Different strokes for different folks. We’ve all heard that expression, right? Well, that adage applies to just about any kind of piece of gear you can imagine, and that includes outdoors knives. Everyone has their own preferences for the the gear they carry and use, and those preferences can span the entire spectrum. When it comes to knives, there’s a lot of real estate between each end of that spectrum. We recently did an audio interview with Mike Fuller who is the owner of TOPS Knives. He was gracious enough to take the time to speak with us for a bit and give us some behind the scenes information.
He spoke to topics relating to the company’s beginnings and some of the directions they may take in the future. Since TOPS Knives is one of the leading manufacturers of hard-use production knives, we thought we would follow up with an article that presents examples of the types of knives they manufacture to provide a little additional information for the readers. This article primarily concerns two specific models in their outdoor line of knives. The models are the Hoffman Harpoon and the Tom Brown Tracker. The first thing to keep in mind is that this article is meant to show the contrasts in the knives that people like to use, and the differences in knife types that TOPS Knives offers. It is not meant as a head-to-head comparison between the two knives. They are different models and are intended for different tasks.
I would also like to bring something out in the beginning in the interest of full disclosure. The Hoffman Harpoon was designed by a very good friend of mine–Terrill Hoffman. He is an accomplished outdoorsman, adventurer, and an international hunter of somewhat ill repute (just kidding). Additionally, he is a professional photographer who has done pictures for several knife magazines as well as for several manufacturers and many custom knife makers. He is also an author with a specialization in the areas of the outdoors and the knife industry. After several years writing, he has a significant number of articles to his credit. After spending all that time seeing and using other people’s blade designs, Terrill decided to sit down and come up with a couple of his own. One of the first ones he came out with was the Hoffman Harpoon. This design was specifically intended as a back-up utility blade that could be used in a number of ways whether lashing it to a staff to make a spear, or to hang about the neck as a go-to knife for every day tasks. Though he is a friend of mine, that does not diminish the utility and success of his Harpoon line of knives. TOPS Knives chose to produce that line base on its unique nature and the versatility of its design. I had nothing to do with that, and my article now comes well after the success of the model. I just like to think that I am merely pointing out the obvious when it comes to the Hoffman Harpoon. I sincerely believe once you get your own mitts on one of these, you’ll come to truly appreciate its design and understand why so many of us love this little blade. It’s a one of a kind offering that is original and had a well thought out design.
The first impression is that it certainly does look like a harpoon. I was around when Terrill was deigning this blade and can attest to the time and effort he put into prototyping different variations to get the best overall design. His intent with this design was to have a blade that could serve a number of functions while still retaining a relatively small footprint so it could be kept as a back-up to a main blade or so it could be worn as a neck-knife for easy access to do every day tasks. In fact, the genesis of this particular model came about as a result of a custom maker inquiring as to what style of knife would be a good companion to his main large fixed blade. That prompted Terrill to sit down and start drawing up different concepts for just that kind of knife. The model that Terrill settled on and TOPS produced has an overall length of 8 inches with a blade length of only 2.5 inches. That leaves 5.5 inches worth of handle that is easily affixed to a wood shaft to create an improvised gig or spear. The entire knife is constructed of 3/16 inches thick 1095 High Carbon Alloy, so it’s up doing some heavy-duty work.
Additional features include a lanyard hole at the end of the handle to help with lashing the knife to different things with paracord; the spine of the blade also includes several ridges for a thumb rest to allow the user to choke up and keep a firm grip while performing cutting or carving tasks. There are plenty of short-blade knives out there to be worn about the neck or to serve in a similar capacity as the Hoffman Harpoon. However, the Harpoon is one of the first I’ve seen with the long, slender handle that allows the entire package to be lashed to a wooden shaft or other media. This increases the versatility and usefulness of the knife ten-fold. Another benefit of the longer handle and the hook design at the beginning of the blade is that the Harpoon can be used as a pot hanger while cooking or when lifting the pot out of the fire. So, if you’ve got a hobo-style can with a wire bail that you boil water or cook out of, the Hoffman Harpoon could be quite handy by letting you move it about after fishing it out of the fire. The long handle can also be cord-wrapped to provide a thicker grip and to serve as storage for some extra para-cord.
