Hess Knifeworks Hunter Knife
By Gary Zinn
Hess Hunter knife. Image courtesy of TSA Knives.
Hess Knifeworks was established by Don and Andy Hess in 2005. Both were employed as cutlers by Marble Arms, but they and other cutlers were cut adrift when Marbles closed its Gladstone, Michigan knife making operation, so the Hesses went into business for themselves, building knives that preserve the tradition of the Marbles hunting knives which were well respected by hunters and outdoors enthusiasts of a bygone era.
I briefly recounted the Hess Knifeworks story In a previous article (Hess Knifeworks: the Hess Whitetail Knife), along with a review of one of their knife models, the Hess Whitetail. This is review of another Hess knife, called the Hunter. This knife intrigues me because its design is so faithful to the Marbles hunting knives that were popular over a half-century ago, the time when I came of age as a deer hunter. The Hess Hunter is not just a nostalgia piece, but rather is a traditional style hunting knife that a modern hunter can carry and use with confidence.
Specifications (as reviewed)
This was the model that I intended to be my first Hess knife, but I got sidetracked to the Whitetail model with an Amboyna burl handle. (I am a sucker for knife handles made of unusual woods.) I was so impressed with the Whitetail knife that I could not let things rest \'97 I had to have another Hess knife, and this time I got the one I meant to get in the first place. TSA Knives had the leather handled model I wanted in stock, so I ordered it before it disappeared. (Hess knives are limited production items, so those with particular handle treatments may not be available at all times.)
Tip to butt tour
All Hess knives feature 1095 carbon steel blades, tempered to Rc 58-59. The Hunter blade is burly. It has 2-7/8" of sharpened edge in front of a 5/8" ricasso, is 0.185" (4.7mm) thick at the spine and 1" wide at the belly. The spine has a long, straight, and gently sloped clip, which is lightly swaged on both sides. The cutting edge is curved throughout its length.
The blade geometry makes for an all-purpose deer hunting knife. The spine slopes enough to neatly open an animal for gutting, and the blade length is ideal for the other steps in field dressing. The blade has sufficient belly and curvature toward the tip for efficient skinning, and enough cutting edge length for breaking the carcass and working up the meat.
With a sharpened edge just under three inches, this knife would not be ideal for processing large game animals, such as elk and moose, but for deer and similar sized animals it is all the blade that one really needs. I should add that the Hunter would not make a good small game knife; using it to clean a rabbit or squirrel would just be silly. The slender bladed Whitetail model is much better suited for cleaning small game, or other fine work.
Fans of modern high-tech blade steels will not be impressed with 1095, but I would argue that it is the right choice, aesthetically, for a traditional style hunting knife. Also, 1095 has an important functional merit is it is arguably the toughest of all the popular knife steels. This is important in a hunting knife blade, for it means that the cutting edge will be resistant to damage, such as chipping or rolling; this is most likely to occur when cutting against bone while processing a game animal. 1095 resists edge damage better than almost any other steel.
Of course, 1095 is not corrosion resistant, nor will it hold an edge as long under sustained or heavy use as the so-called super steels. Conversely, 1095 is among the easiest steels to sharpen. The bottom line is that 1095 is a very serviceable blade material, as long as the user understands its merits and limitations.
I was blown away by the sharpness of the convex ground cutting edge on my Whitetail knife, and the edge on the Hunter was right there with it. For the record, I evaluated the edge on both knives to be Extremely Sharp, my top qualitative grade of sharpness. These knives prove that convex ground blades can be made very sharp. The downside is that sharpening a dull knife may be a challenge, for a convex grind is the hardest for the do-it-yourself knife sharpener to execute well.
For anyone who is not adept at convex grind sharpening, the TSA Knives website notes a Plan B, as follows. The blades on these knives are convex ground resulting in a razor sharp edge that stays sharp! If you decide it needs resharpening, simply send the knife to Hess Knifeworks with a few dollars to cover return shipping and they'll bring the edge back to new.
