Bladesports Has A Problem

If you haven’t been following Bladesports, you should. It is a lot of fun to watch, and they do a lot to promote the use of a knife as a tool, and not as a weapon. Good things, right? Problem is, it is too danged expensive to participate. Let me tell you what I noticed when watching the World Championship Cut at the BLADE Show earlier this month.

Donovan Phillips, a top competitor in the sport, typically emcee’s the World Championship, providing commentary and answering questions in between each run while the course is scored and reset for the next competitor. At one point, an audience member asked him how much their blades typically cost. His answer? “I’d say somewhere around $900 is usually a good starting point.” A hush ran through the bleachers.

Later Donovan asked the crowd if there was anyone who was thinking about trying to compete next year. The only person to raise their hand was a gentleman who had actually already started the process of getting certified to cut. With the $900 figure still fresh in their minds, is it any wonder that no one else raised their hands?

Dan-Keffeler-Bladesports-World-2016

Every cutter that was competing this year was either sponsored by a knife company, or had made their own knife. Right now there are only three main companies really throwing their weight into the sport… Peters Heat Treat, L.T. Wright Knives, and Jantz Supply. This makes the sport very vulnerable to disruption. LTWK sponsored quite a few of the cutters this year. If L.T. were to decide that participation wasn’t worth it anymore, the field of competitors might be cut in half.

That would be devastating to the sport; there aren’t that many competitors to begin with, but how can you grow the sport when very few people can afford a $900+ knife without sponsorship? To make it happen, one of the things we need to see is the creation of a “Production Class” level of competition.

There need to be knives available that the average user can afford. Something you or I could purchase without breaking the bank. The cash outlay now is simply too high for someone to become involved with the sport, only to realize it isn’t for them, and it all comes down to the steel.

bladesports-straw-cut

The choppers that the big dogs use are constructed of exotic steels that are difficult to manufacture, raising the time and materials cost for each knife. The reason for such high-end metal is that the competition courses blend a mix of power and precision tasks. The grind must be thin enough to slice a drinking straw from top to bottom, but still be strong enough to chop through a wooden 2×4. And it must be able to do all of this without the edge chipping or deforming, as that will cost the user points at the end of their run.

Such disparate needs require the best materials available. You need something at least as good as M4 to get the performance needed from the knife. Benchmade used to make an M4 competition cutter, the 171, yet that knife’s $450 price tag is still too high for most. Not that it matters anyway as the knife is discontinued and they were the only company I know that had ever made a regulation chopper that bears any resemblance to the high end customs currently used.

benchmade-171

In order for a Production Class to really take off, the knives would need to be made of simpler steels that could bring the price down to $200 max, and in order for those knives to compete, the courses may need to be simplified or altered to cater to the steels used for that class.

Of course, to make something like this a reality, you would need a commitment from manufacturers to make it happen, and for such a niche product that can be difficult. But perhaps not…

I think KA-BAR would be strongly positioned to make such a knife. Bladesports choppers can have a blade no wider than two inches, no longer than ten inches, and a maximum overall length of fifteen inches. KA-BAR recently did a limited run Becker knife, the BK20, with ¼” 1095CV steel and an 11.5” blade that MSRP’d for $200. If they made a competition chopper using that stock, price ought to be similar, with street prices probably coming in around $160.

The Becker BK2 uses the same ¼” steel and is regarded highly as a hard use, nigh-indestructable camping and survival knife. You can’t tell me a 10-inch cleaver style Becker with the same edge geometry wouldn’t be an awesome tool. And could you imagine what the Beckerheads would do when they got their hands on it? With their mod-hungry nature, such a knife would be the ultimate blank canvas.

becker-competition-chopper

Here is a mockup I made of how the knife could look, using the same grind height as a BK2. Heck, I’d probably buy a couple if it were ever released. Would make quite a camp knife!

Almost all the building blocks already exist for KA-BAR to do it. The only new thing they would need to figure out is a way to convert the forward screw hole on the handle scales into the lanyard hole required to compete. 

UPDATE: The forward lanyard hole is not actually required by Bladesports regulations, but is recommended as it provides a greater degree of safety than a rear lanyard hole.

Ontario Knife Company also has what it takes to make a worthy option. The 5160 steel they use on their Ranger knives is a fantastic high-impact steel. They have been working on elevating their product line, and a project like this could be a shot in the arm that makes the public take notice. Plus, as with my KA-BAR example, there would be an appeal to the product beyond just Bladesports competitors.

Who else? Cold Steel, perhaps. With their flair for theatrics, Bladesports could be a good fit for them, and they have made some great choppers throughout the years. Maybe TOPS Knives as well. Their prices usually run a bit higher than the Ontarios or Beckers, but stylistically they are in the same vein. Heck, Benchmade could even bring back their 171 chopper using 1095 instead of the M4.

