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!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

RIP Blind Horse Knives

I got an email yesterday from L.T. Wright, one of the owners of Blind Horse Knives in Ohio, stating that he and Dan Coppins have decided to dissolve their partnership and go their own ways in the knife making world.

L.T. has popped up on at least one forum to let everyone know that the split was amicable and he and Dan just wanted to pursue different knifemaking paths.

Both L.T. and Dan have formed new companies.  L.T.'s new venture is L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives and Dan's new venture is Battle Horse Knives.

I'm sad to see Blind Horse Knives disappear.  Over the last five years or so the brand developed a strong following among the outdoors/hunting/bushcrafting crowd.  Their knives were very well designed, well made, reasonably priced and represented an excellent value for someone looking to move up from standard factory production designs.

I wish both L.T. and Dan the best of luck in their new ventures, and I'm sure I'll be picking up a knife or two from each of them as their blade lines mature.  But for now let's take a look at some great blades that bear the Blind Horse Knife stamp.

BHK Bushcrafter
O1 steel, green Micarta handles

BHK Small Workhorse
D2 steel, orange G10 handles

BHK Large Workhorse
D2 steel, green Micarta handle
Top: Woodsman Pro in O1 steel
Bottom: Woodsman in 154CM steel

Stay sharp!

Brian

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blade Of The Month - The Lowly Machete

I've been using machetes regularly for 20 years, and more intensively since I became a homeowner for the first time about 13 years ago.  The machete is, hands down, one of the most useful cutting tools ever devised by man.  As a slashing and light chopping tool it is unsurpassed.

I've known about machetes all my life, but my first real introduction to them came in the late 1980s down in Honduras.  Watching the local laborers using them to clear brush, chop down small woody plants or cut sugar cane was fascinating.  In Honduras and in other Central American countries at the time if you could swing a machete you could earn a wage.  It was a common sight while driving through the villages early in the morning to see the men of the family - fathers and sons - standing along the road holding a machete, a small lunch in a string bag and a jug of water, waiting for the day labor trucks from the local farms or ranches to swing by and pick them up.  In the United States mechanization would take care of much of this work, but in Honduras the economy was absolutely dependent on manual labor for these tasks.  

Later while stationed in Panama I got more exposure to the uses of the machete.  Unlike southern Honduras, which is semi-arid, Panama is full-on rainforest and keeping the jungle at bay is a full time battle.  This was one of the few times in my life I was able to afford the services of a gardener, and he did virtually all the clearing and trimming tasks with a machete.  At various times I watched him use it to trim hedges, edge the lawn, cut bamboo, open coconuts for the kids, cut rope, cut banana stalks from the trees, cut back sawgrass and kill a poisonous snake.  It was his do-everything tool, and he always made sure it was at-hand.  Victor (the gardener's name) was a virtuoso with the blade and I learned a lot by watching him work.  His machete was an old USGI model someone had given him years before.  The broken handle was wrapped in electrical tape and it had been resharpened so much that it had lost much of its original blade profile, but it still worked perfectly fine in Victor's hands.  

When we bought our house near Atlanta in 2000 the yard was badly overgrown.  The homeowners had neglected the yard for the better part of a decade and it needed immediate attention.  The biggest chore was to simply cut back the overgrown brush and woody vines and take down the dozens of small saplings that had sprouted up.  I knew right away I had the right tool for the job - a USGI machete manufactured by Ontatrio.  

The USGI M1942 pattern machete and sheath 

Now, there are dozens and dozens of machete blade styles.  There are machetes designed specifically for cutting sugar cane (large and heavy for cutting through the woody stalks), for cutting light brush (long, curved and relatively light weight for more efficient slashing) and even machetes designed for gardening chores like harvesting fruits and vegetables (short, lightweight blades for close-in work).   While in Central America I'd buy any new or unique blade style I came across.  The small local hardware stores usually had a good selection of blades on offer for just a few dollars each so it was easy and cheap to accumulate a good collection.

Getting the blades out and ready for some yard work!
However, my machete of choice has always been the USGI M1942-pattern blade.  This blade was first adopted by the US military during WWII and is based on a commercial Collins pattern.  During the war the M1942 machete saw wide use across the world, most notably in the South Pacific and the China-Burma-India theater where it hacked thousands of miles of trails in otherwise tractless jungle.  It developed a reputation as an excellent and absolutely essential tool for jungle warfare.  Decades later it came back into widespread use in Vietnam where it was again used to hack jungle trails, clear fields of fire, cut and shape bamboo stakes, butcher pigs, dig fire pits and, when necessary, be used as a weapon in close-quarters combat.

For the last 30 years or so the Ontario Knife Company has been the sole supplier of M1942 machetes to the US military, and they are still produced to the original Collins pattern with an 18" blade and a black plastic handle.  The M1942 model is made of blade stock that is a bit thicker than that used by most commercial machete manufacturers.  This makes the USGI machete a bit heavier and the blade a bit stiffer than other machetes of similar size, and I feel this is what makes it such a great all-around tool.  It is long and thin enough to swing effectively to clear brush, but has enough blade weight and stiffness to be easily driven through tough woody vines, saplings and bamboo.  It is a first rate land clearing tool.

