Regarding Mother Nature, it is often the small things that you have to watch out for. We all know it is best to avoid snakes and larger predators, but venomous spiders and disease-spreading mosquitos are often a more present concern. In South America, the bullet ant, known in Peru as isula, delivers one of the most painful stings in the animal kingdom.
The ESEE Knives Izula-II is also a small, lightweight creature that seems capable of a powerful bite. I bought this knife to camp with as a backup/complement to a larger fixed blade. I’ve had it for a while, and it is about time I put it through its paces to see if it, like its namesake, can deliver more than its size would suggest.
ESEE is the knife brand owned by Randall’s Adventure & Training (RAT), a survival training school specializing in Latin American jungle environments. Starting in 2002, the RAT knives were produced by Ontario Knife Company, and in fact they still are. After 2007, owners Jeff Randall and Mike Perrin wanted to produce their knives to a higher quality outside of the mass manufacturing capabilities achievable by OKC. Thus ESEE knives was born, with production being handled by Idaho-based Rowen Manufacturing.
The Izula knife family is divided in two sizes. The original, and the Izula-II. The blade is exactly the same on both, but the handle on the Izula-II is ½” longer and unlike the Izula-I, it comes with full micarta scales by default. If you prefer a paracord wrap, instructions are included with suggestions on how to best thread the handle of this particular knife.
The blade on the Izula-II is constructed of 1095 carbon steel and comes powder coated in a variety of finishes. Pictured here is the desert tan version. It is 5/32” thick and features a full flat grind, thumb jimping, and a lot of belly given its diminutive nature. Technically, it is a drop point, but it seems to behave more like a straight clip point with its tip fairly high above the centerline.
The sharpened length of the blade is roughly 2 ½” long, but the full length is 3 5/32” when measured from tip to scale, so no Rhode Island carry for this one, at least with the scales attached. (Caveat: I am not a lawyer and my statements should not be taken as legal advice.)
There are two ways to buy the Izula-II. The more expensive option comes with a survival kit that includes paracord and a cord lock, split rings, ferrocium rod, emergency whistle, and a clip plate to attach the plastic sheath to your belt. Strangely, there is no striker included for the ferro rod, meaning you will have to use the sharpened edge of your knife in order to cast sparks, as the powder coat covers all other areas that might be used.
If you don’t want all of the extras, you can save some money by buying the knife and sheath only. At the time of my purchase, this package did not include any way to attach the sheath to your belt, but the hole pattern on the sheath is usable with a Bladetech Tek-Lok Universal Belt Clip.
As I already possessed a compatible Tek-Lok, this option worked for me. Still, it seems strange that there was no belt attachment option unless you buy the clip plate separately or spring for the whole survival kit. ESEE has rectified this with new dealer orders after January 18, 2015 and all Izulas (and Candirus) will now come with a clip plate by default. If you want the plate, be sure to ask your knife retailer what stock they have to be sure you receive one.
FIT & FINISH / INITIAL EDGE
I have not handled any of the Ontario RAT products extensively, so I can not directly compare them with the Rowen made ESEE’s. Clay likes his Ontario TAK-1, but he did see some minor issues with the factory edge. All I can say is that quality the Izula-II is of high caliber.
Speaking of factory edges, the Izula-II’s was quite good. Rowen hand sharpens the knife to roughly 20º per side and the finish is smoother than many I have encountered. The edge is shaving sharp and will make short work of newsprint. It is easy to get carried away; shaving paper with the Izzy can be so addictive!
The coating is applied to the blade evenly, and the laser engraved makers marks are crisp and black. The thumb jimping is covered in tan but appears very even except for one slight crease at the front end. I’m not sure if this is from the jimping itself, or just an imperfection in the powder coat.
The handle scales come attached with hex-head bolts and are perfectly sized to the coated blade. Take away the coating and the tang would actually be smaller than the scales. That is precision!
The molded plastic sheath holds the Izula-II very securely, but it will rattle inside. Extraction is easy with one hand; a simple push on the sheath with your thumb pops the blade loose. Resheathing requires pushing past two tiny nibs that hold the knife. A little pressure and the knife satisfyingly clicks into place. Functionally it is great, but there is one small annoyance. There will be some rubbing of the coating on the hilt, and a minor amount of plastic can transfer onto it. This might mean the retention will loosen over time as the nibs wear, but in the year I have had it, there have been no problems so far.
