I wiped my brow and looked at my students going through S-V80A, more commonly known as SERE training or Survival school. It was a bitter, cold afternoon in mid-February, the snow was a minimum 4 feet deep and we had pulled into camp several hours before for our first day of Survival training in the field. I had just finished cutting down a tree and bolting it up into kindling. “Alright” I said, “Make big sticks little sticks”. And my students gathered their wood and prepared to do so, drawing their issued Ontario Company Air Force Survival Knives or as we called them, “bolt knives”.
My students prepared to split their wood using the “beater stick” method. Wherein they place their bolt knives on top of the bolt of wood, cutting edge into the wood, and use a large stick to beat the blade through in order to split it. I was sheathing my issued ESEE 4 knife when I heard a soft twang. “Shiiiiittt” muttered one of my students holding up his bolt knife which had broken in half at the hilt. This is far from a rare occurrence and I almost count on it at this point. The bolt knife just isn’t suited for the type of hard survival work that we teach our students. When I think of a survival knife I think of something I can hammer through a tree. The bolt knife while technically “full tang” has a tendency to bend easily and break within a short period of time.
Since 2014 USAF SERE Specialist Trainees are issued ESEE 4’s once they arrive at Fairchild AFB to begin training. If you finish training you keep the knife. I’m not here to say that the ESEE 4 is the best survival knife currently made. Far from it – however, what I think it is, is a viable option for those who don’t wish to spend a lot of cash but want a lot of performance. The ESEE 4 is a full tang, 1095 steel blade that is 3/16“ thick with a full flat grind and is had for right around 100 bucks. I have no doubt there are other knives out there that will perform better or as well for the less or the same price but I’ve yet to personally use them. Most knives that I’ve seen students and SERE Specialists bring to the field that cost around the same tend to break or not perform for as long as the ESEE 4 has.
The Good, the bad, and the Ugly.
The ESEE 4 for better or worse uses 1095 steel. It holds an edge well and isn’t difficult to sharpen. You can easily get this knife “shaving” sharp. However 1095 is fairly susceptible to rust, unfortunately, the coating used on the ESEE 4 comes off fairly easily. I’ve read reviews from other authors who state that they’ve used the ESEE 4 for months and the coating never comes off. Clearly, their definition of use differs from mine.
Admittedly SERE Specialists are notoriously hard on knives as we take them through a variety of different environments and temperature ranges. We expect much. I’ve found that the coating on the ESEE 4 knives that we’ve been issued begins to come off after 2 weeks of hard use. The exposed 1095 steel on the knife can then rust very easily depending on the environment. I’ve remedied this in the past by using coatings of clear coat or spray paint before heading out to the field. When the finish inevitably wears off I apply chapstick as a expedient method to stop rust when I have no other options. I’m looking to have a more permanent coating put on in the very near future. The blade thickness feels perfect for me. The 3/16” thickness gives it the perfect amount of weight. I’ve hammered this blade, pried with it, drilled with it, and whittled with it. The finger choil allows me to choke up on the blade for fine work and makes sharpening the bottom of the blade closest to the hilt much easier.
The ESEE 4 that I was issued uses a canvas Micarta grip which is adequate in most environments that I’ve found myself in. When I first held the ESEE 4 in my hand the grip felt thin compared to the bolt knife I was used to using. However, I grew used to it and the ESEE 4 has now grown on me. The grip feels perfect when using gloves though admittedly thin without.
The ESEE 4 isn’t perfect, the finish comes off easily, 1095 is susceptible to rust and the grip feels thin without gloves. However, this knife has gone through 2 years of survival, evasion, resistance and escape training in every environment known and in inclement weather. I’ve treated this knife as the survival implement it is. While it has its shortcomings I’ve found that for the price it’s a good knife that performs and won’t let you down when you need it. I would not feel under gunned if I had this knife in a survival situation.