If Bladesports (the organization) wants the sport to grow, one thing they need is to widen the pool of people that can compete, and to do that, they need to lower the cost of entry. A Production Class would provide an entry vector for folks that would otherwise be priced out of the sport, would make a great feeder program for the current level of competition (that we could call Custom Class) and it would be a lot of fun to boot! It would require a lot of coordination to make so many moving pieces fit together – getting manufacturers on board might be the hardest part – but the long term health of the sport will require it.

comments

  1. Sisteract2 says:

    Good article. The browning Crowell barker is discontinued but I think you can still get it some places. It makes for a cheap entry at $110.

    1. Thanks Sisteract2!

      The reason I did not mention the Browning knife is that while it does comply with Bladesports regulations, it has a clip point that no longer reflects the blade styles used in modern competition. In order for the benefits of a Production Class to really pay off, the blades would need to be similar enough to the customs that competitors could graduate up to the custom class over time.

      -DCA

  2. Sean says:

    great article, very interesting. I havent really watched any blades sports, although I have seen pictures and short clips of people cutting through all of the bottles and such. pretty bitchin’ stuff

  3. james terrio says:

    The $900 knife cost is debatable. There are plenty of production/semi-custom/custom knives at $500 or below that meet the BladeSports requirements off the shelf or with minimal modification.

    Talking a major manufacturer into rolling out a whole new model for such a specific market is MUCH easier said than done. The machining set-up alone costs thousands. There’s a reason neither the Crowell Barker nor Benchmade comp cutters are still being made, and it’s not because they’re bad knives – they’re both excellent!

    The BIG problem is travel and time. It currently costs about $140 including a year’s dues to attend a sponsored school, get qualified and compete. That’s pretty reasonable in my view. But unless you’re heavily sponsored or happen to live in TX, MS or PA, most people simply can’t justify taking 3-4 days away from home, driving many hours, staying in a hotel, etc etc “just” to get qualified and compete in their first event.

    What we need is more people to step up, get qualified, and start chapters in their own states, or at least regionally. It’s the only way the sport can grow. That’s going to require sponsorship and support from manufacturers and event sites like major sporting goods outlets.

    There will be a new Bladesports International event/school in middle TN next month. My plan is to attend, get qualified and find out what I can do to help make it a regular thing.

  4. Jacob Beach says:

    I like the concept outlined here, but don’t agree with all of the specifics. But that is ok.
    An affordable steel that is often used in bladesports is 52100.
    The Becker shown would be cool, but imho would Def need to be full flat grind.
    I hope to bring something new to the bladesports table next year 😉
    The only issue that I see is that bladesports would need ten times the space and management to handle the growth that it would see if these changes were made.
    I am all for it, let’s get moving blade!

  5. borg says:

    Cold Steel might be the easiest company to convince since they put out videos that can be described as unofficial cutting competitions. The only thing that is missing from their videos is other brands to compete against. Cold steel could provide swords for cutting competitions involving swords. They could also have axe cutting competitions etc. etc. etc.

  6. Jake says:

    A few ideas. 1)The league could provide the choppers, this would eliminate the cost factor and we could better compare individual skill. 2) There could be an “amature” league were only more common steels are used, this would open the sport up to more people and give potential sponsors a chance to scout talent for “the big leagues”. 3) Expanding on James Terrio’s idea. There could be multiple regional or state leagues that the top few people from each competes at the national level.
    Note; the ideas may not be compatible with each other.

    1. danny says:

      during practice they need to have their own chopper

  7. Scooter says:

    Excellent article David. They need to have loaners for guys who just got certified that day and want to compete. The event coordinators couple have 2 loaners at each event possibly, similar to what Jake said. This would be great to mix the new guys with the pros so they could see how to do things and mingle. The top cutters are very approachable and will talk with anyone.

  8. Donavon Phillips says:

    We do have loaners at most, if not all events. I personally own the browning, the benchmade 171 and a LTWK chopper that I loan to anyone that wants to try. Owning a BladeSports legal knife is not a prerequisite to attend a school, private certification or any event. We actually recommend that you attend a school or private certification with out a knife so you have to try several knives and see what weight, balance, handle drop and handle shape fit you best or at least give you a good starting point for what you want in a comp knife.

  9. Andy Beard says:

    This would be a great thing. If this gains traction we would be excited.

  10. Mike says:

    Very good article…
    Unfortunately like many new sports those with money quickly take over commissioning the very best for whats required. I think they need classes such as knives below a certain value, production only knives, custom knives and an unlimited production class and unlimited custom class. I think this would open it up a lot more.

