Camp Knife Trifecta
If you can move mountains, you can move molehills. I always thought this statement was appropriate regarding camp knives and I experienced it again a couple of months ago. My daughter and I were out in the mountains for a school hike including the exploration of the local 11th century castle ruins.
At noon, while the 50 kids and accompanists were enjoying their camp lunch, a man came to us with a 30 kg dog on his back and collapsed in front of the kids. The man was diabetic and had run out of water and food while searching for his lost dog for hours in 92 deg heat. Once the master recovered a bit, we had to take care of the dog who was unable to walk, his back legs seem paralysed.
I came up with the idea of building a stretcher using a camping mat and 2 strong branches to carry the dog to the closest village down the mountain. I took the camp knife in my backpack and cut out two 2.5 branches in a blink of an eye. 2 minutes later 4 daddy’s were offering the dog a smooth descent to the valley. Long story short, our fast reaction and conjoint effort were decisive that day and we can say we saved the dog.
This story comforted me in my choice of always carrying a compact camp knife in the woods… but you have to choose the right one.
In this article we will take a look at 3 terrific knives in different styles, steels and budgets:
- The Bark River Knives Bravo Tope Recon
- The Spartan Blades Difensa
- The TRC Apocalypse
Unlike the M311 SPELTER kindly lent to me by ANV knives for a review last year, these 3 are from my personal collection and have seen a good amount of use. Let’s check their key features.
Design and overall quality
I decided to choose between similar sized, full tang knives, however the Tope Recon is a tad longer with a 190mm blade vs 155 and 172mm for the Difensa and Apocalypse. This collaboration with knifemaker Dan Tope also features his famous harpoon style swedge and groove on both sides of the blade to save weight. Talking about collaborations, the Difensa designed by the one and only William Harsey, has the most simple blade shape of the 3. It is a very fluid and pointy drop point type blade with a finger choil and a subtle swedge to enhance the strength of the tip. This model comes standard with a Black or FDE PVD coating. The Apocalypse has the more modern blade profile of the bunch but still utility driven. We can also call this one a drop point profile but less pointy than the Difensa and with a terrific large swedge. The blade also has a 3 tone finish: hand rubbed on flat parts, rough grinder finish on swedge and ground portions of the blade, satin finish on the spine.
Handle wise, the 3 of them feature micarta scales however, the Bark river is also available with lined micarta, G10, stabilized wood and other funky materials, with or without liners, stainless, brass, mosaic or hollow pins, with or without thumb ramp. Needless to say, the options are endless.
Mine has natural canvas micarta with green liners and stainless pins. The slabs are contoured by hand and flush the tang perfectly. The Apocalypse and Difensa have CNC contoured micarta slabs. The Lithuanian knife features flat scales with a vertical fuller pattern to enhance grip. The edges of the slabs are rounded but they don’t flush the tang.
We’ll discuss ergonomics later on but we can already see the results please the eye and reinforce the modern look of the knife. The Spartan Blades’ scales have diagonal fullers, a slight belly and they flush the tang of the knife. At the bottom, one can count with the very “Harsey-ish” grooves that favors a 3 fingers grip.
Last but not least, we have to take a look at their respective sheaths. The Tope Recon comes with a very nice, Jenna Martin (Skin Bender Leather Works) Cub design type, light brown leather sheath with off white stitchings. The sheath itself is a masterpiece. The knife can be inserted in both right and left hand carry.
The closing loop and snap button is very snug at the beginning but, as time goes by, it’s easier to use. The loop also features an eyelet which adds rigidity to the leather tongue. The sheath also features a removable firesteel loop and 2 removable straps one can use to run the knife horizontally on a belt or to attach a small pouch. Straps and loops are held in place by hex screws going through eyelets.
Of course you’ll be able to switch to right and left carry as you want to. The belt loop is large enough to accommodate the largest belts on the market. Drawback of this system: the knife is less easy to deploy and sheath one handed than a kydex one.
The other competitors use kydex sheaths, the best kydex sheaths I have ever experienced on production knives. The Apocalypse comes with a black pancake style sheath with an additional and removable firesteel holder, draining hole and removable belt loop. What I really like is the thumb rest designed to extract the knife easier. This is the perfect example of a simple but yet well thought out and built sheath. Last but not least, the Difensa also features a thick kydex pancake style sheath with a draining groove at the bottom. The belt loop is also removable and made out of a large, fully unfoldable velcro belt. Icing on the cake, these are made by famous sheath maker Okuden !
Ergonomics and use
Now we’re done with the boring part, let’s have some fun.
Pulling the Bravo Recon out of its sheath always put a huge smile on my face. Due to the size and the fullers on each side of the blade, my sick brain can’t stop thinking about the legendary (at least in the knife-enthusiasts world) scene in Crocodile Dundee: “That’s a knife!”. The other aspect of this smile is the fact that the Tope Recon is so comfortable to handle. I used it for hours cutting firewood at camp, batoning, doing more fine work like slicing food, making feathersticks etc.
There isn’t any hot spot to report for my size 9 hands. Handle design may seem classic, but it proves the genius is in simplicity. Whether you go for bottom grip to enhance inertia or front grip for precision, comfort is guaranteed. Thickness of the blade is ideal at 5mm, not too thick, not too thin and overall weight is 390 grams. Unlike other models, I’m glad this model doesn’t feature a finger choil.
