding shovel is ESSENTIAL.

    You sure do have your finger on the pulse of things. I swear, just yesterday, pulled my Russian shovel off the side of my pack, looked at it and thought “I gotta do some mods to this thing to make it a bit better”.

    You just made it that much easier for me. Thank you Sir !

    Listen to this man, get a shovel on your rig folks if you haven’t already.You WILL need it for coming events.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wish they made a Ti version of this cold war era German folding shovel: 🙂
    https://sharky-fourbees.blogspot.com/2015/10/bundeswehr-klapspaten-west-german-army.html

    Have 4 or 5 of them. Built like a tank. Don’t think it’s possible to make a tougher folder. The leather sheath is heavier than the Russian Ti shovel !

    it’s s shame it’s so heavy and doesn’t fit in line with the light & fast tactics we’re going to have to utilize because it’s a fantastic tool. They will come in handy somewhere in this fight though.

    At the moment I’m putting together a rig with emergency small cabin building tools on this great Canadian cargo pack:
    http://webbingbabel.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/canadian-army-rucksack-cargo-pack-pack.html
    Felling axe, saw, various specific cabin building tools. I figure the over-built German folder will fit right in with this setup.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those German E tools are stout, I keep one in one of my farm trucks all of the time.
      I need to pick up one of the Russian spades and do these mods, thanks for the information!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It seems like wherever I go in life there’s always some type of a shovel nearby and it sounds like it’s that way for a lot of other guys too. A good friend of mine and I used to joke that we will have found the best job in the oil field when we don’t need a shovel anymore. Other than purely office jobs (which aren’t technically in the field), I think it’s still a myth. Take care!

        Like

  5. Great vid!. Before moving to the sticks of Tn., I lived in So. Cal. After the fall of the USSR \, I watched a vid of spetsnaz fighting techniques, wow! I hauled my ass down to the surplus store and got 4 of the tools for $20 + tax. 2 are E. Germ., 2 are unmarked. I sharpened them them all, think machete sharp. Couple months ago I grabbed the one in the shop, went out and cut down a 6″ tree. It was a little bit of work (I’m 70), but it didn’t take long, and no ill effects on the tool. Now after finding your vid this morning, I’ve got some up grading to do. Thanks for your tutelage.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. https://colemans.com/soviet-era-infantry-shovel

    This is a pretty nice piece here, I just picked one up about a week ago. $24.95 currently at 0117 Eastern Time of 02JAN2022. The handle didn’t really need any finish sanding, but did need a coating. It appears to have a little bit longer handle than some others. The handle fits well, not rattles. I pulled the screw out (Fairly small wood screw) and swat the blade a couple times with a rubber mallet to get a better coating on the entire wood surface… didn’t want to move, it’s mechanically wedged in there pretty good so I’ll worry about it when the steel needs to be refinished. Edges are not sharpened, but still worked fairly well for hacking through some branches and as a machete on that crappy North American Bamboo. I had considered doing some measurement markings like some of you. Would do mine from the handle end so it can be used as a depth gauge as well. Also thought about sharpening one side a bit and filing some teeth into the other for a saw… Not sure though, it’s nice having it simple and not worrying about edges so I can just hang it from a loop attached to my belt if need be. Excellent tool addition though, now that I’ve been carrying a smaller knife with me in the woods. It’s nice to still have a larger defense tool and possibly a ranged weapon as well. Will be getting at least one more to keep in the truck. Good write up on effective changes for them, It’s definitely nice to see others selecting the same tool for most of the same reasons I did as well as what changes were decided on for improvement.

    Liked by 1 person

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