Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Redneck Is A State Of Mind

The term 'redneck' describes a state of mind, not a state of residence.  It implies a rejection of certain civilized mores, like not sitting down to the table in a sleeveless shirt or asking for foam in your latte.  In a very real sense the redneck is the anti-metrosexual (though to be honest the redneck as a species existed long before the metrosexual came along, and the term 'metrosexual' really describes the anti-redneck).  Are we getting too esoteric here?  OK, moving along.

There's a guy on YouTube that likes knives and hunting, and he's not shy about it.  He posts a lot of videos about knives and knife use.  But unlike a lot of the knife review crap you see on YouTube, this guy is the real thing; he actually uses his knives to field dress deer and he shows you, in graphic detail, how well they work or don't work.  He's also not shy about calling an expensive knife a piece of junk; if it doesn't work it doesn't work regardless of how much it cost.

Virtuovice is his YouTube name and he has one heck of a following - a virtual cult hero.  The guy is seriously into hunting, guns, blades and fresh meat.  And beer.  Lots of beer.  Put him in a sleeveless t-shirt and drop him into a stadium to watch an Alabama football game and he'd fit right in.

Except that... he's Japanese!  I don't mean that he's of Japanese descent, he's Japanese born and raised.  In Japan.

So we have a beer (and sake) drinking, knife loving hunting nut who does own and wear sleeveless shirts. Sounds like a redneck to me.  Who cares if he's Japanese.  Like I said, redneck is a state of mind, not a state of residence.  But then get this - the guy is a medical doctor!

Now we have a beer drinking, knife loving, hunting nut Japanese medical doctor redneck. How cool is that! Even cooler, he's not shy about applying a little medical technology to one of the great questions of our time - how well is my knife constructed?

Every once in a while Virtovice will toss a bunch of knives into his x-ray machine so we can get a look inside the handles to see just how well the knife is constructed.  Here's just one of his x-ray videos:

The results can be surprising.  A lot of folks who buy a knife thinking they are getting a full tang blade may be disappointed to find their knife has a lot less metal in the handle than they thought.  Now, there's nothing wrong with stick tang knives (a 'stick tang' refers to a design were the tang is just a narrow piece of steel enclosed in the handle).  If properly designed a stick tang knife can be nearly as strong as a full tang design, and certainly strong enough for general use.  However, poorly designed stick tangs have a nasty habit of snapping where the blade enters the handle.

In this video Virtuovice x-rays a couple of my favorite knives.  The Fallkniven F1 is, as I already knew, a (nearly) full tang design.  It is easy to see why this knife blade is a favorite of custom builders, who buy the blades without handles from Fallkniven and put their own fancy handle scales on them.  The Ka-Bar USMC knife is a surprise to me because of the width of the stick tang.  In past posts I've criticized this particular knife because of the tang design, but I'm heartened to see so much steel inside the handle. Looks like I'll have to re-evaluate it.

And last, the Buck Vanguard.  Although this has the narrowest tang of any of the knives in this x-ray the way Buck designed the transition from the full blade to the stick tang means it is a very sturdy design.  The sloped transition from the blade to the tang means there still plenty of meat at the highest stress point where the blade enters the handle.

A great video, and there's lots more out there on Virtuovice's YouTube channel.  His English is a little rough and his accent can be a little thick, but the guy knows his knives and he puts out good, informative (and occasionally humorous) videos.

Stay sharp!


Monday, September 3, 2012

Blade Of The Month - The BuckLite Max Folder

When people write about knives, either in print or on the web, they tend to extol the virtues of the newest, sexiest designs.  There's little to be said for pedestrian, inexpensive knives.  It seems the more money someone spends on a knife the more compelled they feel to write about it.  A lot of it is crowing to help them feel better about dumping so much money into a blade.

Yet there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of low cost quality knives made by major manufacturers that work so well they become the favorites of those that carry them.  A knife doesn't have to be expensive or forged out of unobtanium to be effective.  It just has to work well.

One knife that has emerged as one of my favorites is a simple $20 knife from Buck.  The BuckLite Max model 482.

BuckLite Max 482.  This is the medium model - my favorite.
I like is so much I had C.J. and Chuck Buck sign the blade
at the 2012 Blade Show.

Why does it work so well for me?  For my daily needs it is the perfect combination of size, weight, blade shape and features.  This knife has been in my pocket almost continuously for the past year.  All other lockback folders I've tested for daily use have fallen by the wayside, mainly because of weight, size or blade shape issues.  Here in the deep South, when you are wearing lightweight shorts during the extended hot summers you do not need or want a heavy, overly large blade in your pocket.

What keeps the weight down is the knife's simplicity of construction.  It is just two glass reinforced nylon handle scales mated to a blade.  There are no handle liners or bolsters to add weight.  Of course the blade lacks the sophisticated pivot support found in more expensive (and heavier) folding knives.  This makes the knife, in theory, less rugged and more prone to breakage under heavy use.  Again, in theory.  In a year of use I have had no problem with this knife blade loosening around the pivot pin.  Of course I don't abuse it.  If I've got to do some cutting that will put a lot of torque on the knife handle I'll go get a fixed blade knife.

No, you won't be able to pry your way out of an armored personnel carrier with this knife, but for general cutting chores it's just about perfect.  For a mere $20 (eBay vendor price) it can't be beat.

Stay sharp!


Sunday, September 2, 2012

While Waiting On Corporate To Make Up Their Minds...

My last post described my troubles with a new Svea 123 gas stove.

Notice the thin red ring?  It bubbles when the stove is hot!

Since that posting a few things have happened.

Right after I wrote the blog post I decided to contact the vendor,, for a replacement stove.  Since this stove was purchased through Amazon (Backcountry is an authorized Amazon vendor) I used Amazon's normally outstanding exchange/return system to notify Backcountry that I wanted an exchange.  Well, four business days ticked by with no contact from Backcountry.  Hmmm...  I checked with Amazon and confirmed that Backcountry had received the request.  It was starting to not look good from a customer service perspective.

About day four I got tired of waiting and decided to contact Primus (the manufacturer of the stove) directly through their website to see if they could do anything for me.  The next day I got an email back from Primus asking me to send the stove in for evaluation.  I did, and as I was walking out of the Post Office after having sent the stove off I got a call on my iPhone from Backcountry asking if there was anything they could do for me!  I didn't take the call, but later that day they got an email from me letting them know I was clearly dissatisfied with their service.  Is one sample point an indication of a trend?  No.  Backcountry may offer outstanding service and I'm the unlucky outlier who fell through the cracks.  However, a quick Google search for reviews of Backcountry's customer service reputation reveals they've got some issues.  I'll think hard about ordering from them again.

Well, Primus has had my stove for just over a week now and no word yet on how they intend to handle the issue.  Here's hoping for a new stove!

In the meantime...

On one of my nocturnal laps around the internet I happened to stumble on a very used Swedish Optimus 8R stove for sale on eBay (or evil-Bay, as many call it).  I put in a low bid and to my utter surprise I won.  I started to wonder why nobody outbid me - did I miss something in the listing that should have warned me off?  I didn't notice anything, so I waited fretfully for the stove's arrival.

Just a few days later the stove showed up.  I unboxed it and gave it a quick visual check.  It was well used, but not abused, and appeared to be more dirty than anything else.  I tore the stove down to it's major components, scraped all the soot off and went after the major parts with Brasso.  The steel case needed a good scrubbing in soapy water and came out looking fine, with just a little paint loss.

Optimus 8R after a good clean-up

But would it light up and run properly?  That's always the big question with used stoves.  These brass stoves are very simple devices and there's not much that can go wrong on them, but if they don't work properly replacement parts can be hard to find.

So I filled up the tank with Coleman gas (the only fuel you should use in these stoves, by the way) poured fuel in the priming cup and touched it off to heat up the vaporizer tube.  After a few minutes the priming flame had burned down and it was time for the big test.  I opened the fuel valve and held a match to the burner head and - flame!  A few seconds of smoky yellow flame then the burner settled down to produce a beautiful blue ring of flame and the wonderful roar these old stoves are noted for.  The thing runs like a champ.

