A good strong knife may cut a stray arrow out of a tree, trim the thread on the serving in the field, skin or gralloch (opening the stomach cavity using ones fingers to prevent puncture to the intestines) the quarry. Folding knives have their own advantage. Their use is more discreet, sparing on the machismo. Worn in a secure belt-pouch, they are generally perceived as much safer than their rigid cousins when use aboard floating craft, in vehicles on rough terrain or on horseback. However, they can also have mechanisms which can fail, blades which close on fingers, and may be too slow to deploy when needed urgently. In such circumstance, it pays to get the best.
The native language where cutler Chris Reeve spent his formative years is Zulu. Now living in Idaho, USA, he still has an affection for that language and uses it to name some of the knives he makes. The English translation of the word SEBENZA is work, and in this robust and elegant design, evolved over more that twenty years. He has tried to maximize the practical advantages of a folding hunter and minimize the disadvantages.
When I found myself recently invited to prepare for an African Safari, I telephoned Anne Reeve and told her I already owned a good pocket knife but, as I did not want to use a rigid knife on this trip so I wanted a really strong folding hunter, very high quality but not too big and able to be stripped in the field. It had to be a Sebenza, a working tool and the benchmark against which all others are judged.
Anne is a charming conversationalist; the generous result of our discussion was two Sebenza 21 models for review, one large one small, both named to commemorate twenty-one years of manufacture.
These knives are plain and in photographs which could not possibly convey their subtlety, frankly look it. However, to see them in reality is to see how they came to be the recipients of so many prestigious design awards. The underwhelming illustration on the page manifests incarnate as an eloquent expression of precision, robustness, functionality and understated elegance. The grind-lines of the heavy-gauge blade are perfectly symmetrical in exquisite hollows which curve down to a perfect edge.
A deep choil (an unsharpened section of a knife blade in front of the guard on the blade) separates a short ricasso (the unsharpened section just above the guard or handle) from the grip and subtle drop-point promises a clean performance when skinning or gutting and strength for cutting or piercing. The smaller Sebenza has a blade length under three inches, the larger under four. Both feel and are competent working tools, and comfortable in the hand. In each, the ratio of handle to blade length is 1.3, suggesting a proportionately long blade for the size of the knife.
The blade pivot is very near to the centerline of the grip, where one who had not studied the subtleties of folding knives might expect it to be but this is in fact quite unconventional and tricky to design so that it will fold properly into the grip. Executed successfully, as it is here, it implies a kinetic geometry which enables effortless single-hand opening using the thumb lug, a feature which anyone who sails a boat or engages in any activity where one hand is occupied in hanging on, will appreciate. A ceramic ball engages with a detent to hold the blade in when closed.
The grip is simply two metal plates, tombstone profile, separated by metal spacers so that when viewed edge-on one can see straight through, like the floors in a multi-story carpark. Flushing deposits out of that knife would be a simple matter. If not, the knife can be field-stripped using a wrench provided. A search under sebenzaclean will find an excellent thread from European enthusiasts Ted Van der Voord and Thomas Larsen, demonstrating clearly how to do this.
The build materials are a testament to Chris Reeve’s policy of using only the best. The blade is a crucible stainless steel, hardened to a Rockwell 58-59. The handle scales and separators are solid titanium and the screw fasteners are stainless. Closer scrutiny, like peeling off deeper and deeper layers of meaning in an intriguing poem, reveal ever more intricate and precise detail. The sculptured compound angles of the locking surface of the blade, the bronze liner bearing system with its perforated bronze thrust washers, the separator against which the base of the blade is braced when open, which looks like a cylindrical pillar but is in fact an adjustable cam to take up wear after years of hard use, the liner lock which is in fact preformed titanium integral to the grip scale, the robust pocket clip which again titanium, far from presenting a source of discomfort actually enhances a comfortable grip (for those who prefer to remove the clip, a blanking section is available to fill the perfectly machined recess). Looking closer still, possibly with the aid of a magnifying glass, one sees the bevel on the edge of the scale neatly interrupted to enhance strength in way of some of the fasteners, again symmetry underscoring intentionality in design. Even the thumb lug is titanium.
Luckily for Chris Reeve, Idaho is also home to Gfeller, a family company that takes leathercrafting as seriously as he takes making knives. They make bespoke case for the Reeve range. The one in the photograph is made from a complex-shaped single piece of high quality oiled cowhide, with a clever fastener system so the same pouch can be used to carry both large and small Sebenz, vertical or horizontally.
When I tested each knife I was immediately impressed by the combination of very smooth opening and the solidity of a lock which when it engages has been describes as vault-like. It is precise and strong. Reeve provides knives as survival tools for military Special Forces, they are expedition grade and those with the experience of using vital tools under such conditions try to obtain the toughest and the best. Then treat them with respect.
In my tests, the Sebenza took all cutting evolutions in its stride, including a really tough task of removing an arrow imbedded in wood – which I had saved for the occasion. While of course even with a folder as robust as this one would not use it as a pry-bar, I worked those knives very hard – not unfairly, but perhaps a little harder than one would expect of the average folder – and the strong and razor sharp blades responded by excising the shaft with authority, and with no detectable loss of edge or play in the mechanism. Subsequently, typical camp chores such as shredding a piece of pine wood to light a fire, sharpening pegs and posts, or cutting rough cord, were easy with both knives.
The larger Sebenza felt somewhat more comfortable in the hand when worked hard, but there was not much in it and, if I were forced to choose between them my personal preference might be the smaller, for its discreet compactness. It would depend on the application and in my view, where there will be serious field use, there is a valid case for taking both and selecting one for the belt pouch on a daily basis according to anticipated task.
Contact CRK (208-375-0367) or dealer Neil at True North, Montreal (514-748-9985) where payment is in US dollars with delivery by Fedex in a couple of days.