My M1942 machetes (I own several) are working tools, not collector pieces.  They get used hard and, frequently, get put away wet.  In fact, one spent the winter outside embedded in an old tree stump.  I didn't find it until spring.  They look like hell - rusted, nicked and generally abused.  

Some battle scars on the edge of one of my machetes

Machetes are made of relatively soft steel, and this is on purpose.  A machete is an impact tool - something that strikes hard objects with force (like tree stumps or saplings) and the edge needs to give and not chip or break.  It also needs to be easy to resharpen in the field using common tools.  Because the steel is relatively soft (around the mid-50's on the Rockwell hardness scale) the edge will nick or roll when it hits something too hard.  This is expected, and with a few passes from a bastard file or a few licks on a carborundum stone they are back in action.  My machetes bear the scars of meet-ups with rocks, tough wood and even the occasional smack on a concrete step.  They survive to do battle another day.

If you are a home or property owner, or someone who often finds himself in the woods doing tasks like clearing areas for campsites, deer stands or blinds you need a machete. 

Stay sharp!

Brian




Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why I Like Stainless Steel Blades

Bill and I went fishing at Sprewell Bluff on the Flint River this morning on reports that the shoal bass were active.

Don't really know if they were active or not, because about the time we got kitted up it started to pour.  Not too hard if you had the right rain gear (which we did) but hard enough to dampen our enthusiasm for fishing. The river was flowing about 2400 cfs, and safe wading ends at about the 1500 cfs point, so we didn't venture too far out into the water.  I spent a few hours tossing Clouser minnows and woolly buggers into the shoals but got no takers.  Bill ended up getting one good strike on a top water hopper, but that was about it.  The guy sweeping the picnic area with a metal detector was having more luck - he reported digging up 30 cents in about an hour.

As I was standing in the pouring rain I started asking myself deep, probing questions:  Will man ever travel faster than the speed of light?  Are parallel universes plausible?  Will we ever solve world hunger?  Did I bring a stainless steel knife?    

Of all these questions the issue of the stainless steel knife troubled me the most.  Then I remembered that I had indeed brought along a stainless steel blade - my J.D. Davis drop point hunter made of CPM 154 steel.   I had actually strapped it to my belt early this morning before heading out and had forgotten it was there (hard to feel stuff buried deep inside a set of chest waders).  

I patted the sheath on my hip and smiled.  The stars are in their proper places in the heavens, the sun still rises in the east and I've got a stainless steel blade along on this wet, sloppy day.  Life is good.

On the Flint River

I had J.D. build this knife just for days like this.  Yes, I know that carbon steel blades don't just rust away after a few hours of exposure, but I also know that in this day and age corrosion resistance and edge holding ability are not mutually exclusive issues when it comes to knife blades.

On days like this stainless steel is a no-brainer.

Carbon steel is good, but some days just demand stainless
Stay sharp!

Brian

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Stove In

I can feel fall's approach.  Seriously, I can!  Even though the days are peaking at 95 degrees and the sun stays up until 9 pm I can sense that wonderful season's slow approach.

Or maybe it's just wishful thinking.  Either way, I want fall to get here real bad.

I figured one way I could hasten it's arrival is to tackle a small chore I've been delaying until cooler weather - the repair of a few antique camping stoves.  My thinking was that if Mother Nature saw me doing something that I would normally only do sometime in late October she'd think she'd think she was running late and would drop some nice, cool, dry fall air on us ahead of schedule.

Still waiting, Mother Nature...

Yet the stove 'repairs' proceeded.  More accurately it was griping, cursing and fumbling with stoves and stove parts.  Little actual repair got done.  None, in fact.

Background.  I collect camping stoves almost like I collect knives - in volume.  I didn't start out to collect stoves.  Unlike knives, I have no strong attraction or affinity for stoves.  For me the real attraction is fire.  At heart I'm a five year old kid who likes to play with matches.  No, I'm not sick, or warped, and I didn't have bed wetting issues as a child.  Here's a little secret - damn near EVERY five year old boy wants to play with matches.  And lighters, candles, road flares and, if given a chance, flame throwers.  It's part of being a boy. What happens as we grow up is we learn to control the fascination.  Some do this by become rocket scientists who get to play with highly volatile liquid hydrogen and oxygen.  Some become firefighters and learn ways to first start fires, then put them out.  Some go to Vegas and put on stage shows with tigers jumping through flaming hoops.  Or some, like me, find a fascination in tools that produce flame in a controlled environment, like camping stoves.  I'm not so much a pyromaniac as the master of the flame!  (Insert Dr. Evil demented laugh here.)  I work to control fire, to bend it to my will, to have it do my bidding.  Like heating up a rehydrated package of chili mac.

