Wednesday, January 22, 2020

UKW Survivor Knife: Utah Knife Works’ update of the infamous Tracker Blade

Origin stories are always interesting. Whether the first life on earth, or the beginnings of a Super Hero, the origin story starts the character arc. In the case of a knife, for some, the origin story can be as important as the actual blade. The Bowie Knife, for instance, or the Puukko. Some like the Fairbairn-Sykes might not carry household name recognition, but anyone in the knife-know would quickly say, “Oh yes, I know that knife.”

There’s another knife popularly known as the “Tracker.” It’s a unique shape, or rather combination of shapes that are baked into a single blade design. While the knife has a documented history that dates back to the 1980s, the uniqueness of the overall knife silhouette really hit the big screen, the actual real big screen in the 2003 movie “The Hunted” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro. Although the knife in the movie was promoted as a combat blade, the actual Tracker was a dedicated survival knife.

Through documentation and primary sources, the initial design of what will become the famous Tracker Knife, or more specifically, the Tom Brown Tracker, had its roots with Robb Russon whose son Mark runs Utah Knife Works and produces a Tracker variation named the Survivor. The story about Russon and Brown would make a fine Hollywood movie on its own. Here's some backstory from Mark Russon himself:

By any measure, the Survivor Knife is a beefy blade. Built of 9CR18MoV stainless steel, and almost a quarter-inch thick, the starting slab of steel of the Survivor is plenty for anything hand-operated. Six main features of the Survivor knife jump out on first view. Forward of the handle is a flat knife blade followed by a strong curved front end, The point of the spine has aggressive and offset saw teeth, and behind that is a cutting hook that doubles as both a seatbelt cutter and sharp gut hook. Rounding out the features is a distinct flat hammer face protruding from the back end of the handle. 

The famous profile of the knife shape is mainly the transition from a somewhat inset flat blade to a separate curved blade profile with saw teeth of some sort gracing the front end. In the case of this Survivor Knife, the presentation is about a foot long, and in a bright stainless with black glass-reinforced canoe-shaped nylon scales each fixed in place with three bolts.

Other versions of the Tracker knife use high carbon steel, powder coated blades, and various scale choices. There are even larger and smaller versions being sold. What they all have in common besides an ancestor from Utah is an obvious shape; the shape of the Tracker.

In the field, the Utah Knife Works Survivor produces results. The first thing you would notice when hefting this blade is the heft. It’s substantial at a full pound. The six-inch blade doesn’t get any thinner until the final half inch of tip. And care needs to be taken given the top of the blade also cuts both with saw and hook.

The initial two-and-a-half inches of straight blade just forward of the grip is steeper flat grind with its six covered by a solid thump ramp with melted jimping. The flat blade works as draw knife and batoning face as well as a traditional cutting blade. And when batoning, care is needed because you don’t want to strike the saw teeth. Instead, you can go easy and aim just in front of the teeth where a small tip platform is open space, or you can strike to the rear of the gut hook on a sloping plain of steel directly above the straight blade. Of course you will quickly exceed the girth of the blade but at that point I’ve found I can often twist the knife handle counter-clockwise (right handed) further splitting the workpiece.

There’s a hard stop to the blade before it transitions into the frontend curved blade. There’s no drop on the point, and given the forthcoming safety hook as one follows the blade edge up and around, the tip of the Utah Knife Works Survivor is more of an upswept ending easily inline with the top of the grip or maybe a touch above it.

Cutting surfaces on the Utah Knife Works Survivor do their job without complaint. When making feather sticks, the straight blade works wonders. And as a batoning section, it works well up to its full length. Given that it is a portion of the overall blade length, you can use its entire dimension to baton branches and section larger wood.

As a chopper, the Utah Knife Works Survivor performs, but not at hatchet-level. The weight-forward blade has the mass and edge to hack wood, but being at the end of the blade, it also curves up rapidly leaving only an inch or two of chopping surface. Chopping with the straight portion of the blade sacrifices much of the moving mass.

