What is a Wharncliffe Knife Blade?
A Wharncliffe is a distinctive style of knife blade characterized by a perfectly straight cutting edge and a spine that tapers to meet that edge at an acute point. Often associated with gentlemen’s folders intended for fine utilitarian cutting, its history can actually be traced back to a specific gentleman of the 19th century—Colonel James Archibald Stuart-Wortley-Mackenzie—the first Lord Wharncliffe of England.
Origins of Wharncliffe Knives
According to the book British Manufacturing Industries, around 1820 the first Lord Wharncliffe and his relative Archdeacon Corbett were sipping wine after dinner and lamenting the relative lack of creativity of the British cutlery industry. To address the problem, they put their heads together and designed a new blade pattern that they presented to the Joseph Rodgers & Sons cutlery company in Sheffield. Rodgers adopted the pattern and soon introduced the world to the first “Wharncliffe” blades.
Original Wharncliffe blades sported full flatground edges and had rounded spines that tapered to the points. The pattern has since evolved to include many other variations, but as long as the cutting edge is straight and the spine tapers to meet it at an acute point, it’s a Wharncliffe.
Advantages of Wharncliffe Knives
From a utilitarian perspective, the biggest advantage of a Wharncliffe blade is that it cuts with full power all the way to the point.
No matter where the cutting edge makes contact, it transfers its energy directly into the material being cut and consistently increases that pressure as the cut goes deeper. Even if you’re cutting with the extreme tip of the cutting edge, a Wharncliffe’s straight profile ensures that you’ll do it with maximum power and leverage. That’s why razor knives, box cutters and similar utility cutting tools are typically Wharncliffe patterns.
In contrast, swept edges actually curve away from the material, paralleling the arc of motion of the hand and purposely limiting the depth of the cut. This is best for skinning knives used for chores where cutting too deeply could nick an animal’s intestines or cut through the hide.
The Wharncliffe’s acute point also makes it a great tool for detailed work and, interestingly, enables it to penetrate with less resistance than most other blade styles. Although the tip is admittedly not as strong as some other profiles, it does its job exceptionally well.
Interestingly, all of the things that make the Wharncliffe an outstanding utilitarian blade style also allow it to excel as a personal-defense tool.
Wharncliffe Tactical Knives?
Until recently, however, Wharncliffe tactical knives (at least the pocket-size kind) were relatively uncommon. At the risk of being immodest, I’d like to think I had a hand in changing all that.
I’ve been a knife enthusiast since I was a kid and an avid student of knife combat since my early teens. I also had the great privilege of working closely with the late Col. Rex Applegate during his later years and learning the conventional wisdom of knife fighting and combat knife design directly from one of the topic’s most respected sources.
When I had the opportunity to design my first production knife—the Masters of Defense Tempest—back in 1997, it reflected what I believed worked based on what I’d been taught. It had a classic bowie-style blade, plenty of blade curve, or belly, to slash better and a swedge (false edge along the spine) that created an acute, well-centered point. Essentially, it was a very traditional approach to a fighting blade, scaled down to fit into a folder.
A few years later, Sal Glesser of Spyderco took an interest in my Martial Blade Concepts (then, Martial Blade Craft) curriculum and offered me the opportunity to teach knife tactics under the Spyderco banner. He also asked me to design a signature knife that fit my approach to personal defense.
By that time, I had begun incorporating live-blade cutting demonstrations into all of my courses. With the help of “Pork Man”—a pork roast tied around a wooden dowel and wrapped with multiple layers of plastic—I showed students exactly how to quantify the cutting power of their actual carry knives. In the process, I began to realize that the performance of different blade designs in this simple test varied considerably.
In fact, many highly regarded fighting knife patterns actually cut pretty poorly. Since my system focused on small, legal-to-carry knives and cutting tactics geared toward disabling an attacker, I wanted to make sure that whatever I designed for Spyderco would cut as effectively as possible.