Along the way I've picked up stoves that were somewhat complete but didn't run too well, if at all, but they interested me for one reason or another.  Some were old Swedish stoves like the vintage Optimus or Svea self-priming brass models.  Some were early versions of modern classics like the MSR Whisperlite.   Lately I've accumulated a number of older Coleman single burner stoves.  But the two that I tried tackling today are real classics.  First is a Coleman 530, an immediate post-WWII single burner stove that was copied from a version Coleman manufactured for the US military during the war.  This stove was extremely popular with soldiers during the War and Coleman figured there's be a strong market for a civilian version once the war ended.  Coleman was right - it became immensely popular and sold well for a few years after the war.  However, by the late 1940s Coleman figured out that the newly mobile American population wasn't doing much backpacking.  Car camping was the thing and everyone wanted a Coleman two burner stove.  By 1950 demand had tapered off and Coleman stopped production of the 530.

Late WWII ad by Coleman for
their post-war 'pocket stove', which
would be introduced as the model 530
The 530's are exquisite stoves, perhaps one of the best made stoves Coleman ever produced.  They were all brass, nickel plated brass and stainless steel.  The fit and finish was first rate.  They must have been prohibitively expensive to produce, and maybe that's one reason Coleman shut down production.  Still, Coleman claims to have manufactured over one million of these little jewels between 1946 and 1950, and you can still find good plenty of good examples on eBay.

The next stove is one that is directly descendant from the USGI 'pocket stove' and although a 1950's design it remained in service with the US Army right through the 1990s.  This is the M1950 single burner 'squad stove'. This stove was actually a Coleman design but it was never produced for civilian use.  The Army asked Coleman to update their WWII design to make it easier to service while in the field.  I think the requirement was that it also had to fit inside of a squad cook kit.  Coleman did a great job and the resulting stove was virtually indestructible and would burn about anything you could get in the tank.  It's also kind of squat looking and lacks the elegance of the WWII design, but in this case form had to follow function.  The M1950 is all stainless steel with just a bit of brass.  It's about as lovely as an M60 tank.  But it worked, and worked well, and it heated rations for American soldiers from the frozen fields of Cold War Germany to the rice paddies of Vietnam, and lots of places in between.

M1950 Squad Stove

In the early 2000s the US military started to surplus these stoves out and thousands of them hit the market in new or like new condition.  Unfortunately I missed that buying frenzy, and the days of new-in-the-box $60 stoves are long gone.  There are still plenty of good examples available, but today they command almost double what they were selling for a decade ago.

I was lucky in that I managed to get both of my stoves from friends or off of forums where folks are less interested in making a buck.  The sellers of both of these stoves made no secret of the fact that they didn't work (in fact, the M1950 came to me in pieces).  I figured getting them up and running would take just a little elbow grease and a few spare parts.

Hah!

After complete tear-downs, replacement of key parts like the burner valves, testing, more disassembly and reassembly, more testing and lots of cursing and runs to the computer to check the internet references for repair info I now have to admit defeat.  Utter, shameful defeat.  The day started out so promising and my workbench looked so neat and organized.

The M1950 in the process of being field stripped

The M1950 was the clear basket case of the bunch.  It had been rode hard and put away wet.  Repeatedly. The first thing I did was remove the valve assembly.  The fastest way to get the valve assembly off of the tank is to clamp it upside down in a vise and use a strap wrench to unscrew the tank.  This one was on tight!



 Next pull the pump assembly and have a look down into the fuel tank.  Yuk.

Lots of crud in the bottom of the tank.  A good scrubbing with some small
stainless steel nuts and white gas got most of this out.  Just drop in the nuts,
add the gas and swirl.  Rinse and repeat!

Once most of the crud was out of the tank it was time to clean up the threads.  Whoever worked on this stove last was in love with gasket sealant.  It was everywhere.

Using a brass bore brush to clean up the tank threads
One of the saving graces of the M1950 fuel tank is that it's made out of stainless steel.  A lot of them look like hell on the outside (mostly due to lousy paint jobs) but all that I've seen were still perfectly serviceable.  They can take a lot of abuse.

One key step on reassembly is to make sure the fuel valve properly aligns with the valve stop which is part of the pot support/windscreen.

The fuel valve needs to align with the stop tab on the
windscreen.  For testing you don't actually reattach the
windscreen.  This is just to make sure all parts are
properly aligned

OK, everything rebuilt, back together and ready to test.

3, 2, 1... Failure!

Poor pressurization, fuel running everywhere, the serious risk of setting the neighborhood on fire.  I was so startled by the results I forgot to take pictures.  I ALMOST had to run and get the fire extinguisher!

There it sits.  Shamed, alone and hissing highly
flammable gas vapor while in the OFF position

What's next?  I'm not sure.  Something is clearly wrong with the valve assembly.  It is not closing properly when the valve dial is placed in the OFF position.  I just don't know where to look.  Yet.  Luckily I hang out on a great stove related forum where folks trade expert advice all the time.  That's my next stop.

The Coleman 530 was only marginally better.  The only thing I did was replace the gas tank seal (the old one was as hard as rock candy) and pumped her up.  After a few minutes of warming up she finally settled down to an acceptable roar with only the hint of yellow tipped flames (which could have been due to the light breezes we were experiencing).  However, this stove wouldn't turn all the way off, either.  I ended up having to blow it out and let all the compressed gas escape through the flame jet.  Clearly there's a bad seal in there somewhere.  That's a chore for another time.

