Knives of the Overland Expo

One of the best things about being on the setup crew and teaching staff of the Overland Expo is working around a lot of knives.

That is, it’s great to be among a group of people for whom a proper fixed-blade sheath knife is unremarkable daily wear—because it’s likely to be used several times every day. And boy do we use them during the five or six frantic days of prepping a couple tons of equipment and several tons of logs, the three dawn-to-dusk days of the show itself, and the relaxed but busy day and a half of take-down. Deployment might range from the plebeian but necessary task of cutting open taped shipping boxes (for which some of us will subtly substitute a Swiss Army knife so as not to sully our main blades with sticky residue) to the much more stylish—and difficult—test of slicing through Dyneema. 

This year I remembered to gather up a selection of what we’ll call W.O.U.R.N. knives (What’s On U Right Now) from the staff at dinner one evening, and snap a photo. Here’s a rundown of the batch, left to right.

  1. Bruce Douglas has carried this AG Russell knife for well over a decade. Its three-and-three-quarter-inch blade is hollow ground from what was at the time one of the best stainless steels around: ATS-34. While eclipsed somewhat by newer alloys it’s still a fine steel. I know it holds an edge because Bruce has helped me field dress two elk with it. The hollow-ground edge makes it a very fine slicer, albeit a bit less robust for bushcraft tasks such as batoning. The scales are almost black cocobolo.
  2. Volunteer Jayston Landon’s carry knife is a CRKT (Columbia River Knife and Tool) Chugash Range Hunter, with a three-and-a-half-inch blade that reminds me of a Scandinavian pukko. Big-knife aficionados laugh at blades this size; meanwhile, the Scandinavians shrug and continue to use their pukkos to field dress 800-pound moose. 
  3. Nick Taylor carries this impressive Böker Vollintegral, with the longest blade in the group at four and five-eighths inches—still a modest size compared to a lot of the silliness out there. Its full-tang blade is made from 440C stainless—a prosaic choice in this age of wonder alloys (and at its premium price), but a reliable workhorse steel nonetheless. The solid bolster and pommel give the knife a fine, substantial feel, and the black micarta scales (comprising layers of linen in epoxy) lend both comfort and style. Finger grooves offer a secure grip in either hand. The blade combines a flat-ground spine with a hollow-ground edge.
  4. A sublime example of pattern-welded steel (also known erroneously but persistently as Damascus), Andy Dacey’s knife is certainly the most beautiful here, yet it gives up nothing in utility, proving that a knife can be all things. Hand-forged in Japan, where the pattern-welded effect is called suminagashi, the core of the blade is Cowry X, a very high-carbon and chrome content steel, allowing it to be tempered to an astonishingly hard Rc-66 (most knives are hardened to Rc-58 to Rc-60). At that hardness steel can be brittle, thus the 32 layers of nickel steel on either side, which support the edge. The full tang is graced with desert ironwood scales secured with ornate rivets. This knife is flat ground, which should make it an exceptional slicer—and, given that steel, one that will not need sharpening for a very long time.
  5. My own knife this trip was brand new, furnished to me by a promising new maker, Shannon Carter, whose business is called Fall Creek Knives. Shannon got my attention because he only makes working knives, no fantasy wall-hangers or zombie killers, and charges very reasonable prices. This bushcraft style uses very strong O1 tool steel in its four-inch blade, which is ground in a classic Scandinavian, or scandi, edge: Most of the blade is full-width; the edge comprises a single, wide bevel. This makes for easy sharpening in the field with a simple stone, as the edge is easy to orient at the proper angle. The scandi edge is also good for punishing tasks such as splitting kindling or even batoning cross-grain. Desert ironwood scales with black liners, and interesting pinning, along with acid etching on the blade, make this an attractive as well as useful tool. I’ll be posting a full review soon.
  6. Duncan Barbour’s Bison Bushcraft knife makes all the others here look like drawer queens. It clearly shows the strenuous use of over a decade. Duncan shows it no mercy. He’s just as happy to use it on cardboard boxes as Dyneema—or cheese—but it still functions perfectly, thanks to tough O1 steel in the blade and an easily touched-up scandi edge, which is just about ready for some reprofiling to regain the proper flat bevel. The Bison Bushcraft knife is a near clone of the original Woodlore knife designed by Ray Mears in the 1990s. The original Woodlore design, made in England by Alan Wood, boasts a waiting list of several years and a price upwards of a thousand dollars; fortunately for those of modest means the best clones are every bit as good. 
  7. And then there’s Graham Jackson. At first I thought I just caught him at an awkward moment, but no—this Leatherman Skeletool was his main cutting implement the entire week, and no one accused him of slacking off. With that said, a couple of days after the event, as we were picking up a few things at the Frugal Backpacker, Graham splurged on a very nice fixed-blade Helle Temagami.