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January 17, 2011 Comments (0) Blades & Tools, Camping & Outdoors, Gear & Equipment, Reviews

TOPS Idaho Hunter Review

Lately, we’ve seen knives from all sorts of manufactures touted as tough, robust, and durable.  Now it’s time we actually get our hands on one.  The Idaho Hunter is a new offering from TOPS Knives.  This is one tank of a blade.  Not for the faint of heart, the Idaho Hunter will get you there and back.  Woods Monkey takes a look, and pushes it to the edge.

TOPS has built the Idaho Hunter to be the perfect companion for the woodsman.  The knife is built from the ground up with the intent that it will be used in a variety of ways.  The handle is narrow in diameter, but well designed, shaped perfectly for multiple grips.  The blade is a wide drop point with a choil directly under the edge that permits choking up on the blade.  Marry these design features to an ingenious sheath and the Idaho Hunter is a real winner. 

Let’s get the numbers out of the way.  The Idaho Hunter is a flat ground fixed blade, with a blade length of 4 ¾ inches.  The overall length comes in at 10 inches, with an 8.6oz weight.  TOPS uses 1095 carbon steel on this knife, my personal favorite steel.  While some folks have to have the latest and greatest ‘super steel’, the standard 1095 keeps getting work done in every way imaginable.  The blade is a full tang design, protruding slightly from the pommel with a lanyard hole that can double as a striking end if something ‘needs whacking.’  Matched up to the tang are full length Micarta scales, nicely set off by white liners.  The scales are held to the knife by 3 substantial screws, which have been placed so that the shape of the handle follows the screw location perfectly.  The top of the scales, closest to the blade, have been coated to further ensure that water, blood, and oils will not permeate the scales. To round off the package, the scales have been shaped to fit the user’s hand, preventing any uncomfortable spots for forming during prolonged use.

One aspect of the Idaho Hunter that is really icing on the cake is the sheath.  I have often said that a knife is only as good as its sheath. After all, that’s what keeps the knife safely where you put it.  TOPS has wrapped the Idaho Hunter in a form fitted Kydex sheath, molded for a firm friction fit to keep the knife secure.  Without any retention straps or loops, I was concerned that the Idaho Hunter would come loose from the sheath.  The first thing I did to test this was to turn the knife upside down, hold it by the sheath, and try to jerk the knife free.  Without slinging the knife wildly like I was throwing a baseball, I wasn’t able to jar it loose.  This sheath is secure, and safe.  To hold everything to the belt TOPS has put an innovative spring clip on the sheath that is adjustable for cant. 

I received the Idaho Hunter just as I was heading out of town for a 50 hour Sniper training course.  I intended to use the Idaho Hunter for everything possible, and that’s just what I did.  While getting gear and equipment ready for training I clipped the Idaho Hunter to the compression strap of my Diamondback Tactical pack, putting it within easy reach.  The clip on attachment was impressive from the get-go.  But being able to attach and remove the knife without having to thread it through a strap or belt is a major plus.  Wearing my pack, loaded down with nearly 30 pound of gear, I was able to reach back and draw the knife quickly and easily with one hand.  Sheathing the knife was just as easy.  Without having to worry about snapping a retention strap I was able to return the knife to its sheath, and upon hearing and feeling it ‘click’ home, I knew it was secured.  With a week spent on the outside of my pack the Kydex was easy to clean.  To get the dust and grime out of it I simply ran it under the faucet, dried it with a paper towel, and called it good.  No fuss, no taking anything apart. Pure simplicity. 

One of the first major tests for the knife was during construction of a ‘hide’ that we were shooting from.  To construct my hide I used the Idaho Hunter to chop and cut limbs and branches from Juniper and Mesquite that would be used for camouflage.  This is exactly the type of use that a skillful hunter might press his knife into while building a ground blind, or hiding the outline of his tree stand.  After trimming and shaping the ends of limbs and brush, I had a hiding spot that you would nearly have to step on to find, and the Idaho Hunter did all the work.  It should be noted here that when I received the Idaho Hunter I did exactly nothing to the factory edge.  Straight out of the box the knife would shave hair.  When I got done with using the knife for the first couple of hours I checked the edge and found it to still be extremely sharp.  Even though 1095 steel has been around for so long, TOPS has perfected the heat treat so that it holds its own with virtually anything that’s out on the market today.

Over the course of the week long training exercise the Idaho Hunter was put through some harsh uses.  One particular event had me cutting shooting ports through sheetrock walls.  The Idaho Hunter handled the task easily without any fear that my hand would slip forward onto the blade.  Another test was much simpler, making lunch.  The Idaho Hunter cut up everything from food packages to fruit without an issue.  Going through a half dozen oranges may not seem like a major test, but for any knife in typical carbon steel that is a real pressure cooker.  Many carbon steel knives, even some stainless steel knives, will turn ten shades of gray when citrus acid is even mentioned.  The TOPS however, is coated in a non-reflective powder coat to protect the steel from corrosion.  After a week of continuous use the only discoloration I was able to observe was on the edge itself.  During resharpening, which was rare, this was virtually eliminated.  I have no reservations about using the Idaho Hunter around a corrosive environment. With simple maintenance, such as a quick wipe down, the Idaho Hunter will stay looking showroom new for a very long time.

