CAS-Hanwei is best known for their line of well made historic swords. While the original CAS Iberia company dates back a quarter of a century, back in 2006 they were purchased by renowned sword maker Paul Chen and the collaboration of CAS-Hanwei was formed. The newly formed CAS-Hanwei has gone on to produce top quality hand forged swords of both Eastern and Western design.
Less known to many though was that they’ve also been doing fixed blade knives including a historical bowie line, and line of military knives. New to CAS-Hanwei is their Rock Creek line of knives. The Rock Creek line moves CAS-Hanwei from a purveyor of fine historical and collectors blades to a line designed for use by hunters, campers and outdoorsmen. Woods Monkey recently had the chance to check out a couple models in this line and see how they stack up for regular field use today.
We tried out two different models of the Rock Creek line for our testing this summer, the Springbok utility model and the Oryx survival/utility model. Both knives feature CAS-Hanwei’s proprietary forged HWS-1 steel. The HWS-1 steel is a martensitic stainless, high carbon, high silicon forging steel heat treated to a 58-60 HRc and provides good corrosion resistance and edge retention but is designed to be easy to sharpen, unlike some high end specialty alloys. The knives feature heavy, full length, stick tangs secured to the pommel by a sleeve nut.
Both pommel and guard are made from investment cast stainless steel and have a checkered surface on the underside for grip. The handles are stacked bark tanned leather washers and are reminiscent of field knives from an earlier era. The Springbok is the smaller of the two knives featuring a 3 1/2 inch long drop point blade with a high, flat grind. At 7 3/4 inches in overall length its fairly compact, but its still sports a hefty 3/16 inch thick blade. That along with the steel pommel and guard help bring the weight in at 5 ounces. The Springbok is listed as a utility model and its size and style would make it well suited to general camp and hunting use. It has a single guard situated to keep the index finger and hand off of the blade and has a set of thumb serrations on the spine of the blade. The larger Oryx is substantially bigger and heavier. It has a stout 6 inch long, 1/4 inch thick blade with a saber grind. This allows more mass at the spine for strength, but is somewhat balanced out by the long clip point with false edge to help keep the whole package to a manageable 10 ounces. The Oryx features a double guard, but the rear quillon is slightly smaller than the front one and provides hand protection without becoming obtrusive during use.
Both knives come with heavy duty sheaths made from natural finished bark tanned leather. They feature very heavy welts which are reinforced by stainless steel at the tip and mouth. They remind me a lot of the Scandinavian hunting knife sheaths from the 50’s, like the type my grandfather used to use. They have that same sort of European styling to them, but are built much heavier than most of those sheaths were. The leather is of a heavy grade, the welts are thick, and the stitching is sound. I had a chance to examine them at the Blade Show with Dan Rohrman of JRE Industries, a sheath maker who provides sheaths to many custom makers, and he gave the sheaths his nod of approval. As a sheath maker he’s seen many substandard sheaths on the market and tends to look at production models with a critical eye. Despite this jaundiced attitude, Dan felt that the Rock Creek sheaths were solidly built and well made. I was impressed with them as well, but it was nice to have a professional concur with my thoughts. I’ll admit that the retro styling of the sheaths drew my eye to the Rock Creek line as much as did the stacked leather handles of the knives.
While we’re talking bout the quality of the sheaths, let me address the quality of the Rock Creek knives in general. Fit and finish on my sample knives was excellent. As good as most any production blades I’ve seen in fact. The stacked leather handle was capped by red spacers at the guard and pommel and the fit was seamless. The handles were also uniformly well shaped and comfortable in the hand. Blade to guard fit was also extremely good and grind lines and polish on the blades was excellent. The whole of the knife bespoke of a quality, solidly made, well thought out piece. The stampings on the blade were tasteful and discrete, and show the origin of the knives as Dalian, China. And that’s why I wanted to talk about the fit and finish of the Rock Creek line. Many folks have a negative impression of products made in China, particularly cutlery. Well, like products made anywhere else, it all depends on who is actually doing the making! I’ve seen knives run the gamut from outright junk to some really excellent work come out of China in recent years. Some of it you would never guess was made there if you didn’t see the import stamp. The Rock Creek knives fall into this later category.
If I handed you one of these blades you’d more likely than not wonder what European company was producing them if you didn’t take a look at the stampings. They really have an old world style, fit and finish to them that’s something CAS-Hanwei should be proud of. The fact is that China probably has more blade making tradition than just about anywhere else in the world. Sure, I’ve seen the $2 flea market specials that have come out of China and that are simple “knife shaped objects”, but I’ve also seen some pretty junky products come from just about every other corner of the world as well! There is also a group of highly skilled sword and bladesmiths over there as well who take great pride in their work. It’s those folks that CAS-Hanwei has working for them at their shop in Dalian. These folks can make a product just as good as is required of them and CAS-Hanwei sets their standards very high. Suffice it to say, you need to look beyond the basic label of where these knives are coming from, and look at the actual company and individuals who are forging these tools. All products are not created equally no matter where they come from, and the folks in Dalian certainly seem to be putting out a product that stands out from the rest.
