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TOPS Knives Spirit Hunter Review

SH009cStep inside and join us in an overview of the TOPS Knives Spirit Hunter, a product straight from the Custom Shop that combines the modern materials of today with the heritage and purpose of generations long since passed.




Over the past several years, one of the questions I’ve enjoyed mulling over in my head has been, “Wonder what someone from a thousand years ago would think about our knives, steel, and other materials?”  That same question even applies to someone from just a couple of hundred years ago.  Much like other areas of industry, the knife making sector has enjoyed exponential growth in knowledge with regard to metallurgy, construction, and blade designs.  In fact, you could almost take that question a step further and ask, “If someone from two hundred years ago was given access and the ability to use the materials we have today, what kind of knife would they make for their needs?”  In my mind, I think the TOPS Knives Spirit Hunter would be at the top of that list.  For several reasons, when I first saw the Spirit Hunter and the “Coming Soon” notice on their website, I was hooked.

SH006aAt the top of the list of reasons was the blade steel.  While I enjoy the benefits of 1095 and S30V steel, 154CM is probably my favorite because it presents a good balance of characteristics.  It has a higher threshold of resistance to rust which is 1095’s arch-nemisis, but it’s still fairly easy to maintain the edge out in the field–even for someone like me.  S30V is a great steel, but it takes some extra time and effort to get the edge back on it.  So, I’ve been pretty pleased that TOPS Knives has been bringing out more knives in 154CM in the past couple of years.  I was doubly pleased when I saw it available in the Spirit Hunter’s construction.  I just couldn’t get the Spirit Hunter at that time because it hadn’t been released yet. It wasn’t too long ago when we interviewed Mike Fuller of TOPS Knives, and we talked about a few of their models.  I let Mike know that I was interested in reviewing the Spirit Hunter when it was available, so he set me up with one once they started hitting the streets.

SH007aIt took a little time for me to get to this review because I wanted to use it a for a little while to give it a fair workout, and I sent it off to have a left-handed sheath made for it.  The Spirit Hunter comes from TOPS with a sturdy leather sheath, but it’s set up for a right-handed person, so that’s why it was sent off for a different sheath.  If you’re a rightie, you’ll probably be more than satisfied with the factory sheath.  Lately, I’ve been on a kick of getting top-tier leather sheaths for my knives, so I decided to go with a Kydex model in keeping with the newer generation of materials used in the Spirit Hunter’s construction–including the Blue and Black G-10 handle slabs accented with white liners.  I’m usually a traditionalist when it comes to knives and not a huge fan of the latest and greatest colors, but a buddy of mine had recently acquired a knife with blue and black G-10 handles and I liked that combination quite a bit.  So, it was just happenstance that I ran across the Spirit Hunter a few weeks later with that exact same color combination.  To me, it’s an attractive handle finish, and it’s a little bit of a break from just the Tac-Black or typical micarta colors you find on most knives.  Besides its aesthetic appeal, it also makes for a good contrast to colors found out in the wild, which would make it easier to spot if you lay it down some place and lose track of it. 

SH010aSo, I sent the Spirit Hunter off to Red Hill Sheaths who did a superb job in creating the perfect fit for the knife.  It locked the knife securely into place without the material rubbing against the finish on the blade.  Speaking of which, the blade finish of the Spirit Hunter appears to be a bead-blasted type finish.  It’s not a very deep finish–just enough to take off the glint and shine of the blade.  One thing I’m particular about with this type of sheath is that I like having enough sheath material to rest my thumb against and to press against the sheath to pop it free without having to do just a straight yank on the handle.  That makes for a more low-profile and quieter deployment of the knife.  The finish on the sheath was great, and the package was completed with a Tek-Lok by Blade-Tech which is a favorite of mine.  The Tek-Lok can be taken off and configured for either vertical or horizontal and left or right hand carry.  This is good, because I’m going through a bit of a crisis right now trying to decide which hand I am for certain things.

SH003aI throw and write with my left hand.  However, as a kid, I always stood at bat in right-handed fashion and did the same for chopping chores.  I shoot a shotgun or rifle in right-handed mode, and have always carried my knives and sidearms for the right hand as well.  In fact, I know that I am left-eye dominant and have always had to get around that issue of cocking my head a certain way to get a natural sight picture.  But, around a year or so ago, it was TOPS that caused me to start questioning things.  I picked up one of their Longhorn Bowies, and that’s a knife that just begs to be carried on one hip while carrying a sidearm on the other.  Since I’ve always carried handguns on the right hand side, I went ahead and had a leather left hand sheath made for the Longhorn Bowie.  Well, after carrying it a few times, I began to find that it felt quite natural to use the left hand for my knife chores.  So, after that, I started paying closer attention to how I did my cutting and chopping tasks.  I soon found that even though I was carrying a knife of my right side, I subconciously would shift the knife to my left hand during its use.  This includes chopping chores as well.

