I was recently reading an article about Otzi The Iceman. Otzi was the name given to the well preserved body discovered in the Otzal Alps back in 1991. Among the items recovered from Otzi’s 5,300 year old burial site was a flint knife lashed to an ash handle. It made me wonder what would the people of Otzi’s time have thought about the much more advanced tools we have available for use today? One example is the new Nyala from Chris Reeve Knives which we recently had a chance to review.
At first blush, the Nyala appears to be what most would consider a traditional hunting/skinning knife. It sports an intermediate sized blade with a length of 3.75 inches and an overall length of 8.5 inches. The Nyala exhibits a nice, full belly that would be ideal for skinning game. The factory edge is exquisitely sharp and sweeps up to in a classic drop point finish. But, appearances aren’t everything. Once you get past the initial impression, you’ll see some of the features that actually makes the Nyala a modern rendition of such a traditional design.
Probably the biggest innovation in the Nyala’s design is the use of the relatively new S35VN steel. Well known for his participation in the creation of S30V steel with Crucible Steel, Chris Reeve went further in his collaboration with them to also help come out with this new steel for use in cutlery. He told me that he indicated to Crucible Steel that he was looking for something even better than the S30V. Though it’s taken a little while to come to market, it looks like Chris and other knife makers have found just that. I asked Chris what he saw in S35VN from a personal perspective that made him believe S35VN was superior to S30V. He made sure to point out to me that his approach was more scientific rather than relying on anecdotal evidence. Instead of just eyeballing the steel up close and trying to thumbnail its merits, he studied the scientific data from the extensive tests performed by Crucible. His (and their) findings from the data showed S35VN was more wear resistant, corrosion resistant, less prone to chipping, and took a better finish. While comparing apples to apples, he said that the overall performance characteristics of S35VN was significantly better than S30V with both of them being at a hardness of 58-59 on the Rockwell scale.
I’m not a metallurgist, so the more I say about topics related to steel composition and their benefits, the more likely I am to be wrong. But, I’ll try to cover the high points without erring too much. S35VN is chemically similar to S30V, but it’s one major distinction is the inclusion of Niobium. So, what is Niobium? Essentially, Niobium is a chemical element that is a grey metal with the atomic weight 41. Its most common use is in alloys of steel, and most of the time, .1% is the mamixum amount used (beyond that is the processing for superalloys to be used in jet engines and other high impact parts). For that reason, it’s referred to as a microalloying element. Even at that small percentage, the inclusion of Niobium helps increase the strength and hardness of the steel and it helps the steel take a better overall finish. Adding Niobium to an alloy results in the development of Niobium Carbide and Niobium Nitride within the steel. These elements help with refining the grain, retarding recrystallization, and precipitation hardening of the steel. Additionally, it improves the steel’s weldability and formability. For us knife afficionados, it simply gives a stronger, more robust tool that is also more wear resistant. It is these improvements over S30V that has Chris Reeve looking to upgrade the steel on all of his knives to S35VN. He pointed out that this would not be an overnight process, but a gradual transition over an extended period of time. He didn’t have a specific timeline, but indicated the new steel would be would be phased into all models at some point down the road.
For it’s modern performance characteristics, I think it’s a safe bet to say our friend Otzi would have appreciate having a tool like the Nyala on hand. But, the differences don’t stop there. The grip slabs are made of brown canvas micarta with tooled lineal and spiral grooves which helps give it the “more modern” asthetic. In fact, it was the spiral grooves in the grips that that helped give the Nyala its name. An Nyala is a South African antelope which has similar spiral grooves in its horns. In addition to the spiral grooves on the handle, the Nyala also has serrations on the spine and on the bottom of the integral, full tang handle for improved grip and control. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first knife I’ve used that had this type of jimping on the bottom of the handle. It reminded me a bit of checkering you might see on a custom pistol’s front strap, but not as aggressive or abrasive. Besides the ornamental benefit, it did seem to make for a better purchase on the handle, and I found the grip to be pretty comfortable as well. And, having used the Nyala quite a bit over the past couple of months, I never noticed any hot spots or discomfort from the serrations on either the spine or the grip. I point this out because I have used knives in the past that had very aggressive jimping on the spine that became uncomfortable to press down on after a short period of time.
The Nyala is touted as being a multi-function knife even though its main function is to be used as a hutnting/skinning knife. My use of the Nyala centered around more the “multi-function” aspect rather than its utility as a hunting knife. The main reason for that has mainly to do with timing. I received the Nyala at the beginning of August and there aren’t hunting seasons until late autumn where I live. So, I mainly used the Nyala for typical bushcraft type chores and tasks that you’re going to do around the campsite. I’ll say right now that a bit of bias might show up in this review. Over the past ten years, I’ve owned and used around 10 different models of Chris Reeve’s various knives. In fact, I currently have 7 different Chris Reeve knives, and they are all in the “never to get rid of” pile. I’ve been that impressed by how well they are constructed and how well they perform. It’s that kind of experience that instills the confidence to take one of his products out of the box and hit the trail without any real testing beforehand. There are other knives or tools on the market which I would never do that with; instead, I’ll use them quite a bit in a controlled enviornment before I depend on them out in the field. So, having that kind of background with Chris Reeve’s products tends to make me a bit more effusive with the praise than I might normally be.
