Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Gear Review: The Fällkniven PHK Professional Hunting Knife

As knife designs evolve they have to overcome the traditions and stereotypes of the past. There are more designs now and part of the reason is we let our creative juices flow easily when we know that sales might driven by an innovative look as much as higher performance.

When I moved to Montana as a young child, there was only one real hunting knife around here. The Ruana. Rudy Ruana began making knives in Bonner, Montana back when his first clients were Native Americans who needed better blades for skinning horses. Since that time Ruana knives have been the go-to hunting knives for anyone roaming these parts. But back then, the only common options to fill the Ruana void if you couldn’t afford one of Rudy’s blades were knives by Buck, Case, and Schrade.

Rudy retired from the knife business in 1983 which happened to be the same time Fällkniven was ramping up half a world away. In 1984, Fällkniven opened its doors to the world pushing blade technology in directions Rudy never would have dreamed of as he was using old car and truck leaf springs from which he forged his early blades.

In many ways the newest Ruana knives carry forward much of the same look and feel of their ancestors. The core values of the Ruana knife is to preserve the Ruana knife experience. But that doesn't mean Ruana isn’t innovative. In fact they revived one of their more survival-like blades recently in a joint venture with TOPS Knives of Idaho. The blade is called the Smokejumper and revitalizes a design that Rudy created back in the 1930s when smokejumping became a thing. And the minimalist blade with paracord-wrapped skeletonized handle will look quite familiar to those who wander the knife aisles of the survival goods stores.

Charade Schrade
As an elementary student, my knife budget was certainly not what it is today. At that time I fell in love with a US-made Schrade Old Timer Woodsman. It was beefy with a full tang nestled between its nylon faux-wood handles. The steel was, and still is, average. As my knife tastes changed I moved through a handful of other hunting blades, but the size and shape of the Woodsman was always in the back of my mind, especially the blade thickness and rich belly. But not unless some seriously great steel was part of the deal. And a handle upgrade. Today we are well into the 21st century after all and that was two thirds of the way through the 20th century.

The Hunted
There seems to be very few constants in knife making these days with human strength (lifting, holding, wielding) being one. And second would be that the blade can cut into or through the stuff we like to cut. Not too dull. Not too flexible. Not to blunt. Kind of a “Goldilocks Blade.” Beyond that, there are few rules. But there are many traditions, and it is those anchors of history that we have to overcome in order to innovate.

Since the mid-1980s the Fällkniven Knife Company has served the needs of those who might find themselves floating to earth under a parachute, or working their way back home after a crash landing. The Fällkniven F1, also known as the Swedish Pilots Knife, is a small package of cutting dynamite where hunting is on the menu, but the menu is quite large with many vegetarian options. I carried the F1 in my hunting kit, but often found myself looking around for something better when it comes to hunting tasks and game processing. And Fällkniven yet again answered the call.

The Fällkniven Professional Hunting Knife, or PHK, is a gorgeous upswept-point blade of mildly larger proportions than dusty traditions would specify. Frankly, the moment i saw the design of this blade, I knew it would be good. There was just something so right about it. So modern but primitive. It carried forward the belly of a skinner with the rigidity of a wilderness blade while offering the user a more control though an indexed grip that did not demand fingers be parked only in designated spots. Like something you would see in sub-Saharan Africa. The Fällkniven Professional Hunting Knife has an upsweep-drop point which seems like it could be a juxtaposition, but in fact it’s the best of both worlds. Perhaps the best of all worlds.

The potentially contradictory blade shape of upswept-drop point is an irony of iron that really works. Traditionally upswept designs were elegant but small slicers that skinned game through intricate sweeping motions with total control due to a far-forward index finger placement riding the spine out near or on the blade tip. When the blade exceeds the distance between palm and index finger, the whole hand must move beyond the grip and out onto the blade pinching it between thumb and middle finger while the index does the steering. It’s a dangerous move that requires practice especially when done quickly or blindly...or often both. On traditional larger drop point blades, the tip of the blade rides below the index fingernail meaning it's easier to poke a hole into the skin or membrane during a slice. The pros can drag the tip precisely like a surgeon’s scalpel, but anything done in the field or when things are wet, cold, or as noted before, usually both, is risky. And the more blood and sweat in the mix, the more likely the game won’t be the only one skinned. However, on the Fällkniven Professional Hunting Knife the upswept drop point allows fairly precise driving even from the back seat. The thick spine provide firm but smooth purchase, and the added length in front of the fingertip is easily adapted to by any serious user

