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March 4, 2009 Comments (0) Blades & Tools

RAT Cutlery’s RC-5 Review

A Comprehensive Look At RAT Cutlery’s New RC-5 Survival, Escape and Evasion Knife.

Note:  As mentioned in our alert yesterday, we wanted to get the information out on the RC-5 quickly because of the anticipation for this new RAT Cutlery product.  So, this review is based on what we could glean in the first 36 hours.  We will be working more with the RC-5 and post up additional findings and observations in about one week.

There are certain magazines that some of us hold onto over the years, whether it’s American Handgunner, Wilderness Way, or, in my case, The American Survival Guide.  It’s an interesting thing to open up a magazine and read the musings of a writer already well established in the industry and revered by the audience.  The likes of those in the gun world were Jeff Cooper, Skeeter Skelton, Elmer Keith, and Jim Wilson.  It’s a different experience, and more satisfying in some ways, to "grow up" with a writer as they are first starting out in a particular field.  I’m glad I hung onto those old ASG issues so I could go back and nail down the first time I ran across the name Jeff Randall.

Jeff wrote an article for June, 1997 American Survival Guide called "Personal Protection Pets" and it was about having pets around to help alert family members to threats or to protect members in more dire circumstances.  I don’t know if this was his first article, but it’s the first one I read by him, and I believe I’ve got most of them going back to the early 90’s.

RAT Logo on the micarta grip slabs.

The editor’s note in that article stated that Jeff bred German Shepherd dogs, was a part-time private investigator and a photojournalist.  Certainly, in the last twelve years, Jeff has expanded his repertoire quite a bit.  Early on, Jeff teamed up with Mike Perrin to start their jungle training school Randall’s Adventure and Training.  Jeff and Mike have established relationships with key people in Peru, and those relationships have allowed both of them to take groups of adventurers into South American jungles to test their mettle in real-world survival scenarios.  Some of the pictures I’ve seen from these trips are enough evidence to convince me that Randall’s Adventure and Training expeditions are the real thing.  I’ve seen photos of people with hundreds of bites all over their entire body courtesy of the Peruvian critters, and that’s not something I would enjoy.  A few days of that is probably enough to make a person feel close to the edge of sanity.  But, all of these excursions into the hot, humid jungle gave Jeff and Mike many opportunities to test gear in the worst conditions.  It also gave them a real appreciation of what gear can really be counted on and what gear is just fancy cover art.

RATs custom logo for their Survival, Escape and Evasion Knife

After gaining that experience in the field and testing different types of tools, Mike and Jeff decided to start designing gear that they felt would match their needs.  Now, it’s a over a decade later, and RAT Cutlery has already been in business for a couple of years and has several different model offerings under their belt.  Originally, knife designs were drawn up by RAT, and then implemented by other companies.  But, seeing the response to their product designs, they decided to open up their own cutlery business to more fully develop models they felt were needed for the market.  One of those models is their new RC-5 Survival, Escape and Evasion Knife which we received earlier today (Tuesday the 2nd).  Since we’ve put ourselves in a quick turnover mode for this article because of the demand for information out there in the masses, we’ll be writing some of this real-time and some of it in the past tense as well.  So, their might be some time shifts in the writing, but that’s so we can bring you the information faster.

The first thing we did was take it out of the box, look it over to see what jumped out at us, and then started snapping some pictures before we use it in the field tomorrow.  Have you ever taken that next step down a staircase that you thought was there but wasn’t, and had that kind of jolt from the unexpected resistance from the floor?  That was kind of the feeling i got when I picked up the RC-5.  After I slid it of the box onto a couch, I was struck by how attractive the combination of colors in the knife and the sheath were.  But, when I reached down to pick it up, I guess I was expecting a lighter weight product.  It was like reaching down to pick up a brick and finding it had the weight of a cinder block.

Thumb Grippers on strong quarter inch thick spine.