Having given that disclaimer, the Nyala lived up to my expectations quite nicely. The steel’s thickness is right at .180 inches thick, and for this type of knife, I think they ended up with a good compromise at this measurement. I wouldn’t call the grind a true saber grind since the main bevel begins about 1/4 of the way down the blade rather than halfway. It’s basically a blend of a flat grind and a saber grind. Either way, as I mentioned earlier, the edge is extremely sharp out of the box. I had no problems slipping hair off my arm with the Nyala. Just an opinion, but the Nyala seems to be sharper out of the box than the other fixed blade offerings I’ve picked up from CRK in the past. I assume most of that comes from the function of the knife as more of a skinning blade rather than some of the other models that were made for heavier duty work like the Project II, Moutaineer, and the like. Given how sharp the Nyala was, I don’t have any doubts as to its ability to serve as an excellent choice for skinning game–though that won’t be proven out until later in the year.
As far as the jobs I’ve used the Nyala for in the past couple of months, it’s done everything I needed it to do as far as a bushcrat knife goes. I know a lot of people out there have a different design in mind when they think about the typical bushcraft knife. A lot of folks prefer a spearpoint, or they might want a handle that’s a bit thicker or made of more traditional materials. Certainly, a large number of folks appreciate a Scandi grind because of its wood carving abilities and its ease of sharpening out in the field. Even so, the more I looked around on the net to see what people consider as “bushcraft” knives, the more variations I found. In fact, I saw a lot of survival style knives being described as bushcraft tools. I suppose the term “bushcraft” is quite subjective and it all comes down to what you need to get done in the field. With that in mind, I decided to try out the Nyala side by side with a couple of my knives that most folks would consider as models for more traditional designs. When doing certain tasks with the Nyala, I did the same tasks with my Kellam Knives Wolverine and my Brian Andrews Bushcrater. Both of these knives are excellent in the own right, sport more traditional asthetics, and fall into the realm of what most people typically consider to be bushcraft blades.
The main differences I could see between the Nyala and the other two was blade length, blade width, and handle size. There weren’t huge differences, but noticeable enough. Most “traditional” bushcraft knives I’m seeing have a bit longer blade than the Nyala’s 3.5 inch blade length, and have a slightly less wide blade as well. Blade width can go either way as far as I’m concerned. You might be able to do a bit more wood carving and have a bit more control with a narrower blade, but you lose the benefit of dressing game with a wider blade like the Nyala’s. True, you can dress game with bushcraft knives, but just like more intensive wood carving is better with these designs, tasks such as dressing game will be better with dedicated skinning knives. So, that point’s a wash to me. As mentioned before, it all comes down to what we need to accomplish while we’re on the trail. While using the three knives side by side, there was no task that I could not do as quickly and as efficiently with the Nyala. Again, this was based on things that I typically do out in the field. Whether it was cutting packages, rope, or other materials, the Nyala was right there with the others in its multi-function role. Even when doing more woods-oriented chores like making fuzz sticks, limbing a branch, or carving things like wood triggers (which I need to practice more often), the Nyala again made light work of what I was trying to accomplish.
The one disadvantage in comparison to the traditional bushcrafters might be the lack of a handfilling grip for extensive woodcarving activities, but I don’t do that much and I would venture to say that 90% or more of the outdoors folks out there don’t either. In fact, I found the handle to be very comfortable and provided a nice overall balance. The Nyala felt limber in the hand and I felt I had good control when doing finer tasks with it. What the Nyala gives up for the dedicated woodcarvers it retains for the hunters with its fuller belly for skinning, and I’m more likely to need to dress game than do more intricate woodwork with my field knife. All in all, I didn’t find any jobs that the Nyala couldn’t do quite nicely. I did the side by side tests on three different occasions and came out quite satisfied with the Nyala’s performance in the multi-function arena, and I still haven’t even proofed it out as a skinning knife yet!
CRK Knives have always produced nice, high quality sheaths for their various knives over the years, and the Nyala is not lacking in that area either. To be more accurate, their sheaths are made by a third party specifically for their models, but the quality has always been good. The Nyala’s sheath is a pouch design and fits the bill for more traditional styling to go with the skinner design. The loop on the back was just large enough for me to fit a 1.5 inch belt, but the knife handle rides a bit higher and closer to the ribs. I personally like a sheath with a bit of a drop loop on it, but that’s more of a personal preference. The sheath that I received with the review knife was more of a flesh color than actual tan. It was sent out to us quickly for the review, but after some use in the field and time in the sun, it’ll bronze into a nice tan color with a bit more character. Aside from that, there’s not much else to reference in regard to the sheath other than to comment on one point. As you move to the top of the sheath, there’s a slit in one side to allow the maker to fold the leather over in a wrap for secure retention. So, the stitching stops halfway up one side. While the knife rides securely this way, that cut in the leather just seems a little distracting to me. I don’t think it will impact the performance of the sheath and given the Nyala’s corrosion resistance I’m not too worried about moisture entering that area. It’s just a matter of aesthetics for me. On the grand scheme of things, this is really a small point to ponder given the quality of both the knife and the sheath. It just stood out to me because I couldn’t find anything else that I didn’t like about the package.
Overall, I was quite taken with the Nyala. It’s a great do it all knife to have on your side at all times, and it’s certain to be a go-to tool during this hunting season as well. By using modern materials and bringing his own artisan’s perspective to what he thinks a modern hunting knife should look like and how it should perform, he’s created yet another winning design. To be honest, if I’m discovered 5,300 years from now, I’m more than likely going to have a camera or a laptop in my hand. I guess it’s a sign of the times. But, it is a fascinating concept to me that a tool that was so crucial to life millenia ago still plays a significant role in our lives today. Even more interesting is that this age old tool can still be revitalized and improved upon in such significant ways. It makes me wonder what someone 5,000 years from now would think about the tools of our times. Though intriguing, it’s still just an academic question. No matter what they might think, as far as I’m conerned, this is about as good as it gets!