Review: ESEE 3 in S35VN & ESEE 6 with the 3D handles
In 2020 ESEE surprised the world with new 3D handles for the best selling line of knives. Even more surprising was their choice for a new steel: S35VN. Bushcraft enthusiast Padraig Croke put the new ESEE 3 in S35VN and the ESEE 6 with 3D handle scales to the test.
Breaking the Mould
A closer look at ESEE’s new offering
Truly tried and tested, and known for their utilitarian tools, their no nonsense warranty service, and their use of simple but effective materials, ESEE are the quintessential made in the USA knife company. They have firmly established their place on the belts of law enforcement officers, military personnel and survival enthusiasts. I think a lot of this reputation comes down to the quality control they are known for. When you use the same steels and the same materials for your blades, I bet you become pretty familiar with the nuances of those materials. But this doesn’t mean that they have rested on their laurels, and they are constantly looking at new markets to tap into. New ways to get their knives into the hands of people that need a reliable tool. Their Camp-Lore series for example, which launched a few years ago, saw them looking to classic knife shapes to bring us tools more suited to bushcraft and woodcraft uses. The two staples in this range were the JG5, inspired by the legendary woodsman Nessmuk and designed by James Gibson, and the PR4, designed by Patrick Rollins and takes inspiration from Horace Kephart. You can read more on these with my articles on the ESEE JG5 here and the ESEE PR4 here.
ESEE have their ear close to the ground, interacting with users of their blades and listening to what people want, and with this new range, they have branched out into entirely new materials and production methods. The two blades I had the pleasure of looking at were the new ESEE 3 in CPM S35VN steel and the ESEE 6, both with 3D milled scales. Whether you are already the proud owner of either of the originals, or you are on the market for a new blade, I believe there is something for everyone in here with these new choices. So let’s take a closer look at what the differences are, as well as some advantages and disadvantages on the table.
The contoured 3D Handles
Both of these knives have 3D milled handles, much more contoured than the usual more squared off scales and flat micarta we’re used to seeing. The flat profile of ESEE knives has a function, and that is to be able to carry your knife flat to your body and allows for easier concealment. However, this is not something I am particularly concerned about, only using or carrying my blade when I am in the field. For this reason, I prefer the new contoured version, and the result is a far more comfortable shape that fits in the hand amazingly. On top of this, the milling marks add to the comfortability, and will aid in creating some traction in the hand, without any hotspots revealing themselves. This new handle shape, while very comfortable on the ESEE 3, really shone on the larger 6 model, where I found myself needing the knife to perform much more rigorous tasks, including light chopping. But I will come to that later in this article.
The only disadvantage with the 3D micarta I found was that it is maybe not as grippy as the canvas micarta materials normally seen on ESEE knives. On my Izula 2 for example, it being such a small blade, the grippiness of the handle material is quite important. But still, it’s not a dealbreaker for me, and the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.
The Choice of Steel
1095 has always been ESEEs go-to steel. So when I saw that the new stainless offering was S35VN I was very surprised, as this is considered an absolutely premium steel, prized for its edge retention and toughness. This is quite a leap from 1095, but the people asked for it and ESEE listened.
S35VN was created by Crucible Steel. After being approached by none other than Chris Reeve, who challenged them to come up with a steel with the same amazing properties of their renowned S30V, but with improved edge retention and toughness, CPM S35VN was born. Its chemistry has been rebalanced so that it forms some niobium carbides along with vanadium and chromium carbides. Substituting niobium carbides for some of the vanadium carbides makes CPM S35VN about 15-20% tougher than CPM S30V without any loss of wear resistance. This improved toughness gives it better resistance to edge chipping. Because both vanadium and niobium carbides are harder and more effective than chromium carbides in providing wear resistance.
ESEE 3 in S35VN
The improved edge retention is noticeably different. Even judging by ESEEs own comparison tests where they put this knife up against the original ESEE 3. This test included the usual suspects such as rope cutting, cross batoning smaller sticks and cutting cardboard. S35VN won out, hands down. Aesthetically speaking, the stone washed finish not only looks beautiful, but it adds to its corrosion resistance and over time, with use, scratches and wear and tear are going to blend into this finish and give it an attractive patina.
The downsides of using S35VN over 1095 is its noticeable difference in ability to take the type of hard wearing we’d expect from an ESEE knife. They have stated on their website that “These knives are hardened at the optimal 59-60 Rc. Its ability to take abuse is not even close to our ESEE-3 1095 models.” In their initial stress tests ESEE managed to snap the knife with some brutal batoning through seasoned logs, so this knife is definitely not a beater. But like all steels, there are pros and cons, and I suppose it comes down to personal preference.
