BACKCOUNTRY CONFIDENCE WITH THE TOPS HIGH IMPACT AXE AND BRUSH WOLF KNIFE
Having the right tools of good quality can give you that extra measure of confidence you need to meet the challenges of self-reliance when living in remote locations.
I’ve often turned to TOPS Knives for blades large and small whenever I’ve ventured far from pavement. Recently, I had a chance to work with two of the company’s newer products—the TOPS High Impact Axe and the Brush Wolf fixed-blade knife. With these two on board, together with a folding saw and perhaps a smaller blade for finer, detailed work, I figure I’m pretty well equipped to handle anything I face along the trail or when establishing a camp.
There are certain things you can anticipate when you’re making camp. There are the chores involved with food prep, naturally, unless you’re going strictly with freeze-dried meals in bags. So, you might be opening packages, slicing veggies, and cutting meat. You might carve some wood shavings for tinder, and it’s nice to rig something so you can hang a cook pot over a fire too.
You might need to sharpen some wooden pegs and cut some paracord to stake down a tarp. Even when I bring a tent, I like to have something overhead in the area that’s going to serve as my camp kitchen because my mere presence seems to attract rain or snow.
Those things are pretty conventional knife duties. But you have to have the tools handy for the unexpected as well. Maybe you need to cut and trim a replacement tent pole when the original is shattered or bent like a pretzel.
Maybe you have to cut and remove downed branches from last night’s storm or clear a path to get your vehicle around the huge tree that blew down across the only road out. And maybe you have to cut some branches for traction when you’re stuck in the mud or snow on that same road.
Between the TOPS High Impact and Brush Wolf, I know I have the tools I need, not only for the common, everyday backwoods tasks, but to handle any unforeseen difficulties that might arise. When used as sharp-edged problem solvers, they can keep your adventure from being ruined and help to ensure your safety, too.
HIGH IMPACT, HIGH PRAISE
As with most grumpy old guys, I have some hard-headed opinions solidified through time and experience that would be difficult to budge. One strong bias I have is against the puny pack axes with narrow, lightweight heads and abbreviated handles that offer very little in the way of leverage or chopping power. They’re convenient to carry, yes. But in my estimation, they offer little advantage, if any, compared to the knife I’m going to be carrying anyway.
An efficient chopper is a safer chopper and one that will require fewer swings and less energy expended. Enter the TOPS High Impact. You can call it a heavy-duty hatchet or a mid-sized axe. I won’t dwell on the semantics.
Either way, it’s a brute of a tool. It’s made from one continuous piece of 1075 high carbon steel 3/8-inch thick, so you won’t worry about separating the head from the handle. It measures 20 inches long and is perhaps the longest full-tang model on the market. The metal has a black traction coating to protect it, but you will still want to wipe it down with an oily cloth after using it.
The head features a generous cutting edge that’s 5.75 inches. It’s curved toward the bottom, forming a nice “beard” that allows you to get over the top of the blade by choking up on the handle when slicing. The handle isn’t straight but has some sexy curves to it. I tip my hat to TOPS President Leo Espinoza, who had a hand in the design.
The angles in the handle are the right size and placement to maximize the efficiency of the chopping stroke, whether you’re using the High Impact one-handed or with both mitts clasped around it.
Wherever you place your hands, up or down along the handle for the types of cuts you’re making, it just feels right. There are tan canvas Micarta handle scales over the steel. They’re textured, but not so much as to generate hot spots or blisters on this writer’s tender palms.
I can see some of you raising your hands to voice some concerns. Yes, the High Impact weighs a hefty 58.8 ounces, 61.6 if you count the included leather sheath. So, you’re right, it is rather heavy. I probably wouldn’t bring it on a backpacking trip where I was getting up each morning and hiking 10 to 15 miles to another destination.
But if I was going to establish a base camp to be used for several days where I needed a steady supply of firewood for cooking and staying warm—a fall hunting camp, for instance—then, yes, I would strap the High Impact to the outside of my pack. It’s the perfect length for that. And I could use it for light trail clearing, where that was allowed, and for improvising some of the comforts of home with some campcraft projects.
“Cutting poles for a shelter or to fashion a travois would be easy work for the High Impact.”
The High Impact does a good job at splitting mid-sized chunks of wood for the fire. If I was going to pile up a winter’s worth of firewood, I’d choose a splitting maul. But when you’re packing in your gear to set up a camp, you have to choose your tools wisely. The High Impact offers a good balance of size and performance.
When I was setting up to shoot the photos for this article, I tried to sink the axe into a small chunk of firewood and then hold it there for the photo. But my first two attempts failed because each time I split the wood completely in two.
