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Ontario Knife Company Blackbird Review

Ontario Knife Company, with the help of Hedgehog Leatherworks‘ owner Paul Scheiter, has come out with a new iteration of what they believe the ideal survival knife can be.  Today, we’ll run through some of the observations we’ve made about the Blackbird SK-5 over the past few months.

Blackbird-006aI guess a little background is in order here before we get into anything else.  Paul Scheiter is the owner of Hedgehog Leatherworks.  His company produces high end leather sheaths for knives.  His signature trademark in his work is his dedication to superior products and excellent customer service.  Just in his twenties, Paul produces some of the best leatherwork I’ve seen on the market today.  His sheaths are not inexpensive by any means, but once you get one in your hands, you really appreciate the attention he and his employees pay to their work.  Somewhere along the way, Paul decided to try and design what he thought would make an ideal survival/outdoors knife.  After collaborating with Ontario Knife Company for quite a long period of time, the new Blackbird SK-5 has finally hit the market.

The Blackbird is somewhat of a contradiction in materials and aesthetics.  I’ll explain that a bit as I go along.  The overall knife is a fairly traditional design and leaves out all the frills that you might find on other knives of this sort.  The Blackbird is a full tang knife made of 154CM steel.  The grip slabs are constructed of canvas micarta which is rather standard fare for knives of this sort.  The steel is just a hair over an 1/8 inch thick and the blade profile is a traditional Kephart style.  The actual cutting edge of the knife runs 5 inches and goes right to the hilt allowing for carving tasks to be done close in to the handle.  That’s it in a nutshell.  It’s not a knife tricked out to be a beautiful safe queen.  It’s a simple design put together to make a functional outdoors tool.

Blackbird-005aI thought it was interesting that Paul and Ontario chose 154CM for the steel.  This happens to be one of my favorite steels, but you don’t typically find it on knives of this sort.  1095 seems to rule the market, but after a while, I get a little tired of the same steel in every knife I see.  154CM is a stainless steel which helps prevent corrosion, but it isn’t too difficult to maintain the edge while you’re out in the field.  One of the things Paul wanted to do with his knife design was to make sure the user could strike a firesteel with the spine.  Most high carbon knives of this style are covered with some sort of coating today.  That’s to help prevent the steel from rusting when exposed to the elements.  That coating, however, interferes with being able to effectively get good sparks from a firesteel.  By using 154CM, which is more corrosion resistant, they could forgo the coating and just leave a clean blade that produces better sparks on a steel and that’s arguably a better slicer as well.  Yes, there are other outdoors knives out there with no coating that use steels like O-1, but those require a bit more maintenance and attention to ensure that corrosion doesn’t begin.

Blackbird-009aOverall, the handle of the Blackbird is pretty comfortable.  I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t know quite what to think of it when I first saw it.  To start with, the handle length and the blade length are the same–five inches.  It almost looks to have too much handle for the blade, but it actually works out well when it comes to comfort during extended use.  There aren’t any finger grooves and no contouring for the palm, but it works.  The saving grace is the width of the handle and the curve running from the hilt to the pommel.  I’ve held knives with this kind of handle style in the past and it felt like I was trying to grip a 2×4.  That wasn’t the case with the Blackbird.  Whether I was chopping or carving, I couldn’t find a position on the handle that was uncomfortable, and I always felt like I had a secure grip on the knife.  I even went the extra mile to make myself use it for longer periods of time to see if I experienced any hand fatigue, but I didn’t have any issues with it in this regard.  It won’t win any beauty awards, but it’ll get the job done with aplomb.

Blackbird-010aSo, what’s a knife like the Blackbird to be used for when you’re outside?  To be honest, most knives are used for rather mundane tasks like cutting open packages, cutting up some food or just slicing stuff like rope.  But, I can’t really show opened dehydrated meal packs and pieces of paracord and expect the audience to go, “ooooooohhhh” and “aahhhhh”.  So, we resort to some of the more established tests that people like to see and that include the various chopping, carving, and batoning exercises.  The first one I tried was batoning through a few logs.  We had a recent storm that knocked a tree down across our road, so I took the Sven Saw to it and got a couple of rounds that I could worth with a bit.  The Blackbird only has a 5 inch blade, so you have to be reasonable with the sizes you try to baton.  But, for basic campfires, that shouldn’t be an issue.  I tried a small piece first so see how the Blackbird would do, and it zipped through the process with no issues.

