Saturday, May 16, 2015

Knife Review: Ambush Alpha

Ambush Alpha

The Ambush Alpha with the wooden chrysanthemum I made to demonstrate suitability for cutting curls

Introduction:

This knife review represents an exciting first for me, this is the first time a knife was sent to me for testing and review.  I only had this one for a week, so the review is based on a fairly limited time frame, but I think I did a good job of covering the basic uses that this type of knife would be put through.

The Ambush Alpha is a general field knife, often referred to as a bushcraft knife.  It's designed for all-around camping and hunting use.  It features a beefy overbuilt type of design intended for hard use.  The blade is made of 3/16 thick stock, with a full (skeletonized) tang running through the handle.  It's a solid feeling knife.

The Ambush Alpha is a new knife from a new knife company, Ambush Knives.  As the knife was being launched there was quite a kerfluffle over the similarity between the Alpha and some of the knives produced by SURVIVE! Knives.  I don't have any experience with SURVIVE! Knives, so I can't make any direct comparisons myself, and I feel like the design of the knife is similar to a lot of other knives designed for the same purposes, but the SURVIVE! GSO-5.1 does look quite similar and is made of very similar materials (functionally identical) as the tester I was given to review.  That said, considering how similar many knives designed for "bushcraft" are, I would not presume to cast stones.

For the purposes of the review, it was asked that potential reviewers have experience with heavy duty survival style knives of comparable design, so that the performance of the Ambush Alpha could be compared to the performance of other knives.  In my case the knife that I tested the Alpha against was the Spartan Harsey Difensa.  The Difensa is obviously somewhat different, but both are made of 3/16 particle steels with high flat grinds, skeletonized full tangs, and micarta handles.  For the purposes of this review I think they are plenty close enough for comparison.


Difensa and Alpha side by side.  Sorry for the poor picture quality, I was having some camera trouble that day.

Let's Start With the Specs:


Specifications (From Knives Ship Free website):
Overall Length: 10.5"
Blade Length: 5.125"
Weight: 8.8 ounces
Cutting Edge: 5"
Blade Height: 1.25"
Blade Thickness: .187"
Blade Steel: CPM 3V
Blade Finish: Satin (The Blade Finish on the tester is actually stonewashed)
Heat Treat: Differentially heat treated
Hardness: Edge: 58-60HRC; Tang: 43-45HRC

The Alpha is a fairly substantial knife, though it comes in just a little over a half pound.  With the center of gravity sitting right at the front of the handle I found the knife to feel surprisingly neutral in the hand, and lighter than I expected.

The handle of the tester was made of contoured canvas micarta (though the Alpha is available with a number of handle options including G10, antler, and various woods).  Micarta, as I have discussed in other reviews, is a handle material I fully approve of.  I find that micarta, when given a rough finish as it was on this knife, feels almost soft in the hand.  It is a stable material, strong and resilient.  I also like that it gets a little bit grippier when wet, always a plus in a knife you might be using in inclement weather.

The blade on this knife was given a stonewashed finish, which is one of my favorite finish types.  A stonewash finish is created by... tumbling the knife with pebbles.  It is what it sounds like.  In my experience stonewash finishes feel pretty low friction, and they are more resistant to corrosion than bead blasted finishes.  Additionally the stonewash hides scratches pretty well, which helps keep the blade looking nice.  The stonewash finish also keeps the blade from being too reflective if that is a concern.

The steel for this knife is CPM 3V.  CPM 3V is a particle super steel, as I have said before, these steels are made with science magic.  I'm not going to try to explain all of the specifics because I am not a metallurgist and blade steel is a surprisingly complicated topic.  There is no one perfect steel for every knife.  Each steel type has its own set of properties, and the choice of which properties are important to a knife is a key decision for knife makers.  Additionally, the properties of various steels are affected by heat treatment (the ways that the metal is heated and cooled to control hardness) and heat treatment can even affect the crystalline structure of the steel and the ways that the compounds in the steel combine.  So for the purposes of my reviews, science magic.