Sons of Anarchy
There is a term in knifedom called the “Sharpfinger.” It is both a general and proper noun. Essentially a sharpfinger is a type of knife that is held and manipulated much like a sharp index finger. The most popular sharpfinger is the Schrade, which just happens to be quite similar vintage to my Old Timer Woodsman. The latest Schrade Old Timer Sharpfinger is a thin-bladed, low-quality steel, Chinese-made nod to the Sharpfinger of the past. But one would never carry just a Sharpfinger alone since it is barely enough knife to do the skinning but not much more. Actually that’s not quite true. It seems the Sharpfinger is also a hit with some Hells Angels, in particular Sonny Barger who defended the sharpfinger knife by saying, “I like knives with sharp points. You never know when you might want to pop a balloon or peel a banana." Barger’s book Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club is a great read and should be mandatory prepper consumption for myriad of reasons. And I’ll just leave it there.

Iron Maiden
The iron coursing through the veins of the Fällkniven Professional Hunting Knife blade is a 3G laminated steel scoring a 62 on the Rockwell hardness scale (HRC). The tang is a broad protruding one that, like Fällkniven’s survival blades, pops out the back of the grip completing the solidity of this package. A single grommeted hole graces the far end of the Kraton grip allowing a lanyard to be attached.

But with change comes controversy. If mildly noticeable deviations from the blade norm will raise eyebrows from the general user and smirks and sideways glances from the knife glitterati, then drawing your PHK from its zytel sheath will leave mouths agape. Until they use the knife system, that is. Without knowing it, most survivalist and hunters are carrying on a tradition that began long ago. The camo-clad crowd spouts “two is one, and one is none.” But what they are really saying is carry both your Sami and your puukko. The Sami (or Leuku) is the big blade, and the puukko is the smaller blade. For those who also feel the need to pack a machete in their BOB, well now you too get a historical word to define that part of your kit: Seax.

Big blades and little blades have been complementing each other for millennia. But not just for failure recovery, but for a highly planned and discriminatory division of labor. Big jobs for the big knife, and small jobs for the small knife. A further refinement of this concept did develop further prejudice and that is with the sacrificial blade and the primary blade. or the Pawn and the King, if you will. In hunting circles, there is the hunting knife that is cared for, babied, and often rides safe and warm in the hunting pack instead of on the belt. And there is the working knife that does all the daily maintenance and dirty jobs far below the noble duties of the king. I admit that I too practice this bit of favoritism, but in terms of survival, the OO knife (double-oh knife), or Only One knife concept is very real when the hunting gear must be high speed, low drag.

Left Field
In the quest for the ideal blade or blades, some odd but effective knife shapes and features evolved into some pretty interesting and divergent designed such as the Wyoming Knife, Gerber’s Vital series, and all the variations of the Ulu theme. While I appreciate the creative knife options for specialized hunting tasks, I don’t see them as “instead of” knives, but rather “in addition to” knives. Meaning the hunting pack just got heavier. Some hunters even have a “surgical roll” of blades, hooks and saws that they unroll alongside the still-warm game. But usually those leanings are more in the direction of taxidermy than meat hunting especially when the truck is miles or even days away. Let’s take a closer look at hunting knife innovations and how come they are so necessary today.

Traditions Change
I think it all started when hunting moved from an out-the-backdoor activity to a pseudo-military expedition into the untamed wilderness. There’s not a lot of hardware to carry when popping a Bambi off the back porch. You gut the beast right there donating the innards to the predators that keep the place clean and tidy. Drag the carcass back home. String it up on a tree to cool. When ready, you head to your  kitchen for some meat and bone-specific cutlery. Basically an outdoor butcher shop.

All is fine and dandy until you are miles into the woods and your quarry might not go down willingly like the whitetail snacking on your hedges would. Enter the big (for a) hunting knife. When money and carry-weight is tight, items seem to gain more uses. Military knives moved from BDU belt accessory to top-tier hunting wardrobe. The knife needed to run triple-duty as a camp knife for those lifetime adventures in the national parks, off-grid hunting expeditions, and there is always the self-protection thread that runs through the timeless fabric of knife ownership.

