I have a thing for Nessmuks, so it isn’t surprising that the Pioneer by Smith & Sons Knife Company caught my eye at BLADE Show 2015. I have reviewed and owned other Nessmuk’s in the past, but at the time I picked up the Pioneer, I had none in my collection. This had to change, so I pulled out my wallet and made my first, big BLADE Show purchase. Now that I have an opening in my review schedule, I can finally tell you my thoughts on this knife from my personal collection!
Manufacturer: Smith & Sons Knife Company
Blade: D2 Nessmuk, Full Flat Grind, Stonewashed Forced Patina
Rockwell Hardness: 61 HRC
Scales: Brown Canvas Micarta
Tang construction: Full Tang
Sheath: Leather with Firesteel Loop
Country of Origin: USA
Dimensions (measured on this test sample)
Overall Length: 7.815”
Handle Length: 4.065”
Handle Thickness: 0.65 ”
Blade Length (tip to scale): 3.75”
Sharpened Length: 3.8125”
Blade Thickness: 0.146”
Weight: Knife, 4.5 oz (without leather thong) / Sheath, 2.55 oz
The Pioneer is the Smith’s take on the classic Nessmuk pattern. To my eye I can also see shades of frontier-style butcher knife in the blade shape.
The steel is D2 and bears a distinctive blackwash finish. The Smith’s have achieved this by forcing a patina onto the steel and then stonewashing it. Regardless of method, it is a striking aesthetic, especially when paired with the aggresively angled plunge line, a look shared with many of the Smith & Sons knives. You definitely know this is an S&S design when you see it.
The spine of the blade is crisp enough to throw sparks from a ferrocerium rod or scrape for tinder. In fact the hump near the point of the blade makes scraping easier than it would be with a simple drop point.
The handle scales bear a distinctive shape and are held on with 2-ton epoxy and 3 flared brass tubes with the end tube serving as a lanyard hole for the included leather thong. The multitude of openings should please those who have thoughts of lashing their knife to the end of a stick. The holes are on the small side though. Paracord will fit, but only just.
The sheath is made in house by the Smith’s and is stitched with heavy thread and a belt loop is held on with brass pins. The firesteel loop is small, only fitting the smallest “scout” sized ferro rods. I would have liked this to have been at least one size larger. You can always put a smaller firesteel into a larger loop, but not vice-versa.
The sheath grips the knife well, but could be better. Down the line, I think some wet-forming of the leather will be in order.
Fit & Finish / Initial Edge
I only had one issue with the knife, and it is a small detail, albeit a disappointing one. Much like the CRKT G.S.D. that I reviewed on the opposite end of the price spectrum, the Pioneer came with an uneven edge bevel that was so far off that it precluded sharpening with the preset angles on my Spyderco Sharpmaker.
For a knife that I paid $225 for, this is unacceptable. I can cut a little slack to cheaper, factory-made knives, but for the price premium, the edge should have at least been even.
Every Smith & Sons product comes with a free lifetime sharpening service (you only pay for shipping), so I could have sent it back to them to correct this. Since I was already planning on convexing the edge of the Pioneer I decided to tackle the project myself. More on that task later.
Apart from the irregularity, everything about the construction of the Pioneer screams “tough little bastard.” The 5/32” steel exudes confidence on such a small blade, but with the full-flat grind, slicing performance should still be decent.
The initial edge may have been askew but at least it was shaving sharp, if not overly refined. ¾” manilla rope proved difficult at first; the blade kept sliding all over the place. Once I reprofiled it, things were much smoother.
I also had one little problem with the sheath, that being the brass rivet was not fully peened on the backside. Luckily I had an anvil and striker that I use on kydex rivets that was the right size, so I was able to correct the issue. Unfortunately, I went a little too nuts with my hammer and I split the end of the rivet. I should have tapped more gently.
The diameter of the handle is on the small side and lends itself to deft operation and precise cuts. Balance is perfect, hitting right at my index finger, reinforcing the “fast in the hand” feeling of the Pioneer. Holding the knife, it feels most natural with my fingers wrapped around the grips, rather than seated in the palm of my hand.
Pinch grips are also satisfying thanks to the angle of the scales as they melt into the blade.
The micarta scales are lightly textured and they offer just a hint of roughness (in a good way) when they are dry. Like all micarta, it gets a little grippier when wet.