That said, I think it is worthwhile to discuss the characteristics of CPM 3V a little.  CPM 3V is not a stainless steel, though it does contain 7.5% chromium, which provides more stain resistance than one might expect from a carbon steel.  In terms of edge holding properties at the hardness used for this knife, CPM 3V is very comparable to CPM S35VN (which is the stainless particle steel the Difensa is made of).  The biggest difference between 3V and S35VN (besides rust resistance) is toughness.  3V is roughly 3 times as impact resistant as S35VN.  It is a very tough steel, appropriate for a knife intended for rough applications.

To sum up on the steel:  CPM 3V is very, very tough, not stainless, and holds an edge well.

A note on the sheath:  

The tester came with a Kydex sheath, which is one of the sheath options offered at no additional price.  Kydex is a thermo-plastic, and the sheaths made out of kydex are generally form-fitting.  I don't have a lot of experience with Kydex sheaths, I am personally partial to more traditional looking sheaths, but Kydex does offer some functional advantages.  Kydex sheaths hold the knife in place by being fairly rigid and formed to fit the knife.  This means that the knife can be pulled out quickly without needing to unsnap anything, but the knife is still held firmly in place.  Plastic also is resistant to water and other environmental issues (unlike leather for example).  The sheath performed fine.

Review:

Steel:

I found the performance of the CPM 3V impressive.  I was actually the third person to get to use the tester.  The first person stropped the blade to give the knife a very fine edge.  The next reviewer did not sharpen the knife after his testing, and the knife came to me still holding a hair shaving edge.  After the testing I subjected the knife to, the knife still held the fine edge.  I didn't get too abusive with the knife, but I did try to use the knife a good amount in a variety of settings to get an idea of the performance.

My impressions of CPM 3V's performance as a blade steel were unambiguously positive based on my experience with this knife.  I tend to prefer stainless steels myself (particularly living in the Pacific Northwest, and I don't know how corrosion resistant 3V is long term), but other than still having a prejudice in favor of stainless, I am sold on CPM 3V as an excellent choice for a blade steel.

Blade Finish:

As I stated earlier, stonewash is one of my favorite finishes.  In the case of this knife in particular, one of the advantages of stonewash as opposed to a blade coating was demonstrated during head to head comparison.  Stonewash has a lower friction coefficient than a ZRN coated blade, especially when wet.  I'll discuss that more later in the review, but the finish is definitely a positive.

Blade:

I was not so thrilled with the blade shape overall.  The rapidly dropping point serves to keep the blade thick pretty much the whole way through to the point.  This makes sense as the knife is designed to be a hard use bush knife, not a slicer or combat knife, but it just felt kind of...  frumpy to me.  Frumpy is the best word I can think of.  The blade didn't feel agile or graceful, it just felt like a sharp, somewhat pointy bar of metal to me.  

I don't have experience with other blades with this sort of "bushcraft" blade style, so I can't say whether or not this knife blade was somehow less exciting than other knives shaped similarly, but I suspect that a lot of what left me cold about the blade would hold true for many bushcraft blades.

The blade is not a negative, it just wasn't a positive for me either.  It was neutral.

Handle:

The handle actually surprised me.  My first impression when I opened the box was that the handle looked boring.  My next impression when I picked it up was that the handle felt square and boxy.  My third impression was that the handle did not crowd my pinky, which I figured was at least one positive.  I had low expectations for the handle at that point.

What surprised me was that when I actually used the knife it turned out to be very comfortable in actual use, especially during longer use.  The handle, which I initially found less than welcoming, turned out to be very hotspot free.  The only problems I had with the handle were actually more about the blade, the blade lacks a finger choil and jimping, which I felt limited the grips that were available to me.  As long as I stuck to the handle I was fine, but for some of the whittling, trying to choke up on the blade was awkward.

So the handle was definitely a positive.  The handle didn't wow me out of the box, but in use it became one of my favorite things about the knife.

Fit and Finish:

Pretty good.  No real complaints.  At risk of sounding repetitive, the fit and finish was not as flawless as the Fantoni, but nothing has wowed me quite like that knife.  For the price range (mid-$200's USD), the fit and finish seemed perfectly adequate.  If all of Ambush's knives come out that nicely finished, they will be doing well.

