Military operations in harsh desert environments are extremely demanding—both on the personnel who serve there and the equipment they carry. Temperatures can vary by as much as 70° F from dawn till noon, starting with freezing conditions at sunrise and being in the upper 90s by mid-day. In the hottest months, daytime temperatures can soar to 120° F. During the heat of the day, along with all of the other gear, you are still humping clothing you have no present need for but will need when night falls. Under conditions like this, one needs every piece of gear to perform a function that’s essential to the mission, to survival, or both. Here tools that are light, durable, and possess the ability to multitask are a definite plus.
A few years ago, the iconic A.G. Russell set out to create a large combat knife that was purpose-designed from the outset for use in just such environments. A knife large enough to perform the varied tasks soldiers may put it to, yet small enough not to be cumbersome. A knife that was light enough to not greatly increase the weight of an already heavy load, but durable enough to take the abuse of an unpredictable combat environment. For this knife he wanted superior high-carbon steel for both great edge holding ability and durability in rough use. This quest would lead Russell down a longer and more arduous path than he had ever imagined.
The steel that was chosen for this knife is DM-1, a steel developed by and named for the very skilled knifemaker and metallurgist Dan Maragni. DM-1 is essentially 0170-6C hi-carbon steel with a complex proprietary heat treatment for precision hardening. Through this process, Maragni and Russell were able to achieve the optimum balance of edge retention and toughness. Russell, along with the help of Phil Gibbs, then developed a specialized handle for the knife that he calls an Omni-Directional grip, which is specially textured to offer the user a very secure purchase with no slippage in either direction, regardless of the hold.
I immediately noted the handle texture, and that the ballistic nylon sheath is well made with a hard Kydex liner. The sheath has an adjustable retention strap, a generous utility pouch for extra gear and the eyelets around the perimeter allow the user multiple attachment options. Upon drawing the knife, I got to experience Russell’s Omni-Directional grip and found the 3-D contouring to be very ergonomic and comfortable in multiple holds. It did indeed feel very secure in hand. The Bowie style blade is large, coming in at just under 8 inches long, and 2.13 inches wide at the widest point at the top of the beveled clip. Even at 3/16-inch thick, this blade is very well balanced in hand. Underneath the Rucarta handle scales there is a small cavity for storing some emergency items. With the cavity empty, the balance point is 0.38 inches in front of the handle. At 5.5 inches the handle is long enough to be comfortable, even in larger gloved hands. The upper and lower guards are offset with the upper one being farther forward and shorter than the lower. These features, along with the birds beak pommel, allow for easy indexing of the handle in the dark. The knife handles well, and at 12.8 ounces it also isn’t as heavy as I had expected from dimensions.
A soldier’s knife may serve as a weapon rare occasions and that definitely needs to be considered when designing one. However, much like other knives, they are primarily used for more utilitarian tasks like cutting rope, webbing, and vegetation and, of course, food prep. The knife I received came with a very impressive edge that easily wiped hair off my arm. It sliced through MRE packaging like a hot knife through butter, and cut through heavy-weight canvas material with practically no resistance. It easily sliced through heavy nylon webbing multiple times and it made very quick work of cutting ¾-inch nylon rope.
With a mix of traditional lines, state- of-the-art materials, and advanced technology, the Sandbox Bowie is lean, mean and wickedly sharp. This is one knife that is totally in tune with the challenges of the modern battlefield.
The Sandbox Bowie has a specially developed contoured and textured handle to maximize grip and minimize slippage. The guards were added only as an extra precaution and to provide holes for lanyards and for lashing points.
The dark gray Chromium Carbo-Nitride blade coating is thinner and a good bit smoother than some of other coatings currently being used on hi-carbon knife blades. This thin coating not only gives the blade a thinner profile and lighter weight, but also reduces drag when cutting and chopping by a noticeable amount. The slight blade-heavy balance came in handy making snap cuts with a three-finger grip. Using this method I was able to easily sever green vegetation ranging from 5/8-inch diameter maple limbs up to 1½-inch palmetto branches with one clean cut and minimal energy expense. The knife sliced through the vegetation as easily as a non-coated blade.