That said, I will admit that this would not be my primary blade, if given the choice, when I’m going into the woods. I don’t think my friend Terrill would be upset with that statement. In fact, I think he would probably agree. I would, at the very least, have a knife that had at least a 4 inch blade, if not longer, as my main woods knife. But, I note that my survival pouch that is stored in my Emergency Woods Pack (See my MercWorx Sniper Pack Article) includes a Hoffman Harpoon. So, any time and every time that I go into the woods, I’ve always got the Harpoon with me as a back-up or when I need it to make an impromptu gig or spear. And there are times when I will work it into my neck-carry rotation with several other neck knives that I use. The blade edge is very nice and is quite sharp. It can be used for fine work like slicing or for doing detailed wood work for things like snares or traps. So, the Hoffman Harpoon can be pressed into service for every day tasks just as easily as for the more exotic purposes such as lashing it to a staff to make a spear. Another nice feature is the skeletonized handle that allows for cord to be wrapped and used as the gripping surface. Besides providing a good purchase on the blade, it’s also an easy way to keep an extra length of paracord handy should you need it. I do believe that paracord and duct tape will fix just about anything, so it’s a good thought to have the handle wrapped this way. The Hoffman Harpoon is just a whole lot of versaility in one little package. Not only is this a handy and versatile blade, it’s a unique design concept that fills a niche that no other major manufacturers model fills. You just have to pick one up and let your imagination take control to understand the possibilities available with this design.
This brings us to another knife with a unique design. That’s the Tom Brown Tracker. I recently wrote a review about Hedgehog Leatherworks’ sheaths for this knife, but I focused more on the sheath than the knife. Now that I’ve had some time to play with the Tracker, I feel more comfortable in sharing my opinions about it. Without question, it exudes the same top-notch quality found in the rest of the knives manufactured by TOPS Knives. Constructed of 1095 High Carbon Alloy steel, it’s a beast of a blade at a quarter-inch thick, and it’s ready for a tough work-out in the wild. Even the most inexperienced person, when it comes to knives, will immediately notice the somewhat unusal and eccentric design of the knife. Until the Tracker came along, I don’t know of another model out there that looked like it does. The entire knife is designed provide features that will allow the user to do different tasks with the same blade whether it’s chopping, skinning, fine carving work, or even being used as a saw or a drawknife. The Tracker has a very forward-heavy balance that you can discern from looking at it before even picking it up. Almost half of the length of the blade is wider than the first half and it is rounded to almost a perfect quarter circle. That round slicing edge would certain lend itself to being a great skinning blade. Also, with the weight being distributed to the forward part of the knife, it makes for a great thrower as well. Though I am not one that’s into throwing knives and never believed in chucking a perfectly good weapon away, there are some who will appreciate this part of the knife’s construction–especially if they are accomplished knife throwers. Myself, I’m a bit more pragmatic, and that’s why I like the lower half of the blade that’s not quite as wide and has a good length of straight edge for finer work and to use the Tracker as a drawknife. The handle is an extremely comfortable design, no matter how you use the knife, and allows the user to easily choke up on the knife to use that straight-edge part of the blade for fine work.
On the opposite side of the edge is the saw back and the thumb ridges that are close to the handle. I have to say that I honestly gave the saw back a fair shake, but it performed about as well as I thought. As a saw, this design just doesn’t make the grade. With the knife having a thickness of a quarter of an inch throughout, there’s just no way it’s going to make an effective saw with just one row of 1/4 inch thick teeth. If there were two rows of teeth that were staggered against each other along the spine, it might make an effective design—maybe. The best function I can see the saw back doing is capturing something like barb-wire in the teeth and then twisting it until it breaks by using the leverage provided by the knife. But, I do want to point something important out right here. Just from my limited knowledge of knife-making, to create an effective saw back with two or more rows of sharpened teeth would require a lot of hand tooling and fine detail work. That falls into the realm of custom knives that run from $500.00 to $10,000.00. You just can’t achieve that type of tooling and still expect to produce a knife that the mainstream consumer can afford. That’s when you have to compromise a bit in design. That’s not the fault of TOPS Knives. That’s just basic economics. TOPS Knives doesn’t produce safe queens that the elite few can stare at and polish once a month. TOPS Knives makes hard-use, high-value knives that Joe Woodsman can afford to have on his side when the fit hits the shan. There’s no point in expecting a 100% perfect and ultimate dream-knife design if you cannot afford to buy it. So, instead of sawing the wood, turn the blade over and just chop it!!