Use Review:

Kitchen:

Food prep is, in my opinion, one of the most important jobs of a general purpose camp knife.  The ease with which one is able to handle all of the various jobs of making food in the bush is going to have a real impact on how likely I am to pack a knife out into the back country.  For example, I was shocked at how well my Kershaw Cryo G10 handled kitchen tasks, which made it a pretty indispensable knife for me.  Sadly, thus far my experiences with heavy duty knives has convinced me that I really am not crazy about them for cooking.

Unfortunately, my food prep pictures didn't turn out very well, so there isn't a lot to show.  But when I was cooking with the Alpha, I made sure to do the exact same work with Difensa.  Through all of the vegetables both knives performed roughly equally.  The shape of the Difensa seemed a ever so slightly more kitchen friendly, but the smaller guard on the Alpha more than made up for any blade shape deficiencies.  Both knives made cutting carrots an annoyance.

However, when I moved on to meat the Alpha really got a chance to shine.  As I said earlier, the stonewashed blade has lower friction than the ZRN coated Difensa.  For most vegetables this didn't make much of a difference, but in meat the relative ease with which the Alpha sliced was very apparent.  Additionally, the blade shape that I called frumpy, is excellent for dealing with things like bony joints.  The shape of the blade is great for jointing.

The kitchen testing portion convinced me that the Alpha might not be the best kitchen knife, but I think it would make an excellent hunting knife.  I was not able to do extensive animal testing, but cutting up meat at home convinced me that the Alpha would be an excellent choice for skinning, cleaning, and jointing a carcass.

So for food prep, both the Alpha and the Difensa were less than stellar for vegetables, but the Alpha really performed well with the meat.

Chopping:

For chopping the Alpha was fine for a five inch hunting knife, but nothing special.  This was one point of comparison where the Difensa really was clearly better.  Honestly, comparing the two on this point seemed unfair to the Alpha.  The Difensa has turned out to be a pretty remarkably capable chopper for a six inch bladed knife.  I could go on, but this review is not about the Difensa.  

I think a big part of the subjective difference in chopping boils down to underlying differences in design.  The Difensa is essentially a fighting knife that can do other things, whereas the Alpha is designed for more general tasks.  The Difensa puts the center of gravity just a little lower in the handle, right in the middle of where the index finger sits, this makes the blade feel very lively in the hand, and the handle geometry really facilitates a powerful stroke (kind of like a hatchet).  In comparison the Alpha feels very neutral in the hand.

The Difensa says "Hell yeah!  Let's chop stuff!"  The Alpha says "Sure, I can do that too, if you want."

Batoning:

For the life of me I do not understand the fascination with batoning.  But reading reviews of bushcrafting knives, and just reading about knives in general lately makes it very clear that batoning is totally in.  If I am going to do a review of a bushcrafting knife, I'm going to have to baton with the knife.  And if I am going to compare knives, that means I will also have to beat on my knife.

For those of you who may not know, batoning is using a knife to split wood by beating on the spine of the knife with another stick.  As you might guess it takes a sturdy knife to stand up to this type of abuse.  The Alpha is actually designed to handle batoning, so for the Alpha it is a standard use.
The Alpha batoning through a piece of ash.  It performs like it was designed to baton, which it was.

The Alpha capably made little pieces of kindling out of the ash.

The Difensa made kindling just as well.
Both of these knives handled batoning very well.  They are made from metal of the same thickness, and both have high flat grinds, and both are sharp pieces of metal that can be beaten through a firelog.

Alternatively, one could take the approach I prefer and just use a hatchet to make kindling.  But if you could only carry one edged metal tool, both knives would handle batoning just fine.  

And I have to admit, it's kind of fun to baton, even if I think it's silly.

Curls:

The other thing that one must do and take pictures of while reviewing a bushcrafting knife is make wood curls.  This is actually totally legit in my opinion.  Making wood shavings for starting a fire is very important if one is to engage in primitive fire starting.  Being able to make well controlled small cuts is also important for whittling.