Blackbird-012aBlackbird-011aWith the steel being only a hair over 1/8 inch thick, I initally had some reservations about batoning with it to process firewood.  Those reservations quickly went away and I moved on to larger pieces.  As long as I had enough knife tip to strike, the batoning exercise was fairly effortless.  The thinner steel seemed to help the Blackbird’s blade slip through the wood quite easily.  It wasn’t long before I had yet another assortment of wood pieces of various sizes.  Bigger stuff for fuel and smaller stuff for kindling.  Though I wouldn’t get into any heavy prying tasks with the Blackbird because of it’s thickness, I’m a lot more confident in it’s ability to handle routine batoning chores quite handily.  The upside of the blade thickness is the Blackbird does quite nicely as a slicer in the camp kitchen.  Though I didn’t take any pictures and do any official “testing”, I did notice how nicely it performed when slicing meat and vegetables, and the Kephart profile made it a great peanut butter spreader as well!

Blackbird-015aThe next thing I did was try out the Blackbird’s chopping ability.  Because of it’s compact size, you need to back up on the handle quite a bit to get any real momentum for chopping.  In fact, I found that I got the best chops from the Blackbird when I only had two fingers on the handle.  With my middle finger resting against the bird’s beak at the bottom, I was able to get some decent cuts into the wood.  In fact, the bird’s beak was prominent enough that I still felt like I had pretty good control of the knife even with just two fingers.  Though, I’d still recommend having a lanyard attached to help prevent any mishaps.  And, if you’re a lanyard affionado, the handle actually has a slot instead of the usual lanyard hole.  This will allow the user to run two strands of paracord through it to fashion whatever type of knot they desire.   While doing this portion of the test, I didn’t notice any hot spots or hand fatigue, both of which I have experienced with other knives of this stature.  So, that’s a definite plus for the Blackbird.  Most of the stuff I chopped was smaller pieces that you might use to make spears, shelter poles, or a hiking staff.  The Blackbird’s not a dedicated chopper, so don’t confuse that point.  But, in a pinch it could be that slight advantage you need when pressed to make an emergency shelter or something other contraption in the wild.

Blackbird-018aBlackbird-019aI combined some of the chopping test with another experiment I wanted to try.  Yes, we all know and love the feather stick tests, but I wanted to do something different this time.  I decided to make a trap, albeit a fairly gruesome trap.  First off, I chopped off a smaller length piece and sharpened it at one end like a spear.  I then started carving a semi-circle groove in that piece so I could fit it onto a longer piece to make, in essence, a spring spear trap.  Sharpening the spear point took maybe a couple of minutes and it was a fairly thick piece of wood.  The carving portion of the test took a bit longer.  The carved groove you see in the picture took about 10-15 minutes.  And, yes, I do need practice my carving techniques quite a bit more.  But, it worked well enough and I was able to put it all together.

Blackbird-017aBlackbird-020aOnce the long piece and the spear piece had both been carved on a bit, I lashed them together with some paracord as you can see in the picture.  It was at this point that I figure out that I need much more practice on my knots as well.  I had a little difficulty really locking the spear point into place so that it didn’t wiggle too much.  But, after a few tries with the paracord, I got it locked pretty well into position.  Overall, it was fairly easy to make and demonstrates how you can improvise a bit out in the woods with the right tool and a decent imagination.  You can expand on this idea to make a spear, or you could sharpen multiple pieces and place them in a pit to make a deadfall if you like.  Who knows what you could catch?  Bear?  Fox?  Census workers?  Hey, hey…the last one was a joke for the slower members of the audience.

Blackbird-002aBlackbird-003aPart of the Blackbird package is the supplied factory sheath.  No, it’s not one of Paul’s high end custom leather sheaths.  It’s a ballistic nylon affair with a plastic insert for the blade.  While I like a form fitting insert, companies usually make those for right handed wearers.  At least this way, I can flip the knife and wear it on the left hand side.  You can wear the sheath via the belt loop at the top or you can use the MOLLE compatible webbing on the back.  Dealer’s choice.  For us kit minded folks, the sheath unfortunately does not have a front pocket for smaller tools like a firesteel or other such items. But, there are a couple of loops you can use to attach an accessory pouch if you like.