I didn’t have a desert available but a trip to Florida provided the high temperatures and just as much need for light yet durable tools. Even with my hands drenched with sweat, working in the very hot and humid conditions of south Florida swamps in July, the handle did indeed offer a very secure purchase with no slippage at all. The knife is definitely well suited to gathering materials for camouflage and concealment, for clearing lines of fire, or for shelter, and soon I had gathered the materials to build a blind from which to observe and photograph the local fauna.
The Chromium Carbonitride coating sliced through green vegetation with the ease of a non-coated blade and, even after days of use and neglect, the durability of the coating and the DM-1 steel continued to impress.
In the release for the Sandbox Bowie, Mr. Russell mentioned that he wanted steel that would be “tough enough for what troops might put it through.” For me, that phrase conjures images of what most knife users would consider as much abuse as use. My mind immediately wandered to uses that may be encountered in a true survival situation where this knife was the primary tool.
The sheath, with its large pouch, certainly lends itself to survival applications. I was able to get a large sealed ferro rod fire starting system into it, as well as a compass and tinder storage, plus some water purification tabs, signal mirror and a ceramic sharpening rod. The very sharp edge of the knife produced a pile of fine curls in a just a few minutes, the sharply squared spine throws excellent sparks from a ferro rod, and fire was easily achieved. Soon my late-morning meal of a fresh lobster I had picked up at the farmers market on my way out of town was cooking over hot coals. The hard shell of the roasted crustacean proved to be no match for the edge of the Sandbox Bowie.
Having eaten my meal, my thoughts quickly moved to something tastier than the water in my canteen and something sweet for dessert—so I reached for the coconuts in my pack. Fresh coconut is a treat that is hard to find back home in the Tennessee hills, but abundantly available in south Florida. To access the milk within, the sharp tip of the knife worked very well at digging out one “eye” for a taste I had missed since moving away from this area. Once it was drained I found the top of the clip on the spine of this knife to be devastatingly effective at cracking the coconut open. So I sat there eating my coconut, watching a brown water snake slither around on the bank, listening to the circling hawks, and watching small alligators sunning themselves. As I sat there I contemplated the phrase “tough enough for what troops might put it through.”
Out on the Wire
I gathered my things and headed to the nearest electrical supply warehouse for material to see just how tough this new steel really is. Looking at the rack I decided some heavy-duty copper range wire should do, so I made the purchase and took the wire out to my truck at the edge of the parking lot. I lowered the tailgate, placed the wire on a piece of pressure-treated 2×10, and started chopping it into pieces, stopping to check the edge and take photos. This knife is rather light for its size so it took multiple impacts to sever each piece, and I was there in the lot chopping and photographing for about twenty minutes. This is apparently a sure fire recipe for funny looks because I soon found that an audience had gathered. Once I explained what I was doing, and that I had not gone insane, I also found that I was not the only person there that was impressed by Mr. Russell’s new DM-1 steel. There was, of course, some deformation of the edge, but the amount of damage was a negligible, and nowhere near what I had expected to see. Even better than that, what damage was done was easily fixed in a few minutes with a good quality 4-inch diamond stone that I carry to the field with me.
Over the time I have had this knife in the field it has cut every common material I can think of multiple times. Handling everything from rope and webbing to green vegetation, and from lean meat to hard crustacean shells; it has bored holes in coconuts and proceeded to crack them open afterward and dig out the contents. It has whittled and split hard seasoned live oak wood for fire, and has even cut through heavy plastic containers and 6/3 copper wire multiple times. From my tests I would say that our Mr. Russell has achieved the toughness he sought.
Military operations in harsh desert environments are extremely demanding—both on the personnel who serve…
by Frank Trzaska / Jan 1, 2013