Now, to me, this isn’t a bad thing.  I guess the sleek lines and attractive qualities of the knife were a little misleading, and I was expecting a more lightweight offering. Instead, I found a hell-for-stout, robust tool that will break the owner instead of the other way around.  A large portion of the weight of the RC-5 is due to the .25 inch thick steel that’s used in its construction.  From what I’ve read, this is the first knife produced by RAT Cutlery with that thickness.  Most other models are .188 inch thick (one model is .125 inces thick), and if you look at their particular designs, that makes sense.  Most of those are knives intended for cutting and slicing chores such as dressing game, camp chores, and cutting through vegetation.  However, the RC-5 has been designed for a different role.  As its name suggests, it is intended as a Survival, Escape, and Evasion Knife.  That particular job requires different specifications for the knife and the sheath as well.

First, it needs to be considered for whom the knife was actually deisgned.  It could be for military personnel out in the field that have to use the knife to open heavy gear and bust bands on containers.  Or, it could be for the downed pilot that needs a strong tool to pry open a door or hatch in an emergency.  Either way, the extra thickness of the RC-5 adds to its overall strength and reliability.  The owner would feel more comfortable pushing the limits of a knife this thick versus a thinner model.  There are every days tasks that military and emergency people encounter that I can’t begin to count where the RC-5 would be a perfect model to take on the job.

Even with the extra thickness of the steel, the RC-5 has a saber grind to it, starting .75 inches  under the spine.  This grind helps reduce the girth of the lower half of the blade but still retains some thickness overall to ensure strength.  In essence, you’re getting a balance of two worlds (almost) with a compromise in the overall design profile of the knife.  You get durability and slicing capacity in the same knife.  Speaking of compromise, this is a perfect time to bring up the blade length.  There’s a lot of debate running in the various circles about the perfect blade length for a field knife or a survival knife.  Usually, about 85% of the answers run somewhere between 4 to 7 inches.  The user needs length to help with mass and momentum for chopping chores, but there’s also the portability factor along with other gear that needs to be counted as well.  So, the RC-5 brings you basically into the middle ground again giving you a knife with sufficient weight (due to both length and thickness) for chopping chores, but it still has a short enough blade to not be unwieldy for smaller tasks that require more surgical precision.  And, though not a flat grind blade, you still have the ability to take advantage of the handiness of the RC-5’s shorter length for finer work around the campsite.

RC-5 with its combination glass breaker and lanyard opening.

Even though it was heavier than I anticipated, the RC-5 still felt very balanced and really did fit my hand just right.  The thickness of the micarta slabs, in combination with the handle, make what I would call a "locking fit" to my grip.  It was just about dead-on for me, and I would estimate my hands to be about average size.  But what really brought a grin to my lips was the combination lanyard hole/glass breaker that peeks out at the end of the grip slabs.  There are several knife models on the market that are .25 inches thick, are made of 1095 (like the RC-5 is), and use micarta in the slabs.  But, RAT’s design is somewhat unique because a small portion of the steel handle that extends beyond the micarta grips and has had a trapezoid shape cut out of it to allow attachment of a landyard.  At the very end where the beveled angles occur, you’ve got a slightly sharpened glass breaker as well.  So, the user has two functions in one facet of the RC-5.  Nice design touch!  And, as we talk about the 1095 steel, it should be noted that 1095 is an almost ideal alloy to have for this type of tool.  It provides strength when needed, but the edge is also easily maintained because of it’s higher carbon content.  Higher carbon does mean that it will rust if not cared for, but the entire knife has a black powder coat finish to protect it from elements.  The only exposed portion is the blade edge. 

The RC-5 and sheath by Eagle Industries makes a great combination!

The attachment of a lanyard gives a couple of benefits to the user.  First, with the lanyard wrapped around the wrist or hand, it allows the user to back up on the handle a bit to get more "snap" to their chops when felling small trees and the like.  Also, the lanyard opening is a great way to store extra lengths of paracord for use in survival situations.  If the user is skilled enough, they can weave different types of lanyards, creating basket-weave configurations or monkey paw designs that are perfect for storing additional cord without adding to the overall length of the lanyard itself.