Flame On!

Putting out some steam!  Since this is a knife blog I threw a
Cold Steel Mackinac Hunter into the shot to keep things kosher.

There seems to be some minor pressurization issues that I hope will be solved with a new gasket for the fuel tank cap (ordered all they way from Merrie Olde England) and this gal should be good for another 20 years of service.

But this Optimus is a 50+ year old design.  How well does it stack up to more modern pressurized liquid and gas canister stoves?  We'll take a look at that another time.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What The H...?

Lately I've been eager to get a new camp stove.  Now, I'm neither a backpacker or a car camper.  My wilderness camping days are all but over - 23 years in the Army pretty much beats the 'camping bug' out of you.  However, I do very much enjoy being in the outdoors, hiking, fishing and just spending a day getting away from it all.  Part of that enjoyment comes in just sitting quietly, heating up a cup of coffee or a small lunch and enjoying the surroundings.

Of course to do all that heatin' and cookin' you need a stove.  Not a monstrous Coleman 3-burner, but a simple lightweight single burner unit that can be easily carried in a day pack.

I've owned or used almost a dozen small camping stoves over the years, everything from Sterno stoves to an uber-lighweight-yet-powerful-enough-to-melt-pig-iron MSR, and lots in-between.  But I've always had a weakness for the classic all brass Swedish camp stoves, the types made by Optimus and Primus.

These stoves received a broad introduction to American hikers through the writings of the dean of American backpacking Colin Fletcher and his classic book 'The Complete Walker'.  Fletcher waxed poetic about his little Swedish Svea 123, almost like he was describing an old friend.  He discussed the ritual of getting it primed and running, how the roar of the burner was a reassuring sound after a long hike in cold, damp terrain, how it was beautifully simple and a wonder to behold and how its utter reliability and ruggedness made up for its extra weight and bulk.

An Optimus Svea 123 at full roar!

As a kid Fletcher's works captivated me.  Not just 'The Complete Walker' but his epic 'The Man Who Walked Through Time' about hiking the length of the Grand Canyon in the early 60s.  In fact, I credit that last book for spurring me on to study geology in college.  Alas, dramatic vistas are few and far between in northwestern Ohio (one of the flattest places on earth - literally).  I had to contend myself with day hikes along the Maumee River or out to the many regional parks in our area.  To capture something of Fletcher's experience I went out and bought myself a Swedish backpacking stove.  I couldn't find one of his beloved Svea 123s but I did manage to locate a Optimus 80 at one of the local sporting goods stores.  I was delighted to have it.  It was a real.  Swedish.  Stove!  It exhibited all the fine qualities that Fletcher talked about - it was messy to prime, dangerous to pre-heat and while running roared like a jet engine.  But man, it gave off heat!  I loved it!

A 1950's vintage Optimus 80.
 Mine was considerably newer, but not much changed.

I used my Optimus stove right up through 1990 when, after taking it with me when my unit deployed for Desert Shield/Storm, the US Customs goons forced me to leave it behind in Saudi Arabia.  Only official issue gear that had contained gasoline was allowed to be brought back.  I was forced to give the old gal a burial somewhere just west of Dammam on the Arabian coast.  An ignoble end for a noble stove that had given great service around the world.  After that my focus shifted and I found myself buying a series of rather pedestrian single burner stoves, most of them Coleman.  They worked, but none of them had the grace, simplicity and personality of my old Optimus 80.  I always had it in the back of my mind that someday I would replace the Optimus with an identical model.

Fast forward about 22 years to today.  I recently got re-bitten by the Swedish stove bug.  I blame this damned website.  I decided it was time to go get myself a new Optimus 80.  Hah!  Little did I know that things had changed a bit in the Swedish stove industry.  Many - most - of the old shiny brass models were gone, done in by a raft of competitors that catered to the uber-lightweight adventure crowd with their feather light, whisper quiet titanium stoves that can burn everything from cow farts to bunker oil with CO2 emissions in the negative numbers.  Who wants a smoky, sputtering brass anachronism that was first produced when Henry Ford was in knickers when you can have something so Green that even the grizzly bears applaud (just before they eat you).

Only one classic brass stove survives - the Svea 123.  But alas, the realities of modern production economics have caught up with even that fine holdover.  It is no longer manufactured by stoic Swedes lovingly hand fitting each part while dreaming of lutfisk and reindeer, but by faceless hordes working somewhere west of Seattle.  I fear that there are no more classic Swedish stoves made in Sweden.

Still I had to push forward.  Dammit, I wanted a classic Swedish stove, even one that wasn't made in Sweden!  As always Amazon was ready and willing to entertain my desires.  Three days after I placed the order the stove was sitting in my car port.

The word on the various outdoor oriented forums is that these new 'eastern-made' stoves are good performers, perhaps every bit as good as the originals.  My experience with China made goods is that as long as proper quality control is exercised the Chinese can make some excellent products.  Think Apple iPads.  In fact, I've commented in this blog about the outstanding quality of some Chinese made knives.  It all comes down to production standards and quality control, and the Chinese have proven themselves more than capable of cranking out good products.  With this in mind I had high hopes for this 'Swedish' stove.

It certainly looks good, with 'Sweden' (not, you will note, 'Made in Sweden') and 'Svea 123' roll-marked on the shiny brass tank in pseudo hand engraved style.  The burner tube is just a little cockeyed but I've seen that on other Swedish stoves.  Firing up one of these little wonders is like riding a bike.  You never forget but if you haven't done it in a while you can be a little wobbly.  Dribble a little gas in the priming bowl, light it up and let it heat up the burner tube.  Once the burner tube is warmed up open the valve to let out some fuel, light it off and wait for the jet of flame to settle down into a nice, rolling roar.  Easy.

As this little stove was roaring away I noticed a ring of red material where the burner tube enters the fuel tank.  It looks like pipe dope or sealant.  It may have been put there to ensure a tight seal of the burner tube into the tank.  What was disconcerting, however, was that this red material was actually bubbling under the heat generated by the burner tube!  At first I thought the bubbling might be vaporized gas escaping from the fuel tank, setting the stage for a potentially dramatic stove flare-up (a gentle term for a fireball).  I shut the stove down and after it cooled I didn't detect any gas odor coming from around the sealant, but it was still a concern.

See that red stuff?  It was actually bubbling while the stove was running!

I posted my observation and concerns out on several camping and stove collecting forums and the general consensus is that nobody's ever seen this issue before.  Or at least nobody has ever noticed it.  Most feel that the original Swedish stoves didn't use a sealing compound.  The tapered brass fitting where the burner tube enters the gas tank provides a good enough seal.  So what's with the red stuff?  What the hell's going on with this stove?

I've got an information request submitted with Optimus.  Until I hear something back this thing will sit idle.  If Optimus' reply isn't some version of "Don't worry, that's just  how we build 'em these days.  It's safe to operate" then this stove goes back to Amazon and I start haunting eBay.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Realtree Ain't Got Nothing On Mother Nature!

On her way to work Roberta spied this little fellow crawling around on the hood of my truck...

Check out the camo job!
Realtree, Mossy Oak, etc. are all pikers compared to this guy!

And finally, for those of you who watched too many 1950's sci-fi movies about giant bugs devouring mankind -

Here's looking at you, kid!
Stay sharp!


Sunday, August 5, 2012

No Free Time But Time For This

I'm procrastinating.  But it's high summer and high summer is peak procrastination season.

But we have a few things going on in Das Blade Haus that I'll touch on an provide in-depth reviews later.

First is sharpening.  Last month I lamented that I'll never get the hang of sharpening a knife.  After writing that I had an epiphany.  Why continue to suffer?  In this day and age there is no reason to put up with dull or less than shaving sharp blades.  Man is the tool-maker and he's made some great sharpening tools designed specifically for dullards like me.

