Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: Tops Fieldcraft [Fixed Blade Knife]

There's no doubt about it: Tops makes some very appealing knives. Made in the USA, well designed and fairly priced, there's a lot to like in their lineup. I wanted to try one, and being a collector of fixed blade camp knives, it was an easy choice settling on their Fieldcraft model, which I purchased from Amazon.

Before I go any farther, I wanted to be up front that I do not have much experience with bushcraft other than what I've read, and batoning some wood while camping. I took all those bushcraft classes as a kid a million years ago, but it's been that long since I've applied some of the knowledge. I do however know lots about fixed blade camp knives, and my review is going to be based mostly on that knowledge.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product Link


Product Description


The Fieldcraft is a bushcraft type fixed blade knife, made in the USA from 1095 tool grade carbon steel. It features a 4 1/2 inch blade with a full tang design and pommel. The handles are "black" Micarta, held on by hex head screws. There's lots of little extras such as the friction-fire-starting divots in the handle, as well as the fire steel striker notch in the pommel. The entire blade is black powder coated except for the Scandinavian edge. Note that 1095 is not a stainless steel, and that part of the blade will need to be oiled and maintained.

The sheath is typical black Kydex, and features a fire steel holder with fire steel. The sheath comes with a built-in belt clip that cannot be removed without voiding the warranty.

Official Specs (From Amazon)


  • Overall Length: 10"
  • Blade Length: 4 1/2"
  • Blade Material: 1095 High Carbon RC 56-58
  • Black Canvas Micarta Handle
  • Sheath: Black Kydex


Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Glamour Shot

From Top: Tops Fieldcraft, Elk Ridge ER196, Mora Companion, Gerber Freeman Guide, Becker BK14 "Eskabar"
From Top: Tops Fieldcraft, Elk Ridge ER196, Mora Companion, Gerber Freeman Guide, Becker BK14 "Eskabar"
Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 1

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 2

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 3

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 4

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 5

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 6

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 7

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Product View 9
Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Logo Closeup
More logos on it than a Ka-Bar


First Impressions


I don't care who you are, it's like having a birthday getting something that costs over $100 dropped onto your door step. So I was excited to get this knife and open it up. And wow, this thing is a beast. I own other large, heavy knives but there's just something about this one. Not even my Ka-Bar Becker BK14 gave me this same impression of solidity. This thing gives me the impression that I could take a large mallet and pound it through my concrete driveway.

After handling it a little while, boy, it sure is handle-heavy. All full tang fixed blades struggle to be well balanced, but this one just seems to say "screw it" which is fine, but takes a little getting used to. I'm assuming that it probably works in your favor when batoning fire wood and certain other abusive tasks.

All my dude friends have had similar first impressions with this knife. I usually hand my son anything new, and most of the time he takes whatever I hand him (knife, flashlight, etc.,) looks at it and hands it back silently. This one even made his eyes open a little wider, before he said "nice" and handed it back.

Build Quality


This is the reason to buy a knife in this price range. There's hundreds of fixed blades to choose from, and a great many of the cheap ones are just as solid if not more solid than the more expensive ones. So for someone like me, it's a big deal to step up and buy a knife like this where I could literally buy a dozen cheap ones for the same price.

Just as expected, the build quality on my Fieldcraft is excellent. The steel on this knife isn't what I would call high end, but it's a robust tool steel, and this knife is built like a serious tool. I'm not a big fan of the powder coating, but at least they didn't skimp on it or try to cheap out on it. Micarta scales, check. Red liners, check. Beautiful machining and grind. This knife is made by people who give a shit about making knives; that much is clear.

Fit and Finish


If I am paying over a hundred bucks for a knife, it better have a great fit and finish. Why shouldn't it, when these days I can realistically expect that from a $20 knife. And again, just as expected, the Fieldcraft delivers. In fact, it took me a while of holding it and looking at it to even find anything. There's a slight anomaly in the tapering of the tip of the blade. So the tip is a little tiny bit asymmetric. It's even hard to see in the photos. Also, the red liner on the right side isn't quite flush with the handle. This probably makes it a tiny bit harder to clean when it's really dirty.

Overall though, the fit and finish on my review sample is excellent. For this price, I probably would've sent it back if that wasn't the case. This knife hits all the fit and finish marks and then some. One pet peeve of mine is the jimping on the spine of the blade. It seems like all knife makers great and small have a problem with cutting these simple notches. So it's gratifying to see the jimping machined as if by an actual craftsman.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Jimping Closeup
Yep, well-cut jimping is one of the things I look for

Blade


The blade is the heart of the knife, and this one beats strong. It's of good quality 1095 USA carbon steel and has a typical hollow ground, drop point blade geometry that I'm so fond of. I would expect a blade on a knife of this quality to be pretty much beyond reproach, and it is. It's just extremely well done.

It's nice and thick, too, at 1/5 th of an inch, and it hits all the marks for a higher end knife: perfect grind, jimping and overall quality of machining.

