There has long been debate as to what the perfect knife is for a wilderness knife or as a survival knife. There are far too many opinions and experts out there for us to hash out each one. My assertion is that it’s whatever knife you have with you and that works for you. Period. Full end stop. Yes, the first part is a bit glib–"whatever knife you have with you." I’ve seen it time and again in discussions, and it comes off as that smart-aleck answer that doesn’t really give you an answer. So, the weight of my opinion is going to lean more toward what works for you as an individual.
You’re the only one that can make that choice. But, it’s easier to make that choice when you have more information. That’s what we’re here to provide today with a couple of new offerings from TOPS Knives that have a military name, but have a couple of design touches that allow them to be adapted to back woods use quite easily. It’s their new Mil-SPIE series–the Mil-SPIE 3 and Mil-SPIE 5.
The first thing we will do is get the name out of the way. From TOPS’ website, it states that the name for these models comes from the government acronym developed by the D.O.D. and stands for Military-Special Projects Invididual Equipment. As most people know, the military sends out a requisition for a particular product and generally tries standardize the use of that same piece of equipment across all branches. It’s typically more economic, more efficient, and helps with limiting different training modules and lessens the need for diverse support personnel and equipment. However, there are just some things that particular groups use that no other group in the military/government have a need for, so those items are requisitioned on a group level according to need. The Mil-SPIE line from TOPS Knives is representative of that mode of thinking. This particular line was developed to fill a specific niche. They wanted to design a knife that had a narrow profile for carry, yet was robust enough for tough field use. And, I think they found the right balance between the two.
The Mil-SPIE 5 is 10 3/8 inches long with a 5" blade. It is .25 inches thick and fabricated from 1095 steel. 1095 has long proven to be a great steel for use in the field. It is strong, can stand up to abuse, and its edge is easily maintained because of its high carbon content. The Mil-SPIE 3 (with 3 inch blade and overall length of 8 inches) is actually made of 3/16ths inch 154CM steel (one of my favorites) and this model has the additional plus of being treated by Paul Bos. Anyone familiar with knife manufacturing knows that name and that Paul is a master of the heat-treating process. Where it really gets interesting is that both models are offered in a few different handle configurations. If you’re looking for a typical handle design, you can get black micarta slabs with either yellow, black, or red accents. Or, you can opt for a skeletonized version which has no handle slabs. The skeletonized version is available in plain black or with their "Code Yellow" color on the handle.
It’s the skeletonized versions of the Mil-SPIE 3 and 5 in which I was most interested for a couple of reasons. First, instead of using micarta slabs, the handles of these knives can be wrapped in paracord, which is a great way to store cord for use in survival situations. Second, the skeletonized versions offer a number of attachment points to lash the knives (particularly the Mil-SPIE 3) to a spear or trap for improvised use, whether by cord or other means. Finally, I like the "Code Yellow" handles because it makes for a nice contrast against natural colors so it’s not as easy to lose the knife. Yes, lots of folks go to extremes to get their gear to blend in while hunting and so forth, but a true survival situation is one where you don’t want to lose your tools. The "Code Yellow" handles offered by TOPS Knives helps with keeping your tools right where they belong.
The first one that I put on the testing block was the Mil-SPIE 5. One of the first things I did was start surfing the the net to learn a couple of cord wrapping techniques. Before I took the 5 out in the woods and try it out on chopping tasks, I wanted to have the paracord handle in place so I could gauge not only its performance, but comfort level as well. It took me a few tries and about four hours to get a paracord handle done that I could live with–at least for now.
But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. All the different design elements in the world won’t matter if the knife doesn’t perform. That’s where we need to keep things in context. These aren’t bushcraft blades. They aren’t combat-specific knives. These aren’t blades designed for filleting fish or dressing game. These are general purpose knives that are designed to perform a number of different tasks out in the field. So, the question isn’t going to be, "Is this the best fillet knife ever made?" or "Is this the best design ever thought up for making snares or traps?" The question that needs answered is, "How well did TOPS execute their approach to making an all around knife for field use that still has a narrow carry profile?" That’s what we’ll be addressing during the rest of this review. The perspective we’ll take is observing how it performs different tasks that you might encounter out in the wilderness–particularly a survival scenario. In extreme enviornments, one of the first things to be concerned with is the fabrication of some type of shelter. Often, that involves chopping tasks in order to have the raw materials on hand to build that shelter.
Because of its size, the Mil-SPIE 5 was the one I ran through the paces during chopping exercises. In my opinion, the ideal length for this type of activity when using a knife would probably be more in the 8-10" range just for reach and power. However, that blade length lends itself to not being as easy to carry as the Mil-SPIE’s shorter profile and not as likely to be with you when needed. That said, even with the size compromise in mind, the 5 inch model did a pretty good job at different chopping chores. The paracord-wrapped handled helped soften the blows, and leaving a decent length lanyard allows for backing the hand up even more to obtain more momentum during the strikes. The .25 inch thickness of the knife also helped increase the mass for more momentum as well. I had no issues gathering the materials needed to build a lean-to style shelter. In fact, it surprised me how quickly I was able to chop through a tree that was about five inches in diameter. Now, I won’t say it was easy and that I was done in 45 seconds, but it certainly went faster than I thought and reassured me that the Mil-SPIE 5 was up to the task of doing what was needed to construct a robust shelter.