With the included sheath, the Pioneer is unobtrusive on your belt. The handle sticks up about an inch above the beltline, and the belt loop should be able to handle 2 ¼” wide belts easily, maybe 2 ½ in a pinch. I traveled a few hundred miles in my car while wearing the knife, and it never impeded comfortable lounging.
If you’ve read my review of the Work Sharp Ken Onion Edition, you already know that it took a long time for me to reprofile the D2 steel on the Pioneer – 3 hours in fact. After much sturm and drang I finally had a good edge on the knife, mirror polished and convex. D2 at 61 Rockwell definitely lives up to its reputation for difficult sharpening.
Woodworking: Tent Stakes & Feathersticks
While carving wood with the Pioneer, I often felt nervous about how close my index finger was to the knife edge. Most knives I use tend to have at least some type of guard or buffer zone to protect your digits. Although I never cut myself like I did with the Fiddleback Forge Bushfinger, it is something to be careful of. I could feel the back edge of the blade kissing my finger, especially when gripping hard.
For whittling, the thin grips tended to fatigue more than than I would prefer. A fuller handle would have made carving a more pleasant endeavor. A chest lever grip felt fine though and I was able to make the points in tent pegs very well. Notching was also done easily, but I was always conscious of the sharp rear edge.
I can typically achieve decent feathersticks with a convex edge, and that held true with the Pioneer. My curls were not very long, but they were numerous and able to take a spark from my ferro rod when struck with the spine of the knife.
With such a wide point, tip-strength is superb. Divots were bowl shaped and spread out however, so this might not be the best for prepping a bow-drill set.
The only trouble I had with batoning stemmed from the short blade on the Pioneer. Provided you keep things smaller than its cutting edge the knife should have no problems. The blade thickness and height of the grind worked well for the task and took the abuse in stride, undamaged but with some scratches and wearing of the patina.
In the process of dismembering a handful of logs, some with nasty knots, which required hammering on the blade and grips, the handle scales remained in perfect shape. I would have no qualms beating the snot out of the knife if the situation warranted.
On a road trip this past summer I decided to cook breakfast at a rest area, and this gave me a good opportunity to test out the Pioneer on my usual food subjects – hash browns and pineapples.
The Pioneer is a bit thick and stubby for regular kitchen duty. The edge had a tendency to wander when executing radial cuts in an onion.
The same was true on spuds. Despite that, it was able to get a pretty fine dice and I was quickly frying up my hash.
While that cooked, I turned to the pineapple and was able to dismember it without much fuss, given the short length of the blade. No real problems here, and the skin was easily diced afterward.
Whereas the small handle was dissapointing for whittling, it worked to the knife’s advantage on foodstuffs where agility is more important than a hand-filling grip. The micarta was also a boon. My grip remained secure even when the scales were covered in pineapple juices. This should translate well to hunting and skinning duty.
Unfortunately, because of my reprofiling the knife, the edge itself was considerably thicker than when I got it, and this would work against it during the cardboard tests. If the edge were thinner I could have gotten through a lot more than I did.
Slicing against the grain, the cut edges were already starting to look slightly frayed before I reached 100 feet. I kept going and handle comfort was good as I made it through a total of 230 feet. I never got to the point where the board started to tear, but between the thickness of the blade and the thick edge grind, it was getting difficult enough to call the test.
One particular grip I found to work well was a reverse cut with my thumb held along the side of the blade. This made the knife easy to control while allowing me to exert a fair amount of force at the same time.
The Smith & Son Pioneer holds its own carving wood, and it works well enough on food, but it is not the best at either. Seeing as these are the two primary uses for a camping knife (at least for me) the Pioneer is not high on my list of camp knife recommendations. For a similar price there are better American made options. The strength of the Pioneer lies elsewhere…
Being a riff on a classic skinning design, I think the Smith & Sons Pioneer would make an excellent hunting knife. There is certainly plenty of belly on the Pioneer and its short blade length and minimalist handle makes it deft and controllable. That is why I originally bought the knife; at the time, I had no fixed blades in my collection that would make good skinners. You should take this with a grain of salt however. I am still a hunting virgin and have no trips planned in my immediate future, so this observation is technically conjecture.
Despite my gripes about the sharp rear edge and the hard to sharpen D2, I still really dig this knife. It simply fills a smaller niche in my collection. For a compact hunting knife with a lot of mojo, you should absolutely check out the Smith & Sons Pioneer. It is agile enough to process game, and tough enough to be abused should you need to.