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September 14, 2010 Comments (0) Blades & Tools

Benchmade 171 Chopper Review

Chopper-003cEvery year, we have a chopping contest at our annual PWYP.  The last few years I’ve been unable to use my favorite chopper because our celebrity judge has placed an arbitrary limit on the length of the blade–just narrowly knocking out my old favorite tool.  Now, with the Benchmade 171 Chopper in hand, I’ve got a secret weapon to bring to bear for the next contest and they’re not going to be liking life none too much the next time around.



Chopper-004aI’ll admit right up front that I like big knives.  I don’t mean medium length knives like a KA-BAR (which I do love).  I’m talking about big knives that are in the 9-10 inch range and sport a beefy profile that will take a little abuse.  The main reason I enjoy these knives is the ability to chop stuff up while I’m in the woods.  Whether we’re talking about cutting down some small trees to improvise a shelter or batoning some wood for the fire, I think a large knife is a great tool to have on hand.  The biggest selling point for me as far as chopping goes is the long cutting edge.  I’m not the handiest in the world with a hatchet, and I’ve seen the results of a couple of accidents where a miss or foul with a hatchet  has caused injury.  For me, the longer edge of a big knife ensures less chance of a miss, not to mention the knife can be employed in a variety of other ways that a hatchet cannot.  Keep in mind that I’m talking about smaller chopping chores.  I won’t the dispute the advantage of an axe when it comes to the big stuff, but I’m typically not going to be cutting that kind of material and most decidedly won’t be carrying an axe on a day hike or regular backpacking trip.  That’s where knives like the Benchmade Chopper come into play.

Chopper-008aLet’s get the fact out of the way that the Chopper was primarily designed as a competition blade.  Benchmade is a sponsor of Bladesports and decided to come up with their own iteration in conjunction with custom knife maker Warren Osborne.  Now, Woods Monkey approaches gear from a different angle than ascertaining how it will do in competitive events.  We look at tools from the perspective of how they’ll perform in the outdoors during our backwoods actitivities.  What makes the Benchmade Chopper such a great competitive product also lends itself to being a great tool for those of us that like to play in the dirt a little bit.  One thing that’s differentiates the Chopper from most other large knives for the field is the steel used in its construction.  CPM-M4 is the choice for this hefty blade, and as you may know, CPM-M4 is extremely hard tool steel that’s designed to take extreme abuse.  That toughness is also one of the reasons you don’t find a lot of knives made from this alloy.  The main reason is that it’s difficult to manufacture and grind.  If you’ll listen to the interview we did with Les De Asis earlier in the year, you’ll hear him speak to some of the issues they had in making the Chopper a reality rather than just a fanciful idea.

Chopper-006aThe Chopper weighs in at 1.7 pounds and is nearly a 1/3 of an inch thick.  The exact measurement is .294 inches thick.  Even the beefiest of production knives usually stop around a 1/4 of an inch.  The extra thickness helps add even more strength to the design and the additional weight also helps with the momentum of the swing as you’re getting to the point  of impact.  There’s plenty of cutting edge to the Chopper which sports a 9 inch long blade, and it’s all topped off with a heat treat that results in a hardness of 60-62 on the Rockwell scale.  The blade itself is finished with a full flat grind that’s at a pretty steep angle as you can see in the picture further down in the article.  The steep angle helps keep more steel (more weight and strength) behind the edge for maximum effectiveness during your chopping routine or even your chopping contests.  The only thing the blade lacks is a more traditional point, but for a knife of this type, I’m not going to miss it.  I’ll always have at least 1-2 smaller blades with me for anything that requires a conventional tip.

I’ve used a lot of large knives in the past 15 years or so.  I’ve had everything from custom Busse knives to Cold Steel Khukri’s, and lots of other fine brands and models in between.  I will go on record here and now to say that the Benchmade Chopper is the best chopping knife I have ever used.  I usually stay away from superlatives when it comes to reviews and comparisons, but the Chopper really is that good.  Now, that’s not to say  that it’s a stellar tool for every job, but when it comes to just chopping tasks, it’s a real champion.