The handle of the Izula-II is just long enough for me to manage a full four-finger grip, with the pad of my pinky finger coming to rest right on top of the generous carabiner hole. A saber grip is very natural and the knife feels strong – locked in – when holding it this way. The jimping is not too aggressive in feel, no doubt helped by the smoothing nature of the coating.
The scales stop short of the blade hilt, and this makes for very easy pinch grips. In fact, I couldn’t find an uncomfortable way to grip the knife. The scales give you roughly 9/16″ of thickness and all of the edges are rounded, leaving very few places for hot spots to develop.
Should you employ the Izula-II for skinning work, the point is well within reach of the index finger.
Due to the overall height of the blade, choking up for extreme detail work is accomplished with ease.
The weight balance is biased toward the handle–the tipping point sits right in between my index and middle fingers. This does negatively affect the nimbleness of the knife, but the micarta scales that are responsible also lend the Izula-II a very solid feel in the hand.
I found the Izula-II to be a bit bulky for under-the-shirt neck carry, but the weight was easy to manage and the large hole in the sheath allowed for easy movement.
Vertical belt carry was also not for me. My spare tire is built for comfort, not for speed, and the handle sticks up quite a bit from the belt line when used in this fashion.
Horizontal carry is my preferred method for the Izula-II. In a cross draw configuration the package was discrete, lightweight, and easy to access with either hand.
Remove the Tek-Lok and the package is slim enough to stick in a pocket or pouch without taking up too much space. Overall weight is light as well. The knife itself clocks 3.2 oz, and the sheath adds another 0.7 oz. The Tek-Lok and hardware I have on the sheath increases the total by another 1.75 oz.
Over the course of a few weeks, I pocket carried the Izula-II for EDC purposes to see how it would work in this role. The overall length means it isn’t the best for this type of carry, but I buy my jeans with deep front pockets. The knife shared pocket space with my wallet comfortably enough, feeling thinner than many large folders.
After using it for all manner of normal day-to-day tasks – mostly opening letters and packages, and breaking down boxes – I’ve come to the conclusion that the knife has too much belly for these types of chores, at least for me.
With the point so high above the centerline, it makes it harder to use the tip effectively. The way I would instinctively “point” the Izula-II would often mean making contact with the belly of the blade. You can adjust your grip, but I never warmed up to it. Your mileage may vary.
EASE OF SHARPENING
One of the good things about 1095 is that it is not terribly difficult to maintain. Keeping the blade keen was no trouble at all with a Spyderco Sharpmaker. On a camping trip to West Virginia last October, it held its edge well throughout the weekend, but I did touch it up lightly with a small stone.
I like to use the chest-lever grip when whittling points on tent stakes, and the knife was comfortable and capable in this role. Likewise, a saber grip made short work of the guy-line notches at the other end. More pressure was needed for the stop cuts than with a good Scandi grind, but the Izula-II was still effective.
Ultimate comfort was not as good as the L.T. Wright GNS that I reviewed earlier, but there is nothing to complain about with the Izula-II’s user-friendly handle.
I found the Izula-II to be a champ at featherstick duty. The thin, flat grind felt like it was gliding through the wood, producing a thicket of curls in the process. These came in handy for our campfire, catching the flames from our tinder quite nicely.
By virtue of its handle angle, the Izula-II has a nice party trick when it comes to drilling with the tip. In normal grips the knife tends to “present” a lot of belly. By cupping the pommel in your palm and placing your index finger on the jimping, the point comes straight in to line, making drilling natural and easy.
I drilled a handful of divots, as one would when preparing a hearth for primitive fire starting methods like the bow/hand-drill. The rounded handle scales were comfortable and made downward pressure easy to modulate.
I did minutely round off the very tip of the knife in the process, but the Izula-II performed well. The edge near the point was still going strong.
The Izula-II is sturdy enough to baton, but you will only be able to split off kindling or smaller sticks due to its size. I also did some batoning across the grain of the wood, and cut through a few thicker sticks in this manner.