Another nice feature of both of these knives, in my opinion, is the edge profile. The blades form an almost traditional spear point, but both knives’ edges come around and up to just a bit above the centerline of the blade. That extra bit of cutting length helps with tasks that require piercing different types of material. And, for those types of tasks, both models come with comfortable thumb ridges on the spine near the handle to allow the user to dig into their current project with gusto.
The more diminuitive Mil-SPIE 3 turned out to be a great little knife in its own right. As I mentioned, I am partial to 154CM, and the thinner, 3/16’s inch blade allowed for an an easier effort with finer tasks such as wood carving. Though I didn’t have a chance during this review, I’m certain it would be more suitable for tasks such as scaling fish and skinning small game where a more delicate touch is needed. Besides, I found the Mil-SPIE 3 very easy to carry a number of different ways versus the larger 5 inch version. For instance, while the 3" model is a bit large for normal neck carry, you can still pull it off. This isn’t something I would do with the Mil-SPIE 5. This brings me back to an earlier point about the best knife being the one that you have with you. Even so, both models come with a sturdy Kydex sheath that locks the knives into place, yet still allows for easy extraction. The sheaths have lanyard holes along the edges to allow for lashing onto gear in just bout any way you can think of–including the infamous neck carry.
I had pledged myself to really putting these knives to the test, so I really had to grit my teeth during the next exercise. I wanted to see how the Mil-SPIE 3 did with fire-starting. Using the handy little blade for creating some natural kindling was no issue, but that wasn’t the part that I was dreading. I pulled out an old WSI (World Survival Institute) firestarter for this part of the review just for old time’s sake. For those that don’t know, the World Survival Institute was a school ran by Chris Janowsky who passed away not too long ago. Chris was an author along with being a survival instructor. He lived up in Alaska and had some of the most enjoyable survival skills articles that I’ve ever read. His fire starter had three types of rods (magnesium, ferrocium, and ceramic) molded into a wood block with a striker attached by a leather lanyard. I hadn’t used it for a while, and I was feeling a bit sentimental… I shaved the magnesium bar with the Mil-SPIE 3 for a little while until I had a decent size pile ready to take a spark. Already, it was like nails on a chalkboard for me to use this great little knife for such a task, but that’s the point of a review, isn’t it? But, then I just had to go the extra mile.
I used the edge of the blade to strike the ferro rod to get some sparks rolling into the little magnesium mound. I would have liked to use the spine of the knife for this task, but it wouldn’t work. I don’t know if it was the coating they put on the blade, but I couldn’t get it to bite into the ferro rod. Yes, a striker would be ideal and would save the blade edge, but sometimes, you have to work with what you’ve got. That was the scenario I was trying to create for myself. I dug in a little bit and got huge sparks from the WSI ferro rod and the edge of the Mil-SPIE 3. I got a great blaze going on strike number one! I even tried the striker for comparison’s sake and found that the knife did a better job. After that, I struck the ferro rod another thirty times to see if there was any appreciable wear or damage to the blade. Like I said, I was gritting my teeth the whole time. When I ran my thumb alongside the blade from the spine to the edge and felt the metal grabbing my skin from the edge rolling, I cringed a bit. It wasn’t like I was surprised by what happened to the blade edge. What do you think is going to happen to an ege when you’re grinding metal on metal?I cringed because I am one of the sharpening-challenged, and if I didn’t get the edge back to snuff, I was going to regret the test! Feeling experimental, I just turned over the WSI firestarter and used the integral ceramic rod to get the steel back in line and put the edge back on it again. All it took was about fifty strokes on the little ceramic rod and it was good as new! You can see in the picture how the edge looks after I touched it up with the ceramic rod. And, you can tell this is an "after" picture instead of a "before" picture because the soot marks are still on the side of the blade even though I wiped it off a little bit. I’m never that lucky when it comes to sharpening a blade! But, that’s why I like TOPS Knives. Even though knives are meant to cut things, there are times when you’re going to press them into service doing something other than what they were intended to do. Remember that survival scenario I was talking about? TOPS makes hard use knives that can do the job they are meant for, and so much more. For me, it’s both gratifying and comforting to know that I can take these knives out in the field for hard-core use and still need to only perform minimal maintenance to keep them purring along.
I like almost everything about these knives. Personally, I like a convex edge on a chopping blade, so I will try my hand at knocking the shoulders off of the Mil-SPIE 5 and get it just the way I like it for when I go out in the field. But, that’s just a personal preference, and it adds expense at the factory to convex edges for individual blades, and that extra expense could be used towards other gear. As I mentioned earlier, there is a context to this review. These are not mission-specific tools. They are intended for all-purpose use, and that requires compromise. Whether its shape, size, material, weight, or what have you, compromises have to be made so that a tool is suitable for more than one job. But, the one thing TOPS Knives didn’t compromise on was quality. Overall, the Mil-SPIE models delivered on the promise of great, general-purpose knives for field use. The minimalist design of the skeletonized versions I tested allows for improvisation in the field, and the hell-for-stout build quality begs for them to be abused. Consider all of that with with the aesthetics of a low-profile carry package at a strong value point, and I don’t think you could ask for anything else!!