So I went out and bought myself what looks to be the premiere non-powered sharpening system available - the Apex by EdgePro out of Oregon.  So far I've only tested it on a few blades, a badly nicked Buck 105, a Buck 402 folder and a Becker BK-16.  The system works as advertised - it is fairly easy to get a good, consistent bevel on a blade (consistency has been my big failure in sharpening).  However, there is a technique to it all and it does require a bit of practice so I'm still in the learning stages.  The real test will be putting a usable edge on my Becker BK-2.

New knives.  New knives continue to trickle in and I'm behind in photographing them.  Again, blame the weather.  I do all of my stock knife photography on my deck using a tripod mounted digital camera, and I like to do one set-up and photograph a series of knives in one session using the same background and lighting conditions.  But when it's 80 degrees in the sun at 0700 my motivation just ain't there.  I'll wait for cooler fall mornings to get all this done.

But like I said, new knives and accessories are trickling in.  Some are new designs that caught my eye, some are just to round out my collection.  Two interesting new arrivals are a Buck 124 Frontiersman and a Cold Steel Lone Star Hunter folder.  

The Buck Frontiersman is a knife I've wanted for a very long time.  In fact, I used to own one until, decades ago, some SOB mover stole the duffle bag that held my small knife collection.  We were moving from Fort Bragg, NC to Fort Belvior, VA to attend the Engineer Officer Advanced Course.  This was back in 1983, and at the time I had more important things to worry about than replacing an expensive knife.  I always intended to replace it when the time (and finances) were right, but not long after the knife was stolen the Frontiersman went out of production and the knife entered collector status.  Buck would do occasional limited runs of the knife for various retailers but it pretty much remained a tough to acquire knife.  Recently Buck put the Frontiersman back into limited production and I was able to grab one directly from the factory.  It is just as I'd remembered it - a big full tang chunk of steel.  We'll talk more about it in a later post.

Buck 124 Frontiersman

The Cold Steel Lone Star Hunter is one I just stumbled across.  I think I spied it discussed on one of the knife forums I haunt (more chronic procrastination).  I was impressed by it's elegant simplicity - a large (4") single blade lockback folder in a slim stainless steel frame.  I make no secret of my respect for Cold Steel knives.  A lot of folks are put off by their bombastic advertising (and it IS over the top), but the truth is they put out good blades at good prices.  The Lone Star Hunter is a surprisingly good knife.  It is a little cheesy looking with it's faux stag handle slabs, but everything is nicely fitted and finished.  A darned good knife for less than $50.

Cold Steel Lone Star Hunter

Last up, the BK-14.  More accurately, handle scales for the BK-14.  The BK-14 was originally designed as a skeleton handled knife and it works very well in that role.  However, Becker knife nuts can't leave well enough alone and started fashioning handle scales for the knife.  Ka-Bar, never one to let a good idea pass them by, decided the time was right to introduce a set of 'official' handle scales for the BK-14.  I picked a set up at the 2012 Blade Show here in Atlanta and I have to agree - they make the already great BK-14 a better knife.  The scales are made out of DuPont zytel and fit the knife perfectly.  I like that they are orange - the compliment the black blade very nicely and make it easier to find the knife when I drop it on the forest floor.  You actually get two sets of handle scales with each order - an orange set and a black set.  Lets you tailor the look of the knife to your current activity - orange for day wear, black for evening wear.  Nicely done Ka-Bar.  Now how about some orange handle scales for the BK-16?

Ka-Bar/Becker BK-14 with orange handle scales

Oh, and last, last, last (I promise).  Over on the Blade Forums I've posted so much garbage and drivel, particularly about Becker knives, that they have officially designated me Beckerhead #252.  I'm so honored.  I'll be signing autographs in the lobby after the show.

That's it.  Stay sharp!



Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Becker Encounter

Bill and I were out fishing early this morning on Lake Kedron.  Since water levels are way down in the lake we didn't think fishing from the docks would be worth the effort (Kedron has a very nice set of fishing docks).  We decided to make this an early morning canoe/kayak outing.

We had the weather glass.  The morning was overcast with only slight breezes.  Not a bad day at all to be on the water.  I decided to put in with my 13' Grumman.  It is an ideal canoe for still waters - stable, fairly comfortable, easy to paddle and can carry a ton of gear.  It is one versatile little hunk of aluminum.  However, it can be a bit 'piggy' when you need to paddle fast or far - the flat, virtually rockerless hull sacrifices efficiency for stability.  My 15' Grumman weights fully half again as much as the 13 footer but has much more rocker and displays better hydrodynamic efficiency, even when paddling solo.  Still, the old 13' Grumman was just the canoe for today's adventures.

'Miss Piggy'
An old 13' Grumman that makes a nice fishing platform.
That's Bill in the background.  Right after I snapped this picture he tagged a nice bluegill.
Another shot showing just how low the lake is.  My guesstimate is that
it's at least 5' below full pool.  When the water level is down shoreline areas are
exposed that provide nice places to beach your canoe and stretch your legs.

We spent the better part of two hours paddling and casting.  The bite was s-l-o-w, but that's to be expected this time of year.  The lake water was like bath water and the big fish were holding deep.  Since we were throwing fairly small weighted flies the deepest we could hope to get down to was two or three feet.  Still, we had a bit of success.  We each tagged a few small bass and some really nice bluegill hiding in the weed beds along the shoreline.

As we were taking out we struck up a conversation with a gentleman and his two boys were were rigging their kayaks and fishing gear to get out on the lake.  I just happened to notice the fellow was wearing a familiar knife around his neck.

Yup, a Becker BK-11 with a wrapped handle!  It's rare to see someone wearing a neck knife, let alone a Becker.  His son did the handle wrap, and did a pretty darned good job of it.

Overall a great morning.  Some fishing, some canoeing and a surprise encounter with another Becker fan.

Stay sharp!


Monday, July 9, 2012

Fort Benning

On Saturday Scott and I spent the day down at Fort Benning. I like going to Fort Benning. For me it's like going home. Strange, considering that I was an Engineer officer and the only time I served at Benning was for a few weeks in August 1977 earning my paratrooper wings. But you take your comfort where you can get it, and Fort Benning is the closest Army base to us these days. And after all, it is the home of the Airborne and that means a lot to me.

Today Fort Benning is no longer just the home of the Infantry. A few years back the Army shut down Fort Knox and moved the Armor school to Benning. Fort Benning is now the home of the 'Maneuver Center of Excellence'. A very pretentious name. (Hey Mother Army, can you tell me where the 'Second-rate Maneuver Center' is located?)  Still, this move met a crying need. Since before WWII the Army has realized that Armor and Infantry must operate together as a mutually supporting combined force. An Armor/Infantry task force is a formidable opponent, but an unsupported Armor task force is a sitting duck. Armor needs Infantry because only Infantry can seize and hold terrain and defend Armor against dismounted infantry attacks. It's been proven time and again, from Kasserine Pass to Fallujah.

The problem was that the officers and NCOs of both disciplines trained seperately - the Armor at Fort Knox and the Infantry at Fort Benning - and only came together to train as a team once they left the schools and were assigned to Armor or Infantry divisions.  I know the Army has wanted to combine these schools for decades, but money, wars and politics prevented it until about 2006 when the Department of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld announced the move under the Base Realignment and Closure study.

This triggered a huge infusion of cash into Fort Benning and the Columbus area.  The old, familiar Home of the Infantry started to undergo dramatic change as old buildings were torn down to make space for new facilities to support the expanding school.  Perhaps the most dramatic change was the tear-down and reconstruction of the old Infantry Hall (Building 4).  This building was viewed as the symbolic home of the Infantry by the hundreds of thousands of Infantry officers and NCOs that passed through its classrooms since it opened in 1964.  It was rebuilt as the new Maneuver Center school and now shares space with the Armor school.  Omar Bradley must be spinning in his grave.

Scott and I started our day at the National Infantry Museum. If you have never been to the new National Infantry Museum you need to carve out the time to go. It is inspiring.  The display galleries are divided up by historical period.  For us the centerpiece was the WWII gallery, which covered the build-up to war and the eventual world-wide commitment of the Army.  Two period galleries are unfinished - early America and the Civil War and westward expansion (the museum needs more funding to finish out these galleries, so if you visit give generously).