Another addition to the features list is for the primitive traditionalist.  The left grip slab has a divot in it for work with the bow and drill method of fire-starting.  I’ll admit to not having any practical knowledge on how to make a fire that way, but I’m sure there’s plenty of folks that can take advantage of this benefit.  Overall, the handle is nicely contoured for natural hand positioning.  As I mentioned, it feels rock-solid in my hand.  At the top of the grip is a deeper groove for the forefinger to help get a strong purchase on the knife, and to act somewhat as a guard for the first finger as well.  The whole package, including the handle design, profile, and execution are superbly done, and I don’t think there are any knives in its class that feel or sit any better in the hand.

Back of RC-5 sheath with multiple attachment points.

The ambidextrous, cordura sheath that came with the RC-5 is a rugged piece of gear in its own right, and there are as many quality touches to it as there are with the RC-5.  Manufactured by Eagle Industries, it has a hard liner for the blade and it has multiple lashing points to attach it to a belt or other piece of gear.  As you can see from the pictures, there are several MOLLE attachment points down the length of the sheath that will allow you to carry it inverted or right-side up.  In a pinch, the MOLLE strap running down the back could also be used on packs with pass-through slots behind a pocket.  Additionally, there is a smaller, separate loop at the very bottom of the sheath where the elastic leg band runs through that could also be used to lash the sheath to gear with just plain old paracord.  For the most common mode of carry–on the belt–there is a nicely thought out design where the sheath has a flap that folds over and secures with industrial grade velcro.  But, between the flap forming the loop and the actual sheath back is a tongue sandwiched between the two.  The tongue has both "male" and "female" velco sides on it, and works in concert with the other two layers (flap and sheath back) to make a strong and snug fit on just about any belt, and it helps the sheath to keep from sliding around.  One might thing this is a bit of over-construction, and the sheath could have done just fine with a simple loop.  However, we need to keep in mind the audience for which this knife was originally intended.

Capture of both retaining straps on RC-5 sheath.

Side view of belt loop set-up and construction.

The RC-5 is intended to be a tool of last resort, and the entire package was designed to be absolutely secure.  As named, the Survival, Escape and Evasion Knife is a must-have piece of gear that needs to not only stay in place with the most strenuous of activities, it also has to have redundant mechanisms to ensure the integrity of its strength so it won’t get lost or torn off.  A lot of time and effort goes into designing these types of redundancies to ensure that our personnel have the gear they need when it’s needed.  Another example of that engineering on the sheath, is the two retaining straps that fasten around the handle of the knife.  Maybe I don’t get out enough, but in all honestly, I can’t recall seeing a sheath before with two retaining straps of this type.  I have seen sheaths with two or three locking mechanisms, but not two straps around the handle.  It’s a bit of a compromise in that the knife may not be as quick to depoly with both straps fastened, but that’s more than balanced out by the knowledge that the RAT RC-5 isn’t going anywhere.  If you’re comfortable enough with the security of just one strap, you can just leave the other undone.

On the front of the sheath is a medium sized pocket where you can store whatever survival gear you like.  You can add fire-starters, a compass, a sharpening stone, or whatever else you can think to fit inside of it.  It has an elastic compression strap around the middle of the pocket to snug everything inside up against the body of the sheath so the contents don’t move around or fall out if the quick-snap buckle is not secured properly.  This type of pocket has become more common in the past few years, and Eagle Industries does just as god a job of implementing the design as any other manufacturer that I have seen.  So, after we’ve taken a look at all the different cosmetic and functional apsects of the knife and sheath design, where does that leave us?  Well, we’re at the point where we hit the field with it and see if it performs as good as it looks, and as well as intended.

Day 2

There’s nothing like hitting the woods with a new knife to try out–especially when you’ve got high expectations.  There’s a little more skip in your step, and there’s a bit more focus on trying to figure out what would make good real-world tests for the new product.  Luckily, here in West Virginia, there’s plenty of woods about, and we’ve got our fair share here on our land.  It takes all of about ten minutes to get to a spot where you can’t see or hear civilization and it is indistinguishable from any northwestern wilderness.  That’s a bonus for me since I can cut to my heart’s content with nary a soul to be found in the way.  So, sitting there in the woods, I thought about what uses a knife designed for survival, escape, and evasion would be used for, and I set about some of those tasks.