    1. Tim says:

      Correct. David and I spoke about this a bit and kicked around the idea of a “stock” or “factory” class with possibly a modified course.

  11. Tim says:

    Great write up David and def something for folks to think about. The comment above about there being limited venues to cut is legit, but perhaps with a class that makes it easier for folks to start, we’d start seeing more places to cut and qualify start popping up.

    Great to see that loaner blades are available too. That’s great to get folks interested but for long term practice they will need their own blades.

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  13. I’m working with Donavon Phillips right now to hold an event in my home state of Maryland in 2017. If it works out, that will be another location for Bladesports events. As a knifemaker myself, I will be making my own competition knife. I do see where lower cost knives would help others participate in the sport. Unfortunately quality materials drive the cost for a knife up.

  14. borg says:

    The requirements for bladesports could be seen as discriminatory by design from a certain point of view.

  15. borg says:

    What would happen to the field of competitors if all the involved knife manufacturers stopped sponsoring competitors?

  16. shane stainton says:

    I was in the process of making a pair of competition cutters for a long time client of mine, one out of 80crv2 and one out of 1095, both to bladesports specs with the handles custom fit to clients hand.
    I was doing this as a way of saying thank you for all the business this client has given me over the years, I had ZERO interest in “exposure” as my custom book is full enough without the added work, (im about 18 months out currently), this client was informed by Donovan that I have to be “certified” by bladesports as to my quality
    …..mind you if Im a certified cutter, not maker mind you but a cutter, I can make my own knife without needing to be certified as a maker……..money grab anyone? market share control? dunno, neither really interests me, as Ive stated before I had no interest whatsoever in making any cutters for anyone but my client.
    What REALLY chuffs my hide is that I was not approached, asked, looked into at ALL by you Donovan. Ive been a full time, no the wife or a pension doesnt help support us, honest to god blacksmith/bladesmith for heading toward my 20th year.
    Ive made everything from gladius to EDC bushies to axes, drawknives, spokeshaves, spears, throwing knives. boar daggers. etcetcetc, up to and including 4,000$ custom built handle bowies our of mosaic Damascus and mokume-gane. Ive started with hematite sand and charcoal and bloomed my own iron, carburized said Iron into blister bar, stack welded and folded it to make my own shear steel, made a tanto from said shear steel etcetcetc, Im the master blacksmith at the largest renn faire on the east coast…. you get the idea…..
    I understand that there needs to be standards adhered to for safety’s sake, but I also understand that I was not even approached as to my experience level and abilities and resume as a bladesmith. to be blunt I do indeed feel more than a tad annoyed and feel that this is again nothing more than another gimmick to keep other makers at bay.

  17. shane stainton says:

    after much discussion with Donovan I get it, there seems to be a hole in the maker process, pardon my angry post, I was REALLY pissed off, hopefully there can be some changes made to HOW third party custom makers can help the cutters out there.

  18. David Hoback says:

    LOL! I followed blade sports for a little while. Just when Dan Keffeler got involved. Was always a big fan of his. He was a huge inspiration into my own knife making. Anyway, after awhile I noticed some things about it, and lost interest. It is very “clicky”. You pretty much have to know someone to compete, or produce a blade used. On a side not…. has anyone noticed it’s, for the most part, a bunch of fat guys running around with one hand behind the back? It’s almost like watching…..BOWLING!

    Ah well, gives fat guys an excuse to call themselves “athletes”, LOL!

  19. John says:

    I just don’t get it. I assumed the skill was in making the knife that would do the cutting rather than finding someone who can cut. Is cutting a 2×4 actually a skill? I just got into knives watching Forged in Fire so maybe I don’t get the purpose of a chopping competition.

    1. Sidroski says:

      If you see it live you will impressed by these guys skill level. I think cutting a 2×4 is basically to test the knives (for holding an edge) not the competitor. When you get into slicing a straw down length wise and chopping golf balls in half while they are rolled, that’s where the skill comes in. If the edge does not hold up during the chopping at the very first, you can’t expect the user, no matter the skill level, to do well in the finesse part of the competition.
      Anyway, if the sport could be used in demonstrations at lumber jack competitions or such, it may pick up supporters. The cost to get into lumberjacking is many times the cost of knife cutting.
      I am not a competitor at all, just like watching people do things I can’t.

  20. I’m looking for a competitor who would like to use a Sean McWilliams forged stainless cutter. I’ll build it to specs, contact me at info@seanmcwilliamsforge.com

    1. I can testify that Sean’s forged S35VN has incredible edge retention.

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Bladesports Has A Problem

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