I picked up the hardcover version of the U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76 for about $10 in the clearance pile of a major bookstore, and I must say that this book is brilliant. It’s not the only survival guide you’ll ever need, nor is it best survival guide that you could possibly find. What it is, is a starting point for every 19 year-old who was scooped up out of a random city block, and might be dumped into a jungle, desert, ocean, or snow bank in the next six months.
The breadth of the content covered is remarkable. The writers have tried to literally talk about everything that you might need to know in a survival situation, from ways to not be so cold and wet, to elementary mongoose catching. The table of contents reveals seventeen chapters which include, but are not limited to the following topics: medicine, tool-making, water, fire, shelter, food, and guides to specific environments. Four appendices offer color photographs of plants, weather indicators, and poisonous snakes.
The information presented in each chapter is, no doubt, based on the decades of experience accumulated by soldiers in the field. I am admittedly not a wilderness expert, but can say that every suggestion seems entirely plausible to me, and that the authors have thought of things that might never have occurred to me. There are detailed instructions, for example, on the construction of a gill net for fishing, in addition to four other means of trapping fish, five types of hooks and four types of fishing spear. One person, even a clever person is not likely to come up with twelve possible solutions to one problem in a stressful situation, and that is a major strength of the manual.
There are deficiencies in this work, of course, most of which are unavoidable given its purpose. The authors have presented useful ideas, but occasionally sacrificed some important detail in order to keep the explanations simple. The section on “field expedient weapons,” for example, presents an illustrated guide to stone tool manufacture without any discussion of suitable materials. I can unfortunately say from experience that trying to make a useful tool form the wrong rock, and most rocks are wrong, can be a frustrating and dangerous waste of energy. Still, it’s probably better to have the idea than to have no idea at all.
The final selling point for me, and one likely underappreciated by both the producers of the manual and its intended audience, is its sheer entertainment value. The terse, and sometimes brutal, prose of military technical writing at times drifts into comedic genius. I submit as an example one entry form a bulleted list on catching small animals:
“Beaver – Wait for the beaver to come on land, then club it, drop-kick it, hit it with a rock, or catch it by the tail. It is a sturdy animal, so if you catch it by the tail, swing it in a pendulum motion until it begins to relax, then swing it against a tree or the ground or use a noose to kill it. Another way to get a beaver is to dig out the beaver dam so the water drains. The beaver will come to inspect the damage at which time you can straddle the channel and grab the beaver by its tail as it swims through. Immediately start to swing the beaver as above. CAUTION: Take care to keep it from biting you. Its bite will leave a large wound.”
Picture a tentative Joe-Jack from Brooklyn, compelled by hunger to temporarily disregard the welfare of what he thinks might be a beaver (there’s no clear picture of one), straddling a brook and pondering the execution of any one of the recommended maneuvers. If that doesn’t cheer you up… well, it’s still a pretty useful book