Back home I was able to test the Idaho Hunter in more typical uses that Woods Monkey readers will appreciate.  I stropped the edge back to shaving sharp with my charged leather strop, and headed to the shop for testing.  Cutting shavings off Lodgepole Pine logs gave me that familiar feeling of sharp 1095 steel ‘bite’.  I was able to quickly throw 6” slivers of wood with minimal effort.  In less than fifteen minutes I had a pile of shaving that would be ample enough to build a fire quickly.  Batoning the Idaho Hunter through the Lodgepole logs reminded me why I like full tang, flat ground knives.  It took virtually no time to reduce five 5 to 7 inch diameter logs to splits and bits.  I found no damage to the knife anywhere, save a few rub marks on the powdercoat.  I recently had a fancy brand name “survival knife” fail this task.  While I don’t consider this abuse, I do believe it is a tough but necessary test.  The Idaho Hunter never missed a beat. 

The only place where the Idaho Hunter didn’t do as well as I was hoping was on my firesteel.  Like most folks, I typically use the spine of my knife to strike sparks from my firesteel rod and get my fire going.  The powdercoat on the blade prevented the spine of the knife from striking a spark at all.  This is a normal byproduct of a powdercoated blade.  However, the edge was easily used to scrape a spark.  I don’t have any problem with using the bottom of my edge to spark a firesteel, but if you do, you can put a flat spot on the spine with a touch on a grinder or belt sander.  But be careful, don’t overdo it and risk any problems with the heat treat. Otherwise, don’t let it bother you and just use the bottom of the edge.

As an addendum, and the reason this review took a little longer than usual was because I was hunting!  Yes, this is a hunting knife, and I am a hunter, so when the opportunity presented itself to use it on game I jump on it.  Right after the New Year I had the good fortune to take my first elk up here in the Colorado Rockies.  She was taken at over 9,000 feet in elevation, at a temperature of 13 degrees.  When I finally got across the valley to where she fell, the TOPS Idaho Hunter went to work.  Measured appropriately and checked against the charts, her live weight was between 500 to 525 lbs.  She’s a big girl and I was very fortunate. 

If you have ever had the task of processing an elk, you know that it’s one of the toughest tasks that a hunter can face.  Couple that together with cold temps, and having to operate in snowshoes because the snow is over 3 feet deep, and it gets even tougher.  The Idaho Hunter did well over half the work of separating the hide from meat.  And since we were over 400 vertical feet from the nearest road, the elk had to be quartered and packed out.  Separating joints, hitting bone frequently, dinging ribs under the back straps, cutting tendons, and yes, taking out the ivory teeth, the Idaho Hunter took quite the beating.  Once all was done, I simply resheathed the knife and dropped it in my pack. 

It wasn’t touched until the next day, when I had recovered from packing the elk off the mountain.  Checking the Idaho Hunter’s status produced an immediate ‘yuck’.  There was dried blood, hair, and all other sorts of nastiness all over the knife, and in the sheath.  The Idaho Hunter, along with a couple other knives used by my hunting partner, went straight into a hot soapy water bath in my kitchen sink.  A good scrubbing in soapy water followed by towel drying got the knife back to nearly new.  The Micarta scales are clean, but an every-so-slight shade darker. The blade is in excellent shape, with only a few scratches from striking bones and prying joints apart.  The edge suffered, but was in good condition.  Still plenty sharp enough to build a fire, but it did have a few rolls and dings.  I touched up the edge on a ceramic rod, followed that with a charged leather strop, and the edge was back to shaving sharp in about 15 minutes.  Very impressive, considering what it went through.  As a side note, if anyone ever tells you they cleaned an elk and still shaved with their knife, don’t believe them.  And if anyone else calls you and asks for help packing an elk off a mountain in the middle of the Rockies, start coughing and play sick.  Especially if it’s me calling. 

Overall I am very impressed with the Idaho Hunter.  TOPS uses some of the best materials on the market to build a knife that will do nearly anything you ask of it.  The versatile shape and the great design of the blade will do everything from cut up your dinner to camouflage your hunting stand to process your game.  The Kydex sheath and durable powdercoating keeps you from worrying about the elements while out and about.  The MSRP on the Idaho Hunter comes in at $150.  Even though the knife is fairly new to market, some searching around the internet came up with a retail price $10-$20 below that.  If you’re looking for a serious knife that will hold up and do nearly anything you ask, check into the Idaho Hunter.  You won’t be disappointed. 

www.topsknives.com

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