While you can’t always bet on being able to tell much from a particular model’s designation, there’s something about the TOPS Steel Eagle name that doesn’t bring images of opening letters, whittling cute little forest gnomes or creating ham and cheese omelets in the kitchen. “Steel” implies strength and endurance while “eagle” implies a fierce outdoor spirit. As it happens, all of those qualities apply to the newest version of the company’s big and long-running 107C fixed blade.
The original Steel Eagle design goes back 14 years to TOPS’ first general-purpose large fixed blade offering in the same tried and true 1095 carbon steel hardened to 56-58 Rc and black linen Micarta handle slabs that the company uses extensively across many different models and blade styles. TOPS Knives’ president Mike Fuller says the knife has been in continuous production in original form since it was first offered, but a year or so back the company began to get requests for a modified version with a smaller backup knife in the handle. Listening to its customer base, roughly six months of design and prototyping followed, with several protos sent overseas for some very serious beta testing by the military market for which the new model was initially intended. Positive feedback led to the finalized production version that we now see in 2013. In the meantime, it hasn’t been military users alone who have shown interest with cash in hand.
The new Eagle is a hefty tool that projects a rugged business image and feels very comfortable in any of four different holds in the hand. The 6.75-inch blade on this 20-ouncer looks bigger than it is, while its 0.25-inch thickness boosts confidence right out the gate. A single, narrow 3-inch fuller strip on each side shines through what TOPS calls a Black Traction Coating (hybrid epoxy powder coat), but not enough to cause too much glare; the coating provides enough surface texture to help users hang onto the blade in certain types of close work. Not all blade coatings are created equal in either texture or longevity; Fuller says the Black Traction Coating passed the standard seven-day saltwater spray exposure test and holds up well in extreme-use environments. The 107C XX has a flat saber grind, one of the stronger blade grinds for a heavy-duty knife that will see prying, hammering and chopping on a regular basis. The tip is anything but fragile, and the spine carries 4.25 inches of reverse-angled sawteeth.
The grip area gives a slightly blade-forward angle that’s efficient for chopping chores—better than a standard straight-line blade/tang configuration, but not quite as good as a khukri in blade angle heft and force. On a knife that that’s going to suffer heavy impacts, including tip-forward defensive thrusts, edge-on forward chops and 90-degree sideways “hammer” pounding, smoothly polished handle scales are something I try to avoid. Checkering can be too much of an abrasive on skin and gloves with prolonged use, but the coarser grade of linen Micarta scales on the Eagle is just about ideal: It gives enough surface texture to avoid slippage without wearing holes in either hand or leather. Micarta is also a very strong and stable material. It doesn’t crack easily, get brittle or soft in temperature extremes or retain moisture like wood does.
The contours of the grip area are very much like those on the original Steel Eagle, but the cutout at the rear of the new model’s tang, to accommodate the small secondary knife, dictated a different approach. The slabs are now retained by seven Loctited hex-headed screws located around the outer edges of the tang to leave room for the smaller knife to nest inside the handle. In a normal grip, the space between the “first” guard and the abbreviated pommel hook is perfect for my medium-sized hand. That guard, and the 1.25 inches of wide jimping on the top of the tang’s mid-point, anchor the Eagle solidly against a forward thrust, with the thumb lying on top of the tang and its pad resting against the .94-inch section of deep curved serrations about an inch behind the sawteeth. It’s also a very strong grip for chopping with the thumb wrapped over the index finger. For more velocity in snap cuts, the hand can be moved back for a three-fingered hold, and for finer and smaller cutting functions, the hand can also be moved forward on the handle to put the index finger into either a cutout behind the second guard or a choil in front of it.