The cross-cut saw teeth address the first two inches back from the point, and they are aggressive. Making more of a grinder than a saw, the teeth are exceptional at carving notches, short-throw sawing, and producing more sparks off a fire rod than you can imagine. Trying to saw a branch with the teeth is questionable. The short throw of the saw means you have to use it more as an oscillating tool.

The cutting hook is the most factory-sharp surface on the knife. Second is the straight edge, and the third is the curved edge. The cutting hook can be used for domestic survival chores including cord and strap cutting along with linear slicing. On the homestead, the hook will quickly delimb small branches with efficiency, and provide a precision carving surface for making pointed sticks. As a gut hook it is more of a gut cutter that works great for initial skinning, and, well, gut cutting.

The black leather sheath is a single-stitched, two snap, belt loop design. The unique shape of the Utah Knife Works Survivor all but demands an unconventional sheath design. It works well. A nice touch in the future that would also accent the “Survivor” nature of this blade would be to sew a firesteel loop onto the sheath.

Another one of the appealing features of the Utah Knife Works Survivor Knife is its price. Retailing for $150, the knife is a strong contender for a bug out, planned or otherwise.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Our Podcast. Listen or die.

We are podcasting as well. So join Professor Prepper, aka Doc Montana, through the wonderful medium of the spoken voice. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Solo Stove Lite: The Ultimate Bug Out Wood Burner

The Solo Stove design is a stainless steel can-shaped wood-burning container of numerous sizes from easy carry for backpacking, to a monster that needs two people to lift it. For this review, we will take a look at the Solo Stove Lite, the smallest of the Solo Stove offerings. Part 2 will address a larger Solo Stove stove, and a campfire-sized Solo Stove.

The Solo Stove Lite is a beautifully engineered and executed stainless steel wood stove not much bigger than a can of beans. But what does raise eyebrows is the price; about $70. And even more surprising than the price is that those who use it absolutely love it! So much so that the price drifts into the ether becoming a non-issue after only a few uses.

The Solo Stove is a dynamic option for those comfortable with placing their cooking needs in the hands of wood. And I am one who does. The Solo Stove is a trifecta of physics, engineering, and materials. On the physics side, the flow of oxygen to the Solo Stove’s main fire chamber follows a dual route “from the bottom to the top,” to quote the Talking Heads. As air enters the base of the Solo Stove through external holes lining the lower parameter, it carries ambient oxygen to the lower vent, and also to upper openings in the main chamber. The oxygen level in air is far above the O2-starved fires inside the stove. So much so that it appears as if flames are flowing out of the upper parameter holes into the main flow of flame. It truly is both inspiring and mesmerizing. You’ve got to see it to believe it.


Air begins its journey under the main fire due to a wire grate that delineates the base of the burn chamber from a sub-chamber that doubles as an ash trap. As the combustion gasses ascent to the upper levels of the stove, they are heated before pouring into the chamber through the holes lining the upper reaches of the inside of the inner wall. The hot air offer an abundance of oxygen causing a gasification effect that takes the tradition campfire wood heating to amazing levels.

An additional benefit from the dual airflow system is that there is extremely little smoke from the stove when burning efficiently. Like none. Of course there is plenty of smoke on both ends of the time you use the stove, but a large part in the middle burn time when cooking and campfireing are done has no noticeable smoke. There is still plenty of wood fire smell, however. One time from a bit of a distance, I thought my stove was pouring out the smoke only to realize as I neared that it was spraying steam like a train whistle out of a snug fit pot lid. And no smoke.

When burning wood, you don’t have to be diligent about the stove’s operation. You can add some wood and walk away. If it burns down, you add more. If your water boils, then good and it will just boil longer. But the Solo Stove completely removes the worry about conserving fuel. And once you get into the Solo Stove mindset, you see fuel everywhere and in abundance.

