Tactical Knives – Field Test of Sunrise River Custom Knife

Tactical KnivesThe following review appears in the November 2000 issue of Tactical Knives magazine: www.tacticalknives.com

Sunrise River – Putting Good Looks to Work!

Tactical KnivesBattle experience in Vietnam first convinced this maker of the value of a reliable blade. Today he delivers JUST THAT!

by Jeff Randall

Shortly before a trip to the Andes, a teammate called to ask what knives I was taking down. At the time I was at a loss for words. Usually I always have something on the front burner waiting for a review, but for this particular trip I was running dry. Big blades were out since we would be traveling at altitudes above 11,000 feet and wouldn’t see much vegetation. Another consideration was pack weight. Hiking at these altitudes would definitely be thin air to my lungs since my normal life resides at 700 feet above sea level. Needless to say, I didn’t want carrying a lot of heavy steel to rob oxygen resources.

About two months prior to this trip, Jay Maines of Sunrise River Custom Knives had sent out a Maxi-Skinner for review by TK. At first I was reluctant to put this nice piece of custom work in the pack. There’s always the risk of “losing” something to baggage handlers or getting it lifted in other ways, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized its size would probably work well for the trip.

The Maxi-Skinner is designed as a heavy duty field knife for hunters out for large game. That’s something we don’t see a lot of in the places we frequent, but from past experience, shorter knives have always been handy for cooking chores and cleaning small game. The cocobolo handle also interested me, since I had always used blades with synthetic handles on these expeditions. Beginning in the humid lowlands and eventually making our way to the top of arid mountains would definitely test the limits of fine-fitted wood.

Tactical KnivesAfter arriving in the country, the piece was strapped to my side and remained there throughout the trip. It proved to be a wise choice for an overall adventure knife in third-world countries. The midsize blade and high-riding sheath concealed well when traveling by bus or “collectivo” taxi, and didn’t hinder movement when scaling steep inclines with a full pack. At less that 10 inches overall length, it’s hardly noticeable under a non-tucked shirt thus producing a sense of security when walking through crowded towns.

Food Prep

Tactical KnivesDuring our mountain adventure, the knife saw more use in food preparation than anything else. The 1-3/4 inch wide blade and long flat grind made one of the best kitchen knives I’ve used in the outdoors. The way Jay designed the bolsters and finger guard allows you to make clean cuts on a flat surface without anything getting in the way. From slicing vegetables to chopping through tough Andes chickens, the edge performed with surgical precision. Clean grinds coupled with the slick finish of the CPM 440V steel made the Maxi-Skinner a breeze to clean up. In my opinion, this is a feature often overlooked with many hunting and camp blades, especially since these pieces see a lot of use in food preparation.

Another thing I like about the Maxi-Skinner is the way it feels in the hand. I usually like big gripping surfaces on my large survival knives, but the smaller handle and large choil give absolute control when doing fine work. It handles as well as any good-fitting pocket folder I’ve used. The wood handles suffered no ill effects from the humidity or temperature changes that varied from 95 degrees in the lowland to 35 degrees at night in altitude.

After returning stateside, I put the blade through some standard tests just to round out the full evaluation. Outdoor knives have to meet certain criteria for me to carry them on a regular basis. The first thing I want in a knife is cutting efficiency. A lot of makers use heavy edge bevels that take away form the cutting fluency in certain applications. The secret to good outdoor knives is finding the compromise between efficiency and toughness. No need to elaborate on the Maxi-Skinner’s ability in this area, because Jay has that down to a science.

Survival Conditions

Tactical KnivesMy second test is how the blade performs under hard wilderness or survival conditions. In other words, can the piece split deadwood, do light chopping, be capable of whittling small work, etc. ? I was concerned that the Maxi-Skinner would fail when splitting wood. Although the grind was right, my past experience with pinned slab bolsters has not been good. They have an inclination to loosen the more you laterally stress the blade. After splitting a decent pile of dry kindling, everything on the blade was still tight. Even hammering on the spine didn’t create any problems.

Chopping with the piece was the only downfall I found. The small design and balance point doesn’t lend itself well to the task. I had to choke back on the handle, gripping with only two fingers to get any speed and work out of the blade. Severing wrist-sized saplings can be done, but you’re going to have a sore hand if you do too much. Of course, the blade wasn’t designed for such use. With that said, I wouldn’t be scared to haul it in the wilderness for extended stays since all the other better-than-average features make up for this shortcoming.