(See Knife Sharpness, Sharpening Methods and Tools for an explanation of my knife sharpness classification system, and Sharpening Convex Ground Knives for information on tools and techniques for sharpening these blades.)
Enough about the blade. it is time to give the Hunter handle some love. I wanted a knife with a stacked leather disk handle, since that was popular on traditional hunting knives. The Hess knife is an immaculate execution of this handle treatment. The handle is anchored to the rat tail tang by a brass finger guard at the front and a brass press nut under a nickel silver pommel at the butt. Brass, acrylic resin, and fiber disks accent the transitions between the guard, handle and pommel. Seams between the various disks are even and smooth and the visual effect is quite pleasing.
The working length of the handle is 3-3/4", with maximum dimensions of 3/4" thick and 15/16" wide, at the middle. The shape and girth of the handle are quite ergonomic, but it would fit large hands better if it were 1/4" longer. The handle length is okay for me, because the little finger of my medium-large hand rests naturally on the knob of the pommel. However, someone with very large hands probably would find the handle a bit too short to be comfortable.
Besides leather disks, Hunter knife handles may feature various woods, or stag antler. Handle material options will vary from time to time, given the limited production of Hess knives.
Fit, finish and sheath
I was overwhelmed by the faultless fit and finish of the Whitetail knife I reviewed previously. That the knife was so immaculate was astonishing, given that Hess knives are shop built, with most of the work done by hand. I noted that the blade was smoothly and evenly buffed to a satin finish, the handle contours were exactly symmetrical on both sides, and the seams between handle parts were totally smooth. Plus there was the extremely sharp cutting edge.
Overall, my Hunter knife met the same standards of fit and finish, though I did find two very small things that revealed the hand crafted mortality of the knife. First, the swaging on the clipped portion of the blade spine is not quite symmetrical, being just a touch wider (barely a millimeter) on one side. I only noticed this the third or fourth time that I inspected the knife closely.
Second, there is a very tiny pit in one side of the blade, just above the convex grind. This is an insignificant defect in the blade blank, deep enough in the steel that it did not grind or buff out when the blade was finished. I consider this and the asymmetrical swaging to be character marks, rather than defects in materials or workmanship. Neither would have the slightest effect on the functionality of the knife.
The sheath is up to the quality standard of the knife. It is a sturdy weight of leather, dyed a pleasing medium brown and well finished. It has an ample retention strap with a good metal snap, and a generous sized belt loop, large enough to use with a two inch wide field belt. A comparable after-market sheath would cost $25 or more, so the sheath adds solid value to the product package.
Where to buy them
Hess Knifeworks is a small enterprise, with limited production. Its products are marketed through a small cadre of internet cutlery vendors, including Collector Knives, DLT Trading Company, Knives Ship Free, and TSA Knives. A couple other vendors that supposedly carry Hess knives came up on a Google search, but no actual knives were listed by those at the time I searched.
The price - value relationship of Hess knives merits discussion. (Price is what you pay for something, value is what you get for your money.) In my review of the Hess Whitetail knife, I suggested that the knife would still be a good value at a price $50 greater than the $98 I paid for it. I feel the same about the Hunter model.
I have never seen MSRPs quoted for Hess knives, from which I infer that the firm is not interested in playing the MSRP - discount price game. However, suppose that a MSRP of $165 was quoted for the Hess Hunter model. Then, if dealers discounted the selling price by one-third from MSRP, the price would be $110, which is what I paid for the knife I bought. If I, as the buyer, interpret the MSRP as reflecting the value of the product, then I would conclude that I got quite a bargain!
Is the value of a Hess knife 50 percent greater than its price? (That is how the math works out for the hypothetical MSRP - discount price scenario.) That is a judgment call, of course, but my point is that I believe Hess knives are worth considerably more than the prices at which they sell, so they are, indeed, good values.
In concluding my review of the Hess Whitetail knife, I wrote, \'93If the knife I have is representative of the whole line, then I am all in on Hess knives.\'94 I hereby amend that statement: I am all in on Hess Knives, period.
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