So there I sat, a day's worth of effort all but wasted.  I needed a working stove fix bad, real bad.  I needed to see some nice, even blue flames spouting from a well behaved stove, something that loved and respected me.  I grabbed two of my favorites that just happened to be summering in my storage shed, an ancient and venerable Coleman 502 and the more recent (and less venerated) Coleman Exponent.  Both are excellent stoves.  The 502 is a classic in its own right and I intend to do a posting on it in the near future.

But for today, it was pump, light, enjoy.  These two fine friends saved the day.

Coleman Exponent (successor to the Peak 1) on the left,
a Coleman 502 (1964 vintage) on the right.
Look closely and you'll see nice even blue flames
being put out by each stove.  

Stay sharp!

Brian




Friday, June 28, 2013

Orange Crush

I've got this thing going for knives with orange handles.  I'm not exactly sure why since as my lovely wife will tell you I tend to be a very boring earth-tone kind of guy.  But for some reason I've long been drawn to knives with orange handles.

Part of it may be my morbid fear of dropping a knife onto the forest floor and not being able to find it.  My nightmare scenario is this: I'm on the edge of survival.  It's just me and my trusty knife against all mother nature has to toss at me.  I'm doing just fine, thanks, since my blade helps provide fire, shelter, food and protection.  Then I stumble, the knife falls from my hand onto the forest floor and is lost in the confusing pattern of leaf litter, sticks, grass and vines.  I search frantically but the knife is gone.  Mother nature wins.  I die.

So to prevent certain death while out on day hikes along well marked trails and within line-of-sight distance to my pickup truck with satellite radio and air conditioning I carry an orange handled knife.  Or two.

I think it's great that more and more manufacturers and custom makers are offering knives with bright orange handles.  Modern synthetic handle materials like G-10 make it easy to produce rugged knives with colorfast handles that can take a lot of abuse.  While international orange isn't 'tacticool', I believe there's a strong argument in favor of carrying at least one knife that sports an orange handle.  It's a lot harder to lose an orange handled knife than it is to lose one with a handle made out of wood or other earth tone colors like green or black micarta.  This is even more important if, like me, you are even just a little bit color blind and you lack the ability to differentiate subtle color differences in the red-green spectrum.  At some point everything on the forest floor looks the same to me, even items that have deep red coloring (like the handle of a Swiss Army knife).  International orange, however, stands out like a bright blaze against an otherwise consistently drab and indistinguishable background.

There's two knives in the photo below.  Both are the same size and blade shape.  The only difference is the handle material.  One knife sports African Rosewood (bubinga) scales, the other orange G-10 scales.  Roughly the same amount of handle material is exposed for each knife.  Which is easier to spot?




Here's what you are looking for:

Two J.D. Davis drop point hunters

Of course screaming orange yellow handles put off the tacticool and mall ninja crowd, but for folks who take knives into the woods to be used and relied upon I think orange handles are a wise choice.

So here's some more great examples of orange handled knives:

Benchmade Triage on the left.  From top to bottom on the right:
Ka-Bar BK-24 in D2, Blind Horse Knives Small Workhorse in D2
and the J.D. Davis drop point hunter in CPM154

The ever popular Buck Folding Hunter in orange plastic scales

Here's the Buck Bucklite Max in orange (the Boone & Crockett model)

The Ka-Bar BK-14 with orange scales.  This model is
made of 1095 steel

A Case small Camper model with orange G-10 scales

Heck, I'll even let an axe get in on the act!

So, if you spend a lot of time in the woods and depend on your knife consider taking along one with a bright orange handle.  It might just save your life.  OK, a bit over dramatic, but for sure it can prevent you from leaving your dropped knife on the forest floor because you can't see it.

Stay sharp, and go orange!

Brian







Saturday, June 22, 2013

Switchblade!

The word conjures up images of Mafioso enforcers silencing family members who don't show enough loyalty, Sharks and Jets pirouetting and jabbing at each other beneath New York City overpasses, and jazz musicians battling for the attentions of sultry vixens in smoke filled music halls.  While I happen to think the images are darkly romantic and fascinating, to the weak kneed and weak minded the word switchblade evokes unnecessary violence, violence that can be and must be stopped by banning all switchblade knives everywhere.  Speak the word and Michael Bloomberg donates another few million to his anti-everything causes.  Sort of like a twisted turn on the "when a bell rings an angel gets its wings" fairy tale.

Yet the reality is much different.  There are no legions of inner-city youth carving each other up with switchblades.  Never were.  For a couple of reasons.  During the heyday of the hoodlum switchblades were mostly cheaply made Italian or Spanish imports that couldn't stand up to peeling an apple, let alone carving up one's opponent in a school yard fight.  No experienced thug would carry one.  They preferred stouter folding knives, fixed blade knives, clubs, baseball bats, guns - anything that would see them through the conflict from start to finish.

Automatic opening knives (switchblades) have been banned in most states and virtually all large cities since the 1950s.  This was a knee-jerk reaction to a flood of 'hoodlum' movies that hit the theaters mid-century and focused on the growing restlessness and violence being displayed by inner city youth.  The directors and producers of these movies picked the switchblade as a key prop device because they looked cool and, well, they thought that's what all self respecting hoodlums used.