One of the primary considerations out in the wilderness is shelter–especially when you’re in an inclement environment.  So, having a strong, flexible frame is the first step.  That requires locating and cutting down saplings of just the right diameter to hold up under some stress, but not too large to overwork the builder.  Think of terms of the thickness of a wooden handle on a shovel or a hoe (for those of you in Rio Linda, that’s not a gaudily-dressed female working street corners) and you’ll know what I was looking for.  Once I located a copse of saplings, I had no problems chopping through eight of them in about 8-10 minutes with the RAT RC-5.  I took another five to even out the lengths a bit, and I was ready to build a frame for a number of different types of shelters.  There was enough dead wood, pine boughs and other debris from a recent windstorm to use for the roof of the shelter.  So, that was easy enough to accomplish.  Even with that, there are other tasks that you might want to do that requires some light chopping as well.

One such task is also a second consideration for your impromptu campsite–starting a fire.  For that, I gathered all the kindling and tinder that I needed to get a blaze going, but it takes some bigger stuff to get a longer-lasting fire rolling.  So, I found a slightly thicker tree and chopped it down.  Once felled, I took off about three feet from that tree to make a baton for splitting wood with the RC-5.  As I went through this chopping process and the first one mentioned above, I did notice some fatigue that came into my hand quickly.  This happened because I had my hand backed up to the very end to get more momentum (as mentioned earlier), and trying to hold the handle there without any other support does tire the hand out quickly.  But, that’s easily remedied by the lanyard being wrapped around the hand.  The lanyard allows for secure chopping when holding very little of the handle, and it takes stress off the hand muscles allowing for an easier process.  Keep in mind that this is a 5.25 inch blade, and that’s not the ideal length for chopping.  But, with the lanyard in place during the chopping chores, the knife did its part in fine fashion!

Once the baton was finished, I took it over to the wood pile to see how the RC-5 would do splitting wood.  As mentioned, there are some good and bad points to a knife that tries to balance its performance in different areas.  The .25 inch thick blade gave me extreme confidence in the strength of the knife, so I had no problem beating on it with the baton to split the wood and it held up to all the abuse I could muster.  However, the thickness of the blade and it’s short length works against you a bit once the spine is down flush with the top of the wood.  First, as I mentioned earlier, the grind starts about halfway down the side of the blade, so once the thicker portion of the blade is into the wood, the edge of the blade has open space around it–because it’s thicker near the top.  At this point, you’re no longer cutting into the wood to split it, you’re basically using brute force to drive the thickness of the blade through the wood.  On top of that, with a 5.25 inch blade, you’ll run into occasions (with thicker wood) where only a little bit of the end is sticking out the other side.  So, you’ll have to be precise with your baton strikes to make sure you’re hitting the exposed end of the blade.  That’s where your leverage for splitting the wood is anyway, so you can’t be slopppy with your technique.  Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time swinging the baton to no effect, and that’s just wasted energy.

So, is this the best blade for splitting wood?  No, it’s not.  Can you still split wood for a fire?  Yes, you can.  The benefit of a knife like this is that it can do multiple tasks, instead of being a specialty piece.  You could make a blade profile that would glide through the grain of the wood more easily, but then you give up some of the knife’s strength and durability required for the other uses I mentioned earlier.  I just point these things out so the user can practice and be proficient with their gear, so they’ll know how to handle different situations in the field.  Sure, an 8 inch long blade would have plenty of reach through the wood and give you plenty of striking area on the other side for the baton.  But, then you run into issues with portability.  And, as most of us know, the easier it is to pack or carry gear, the more likely we’ll have it on us when it’s needed.