After the museum we toured the post, having a look at the new Maneuver Center building and the old Airborne field with the 34' and 250' towers, sawdust pits, swing landing trainers, the Airborne training company barracks and the static displays at the graduation area.  It's interesting how little has changed in 35 years.

But this is a blog about knives, so let's look at a few from an unconventional perspective.

The famous Infantry 'Follow Me' statue in front of the Maneuver Center.
This is a copy of the original, which used to stand at the
entrance of the original Infantry Hall.
The original now stands at the entrance of the National Infantry Museum.

Can you spot the knife?  Hint - it's stuck on the end of the rifle.

The new Cavalry Trooper statue stands at the opposite side of the
main entrance to the Maneuver Center, representing the Armor branch.

This is the new Cavalry Trooper statue at the main entrance to the Maneuver Center.  It's well done, depicting a charging trooper holding a Colt Single Action Army revolver, a Sharps carbine slung across his chest.  But where's the knife?

There it is, the cavalry saber.

It was a great day.  Stay sharp!


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brain Droppings

It was over 95 degrees in the shade today.  Again.  For like the 14th damned day in a row.  Temperatures like that have a serious impact on your day.  You've got a two, maybe three hour window in the morning to get outside stuff done, then you go into hibernation in the coolest locale you can find.  Your habits change.  Dogs get walked in the early morning instead of the late afternoon.  There's no sense in going fishing - the fish long ago abandoned the shallows and are hiding in the deep, dark pools of the lakes and streams, struggling to just survive by sucking every available oxygen molecule out of the warm, fetid water.  The last thing on their minds is eating.  Hiking or just walking local trails is no longer a pleasure even in the early morning hours.  The nights never really cool off so even at 0600 it's like walking in a sauna.

We dropped about fourty three hundred bucks last week on a new air conditioner system.  In light of the temps we've been having it was money well spent.  I can sit in cool, air conditioned splendor, surrounded by blades and write to my heart's content.

I have not done much with this or my other blog over the past few months out of a mixture of distraction and sloth.  Work has been busy as we struggle to set up a new server infrastructure and get set for new software releases.  This would normally be a one or two week job, but because I work in a large local government organization that enjoys the world's worst IT department a two week job has turned into a multi-month ordeal.

The other distraction has been a first grandbaby.  All the things people say about how great grandkids are is absolutely true.  I got to rock her to sleep the other night while her mommy and daddy cleaned up the post-4th of July kitchen mess, and it was wonderful.  She nestled into my shoulder, gave me a contented burp and passed out.  What more can you ask for!

So instead of focusing on one topic I'll just hop around on some short outdoors-related issues that have piqued my interest in the past month or so.

Let's begin...

Bowie.  The man and the knife continue to fascinate me.  I'm working my way through several biographies of the Bowie and his times.  It is clear to me that of the three famous characters at the Alamo in 1836 - Bowie, Travis and Crockett - Bowie was by far the most complex and fascinating personality.  Ruthless, violent, opportunistic and driven, yet possessed of a deep sense of honor and duty and tied to the San Antonio region by blood and marriage.  Crockett and Travis could have ridden past the Alamo and not given it a second look, but for Bowie it was home.  Of the three, Bowie had the most to lose in the fight with Santa Anna and his presence at the Alamo was was all but inevitable.   

Chinese knives.  In the past few years I've bought a good number of name-brand knives that were made in mainland (i.e., communist) China.  These range from the CRKT line of traditional pocket knives to a series of Buck folders to a large sowbelly trapper produced for A.G. Russell out of Arkansas.  I have to say that these knives are good.  Damned good.  The fit and finish on the CRKT knives and the A.G. Russell knife rivals the best work coming out of the shops of some of America's top makers like Case.  The fit and finish of the Buck knives rivals or surpasses the work being done in Buck's own factory in Idaho.  This proves that stringent quality control and a skilled workforce can turn out high quality at a reasonable price, regardless of their political leanings.  Now, not everything coming out of China is top-notch.  China can turn out some real crap.  But then so can Germany.  And England.  And Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Spain and any other cutlery producing nation, including America.  It all comes down to quality control.  I've gotten over my deeply ingrained dislike of Chinese cutlery.  As long as an American company is calling the shots and the quality is high, and I can't find the same thing from an American manufacturer at a similar price, then I no longer have any qualms about laying down my money for a Chinese made knife.

Bushcrafting.  The current bushcrafting craze is fascinating to watch.  Bushcrafting is a back-to-basics fieldcraft movement that emphasizes traditional skills and eschews the uber-lightweight backpacking craze that seized the US in the 1960s.  It's not that bushcrafters reject 50 years of technology advances and product improvements in hiking and camping gear, it's more of a rediscovery of traditional ways that still have value. Sort of like Boy Scouts on steroids. For me the bushcraft movement is a reaffirmation of all the stuff I learned as a kid by reading the works of Townsend Whelen, Brad Angier and Calvin Rutstrum. The current dean of buscrafting is a soft spoken Englishman named Ray Mears.  He counsels and teaches without all the theatrics or dramatics of a Bear Grylls.  For a Brit he's surprisingly realistic about the need to hunt and trap as part of a successful survival strategy.  None of this "Don't hurt the little bunnies, you can survive just fine without meat" crap.  Ray is more like "Survival depends on protein intake and one of the best sources of protein is the little creatures of the forest.  Let's go kill one."  I love it.  You can catch a lot of Ray's videos on YouTube but it's a moving target because folks are posting copyrighted videos that often get pulled down as quickly as they get put up.  His series about the Hudson's Bay company and the fur trapping Voyageurs should be considered a classic for those of you who have any interest in canoeing and the early fur trade.

Zombies.  It was old 10 years ago and it's still old today.  There hasn't been a good zombie movie since 'Shaun of the Dead'. Nobody needs a big knife or gun to kill zombies cuz' there ain't any. Let's move on.

Vampires.  See Zombies (above).

Knife Sharpening.  There are three things I'm absolutely convinced I'll never master before I die.  The first is Olympic dressage.  The second is differential calculus.  The third is knife sharpening.  Of the three it is knife sharpening that keeps me awake nights.  I've got dozens of knives and almost as many sharpening gizmos. Steels, stones, wedges, clamps, sticks.  If there's a knife sharpening fads the odds are I've bought into it.  Yet I still can't get a decent, consistent edge on any of my blades.  YouTube is stuffed with videos of guys putting shaving sharp edges on the leaf springs off of Mac trucks with just a few swipes on the newest, most revolutionary sharpening gizmo yet all I'm able to do is get an edge good enough to pry open a stuck drawer. I'm a failure. 

Canoes. I have a pile of aluminum sitting in my back yard that when untangled become two very capable but very unused Grumman canoes. I desperately want to get back on the water. Not necessarily to fish, but to just paddle. Oh, September can't come soon enough!

That's all.  Stay cool


Sunday, July 1, 2012


Just got a new Ka-Bar/Becker BK-16 in the mail a few days ago.  About damned time.  I've been waiting for it for almost a year.

Becker BK-16

I've discussed Becker knives a bit on this blog but have yet to fully admit my man-love for these blades.  It all started about two years ago as I was taking a look at the Ka-Bar USMC combat knife and comparing it to current knife designs.  I stumbled on the Becker BK-7, which Ethan Becker designed as a replacement for the USMC knife.  Its beauty is in its simplicity - a sturdy full-tang design, well balanced and with a well shaped clip point and an extremely comfortable handle.  I was immediately smitten.  At the time I declared that it was probably the best reinterpretation of the classic USMC knife and a worthy successor.  My opinion still holds.