Never let it be said a politician will let pass a chance to ban something "for the good of the children."  Anti-knife laws swept the nation in the 1950's driven mainly by the images presented in these movies.  Switchblades virtually disappeared.  Imports were banned and most domestic manufacturers making automatic knives abandoned that segment of the market.

But the switchblade soldiered on in one area that local lawmakers couldn't touch - the US military.  The military continued to purchase automatic knives for issue to pilots, paratroopers and rescue personnel.  The thought was that the automatic opening feature would allow an injured Soldier to open the knife one handed and cut himself free of his parachute suspension lines or harness.  In theory not a bad idea.

What we have to look at today is one of the more common US military switchblades as issued by the Army in the 1970s and 80s.  This knife was manufactured by Schrade Walden in New York and was issued to my good friend and fishing buddy Bill sometime in the 1980s.  Bill started his Army career flying Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs in Vietnam and ending his career flying the Grumman OV-1 Mohawk in the Army Reserves.  Somewhere along the way Bill was issued this knife and 'forgot' to turn it in.




Last year we were doing some float fishing and Bill pulled out this knife.  He had it clipped to his belt via the home make lanyard and it was his emergency bail out knife should his kayak overturn.  I hadn't seen one in years and he let me play with it for a bit.  The last one I saw was in a unit supply room back at Fort Bragg in the early 1980s.  Airborne units were allowed to purchase and issue them to jumpers for use during airborne operations.  Our supply room kept a few on-hand for issue to jumpmasters, but never had enough to hand out to the full company so they rarely got issued.  Of course they were considered 'sensitive items' just like an M-16 so were kept locked up in the arms room.  My impression of them at the time was that they were poorly put together.  The spring that opened the main blade was weak and barely got the job done, and there was a lot of 'slop' or play in the blade when opened and locked.   The knife had a high cool factor, but my impression was that a small fixed blade knife was a better option.

Bill reports that he carried it for years in the special pocket sewn into the inside thigh of the issue flight suit.  The pocket was sized specifically to fit this knife.  Since you have to have a specific place for everything inside the cramped cockpit of an airplane I guess this location made good sense.  It was out of the way of the parachute harness and allowed easy access.

One useful feature this knife incorporates is what is commonly referred to as a 'gut hook'; a hook shaped blade designed specifically to cut parachute suspension lines.  The design works very well and will slice through tensioned suspension lines like a hot knife through soft butter.  It's much more effective at this task than the straight main blade.


As represented by this knife the concept of the switchblade as an emergency tool doesn't inspire confidence.  As I've already mentioned, these knives are poorly fitted.  The blade deployment spring is weak and barely gets the blade more than halfway open.  The user has to finish the job with a flick of the wrist.  Several flicks of the wrist, actually.  The lanyard bale also frequently interferes with opening.  While the idea of one handed opening is good, this knife assumes that your good hand will always be your right hand.  It puts the opening button and slide lock just on one side  where only your right hand can get to it.  Here's hoping it's always your left hand that gets broken or crushed during the ejection or parachute landing because otherwise you're in trouble.

We do have to keep in mind that this knife is essentially a WWII-era design that was kept in production through the 1980s.  From that perspective it's not a bad design and reflects the best knife making technology available during the war.  As a purpose built tool, something designed for a single use during a specific event (to cut a downed flyer or paratrooper free of his parachute) it works OK.  For any other purpose it pretty much sucks.  I'd hate to have to go into a true survival situation with just this knife.  It would break the first time it saw hard use.

Since the 1980s folding knife technology has advanced quite a bit.  Manufacturers have designed and marketed fast opening knives that get around the silly switchblade restrictions.  Most makers incorporate an opening 'stud' on their blades to permit fast opening using the thumb.  Some manufacturers like Spyderco incorporated large opening thumb holes instead of studs.  All of these solutions are extremely effective and allow the manufacturing of more robust folding knife designs.  Today's high quality folding knives deploy faster than most switchblades, can be used in either hand and stand up just fine to real world use.

One direct response to the weakness of our switchblade is the Benchmade 915 Triage.  It incorporates an ambidextrous fast opening main blade with an extremely rugged locking mechanism and incorporates a gut hook that can be opened with one hand.


The Triage is an extremely rugged knife that can not only slice open your parachute harness but then go on to slice open the hood of a Buick.  That's what I want the next time I get into a scrape!

Stay sharp!

Brian

Monday, June 17, 2013

Low Down Dirty Thieves

This evening I was checking Facebook and got a note from Kletterwerks in Montana to check out an on-line gallery of nostalgic products on Outside Magazine's website.  These are products that have a high 'cool' factor and are still available.

Interested, I clicked on the link to the Outside Magazine photo gallery and was enjoying some of the product descriptions until I got to photo #4.  I about dropped my coffee cup:


Does it look anything like this photo?


Perhaps from this blog post:


By your acclaimed author?

As they say in Minnesota, "You betcha'!"

Now, I normally don't mind if people use my work as long as the use is appropriate, they ask permission first and they give proper credit.  But I guarantee you nobody from Outside Magazine bothered to drop me a line about using my work.

