No longships were sailed or townsfolk pillaged in the making of this article. Prob’ly. We first started talking about the El Chete back in May. Now we have a field report on it. Mad Duo
Tops Knives: El Chete, the MOAB (Mother of All Blades)
David “Norseman” Williams
Small hands and weenie arms need not apply!
Once in a while in the field, camp, or backyard there comes a point where the only tool for the job is a big-ass knife. Sometimes an axe won’t do the job efficiently, and a small knife is a labor-intensive pain in the ass. Enter the El Chete from Tops Knives USA.
It’s not technically a machete as the name suggests, but more reminiscent of a Golok, if I had to name a blade style. The El Chete is a big knife for big chores. Recently I received one of these monster blades from Tops Knives and thought it’d be a good idea to give you the scoop.
The El Chete is the brainchild of Tops Knives HMFIC and lead designer Leo Espinosa. I don’t know if it’s the largest knife in the Tops catalog, but it must be damn close.
Here are the vitals from their website.
- Knife Type Fixed Blade
- Overall Length 17.50″
- Blade Length 12.00″
- Cutting Edge 11.38″
- Blade Thickness 0.250″
- Blade Steel 1095 RC 56-58
- Blade Finish Acid Rain
- Handle Material Green Canvas/Black Canvas Micarta
- Knife Weight 29.5oz
- Weight w/ Sheath 37.5oz
- Sheath Included Yes
- Sheath Material Black Kydex
- Designer Leo Espinoza
“The sheath is an out-the-front design with all the bells and whistles. You just pull up slightly then out the front so you don’t have to strain to pull the knife all the way up through the sheath. There is a strap that when snapped into place helps immensely with the retention of the blade. We’ve also made it available with our rotating spring steel clip or a leather dangler attachment so that each user picks the right fit for him or her.”
I picked the dangler design because it’s my usual preference anyway, at least on smaller knives. Personally I like the way a dangler always flips out of the way when you’re sitting or climbing through tight spaces, which I have been known to do on occasion. I am particularly fond of the “out front” design of the sheath. The blade draws out smoothly and goes back in without any hang-ups that some factory kydex is known to have. There is also a retention snap strap that further secures the blade into place. The snap is directional and only goes on and comes off one way. This enhances security because the strap is less likely to catch on things and accidentally come unsnapped.
The dangler ring is mounted on a double thick black leather tab that’s screwed to the kydex sheath. It’s a solid mount, but the critical flaw in the design is the leather dangler belt loop. It’s not attached to anything so if the two snaps come open you lose the entire knife, sheath and all. There is, however, a simple fix for this that can also be used on any dangler knife setup from Tops or many other manufacturers: Simply put the side with the two snaps under your belt rather than on the outside, so the loop can’t unsnap accidentally.
The sheath also has five grommet holes to attach a leg loop or any number of accessories. A small companion knife or fire steel would both be good options for the grommet holes.
According to Tops, “El Chete is the first TOPS knife to be released with our wicked new finish called Acid Rain. Because of the process we use, the finish varies slightly from knife to knife so that each person gets something unique. We wanted the handles to be thick enough to fill each user’s hand like a hatchet or small ax handle would, so we decided to use sandwiched Micarta. It’s well rounded for comfort and the black canvas Micarta underneath the green canvas Micarta adds even more to the aesthetics of this piece.”
There are a couple things that separate this blade from most of Tops catalog. The first is the handle, which although very similar to the handle on the Steel Eagles has a striking stacked look from the green-on-black micarta sandwiching the red liner. The second is the brand spanking new finish they call Acid Rain. To a casual observer it looks like the traditional Black River Wash with a trip to the tumbler to shake things up. That might be exactly what it is for all I know, but I’ll say that however they do it, I like it. Like the Black River Wash, you can see exactly where the heat treating line is. That extra little flare makes this blade stand out.
The handle construction is typical of the Tops style with three button-head torx screws. The screws secure into barrel nuts under the handle scales that go completely through the tang. This makes them easy to remove for those people who prefer to customize their cutlery. Lastly, the handles have the gimmicky and practically useless bow drill divots bored into them. They are hard enough to use on a moderately sized knife but on this monster they are just a distraction from an otherwise great handle design.
If you visit TOPS Knives website there are a few options in addition to the sheath mount that can also be ordered, such as blade and handle modifications. Keep that in mind if there’s a feature you prefer on your knives.
Now for the really important information: how this beast handles in use. It is after all a knife, albeit a huge one.
For starters I took the knife into my acreage and hacked and slashed at nuisance pine trees for quite some time. I found it be a very efficient knife for this work if you only had to cut a few trees. As stated before it’s not a machete, and does not behave like one. It had a heavy swing which cut the saplings clean with one or two slashes. Most of the trees I cut were from one to three inches and green; it gets tiring trying to control the blade on live wood for long periods, regardless of your strength. The likelihood of an overswing is high and every slash needs to be calculated, which gets harder to do the longer you use it.
I experienced absolutely no bounceback with any of my cuts. The El Chete either cut clean through or stuck fast on every strike. After a thorough workout on the saplings I went after some old standing dead pines in the same area. Most of the standing dead were about four inches across. I found that a good solid strike would cut about a quarter into the tree. Two or three strikes would bring most of the trees down, but in most cases the weight of the blade just smashed the tree in half after only cutting into it a small way. Either way if the goal is to bring down the tree, it did so brilliantly.
When chopping into larger green trees the El Chete functions like you would expect from a small 1½ to 2 lb axe. For the more mundane chores of splitting firewood it performed excellently, and again, that would be expected. I wouldn’t use it for bucking up the wood unless that was the only tool available. No large blade could ever compete with a saw for that task, but it again performed about as well as a small axe or hatchet.
During use I usually wear gloves but I intentionally left them behind for this test. I wanted to see how the handle functioned with sweat, blisters and any other factors that gloves might mitigate. I found that the grip was adequate for such a large blade; I never lost control of the knife or had it slip from my grasp, which is commendable for such a monster. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen after multiple days of use, but I didn’t experience it this afternoon of testing. That’s as much of a testament to the design of the handle as to the materials used to construct it. I didn’t use a wrist lanyard either, but would highly suggest you add one.
It’s already well known that Tops knows how to build a knife for a specific purpose. If your purpose is to beast your way through the wilderness smashing anything that won’t yield to your will, then you’ve found your companion in the El Chete.
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About the Author:
Gunny “Norseman” Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1993 and deployed to Mogadishu, Somalia in 1995 as a grunt. He was one of only two SLUGs out of fifteen to make it through Sniper Indoc and attend the USMC Scout Sniper School, graduating on his first attempt and later attending Urban Sniper, Urban R&S, Advanced Sniper, Sniper Employment Officer and the Mountain Sniper/High Angle Shooting Course. As you might expect, after some time ramrodding a Sniper Platoon in the FMF he attended the Formal Schools Instructors Course and was selected as a Scout Sniper Instructor for the First Marine Division. There he was the primary instructor for the survival and .50 SASR portions, specializing in fieldcraft and combat tracking. (Note: it was there at Horno that David Reeder, our editor, met both Williams and Freddy Osuna; they instructed a class together — it was the start of a long and improbable tale.) Not too much later he received orders to the Mountain Warfare Training Center at Bridgeport. Since retiring he has continued to contribute tot he survival community as a Brother of Bushcraft and is also the HFBIC (Head Fucking Blacksmith In Charge) of the forge at Survival Hardware.