To do that, I invested a small fortune in pork roasts and crafted an army of Pork Men. I then pulled out all the knives in my collection and went to work. The side-by-side cutting experiment was extremely revealing. After several hundred cuts with all conceivable blade styles, grinds and edge configurations, the hands-down winners were a pair of Frank Centofante-designed gentlemen’s folders from Spyderco with classic Wharncliffe-style blades and beautifully executed full, flat grinds.
Their perfectly straight edges invariably cut the meat targets deeper and cleaner than other blade profiles and did not snag on clothing or the target’s wooden “bone.” They also penetrated almost effortlessly during thrusts. Despite their elegant demeanor, they were tactical cutting machines and a clear direction for my knife design efforts.
The Ronin Knife is Born
Around the same time that I was sketching and modeling my folder design for Spyderco, I wrote an article about the work of a then-new custom knifemaker named Mike Snody. Snody was very pleased with my analysis of his knives in the article and even more thrilled when the orders that resulted from that piece launched his career as a full-time knifemaker.
To thank me for my part in making that possible, he invited me to design a knife for him—specifically the “ultimate neck knife.” I was already convinced of the merits of the Wharncliffe, so I took him up on his offer and designed a small fixed blade I named the Ronin. Unfortunately, Snody wasn’t as convinced as I was … at least at first.
After Snody’s underwhelming initial response, I thanked him for his offer and suggested that he abandon the project to move on with his new career.
He politely agreed, only to call me back several days later. His first words when I answered were, “You evil _______ [expletive deleted]! I’ve never cut with anything like this before!”
It was then I realized that he actually made my design and, more importantly, did some cutting with it. Snody embraced the Ronin design and began turning out a variety of custom expressions of it.
Although I had already submitted a folding knife design to Spyderco, they were still apprehensive about the concept of a tactical Wharncliffe. To test the waters, they decided to do a production version of the Ronin, since product development and production of fixed blades is more economical than folders.
The Spyderco Ronin was a reasonably faithful expression of Snody’s custom version produced in Japan. The Kydex sheaths for it, however, were made at Spyderco’s factory in the United States. Unfortunately, the hand-finishing of the G-10 handles done by the Japanese factory created some dimensional variances in the finished knives that made it necessary to have a one-to-one match of sheaths to individual knives. This made mass-production methods challenging and ultimately contributed to the demise of the design, which only lasted one production run.
Despite its limited commercial success, the Ronin did manage to change some minds with regard to tactical knife design. Following the live-blade Pork Man demonstrations I did in my seminars, I had students lined up to buy Ronins. However, I also had a deluge of requests for a folding version of the design. Unfortunately, Spyderco still wasn’t ready to make that investment, so I decided to tip the scales a bit.
I contacted Snody again, who was now firmly established as a full-time maker and had expanded his skills to folder making, and asked him if I could commission a special one-off folding knife. I sent him the drawings of my folder design, which I had dubbed the Yojimbo™ (Japanese for “bodyguard”) and asked him to make one for me, post photos of it on the Internet, and mention that Spyderco might be working on a production version of it. He eagerly agreed and honored all three of my wishes, generating enough interest in the design to get Spyderco to commit to producing it.
Spyderco Yojimbo: A Tactical Wharncliffe Knife
Spyderco’s expression of the Yojimbo was released in 2003. Manufactured in their Golden, Colorado, factory, it featured a fully flat-ground CPM S30V Wharncliffe blade, nested stainless steel liners, blue or black textured G-10 scales and an early version of their patented Compression Lock™ mechanism.
Its 3-inch blade was purposely shorter than its tapered handle because I had designed it before the 9/11 attacks to be legal to carry on airplanes even during heightened security alerts. Although that point was moot after 9/11, it still made the knife a viable choice for carry in jurisdictions with restrictive blade-length limits.