You can damned sure bet that if they caught me plagiarizing their work one of their army of lawyers would be using me as a punching bag.  But I believe in being civil and letting folks correct their mistakes.  Besides, I can't afford a lawyer.  Even the ones in the family say they won't charge.  Especially the ones in the family who say they won't charge!

So this evening Outside Magazine got a nicely worded email asking them to take the picture down.  We'll check back later to see if they paid attention.

Stay sharp!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Blade Show 2013

Just as each year the swallows return to Capistrano and the buzzards return to Hinckley, so must I make the arduous trek to the north Atlanta region to attend the annual Blade Show.  It is a journey I make and a risk I take for my devoted followers (all three of you).

This year was no different.  Braving some gawd-awful traffic on the north side (repaving work in I-285) that turned a normally one hour trip into a two hour ordeal my traveling companions Scott and Jason and I finally made it to the Cobb Galleria by noon.

The 2012 show had seemed somewhat anemic - fewer attendees than the 2011 show and fewer exhibitors.  The 2012 show seemed to only fill about 3/4 of the Cobb Galleria convention center floor.  I was concerned about how this year's show might indicate a trend of declining exhibitors and attendees, perhaps reflecting an overall drop in interest in knives.  Well, I'm pleased to report that this year's show was packed.  The convention center floor was jammed wall-to-wall and corner-to-corner with vendors, exhibitors and paying attendees.  When we walked through the convention center doors around noon I was amazed at the sheer number of people.  The place was slammed!

As usual I spent far too much time gawking and too little time taking pictures.  There was just too much to see.

Let's begin.

First, R. Lee Ermey (a.k.a., "The Gunny") was back at the SOG booth.  This is the second time I've seen him at the Blade Show, and I've seen him at other venues for Glock.  The guy is a prince.  He'll stand for hours signing autographs and posing for pictures, and he's always got a few minutes to chat with veterans.

Here he seems to be discussing new ways to make watermelons suffer:

"Let's see, if we stack 'em six high, bayonet AND machine gun them do ya'
think they'll get the message?"

Next, I sauntered over to visit J.D. Davis, a knifemaker out of Fruitland Park, Florida who did a custom knife for me back in 2011 and made a similar model for me earlier this year, this time in CPM 154 and with orange G-10 handles.  I arranged to pick the knife up at the show and he had it ready and waiting.  I was not disappointed!  I'll be doing a more in-depth review of this knife down the road after I get some use out of it.

J.D. Davis drop point hunter in CPM 154 steel and orange G-10 handle scales

A stop by the A.G. Russell booth is mandatory.  A.G. has been in the knife business longer than most of us have been alive.  Literally.  He started in 1964 selling Arkansas whetstones and built a knife empire by showcasing and distributing the offerings from many of the world's best custom knifemakers and manufacturers.  He's been a mentor to many and along with luminaries like Bo Randall, Bob Loveless, Jimmy Lile, Bill Moran and dozens of others helped trigger the post-WWII boom in custom and production knives.  He helped establish the Knifemaker's Guild to foster and support the craft of custom knife making, helped establish trade groups that have made the knife industry stronger and better able to push back against some of the stupid anti-knife legislation that gets thought up by state and local law makers, and helped establish increasingly higher quality standards for production grade knives.  If you want your products to be sold through A.G.'s catalog they had better be damned good, whether you are a custom maker or a volume manufacturer.

To the knife enthusiast he is The Lion in Winter.

A.G. Russell (right) being interviewed by Adam Francis from Equip to Endure
Of course a trip to A.G.'s booth meant I had to buy something, right?  You bet!  I'm a fan of his sowbelly trapper series so this year I picked up one of his clip point sowbelly folders with yellow delrin handle slabs (a favorite of mine).  These are outstanding knives made to A.G.'s exacting standards in China.  Overall a great blade.

A.G. Russell Clip Point Sowbelly Folder

In time I moseyed past the Condor Took & Knife booth and found Joe trying to carve a dugout canoe out of a green twig.  Clearly he needs closer supervision.

I've written about Condor in the past, both in this blog and on the knife-oriented forums I hang out on.  I have a soft spot in my heart for the company based on my time spent in Central and South America.  Condor is a brand name of Imacasa, an El Salvador based knife and tool company.  For decades most of their products have focused on the needs of their local customers - simple workman style tools for the day laborer - machetes, butcher knives, etc.  Nothing fancy, sometimes crude, but always a good value for the man who made his living using an edged tool.  Several years ago Imacasa decided to try to break into the US market by developing a line of products aimed specifically at the outdoor enthusiast.  They pay close attention to what their customers are saying and over time their product quality has improved and their line of products has expanded.  Their products are not made of exotic steels (they mostly use 1075 carbon steel), nor are they highly finished.  But they exhibit good design, are well made and are outstanding values.


Joe and Richard from Condor.  Joe is hiding the twig behind his back.
Like a fool I barged into the Condor booth and started swinging all the big blades.  I turned around to find I was the only one left standing in the space.  Hey, I was just checking for the all important 'balance point' of the machetes and parangs, OK?  One that immediately caught my attention was the Village Parang.  While it's a hefty bit of steel it's very well balanced and the handle is the most comfortable of the Condor parang-style blades.  Plus the leather sheath is exquisite, easily worth half the asking price of the blade.  I had to have it.  Richard was happy to sell it.  Now it's mine.

