This seems to be the year of the chopper, or at least big knives. We’ve done earlier articles this year on some big knives we’ve had a chance to play with, and now we’ve got another one! At the SHOT Show this past January, we came across a couple of new knives from KA-BAR that we thought looked interesting for outdoors work, and today we’re going to talk a bit about the Johnson Adventure Potbelly.
So, what was it that intrigued me about the Potbelly when I saw it at the show? I can’t really say. I like knives that are unique, and I enjoy using larger blades. I’ve got a couple of Khukris of my own, so perhaps it was some of that styling that appealed to me. Either way, we got a Potbelly for review from KA-BAR. We should probably start out by giving a nod to Steve Johnson (of Johnson Adventure Blades), the designer of the Potbelly. Steve is a custom maker and worked with KA-BAR to make a production version of the knife he uses most when he’s out in the woods. There are a few differences from the original custom design that you’ll find in the KA-BAR version. The original was .1875 in thick and had a convex grind to the S7 steel blade. The production version is .25 inch thick with a hollow grind. KA-BAR’s website says that it’s a flat grind, but it is not. It’s a hollow grind.
At first, I was curious about the difference in the grinds, but it hit me that doing a convex grind is more costly and would increase the overall price of the knife. I’m not sure about why they decided to go with .25 inch thick (1095 Cro-Van) steel, but it seems to me the thicker 1095 would add some strength to the blade in comparison to the S7 version, and it was possibly to add more heft to the Potbelly for chopping chores. Other than that, the production version stays pretty true to the original when it comes to form and function. The blade is 7 3/8 inches long with an overall length of the knife running 12 5/8 inches. One thing Steve and KA-BAR will point you to is the Adventure Grip texturing they incoporate into the handle, and we’ll touch on that a bit later.
When you pick up the Potbelly, there’s no denying that it’s a hefty blade, though not overly large or long. In some ways it seems to be a product of contradictions in that you don’t typically find a large knife designed for chopping and heavy work with a hollow ground blade. But, the Potbelly is a fairly substantial knife and won’t be confused with any resident Moras you have on hand. Steve Johnson said that he designed the knife to perform a variety of tasks so if it was the only one you have at hand, you won’t be left short. As typically found with KA-BAR’s products, the lines were extremely clean and the fit and finish was much better than what you would expect for the price range. Overall, I was favorably impressed with the package when I took it out of the box and played around with it the first few minutes. But, the proof is always going to be in its performance, so I had to spend a bit of time with it outdoors to get a real feel for its potential.
The first thing I had to do was get the Potbelly dressed up for the woods. The Potbelly comes with a cordura sheath with a plastic liner. Overall, it’s a pretty nice design, especially when you consider the selling price of the Potbelly. It has two standard loops (for different heights) to wear the sheath on a belt and it also comes with webbing on the back that’s MOLLE compatible so you can strap it to a pack or other such gear. One of the nicest features of the sheath is the fairly large pocket on the front where you can stash some survival gear, or maybe some sharpening tools. The pocket is closed by cinching it tight with the cord and cordlock. I’ve had a few sheaths in the past years that had similar pockets, but this is by far the largest pocket I’ve enountered on a sheath of this type. While I usually carry a survival kit with me out in the woods, it never hurts to carry a few extra items for redundancy in case you get separated from your kit or pack. So, I inserted a few items I thought might get the most use. I stashed a Fenix L1T LED Light, A Swiss Army Fire Steel, some Tinder-Quik tabs, an aluminum match container (redundancy), a TOPS Knives survival whistle (works very well), some paracord, and a Corona sharpening tool for use as a striker. While that’s nota lot of items, several are fairly bulky and there was still room left over to tuck away a few more things.
Now that the Potbelly and I were both properly outfitted, it was time to take a trip into the woods. We’ve got a good amount of land where I live which is a good thing. That lets me take a nice long hike away from the house where I can do some work. I do so much chopping around here, if I was close to the house, it would look like a war zone. As I typically do with these kinds of knives, I immediately looked for a tree I can chop. I don’t go crazy with size, but I make sure to find one of a sufficient diameter to get a good idea of the knive’s capabilities. If one were to try and build a shelter and needed to harvest some building material, they’re typically going to use saplings that are thinner than, say, the one in the picture. I figure if the knife can handle something like this, then the smaller stuff will be a breeze. It took just under two minutes to chop through the tree in the picture. Now, this tree was one that I had used a couple of months ago to review another knife, and it has since lost a bit of it’s moisture and was harder to chop this time around. But, the Potbelly didn’t have an issue chewing through it in fine fashion.