The Solo Stove Lite is a wood stove on the smaller side that punches well above its weight class. The Solo Stove is made of 320 stainless steel which just means that its made of the most common stainless steel. But stainless steel nonetheless. The welds between the two “cans” are impeccable, and a thing of beauty. A mesh grate of nichrome wires cross-crosses the inside bottom providing a limited but ample supply of air to keep the coals humming along while allowing gravity to remove the spent wood. Sometimes a minor shake of the burning stove tidies up the fire by cleaning out the carbon from the fire.

There are two pieces to the Solo Stove, a main dual container consisting of the two layers of steel, the ash basin, and plenty of holes above and below main chamber. The other piece is a ring of steel with a lip that can either dip into the main can for storage or fly above it as a pot support and doorway for adding more fuel to the combustion chamber.

The riser is essential for cooking over the stove. Without it, a pot or pan would sit flush on the Solo Stove blocking the flow of hot gasses. But there is no need for the riser if just using the Solo Stove as a campfire pit. The riser can easily be added or subtracted from the system with a fire blazing. In fact, it is much easier to get the stove started without the riser.

I’m not sure if it's right or not, but I’ve extinguished my Solo Stove Lite simply by dumping water on it. The water does run out the bottom holes carrying with it plenty of smaller pieces of wood and charcoal. The stove, when dry then clanks like a baby rattle until you dig out all the pieces of detritus rolling around in between the stainless walls.

Being a wood stove, the Solo Stove Lite will get dirty. And depending on how loose you are with the wood input, your pot might just have a black bottom, or the entire pot will become jet black and sticky with creosote. I’m happy to report that the Solo Stove made it through the normal cycle in my dishwasher. I can see the potential for rust however as stainless means less stains, not rustless. But it was nothing more that what I noticed after using the Solo Stove Lite for a few rainy days on a backpacking trip.

In use, I had a boiling quart of water in 10 minutes plus or minus. Usually plus. I used a commercial fire tinder to fire up the stove quickly, but you can use traditional tinder and firesticks to launch this rocket. Some of the benefits include no real concerns for fuel. The only time I ran into a fuel shortage was when I was over 11,000 feet in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana and there was literally no dry cellulose around large enough to burn. I did try to burn mountain goat dung in the Solo Stove Lite, but just couldn’t keep the flame long enough to boil water. Yak dung maybe? Just fresh out of yaks around here.

Even at 10k feet I located plenty of material primarily in two locations. The first was in natural microstream channels where the rain piled up small sticks at congested areas between rocks and narrow water pathways. The second was where small animals had made a home using locally sourced building materials. And in one case, where I knew I was headed to a high spot, I just grabbed a few inch-to-inch-and-a-half thick branches, stripped and resized them, and slid them into my compression straps on by backpack. When arriving at camp, I just processed the branches into Solo Stove-sized fuel. I got about two quarts of boiling water out of each three-foot branch.

I have a 900 milliliter titanium pot and small fire making kit I carry with my Solo Stove Lite. The pot is made by Snow Peak and I use an MSR titanium lid from another cooking kit to cover the pot. My fire kit includes a Bic lighter or two, some matches, a firesteel, some commercial tinder/fire starter, and a tiny saw that I considered a joke until now. The Solo Stove Lite fits neatly inside the pot, and the whole kit fits into a mesh stuff sack with is important to reduce the sharing of black carbon with the rest of your gear.

I am so enamored with my Solo Stove Lite, that it has moved into my primary camp stove position. And I have a dozen or so other stove choices. During a bug out, any liquid or compressed gas stove has a short life. However, should you want to run a liquid fuel in your Solo Stove Lite, there is an optional alcohol can with adjustable lid available for burning fluids. So if you can get over the price, the Solo Stove Lite is an exceptionally useful, efficient, and potentially life saving tool for fun and survival. I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending the Solo Stove Lite.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Benchmade 200 Puukko knife review

Whether Buck, Bolo, or Bowie...Kukri, Kris or Katana, iconic knives are alive and well. Even as the world seems to spin faster by the day, age old knife designs still have a rock solid grip in our hands. The centuries of knife use has honed blades and handles into a near-perfect blend of design features to maximize its symbiotic relationship with humans.