The Ka-Bar/Becker BK-7.
We'll discuss this knife in a later post
Over the past two years I've managed to accumulate about nine different Ka-Bar/Becker models, but there was clearly something missing in the Becker lineup.  Seems Ethan Becker designs either small skeleton handled knives suitable for slicing salami or dicing carrots (among other things Ethan is a professional chef and editor of the 'Joy of Cooking' series of books) or large, heavy bladed knives suitable for chopping down Sequoias or field dressing Oldsmobiles.  There was nothing in between in his lineup - no smaller fixed blade belt knives suitable for more delicate tasks like skinning a deer or cutting up tinder.  With Becker blades you had two choices - either really big or really small.

It's not that Ethan doesn't like smaller blades.  Apparently he just never got around to getting serious about designing them.  In interviews Ethan talks about his early fascination with the classic Puma White Hunter and when he finally got his hands on one how disappointed he was in its performance.  He had always intended to design his own version of a lightweight, versatile sheath knife but just never got around to it.  That all changed about two years ago when Ethan and Ka-Bar (which manufactures all of Ethan's knives) announced that Ethan had designed a series of smaller sheath knives that fit in the lineup between his small skeleton knives and his big choppers.  Naturally these were labeled the 'tweeners' by Becker's fans (affectionately known as Beckerheads).  The waiting and speculation began as Ka-Bar produced a series of prototypes and released them for limited testing.  Ka-Bar is one of several knife manufacturers that not only listens to its customers but participates actively in discussions about its knives in on-line forums.  As the tweener designs matured Ethan and Ka-Bar made sure that members of the Beckerhead community got opportunities to view, use and comment on them, and they participated in on-line discussions about them.   

After a long gestation period the knives were formally announced at the 2012 SHOT show and retailers started selling them soon after.  Early production sold out overnight and none of my usual on-line retailers had them in stock.  It wasn't until the 2012 Blade Show here in Atlanta that I got excited all over again about the BK-16.  I stopped by the Ka-Bar booth and they had one on display.  I was immediately impressed.  Lightweight, well balanced and with an extremely well shaped and comfortable grip.  I HAD to have it!  To my utter disappointment the Ka-Bar guys wouldn't sell it to me.  It seems they brought along a healthy stock to sell at the show but within just an hour or two on Saturday morning they were all gone.  What was left in the case was their display model and that had been sold, too.  I walked away dejected (but not too dejected - I managed to choke back my tears long enough to pick up a nice Kraton handled USMC combat knife and one of the new handle sets for the Becker BK-14 from the guys at the booth).

A few weeks after the Blade Show I checked with one of my favorite on-line Ka-Bar dealers, Tomars Ka-Bars, and was delighted to see he had the BK-16 back in stock.  I ordered one and a few days later it showed up in my mail box.  I've had it a few days now and my initial Blade Show impressions have been reinforced.

The BK-16 follows the same general blade shape that was pioneered by the Becker BK-2, a drop point utility profile.  Ethan has used this same blade shape on several other knives, including the BK-11 and BK-14.  It's a good general purpose blade shape.  The BK-2 is Ethan's best selling design and it's a big, heavy, no-compromise knife.  That means it's thick, almost 1/4" of blade steel.  And heavy - too heavy to be a practical belt knife unless your name happens to be Paul Bunyan.  The BK-16 brings that great blade profile to a smaller, thinner piece of steel.  This makes it a more practical all-around knife.

Here's a comparison of the two:

BK-2 (on top) compared to the smaller BK-16
By the way, I changed the handle scales from black (seen above) to brown.
Ka-Bar includes both sets with each knife.  I think the brown
makes for a nicer contrast.

A dramatic difference in blade thickness.
This makes the BK-2 heavy and somewhat unwieldy
while the BK-16 is light yet still plenty sturdy enough
for routine chores
So the next stop for the BK-16 is the deep, dark woods (aka, my back yard) to test on some simple wood processing chores.  No, I won't be batoning the thing through seasoned oak timbers like a lot of YouTube idiots try.  They make axes for that kind of foolishness.  Instead it'll get used for chores more within its design envelope - cutting small branches, cutting rope, slicing the odd stick of pepperoni, gutting and skinning roadkill, stirring my coffee, etc.

So stay tuned and stay sharp!


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Granddaughter!

We've got our first grand baby!  A lovely little lass named Helen.

So what does a new granddaughter get on her birthday?  A nice new pink Case pocket knife, of course!

Helen, born 7 May 2012

Her Daddy will keep it for her until she's old enough to use it, but I think every lovely young lady needs a nice ladies knife to help her with life's troublesome little tasks like cutting string, slicing oranges or prying stuck shells out of the chambers of her Purdy side-by-side shotgun.

Being a Grandpa is going to be soooooo much fun!

Stay sharp!


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Everything Old is New Again

When I first got serious about knives and knife collecting as a teenager back in the 70s (or as my kids refer to it, 'the early Middle Ages') and could afford some of the knife publications just starting to become available - both magazines and books - it was immediately clear to me that the knife world was in the midst of a paradigm shift.

Plain old carbon steel - the stuff of which knives had been made for over 100 years and had served man well - was on the way out.  Carbon steel was viewed as old school, good in its day but its day was drawing to a close.  The new thing, the thing that was was the future of knife making in the US, was stainless steel.

Stainless steel wasn't really new.  It had first been commercially developed in the early part of the 20th century (by the Germans, naturally).  The first formulations were pretty simple.  It was little more than ordinary carbon steel with a bit of chromium added to the mix to discourage corrosion.  The problem was that the proper mix of rust-inhibiting additives was not well understood and the heat treating and tempering requirements were not well worked out.  The early attempts to make high strength cutlery steel out of the first generations of stainless failed because the steel wouldn't take a temper and knife blades ended up being either too soft or too brittle for use.  For some applications this poor tempering (and resulting poor edge holding ability) was overlooked.  For example, knives designed for use by salvage divers were commonly fashioned out of this early stainless steel.  In this application corrosion resistance was deemed more important than edge holding ability.

Two world wars and a world-wide depression tamped down any demand for quality stainless steel knife blades.  Then after WWII there was an explosion in metallurgy research and development driven primarily by the development of jet engines.  Suddenly high strength stainless alloys were needed, and needed now!  Jet turbine fan blades required stainless alloys that were easy to machine into complex shapes and retain strength and toughness under the high stress operating conditions found in a jet engine.

The knife industry got a lot of benefit from all this R&D.  It was not just the development of new stainless steels, but a growing understanding within the knife industry of the unique heat treating and tempering requirements for all types of steel, high carbon and stainless.  Before WWII heat treating and tempering was viewed as something of a black art among knife makers.  After WWII knife makers started getting smart on metallurgy and adopted the modern techniques and tools of the steel industry.  Consistency and quality went up.  Heat treating and tempering was no longer an art.  It was a well understood science.  Before long the better knife makers realized that stainless steel is just another type of steel with its own well documented heat treating and tempering requirements.  There was no reason to not give it a try.

Almost overnight knife makers were turning out high quality knives using stainless steel, most using one or more of the 400-series steels.  These blades seemed to have it all - they were relatively easy to machine or grind (hand forging stainless was still an iffy endeavor, so most knife makers adopted the simpler stock removal method of forming blade shapes), they took a good heat treat and temper, were easy to sharpen in the field and they didn't corrode.  It seems everybody wanted a knife with a stainless steel blade, particularly one made of 440C, the 'it girl' of knife steels.

Still, many of the custom knife makers grumbled.  Good old high carbon steel, particularly the 10xx-series steels like 1075 and 1095, still made great knives.  High carbon steel was easier to forge, grind and heat treat, it took a better temper, it polished easier (it is tough to get a true mirror polish on many stainless steels) and overall made a tougher, more resilient blade.  But carbon steel was yesterday's steel.  The new generations of outdoorsmen wanted stainless.  The demand for carbon steel blades fell off sharply and some large manufacturers stopped using it all together.

A Buck Model 102 with an Orangewood handle.
Buck was an early adopter of stainless steel for knife production
and today makes most of its blades using 420C stainless.
Fast forward about a quarter century and I'm once again deep into knife collecting.  Although I continued accumulating knives during this time I never really kept up in industry trends.  Imagine my surprise at finding out that stainless steel is now passe' and that good old high carbon steel is the new 'it girl' in knife making.  It was like Rip van Winkle waking up from a 25 year nap.