There’s a nice forward weight to the blade due to its Khukri style design. This helps deliver a little more umph to the impact point. I first started off holding the Potbelly in the natural position, and while it did all right that way, it wasn’t setting any records. Again, like other knives of this sort, backing up on the handle a bit gives it a bit more snap and momentum during the chop. I get a little wary of using this style of chopping technique since it’s easier for you to lose control of the knife. This can definitely set the stage for a serious injury if you aren’t watching what you’re doing. A lanyard is definitely recommended so you won’t let loose of the knife. But, the Potbelly showed off its chops (pardon the pun) for this kind of work, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it did since it’s not a particularly large knife. I tried this exercise a couple of more times to familiarize myself with the Potbelly, and it performed similarly each time.
Next up on the list was to try the Potbelly out at splitting some woods. Yes, we’re talking about batoning again. Just like the first test, I didn’t make it easy for the Potbelly. I got a good log to use for the test, and it had a very good sized knot near the bottom. So, that should tell you that I wasn’t just doing a little gentle tapping during this test. I pounded on the forward part of the spine to get it through that knot at the end. Even so, the Potbelly sailed through this test with flying colors. In fact, this was probably where the Potbelly shined the most. Though I questioned the use of a Hollow grind for a chopper, there’s no doubt that the grind let the Potbelly slip through the wood with relative ease–of course until I got to the knot. That wasn’t the knife’s fault, and some would consider that type of activity abuse of a knife. But, you have to try out your gear to the extremes sometimes so you feel comfortable in understanding its strengths and weaknesses. However, there were no weaknesses to be found during this exercise and I was starting to get a warm fuzzy feeling all over, so I split a couple of more logs until I had a decent pile put together.
Once I’d split the wood into some manageable pieces, I then chopped through the pieces by positioning the edge on the wood and then batoning the Potbelly again. The main reason I did this test is that sometimes when you’re making something, you want a clean, squared cut at the end. I’m not very good with my aim while I’m chopping sometimes, so I usually end up with a pieces that’s a bit ragged at the end. This method lets me get that cleaner finish without too much work. At this point in the day, the Potbelly had taken quite a pounding from me. Between the batoning for splitting the wood and chopping it, I went through 3 batons. But, the Potbelly just lay there staring back at me as if daring me to do some more. I was pretty well satisfied with how it had performed, so I figured I would give it a break and try something that required a little more finesse.
First, I tried to make a bit of a feather stick to get some tinder together for making a fire. Even though the Potbelly had been used quite a bit that day, it still held a good edge and had no problem in giving me some good slivers to work with. Now, doing this little test was a tad bit more challenging than the other tests. Because the Potbelly is a little larger than most bushcraft knives, you’re not going to have the same fine degree of control. Also, it requires a bit more work to do this type of work, again because of the knife’s size. Think about a lever or a see-saw we used to play on when we were kids. The longer the board is on your side, the easier it is to move stuff on the short end. Hence, the short end is going to require more work to achieve the same work. I found this principle at work during this exercise. Because I had a hold of the short end of the lever (the handle), I felt more resistance pushing back against my wrist (the fulcrum) than I enounter when working with my bushcraft type knives. I don’t really consider this a shortcoming of the knife because the knife is a bit of a compromise in some way. You can’t be all things to all people, and the same is true with knives. Every design is going to have compromises, so you can’t expect 100% performance in all areas. The most important thing is can you do the work that’s required with the tool at hand? The answer for this part of the review is yes, without question.