Condor Tool & Knife Village Parang

Let me spend a few lines talking about my overall impressions of the show.  As I mentioned when I opened this posting I was very heartened to see just how busy the place was and how many vendors there were.  It's a great sign that the knife industry is alive and doing very well.  The only obvious absences from the show were Cold Steel and Gerber, but I've never seen them at a Blade Show before anyway so they weren't much missed.

I also noted a clear reduction in the number of what I'll call 'tacticool' or 'zombie killer' equipment vendors.  I'm hoping the days of the zombie hunter craze are over.  This show seemed more industry focused, with a larger number of smaller displays from manufacturers that produce exotic steels, knife making tools and components.  There were still a few vendors selling cheap Chinese produced samurai swords, battle hatchets, throwing stars and other crap, but the number of those types seemed to be down.  I think the Blade Show organizers need to work to keep those vendors out.  Let 'em go sell their junk at the local flea markets.  Overall, however, the knife industry was very well represented.

Lots of vendors selling quality knife making components.
These folks had an impressive array of handle materials

Just about everything you need to start making your own knives!

One thing I did notice is that the individual knifemaker tables were really not getting the attention they deserved, and that included from me.  The small individual knife makers are really the ones taking the biggest financial risk in coming to the show.  They have to pay out of pocket for their travel, lodging and their table space in the hopes that they'll make some sales or pick up some future orders.  They all bring examples of their best work and put their heart and soul out on the table for all to see.  Unfortunately most of the attendees rush for the big manufacturer's booths and pass right by the gems sitting on the smaller tables.  I've resolved that next year I'll spend the majority of my time looking at what the little guy brings.

I've about come to the end of this posting, so it's fitting I highlight the one vendor I stumbled on towards the end of my time at the show.  Hidden away in the far left corner of the show floor was a display space occupied by a fairly new knife company called Southern Grind.  I had heard about them but never had a chance to handle their offerings.  Southern Grind is a business started by the musician Zac Brown.  Zac is a local boy who made good, and he pours a lot of the profits from his band's music and associated businesses into his charity, Camp Southern Ground.  The same goes for a percentage of the profits from his Southern Grind knife business.  (And yes, Zac is a big knife enthusiast.)  In talking with the guys at the Southern Grind booth I was surprised to learn they have moved their knife production to Peachtree City, GA, literally just a few miles from where I live.  I got to handle their 'Bad Monkey' line of liner lock folders and was actually very impressed.  So impressed I brought two home.

Southern Grind packages their 'Bad Monkey' line in these weird knife 'tacos'.

The Bad Monkey taco

Which unwraps to reveal this.

A knife, a leather drink cozy, a key chain and a paracord survival bracelet!
Can of V8 Juice is extra.

The knife uses the patented Emerson Wave knife opening notch.

Note the 'Bad Monkey' logo on the blade pivot pin


The 'Bad Monkey' is a great knife, and the fact that my purchase helps a great local charity makes it even better.

So that's it for Blade Show 2013.  There was lots more I didn't cover but these are the highlight.  It was a great show, we had a great time and I'll be back next year come you-know-what or high water!

Stay sharp.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mystery Ranch Goodness

I haven't been too attentive to this or my other blog for a while.  Nothing wrong, just busy at work and otherwise lazy.  Plus writer's block and a general lack of good ideas and/or inspiration.  I've got several good topics racked and stacked for future posts, but I need to wait until the end of the month and the 2013 Blade Show before I can get them fully developed.

So today we'll take a side trip to have a look at what has fast become my favorite backpack, the Mystery Ranch 3 Day Assault Pack.



In a past post on this blog I've covered my lifetime search for the perfect day pack.   At the time I heaped praise on the USGI MOLLE II Assault Pack.  My opinion hasn't changed - it is still one of the best day packs ever developed.  However, a hobby/obsession wouldn't be a hobby/obsession if the search didn't continue, and I'm always on the lookout for something newer and better.

About a year ago I started noticing a growing discussion about packs made by a small manufacturer out of Bozeman, Montana named Mystery Ranch.  Owners of their packs heaped high praise on them.  Now, that's not at all unusual in today's internet driven fanboy mentality world.  You can find plenty of fawning posts on the web for the Yugo but that doesn't mean it was a great car, or even a fair car (in fact, it was a pretty damned lousy car).  The same goes for backpacks.  Lots of lousy gear gets great reviews simply because someone bought it, is afraid to admit their mistake, has an internet connection and is craving some attention.

However, things were a bit different with the Mystery Ranch products.  A lot of the comments were coming from folks who had no prior interest in Mystery Ranch products but were issued them as part of their work.  In particular, military members engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Forest Service firefighters working the fire lines in remote locations where their packs carried all their fire fighting, survival and subsistence gear.  The reports were generally glowing, and many focused on the quality of the design, overall carry comfort and tough-as-nails construction. 