I had the chance to use both the Springbok and the Oryx for a couple of months over the summer, and took them along on a number of camping trips to try them out. Between the two, I found the smaller Springbok to be of the size and style that I tend to use the most. With its 3 1/2 inch drop point blade and 7 3/4 inch overall length, the Springbok carries compactly and offers enough blade for most tasks I’m likely to do while out camping. I generally find a 3 to 4 inch blade about perfect in fact. Its plenty to cut cordage, prep small tinder for fires, open up meal packages and do light meal prep, and its handy just sitting around the fire and whittling too. The Springbok’s sheath is a simple pouch style, which is what I usually prefer. It’s deep enough to hold the knife securely but only requires a simple draw when you go to use the knife, no snaps or other devices required. While I typically like to use a short lanyard on knives in pouch sheaths to assist in the draw, the Springbok does not have a lanyard hole. Despite this, the hooked beak on the pommel made for a handy spot to hook with your finger and assist in drawing the knife. It worked out well and I didn’t find myself missing the lanyard during testing.
I found that the Springbok carried easily on the belt and was the size and weight that I would soon forget I was carrying it. It’s a good choice for a general purpose camp knife, a hunting knife that’s going to ride on the belt all day, or even and EDC knife if you live or work where you can tote around a compact fixed blade all of the time. I found the Springbok comfortable to use, even when working with it for extended periods of time. The handle is well radiused with nothing present to raise hot spots, and it was big enough for my mid sized hands. I mentioned earlier that the underside of the finger guard was checkered and I initially wondered how comfortable this would be when really bearing down on the knife. It ended up working out just fine. The checkering is fine enough, and rounded off enough, that it balances out providing some traction when needed with not being especially sharp. I could feel it when I applied pressure to that area and felt it grab and keep my hand in place, but it didn’t present an issue otherwise.
The Oryx I place in a whole different class than the Springbok. It’s a big knife, with a heavy blade. This one ups the ante in what it can do and I think CAS-Hanwei’s classification of this one as a “survival” knife is a fit one. No, it doesn’t have a hollow handle or a crazy sawback or anything, but it is big enough and stout enough to easily use for light chopping. It was no problem at all to take down small poles for use on an emergency shelter, travois, or simply for a good walking stick. The beaked pommel allowed me to choke back on the grip and get a little bit of extra leverage while chopping too. The 6 inch blade is a nice compromise between having enough length and mass to chop, while still not being huge to carry on the belt. The saber grind allowed for a fine edge while still retaining the strength of a full thickness spine. The 6 inch length is such that you can still do most types of detail work too. While not as handy as the smaller Springbok, I was still able to make tent stakes, and perform most of the routine tasks around camp that I’d do with a smaller blade. I didn’t necessarily need a 1/4 inch thick, 6 inch blade to cut open a tuna packet, or trim paracord, but neither did it hinder me either. And I was able to do the heavier work of shelter building and firewood prep much easier with the big blade than the small one.
I did find that I prefer the single guard of the Springbok to the double of the Oryx. The rear guard on the Oryx was small enough that it wasn’t too bad, but there were times when I wanted to apply thumb pressure to the spine that it was in the way a bit. Its size was such that I could generally shift my grip a bit and it wasn’t a big deal though. Unlike the pouch sheath on the Springbok, the Oryx’s sheath had a retention strap that secured the handle of the knife. While I do like the simple pouch sheath on the Springbok, for the larger, heavier Oryx with its double guard, this was a more appropriate style sheath to have. The folks at CAS-Hanwei did a good job on figuring out how the Oryx rides on the belt too. It sits low enough that the pommel isn’t digging into your ribs when you sit, but not so low that the knife is flopping around on your belt. I think the 6 inch length helps to maintain this balance between packability and function. You have enough blade to chop with, but no so much as to be awkward to carry. While I’m more likely to carry something smaller like the Springbok for routine use, if I were heading into a situation where I thought I’d need a heavier knife, something like the Oryx is exactly what I’d want to have. Enough knife for the job, but not so much that I’m going to be unwilling to carry it.
Overall, I really enjoyed working with the Rock Creek line of knives. They have a solid quality build, and old world style charm to them not seen in many knives today. It was nice to work with all steel and leather, and feel the heft of a forged tool in your hands. I have nothing against Kydex and polymer, but sometimes its nice to get back to the basics for a bit. The Rock Creeks didn’t give up anything in the way of performance either. That classic good looks wasn’t all show, and both knives worked out great at their intended tasks. If you can appreciate a quality made, classically lined field knife then I’d definitely say to give the Rock Creek line a chance. The Springbok carries an MSRP of $99.00 whereas the bigger Oryx is listed at $129.00. For the quality of materials and fit and finish of these blades, that’s a pretty good deal, but with some online shopping you can trim that to about $68 for a Springbok, and $88 for an Oryx. That, my friends, is a downright steal!