ESEE Knives: 3 Inches is All You Need—Keen Insights

ESEE’s knives aren’t gratuitous. It is with that in mind that I’d like to revisit one of my favorite arguments from the knife world—how much knife do you actually need? The answer, no doubt, is built on opinion.

The ESEE 3 (black) and ESEE 4 (in tan).
The ESEE 3 (black) and ESEE 4 (in tan).

I’m with the team from ESEE, though, in that I think there’s an argument to be made for a smaller, do-it-all blade that can go anywhere and stand up to just about anything. And here are two contenders for that humble crown—the ESEE 3 and 4 (a three-inch blade and four-inch blade, respectively).

The ESEE 3 is small in my hand. This design is about as small as I'd consider for a working knife.
The ESEE 3 is small in my hand. This design is about as small as I’d consider for a working knife.

The ESEE Survival Design

Both are designed to tackle basic survival skills by the Randall Adventure Training team.

The small knives are easier to carry, for obvious reasons. And they’re less likely to stir negative emotion. There’s no connotation with the cliche fighting knife (which almost always has a blade of at least seven inches in length—the distance needed, the old argument goes, to reach vital organs on a human).

The ESEE 3 is shorter, and just a bit lighter than the 4. No mystery in the names. The number is for the blade length in inches.
The ESEE 3 is shorter, and just a bit lighter than the 4. No mystery in the names. The number is for the blade length in inches.

The smaller knives, too, weigh much less than their bigger, fatter counterparts. This is a crucial component of the appeal, as a knife like this—one that doesn’t drag down your belt—will be easier to carry over long distances. If it doesn’t weigh you down, you’re far less likely to toss it by the side of a trail someplace when you decide you hate the weight.

ESEE knife removeable scales
The scales are removable. This is so crucial for proper care of a knife that’s meant to go everywhere and do everything.

And the smaller blades are still capable of convincing being used for self-defense. The finger groove that acts as a hilt keeps your hand from sliding forward on the blade.

No frills

ESEE keeps to the basics. The grips are micarta, and relatively flat. They are removable, which is a big plus. There’s no glue under them. And the bolts that hold them secure keep them on very tightly. There’s no play in them and they don’t require any Lock-Tite to keep them together (I’ve yet to have a problem in the years I’ve been using these).

The black coating on the ESEE knife blade is reasonably textured. But it reflect very little light.
The black coating on the blade is reasonably textured. But it reflects very little light.

And the radiused edge is simple. There’s no extra texture on the grips—just a solid utilitarian design that works and prevents hot spots.

The micarta scales on this ESEE Knife design have a slight radius that makes them more comfortable on the hand. They're not as nice as some that are more heavily contoured, but the flat design keeps them thin and balanced.
The micarta scales on this design have a slight radius that makes them more comfortable on the hand. They’re not as nice as some that are more heavily contoured, but the flat design keeps them thin and balanced.

Some frills

If you’d rather have scales that are more rounded, they’re available in the “3-D” models from ESEE. Some of those have G10 scales in vivid colors.

The ESEE 4 has a handle that provides a slight bit more to hold onto than the ESEE 3.
The ESEE 4 has a handle that provides a slight bit more to hold onto than the ESEE 3.

The coatings on the blades are an extra. As both of these models are built with carbon steel blades, the coatings will help prevent rusting and tarnishing. It isn’t 100% foolproof, as the image below shows. In the logo, there’s a bit of rust that crops up if I put this into the sheath wet.

The flat grind on the blade ends with a secondary bevel that can easily be kept shaving sharp.
The flat grind on the blade ends with a secondary bevel that can easily be kept shaving sharp.

Even so, the blades are easy to maintain. 1095 is the standard for these, and a great steel for field maintenance. If you’d rather step up to S35V, that’s an option, too. S35V has better corrosion properties. Those blades don’t require the powder coating.

I've used this knife for skinning and for opening cans the old-fashioned way. The later is harder on the finish.
I’ve used this knife for skinning and for opening cans the old-fashioned way. The latter is harder on the finish.

Is there a drawback?

ESEE has a handle on this design in a way that many others can’t seem to replicate. While these aren’t Kephart’s, the classic bushcraft designs may be a close contender to a blade shape and design that could compete with the ESEE 4, particularly.

The coating on the ESEE 4 is beginning to show wear at the spine. Honest wear.
The coating on the ESEE 4 is beginning to show wear at the spine. Honest wear.