As one moves from the poles towards the equator, the food gets spicier and the blades get bigger. At least that’s what it seems like. So the most recognizable Scandanavian blade, forged far from the equator, is the humble Puukko, a knife with a blade that barely crosses a man’s palm. But oddly, given the near featureless design of the Puukko, knife aficionados and blade historians alike find ample content to argue over and plenty of ammunition from all kinds of sources. So when Benchmade jumped into the Puukko, two things would happen. First, Benchmade would make a very fine knife, and second, it would cause esoteric arguments about the undefined nuances of the Puukko concept. The camping knife lineup at BladeHQ’s website highlights the diversity of knives in that category. From the Otzi neck knife that will make you smile, to the El Chappo cleaver that will make you cringe, the immense number of choices will make you applaud the simplicity and tradition of the Benchmade Puukko 200.

When I see a Puukko in the wild, I generally assume the best about the user. And the opposite when a Bowie is unsheathed to gut a deer. Puukko knives just ooze utilitarian efficiency, design minimalism and general confidence by the user. Which is exactly why it’s so hard to get excited about the Puukko. Kind of like the thrill driving on new tires. The truck owner is thrilled, but the rest of us are underwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of mundane utility.

Is that a Knife in your Genes?

That said, Puukko knives are primitively attractive. Deep down in human DNA shared through a thousand years of breeding has planted the seeds of the Puukko into our knife desires regardless of how bland and uneventful the design. Of course that means the Puukko has to try extra hard to capture our attention in the knife store. With no flashy pommel, bolster, guard or inlays, the humble Puukko is little more than a handle with a blade. Or perhaps a blade with a handle.

Benchmade jumped into the Puukko last year which is surprising either way you look at it begging the question, “Why?” And that would be “why so late to the Puukko party?” Or “why bother at all” given the saturated Puukko market? My guess is that the Benchmade’s answer is somewhere between this being the 21st century and there is room for Puukko improvement. And Benchmade makes knives and the Puukko is a knife. No matter the reason, the Benchmade 200 Puukko is here, and I for one am very glad it is.

Diverting from the ancient and traditional, the Benchmade 200 Puukko employs a thermoplastic elastomer handle rather than the usual birchwood. And a blade steel of semi-stainless 3V is a departure from traditional high carbon steels. The subtle differences in edge profile and grind are more a matter of splitting opinions rather than splitting hairs.

The grind is not the traditional scandi, but a slightly more complex high flat grind with secondary bevel. The scandi grind is a simple machine that is easy to sharpen. But while the purists will sing the praises of the scandi, most blades that started as true scandi grinds slowly deviate to a more convex bevel as variations in human motion while sharpening gradually rounds the metal. Either way, the real question is does it cut?

On the handle side of things, Benchmade used a Santoprene material that is extremely common in many other industries for many other purposes, but not that common in knife making. Frankly, reading the rich resume of Santoprene, it sure should be on more knives. The handle color that Benchmade calls Ranger Green, is a nice flat dark earth variant that I fell in love with on my Benchmade Bugout knife.

How Much Longer?

Overall, the Benchmade 200 Puukko is eight and a quarter inches long with just under half that in a drop point blade. It’s a full enclosed tang design with usable lanyard hole at the rear. The 0.14 inch thick blade is plenty of girth for anything this knife can do. Of course that’s circular logic, but in reality the size and design of this knife is an example of truly balanced engineering, with nothing missing and nothing extraneous. Anything you should do with this knife, you can do with this knife.

The grip swells in two dimensions around the center of the palm giving a positive handhold shape on an already grippy grip. While not totally enough comfort to comfort those wanting some sort of physical guard between blade and handle, its well within specs of the Puukko. Thrusting, stabbing and fast poking are not what the Puukko is for so do so at your own risk. The Puukko is a utility knife that excels at cutting, carving, slicing, drilling, and other blade chores on the lower end of gross hand movements. Keep looking if you want a knife for fighting, prying, hacking, chopping or stabbing. In other words, the Puukko is exactly what you need for what you will be doing but not maybe the best single choice for wandering the dusty, sun-drenched post-apocalyptic hellscape of the future. But should you find yourself in need to stab with the Puukko, just roll your palm around to cover the butt of the handle that that should keep your hand from sliding onto the business side of the knife.