This discovery has thrown my whole world out of whack since I am now exploring the same issue with firearms as well.  While the finger dexterity for doing things like flipping safeties, dropping magazines and so forth are better in the right hand, that can be attributed to just years and years of continual practice.  However, when it comes to what feels more natural and gives me an easier sight picture, the left hand is easily overtaking the right in this regard.  I keep thinking that the reason I shoot and carry different tools a certain way are a result of what I was trained to do when I was a child.  Back in those days in the backwoods of West Virginia, some folks felt that left handed people were possessed by the devil.  Not saying they were wrong, but I don’t think they helped me any with the way I was taught.  I don’t know if this was a conscious thought on my father or grandfather’s part or if they just didn’t think about it and assumed I would naturally shoot the same way as they did.  But, I’m getting off point right now.

SH001aI got the sheath from Red Hill Sheaths and began to carry the Spirit Hunter on my belt in a cross-draw position for the left hand.  It’s already spent plenty of time with me on our land in the hills of West Virginia.   During the time I’ve spent with it, I’ve really come to appreciate its overall versatility in handling all types of cutting tasks.   A lot of that versatility stems from the design of the handle and the blade profile.  The handle is long enough to comfortably accommodate all four fingers for a firm grip, and the center of balance for the knife is such that you can easily do light chopping with the knife in this position.  When swinging the blade from this position, you get pretty decent momentum to help make the chopping work a little easier, though you’ll always get more with a larger blade with more forward weight.  Also, with your hand in this position, you’ve got a fairly substantial knife for self defense work as well.  While this type of knife might not be some people’s idea of the best fighter design, there are times when you have to use what’s available.  In fact, if you go back those couple of hundred years we talked about earlier, Native Americans and others groups’ knives and tools all served double and triple duty.  A lot of them did not have the luxury of having a hunting knife, an EDC, and a fighting knife.  They had a knife.  It had to work for hunting exercises and it had to serve them as a fighting weapon as well.  So, there’s always going to be a little compromise when you’re using one design for different purposes.

SH004aAdding to the versatility of the Spirit Hunter’s design is the very generous choil that allows you to choke up on the knife, substantially changing the position of your hand on the grips.  That ability to choke up close to the blade gives you additional control that might be needed for more precise cuts for skinning or wood carving.  With my forefinger locked into the choil, it’s a very comfortable grip and feels quite secure in the hand. Either way you decide to hold the knife, you’re working with a 4.5 inch blade that’s .15 inch thick.  The 154CM steel is hardened to a Rockwell of 60, and that’s actually a quite high measure.  It will make the blade ideal for what it was designed for, but if you press it into service in other areas like chopping, prying, etc., you’ll need to take care to watch how it’s handling the stress.  I’ve taken the Spirit Hunter out between 10-15 times so far as my primary blade, and it’s handled everything I’ve need it to do including cutting materials like paracord, canvas, and plastic for shelter making.  I’ve also used it to limb saplings and even make a wood branch box trap, even though I felt a bit like Wile E. Coyote making that kind of contraption.  I would have included a picture of that trap, but I only have a small amount of dignity left which I would like to preserve.

SH002aBut, the true beauty of the Spirit Hunter’s blade is in its recurve profile that provides plenty of belly for skinning and adds extra length to the actual cutting edge.  Closer to the handle, you’ve got enough straight edge to get you through any of your woodworking chores as well.  I wish I could say that I’ve used the Spirit Hunter for dressing game, but there’s no season open right now and I like to give proper regard to game laws unless it’s a true emergency situation.  However, there’s little doubt in my mind that it will do a very nice job in that regard.  The blade has a hollow grind that makes for an ideal cutting edge for hunting tasks, and after a lot of use in the field, it was a fairly simple process to bring the edge back to hair-popping status with little effort.  Recurve blades aren’t as simple to sharpen as one with a straight edge, but it’s still a relatively easy task provided you pay close attention to your work.  Also, it helps to not be like me and act like it’s a race to the finish line when sharpening a blade.  I have to learn a little more patience.

As with all of TOPS Knives products, the Spirit Hunter comes with a Lifetime Warranty for the buyer.  With today’s metallurgy and technology, I’d venture to say that the warranty will never be needed if you use the knife for its intended purpose, but it’s always nice to have.  The asking price for the Spirit Hunter is $179.00, but considering the materials, the included sheath, and the fact it’s a Custom Shop product, it’s more than reasonable, and well worth it once you’ve had it in your hands and used it in the field.  Overall, the TOPS Knives Spirit Hunter is a spectacular symphony of components and design concepts.  While using the most current materials including the 154CM blade and G-10 handle slabs, they still manage to include a design that exemplifies the qualities that our ancestors could have made the most use out of during their own period of history.  Certainly, those various groups in our history didn’t have the technology or ability to sculpt the beautiful lines you find in the Spirit Hunter’s hollow-ground recurve blade.  But, go back to one of the questions I asked earlier.  Given their needs and daily activities at the time, what kind of knife would they make if given the chance?  To paraphrase one of Marlin Brando’s most famous lines, I have to believe the TOPS Knives Spirit hunter would have been a contender.


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