Speaking of chopping, as I mentioned in my Hedgehog Leatherworks article, there’s a bit of debate about the merits of the Tom Brown Tracker. From what I’ve seen about 90% of the debaters either love it or hate it. There are very few folks that are moderate in their opinions with regard to this design. Believe it or not, I am one of them. Right off the bat, I didn’t personally take to the design. I thought it was a bit over the top and I thought the knife had too many compromises made so it could be a jack of all trades and master of none. And, those compromises that I speak of aren’t just with the TOPS Knives version. There are other variations of the Tracker out there that have the same types of compromises. All of those compromises came into play at the knife’s inception by Tom Brown. But, I have to admit, over the past few weeks, and after using it more and more I am coming to appreciate the Tracker design more than I thought I would. Some of that is due to Paul Scheiter’s Tracker Sheath that is so well-executed and provides a perfect mode of carry for the Tracker. Admittedly, some of the appreciation stems from just the feeling of wielding this unique piece of steel in the wild. It almost radiates a certain feel that makes you feel like you’re about to go native at any time. Too much poetic license there? Maybe. But, there’s no denying the pleasure I get when wearing the Tracker out in the woods in my Tracker Sheath by Hedgehog Leatherworks. You do feel like you can accomplish just about whatever you want out there, even with some of the compromises.
One of those compromises comes into play while chopping. I found that I wasn’t very comfortable with my ability to hit the wood with the sweet spot of the blade. The rounded forward edge is where the weight and momentum is when chopping, but I found that I had to be precise in my swings to get the chopping portion of the blade to do its job. At least for me, that’s easier said than done. It turned out that it was very much like chopping with a hatchet, and for the types of chopping chores that I would do in the bush, I think I’d like a longer blade. At times, the Tracker slipped off the wood and as most have experienced with hatchets, it heads right toward your leg when that happens. A longer edge knife like the Tops Armageddon would make me feel more comfortable as I know I’ve got plenty of edge to catch the wood. (I don’t claim to be a chopping expert, but I did win the chopping compeition a couple of times at the PWYP outings, so I have done it before.) It also helps to have a good lanyard attached to the Tracker as it will allow you to back your hand up to the very end of the handle securely and let you get more snap in your chop. Without the lanyard, you can’t do that because the Tracker might fly out of your grip. I could envision the Tracker doing a better job with chopping chores if it were styled like a kukri. That way, the forward edge would contact the wood before you’ve completed your stroke. That’s just me thinking. That’s not to say you couldn’t make the Tracker work for what you need; it’s just one of those compromises that you get in a jack-of-all-trades design. Again, your mileage may vary.
There’s nothing wrong with having preferences. Everyone is different, and there’s no right or wrong when it comes to picking a knife that suits you best. Yes, there are a lot of armchair experts out there that will tell you exactly what you need and dare you to question their imperative. But, the only person that can really answer the question is the user after spending some time with the blade in different situations. But, as you can see from just these two examples of extremes, TOPS Knives offers a wide variety of high quality knives so that just about anyone can find something they can depend on and enjoy using as well. In addition to the Tracker, they also offer Tom Brown’s Tracker Scout knife, and that’s a design very much to my liking. If you’re a big and heavy chopper-knife type of person, check out their Armageddon, Steel Eagle, or their Anaconda. If you’re more of a traditionalist and like shorter blades, TOPS offers the Spirit Hunter (one I really want to try), Cochise, or maybe their Bush Ranger might suit you best. Another knife of theirs that I have and like very, very much is their Longhorn Bowie. Though it’s not what most would consider an outdoors knife and has more of an Old-West feel, it’s still one that I strap on from time to time when I go back in the woods. I think it would make a great fighting knife companion to my 4" Ruger Redhawk if I ever come across a mountain lion. Hey, you make your own choices! Different strokes for different folks, remember? I’ll wear whatever I want!!