The three-inch version is a bit short for my taste. The four-inch blade is perfect. And ESEE recognizes that there are folks out there who want longer blades, so the catalog is full of knives increasing inch-by-inch.

And if I had to point to one drawback of this short version, it would be in the use of these as choppers. This isn’t going to double as a hatchet. It certainly isn’t a machete. Maybe this is the ideal knife for those who want to carry a second blade of some sort, too. There’s just not enough mass here to make deep, swinging cuts or splitting cuts.

The jimping on the spine of the ESEE 4. Sharp enough to bite, but not so sharp that it will tear up your thumb.
The jimping on the spine of the ESEE 4. Sharp enough to bite, but not so sharp that it will tear up your thumb.

Conclusion

There is one more attribute that is a selling point. These are made in America. The price reflects this. They’re north of $125—almost always—and some models creep over the $200 mark (depending on steel and scales).

I've had this knife in the field for more than 6 years. It has stood up well and been sharpened many times.
I’ve had this knife in the field for more than 6 years. It has stood up well and been sharpened many times.

That’s palatable, though. ESEE makes a knife that—if you care for it—will be there when you need it most.

The ESEE is, as far as I’m concerned, the GLOCK 19 of the fixed-blade world. It is a one-and-done solution that gets you out of just about any situation.

These blades are strong, even though they are thin and sport full-flat grinds.
These blades are strong, even though they are thin and sport full-flat grinds.

I liked the design well enough that I’ve kept these two in constant rotation for years, now. One almost always is clipped onto or into whatever kind of get-home bag I’ve got in play. The other is always on my larger backpack.

The 3 has a sharpened end that could be used as a glass breaker.
The 3 has a sharpened end that could be used as a glass breaker.

I rarely get more than a few miles from home without one or both of those bags, so they are there, where I need them. But… there’s one drawback.

I'm unsure why the 4 has a rounded butt and the 3 has a pointed butt--but they do. Both have lanyard holes, useful for those who work in wet or cold environments.
I’m unsure why the 4 has a rounded butt and the 3 has a pointed butt–but they do. Both have lanyard holes, useful for those who work in wet or cold environments.

ESEE’s Sheaths

I’m not a fan.

The only thing about the ESEE line that I'm not immediately sold on is the sheath design. These are multi-function sheaths, though, so they are flexible.
The only thing about the ESEE line that I’m not immediately sold on is the sheath design. These are multi-function sheaths, though, so they are flexible.

The basic boltron (or whatever it is) plastic part is super solid. I’m not a fan of the grommets, as there’s no cleaning it out. But they work.

The two sheaths, side-by-side. The ESEE sheath doesn't have a drain hole. It needs one.
The two sheaths, side-by-side. The ESEE sheath doesn’t have a drain hole. It needs one.

Belt attachments, though, are not as solid. The clip–which I associate with 1980s era boot knives, is a solid-enough clip. And it will hold it on your belt. But I’d rather have a sheath that allows the knife to drop down off the belt, and one that can’t come off, under any circumstances, unless I take it off.

Retention on the ESEE sheaths is provided by the throat of the sheath. The blade positively snaps into place and won't come out without a solid pull.
Retention on the ESEE sheaths is provided by the throat of the sheath. The blade positively snaps into place and won’t come out without a solid pull.

But the knives snap into place. And if you want to put it on a vest or a bag, you’re golden.

The back of the sheath has grommets that act as holes for Chicago screws. This allows for additions, like this boot/belt clip.
The back of the sheath has grommets that act as holes for Chicago screws. This allows for additions, like this boot/belt clip.

ESEE does sell some leather sheaths, but they’re simple designs that the knives drop into—no retention other than friction—and that makes me nervous. I actually have a wicked cut on my right thumb right now from a similar sheath and knife combo that failed when I picked it up off the floor with the handle of the knife pointing down. The knife fell out and the blade drug across my thumb and cut the shit out of me.

The back of this sheath mount has MOLLE straps.
The back of this sheath mount has MOLLE straps.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, I’ll build the belt sheath I’ve always wanted for this ESEE. The knife deserves it.

David Higginbotham is a writer and editor who specializes in everyday carry. David is a former backcountry guide in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Boundary Waters Canoe Area who was a college professor for 20 years. He ultimately left behind the academy for a more practical profession in the firearms industry and was (among other editorial positions) the Managing Editor for a nascent Mag Life blog. In that Higginbotham helped establish The Maglife's tone and secure its early success. Though he went on to an even more practical firearms industry profession still, he continues to contribute articles and op-eds as time and life allow.

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