Once again, the design allows the user to perform fine tasks with confidence. This is also due to the great balance of the blade, just at the top of the scale. Mine is the rampless version, which is very smooth and allows push cuts without ruining your thumb on saw-type jimpings. Both harpoon swedge and spine are sharp enough to throw a good bunch of sparks out of a firesteel.
The cutting performance of the convex blade is outstanding especially on wood but one can also imagine peeling an apple because the edge is fine enough. The CPM 3V edge retention is very good and hair raising sharpness is easy to maintain with a leather strop and appropriate compounds.
My first experience with TRC knives and the Apocalypse was a couple of years ago at our local knife show when I had the chance to meet the owner of the company, Andrius Tricius. This was the first model I held and I instantly realised pictures don’t do it justice. When you hold the Apocalypse in your hand, you’re not holding a knife but an undefeatable tool.
The thickness of the blade is very impressive, at 6.5mm, there is a LOT of Elmax steel involved. In hand, the knife appears to be well balanced, grippy and fast despite its 410 grams. The user can also count on a large and comfortable finger choil for front grip tasks.
Front and back jimpings are very comfortable, they add a significant amount of grip without being aggressive for your hands. The chopping ability is good even if the penetration on wood is less effective than the Tope Recon with its convex edge.
Talking about chopping with the TRC, I have noticed 2 things I wish were different. On one hand, you can notice the back tang of the knife rises up a little bit. When holding the knife at the extremity of the tang (aka 3 fingers grip), that protuberance digs in your palm and becomes painful after a while.
On the other side, the Apocalypse doesn’t feature a proper lanyard hole at the back of the knife. Of course you can use the last press-fitted hollow pin to pass your paracord through but this solution is less comfortable than the previous 3 fingers grip option.
Of course these are not major drawbacks. One thing I really like about this one is the strength of the tip. I’ve already seen similar tip geometry on Busse and Shane Sibert knives: the good thing is the tip is sharp and pointy enough to work with and on the other hand, strong enough to pierce and pry without concern.
Before holding it in my hand, I thought this model was just another slightly sharpened pry bar with a cool name. I was wrong, this is a perfect all rounder knife with good chopping abilities… one can even peel an apple with it!
The Difensa was a request by Canadian Special Forces to Spartan Blades and William Harsey. The name of the knife comes from an Italian mountain called Monte La Difensa where Canadian First Special Service Force and US troops teamed up to fight against German troops during WW2.
To make it clear, this knife hasn’t been primarily designed for your recreational “bushcrafty” outings. However, the more I use it, and I’ve had mine since 2014, the more I think this is one of the best all-around fixed blades on the market. Out of the 3, this model comes with the more compact package and it is the lightest at 330 grams. In hand, the Difensa doesn’t feel like a true camp knife because of its thin spear point profile and because of its awesome balance point located just before the top hex screw.
On the top, one will find generous jimpings. These are very gripping and obviously designed to index your knife with gloves… and in the dark I presume. If I had to describe the knife in one word, I’d go for AGILE. 3D contoured and textured micarta scales seem tailor fitted for my hands, it’s perfect no matter how you’re using your knife.
The nicely integrated V shaped front finger choil allows a very comfortable and stable front grip, regular grip is second to none and the genius grooves on the back of the handle allows the Difensa and its CPM S45VN blade to perform like a real chopper despite his weight.
Year after year, I have used my knife for just about anything you can think of with an exception for prying with the tip. This is, in my humble opinion, the only structural downside of the blade. Well, let’s call it half downside because such a sharp point also represents a huge asset sometimes.
Value and X-factor
At $310-330, the Tope Recon is a real steal in my book, let’s not forget most of the manufacturing processes are made by hand in the BRK factory without using CNC devices.
Moreover I imagine its elaborate leather sheath is about a third of the overall price. There is no doubt that the BRK punches way above its weight. Compared to the other 2, there is a kind of warmth with the Tope Recon. I really like the neo-traditional aspect of this knife with leather, simple polished micarta and belt grind lines. It’s a good tool to use and also a very nice item to look at, especially by the campfire light!
Difensa and Apocalypse are in the same price range. At about $450 these aren’t cheap but I do think they are worth every penny. Just think about the price of a trier handmade kydex sheath….if you’re looking for similar quality you’re already in for at least a $100 bill!
If it matters to you, buying a Difensa is also buying a military related knife. On one hand Spartan Blades has been created by two Navy SEAL veterans and on the other hand, this Harsey-design model seems doomed to follow the same “sought after” path as the Chris Reeve Knives Green Beret or Neil Roberts knives.
X-factor of the Apocalypse remains, for me, in its craftsmanship. Let’s be honest, the association of the words “knife” and “apocalypse” leads our brain to imagine an overbuilt dull knife with rough finish and an, on purpose, odd design to match his name. The TRC is something else, it is surprisingly way more refined than its name suggests. The fact that a lot of parts are made by hand at TRC is another big plus for people who, like me, also enjoy custom made knives.
To sum up this article, I have very good news for you (I wish it was a coupon code!). If you came across this article because you were interested in one of these knives, you simply can’t go wrong. The 3 of them are built to last and feature premium materials, top notch sheaths, mastered heat treatments and purpose driven designs. Now if you were hesitating between 2 of these or other models: follow your instinct because in the end, the brand of the knife doesn’t really matter as long as it’s high quality and allows you to move mountains if needed.