If you have a small wood-burning stove in an outfitter’s wall tent, the High Impact can do a good job in keeping you in right-sized logs for that stove. Cutting poles for a shelter or to fashion a travois would be easy work for the High Impact.
TOPS High Impact
Overall Length: 20.0 inches|
Blade Length: 5.75 inches
Cutting Edge: 5.75 inches
Thickness of blade: 0.38 inch
Blade Steel: 1075 RC 56-58
Blade Finish: Black traction coating
Handle Material: Tan canvas Micarta
Knife Weight: 58.8 ounces
Weight w/ Sheath: 61.6 ounces
Sheath: Brown leather
Designer: Leo Espinoza
The TOPS Brush Wolf is a modern blade made of modern materials that has an old school mountain man look to it. That’s no surprise as the design draws heavily from the Nessmuk, a style of bushcraft knife favored by George Washington Sears, the famed outdoorsman who wrote for Forest and Stream magazine in the late 1800s, using Nessmuk as his pen name.
“…I’m likely to grab the Brush Wolf whenever I want a good-sized fixed blade that can handle any backcountry job.”
Brothers Aaron and Nate Morgan of Houghton Era Outdoors designed this knife, which features a blade with lots of belly and a tip that drops sharply from the spine to meet the upturned edge. This isn’t a brush-cutting blade by design. The name Brush Wolf comes from a term used to describe the coyote. If you think of the coyote as a resourceful, far-ranging critter, then you’ll find this knife aptly named. It is a quick-handling knife with lots of capability that’s as right at home in wild places as it is in the suburban brush.
The TOPS Brush Wolf is versatile enough to be a one-knife option. I prefer to use such a knife as Nessmuk himself did, by pairing it with an axe and a smaller knife.
The Brush Wolf also makes use of 1095 high carbon steel that’s a solid 0.19 inch thick at the spine. This full-tang fixed blade is 12.13 inches overall and has a gray acid rain finish. The cutting edge is 6.25 inches with a high sabre grind, and it comes out of the box sharp and ready to work.
There’s some jimping on the spine where you might place your thumb, and there’s a short section of bare steel ahead of that with distinct squared edges intended for scraping tinder or a ferro rod.
In the middle of the spine is a section of saw teeth. These saw teeth won’t convince you to leave your folding saw home, but it could be used very well to make straight cuts for trap triggers or for camp projects that might require stop cuts or dovetail notches. By using these saw teeth for such things, you wouldn’t need to stop to change tools.
I especially like the handle of the Brush Wolf. Each of the green Micarta handle scales features a bow drill divot to be used as a component in a friction fire-starting setup. But the length of the handle—5 ½ inches—is perhaps the best part. It allows for many gripping options: toward the rear for chopping leverage, midway for general cutting, and into the forward finger groove for precision cuts. There’s an ample lanyard hole, and the tang extends beyond the Micarta panels so you can do some light pounding with the butt end.
The leather sheath holds the Brush Wolf deep inside it. No securing straps are needed. The sheath attaches to the belt with a loop on a dangler, so you can move the rig out of the way when seated in your vehicle.
A length of paracord is threaded through two holes at the bottom of the sheath should you want to use it as a tie-down to keep the knife from swinging as you move. That paracord could be used as a lanyard if you’re traveling over water.
TOPS Brush Wolf
Overall Length: 12.13 inches
Blade Length: 6.5 inches
Cutting Edge: 6.25 inches
Blade Thickness: 0.19 inch
Steel (Blade): 1095 RC 56-58
Blade Finish: Acid Rain
Handle Material: Green canvas Micarta
Knife Weight: 11.7 ounces
Weight w/ Sheath: 17.7 ounces
Sheath: Brown leather
Designer: Nate and Aaron Morgan
HIRING THEM BOTH
There are some blades that I set aside after testing them for a review. That’s not going to happen with these two. They will be with me every fall when I establish my deer camp. And I’m likely to grab the Brush Wolf whenever I want a good-sized fixed blade that can handle any backcountry job. I’m likely to choose the High Impact over my lighter weight hatchets when there’s real work to be done beyond just trimming a branch or two. These TOPS tools are built for heavy-duty use and they’re among the best I own for their designed missions.
TOPS LIONESS A GREAT ADDITION TO THESE TWO
As much as I like the High Impact and Brush Wolf, there are many instances when I want a smaller, handier blade. Lately I’ve been carrying the TOPS Lioness Rockies Edition. This fixed blade has a trailing-point blade with 3.5-inch cutting edge. It makes a great companion blade to the larger tools.
The Rockies Edition has a stonewashed gray blade and brown Micarta scales. It comes with a Kydex belt sheath, but most times I just tuck the knife with sheath in a front pants pocket.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2021 print issue of Knives Illustrated.