I'm not a huge fan of this type of modified Scandinavian grind, but at least it's well executed. The tip tapers nearly perfectly, which I would also expect for a higher end knife like this one. The powder coating is well done, but again, not a huge fan. At least it's functional, as the blade is not stainless.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Blade Closeup 1

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Blade Closeup 2

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Blade Closeup 3


Handle


The Micarta scales on this knife are well done, as I would expect on a knife in this price range. So are the red liners. They are cut and machined correctly, so they are the exact same shape on both sides, which gives the knife the impression of quality. Having mismatched scales is one my pet peeves, which I've even seen more expensive knives get wrong.

The feel of the handle is good, which surprised me because it has two divots carved in the middle of the scales, and two scallops carved in the front. I thought that all these parts carved out would affect the grip, but the grip is solid. It's hard to go wrong with well done Micarta.

My only real gripe with the handle is really with the knife itself. It is very handle-heavy.Part of this has of course to do with the thick, full tang blade stock. Part of it is that the blade stock extends past the scales, forming a steel pommel. But when you add in the thick, solid Micarta, it just keeps moving the balance point back.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Handle Closeup 1

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Handle Closeup 2


Pommel


I like that the blade stock extends past the handle, forming a nice, solid pommel. I'm OK with the weight impact and even the loss of balance by contributing to make the knife a little handle-heavy. So therefore, I'm pretty confused that they took this nice pommel and carved an ugly notch out of it. It would be much more utilitarian to have a normal pommel and let you strike the fire steel on the spine of the knife like a normal human being.

It's still useful as a hammer in a pinch, though it's obviously less useful with the notch out of it. The notch does not affect its ability to be a glass breaker in an emergency, though the blade is so thick, you could probably just use the blade as a glass breaker.

And if the notch sucked, the lanyard hole adds insult to injury since there's such a large, brass-lined lanyard hole at the end of the handle proper. Honestly, if I would have looked at the design on paper, I would have said just eliminate the pommel altogether. At least for me, that would take away several gripes.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Pommel Closeup


Sheath


Some other reviewers have stated that they do not like the Kydex sheath, and I disagree completely. It's a little on the thin side but very well done. I love Kydex sheaths, because they hold the blade in securely without a separate snap, and it's a material the blade can't cut through. In all these years of being a knife collector, I have never cut myself. A few times I have come close have been putting a knife into a nylon sheath and having to right through.

There's a belt clip tek lock thing built into the sheath. There's even a note that comes with the knife saying you will void the warranty by taking it off. Huh? But it just so happens that I really like the belt clip, even if I can't seem to unclip it without taking off my belt. I'm not very smart. The belt clip does what it's supposed to do, and keep the sheath securely at my waist. It even hangs pretty well for a larger knife.

One thing I definitely do not like about the sheath is that it has a built in fire steel holder. No, I reject everything Tops tried to accomplish with the Fieldcraft and fire.So I don't like the fire steel holder. What's worse is that it looks like that little sheath-on-a-sheath is held on by red loc-tite. If I remember correctly, red is the kind that does not come off. Well, it does if you heat it up enough.

But overall I am a big fan of this sheath. A stout knife like this should have a stout sheath. I did the "blow test" to make sure the sheath lets air and water escape out the bottom. Most Kydex sheaths do this automatically just from being folded vertically, but it's nice not to find this information out the hard way in a big rain storm. I don't live too far from Seattle, and we almost get more days a year of of rain than sun.

Another pet peeve of mine is Kydex sheaths that dull the blade every time you draw it, which this sheath doesn't do. I've taken it out of the sheath probably a couple hundred times just myself, and the blade still has a good edge on it.


Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Sheath View 1

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Sheath View 2

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Sheath View 3
The sheath has an interesting belt clip design
Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Sheath View 4

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Sheath View 6
Looks like red Loc-Tite to me, boss

Fire Steel


The FieldCraft comes with a fire steel and holder built into the sheath. Unlike most that I've seen, this one is actually 3 very small rods: 2 steel and 1 Magnesium. Presumably the steel rods could touch up the edge of the knife itself if you are desperate. Either way, it seems of very low quality, and most people seem to swap it out for a better one. I think I'm just going to melt the loc-tite and take the fire steel holder off the sheath, and forget it was ever there. I understand that many folks like having a fire steel on their sheath, and those folks just have to find one that fits. The caliper shows half an inch exactly on the base of it.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Fire Steel View 1

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Fire Steel View 2



Whistle


This model comes with a Tops emergency whistle, which I think is a nice touch. I like knowing that it's on the wife's keychain and the kids have it when they borrow the car.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Whistle Top
Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Whistle Bottom


Bushcraft Design


Again, I am no genius buschcrafter. Maybe that's why from a bushcrafting standpoint, the knife seems a little over done in some areas. The fire steel notch in the pommel not only looks tacky, but from what I can tell, isn't even functional. I'll just go ahead and say what everyone else is saying: they should have omitted the thick powder coat and the firesteel notch, and let you do what everyone else does: strike the firesteel on the spine of the knife as nature intended. Instead, they gave us a tiny, worthless notch with a tiny, worthless ferro rod.