The edge held up exceptionally well and was not sharpened throughout the evaluation. Just before returning the blade to the maker, I touched it up on a TriAngle Sharpmaker. In less than a minute, the shaving edge was restored. Jay suggests using nothing less than ceramic or diamond on his edges due to the toughness of the CPM 440-V. I agree.

As far as the sheath goes, all the readers know I’m no fan of leather, especially in tropical or humid conditions. The leather that came with the Maxi-Skinner is one of the best I’ve used. All of Jay’s sheaths are made from water buffalo hide, hand fitted and sewn, then soaked in a special hot saddle oil and beeswax formula. Several douses from wading rain-swollen creeks then drying in the sun produced no problems with the treated leather.

So, who is Jay Maines?

By now everyone’s probably asking just who is Jay Maines and Sunrise River Custom Knives? Although not well known, Jay’s been making custom knives part- time for the past 10 years. It all started when his son wanted a good hunting knife to carry on his adventures in the Minnesota outdoors. With nothing more than a file and a bench grinder, Jay set out to complete the task. Soon, everyone he knew wanted a custom blade and his business grew from there.

Usually, you don’t just jump into the knifemaking trade without past experience in sharp steel. Jay’s came when he enlisted for Vietnam. He explains, “I walked into the war with an old Western Bowie knife that I had bought several years before the war. The first week in Vietnam I was introduced to a Randall model 14 that a friend of mine had and four months after that, I owned one.”

The Randall followed him through his whole stay in Vietnam (1966-1968) with the Self-Propelled Army Artillery unit. According to Jay, his knives are based on the Randall quality he staked his life on during the war. Jay remarked, “I saw these blades being used every day with some taking severe abuse. It had a deep impression on me and I’ve tried to follow the same methods with my own blades. Clean grinds, proper balance and usability are the features I strive for in my work.”

When it comes to usability, the Sunrise knives are works of art that work. While some customs are meant more for collecting than use, Jay places emphasis on function, then allows the beauty to shine through in the final touches. Working strictly with stainless steels, he explains his reasoning, “I never know where and how my knives are going to be used. I want the blade to function but also stay in tip-top shape to be passed down as family heirlooms. I was born in the woods of northern Maine and had a knife on my side from the time I was old enough to walk. That little blade took many hides from my trap line and cleaned enough fish to support a family. Hopefully the owners of my knives will pass them down to their kids. This way the younger generations can understand the value of good tools.

Most of his custom pieces are adorned with exotic hardwood handles, engraved brass and etched blades. Mammoth ivory, sambar stag and buffalo horn are also used in some of his work. He attempts to fit the materials with the environment the blade will be used in to give the piece durability as well as good looks.

Although filet knives and small hunters are his biggest sellers, he readily admits his passion is big blades. Many of these pieces go to safari clubs and big game hunters for presentation knives or as using blades. He also produces several variations of tactical and fighting knives for everyday carry. For example, the tanto pictured in this article was sold to a long-distance motorcycle rider in California. The biker wanted a nice carry blade that could be used for self-defense and utility. Jay literally put this piece on the road by fashioning a horizontal carry rig so it would not interfere with sitting on a bike.

His other blades are just as functional. The #7 boot knife is a big seller to many of his outdoor customers and hunters. Designed as a last-ditch defensive piece, the excellent edge-holding abilities also get called on as a backup field blade. When one edge dulls, the blade is flipped over and work continues without waiting for a sharpening session.

As with Jay’s field knives, many of the fighters produced at Sunrise are designed with utility use in mind. Whether carried by military personnel or the outdoorsman, the way Jay blends the guards and handles with the edge keeps the piece useable for all types of chores.

Sunrise River Custom Knives is a true custom shop. If you desire a variation from a standard design or wish to add something for a special presentation, they will accommodate your desires. The best parts are the reasonable prices and lifetime guarantee.

Jay explains it like this, “I have no desire to become a production maker. I want to keep the quality of my blades the same, so I do them one at a time. Since it’s only myself in the business, my knives are guaranteed for life – my life.”

A feature article by Jeff Randall, published in “Tactical Knives” magazine’s Blademaster Profile Section is posted above.

Tactical KnivesThis photo of Jeff Randall, holding my #13 Maxi Skinner, was taken high up in the Peruvian Andes mountains, near the Incan ruins of Kuelap. Jeff operates “Randall’s Adventure and Training” offering jungle survival expeditions to the Amazon River area of Peru. On his last trip in March and April I gave him a Maxi Skinner to run a full field test on. The knife performed so well that the review became a full length article due out in the late fall issue of Tactical Knivesmagazine. Meanwhile, why not visit Jeff’s Web site at www.jungletraining.com.