I had never heard of Mystery Ranch before and did a little digging on the company.  It turns out that Mystery Ranch is owned by Dana Gleason, one of the top backpack designers in the industry.  Gleason got his start in the business back in the 1970s repairing what others made.  This gave him an excellent perspective on what works and doesn't work from a design, materials and construction standpoint.  He doesn't repeat the mistakes of others.  Gleason has started, then sold, several backpack production companies but about 12 years ago he settled in Bozeman and started his current venture, Mystery Ranch. 

The company builds a wide range of backpack products, most of them incorporating new and unique designs in load carrying technology.  Of particular interest is their Futura adjustable suspension system that allows the backpack fit to be custom tailored to the individual.  To be fair, adjustable shoulder harnesses are nothing new in the backpack world.  Gleason just took the concept in his own direction and came up with what is, in my opinion, one of the most comfortable suspension systems on the market today.

My interest is in small - medium capacity day packs, something to throw on the back for a few hours at the most.  It only needs to carry a first aid kit, some water and snacks, camera, GPS, maybe some fishing gear.  In slightly more extreme circumstances I may have to toss in a survival kit, rain jacket, extra socks, gloves and a vest.  Nothing too big or complicated.  My days of hauling huge, heavy loads are long over.  The smallest pack in their line is also one of their most popular, perhaps the most popular given the number of packs produced.  It's the 3 Day Assault Pack, and it's Mystery Ranch's sales leader simply because it's been adopted by a number of militaries around the world.  The US military uses it in a limited role, it is popular with military contractors working in the Middle East and the Australian Army has selected it as the standard assault pack for its ground forces.  It didn't get selected because it was a cool looking backpack (which it is), it got selected because it had been tested in combat, modified and improved based on lessons learned and the final result is a bag that scores high on carry comfort, functionality, adaptability and ruggedness.  Of course this means I had to have one!

Mystery Ranch 3 Day Assault Pack just back from a hike

When I ordered my pack from Mystery Ranch I was told it would be a two week wait before they could ship; they were out of stock on the bag and waiting for more to be produced.  That two week wait extended to almost five weeks as the company struggled to catch up with it's production backlog on the pack.  The 3 Day Assault Pack is extremely popular and demand is high.  In fact, Mystery Ranch had to set up a production facility in the Philippines to handle orders from its Asian customers.  My guess is that's where the bags being produced for the Australian Army are being made.  Rest assured though that if you are a US-based customer your bag will be made in Bozeman, Montana using US-produced materials.

Many of Mystery Ranch's designs utilize what they call the tri-zip feature.  The bag is held together by three zippers.  One long vertical zipper that encloses the main bag and two shorter horizontal zippers that form the lid.  I've written before that I'm no big fan of zippers on backpacks.  I've seen far too many of them fail.  While researching this bag I was surprised to find an interview Dana Gleason did a few years back where he addresses this very issue.  Turns out he's no big fan of zippers himself, but he designed his tri-zip bags to meet a specific requirement for fast, easy access to the contents and he was careful in his choice of zippers and how they were incorporated into the design.  Dana states that the design has been very successful and they've had very few zipper related failures, so he's now sold on the idea of using zippers on high stress areas of the packs he produces.

In this shot you can see the three zippers that form the bag -
one long vertical zipper for the main compartment and two
horizontal zippers that form the lid
I'm not sure I'm 100% sold on the zipper concept yet, but it sure does make getting to the contents of the bag easy.

The 3 Day Assault Pack zipped all the way open.
Mystery Ranch aficionados call this 'filleting the bag'. 
But what really sets the 3 Day Assault Pack apart from its competition is the suspension system.  Called the Futura System, it is an infinitely adjustable shoulder harness system that can be custom tailored to the user's torso length.   When you order a Mystery Ranch pack you select a suspension system based on your height.  Once you get the bag you custom tune the fit following directions provided by Mystery Ranch.  It's really a two person operation, but in the end you'll have a shoulder harness system precisely tailored to your torso length.  This pack, when fully loaded, is one of the most comfortable - if not the most comfortable - packs I've had on my back.  The bag profile is narrow and the suspension system holds it close to the back.  It is very steady, with little or no side-to-side sway to cause balance problems.

The Futura suspension system with waist belt
One of the last things to mention is the quality of construction.  I've spent over 35 years inspecting soft goods for quality of construction, materials and design.  This pack is, without a doubt, the best civilian market backpack I've ever inspected.  Everything is first rate - from the design to the materials to construction standards.  Here's just one small example.  The 3 Day Assault Pack (along with many other Mystery Ranch packs) has a reinforced double bottom.  But it's not just two layers of material stitched to the sides of the bag.  The inner bottom panel is cut  1/2" smaller all around than the exterior panel.  This means that most of the load weight is supported by the smaller inner panel, reducing stress on the outer panel and reducing the amount of abrasion damage it suffers.  Simple but ingenious.

The attention to detail is amazing.  All seams are expertly stitched and properly reinforced.  You can not find a single hanging thread on any part of this bag, a sure sign of very tight production standards and quality control.






This bag approaches bespoke quality.  While not cheap, it is worth every penny.

Finally, as a sign of pride in their product Mystery Ranch stitches a quality control tag into each bag, and everyone who had a hand in producing it initials off as it moves through the production process.  The Mystery Ranch crew is clearly not shy about letting you know who had a hand in creating your pack.


Stay sharp!