So, we’ve got shelter materials, and everything put together for a fire.  What else is needed?  Well, improvised tools and weapons may come in handy.  One of the first things that come to mind and is one of the oldest weapons in human history is the spear.  And, of course, we have all made these as kids, and we try not to look foolish when making one as an adult.  But, there is something primal in making your own weapon from natural materials.  The spear can give you more reach on an opponent, and it can be used for hunting game as well.  But, take a step back from the full length spear and consider what can be done with shorter versions.  You can make stakes for a deadfall trap, or you could make short spears to be use in sprung spear traps for game or protection.  Also, you can make an improvised "knife", or better yet, you can make a double-ended knife out of a short piece of wood that could be used in defensive situations.  Whatever you choose, the RAT RC-5 is up to the task.  Using the cutting edge nearest the handle, I was able to swiftly pare down the end of a shaft to make quite a strong spear.  I used the left-over length of tree used to make the baton, and I had the point finished in under three minutes.  Fire-hardening it would be the final step to make it stronger and more durable.  Just a few minutes spent, and I’ve multiplied my huting and defensive options significantly.

As far as the edge goes, as I mentioned, I had no problems quickly shaving down the point of the spear.  In fact, as you can see in the picture, I got nice thin slices with the blade during that process.  That said, the edge wasn’t what folks like to call "hair-popping" sharp.  But, with a blade and grind of this type, I don’t think that’s what you really want.  In circumstances where chopping and prying are a  serious possiblity, you don’t want an edge that’s so fragile that it’ll break or give way during your work.  But, while using the RC-5 to try and make a Figure 4 trap (I’m not showing the photo to avoid endless heckling from friends), I did think about something that I might try this coming week as I spend more time with the RC-5.  I do not claim to be a sharpening guru, and don’t spend time on the sharpening forums (yes, there are forums on knife sharpening), but I gave consideration to "differentially sharpening" the first 1.5 to 2 inches of the cutting edge closest to the handle.  By that, I mean to give the first bit of cutting edge a little different profile and make it sharper for the finer, more delicate work such as carving. 

I even tried the RC-5 as a thrower. Not the best idea, but it worked!

I’m thinking this could be accomplished with a ceramic stone about two inches wide that would give me a consistent width to use as a template.  I have not tried this before, and haven’t heard about it from anyone else either.  I’m not sure that what I’m thinking about will work effectively or not, but its’ something I believe I will try.  I’m thinking I’ll do the first two inches, and leave the rest of the cutting edge for the harder stuff.

I don’t list this as a fault on the RC-5.  This is not something that can be done practically on a production line and still keep prices where people expect them.  Also, the edge is quite serviceable as it is right out of the box.  When you do a review or decide on a product, you have to take into account what context was in mind when the manufacturer made it and put it on dealer shelves.  And, as we’ve discussed throughout this article, there are a number of choices that have to be made with respect to particular design aspects–especially for tools that will be used in a variety of ways.  There’s a very good and sound reason for this.  There is no knife or tool that’s the best at everything.  So, RAT Cutlery, like other manufacturers of similar products, have to decide exactly what attributes they have to compromise on to get the best balance of features and performance out of a given model.

After a day in the woods, the RC-5 is none the worse for wear.

RAT RC-5 in hand for scale.

If you take into consideration the number of factors Jeff and Mike had on the list when designing the RC-5 and its sheath–strength, durability, edge geometry and retention, portability, security, attachment configurations, and cost–I think you can check off each one in the positive column.  In fact, I think they swung for the fence and knocked it clean out of the park.  Yes, a one-knife-must-do-it-all type of design is an exercise in compromises, but the pertinent question now is, "How well did they do with that excercise?"  My answer is going to have to be "Fantastic!"

Aside from all of the particulars relating to performance and specifications, there’s something also to be said for aesthetics and how something "feels".  The RAT Cutlery RC-5 feels powerful, strong, and even sleek–despite its heft.  It handles nicely and feels well balanced in the hand.  For a do-it-all type of knife, I can’t tell you that this is the best knife for you.  Only you can decide that.  But, for me, it’s right at the top of the list.  I would, however, strongly encourage you to pick one up and check it out for yourself.  I’m betting you won’t put it back down!

Visit:  www.ratcutlery.com

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