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?
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.
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.
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.
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.