Knife Test: Four Al Mar Knives

To review Al Mar Knives, you must start with the man, Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member Al Mar. A former paratrooper, Special Forces (SF) soldier, and a brilliant artist and knife designer—including serving as head of knife design for Gerber—Al started his company in 1979. With his military experience, formal education in design and natural artistic talent, he had all the tools to excel in the factory knife industry, and did just that.

    Al’s knives were exquisitely tactile—they just felt good in your hand. Their performance set a new standard for factory made knives. His folders were handsome, graceful front locks that balanced beautifully and were incredibly strong considering their light construction. They were made for knife users and in many ways were the first tactical folders. (Editor’s note: On page 102 of the February 2003 BLADE®, one of those tasked with rating the top 10 tactical folders of the previous decade said Mar was the grandfather of the tactical folder craze.) I was an early adopter of Al’s knives, as were many in the covert community who relied on knives professionally. As the saying went, “Al Mar knives were unseen in all the best places.”

    Al passed away in 1992 while still a relatively young man. His company, Al Mar Knives (AMK), continues to offer his original designs—in my view still unsurpassed today—and new designs true to the spirit of the originals.

    Shawn Carlson and I reviewed four folders from the company’s current production. Shawn is a former professional butcher and lifelong outdoorsman. We used the knives to cut rope, cardboard and denim, whittle wood, baton through heavy logs, make a hobo stove, reduce a large pork shoulder to chops and roasts, and otherwise employed all the knives for general daily tasks. We used the knives as they came from their boxes and did not sharpen them during a week of continuous work.

 

EAGLE ULTRALIGHT TALON

The Eagle Ultralight Talon (pictured cutting rope above) is a lineal descendant of the original Eagle. The latter folder prompted me to contact Al, which led to long discussions on the changing role of folders in the modern world, and the need in the covert community for a folder that was a “wolf in gentleman’s clothing.” The Eagles were my go-to folders for over two decades and never let me down.

    The Eagle Ultralight Talon incorporates such design features as a pocket clip and thumb studs. Its Micarta® scales and bolster-less design combine to make it light as the proverbial feather. The blade geometry varies from the flat grind of the original but surrenders nothing in performance.

    The Talon sliced through the thickly muscled pork shoulder like a light saber, and crunched through 1-inch hemp with an easy push cut. It slashed through an old pair of jeans as if the heavy denim were cheesecloth. We whittled fuzz sticks, split kindling and sharpened a couple of ash limbs to make fish spears. The fine point and agile blade proved a capable tool for work on wood. Slim, elegant, comfortable in the hand, the Eagle Talon is a gentleman’s knife that does wolf’s work. The primary recommendation I can offer is to continue production.

 

SHRIKE

The Shrike was Shawn’s first choice for preparing chops for the grill. “This blade shape begs to cut meat,” he stressed. “The angle and curve of the edge and the slightly curved handle lends itself to deep breaking and slashing cuts, and offers nearly zero resistance through the large muscle structure of the pork shoulder. The Shrike was more than capable at splitting kindling, cutting rope and whittling tasks, but this blade geometry and edge curve excels at meat cutting.”

    The handle is textured Micarta for a sure grip with slippery hands, and in extended work is slightly more comfortable than the Talon’s thin grip. A modern design by ABS master smith Kirk Rexroat, the Shrike includes a heavy-duty locking liner, flat grind, thumb studs, pocket clip and open construction. I was very impressed with how well the Shrike performed overall, and how well it incorporated a totally new design into a venerable lineup. Its striking barracuda profile presents a handsome and imposing appearance when the knife is open.

 

MINI SERE 2000

The Mini SERE 2000 is a smaller version of the classic SERE. In the early ’80s, Al worked with Col. James “Nick” Rowe to create the first purpose-designed survival, escape, rescue and evasion folder, the SERE. Col. Rowe was and is famous in the SF community, a hero who survived five years of captivity in Vietnam and escaped his captors. Years later he became commanding officer of the SERE training school. When he met Al, Col. Rowe defined a need for a new kind of knife, smaller and more portable than a fixed blade but stronger than any other folder. The SERE became that knife.

    The Mini SERE 2000 incorporates a locking liner, thumb studs, a textured, digi-camo Micarta handle and a pocket clip. Its smaller dimensions and lighter weight make it more convenient to carry than the original SERE, while giving up little in performance.

    Like the Talon and Shrike, it sliced through the large pork shoulder muscle like it was designed especially for the job. Punching holes and slicing through a light steel can to make a hobo stove was easy with the SERE. Sporting a strong, sure grip and a stiff, razor-sharp blade and point, it made short work of wood, including being batonned through a 6-inch log. There was a trade-off in that the 3-inch blade limited us to edge cuts. To make contact with the baton on the other side of the split log, we had to adjust our technique—pivoting the blade by rocking the handle up and down—until we had enough room to use the baton again.

    The SERE handled every task with relative aplomb. I would prefer the SERE over the other four knives we reviewed if I needed to build a temporary shelter or use it for other SERE functions. The SERE’s handle was the most comfortable of all the knives in the review, and one of the most comfortable I have used anywhere.

    However, the hand guard got in the way during batonning and doing sheer cuts, an important task for any survival knife. The guard looks attractive but has no useful function. If it were my daily carry knife, I would file the guard off. The SERE is a strong, capable performer with a reserve of strength greater than the others in the lineup, a worthy descendant of the original SERE.

 

SLB

The SLB (Stout Little Backup) is a handy folder that is lightweight and miniscule. A handsome design, it has a short, stubby blade, smooth black Micarta handle, a locking liner, thumb studs and spring clip. We did not try batonning this little guy. We cut rope and denim, whittled small wood and sliced cardboard. We also used it to cut through the pork shoulder, which it did easily.

    The only drawback was due to the short blade. Cutting through the pork shoulder and the loin required more cuts than the longer blades. Other than this obvious limitation, the SLB stands with its teammates.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The only change I would recommend for the entire lineup would be the design of the thumb studs. They protrude too far. They could be replaced with angled milled ones that are shorter and fatter, thus providing equally secure blade opening and eliminating the one design feature that, especially in the case of the Eagle, detracts from the folders’ otherwise sleek lines.

    After a week’s hard use, all the knives’ blades retained a working edge, and fit was as tight as when they came from the box. Al Mar set a standard for design and execution that raised the bar for the industry. The current offerings of Al Mar Knives maintain that standard.—by James Morgan Ayres

Al Mar Knives

attn: Gary Fadden, Dept. Blademag.com

POB 2295

Tualatin, OR 97062

503-670-9080

www.almarknives.com

Specialties: Utility/tactical folders and fixed blades, kitchen knives and more

Blade Steels: AUS-8, VG-10, VG-10 cobalt and CPM-S30V (sporting knives); laminated VG-2 and VG-10 cobalt center with 16 layers per side of 420J (kitchen knives)

Blade Finishes: Ceramic black coating available on some models

Handle Materials: Brown canvas, black, black linen and white Micarta®, G-10, stainless steel, Prylon, black Pakkawood, abalone, black-lip and white mother-of-pearl, cocobolo, honey jigged bone and stag

Lock Mechanisms: Front locks and locking liners

Pocket Clips: Reversible models available on some models

Sheaths: Black leather

MSRPs: $45.99-$599.99

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