So where does this knife excel? I think it would be a perfect companion for hunters or for backpackers who need a reliable knife for general camp chores. It will hold its edge amazingly well and will not rust, and stropping it back to a razor edge is very easy! This is ultimately a matter of preference. And remember… if you break it, they’ll replace it… no questions asked ;)
It will hold its edge amazingly well and will not rust, and stropping it back to a razor edge is very easy!
With this knife, I felt as though I knew what I was working with, as the specs are virtually identical to the original ESEE 6. So I set myself the task of focusing mainly on how the handles have improved the already superb usability of the original, and looked at whether they could improve on comfortability with difficult tasks that would put more strain on my hands when working.
A bow drill set off the land seemed like an appropriate task, with the ESEE 6 being considered a survival tool. A bow drill set employs many different tasks with the knife such as creating notches, gouging the divot, splitting the heartboard down and shaping the spindle. As well as this, I did some chopping tasks with the land owners permission to take down some smaller trees. These size trees are the perfect diameter for camp furniture and shelter building, so in theory this knife would have to be able to process wood this size.
Chopping tasks were just fantastic, and the weight distribution allowed for impressionable force to be applied, while I reinforced my swing with the aid of a lanyard. This allows me to hold the blade much further back to apply force, without fear of losing grip and having the blade leave my hand. The scales made easy going of repetitive tasking over the day without any fatigue in my hand, or hot spots to take note of.
The same can be said with creating the bow drill set. Gouging a bow drill hole was simple work with the tip of the blade, and the added length of the blade, while making this job slightly more cumbersome than with something in the 4inch region, it did allow for a nice torque in twisting. Push cuts were employed for the V notch, again with no issues. The spine has not been squared off on this blade, due to the fact that its powder coated and wouldn’t be suitable for striking a firesteel, The plus side of this, is that it makes the spine much less aggressive and easier for push cuts, and I found myself being able to apply a decent amount of downward force without much punishment to my thumb.
For my spindle I gave myself the more difficult task of creating a round and even apparatus from a log, rather than a branch, and as such had to chop and slice it into shape. I did this using a knee grip, holding the knife in place just under my knee and pulling the spindle towards me to shave it evenly into a round shape. The extra blade length makes this much easier than if using a smaller blade. I thought this would be an interesting task to try, while taking more time and energy, demanded more of the blade, imagining a scenario where I may have to make a whole set from a single large log… If I ever found myself in such a dire situation. When my set was assembled I used my knife underneath the board as my coal plate. If we’re using this knife to its fullest potential then lets have at it. Getting a fire going if this was your only tool at hand is a fun exercise, and something that I like to try when testing “survival” knives.
So where is the difference in this new model. If I already had an ESEE 6, would it be worth upgrading? Well the new 3D micarta handles, in my opinion, make it worth the bite. However, I would not see this as an upgrade as such. These scales make it feel like an entirely new knife, and of course many people love the original. The new G10 scales feel so comfortable and forms to the hand with amazing ease. Working all day with it, chopping and batoning I felt it was very comfortable and I had no fatigue in my hand to speak of. If you love the original then you will love this even more I believe. As stated earlier, some people prefer the flatter handles as it allows the knife to be carried closer to your body. But if this wasn’t something you were concerned about, then give this new model a try!
It’s refreshing to see that a company like ESEE, who are so well known for a particular style of knife, are not afraid to branch out and try new things, new steels and production techniques. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the ESEE factory in the future, and if this is anything to go by, then I’m expecting some exciting things. People love their ESEE’s, myself included, but it’s great to see that even their classic range can be improved and tweaked. Hats off!
BONUS: Shock Chord attachment for the ESEE 3 sheath
I know how much you all like to tinker and mod your kit. Well I’ve been playing around with this idea for a while with the new ESEE 3 in CPM S35VN. A piece of thick shock cord run through the holes in the sheath allows for both the belt holder on the back side and a ferro rod holder on the front. Combining this with a spring toggle on the end means I can also easily remove the cord to make it into a neck knife configuration. Have a try and see how it feels.
Padraig Croke is the host of the outdoors podcast Trial by Fire, which ran from 2018-2023. A graphic designer and photographer by day, as well as an avid outdoorsman and bushcraft enthusiast, when he's not writing for us he's usually out in the field making film or taking photographs.