What happened?  Did stainless steel somehow fail the knife user community?  No, not at all.  In fact, in the intervening decades steel manufacturers continued to develop new stainless steels that are ideal for knife making.  Along with the 400-series steels we also got 154CM, S30V, AUS-8 and others, all excellent knife steels.  At the same time carbon steel technology didn't move forward as much, perhaps a reflection of the already mature nature of high carbon steel formulations going back to the 1940s.

What really happened is what happens with most consumer goods - tastes change.  Knife buyers embraced stainless steel (and still do) but after a fashion they started to look for something different, something nostalgic.  Many started looking back at the knives their fathers and grandfathers carried, knives with names like Case, Ka-Bar, Camillus, Remington and Schrade stamped on the blades. 

High carbon steel does have one significant drawback.  It rusts.

However, even decades of corrosion can be dealt with and a good knife quickly
returned to working status.  This is a Utica Cutlery 'Kutmaster' Girl Scout
knife that sat in a box in a closet for about 30 years before my wife (the
original owner) found it.

In the 1970s those names were old, stodgy.  About as modern as a Ford Model A.  Those companies made their products out of plain-jane high carbon steel and, it seemed, they hadn't had an innovative idea in decades (pretty much true, by the way).

Fast forward to the dawn of the 21st century and suddenly high carbon steel isn't 'plain-jane', it's 'trusted', 'proven' and 'tested'.  High carbon steel blades are all the rage, and manufacturers and individual knife makers can't turn them out fast enough.  Knife collectors and users are talking about old formulations like 1095 in almost mystical terms, as though any blade fashioned out of the steel is imbued with Excalibur-like qualities.  Customers are ringing up custom knife makers and saying "I want a knife made out of real steel, not some fancy high tech stainless mish-mash."  Buyers are actively choosing to have high end custom knives made out of regular old high carbon steel.  Why?  Because they can!  And more so, because high carbon steel makes one hell of a fine knife blade.

Stay sharp!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blade Of The Month - Gerber A400

There was a time when Gerber Legendary Blades actually made legendary blades.  Up until the mid-1980s Gerber made some of the finest production knives in the world.  Their quality and innovation was top-tier and they were a leader in the industry.  Whereas Buck was viewed as kind of a stodgy battleship of a knife company that hadn't had an original thought in decades, Gerber forged ahead with outstanding designs, unique partnerships with leading knife designers like Blackie Collins and Paul Poehlmann, and always outstanding production quality.

Then in 1987 Pete Gerber sold the company to Fiskars and everything went to crap.  Innovation and quality slid downhill and Gerber became just another purveyor of boring cutlery.  Over time their designs became about as exciting as a 1960 Ford Falcon.  I never heard just why Gerber decided to sell out.  Perhaps the money was just too good.  Now, I'm not saying that the post-Gerber ownership products were/are bad products.  For the most part they are good quality working knives.  But they are boring, uninspiring and soul-less.

But before 1987, oh what wonderful knives they made!  Today we'll look at one of those pre-1987 knives, and one of my favorites.

The Gerber A400 drop point hunter:

If memory serves I bought this new at a gun show in Toledo around 1977.  It's had a short but hard service life, and all the wear and tear you see on it and the sheath is my doing.  In 1979 I went on active duty in the Army and carried this on my pistol belt for a year or two.  That accounts for most of the scuffs, scrapes and the overall lousy condition of the sheath.

The design of the A400 is an extension of Gerber's original knife design.  Gerber began makng knives in 1939 and developed a production method involving the use of tool steel blades that were hard chromed for corrosion resistance and had cast aluminum handles.  The first Gerber knives of this design were kitchen cutlery sets, but Gerber soon branched out into outdoor knives using the same basic design.

What makes this knife and other Gerbers like it is the excellent overall quality.  The blades is beautifully ground and carries a brushed chrome finish.  The handle is expertly shaped and extremely comfortable.  The sheath is an integral part of the package, and Gerber made some of the best leather sheaths in the industry.  Featuring a pouch design that is tightly fitted to the knife, it is made of high grade leather that was expertly stitched and includes touches like a steel reinforcing section at the tip to prevent the knife tip from piercing the leather.  Today it's hard to find custom knife makers offering sheaths this good, let alone a production knife.

I have read that these knives were fairly expensive to produce.  The steel sat at the very high end of the hardness scale for a knife - around 62 on the Rockwell scale - and they wore out the grinding and polishing wheels at the factory at about twice the rate of softer blades.  They were also tough to sharpen, but they had a reputation for holding an edge a long, long time.  My experience supports this - I don't think I've had to touch up the edge on this knife more than two or three times. 

The A300 is long gone out of Gerber/Fiskars' catalog.  Today we get Chinese made junk like the Bear Grylls knife.  Sad.

Stay sharp!


Friday, April 6, 2012

The Worst Knife In My Collection

OK, maybe not the worst knife, but certainly the knife that is the least useful based on design, weight and ergonomics.  That honor goes to (drum roll please)...

The Buck 184 'SEAL knife'!

A funny conclusion this, because if there is one knife that most Buck aficionados say they must have in their collection it is the Buck 184.  I'm no exception.  The 184 is a 'must have' blade if you are at all serious about collecting Buck knives.  It occupies a very unique position in the history of Buck knife production.  However, it is a blade that really has no practical use in the real world.  Although it is extremely well designed and executed (and is perhaps one of the best hollow handled knives ever produced in large numbers), it is a purpose built device designed to fit a narrow range of tasks.  As the name indicates, the 184 was designed to meet a specific requirement statement from Naval Special Warfare Command, or the SEALs.  The 184 has a fascinating history which is well documented at the website so I won't delve into it here.

However, this particular knife has a provenance.  I've owned it since early 1989.  In February of '89 I was leading a geographic analysis team in Honduras as part of Task Force Tiger out of the 20th Engineer Brigade from Fort Bragg, NC.  One of my NCOs was a surveyor named Mike Finley.  Mike showed up with this knife dangling off of his belt.  I'd never seen one in the flesh before and thought it was a really neat design.  Mike had not babied it - the knife looked in 1989 about the same as it does in the picture above.  He had lost one of the anchor pins and virtually all the survival items that came in the sheath pouches, but the knife itself was still in good shape.  I told Mike that if he ever considered selling it to let me know and I'd give him a fair price for it.

About a week later we were sitting across from each other in a C-130, heading for a parachute jump in southern Honduras.  Before deploying for Honduras I had purchased one of the first Casio altimeter watches sold in the PX at Fort Bragg.  Before the plane took off  I was sitting in my seat playing with the settings so I could monitor the C-130's altitude just before the jump (we always suspected the pilots came in a bit too low on our jumps).  I wasn't particularly impressed with the watch.  It only provided altitude readouts in meters and I was planning on replacing it when we got back to Fort Bragg.  Mike, however, became fascinated by it.  I let him play with it during the short flight to the drop zone and he thought it was the coolest thing he'd ever seen.

Back in camp after the jump Mike came up to me and asked if I'd be interested in doing a straight trade - my watch for his knife.  I hesitated.  I knew his knife was worth much more than the watch and I told him so.  Mike didn't care.  He told me he was never much impressed with the knife and he really wanted the watch.  We did the trade.

The first thing about this knife that got my attention is that it is heavy.  I mean, pull you straight to the bottom of the pool heavy.  The knife and sheath combo seemed like they weighed at least three pounds.  I know I'm exaggerating, but not by much.  The blade is too big for anything other than chopping down trees or prying your way out of an armored personnel carrier.  In other words, it is a neat design, but it's just too big and heavy to be practical.