Beating on the back of the blade left no marks on the coating that I can discern. Likewise, the edge was unscathed.
The scales did move a bit on me while I was beating on it, but a quick tap realigned them. Tightening the bolts kept it from happening again.
After all of the woodwork, the knife was appearing very scuffed up with bits of nature embedded into the powder coat, something that comes with the territory on this type of coating.
I touched up the Izula-II to a hair shaving edge with a the Sharpmaker before laying into cardboard. In an attempt to maintain consistency I do this with all knives that I test, unless they come with a single-bevel or convex edge which require different sharpening methods.
Cutting across the grain, I powered my way through 250 linear feet of corrugated cardboard. Here is how it went down.
Because of the belly, I did have to be careful with my blade angle lest the knife slip out of the cut. The blade felt pretty zippy all the way up to the 140 foot mark. By then my left hand was cramping a bit and could tell that the edge had degraded somewhat. The scales were still very accommodating and my knife hand was going strong.
After 140 feet, things slowly, but noticeably, went downhill. The edge was still decent, but I started to feel some drag from the blade itself, either due to the thickness or the coating.
At 250 feet, I was getting some tearing and both of my hands were getting stiff. It was time to call it. I tested the sharpness and it could still slice paper, but left a pretty ragged cut.
Like with the cardboard, the short blade and pronounced belly made cutting heavy rope a bit tricky. I had a hard time keeping the blade from slipping off ¾” manilla rope, but was eventually able to slice through it in a number of strokes. Smaller diameter rope and paracord were much more manageable for the Izula-II.
If you are careful, you can indeed use a 2 ½” knife to prep your food. It helps that the Izula-II’s flat grind makes it an efficient slicer.
Prepping my favorite breakfast hash means dicing some potatoes and onions, and slicing up some meat–turkey, in this instance. Dicing the potato took care, but was doable.
Working one half at a time, the onion split fairly cleanly. I was then able to cut radial slices through the onion before dicing–something I can not do with many outdoors knives due to their thickness.
Cutting up some turkey was also achievable, although slices from a larger piece of meat will need to be done with multiple passes.
By again working one half at a time, quartering an apple was no issue. The slices were clean with no apparent splitting.
Even though it works well enough, I would not recommend using a stock Izula-II for food prep, and this is down to the coating. As seen earlier, woodworking with the knife tends to dirty up the coating and this is not an easy thing to clean up with washing. In my case, the cardboard cutting test wore away enough of the dirty stuff that I was comfortable using it for my food. Going forward, I intend to strip the coating, eliminating this caveat.
At around $70+ (internet price without the survival kit) the cost of the Izula-II may seem high for such a small knife, but when put up against similar knives – carbon steel with removable scales – it acquits itself well. In fact, only two competitors come to mind.
A BK11 Becker Necker with a set of micarta handle scales is comparably priced. You will get more blade length with the Becker, but the handle will not be nearly as comfortable as the ESEE. Additionally, the coating on my Becker BK9 (before I stripped it) was not nearly as robust.
Another interesting option would be the Becker BK14 Eskabar. An official collaboration between Kabar-Becker and ESEE, it marries the longer blade of the BK11 with the handle of the shorter Izula-I. There are official zytel handle scales – but no micarta – available and the knife and scales will cost about the same as the Izula-II.
For the outdoorsman, the blade shape of the Izula-II is highly effective, but you may find the tip to be higher than you like for general utility. The knife is built to take a beating without beating you up in the process; it is stout, but remains comfortable to wield. The deep belly should make it an excellent backup skinning knife. It whittles easily, and the thin grind means it slices well and can be pressed into service for food prep if needed.
As far as blade coatings go, the one on the Izula-II holds up well. Abrasive tasks will gradually wear it away, which is to be expected, but there was no flaking anywhere due to the hammering and batoning that I put the knife through.
The construction of the Izula-II leaves nothing to be desired. It soaked up all of the abuse I could muster in exemplary fashion. If that isn’t enough, ESEE provides a lifetime warranty on their products, so even if you do mangle the knife the company will still take care of you. If you are looking for a small belt knife for outdoor pursuits, either as a complement to a larger blade or as a standalone option, you should put the Izula-II on your shortlist.