Steel This Knife

The choice of CPM-3V steel is interesting. On the Benchmade website, I get exactly four types of knives they produce that use the 3V steel. And oddly, there is very little in common among them, from a knife standpoint anyway. They include the Boost, the Bailout, the Outlast, and the Puukko with the Puukko as the only fixed blade in which Benchmade uses 3V steel. On the BladeHQ website, over 475 knife and tool choices are listed that use 3V steel with nearly 150 of them in stock and ready to ship.

So what is 3V? In yesterday’s world it would be a full fledged member of the supersteel family, but today it’s more of a entry-level superish steel. Oddly, human civilization is often categorized into time eras named for the material used in cutting tools. Stone, copper, bronze, iron, and… now what? Steel? Supersteel? Super-duper steel? Basically we are splitting steel hairs over a few years compared to the absolutely massive leaps in cutting material technology over many centuries. So the differences we perceive between blade steels today are miniscule compared to those other civilizations experienced. All that said, the 3V choice made by Benchmade was a very good one. While not quite tradition of an original Puukko, it is a worthy choice for a Puukko knife that will likely still be used in the 22nd century.

CPM-3V steel, as a near-stainless steel has some stainless characteristics, but not enough to ignore care and feeding. The knife strengths of CPM-3V steel include toughness and edge retention. Where 3V scores average in with ease of sharpening and corrosion resistance. Not a bad choice set when your lowest score is average and your best is perfect. Beyond its high grind, the point of the drop point (not the purpose but the actual point) makes a quick taper to its end allowing for a maximum retention of strength through thickness until the blade absolutely has to end. And that end is a very usable Puukko-quality tip that’s great for drilling, poking, tip slicing, and minor prying.

Hold Me Tight

The sheath Benchmade includes with the Puukko 200 is actually much better than I expected. Benchmade has a mixed reputation on sheaths. I’ve had every one of Benchmade’s dive knives and exactly zero have good sheaths, with a couple downright dangerous disasters. The Puukko’s sheath is a single-stitched black leather slip-on with a firesteel loop. The standard belt loop is integrated, and an additional leather strap is included to make the sheath dangle for added comfort when sitting. Since the dangler loop is secured by a single snap, I chose to use the dangler strap with the snap wedged between belt and pants to give some added protection against loss.

For reference, the Puukko’s sheath is a modified dangler. A pure dangler has dangling as it’s only carry option, while other sheaths have an included D-ring for an optional dangler strap. The difference actually may have more to do with the position of the knife in the sheath than the sheath attachment. The Benchmade Bushcrafter has a dangler option, but sits very high in the sheath causing extraction issues when dangling. A proper dangling sheath like that of the Fallkniven Jarl addresses much of the knife including the handle usually requiring a two-fingered pommel grip to slide the knife free enough to wrap a few more fingers around it. The Puukko falls much closer to a pure dangler thus committing more to it’s Puukko roots.

A plastic insert inside the sheath adds protection to the sheath from the Puukko’s blade, as well as a smooth hang-free insertion. The friction fit of the sheath snuggs up around the palm swell. Depending on your carry scenario, the sheath-grab may not be enough for your needs. In that case you can easily spend more money than the buck-and-a quarterish that the Puukko costs on a new fancy-smancy custom bushcraft sheath, or you can add some retention to the included sheath by either a O-ring addition to the belt loop, a horizontal strap to belt loop or dangler loop, or use the lanyard hole on the Puukko’s handle to string an additional rope or bungee cord. On mine, I tied in a short knotted lanyard that assists in retraction from the sheath. It works thus far, but I can see a length or loop adjustment in the future. Not sure which way just yet.