I carried the knife for a few weeks in Honduras and when I got home to Fort Bragg I re-profiled the edge, but never used it much after that.  It soon joined the small collection of knives I was accumulating in an old duffle bag and I went out and bought a Randall Model 14 (another story for another time).  Still, I never regret trading Mike for this knife.  It's value has only gone up while I'm sure that Casio watch went into the trash a decade or two ago.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Watch Review

When I'm not collecting knives, backpacks, fly rods or (lately) canoes I can often be seen haunting the wristwatch offerings on Amazon.  I have always been fascinated by watches and time pieces.  Down through the years I've owned dozens of watches and I've got about nine or more in my current collection.  Some watches are a reflection of my fascination with precision and accuracy.  These tend to be things like Casio digital models that automatically sync with the atomic time signals out of Fort Collins.  Others tend to reflect my love of mechanical watches, mainly Seiko diver models.  I'm not yet rich enough to afford a Rolex or Omega, and probably never will be, so I satisfy me urge for watches that go 'tick-tick' with good quality but lower end mechanical pieces.

My first love has always been the traditional watch - one with moving hands.  However, it has always been hard to find a watch that fit my three main criteria - accurate to within a few seconds each day, rugged and waterproof enough to swim with and cheap enough (sub-$200) for me to afford.  Finding watches that fit any two of these criteria was easy enough, but finding watches that fit all three was tough.  Seiko diver watches are rugged, waterproof and inexpensive, but to be kind their accuracy isn't all that great.  Mine gain or lose up to a minute a day.  I wanted something accurate enough for celestial navigation.

About 18 months ago I stumbled on the Luminox line of watches.  These watches gained fame as the 'offical Navy SEAL watch', though I think that claim was more marketing hype than anything else.  It seems any company that gets a purchase order from the Naval Special Warfare Command claims it's product is 'Offical Navy SEAL' whether it's ball point pens or attack helicopters.  Marketing hype aside, these watches got very good reviews; users found them accurate, rugged and lightweight.  The watches use battery powered Swiss movements and are rated waterproof to a depth of 200 meters.  The only thing thing that irked the traditionalist in me is that the cases are made of a polycarbonate composite.  I kinda' like my wrist watches made of metal.  But still, for a shade under $200 (street price) I was willing to take a chance.

Luninox made it's reputation (and based it's name) on the fact that it uses tritium gas illumination vials in all of it's watches.  These tiny vials, placed on the watch hands and hour indicators, supposedly make the watches very easy to use at night.  The vials don't light up the whole watch face, they just provide clear points of light for visual reference.

So early last year I ordered up one of the Luminox 3000-series watches.  This is the 'original' Navy SEAL model and one of the least expensive in the Luminox line, it's base model so to speak.  It sports an easy to read black face with roman numerals, a date indicator and a rotating bezel.   Two things immediately struck me - it is a small watch by dive watch standards.  Compared to a Seiko dive watch the Luminox is diminutive.  It is also light, very light.  Again, compared to a Seiko diver with it's huge self-winding mechanical movement this watch is feather light.

A few other things that quickly struck me about this watch.  It is attractive in a no-nonsense utilitarian sense - everything you need to tell time quickly and accurately is right there in front of you; no button pushing like on a Casio or other digital watch.  The rotating bezel is well laid out and has strong, positive click stops.  The movement is a 'hacking' movement, which means that when you pull out the winding stem to set the time the second hand stops.  This makes this watch very easy to sync with other watches, and I routinely set it against my atomic clocks, to the second, using this feature.  And last, the tritium illumination makes this the best nighttime use watch I've ever owned, period.  The tritium gas vials are placed on the watch hands (even the second hand) and at all the hour indicators.  Since tritium gas is self-illuminating there is no requirement to expose the watch to light to get the thing to glow.  The tritium illumination is constant, never dimming through the night as the phosphorescent paint used on most other watches does.  A quick glance at the watch face under any lighting conditions - full noonday sun or a pitch black room - and you know immediately what time it is.

The only drawback to the watch is the band.  It is a fairly cheap rubbery strap.  I figured this watch deserved better so I ordered up a one-piece nylon Zulu band from Countycomm.  I also thought the watch would look good accompanied by a wrist compass, so I ordered up a small watch band compass from Brigade Quartermasters.  I've been using these small wrist compasses for 20 years and consider them to be the best quality watch band compass available.  They are made in Japan and are very high quality.  Of course they do take a beating sitting on your wrist next to the watch, but for less than $10.00 they are cheap to replace when they develop a bubble or the face gets too scratched up to view clearly.

Here's the whole package.

Neat, compact and extremely useful.

Over the course of the year this watch has lived up to it's reputation.  It's been dunked innumerable times on fishing and boating trips, been exposed to freezing cold and the baking, humid heat of Georgia summers.  It's been banged into car doors, dropped on floors and at one point thrown at a dog that wouldn't stop barking at the cat.  Over time the polycarbonate casing has received some scars but the mineral crystal face has, surprisingly, remained scratch free.

Most impressive, however, is that this watch remains consistently accurate to within 3 seconds per day as measured against my atomic clock.  Three seconds per day.  Now, for a mechanical watch movement to receive a 'chronometer' certification from the Swiss testing authorities it only needs to be accurate to within 15 seconds per day.  I'm not implying that this watch is the same quality as a Rolex or Omega, but a sub-$200 watch holding that level of accuracy is extremely impressive.

So consider this a long term review.  The Luminox 3000-series watches are impressive.  Hmmm, I see Amazon has the orange face model on sale now....

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why I Don't Like Zippers

In my last post I just casually mentioned that I'm not a big fan of clamshell-design packs because they rely almost wholly on a zipper to hold the contents in the bag.  Zippers are mechanical devices that can, and will, fail.  I actually got a few off-blog comments about my statement, telling me I'm being overly alarmist about the whole issue.  Maybe so.

But then again, maybe not:

I grabbed this picture off of an eBay auction this morning.  This is a USMC ILBE 3-day assault pack.  These are extremely well made bags, produced by Arc'Teryx for the Marines and they fill the same general role as the MOLLE II Assault Pack I discussed earlier.

The seller in this auction has 10 in this condition he wants to get rid of, so it looks like this zipper failure is not an isolated incident.  He's very up front about the condition, so there are no deceptive auction practices at work here.

Statistically these kinds of failures are probably very low.  One thing is for certain, however - you'll never see a failure like this on a top loading bag like the ALICE pack.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bag It

Let's switch gears for a minute or two and talk about something other than knives.  I like to hike.  Always have.  As a teenager my friends and I would tromp all over southern New Jersey in a quest to identify all the abandoned towns that once filled the vast empty spaces of the Pine Barrens region of that state.  When I moved to Ohio in my mid-teens I found myself hiking up and down the Maumee River Valley following the traces described in Allen Eckert's classic works about the hardy frontiersmen that opened and settled the original Northwest Territory.

While I did very little overnight backpacking I would easily wear out a pair of hiking boots each season tromping the local trails and roads.

Along the way I developed a strong interest in - some would say an obsession with - the bric-a-brac of outdoor life and adventure.  This accounts for my fascination with knives.  I also developed a slightly weird fascination with backpacks.  I think it started with my realization that the old, square canvas Boy Scout knapsacks we used as kids were, well, let's be honest here - they were simply lousy load carrying devices.  It took this lowly and somewhat dim Tenderfoot only about two outings to realize there had to be something better out there.

This was about the time the lightweight backpacking craze was sweeping America, fueled in large part by Colin Fletcher's classic bible of backpacking, 'The Complete Walker'.  The pages of of the outdoor magazines were filled with sexy shots of hikers on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail sporting the latest in load carrying technology from companies like Kelty or JanSport.  These newfangled aluminum and nylon concoctions were a bit more than I needed for schlepping the local trails.  A lot of them made you look like you were hauling a refrigerator on your back, but they showed the way to the future.

Then one rainy Saturday afternoon I caught the movie 'The Mountain' with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner.  Set in the French Alps, it's the story of two brothers who climb a mountain to reach a plane crash site and plunder the belongings of the crash victims.  This was the first and only time I've seen the movie.  While I remember the story line as being somewhat interesting what really caught my eye were the backpacks they used in the climbing scenes. These were the classic teardrop-shaped Alpine style rucksacks.  I was fascinated by them - so those are what serious climbers use!  They are soooo cool!  The image was burned into my memory and launched me on a lifetime quest to find the perfect rucksack, just like the one Spencer Tracy used in the movie.