This is also an area where the Alpha does very well for a full size knife.
I made some quick curls in a piece of ash, but I wanted to have a little more fun with this.
So when I got home I picked up a piece of applewood

I trimmed off the bark and made a wooden Chrysanthemum for my mum, for mother's day
Then I decided to see how the Alpha handled push cutting though wood

Quite well actually

Just a fun bit of silliness

But the convexed terminal bevel really makes it not that hard to push-cut right through a branch.

My cat wanted to know what a wooden flower smelled like
One of the neat things about the Alpha is that the flat grind gives way to a convex terminal bevel.  This really helps minimize shouldering, which is pretty neat considering how wide the blade stock is.  This makes cutting across the grain of a piece of hardwood much easier than one might expect.  This is also probably a big part of why the knife handles meat so well.  It's a neat design touch that I approve of.

Summary:

The Ambush Alpha is a solidly constructed, well made knife.  Where the Alpha really shone most for me was in dealing with meat, even more than the wood working aspects of this knife, my experiences with the knife made me think that it would be an excellent option if one is hunting larger game like elk or moose (though I have to reiterate that I didn't have the opportunity to actually field dress any animals with the knife).  The outstanding strength and super solid point of the knife, combined with ample belly and a good length of straight edge feel like a knife that could be used to skin and clean a large animal, and also could be used to get in an pry apart areas of connective tissue.  The excellent edge holding could really come in handy on some of the more edge wearing aspects of hunting.

I feel like for most specific tasks there are other knives and knife designs that would handle specific jobs better, but I appreciated just how much the knife seemed to be up for anything I threw at it, which I think is the essence of a good bushcraft knife.  And that is what this knife is meant to be, a knife that you can take out into the woods and have it do everything you need it to.  You need to cook dinner, it can do that.  You need to chop off some small branches, it can do that.  You need to make curls and shred for a fire, it can do that.  You need to pry stuff, it can do that.  You need to beat the knife through a log, it can do that.  The Alpha seemed to be up for most anything I cared to throw at it.






8 comments:

  1. Awesome through review and great photos! I don't have much use for one of these in my NYC apartment, and you know I don't do the outdoors thing, but I still kinda want one. Maybe my wife will come home one day to me batoning on the coffee table. :-)

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    1. Ha! I love that idea, though she might not :)

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  2. I think making feather sticks (curls) is nearly as silly as batoning, in most circumstances. If it's rainy or wet and you have enough wood to make curls, you're most likely in a forest. Look up. That gray green stuff growing on the side of trees is lichen. It doesn't hold water. Grab a clump, shake it off, and put it between your first and second layers. It will dry completely within about 15 minutes. Instant tinder. Back before getting out in the woods for a while was known as "bushcraft", people tried to use as little energy as possible to survive. Burning excess energy is bad when calories are scarce, after all. Now it seems everybody thinks its about craft projects. A good rule of thumb is this: don't use a knife unless you have to. Every time you do, there's a chance you might injure yourself. Doesn't matter how skilled you are- accidents happen. Needing stitches when you're thirty miles from a trailhead and you haven't built a shelter yet is bad. Make curls in your back yard. When you're in the woods, grab some lichen.

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    1. There is some validity to what you are saying, but I still think that feathersticking is a useful review tool. One might not actually need to make feathersticks for starting a fire, but the ease with which one can make the curls serves as a general indicator for how easy it is to work wood with a given knife, in my experience.

      Actually making curls for fire starting might not be the most frequently useful skill, but not every forest is full of quick-drying moss. And I spend a fair amount of time in scrublands myself. Feathersticking is not particularly challenging or labor intensive in my experience. But then again, it is not something that I really do while camping. So I agree that curls for fire starting are of pretty limited utility.

      For me, feathersticking is more about getting an idea for how easy the knife is to use for whittling/shaping wood. I have a couple of other reviews that I am currently working on; and for one knife the feathersticking was so easy I ended up deciding to carve a spoon; for the other knife, the feathersticking was such a pain that I decided to reprofile the edge before going on with the review.

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  3. Awsome Power of fillet knife , which you published by Photo.

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  4. Excellent post! Keep writing.
    https://vimeo.com/155317351

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  5. I see Bark River in these knives. Does Bark River manufacture knives for other brands?

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    1. I do believe these are made by Bark River. If I am correct they are designed by DLT Trading and manufactured by Bark River.

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