If a highly skilled and respected custom knife maker invited you to design your grail knife, what pattern and materials would you use?
Jesse Hemphill made me that offer, and here is what I came up with.
by Leon Pantenburg
The Ambush Tundra is one of the best user knives on the market IMHO. I’ve used mine to field dress several deer, and my Tundras have been used on elk, a Longhorn cow, alligator, catfish, bass and other fish. My Tundras have whittled wiener sticks, feather sticks and done other bushcraft tasks. I liked my first Tundra so much I got another, just in case they were discontinued. Then I sent both of them back to the Bark River factory to get them re-ground to full height convex.
Still not content, I sent one Tundra to Pete Winkler to get a custom handle made out of antique walnut. I asked that handle be made bigger, and Pete fulfilled my requests exactly.
The result was a beautiful, extremely useful knife that gets used a lot under often harsh conditions. Most knife users would be content and let it go at that. And you can do that – just get a Tundra and you will end up with a superb hunting knife that can handle anything. The Mini Tundra is a superb user and EDC knife for folks with somewhat smaller hands.
The quest for the perfect hunting/bushcraft/outdoors knife is never ending. Mine has gotten down to nit-picking, ticky, tiny tweaks directly related to my personal preferences and prejudices. The collaboration with Jesse Hemphill came up with this Tundra variation, named the SCS (which stands for Survival Common Sense.)
Blade length: 4.5 inches
Blade height: 1-1/2 inches. Standard Tundra blade height is 1-1/4. I’m going to use this taller blade and see how it works out. I really like the Tundra blade height, and have found it to be excellent. We’ll see how the taller blade works out.
Overall length: 9.5 inches
Steel: A2 or CPM 3V
Handle: Green micarta, 1 inch thick
Blade thickness: .1 inch to .125 inches thick
Sheath: Sturdy leather
The good stuff:
Design: The Canadian leaf style blade is one of the most useful you’ll ever find. I discovered this several years ago when I ordered a Bark River Canadian Special. This is a superb knife – for some people. It was designed by Bark River President Mike Stewart for his personal knife, and it is a winner.
But the handle finger scallops didn’t fit my large hands, and the blade was too thick. When the LT version came out, I ordered one and tried to like it. But the handle still didn’t work for me. Reluctantly, I let both of them go. When the Tundra came on the market in 2015, I got one as soon as they hit the dealers’ shelves and immediately put it to work on an elk hunt. My admiration for the design is well known.
Handle: This is another custom feature that might not work for everyone. I want a thick handle that I can grasp and use easily. Check out tool handles in the hardware store – most of the hammers, hatchets, chisels etc. have a generous oblong handle with a relatively large diameter.
I grew up doing hardcore manual labor and have many times used a shovel or swung a framing hammer all day on a construction job. My working man mitts got bigger and stronger when I played bass in a bluegrass band, and broke bricks and boards with my hands while studying Taekwondo. I want a generous-sized knife handle, and a dainty, small diameter one just won’t cut it for long term use.
I sent Jesse the dimensions I wanted on the handle, and he produced it exactly.
Handle material: Micarta. I have user knives with beautiful wood handles that get worked hard all the time. But for a hardcore user knife, micarta is king. It is virtually bullet-proof, and you can beat the hell out of it without worrying about it breaking.
But if you have a favorite handle material, Jesse can integrate it into your knife.
Grind: Full convex is my favorite and there was never any question about how the blade would be ground.
Quillon: Most of my user knives have no quillon at all, and I have never had my hand slide up on a blade while using it. But I wanted a quillon on this knife for a couple of reasons.
- I teach rank beginners how to use sharp knives. We use knives for drilling wood, cleaning fish, whittling feather sticks or wiener sticks and a multitude of knife-related activities. The quillon is one more safety feature.
- Working inside the abdominal cavity of a big game animal, which I do several times a year, the user must sometimes work by feel. This is very dangerous, and the quillon helps the user keep the edge located at all times. This is particularly important when you are wearing latex gloves under cut-resistant gloves, which is my protocol.
- This quillon is unobtrusive and looks really cool.
- And I just wanted one.
Blade thickness: The final SCS will have a thin blade, between .1 and .125 inches. I don’t like thick blades, and with today’s super steels, don’t see a reason for one. In some 50 years of woods rambling, backpacking, hunting and fishing and hanging out in the backcountry, I have never broken a blade.
I want the knife to be tough enough to quarter a deer, elk or hog, but still thin enough to slice well. Lateral strength of the steel should be great. A2 or CPM 3V can easily provide that strength.
Spine: Ground at a 90-degree angle, like an ice skate. This is for scraping a ferro rod or shredding tinder.
Steel: This is still open for discussion. I like A2 steel because of its edge retention and ease of sharpening. CPM 3V is harder and tougher, but is also harder to sharpen. I have several BR knives in both steels, and for a user knife, I could go either way. Jesse and I will hash this out down the road.
The protoype came in 1095 carbon steel. That used to be the standard by which other steels were measured. Then the super steels came along and we all thought our knives had to have them. Since I’m OCD about sharpening knives and cleaning firearms, I never had a problem with 1095 dull blades. I compulsively maintain blades, and the 1095 holds an edge just fine.
But A2 and CPM 3V are clearly superior steels, so why not use one of them?
Cost: A user knife needs to be affordable. to the average user. In many instances, quality knives in the family budget must rank below the kids’ needs. The average knife user should be able to afford a SCS. It also needs to be priced so that if it gets lost there will not be major trauma. The SCS will be a fairly-priced tool, for the maker and the buyer, within the reach of any user.
So is this SCS my ultimate grail knife? Is my never-ending search for cutlery perfection over?
I don’t know yet. It’s all about the journey. When Alexander the Great finally conquered all the known world in 326 BC, it proved to be a letdown.
“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” – Plutarch
Well, the SCS may prove to be my grail hunting/bushcraft knife. Time will tell, and I will be wringing the SCS knife out in the next few weeks.
But I’ve also been searching for the ultimate fillet knife, EDC, pocket knife, survival knife etc. The quests continue.
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