Exceptional Performance From White River Knife & Tool
Near the western edge of a small Michigan town called Fremont sits one of the best knife makers in the country. There, led by patriarch John Cammenga, Sr. and his wife, Susan, White River Knife & Tool produces top-quality blades suited for survival, bushcraft and much more. This is truly a family business, because their sons, Matt and John Jr., are also integral members of the team.
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to play around with a couple of White River’s knives—the M1 Backpacker Pro and the Firecraft FC5. I’ve been eager for “round number 2” ever since, so I was very excited when the company’s Ursus 45 and Small Game knives showed up on my doorstep.
We need to take a moment to talk about the packaging White River Knife & Tool uses for its knives. If you’ve ordered a knife online before, if it didn’t come in a plastic blister pack, it probably arrived in a white cardboard box. These boxes work well for storing the knife; no question about it. However, White River operates on a level well beyond this.
Instead of using cardboard, the company packages its knives in a wooden box. White River’s logo is burned into the top, which opens by sliding it off the bottom. The interior has been carved out to precisely fit the knife and sheath. Underneath is a card that identifies the knife, the selected options for it and contact information for the company.
Does this packaging guarantee a great knife? Maybe not, but it’s certainly an indication of just how much care and thought go into White River’s products.
The Small Game
I’ll admit I have an affinity for small fixed-blade knives. They’re very handy and easy to carry. However, finding a great small knife is often difficult. Many of them have an equally small handle, which can prove troublesome for someone who has gorilla mitts for hands. Personally, I’m not fond of three-fingered grips.
The Small Game suffers no such issues and has a full-length handle (about 4.25 inches). Its overall length is 7.25 inches, and its blade takes up 2.62 inches of that measurement. It’s available in three handle colors: Natural Burlap Micarta (shown in this review), Black Burlap Micarta and Black-and-Olive Drab Linen Micarta. The steel used in this full-tang knife is CPM S35VN. At the spine, the blade is 0.125 inch thick.
The first thing I noticed after removing the Small Game from its leather sheath is how comfortable it is in the hand. Overall, it’s a fairly slim model, but the contouring of the handle, complete with palm swells, provides plenty of purchase. Because it’s combined with the texturing of the Micarta scales, there’s an immediate sense of security with the grip.
The blade is short—even shorter than some of the folding knives I’ve carried over the years. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of edge there to get most jobs done quite easily. I wouldn’t suggest trying to process firewood with it, but food prep, whittling and similar chores are perfectly within its wheelhouse. Because of its long handle and comparatively short blade, it’s easy to slip a thumb up over the spine for leverage when carving.
While the Small Game was designed for processing small game (hence its name), it’s very well-suited to be a great EDC fixed blade. It was scary-sharp right out of the box; this, given my previous experience with White River, was expected.
Test #1: Rubber Hose
One of the downsides to doing a lot of knife reviews is that you’re constantly on the hunt for materials that might be interesting to slice up. This often leads to an odd assemblage of items that any normal person would’ve just tossed into the dumpster.
For the Small Game, the first thing I grabbed was an old hose. Over the last few years, it’s grown shorter as a result of whittling away at the end with various knives.
I like to use this to test blades because the rubber is thick and dense; yet, it still has a little give to it, which makes it difficult to just slice apart easily. Plus, it has a fair amount of old mineral deposits coating the inside that tend to not “play nice” with a knife’s edge.
Despite all that, the Small Game made short work of the hose. It easily sliced pieces off, one after another. I used a couple of different approaches, from pinching the hose a bit in order to raise up a section to begin slicing to using the knife’s tip to puncture the hose. I then rolled the hose as I cut around it. The latter proved to be a little easier. With either method, though, the knife performed flawlessly.
Test #2: Leather Wallet
Remember what I said about that odd collection of stuff? I found an old wallet in a box of random odds and ends when I was cleaning out my dad’s house. It was one of probably a dozen different wallets I found. After bringing it home, this particular wallet was discovered by one of our pups, which decided to taste-test it and gnawed off a corner. Because it was unsuitable for anything else at that point, into the knife review box it went.
The Small Game sliced through the leather like a laser beam. It never caught or hesitated with the material. The wallet, as it turned out, was constructed of multiple layers of leather with a satin-like material sandwiched in between each layer. Each cut was a long slice across the wallet, and even the thinnest pieces were carved off very easily.
Test #3: Food Prep
Anyone who’s familiar with my knife reviews knows that at least one test is typically food prep of some sort. I’m the family cook, so I spend a lot of time in the kitchen.
Mini peppers are popular in our home. They’re great on salads or just eaten alone. I had a small bag of them to use up, so I rinsed them off and went to work. I intentionally waited to do this test until after I’d put the knife to use for a while and also run it through the other tests. A dull blade would end up tearing through the peppers instead of actually cutting them.
As I anticipated, the Small Game knife had no problems at all. It sliced each pepper easily, and I was able to use the tip to cut out the seeds without any trouble. I processed the bag of peppers in no time.
When all the testing was complete, the Small Game was still quite capable of shaving the edge off a piece of paper.
Throughout the entire testing process, as well as the daily use for the weeks prior to the formal tests, the knife was eminently comfortable in hand. In particular, I really appreciated the length of the handle, as well as its contours.
The only modification I’m considering is adding a lanyard. The knife sits very deeply in the sheath, so a lanyard would assist in drawing it out. Even so, this is by no means a necessity. The knife is wonderful as is.
