Spartan Blades has delivered on its promise to build knives with intent. In June, the Southern Pines-based company beat out some of the country’s largest knife manufacturers to win the coveted American Made Knife of the Year award at the 2016 International Blade Show.
The Spartan-Harsey Folder, or SHF, is a collaboration between iconic knife maker and desiger, William W. Harsey, Jr. and Spartan Blades.
“This was our seventh year going to the Blade show. We’ve received four awards over the years but this was the biggest one we’ve won,” said Spartan co-owner Mark Carey.
The annual event — the largest and most prestigious knife show in the world — attracts an international audience of 400 manufacturers and more than 3,600 custom knife makers. Sponsored by Blade Magazine, the competition focuses on quality, value and innovation. Spartan’s winning knife was selected by a judging panel that consists of competing knife companies and industry professionals.
Previously, the company has scored top marks at the Blade show for Best Collaboration — winning twice — and recognition for Most Innovative design.
“The judges are all of the competitors but you can’t vote for your own. That is part of the rules,” said Curtis Iovito, who is the other half of the Spartan partnership. “Each company gets one vote for each category and then the editor of Blade magazine and other trusted industry experts also have the opportunity to vote.”
Eligibility is equally stringent with criteria requiring the knife to be made in America, to be in active production, and sales must exceed 500 units in the competition year. Iovito said the Spartan-Harsey was first developed in January 2016 and the company has delivered about 250 so far.
“We definitely will have to ramp up production now that this award has been announced,” he said.
Their collaborator is a well-known figure in the knife industry, and previous collaborations with Spartan, among others, also produced winning blades. One of Harsey’s most significant designs is known as the Yarborough Knife. Named after Lt. Gen. William P. Yarborough — the “father of modern Special Forces” — each graduate of the U.S. Army Special Forces Qualification Course receives a a serial-numbered Yarborough Knife. In fact, many consider the knife almost as large a part of the heritage and tradition of Special Forces as the Green Beret.
Iovito and Carey met in 1997 while serving as snipers for a counter-terrorism unit stationed in Southeast Asia. The men were later sent to Fort Bragg and, following retirement, joined forces to establish Spartan Blades. The partners briefly considered manufacturing sniper rifles and gun accessories but found that guns came with high insurance premiums and the profit margin was thin for accessories. Instead, knife-making offered them the most latitude for creativity.
“A mentor told us people may buy a knife from us because they knew we were Green Berets. But if it is not a good knife, we will be known as the Green Berets that make junk,” Iovito said. “We want to be knife makers first. We make good quality cutlery.”
After getting started in Aberdeen, they moved operations to a renovated space two years ago in the former Lob Steer Inn building on U.S. 1. Today’s production level stands at 5,500 to 6,000 knives per year and the company’s name, which is a bit of an inside joke, belies that success.
“It was in the beginning and we had a batch of 30 knives. We were not sure the best way to ship them. We didn’t have any decent boxes or shipping tape so we wrapped the package up with green Army tape. We joked that it was “a spartan way to do things,” said Iovito. “That is the story. That’s how we decided on Spartan Blades.”
Spartan’s current production includes 15 models of finely crafted tactical and field knives for the military, law enforcement, outdoors enthusiasts and collectors. Nearly two-thirds of the company’s sales are through a global network of more than 160 dealers worldwide, with the remainder of the business coming from online sales and occasional walk-in customers. Retail prices vary from $95 to well-upwards of $500.
“Some people see our prices and think we are high-end priced but, in the cutlery industry, our price point is considered a mid-range,” said Carey. “There is a whole subculture of people that collect knives that cost in the thousands of dollars. We are military guys: we just want to make tools.
“Every knife is purpose-built. We have a fighting knife, a general combat knife, a survival knife — you design with intent. What you see in pockets is commonly known as an Every Day Carry or EDC. The Spartan-Harsey falls into that category,” he said.
The Spartan-Harsey has a four-inch blade and, unfolded, has an overall length just under nine inches. The base frame and screws are made from raw titanium mined in Russia that is made into an alloy, and the steel used on the blade is made in America. The design of the knife is also flexible enough that Spartan anticipates special edition runs. Custom work may include different steels, different colored blades, or the addition of decorative beads.
“Some people see them as weapons but we just see them as tools,” said Iovito. “There was a stigma about knives with switchblades from the 1950s. But we see that is going away. When you look at the demographics of those who buy knives, you see that men over 60 all had a knife. Then it fell out of fashion for three or four generations. Now we are seeing a resurgence in Millennials. Laws are being repealed in a lot of states and more and more in an everyday manner, you see pocket clips. We thought we would make knives for the military and law enforcement but that is only about 20 percent of the market. The majority is collectors and civilian users.”
“Knives are more like a wallet and belt buckle to many people,” Carey said. “It is a useful tool but also men don’t have many things to dress up their wardrobe with. It is almost a bit of an accessory. It’s kind of like a pick-up truck. You don’t know you need one until you have one. And a surprising number of women carry pocket knives. They carry small ones in their purse.”
The company initially manufactured fixed-blade-style knives and both men acknowledge there was a learning curve as they moved into more complex design work.
“From there, we went to a folding blade. That is far more complicated to make. You need to have skills and a machine set-up to keep the tolerances. Actually, making one is easy but in making a batch of a 100, that is where the magic is. There are seven working components in a folding knife that must work together,” Carey said.
In designing a knife, it is function first and then style. Ergonomics impacts the way it is held and the way it cuts.
“Ergonomics plays a big role. We try to make it as simple as possible. That is the hard part: making it simple but still recognizable as one of our knives,” Carey said.
A machine shop in West End cuts out the steel and titanium parts. From there, the raw knife is brought to the main Southern Pines facility for hand-blasting and surface work. Then it is sent to High Point where it is heat-treated and cryogenically treated, and then it’s on to Greensboro for coating, before finally returning to Spartan for lasering, sharpening and assembly.
“The processing aligns the carbides and steel. When you heat-treat steel, you harden it. The cryogenics brings everything tightly in line. The smaller the carbides, the finer the blade edge,” Carey said. “We usually make 250 in a batch and then can assemble a hundred at a time.”
“We try to use U.S. materials and veteran-labor for everything we can. It stays sharper three or four times longer than most steel in knife blades people use. We also use small production with high-quality materials to make custom-grade knives,” Iovito said. “What we create is an incredibly strong knife that is lightweight.”
Carey said the multi-million dollar knife industry still operates as “a kind of cottage industry, with frequent and easy communication between makers.” There are few patents and no big secrets in the manufacturing process. When someones needs help, it is offered.
“William Harsey is a famous and prolific guy. We were friends for awhile and, one day, he called and said, “Do you want to do a knife together?” said Iovito. “We never even considered asking him because we were so small a company. But both Chris Reaves Knives and Harsey were mentors. They gave us a leg up and showed us the pitfalls of knife-making.
“We were just soldiers. We learned the real wealth is being your own boss, being debt-free, being able to take care of your responsibilities and controlling your own destiny.
“I don’t want to say it was easy, but the skills we learned in Special Forces related right to the business industry. We were used to planning for long range and short range, and in materials management. We also thought it would be harder to relate to civilians but have not found that to be a problem.
“We talk to veterans all the time. We tell them, don’t undervalue yourself and know that your skills will relate.”