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Becker BK-16: The Right Field Knife for You?

Confession time: I’m an unabashed blade enthusiast. There’s just something satisfyingly primal about hold a well made edged tool in your hand. It’s like a connection to the past, knowing that our ancestors before us carried something similar for thousands of years. My wife makes a show of not understanding why I “need” another knife when I’ve already got so many. But that’s OK, she’ll appreciate it someday when I have that perfect knife for the situation we find ourselves in.

At least I’d like to think so.

Here’s the catch, though. I’ve noticed this trend in the last several years where knives have grown more and more expensive. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself wondering how a company can charge $300-$400 for a chunk of steel.

I get it, sort of. You’re not really paying for the steel, but the time and effort that went into crafting it.

But that leads to another problem. If I have a $400 knife on my belt, I feel downright bad about using and abusing it. It feels like less of a tool at that point and more like a showpiece.

So there has to be a middle ground. In this segment, we can get a quality blade that won’t fail us in hard use, but we also don’t feel bad about beating up in the backwoods. That brings me to the subject of this post, the Becker BK-16 knife.

A Bit of Background

Most people see the KA-BAR stamped on the side of the BK-16 and assume it’s just another line in the famous knife maker’s brand. But there’s more to it than that, and it has to do with Ethan Becker.

Ethan is a prodigious outdoors-man responsible for a lot of small developments most people probably never think much about. He designed the rare and valuable Becker patrol pack, a modified ALICE ruck that was the pack to have in the early 1970s all the way up until MOLLE took over.

Ethan also designed the figure-8 descender commonly used in rock climbing and even an established chef. Interestingly, he has ownership rights of the Joy of Cooking, a book originally written by his grandmother.

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Uncle E at Safari Club reliving

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Beyond that, Ethan Becker is better known for his knife designs. He founded Becker Knife & Tool in the early 1980s. Ethan partnered with several knife manufacturers over the years, including Blackjack and Camillus before working with KA-BAR today.

Ethan has won several awards over the years for his innovative knife designs. They are practical, cleanly executed, and mean business.

For Want of a Field Knife

Before I get to the Becker BK-16 itself, let’s briefly talk about what I look for in a field knife.

Knives are a personal thing, with everyone wanting something slightly different. I suppose you could say I take my cue from the famous American Woodsman, Horace Kephart.

I like a small, light sheath knife. It is always open and “get-at-able,” ready not only for skinning game and cleaning fish, but for cutting sticks, slicing bread and bacon and peeling “spuds.” It saves the pocket knife from wet and messy work, and preserves its edge for the fine jobs.

Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1906

The knife on your belt, or in your pack, is your do-all tool for backwoods survival. Over the years, you’ll find yourself using it for a variety of tasks.

    • Cutting/Slicing
    • Digging
    • Splitting wood
    • Food Prep
    • Shelter Building
    • Fire Making
    • Prying Tool
    • Hammering

Each of these tasks has slightly different requirements. Finding them all in a single blade is difficult, but it does lead to what I look for in a knife.

I want the blade to be tough enough to deal with splitting, prying, and hammering. But I also need it to be thin enough to gracefully slice and carve. The blade width needs to be enough for mild digging, but not awkward to carry. Lastly, it needs to take and hold an edge well in the field.

Generally speaking, this equates to a blade about ⅛” to 5/32” thick, 4” – 5” long, full tang, and made from strong carbon steel. 

This is my starting point as we get to the review.

The Becker BK-16

Ethan Becker is one of the only private collectors to have an actual Kephart knife in his stable. The BK-16 shows that influence. Compared to the rest of the Becker series, the BK-16 is small and nimble. Ethan himself said the knife is the one he was always looking for but didn’t know it.

Specifications

The knife is 9.25” overall, with a 4.375” blade. With the coating, it’s .165” thick.

I’d read that to mean the steel itself is about ⅛” thick. The width of the blade is 1.25” and it’s finished with a drop point and full flat grind.

The overall weight is a scant 6.4 ounces. The knife has full tang construction with plastic scales attached on each side. The tang pokes through the bottom of the scales and has a hole for attaching a lanyard if you choose.

The BK-16 is made from 1095-Cro Van steel, which I’m a big fan of (I’ll get to that). Ka-bar coated the knife with a tough black coating that Ethan jokingly referred to as “Industrial Strength Rhinoceros Snot.” This is one of the drawbacks, in my opinion, but we can work around it.

The knife comes with a nylon sheath that you can either hang from a belt or mount to a MOLLE platform. While the blade is made in the USA, the sheath is a relatively inexpensive made in China model. It’s serviceable and will carry you until you find something better.

First Impressions

When I first pulled the knife out of its box, I was surprised by its lightweight and nimbleness in the hand. The contoured scales are comfortable, if not a little narrow for my hand. The 20-degree edge was shaving sharp from the factory.

I immediately set about making feather sticks and notching wood. It’s great for those sorts of tasks.

I don’t think it really has the kind of mass I’d prefer for batoning tasks, though it could do it on relatively thin pieces of wood. But that’s not really what it’s designed for.

The BK-16 seems like a great companion knife to another edged tool like a hatchet, saw, or larger chopping knife like the Becker BK-9 or ESEE Junglas.

In Use

To date, I’ve taken this knife out into the woods several times for regular use and testing. I’m a huge fan of the little bugger, but it does have some quirks.

First, the grip is very comfortable in the hand- even for my size large mitts. There is a nice contour at the front that keeps my hand locked in place and reduces the risk of slipping up onto the blade. The factory scales are usable, but I’d prefer something with a little better traction. Thankfully, there are plenty of companies out there making aftermarket scales for it.

The steel is tough and put up with plenty of pounding with batons and the like for splitting small wood. I’ve got no complaints there. The steel took an edge well with my Spyderco Sharpmaker, and it lasts quite a while. 1095 will rust if you don’t take care of it with periodic oiling, so keep that in mind. That’s why the factory put such a thick coating on it.

Speaking of coating, I think the finish of the blade is a little rough, though. Not that it was poorly executed, mind you, just that the texture is needless sandpapery-like. That actually presents a side issue.

With the coating, I cannot use the Becker BK-16 to really get a spark from a ferrocerium rod. To me, that’s one of the great benefits of a belt knife of this size. I’ve seen others fix this by stripping the coating off and giving it a patina using other methods. That’s a reasonable solution if you don’t mind modifying your knife.

More on that in a second.

The sheath that came with the knife is usable, but I’ll be upgrading to a custom Kydex option in the future.

The Final Word: Is This the Knife for You?

I’m a big fan of the Becker BK-16.

When you look at the value you’re getting for the price, I’d be hard-pressed to find anything else on the market that comes close. But I think of the BK-16 a bit like I approach Glocks. Yes, it’s a well-designed tool for doing the job it’s intended to do: but there’s room for improvements and “making it your own.”

In fact, the Becker BK-16 has a lot of people out there dedicated to modifying it and making it theirs. New scales, reprofiling, new finishes, and plenty of other projects are all out there. For a knife in this price range, I say go for it. It’s not so expensive that I would feel bad about ruining it and having to buy another.

If you think you’d enjoy doing these kinds of projects and taking advantage of the aftermarket, then go ahead and get the BK-16.

On the other hand, if you just want to buy it and forget about it, I suggest spending just a bit more money on something like the Mora Garberg Black Carbon. That knife is very similar in construction and metallurgy but has a few more finished features that I prefer.

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