Chopper-002aPart of the reason I like the Chopper so much is the extremely comfortable handle.  It was pointed out to me that a lot of folks like to fashion their own custom grips for this knife, especially those folks that compete at these types of events.  I don’t know since I’ve never attended any of them.  But, I do know that the handle on the Chopper feels like it was made just for me.  There’s nothing really all that radical about it.  It’s a simple Santoprene grip with some nice countours to help fill the hand, but it just feels about perfect for me.  Maybe that was just a stroke of good luck, and maybe it won’t fit others as well, but I didn’t feel any fatigue in my hands like I have in the past with other knives.  Also, I didn’t feel any need to modify it in the least.  I’ve had other knives where I’ve added grip tape and done other things to help thicken and cushion the grip a little more for use out in the field.  I didn’t need to do that with the Chopper.  It was great right out of the box!

Chopper-007aAfter I got a few beauty shots out of the way, I headed back into the hills to find a few trees to fell and put the Chopper to the test.  I was really itching to see how big of a job the Chopper could handle, so I pretty much stayed away from saplings and the like.  I was looking for trees.  No, they weren’t giant redwoods, but they were certainly larger than anything I was ever likely to chop in a real life situation.  So, I figured if the Chopper could handle these tests now, everything I used it for later on would be a breeze.  I chose a smaller tree for the first test.  Right off the bat, I wanted to see how much damage I could do in just 15 seconds, so while using the One-Mississippi method, I counted off to 15 while doing some Van-Damme-age and stopped to assess the work.  As you can see in the picture, the Chopper takes a big bite when it sinks its teeth into the wood.  If it weren’t for my sloppy aim while trying to hurry the work, I’m sure I would have gotten a good bit deeper in that short of a period of time.

Chopper-010aChopper-009aOnce that was done, I went on to finish the job and it took about another 30 seconds  to get through the entire tree.  I was very impressed by how well the Chopper did at this point.  From there, I went to a larger tree and started over and timed myself once again.  This was a substantial piece of wood that I was chewing through and it was done in right around two minutes.  Now, I couldn’t keep that pace up all day, but it’s nice to have such an effective tool for those times when you’re in an emergency situation and might be pressed for time while making a shelter or completing other chores.  Because of its extra heft, I did feel it in my arms throughout the day a little more than some of the lighter models I’ve reviewed this year.  It’s a little more work to get that extra mass moving, but the results are well worth it in the end.  In the picture to the left, I tried to show how deeply the blade bites into the tree so you could see I wasn’t exaggerating about how well it performed.  All told, in just the first day I cut down about six of these trees with the Chopper and was ready for some more!

Chopper-013aChopper-012aAs I mentioned earlier, I also prefer to baton wood rather than use a hatchet to split it.  You might be making a fire or just trying to get a nice piece of wood to do some carving and batoning the wood is a great way to safely get that done.  Now, this is where the Chopper and I run into a little bit of resistance.  Batoning with the Chopper was honestly not the easiest test to perform.  Because of the thickness of the blade and the relatively steep angle of the grind batoning wasn’t as easy to do as with some other knives I’ve reviewed.  I found the thickness of the spine was keeping the edge from splitting down further into the wood.  So rather than cutting through the wood, it felt like I was forcing the Chopper more than anything by sheer force of will.  Don’t get me wrong.  You can certainly baton wood with the Chopper, but it takes a bit more work than some other models I’ve used, so don’t expect that hot knife through butter sensation.

Chopper-014aI will say that it’s not really a fault of the design since batoning probably wasn’t on the drawing board when the folks at Benchmade were designing the Chopper.  It was specifically designed to be a competitive tool in chopping contests.  I’m the one taking it outside of its intended use parameters, but this is the kind of stuff I’m going to be doing with a knife of this sort out in the field.  Put another way, if you decreased the thickness, lightened the knife, and had a more shallow grind, the Chopper would not be anywhere near as good as it is right now at its primary purpose.  That’s not really a design issue, that’s just the way of life.  There are always going to be compromises involved when you try to apply a tool to a variety of tasks.  And, it’s kind of like what my grandpa said about me when I was younger.  He said I was a jack of all trades and master of none.  And, since there was one purpose for which this knife designed, I can understand why it wasn’t a “master” of batoning wood.  Even so, given its strength and phenomenal chopping ability, I’m willing to take the trade-off and do a little extra work while splitting some firewood for kindling.