The divot on the handle for friction type fire starting seems a little more useful. Though again, it could be lack of experience, but I would think that between carrying a lighter, waterproof matches, dedicated firesteel with striker and tinder and a large magnifying glass in my kit would have the fires covered. But the divots don't really take away from the feel of the handle, and they reduce the weight a tiny bit, so I'm Ok with having them, unlike the firesteel notch, which I'm not so Ok with. It just seems like if you're hardcore enough to start a fire with friction, you probably don't need a divot in your knife scales to do it.

Another minor grip is the modified Scandinavian edge on this knife. I have a few knives with this "Scandi-vex" edge on them. I understand  that this is a more robust edge, but it loses some of the benefits of having a Scandi grind in the first place, like being stupidly simple to sharpen in the field. This type of so-called modified Scandi edge takes a much higher skill level to sharpen. So it raises the difficulty with just a little benefit.

One feature I have never seen before are the scallops in the front of the handle on both sides. I assume that it's to hold the knife for fine carving tasks. I like it, and think it's ingenious. What's even better is that it doesn't take away from the grip.

Overall this seems to be a solid bushcraft knife, despite the annoyances. If you are a hardcore bushcrafter, then you could strip the power coating off, swap out the firesteel and be good to go. It hits all the marks where it counts: good construction and steel quality, good grind and high quality, innovative micarta scales with all the scallops and divots in them.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Divot Closeup

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Scallop Closeup


Choil?


I've seen more than one reviewer mention a choil on this knife. Maybe it's that I don't understand the term, or that I don't have, tiny, slender fingers. There's maybe half of one. Either way, it's not wide enough to be safe in my opinion. This isn't a knife you are really going to choke up on the handle with.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Choil Closeup
For tiny fingers?


Usability


Not getting out in the woods this season due to a neck injury has made it hard to test the usability of certain things I review. It's hard to do a serious tool like this justice without putting it to serious use, which I can't really do at this point. I could probably take it out to the backyard and baton half a cord of fire wood with it, but I don't think that anyone really doubts that it can do that.

I have done serious testing on the included fire steel and pommel notch, and not one person has gotten a single spark out of it yet. Not one single spark, and the people who tried included a couple high school football players. I did try sparking it with a striker from a different fire steel, and I was able to get a weak spark from it. Even with the good fire steel, I was not able to get a spark, though I'm sure if I practiced more, then I could probably figure it out. Either way, I didn't buy this knife for the fire steel or the gimmicky notch.

Which leaves EDC testing as the only other way to test this knife. I carried it for the most part in place of a pocket knife, which these days is normally a Spyderco or Victorinox. Carrying it every day also simulates a camp situation nicely. I've used my Fieldcraft for cheese and crackers, opening packages and even taking out a splinter.  The thicker blade on the Tops is much more utilitarian than say a Mora, but it's not as well suited for slicing tasks. You know the old saying: jack of all trades, master of none. So as a camp knife, this model sacrifices a little convenience for the ability to chop down enough trees to build your own house, and then build a fire pit, hunt some dinner, carve out your utensils and have a nice, quiet meal in the forest. Is it a fair trade-off? Time will tell. I've noticed that I don't mind carrying a heavier knife when I'm in the woods, so probably.

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: In Hand 1

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: In Hand 2


Conclusions


Even though there are a few things about this knife that really annoy me, proper respect must be given to anything built this well. This knife is a tank, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't end up being my go to camp knife. I doubt very much that I'll be using this knife to baton firewood, carve my own eating utensils or even chop down a tree. But it's nice knowing that my only limitations are internal, and not with my gear. I'll probably stick with a Mora or Hultafors for food prep, though.

As far as a survival knife goes, I do not think this is the best knife for a survival bag. First, it's on the heavy side, and in an emergency, my knife is only one small bit of my gear. Second, I wouldn't trust my life (or my warmth) to the fire starting mechanism which comes with this knife. The notch in the pommel is a good idea if it worked, but it doesn't. Also, the fire steel is just plain awful. For a survival bag, I would stick with a field-tested Mora like the one in my pack. My emergency bag also includes an extra fire steel and striker, along with about a half dozen other ways of starting a fire.

As far as a bushcraft knife, again I'm no expert, but it seems very competent if not a little over-engineered. If you are a master of bushcraft, then you are probably an expert in sharpening knives in the field. For this "scandi-vex" grind, you will need to be.

For whatever you use it for, it's clear that a lot of knowledge and expertise went into designing and building this knife, and I look forward to purchasing other Tops knives in the future. I've had my eye on a couple others like the Otter.

Gallery



Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: In Packaging

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife Unboxed

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Blade Length Measurement

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Blade Thickness Measurement
1/5 of an inch is the perfect blade thickness for this knife
Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Handle Thickness Measurement
Handle is 3/4 of an inch!

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Fire Steel Base Measurement
The base of the fire steel is one half inch
Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: Next To Ruler
The knife itself is an even 10 inches long

Tops Fieldcraft Fixed Blade Knife: On Scale
Pushing a full pound!






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