While I was out, I thought I would find a nice piece of wood to take back to the house with me to whittle and carve on with a couple of other blades I’m currently reviewing, so I used the Potbelly to rustle something up that would work. On the trail back home, I found a nice piece that I chopped down with the Potbelly, and I decided to go ahead and clean off the bark before I started back. I zipped through this little task in no time at all with the Potbelly. The edge was still sharp enough to easily slip off the bark and clean up the wood underneath. By this time, I was feeling good about the versatility of the Potbelly and I hadn’t even tried it at cleaning game or anything because it’s the wrong time of year. But, Steve Johnson indicated that he’s cleaned several deer and a couple of wild pics with his production Potbelly, and after gauging its performance outside, I have little doubt that it would do the job quite nicely. While I might have been dubious about the hollow grind for a chopper, there’s no doubt that hollow ground knives are extremely popular for dressing out game.
At this point, I suppose I should mention the little bonus that comes along with the Potbelly. KA-BAR includes the Piggyback model knife that has its own home in the Potbelly’s sheath behind the front pocket. The Piggyback is a great little extra and is ideal for smaller tasks that require a bit of precision like cutting packages, paracord, or maybe cutting material to do a bit of repair work. It would also make an ideal knife for cleaning smaller game or working in those tricky areas when you’re trying to do a bit of caping. The Piggyback is made of a high carbon stainless steel so maintaining the edge should be no problem. I’ll be honest and say that you’re not going to be doing any heavy work with the Piggyback. The handle is small and very thin with abrupt edges. If you were going to try and do any carving work or the like, I’d suggest wrapping the handle a bit with paracord to give it more bulk so it would be easier to grip firmly. I didn’t do any kind of extensive testing with the Piggyback since it’s potential is limited to just a few tasks, but it’s sharp and it’s handy. You don’t even notice it in the sheath until you need it!
So, was there anything I didn’t like about how the Potbelly handled or performed? The answer to that question will be a bit muddled. The Potbelly comes with a texture on the handle that has been dubbed “Adventuregrip”. For this type of handle (Zytel), I can see where the texturing can help in situations where the handle gets wet. That can be when you’re dressing game, working in inclement weather, or several other situations. But, the rub for me (quite literally) came when I was doing the chopping tests. With my hand backed up on the handle and doing more of the snap chop, the grip was pivoting quite a bit and the texturing was digging into the skin quite aggressively. Inside of 20 minutes, I had the beginings of what became a good blister. I know. Some folks would say I need to do a bit more hard work and get rid of the delicate hands. Indeed, when I tried out the Potbelly again a few more times a couple of weeks later, I didn’t notice it like the first time. But, just a few outings with a new knife is hardly enough exposure to make a definitive answer on something like this. I suppose that only time will tell how well I like the Adventuregrip, but I can always sand it down a bit if it continues to be an issue. However, I do feel comfortable saying that Micarta scales would be a much better choice for both grip retention and in making the knife feel a bit more upscale. Even if the texturing works out down the road, the Zytel scales still leave a bit to be desired as far as looks and styling are concerned.
Aside from that little quibble, I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the Potbelly. Again, the Potbelly was designed as a one-knife-does-it-all kind of tool, so you can’t really expect it to perform as well as some designs for every single test. The consideration you should make is to ask how well are the features balanced to achieve that intent? In that context, I’d have to say KA-BAR has a winner. You’ve got a great recurve design that puts the weight forward for chopping. That same recurve design provides a lot of belly, and when coupled with the hollow-ground edge, you’ve got a great tool for cleaning game. Even with its heft, the Potbelly still has a compact enough form factor to be utilized as a regular cutting tool and is in no way unwieldy or awkward to use. And, the addition of the clip-point style tip to the blade helps make this a great tool for piercing and for defensive work if needed.
The frosting on the cake is that you can pick up the Potbelly for around $70 (street price) and that’s actually a pretty good deal for the package. When you consider that you get the Potbelly, the Piggyback, and the great sheath with KA-BAR’s clean lines and stellar finish, and with a lifetime warranty, you’ve got to admit that’s a pretty strong deal. Yes, you could add an extra feature here or there, or maybe throw in some higher end materials, but each addition is going to make the price creep skyward. When it’s all said and done, the Potbelly is a great value for what you get. And, what you get is a great trail/camp knife that will do just about whatever you need on your next backwoods adventure! If you’re looking for a knife that can do it all, you might want to check out the KA-BAR Potbelly and see if it meets your needs.