Chopper-001aBecause of the competitive nature for which the Chopper was designed, there was another slight issue that arose and that has to do with the sheath.  The sheath is a modern design and is fashioned out of Kydex.  The fit was good and everything about its finish was clean and professional.  The only niggle for me was there wasn’t any way to wear it!  Because the Chopper was designed a competitive blade, it was felt that it would be carried around to the events, but not worn.  The are no loops or slots to allow you to wear the Chopper sheath on a belt.  It was basically made to act more as a protective device rather than a transportive one.  Along one side there are some rivet holes where you could possibly fashion and attach some sort of sling if you like, but I know very few folks that carry a blade that way.

I took a large Tek-Lok off one of my own Kydex sheaths that I have for another knife, and it works with the rivet holes on this particular sheath as far as spacing is concerned.  However, it might be better to use screws with slightly larger heads than the ones that come with this particular Tek-Lok to accommodate the slightly wider rivet holes on the Chopper Sheath.  While the Tek-Lok isn’t my absolute favorite way to carry a sheath, throwing one in with the Chopper would at least allow the user to fashion either a vertical or horizontal carry method for the Chopper sheath.  Certainly the end user could have their own custom sheath made, but for a knife that’s as nice as the Chopper, it would behoove Benchmade to offer some way from the factory for the customer to take the knife right out of the box, strap it on and head for the hills.  Waiting around for a custom solution can be a timely and frustrating experience.  Most of us that acquire new toys want to use them immediately, and though the Chopper is viewed as a competitive tool by its designers, there should be some recognition that it can be used in other venues as well.  And, that’s not a knock.  It’s a good thing that a tool like this can be used by more than one audience, but different audiences have different needs.

Chopper-005aAll in all, I’ve got to say that I really, really enjoyed using the Chopper during the past couple of weeks.  It’s a very robust tool that’s built hell for stout and I can’t imagine any time that I wouldn’t have absolute confidence using it under the most extreme conditions.  Some of my fondness for it certainly comes from its large knife form factor that appeals to me right out of the gate.  But, when you consider the steel that’s used, the extra thickness and weight to add strength and assist with your cuts, you know you’ve got a real beast of a blade at your side.  To give some scale to my observations of its performance chopping and batoning through wood, I’ll give a numeric reference to help put you in my frame of mind.

As I mentioned, this is the best chopping knife I have used over the years, and by knife, I’m talking about anything with a blade 12 inches long or less.  This comment is made with heavy and hard wood in mind, not necessily lighter vegetation such as vines, saplings, and the like.  Those can easily be dealt with by using thinner designs such as machetes.  If the Chopper’s performance is a 10 at chopping chores, I’d have to give it a 6.5 to 7 for its performance at batoning wood.  It’s certainly doable, but not without some  effort.  But, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a not a deal breaker for me when I consider the excellent build quality, the great ergonomics of the handle, and the all around value of this tool.  So, with all of that in mind, the only thing I would change about the whole system is simply devise some method for the sheath to be strapped on to a belt or pack right out of the box.

Chopper-015aEver since I first saw the Chopper in January at the SHOT show, I’ve been awaiting its arrival.  The premium blade steel and its excellent design called to me the first time I laid eyes on it, and when it finally arrived, it did not disappoint.  It actually performed better than I had envisioned–and I had very high hopes.  With a knife of this quality, expect to pay a little more for the quality and performance.  MSRP is $350, but you can find them online for between $275.00 and $300.00.  I’ve certainly paid more for big knives, but have not had one that outperformed the Chopper.  If you like using large knives in the field for the same kinds of things that I do, I would strongly encourage you to give the Benchmade Chopper a very hard look.  I don’t think you’ll be looking very much longer once you do.

Visit: www.benchmade.com

 

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