Part of a Balanced Diet

Using the Benchmade Puukko 200 is a treat. The balance point is slightly handle-heavy where the knife will titer at about one inch back into the grip. This keeps the knife leaning into your hand which makes a solid footing for all the necessary tasks the Puukko excels at. The spine of the Puukko 200 is flat, as it should be, for additional thumb and palm pressure as needed. However, traditionalists might find the edges of the spine a fraction too rounded to efficiently scrape a firerod. The Benchmade Puukko 200 will throw sparks in its current configuration, but not with the ease of its sharp-spined brethren. A light spine grinding to sharpen the corners are fine if that floats your boat. However, the cutting edge throws sparks as well as anything, and pushing on the spine will likely happen much more often than the need to scrape a firerod. Err on the side of most-use.

Probably the most surprising aspect of the Benchmade Puukko 200 is its price. BladeHQ advertises the Puukko 200 for only $127.50 with free shipping which is about the price of a Griptilian, often described as the affordable entry into the Benchmade lineup. The Puukko is an excellent example of how we can look to the past for help with survival in the future.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers: Tactical Lego Fun and Function

As much as I like to be practical with my tactical, there is some room for fun, especially when color options are a required choice. And nothing comes closer to tactical color fun than playing with Magpul’s M-LOK Rail Covers.

Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers, type 2 to be specific, are textured polymer squares that snap into M-LOK holes on most aluminium M-LOK handguard rails. There are limitations in that the Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers do not fit properly with Magpul MOE M-LOK, nor the Magpul SL and SGA foregrips. The Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers lock into place with a second rectangular plug that provides a near seamless surface of contoured textured grip surface. And I've found that just a bit of grinding on the center section pillar can make the rail cover fit where a gas block limits the clearance.

The Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers sit barely over 1/8th inch above the rail, and use a snag-free design that covers the rail considerably more than most other options. At about two bucks a rail section, adding some custom color to your AR has never been as affordable or functional.

Technically, Magpul makes five different colors including black, flat dark earth, grey, olive drab green, and pink. Since each piece is actually two pieces, and an average handguard can take five covers in a row, that’s five times five times five or 125 different rail combinations possible. Thus the Lego comparison. For my “needs” i avoided the pink and focused on the remaining four colors which left me four times four times five or 80 different possible combinations. And with three rail sides to cover, that would expand the available rail cover color combinations across my rifle to 240.

With all those choices, I first needed to add some system to my thinking. By laying out the and inserts, I could organize my choices into visible comparisons. Some additional factors I considered included contrast, other colors already present on the AR, and my love of certain tactical colors.

After a solid half-hour of mixing and matching, I decided on a set of rail cover colors. Moving from the staging area to the rifle, I quickly realized I needed some specialized tools to rapidly remove the rail covers to avoid settling for a color combination out of laziness. I found that a Snap On angled pic and a Snap On nylon smoothing pry bar worked wonders for rapidly removing the rail covers with no risk of scuffing to cover or handguard.

Of course, being Magpul, the design of the M-LOK Rail Covers allows easy adjustment with nothing more than the tip of a 5.56mm bullet. .223 rounds work just as well, but when safely home, the Snap On tools work better, in my humble opinion.

My Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers playhouse for most of this review was a Noveske AR15 with a Noveske M-LOK handguard filled with M-LOK holes in need of M-LOK rail covers.

The Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers come in packages of six for a total weight per six of under one ounce. So covering three M-LOK rail sections with five panels each will only add 2.3 ounces to your rifle, yet customize it in a breathtaking way that’s sure to both make you smile and make your gun nearly invisible through custom camouflage. Nearly.

I mixed and matched variations and thought about the pros and cons of that particular color scheme. After an hour of trial and error, mostly trial, I settled on a couple designs. From there I took the combination into the wild to see how it fared. Frankly, it seems like pretty much any combination of the Magpul’s M-LOK Rail Covers is a win-win.

Like Legos, it’s fun to play around with different color combinations, and Magpul, whether intended or not, provided an effective rail cover solution that goes so far beyond traditional rail covers that you might just rethink your handguard in order to use the Magpul M-LOK Rail Covers.