The backup Mini Eagle knife is a sturdy little critter that uses the same steel, hardness, coating and Micarta materials as its host, with a 3-inch partially serrated blade and a fat handle for easy gripping. Not just a cute piggyback add-on, it’s a well-crafted and serious knife; capable of handling the sorts of smaller chores for which the bigger blade would be unwieldy, and it doubles the practical utility of the Steel Eagle system. The retention method is also quite ingenious, positioning the Mini’s blade fully enclosed inside the Steel Eagle’s handle for safety. The rear of the smaller knife’s handle section is braced in place by a section of OD 550 cord threaded through the skeletonized tang “forks.” A pushbutton cordlock keeps it cinched up tight. Loosen the cord to pull the Mini out.
Both knives are made entirely in-house at the TOPS factory—and that includes the Micarta handles. A contractor in California makes the Steel Eagle’s black nylon sheaths with multiple belt and MOLLE webbing attachment options, including a leg tie-down and a sizable front pocket with a secure buckle-slide closure strap for sharpening devices and other small emergency gear. The knife’s hard plastic protective insert is supplied by Armory Plastics, also in Idaho Falls. Nothing was imported on this combo at all.
Trying to get a good workout done before an approaching snowstorm, I took the Eagle to an overgrown aspen grove as a start. Without straining, I quickly chopped through the relatively soft wood of a three-inch sapling. The sawteeth on the spine are big and aggressive, with an opposing pitch, which means they’re angled from the front to the back (cutting on the pull stroke) and from side-to-side in an alternating pattern, with plenty of space between to avoid clogging. They do saw, but cutting with teeth this wide can require more time and effort since they displace a lot of wood. It was much faster to just chop the tree down instead, and the teeth were more useful in a quick test notch on the aspen once it was down.
From there, the big knife traveled to an oak grove where I put it to some trail testing. I routinely carry a couple Adventure Medical Kits SOL Two Person survival blankets in my ATV breakdown kit. They are large, stronger than the cheaper Mylar blankets, and besides potentially serving as a wraparound blanket to retain reflected body heat, they’re also tough enough to hold up as an emergency pup tent. With a small roll of mankind’s greatest invention, duct tape, I fashioned tie-down loops for all four blanket corners and the center of each side, strung a taut length of 550 cord between two handy trees, and then turned the Eagle loose on appropriately sized oak limbs in crafting pegs for the “tent.”
The blade/handle angle works quite well in chopping, and the factory edge was sharp enough out of the box to do everything I needed the knife to do, holding perfectly through chopping, trimming and shaving peg points, without inducing hand fatigue. Most of the work, including pounding the pegs into the ground with a blade flat, was done without a glove, and the only mildly abrasive spot on the handle is the jimping on top. Even that wasn’t uncomfortable, which is not the case with some designs. The weight, thickness and heat treatment of a given blade are crucial to a knife’s usefulness as a pseudo-hammer in certain applications. Knives are not built for hammering. A thin and soft blade may bend, and a thicker, brittle heat treat may fracture. But 1095 carbon steel is a known performer, and TOPS has a good record with their products; I had no concerns about the knife standing up to pounding sharpened oak into fairly hard ground.
Again, the sawteeth were slower on thinner oak limbs than just chopping through, but they produced quick and easy notches in both trees for holding the blanket’s ridgeline cord from sliding down and in the pegs for retaining the tiedown cords. For cutting through wood, the Steel Eagle’s effectiveness relative to a small hatchet’s depends on the size and density of the wood at hand. It didn’t take long to get the emergency shelter set up, and with a bit of fine-tuning on the pegs, it would have gotten me through the night if necessary. In wet weather, the Steel Eagle also has more than enough blade to dig run-off channels around the tent to keep rainwater from seeping in under the walls on slightly uneven ground.
I didn’t use the smaller Mini Eagle, but I’ve worked with three-inch blades before, and with the Mini’s thick handle to grab onto, I can’t imagine its not being a handy camp tool for kitchen chores and tight spots into which the full-sized Eagle just can’t fit. Carried with a pocket sharpener, a small multi-tool and a fire steel in the pouch, the Steel Eagle 107C XX can cover a lot of ground for trail, survival or defensive use.
For more information please visit topsknives.com
For the complete article please refer to Tactical Knives July 2013.