Awhile back, I tested some automatic folding knives from Bear Ops, which is a division of Bear & Son Cutlery and was favorably impressed with the little tactical folders. Now, while I sincerely enjoy all the new types of stainless steel blade materials used on knives these days, I've always been fascinated with Damascus steel. Bear & Son is one of the few commercial knife manufacturers offering knives with Damascus blades. What we have in Damascus steel is a combination of different steels with different properties, that is hammer forged and folded back onto itself, to give you blades with extraordinary toughness and edge-holding ability.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, we get a lot of rain. We have two seasons in my part of Oregon, we have four months of beautiful summer weather - not too hot and not too cold as a rule. But then we have eight months of wintry weather - which means liquid sunshine - RAIN! We get a lot of rain, not much snow as a rule, but a lot of rain. So, whenever possible, I try to get gear that can stand-up to the elements, and I enjoy stainless steel knives and guns - when I can get what I'm looking for, to fill a particular need. Even so, with stainless steel, it can still rust - it just rusts less - "stains-less", and it still must be maintained, just not as much maintenance goes into keeping a knife or gun from rusting in my climate. Most of the knives I own, are manufactured out of some type of stainless steel, and only a few are tool steel. And, no matter how hard I try to maintain the tool steel knife blades, they still develop some patina rust and pitting, if I don't pay close enough attention to them. For all my guns and tool steel knives, I use a product called Birchwood Casey Barricade. It's a simple spray it on, and let it dry a bit and wipe it off, and it gives metal a nice coating that protects it from the elements. Still, regular maintenance is required to prevent a gun or knife blade from rusting.
So, why my fascination with a knife blade manufactured out of Damascus steel - and in this case, tool steels, that can easily rust in my climate? Well, first of all, I love the different patterns on Damascus steel blade knives, no two are ever the same. Damascus steel was first produced in Damascus, Syria, more than 2,000 years ago, so it has stood the test of time, when it comes to toughness and edge-retention. Also, when viewed under a microscope or high magnification, you can the tiny saw-tooth carbides what are formed in the blade's edge by the forging and coal fire. What you will discover with many Damascus blades is that, they may not feel as sharp as other tool or stainless steel blades, but they are - very sharp! Even when you feel the blade's edge, it may not feel as sharp as you'd like, but the sharpness is there, and it holds an edge a very, very long time. Also, when ground on an angle, as in grinding a knife's blade, the blade displays a pattern that is stunning, to say the least. To my eyes, a real thing of beauty and art.
Bear & Son Cutlery produce 416-layer Damascus steel blades. Now, I've seen some custom knife makers offering Damascus steel blades with 2,000 layers of steel, and I'm not sure how much stronger those blades are compared to Damascus steel blades with a lesser number of layers. I'm sure there might be some advantage to more layers, but just how much that matters to me, is a moot point. To get more layers, the steel is folded over onto itself and forged again and again, each time getting more and more layers. A very time-consuming process if you are doing the forging by hand, as opposed to having a power forge. In any event, Bear & Son Cutlery still has very limited supplies of their Damascus blades on-hand at any given time. They are in great demand. Knowing this, when I placed an order for a sample Damascus blade for this article, I placed several alternate choices - just in case. Good thing, because my first choice wasn't available. (Like I said, they are in great demand.)
I obtained the Model 549D which is a no frills Drop Point Hunting style fixed blade knife. It has an overall length of 7-7/8 inches with genuine India stage bone handle scales and a nickel silver bolster. I've always loved the look of genuine India stag bone handle scales on a knife, and Bear & Son did a fantastic job on this sample, the golden honey hue with the roasted grooves, really caught my attention. A nicely done leather sheath also comes with the 549D and the blade was heavily oiled - as is necessary with any Damascus tool steel knife, to prevent it from rusting. The handle scales are attached by two stainless steel pins, and the workmanship is second to none on this sample. You would believe it was a custom knife because of the attention to detail. The handle is nicely configured to fit my hand perfectly, and everyone I showed it to liked the way the knife felt in their hand, too.
Now, before using a Damascus tool steel knife, you really need to wipe off the oil coating, especially if you are dressing out game, you don't want oil contaminating the meat. There was a lot of oil on my sample, and you don't need that much in my humble opinion. Still, Bear & Son are being cautious and putting a heavy coat on the Damascus blades, you don't know how long they might sit on a shelf in a warehouse, or at a dealer's store, before being purchased. Better safe than sorry. I cleaned all the oil off my sample, and gave it a coat of the Barricade, let it dry for a bit and wiped off the excess, and I was confident the blade had a good protection against the elements.
The sharpness of the blade, as mentioned earlier, didn't feel "that" sharp to my way of thinking, however, it was much sharper than any stainless steel blade knife I've laid my hands on, it would easily slice through meat, rope, poly rope (and that is difficult to cut) blue jeans canvas material, cardboard boxes and paper could easily be sliced by the edge into slivers. At the conclusion of my testing, I took the 549D sample and gave it a quick touch-up on some Crock sticks, and it was even sharper than when I got it. You can, if you're careful, actually feel the microscopic teeth on the edge of the blade with your finger - do this carefully, as the blade will cut you. No, I didn't get cut!
The 549D is just the perfect sized fixed blade knife for wearing on your belt when you're out hunting or camping, and the size is not too big and not too small, for just about any reasonable task you can use this knife for. Of course, it's not big enough for chopping wood, nor was it intended for that, you can find bigger knives or an axe for that task. However, most tasks around a camp or in a survival situation, can be handled by the 549D. Now, we're not talking hard-core combat, or taking out an enemy sentry - if you are into a Rambo mentality, then this knife isn't for you, nor will you survive out in a hard-core combat role very long with that mentality - sorry! Being realistic here! I honestly don't believe most SurvivalBlog readers have a Rambo mentality, and I hear from a lot of readers regularly. I've found you are a very intelligent bunch of folks, and I enjoy hearing from you.
In the past, if you purchased a Damascus steel knife from a custom knife maker, on average, it would cost you about $100 per inch for the knife - if you wanted a 10-inch knife, it would set you back an easy $1,000 or more, depending on the handle scales, sheath and other variables. The Bear & Son 549D is priced at only $209.99 and that, is a fantastic deal to my way of thinking. So, if you are in the market for something a little bit different than what everyone else is carrying, take a look at the 549D, and if it's not to your liking, check out some of the other models they offer, I'm betting you'll find something that will fit the bill, and at prices that are very affordable for what you are getting.
As a side note, during all my testing, I did touch-up the coating of Barricade protectant I put on the 549D, I didn't want to have to fight the beginnings of rust. It only takes a minute to put another coat of Barricade on a knife, and its an inexpensive product. Everyone should have a can of Barricade in their survival gear, it can make a difference in keeping your metal gear in tip-top condition, or allowing it rust. A can of Barricade will last you years. I t doesn't take very much to give you a protective coating, that lasts a long time.
Take a close look at the Bear & Son web site, and you'll see several types of fixed blade as well as folding knives, manufactured out of Damascus tool steel. I know you'll find something that catches your eye. And their prices won't break the bank, either. - SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor Pat Cascio