As I have mentioned, the ESEE PR-4 shipped last week, and we were lucky enough to be sent one to review at the most opportune of times – the afternoon before I left for the Fall Beckerhead Gathering. I thought it would be a fun exercise to pass it around to the assembled knife-fanatics and have them write down their impressions.
The folks at the gathering were keen on participating. I hadn’t been in Ethan’s kitchen 5 minutes with the knife on my belt when someone walked over and asked, “Is that?…” There is definitely a buzz about the knife in enthusiast circles.
Some of the participants know the knife’s designer Patrick Rollins personally, some even on a friendship level. Universally, Patrick’s knowledge and experience are held in extremely high regard. He is the lead instructor at Randall Adventure Training. As Rick Bain said, “Patrick knows how a knife is supposed to cut”.
Some people, like Rick, were fine with us publishing their names with their assessment. Others left their card anonymous. I did not attempt to influence in either direction. As you will see, the testers were almost unanimous in their praise and criticism.
These are in no particular order, and may or may not be associated with a particular picture.
“Edge geometry is spot on. Great cutter. Spine scrapes like a champ. Strong point.
Handle profile is nice, but ergos are not comfortable during push cuts or notching. Needs more handle material along the spine of the tang”. – Rick Bain (Foxwalk Primitive)
“Love the blade and edge. Good spine for scraping. Hate, hate, hate the handle” – Bladeite
“Nice edge. Spine makes good curls. Drills well. Needs fatter scales”. – Anonymous
“Traditional Kephart blade shape with effective geometry and a sharp factory edge. Handle slabs could be thicker to better fill the hand.” – Jordan Richner
“Handle scales were off-putting – just by looks, out of the gate. However, I do prefer a thinner handle. I believe the “TOPS-esque” scalloped to be purely aesthetic. They were not uncomfortable at all.
I like the blade width and the spear point shape. Excellent design! My only complaint – lose the square spine. Very uncomfortable on the thumb push-cutting. Let the end user square it if need be.
Written with poor penmanship and with an ESEE Space Pen.” – Cory Murphy
“The PR4 seems to have pretty good cutting geometry. Can handle most standard outdoor tasks with relative ease. The only drawback I can see is the thin scales with the high tread can/will eventually cause a lot of hand fatigue. And the square spine will be met with mixed reviews.” – Mat Gillenwater
“Blade is awesome. Handle Sucks. TOPS Brokeback Mtn. tread?” – anonymous
“I wish the grind were full flat. I would prefer to have sharpened it beforehand. The handle is far too narrow and thin. It wants to twist in the hand. If it were rounded instead of scalloped it would be more comfortable.” – anonymous
“Comfortable in the hand, but curls and fuzz stick production for firemaking was only mediocre. The spine struck a ferro rod well.” – anonymous
Update: Since publishing this review I have corresponded with multiple folks at ESEE. They were very receptive to the comments about the handle, but indicate that it is not something they will be addressing in the short term.
They did express displeasure with the fact that we threw the knife for a couple of minutes out of the hours of testing to which we subjected this knife, and included the picture below.
I want to be clear: This constitutes abuse and will void the warranty of most if not all production companies (and custom makers for that matter). One should not throw a knife of >~50 HRC, as hardening a blade also makes it more prone to failure. I understand that it does not necessarily reflect well on the blog as we have a nominal role of authority in the community.
That said, I chose to include this, not as an example of proper knife use, rather to illustrate the strength of the tip and the exceptional balance of the knife. It is a testament to the balance, shape, and feel of the knife that we wanted to try it -ill advised or not. And in the end, the PR-4 handled this abuse in stride.
“Love the blade shape and length. Wish the handle was a touch fuller. I have small hands and was having a hard time keeping the handle from rotating in my hand. With a different handle would easily buy.” – “G.”
By and large, people liked the knife. A few things come to mind while I am reading the reviews. First, I am in complete agreement with the overwhelming majority that the handle is too thin. It is a matter of individual preference how much this matters to you. David says I am too forgiving of the handle. I don’t think so. It is uncomfortably thin, but I used this knife a ton this weekend, and it wasn’t until I spent 45 minutes carving a spoon blank that I got my first blister, and it is a tiny thing. (Disclosure, this is after I added a pair of cutting-board liners to the knife, which I will talk about below.
Yes it had some hot spots, but I am yet to find a “Cinderella Slipper Knife” that magically feels like it was molded off of my hand.
To use a flyfishing example: I can pick up any fly rod and cast it. Not every rod is a top-of-the-line rod that throws line like a laser beam within a gnat’s ass of where I want to put the fly. However, because I am an experienced caster I can rapidly tweak my casting stroke, both consciously and subconsciously, and achieve a desired result. So it is a matter of personal preference as to how much this matters to you. The best fly rod or knife is the one in my hand when it is one that I have. The ergos are still miles ahead of the Gerber Ghostrike.
My biggest gripe with the handle is that I could never quite find a comfortable position for my index finger.The thin handle hit my hand at an awkward spot, and so my points of contact were skewed. You can see this in the photo above where I am holding the PR-4 in one hand and Mike McCarter’s copy of Ethan’s Colclesser Brother’s Kephart knife. You can see the more natural fit in the hand.
For what it is worth, the PR-4 stands up favorably in terms of its ability to remove wood both effectively and with reasonable accuracy. I spent a bit of time comparing the two.
A quick note on the spine. I didn’t mind its being square, especially since it did such a great job as a scraper and fire-striker. Murph hated it. I think it is easier for the end user to round a square than square a round, so I fall in the “make it square” camp. Though I recognize this topic is the subject of considerable debate.
As far as dealing with the “too-thin” scales, it is easy to tweak the PR-4 to better fill your hand. I have, at the suggestion of several folks, added a set of liners under the scales. I made these from an old flexible cutting mat, and I think that they turned out pretty well. I will have more photos of the process in a later post.
I would love to go even a touch thicker, but the hardware is too short to add a second pair of liners. That said, this very easy, inexpensive, and quick modification has already helped. As I mentioned, I added the liners before I began to carve the spoon.
It should only be a short while before aftermarket scales hit the market. Joe Snarski of LMF Knives was at the Gathering. Joe is one of the best handlemakers in the game and people were asking him about it. Stay tuned.
Even after all that the PR-4 has been put through this weekend, the edge has held up extremely well. It still can make passable slices in a cherry tomato:
And it still does an excellent job on an apple. I was able to remove the skin in a single peel.
The high grind of the knife allows the PR-4 to still slice an apple as opposed to wedge it apart, despite its overall robustness.
I don’t normally talk much about the sheath in a “First Impression Review” but I will say it is made from very thick leather, has excellent retention for a leather sheath, and would serve as a wonderful blank canvas for those who like to stamp and personalize leather. It hangs comfortably on my hip, and only takes minor rearranging to be just fine when sitting in a car.
I will continue to carry the PR-4 and update you on its performance. Being reasonably pleased with my handle modifications, I am looking forward to carrying this knife on the very streams and hills where Horace Kephart himself once roamed and wrote.
The PR-4 has an MSRP of $190, but both KnifeCenter and BladeHQ have it for $122. I think the latter is a good price if you are ok modding the scales, have a very small hand, or just don’t care. The pedigree, cutting performance, and overall construction quality of the knife are there.