My wife is not a fan of my hobbies. She’s not opposed to the activities themselves, but the safety equipment required is a little unsettling. I think she’d rather I take up golfing, where the emergency kit has a spare bottle of scotch and some aloe vera lotion. Personally I prefer flying my single engine 1963 airplane solo on long cross country flights, which usually necessitates thing like a firearm, survival knife, and a tourniquet coming along for the ride. I haven’t been impressed with my existing knife, so when Sean McWilliams reached out to get his Ranger-4 CTX reviewed I was eager to see if it would cut the mustard. And parachute straps.
Manufacturer and Designer: Sean McWilliams
Blade: CPM S35VN Japanese Tanto.
Rockwell Hardness: 58 HRC
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Overall Length: 8.75″
Handle Length: 4″
Blade Length: 4.5″
The idea here, as with most survival knives, is to have something that is large and sturdy enough to use for nearly everything you could imagine while still being compact and lightweight enough that you won’t mind carrying it in your pack. That’s a tough line to follow, but Sean has done a fine job and made something that is not only a functional tool but a work of art.
Starting on the business end, the blade most closely resembles a Japanese Tanto profile but with a twist. Where most knife makers would grind the blade and leave sharp angles there isn’t really a single sharp edge on this knife. Well, with one obvious exception. The blade geometry is smooth and appealing, pleasing in the same way that a precisely machined Cabot 1911 makes me happy.
The edge is a nice straight traditional edge which I definitely prefer over the usual partial serrations seen in other knives of this type. Serrations are much harder to re-sharpen once they have dulled and more likely to cause structural issues than a solidly straight piece of steel. The only place where the blade is interrupted is the slight undercut near where the blade meets the guard, a fine transition from the cutting edge to the rest of the knife body.
Along the top, the spine of the blade is relatively flat and chunky. Even where the blade appears to taper near the front the actual spine remains straight, providing plenty of real estate to smack the crap out of it with a hammer if you need to force your way through a particularly chunky bit of wood or an uncooperative bone in a hunk of meat.
Out on the front the main edge transitions cleanly and smoothly to the tip. The blade is designed very similar to a traditional Tanto, but the extra care and attention paid to the rounded edge at the bottom puts it closer to the Japanese Tanto designation in my mind. Then again, I’m not a knife nerd so I might be completely wrong on that. In any case that smooth transition is both visually appealing and damn useful, as we’ll see in a bit.
This knife sports a full tang and a nice chunky guard. Made of 416 stainless steel the guard is braised in place and feels extremely solid. There’s two holes drilled through the guard which serve a dual purpose. Not only do they reduce weight, but they also make for an excellent mounting point if you want to attach your knife to a sturdy stick to make a spear. It’s a very useful touch done in a subtle manner, and I’m a fan.
Like I said the knife uses a full length tang which is visible throughout the entire handle. Linen Micarta grip panels fill in on the sides for added comfort and make the knife feel extremely comfortable in the hand. At the rear of the grip the tang is once again exposed, and a solid metal chunk not only provides another mounting point for added stability on that makeshift spear but also is a great surface for smacking repeatedly to force the knife into an uncooperative object.
Knife testing might not be my strong suit, but I did my best to put the knife through its paces. I tried to get a feel for how it would fare in the wild by taking it on a wild hog hunt, but the hogs were not forthcoming. Nevertheless the knife didn’t feel heavy as I walked through the Texas wilderness. In fact, I barely noticed I was wearing it.
Following that failure I decided to take a different tack. After carrying it around in my emergency kit for a couple months and leaving it in the airplane (out in the elements) I brought it home and immediately put it to work slicing up about 30 stiff cardboard boxes. Once those were dismantled I then used it to slice a round pork tenderloin into a thin flat sheet, filled it with apples and brie, and cooked the whole thing for about 45 minutes.
Slicing the pork tenderloin is something best done with a very sharp knife, and even after cutting through those cardboard boxes the knife was still perfectly sharp enough to do the delicate work. And once the meal was cooked, the knife once more worked flawlessly to portion it out.
There’s a lot of survival knives on the market today. Most are cheap utilitarian pieces that you throw in your bag and forget about until they are rusted into the sheath. The Ranger-4 CTX by Sean McWilliams is a knife that can do the job just as well as any of those cheap survival knifes, but also would be perfectly comfortable next to a set of Wusthof kitchen knives. It’s a very functional work of art that I’m very much going to miss when it goes back.