- Overall length: 7.25 inches
- Blade length: 2.62 inches
- Weight: 2.75 ounces
- Steel: CPM S35VN
- Sheath: Leather
The Ursus 45
“Ursus” is Latin for “bear,” and “45” refers to the 4.5-inch blade length. Make no mistake: This is a beast of a knife! It’s very much bushcraft oriented, although it’s also adept at any other medium-blade task.
It’s 9.5 inches long and features a 5-inch handle. The CPM S35VN steel blade is a sturdy, 0.158 inch thick. From edge to spine, it’s 1.3 inches. The drop-point blade profile is one of the most common and useful designs on the market because it’s so versatile and handy with just about any common knife chore.
The handle scales are the same material found on the Small Game’s handle scales, making for a matched set. The handle has some slight contouring—it’s not quite the classic “Coke bottle” shape, but there’s definitely a bit of palm swell there. There’s an integral guard, as well, which is something I always like to see on a fixed-blade knife.
This is a heavy-duty, well-built knife. Even so, at 8.3 ounces, it won’t feel like a boat anchor on your hip.
Other than size, one of the biggest differences between the two knives is that the spine of the Ursus 45 is considerably sharper than the Small Game’s. This is quite useful in the field, because you can use the spine to shave tinder from sticks, strike a ferrocerium rod and perform similar tasks without dulling your primary edge. And, when it comes to survival, take any advantage you can get.
The Ursus 45 comes with a choice of sheaths. The first option is a handsome leather pouch-style sheath. It’s equipped with a ferrocerium rod, which is held in a loop. The rod has a small bit of shock cord that keeps the rod secure until you need it. The knife sits very deeply in the sheath, so there’s little chance of it working itself free as you move. While a lanyard isn’t absolutely necessary, users might find that adding one to the provided loop at the butt of the knife is convenient to help draw the knife from the sheath.
Alternatively, purchasers can choose a Kydex sheath, which is equipped with a leather dangler to attach it to a belt. This can be removed via four screws, and the sheath can then be attached to a pack or other location through the use of several eyelets. This sheath is designed so that it has a thumb rest to assist with removing the knife. It also has a loop for a ferrocerium rod, just like the leather model.
The Ursus 45 easily shaved paper right out of the box. I didn’t touch up the edge at all from the time I received the knife until I completed the review process. After playing with it for a few weeks doing chores in the yard and such, I ran it through a couple of tests.
Test #1: Leather Belt
I’d used up the last of an old leather belt during a previous review, so I swung into my local thrift shop to pick up another one. These belts are great for reviews, because they’re thick and durable (and, if you know where to shop, they’re cheap).
I started by drawing the knife across the belt. It made clean slices all the way through each time. Because the leather was thick, I did have to put a little pressure behind the cuts, but not to the extent that caused concern.
From there, I tried push cuts: Instead of pulling the edge across the leather, I pushed straight down. The knife was sharp enough to cut deeply, although I did have to rock it back and forth a bit to make it pierce the leather completely. Again, given the thickness of the belt, this was neither a surprise nor a disappointment.
Test #2: Baton
There are those who use their knives to baton wood and those who don’t. This is a rather divisive issue in the survival and bushcraft communities. I’m of the opinion that while a knife makes a poor axe or hatchet, batoning might still be needed from time to time.
Almost any knife can be pounded through a small-diameter branch or log. (Craig Caudill, well-known survival instructor and head of Nature Reliance School in Kentucky, did a video a while back in which he used a butter knife from the kitchen drawer to baton a few pieces of firewood. The knife didn’t look all that awesome when he was done, but the point was that virtually any piece of thinnish steel can be driven through wood.)
The idea behind batoning as a review test isn’t to see if the knife can split the wood. Indeed, given the quality of the steel, I knew fully well that the Ursus 45 would handle the job with no ill effects. Rather, the point is to see how the knife handles and how it feels in the hand while you’re doing the job.
I grabbed a 2-by-4 from the lumber pile and went to work. The Ursus 45 split the wood quickly and easily, which was no surprise. The contour of the handle, combined with the Micarta material, provided a solid grip. I went so far as to move my hand to the very end of the handle, simulating having to use part of the upper end as a striking surface, and still had absolutely no problems.
As with the Small Game, when the testing was complete, the Ursus 45 was still able to shave the edge of a piece of paper, which speaks well to its edge-holding capability.
I’ve been a big fan of White River Knife & Tool since the first time I met the owners and crew at SHOT Show a couple of years ago. My experience with the Ursus 45 and Small Game knives has only solidified my opinion of White River’s quality products.
These two are excellent knives, well-suited for a wide range of tasks. The Small Game, in particular, is a great option for a fixed-blade EDC, and the Ursus 45 is an excellent choice for a field knife.
- Overall length: 9.5 inches
- Blade length: 4.5 inches
- Weight: 8.3 ounces
- Steel: CPM S35VN
- Sheath: Leather or Kydex
MSRP: $250 with Kydex sheath; $265 with leather sheath
White River Knife & Tool
White River Knife & Tool
This company derives its name from Michigan’s White River, which runs through family property located in the Manistee National Forest. There, everyone enjoys hunting, fishing and numerous other outdoor pursuits—activities that then feed into the design process for the company’s knives.
In the last several years, White River has developed a well-deserved reputation for heirloom-quality knives. In addition, with the exception of a few exotic materials, everything used to create its products is sourced here, in the United States.
White River Knife & Tool is truly one of the best companies in the knife industry. It comprises friendly, knowledgeable people who make top-notch products that are made to last.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.