A Full Year in the Field with the CRK Inkosi S45VN
A Full Year in the Field with the CRK Inkosi S45VN
Chris Reeve Knives isn’t a company known for rushing into new designs or materials without thorough testing. So when they announced that S45NV was a new blade material they’d be introducing, rest assured it was well planned. In fact, I was a test driver for this new material and today I’ll be discussing my year with the Inkosi S45VN.
It started for me in March of 2019 at IWA Show in Nurnberg, when Tim from CRK asked if I could keep my lips sealed about a new product for a full year. I initially thought he was kidding, but quickly agreed and he produced from his pocket a large Inkosi knife. He asked me to really put it through its paces over the next year and provide him reports every couple of weeks. The knife saw cutting and whittling, submersion it in all types of water and repeated sharpening with all kinds of field and bench tools. Over the last year, I’ve given a beating to the Crucible S45VN steel on the large Inoski, using it in all types of locations.
What a Steel
If you’re not familiar with this particular knife, be sure to check out the detailed review I did on the Inkosi Insingo as an EDC knife. In terms of mechanics and general usability, this is the same knife and the only difference is the new steel being used.
The new S45VN steel offers corrosion resistance like never before. I’ve been a long time user of Chris Reeve Knives and even have my faithful first regular Sebenza in BG42 steel. (Which is still considered an excellent blade material.)
Eventually though, CRK introduced S30V steel, which Chris was directly involved in creating. It was a martensitic stainless steel, designed to offer good wear resistance, corrosion resistance and increased toughness. S30V quickly became a favorite of many knife manufacturers and was no doubt the hottest steel of the mid-2000’s. However, looking back I will say that corrosion resistance wasn’t the best.
A natural successor to S30V was S35VN, which was clearly a step in the right direction for corrosion resistance. Was it enough though and could steel be even more stainless? Enter S45VN, which offers increased chromium, nitrogen and niobium content, with an even finer structure that makes it an absolute champion in corrosion resistance.
After a year of subjecting this knife to damp conditions, seawater and melted snow, I can say with confidence that the corrosion resistance is nothing short of awesome. I didn’t disassemble the knife for the whole year, just to see how the hidden parts would hold up. It’s quite common to see corrosion or dark spots in these parts, especially after submersion in seawater. As you can see by the photos, the S45VN on the Inkosi is as clean as it was when new. (That’s after a full year without maintenance as well.) This steel and the fine surface finish provided by CRK is crucial to avoid corrosion.
Life on the Edge with the Inkosi
While corrosion resistance is important, a knife is designed to cut, so holding its edge is a vital feature. With the slightly increased carbon content, less vanadium and cleaner structure, S45VN should hold an edge longer than both of its predecessors. (On paper at least.)
I can confirm some increase in the edge holding, mainly when whittling or cutting fibrous materials like cardboard and rope. It’s hard to determine how substantial it is and while it’s not a quantum leap in wear resistance, I was able to go longer in between sharpening than previous steels. I would say that S45VN goes head-to-head with Elmax in edge retention and it’s just slightly above S35VN. Also despite the lack of change in heat treatment, the S45VN has an HRC (Hardness Rating) of 61-62 vs. the 59-60 of the S35VN.
Rough and Tough
So is this new S45VN tough enough? Overall toughness isn’t something stainless steel is known for, but the new material kept pace with any other premium steel I’ve tried. I didn’t experience any practical differences in toughness versus other steels of this class, but more importantly I didn’t experience any negatives like edge rolling, chipping or a broken tip. (Using common sense during use, of course.)
With all that being said, the S45VN Inkosi is surely tough enough for any job you could ask from a folder. Cutting, slicing, skinning, scraping, puncturing, you name it. It wouldn’t be my first grab for something like chopping, but you should always consider the right tool for the job. (For me, my CRK Impofu is the favorite for chopping.) Overall, this new steel is just as tough as any other premium steel on the market, including S35VN and considerably tougher than other steels like N690 or 440C.
Making the Cut
After initially hearing about the finer structure in the new steel, I thought the fineness might compromise the aggressiveness of the edge bite. Despite my worries and with a combination of the structure and my sharpening methods (no polishing), this steel remains aggressive. On things like 3/4” twisted and sand-filled marine rope, the Inkosi’s edge was biting in well and cutting through. These types of rope are a worst nightmare for a polished edge, but the S45VN was making quick work of them with the micro/nano serrated edge.
I’d recommend that you avoid over polishing the steel, which looks cool in pictures and shaves hair well, but just slides on the surface of things like rope or hard plastic.
S45VN is a king when it comes to field sharpening. I know there are tougher and more wear resistant steels, with alloys hardened to a higher degree, but the ability to sharpen in the field is something that should be taken into consideration. You can always get a good edge on a workbench with guided diamond rods or something like a Tormek machine, but if you’re out hiking for a couple days you don’t want to bring your large sharpening system along in your pack.
Instead, I pack a double-sided pocket stone like the Fallkniven DC4 or CC3. This is all I need in the field for this Inkosi. As I mentioned before, I don’t really polish my edge after sharpening, just strop it a couple times to remove any leftover burrs and it’s good after a couple minutes. The ease of sharpening is really where the steel shines. I dare say it takes less time and effort to form the same aggressive edge, compared to S35VN.
This is probably due to the increased carbon and decreased vanadium. So even if you’re not an expert sharpener, this steel is easy to sharpen and will give you a great edge.
Conclusion on the Inkosi S45VN
One year is undoubtedly a long time for testing an item. (It’s an even longer time for keeping a secret.) After all this time though, I’ve come to the conclusion that S45VN is an absolutely great steel that will be a new industry standard for upscale knives. It addresses most of the issues of S30VN and incrementally addresses some issues in S35VN. I’m very excited to see this new steel hopefully appear in other knives in the CRK line in 2020.
Should you consider this new steel? If you’ve already got an Inkosi in S35VN, I can’t see a practical reason why you’d switch. Additionally, if you were planning on purchasing a CRK knife in S35VN, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. This new steel is more incremental in its benefits and not a substantial change over S35VN. It will be a welcome change and more of a natural evolution eventually I think.
What about CRK collectors though? Well I’m sorry to say you’ll just have to wait and add another full set of knives to complete your collection. Although I don’t think that will be a bad thing for you.
I was really excited to be involved in this evaluation of S45VN for Chris Reeve Knives. Obviously, as I was unaware of the knife’s existence I didn’t pay for it, but I did my best to put it through its paces over the last year. CRK decided to let me test it after years of knowing me and knowing that I’m a hard user of premium knives on all my trips and adventures. Additionally, you can expect my continued updates on the use of the knife both on Blade Forums and the CRK fan group on Facebook. Finally, before you ask, this new Inkosi is very special to me and isn’t for sale!
Editor’s Note: Piotr Ma is an avid outdoorsman, adventurer, mountaineer and certified open sea sailor. As an enthusiast of quality gear, he’s always seeking the most uncompromising and best performing gear available worldwide. He’s also known as an edged tools specialist. Piotr was introduced to his adventurous lifestyle when he was 10 by his father, a certified sailor and alpine-style climber. Now he continues his family tradition and shows his kids how to live a full life in the great outdoors; teaching them survival skills, shooting and archery. These days, he gladly shares his 30+ years of outdoor experience with people around the globe from his current location: Poland, European Union.