Blackbird-004aWhile I don’t typically like straps that snap over handles, this version is one of the better ones I’ve seen on a factory sheath.  In fact, the sheath is built pretty well overall.  Again, it’s a factory sheath so don’t expect the unreasonable, but it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen.  And, if you’re curious, there’s a drain hole at the bottom of the insert to allow water to drain through the bottom if the sheath were to be submerged.  I didn’t used the MOLLE webbing, but rather settled for using the standard belt loop.  There were times when I visited local state parks and I just packed the Blackbird in the daypack rather than spook the sheeple that were about.  As you know, folks are a little more sensitive these days and we don’t want to do anything that might cause them to stampe over the cliff.

As mentioned earlier, there are some contradictions with the Blackbird package.  You’ve got a traditional style knife in a ballistic nylon sheath.  A lot of outdoors knives are usually constructed of high carbon steel like 1095, but the Blackbird breaks precenent again with the use of 154CM.  I’m not saying the contradictions are bad.  I just thought it was interesting.  Kind of like my buddy Terrill that got a brand new digitial satellite radio so he could listen to 60’s music.

Blackbird-014aOntario released an initial run of 100 of these knives before the end of the year and they were sold through Paul’s website over at Hedgehog Leatherworks.  The MSRP on the Blackbird is $189.00 and that’s what the initial run sold for until they were gone.  Ontarios is gearing up another run of these knives and is supposed to release them to retailers–where I hope we’ll see a bit of a price drop.  When this knife came out, there was a little grousing about the price on the forums.  I’ve looked around on the net and there are very, very few knives of this style made of 154CM.  Those that are made of 154CM typically retail for $150-$200.00.  A couple of them even sell in the $220-$230.00 range.  So, in my opinion, the price is in line with what’s on the market for the most part.  But, I’d feel better about the value proposition if the street price was closer to the $150.00 point.  I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t that impressed by the finish of the knife when it came out of the box.  The blade wasn’t polished well and the micarta slabs didn’t look evenly finished.  I guess it doesn’t matter much since it’s going to be used out in the field and will show wear anyway, but I like that new car smell.  Know what I mean?  And, if the finishing touches are special, then that makes me feel more confident about the important stuff like heat treat and so forth.

Blackbird-001aThat quibble aside, I ended up liking the Blackbird quite a bit. It’s a unique amalgamation of old styling and modern materials in a tool that’s built for that place we love most–the outdoors. The first thing that sold me was the 154CM steel which isn’t too common in fixed blade outdoors knives and it’s one of my preferences for knife steels.  Actually using the knife is what closed the sale for me.  Because of its very simple design and lack of “sex appeal”, I actually came away from it being more than a little surprised.  It handled every job I threw at it and was ready for more.  I spent quite a bit of time with it in the woods using it for various tasks as they came up while testing other gear.  One aspect that I really like is the overall size.  It’s not a large knife by any means, but it strikes the right balance between utility and portability.  It’s easy to stow away in a kit or pack until it’s needed and doesn’t exude that obnoxious, in-your-face, “knife from Hell” look,.

In the end, it all comes down to user preference.  I can’t tell you what’s the best knife for you.  I just know what I like in a knife and the Blackbird SK-5 fits the bill quite nicely.  There are other things I could talk about with the Blackbird including how it does at drilling with the spear point tip and its utility at things like cleaning game.  But, if I kept going, this review would be another 10-15 paragraphs and I wouldn’t get much sleep tonight.  Suffice to say, It does everything I need it to do as an outdoors knife and does it in a package that’s a little unique in it’s styling and materials.  There are lots of survival knives on the market, so you’ll need to ask your own questions.  Do you like a traditional style blade?  Do you like 154CM steel in a fixed blade?  Are you looking for a mid-sized fixed blade that’s comfortable to carry yet can tackle some tough work?  If you say yes to any of thes questions, then give the Blackbird a good look.  It might just be the knife you’ve been waiting for!

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