It's been a long, enjoyable and slightly frustrating quest, and I've come to realize that the perfect and perfectly cool Alpine rucksack like they used in the movie simply doesn't exist.  Or at least I haven't been able to find it after decades of searching.  No matter, I've found plenty of great substitutes along the way.

In this and subsequent posts we'll have a look at some of the rucksacks I've come across and why they work (or don't work).  I've had a lot of rucksacks on my back over the years, and I've lived out of them for weeks (and in one case months) at a time.  Most of this experience has been with the US Army's ALICE system rucksack (which we'll tackle in a later post).  But living with and depending on a piece of gear for so long gives you a good perspective as to what works and what doesn't.  Now it takes me about three minutes wearing a pack under load to determine if that particular bag is good or bad (for me).  What counts is comfort (always the #1 consideration), ruggedness, good design and execution.  Surprisingly weight becomes a secondary consideration; ruggedness and quality of execution impose their own weight requirements.  

Let's start with my current favorite, and it's a design I'm fairly new to.  In the 1980s the Army realized that the old ALICE (All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment) system was badly outdated and a new Soldier load carrying system was needed.  This triggered a complete rethinking of military load carrying technology and out of it came the MOLLE system (MOdular Lightweight Load carrying Equipment).  The MOLLE system went into general issue with the Army in the early 2000's at about the time I retired.  The system is in its second generation (MOLLE II) and may be headed to a third generation upgrade.  As the name indicates, the system is designed to be modular.  The MOLLE system consists of external frame packs of different sizes, rucksacks, pouches and bags all of which can clip or snap together in various configurations. Soldiers can combine different components of the MOLLE system depending on specific mission requirements.

As was bound to happen, soon after adoption MOLLE equipment began to leak out into the civilian market.  Some of this was from Soldiers selling their field gear after they left the service, some was from contract over-runs by the manufacturers and some was surplus releases of used equipment by the US military.  The one MOLLE component that quickly became a hit with civilian users is the MOLLE II Assault Pack (NSN  8465-01-524-0001).

MOLLE II Assault Pack front view

The Assault Pack is what civilians would classify as a large day pack.  It's a common design - a half clamshell secured by a large zipper, with load compression straps on the side and a large exterior pouch.  Where the Assault Pack shines is in the details.  Because it was designed to be worn over body armor the shoulder straps are very generous and well positioned for a guy with my body type (that's a polite way of saying I'm overweight).  The pack also incorporates an internal plastic stiffener that provides shape to the pack and shields the wearer's back from poking and prodding by items inside the pack.  The pack is manufactured of heavy nylon and all seams are taped and double stitched.  Stress points are all reinforced.  There are plenty of external straps and attachment points for mounting pouches or other do-dads.

MOLLE II Assault Pack rear view.  That is a GPS receiver pouch
mounted on the right strap, a wrist compass on the left.
The Assault Pack is not the lightest thing available; empty and with no external pouches it weighs in at about 3 lbs.  However, as I mentioned the pack is extremely rugged and made out of heavy nylon.  It's a trade-off - additional weight for durability.  It's a trade-off I'm willing to make.

Where the Assault Pack really shines is carry comfort.  This is perhaps the most comfortable large day pack pack I've ever used.  I routinely load this pack up to about 23 lbs (water, first aid kit, jacket, GPS receiver, maps, binoculars, survival kit, knife and other small items).  It's a full load, but a comfortable load.  The shoulder straps look thin in profile but the design does a very good job of distributing the load.  The shoulder strap design means the straps stay in place regardless of what you are wearing.  There is enough adjusting strap length that it's easy to loosen the shoulder straps wide, toss the bag onto your back and roll your shoulders while tugging on the straps to get a perfect fit.  The internal stiffener allows the pack to rest comfortably against your back and keeps the loads from shifting around.

Other small details add to the usefulness of this pack.  You can use it with a hydration bladder and there are covered drinking tube openings on each side of the drag handle (although these openings are not really there for use with a drinking tube - more on that in just a bit).  Each shoulder strap has a 'dump' buckle - unsnap the buckle cover (think of it as a safety) and pull up on the web tab and the shoulder strap and adjusting strap separate.  The zippers are the heaviest YKK self-repairing nylon zippers I've ever seen and the Fastex-type buckles that secure all the webbing are heavy duty.

This pack is designed for use on parachute jumps and it comes with stitched-in webbing for attaching to a parachute harness.  This is really what the two 'drinking tube' flaps on each side of the drag handle are for.  You route the straps out from the inside of the pack through these slits.  There is also a lowering line attachment loop sewn into the bag.

There are some quibbles, but they are minor.  The bottom of the bag is not reinforced.  Some double layered protection would have been nice.  I have to be fair, though, and mention that the bottom of my ALICE rucksack that saw me through over 12 years of service didn't have a reinforced bottom and it survived just fine.

I'm also not a big fan of clamshell design packs.  Zippers can fail, and when they do there go the contents of your pack.  The Assault Pack mitigates this somewhat by being only a half clamshell design and the compression straps help take the strain off of the zipper.  Clamshell designs are also not very waterproof.  In fact, they leak like a sieve.  The main pouch zipper has only a small, thin weather flap covering it.  This isn't a pack designed for use in wet weather.  I much prefer a top-loading design with a cover flap.

In general I'm not a big fan of the clamshell design.  If the zipper fails there
goes the contents of the bag.  The Assault Pack mitigates this somewhat by
being only a half clamshell design, using a very stout YKK zipper and
placing compression straps where they can take some of the strain off of
the zipper.  Note the white plastic stiffener and the white parachute harness
webbing at the top of the picture. 

And then there's the camouflage pattern.  Most of the packs coming onto the market today are made with the Army's ACU digital camo pattern (also known as the Universal Camouflage Pattern).  This pattern has served the Army well through almost 10 years of war in the Middle East, but it is really too light for effective use in more vegetated regions.  This pattern, especially after it starts to fade a bit, really stands out in the forests of North America.  I'd much prefer olive drab, but you take what you can get.

Speaking of camouflage patterns, the Army produced this pack in the old woodland (BDU) pattern, the desert (DCU) pattern, of course the ACU pattern, and is now making them in the new Army MultiCam pattern.  Since so few were made in the woodland and desert pattern they are harder to find and good examples command relatively higher prices.  The new MultiCam patterned bags are just starting to appear and they command outrageous prices - I saw one go on eBay in the last few weeks for about $150.

But right now the ACU pattern Assault Pack can be found at bargain prices.  There's always examples for sale on eBay and internet storefronts like Uncle Sam's Retail Outlet are selling them new for as low as $59.99. That's one heck of a deal for a great bag that costs the real Uncle Sam something close to $90.

The detachable multi-purpose pouch, designed originally
to hold the Army 1qt canteen, does a fine job holding a
1 qt Nalgene water bottle
Rumor has it that the Army wants to phase out the Assault Pack in favor of a larger medium rucksack with frame.  Operationally this makes sense since the next step up in capacity in the MOLLE system is the large rucksack, which can hold a Volkswagen and a case of beer.  The Army obviously needs something in between.  However, I can tell you from personal experience that the Assault Pack is extremely popular with Soldiers.  I work at a large hub airport that handles a lot of Soldiers flying to or from duty stations.  The majority of them carry the Assault Pack.  For a Soldier it is the perfect carry-on bag.  It easily fits a laptop computer, a change of clothes, shaving kit, books and snacks.  A medium rucksack with a frame would simply be too large and unwieldy to use as a carry-on bag and on many smaller flight legs would have to be checked as baggage.  I think we'll see the Assault Pack stick around for quite a while yet.

In my opinion the MOLLE II Assault Pack is destined to be a minor classic in military equipment, akin to items like the M6 gas mask bag, the Chinook helicopter, the Jeep and MREs; the right design at the right time that ended up filling roles the designers could never have imagined.

Stay sharp!