Like all evolutionary change, as one critter specializes, another pops up to capitalize on the available niche. So as the hip-hugging hunting knife moved away from the detailed work and more towards the bigger cruder jobs, little knives moved in like tiny mammals taking over the mini-landscape left behind as the dinosaurs grew bigger. Then when the mighty asteroid dirtied up the place 65 million years ago, the little furry warmbloods made their move. And here we are, more or less.

Specialized knives started to weigh down the hunter who might actually carry a combat blade for general outdoor use, a razor-sharp cutting knife, a skinning knife, a bone saw, and perhaps even a hunting hatchet to split open those pesky big game rib cages and detach bony limbs. What drove this equipment frenzy was the search for exactly the right tool for the job, and not the best tool for many jobs. When at home, you can have all the specialized tools and blades you want. But carrying them on your back and belt is a different story. Especially when you know you will need to use the knife for many other non-hunting chores, and rarely for the chore it was designed for.

Small is Big
In a strange twist on a perpetual theme, there was a movement that started out with good intentions, but ended up causing a mess. And that movement was fueled by the belief that the better a hunter you were, the smaller the knife you needed. Basically the opposite of the Bowie and Tennessee Toothpick persona. Imagine Rambo whipping out his Spyderco Ladybug. Maybe let’s not. The issue rose to epic proportions when a hunting knife could be mistaken for a scalpel complete with a replaceable razor-thin tip. Of course then another knife was needed for regular camp tasks, and an even larger blade was carried for the traditional forest duties. But then the tiny hunting knife with its tiny blade could not remain sharp for long due to its thinness and short cutting surface. So add to the growing pile of knives the sharpening tools and extra blades necessary to keep the knives in the fight.

But the same evolutionary rules that lead to the population explosion of knives can also lead to its extinction. Blades were staying home and hunters were squeezing more performance and specialized jobs out of knives obviously not designed for such work. As the proverbial pendulum began its healthy swing back towards center, so started another renaissance of sorts with hunting knives. The short ones got a little longer. The thin ones got a little thicker. And the pointy ones got a little more dropped. And the full belly of the skinner was shared across designs.

Further, the grips gained features, and the quest for razorblade sharp steel trumped the high carbon sharpening ease of the leaf springs. Taking advantage of this enlightenment in hunting knives was none other than Fällkniven by creating an obviously unique take on the philosophical concept of a hunting knife. The Fällkniven PHK has hints of many different blades from Samurai Sword, to Tanto fighting knife, to skinning blade, to wilderness knife, to survival blade. In fact, the PHK is like a piece of contemporary art that assumes the preferences of the viewer as much as standing on its own. In other words, the PHK does it all, and most things well.

At five millimeters thick, the PHK blade shares a level of strength uncommon to traditional hunting knives. And its blade length exceeds the hunting industry standard by about an inch. Further, the attention Fällkniven gave to hygiene is something more in line with the butcher shop than the killing field. The stainless steel and kraton grip clean up nicely and provide few homes for bacteria unlike bone and wood handles.

In general, the PHK guts like a gutter, skins like a skinner, chops like a chopper and slices like a slicer. It does none of these things quite as good as a blade specifically designed and dedicated to such tasks, but the PHK is well within the margin of error for modern task-specific cutlery. Adding to this list, the Fällkniven PHK also worked great as a minor clever as it crunched through upland game bird wings and legs with skill and finesse. The full belly rolls smoothly through all things aviary, and breaks the bones of any fish you can lift. But big game is another story. Processing hundreds of pounds of animal requires some seriously edged firepower so pushing eight inches of blade length around a carcass is a task well within the Fällkniven Professional Hunting Knife skill set.

What About BOB
Each hunting trip by nature has hints of bugging out. And since the statistical chance of a catastrophic event happening does not decrease in the least just because you are wandering the hills miles from anywhere. You should view your hunting kit as your potential Get-Home gear and your knife as your bug out blade. The Fällkniven PHK Professional Hunting Knife seems an excellent blend of blade size, shape, thickness, and edge profile. So planning for the best, and preparing for the worst could be the Fällkniven PHK’s motto.

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