Although it received wider acceptance than the Ronin, the Yojimbo was still greeted with skepticism by most tactical knife fans. Many dismissed it as a “box cutter on steroids” and couldn’t get past the imbalance of its blade-to-handle ratio. The brave few that bought one and cut with it, however, quickly understood its advantages and joined the ranks of the converts.
Interestingly, during this same period, Snody was recruited as a designer for Benchmade Knives. Shortly after receiving the good news, he approached me at the BLADE Show and said he wanted to ask me a favor. He then reached into his pocket and produced a prototype of his Gravitator design—a Wharncliffe folder that he unabashedly admitted was directly inspired by the Yojimbo.
Grateful for his help in creating a tipping point for the Yojimbo, I gave him my blessing to move forward with the design. Deep down, I also took pride in the fact that the tactical Wharncliffe was gaining ground. In 2004, I accepted a position with BlackHawk Products Group to design for the Masters Of Defense brand, which they had just acquired. Since it was inappropriate for me to work for one company while endorsing a design produced by another, I asked Spyderco if we could part ways as friends. They agreed, and shortly thereafter discontinued the Yojimbo design, just as it was beginning to attract a following.
During my tenure at BlackHawk, I ultimately took over management of Masters Of Defense and a second knife brand, BlackHawk Blades. In the process, I designed and brought to market a number of designs, but my hands-down favorite was a folder called the Be-Wharned. Based on lessons learned from the Yojimbo, I designed it so, closed, it was no larger than the ubiquitous Spyderco Delica (my favorite back-pocket knife), yet offered a very capable 3.5-inch Wharncliffe blade.
Its handle consisted of coarse-textured G-10 scales that housed a nested LinerLock mechanism and supported a four-position pocket clip. Made in Taiwan by that country’s premier manufacturer, the Be-Wharned retailed for less than $100 and represented another significant step in spreading the word of the tactical Wharncliffe.
In addition to my full-time job in the knife industry, I also pursued my personal passion for Wharncliffes with a number of other custom knifemakers, most notably Mickey Yurco and Fred Perrin. Their deep understanding of blade design and cutting performance allowed them to share my appreciation for Wharncliffe dynamics and has resulted in a variety of both custom and, more recently, factory designs, including the Perrin/Janich Fusion neck knife made by the French company Max Knives.
In 2009, BlackHawk abandoned its focus on knife production. Fortunately, Spyderco was still interested in my skills and offered me a full-time position with the company. Although my primary focus is technical writing and product education, they also wanted me to have a signature design in their current product line.
Since the first-generation Yojimbo never achieved its full potential, I set my sights on designing a revised version, taking full advantage of my lessons learned since the first one. The result was the Yojimbo 2, which was released in late 2011.
Like the original, the Yojimbo 2 features a CPM S30V blade, a Compression Lock and textured G-10 handle scales with nested liners. However, its ergonomics are greatly refined and its blade-to-handle ratio provides much greater blade length. Its blade is also hollow ground with a full-thickness spine for increased strength and mass, and it includes a four-position pocket clip that supports all carry positions.
By the time the Yojimbo 2 was released, my proselytizing efforts and the gradual introduction of tactical Wharncliffes by other companies allowed it to be much better received. In a reversal of the sequence of the first-generation models, the Yojimbo 2 inspired a second-generation fixed-blade version—the Ronin 2.
In fact, the very first Ronin 2, a custom blade made by Yurco, was based on his hand-traced outline of a Yojimbo 2. When it was shown in Spyderco’s prototype case at the BLADE Show, customer response was immediate and a Spyderco factory version followed quickly thereafter.
Can You Trust Wharncliffe Tactical Knives? You Bet
As an instructor of knife tactics, I owe it to my students to recommend only the best personal defense knives. That commitment and the extensive cutting tests it inspired led me to not only believe in the tactical Wharncliffe, but to make it a central focus of my efforts as a knife educator. If you’re looking for a knife you can trust your life to, get a Wharncliffe.