Saturday, July 11, 2015

Utility Tools Battle Axe Review

The market for big choppers is exploding.  At the top end Busse has a siren's song playing, combining a proprietary steel and solid, if exaggerated, shapes to make some really amazing blades.  They are so amazing, in fact, that folks buy them without sheathes.  This strikes me as utterly crazy, but I will confess to many visits to the Busse site over the years, though I have never pulled the trigger.  At the bottom end we have companies like Schrade making inroads with some decent offerings including the Blade 2015 People's Choice SCHF36 and the Jessica X, a chopper designed by a YouTuber.  The middle of the market is still dominated by what are among the best buys in the cutlery world--the Becker series of knives.  For all of the design magic of the Becker blades, they could use a little more refinement.  That's where the Utility Tools Battle Axe comes in.

Here is the product page. The Battle Axe costs $175 in 1095, $225 in A2, and $295 in S30V.  There are upgraded sheath options, but they are either leather or nylon.  I'd love to see a kydex sheath with a Tec-loc or similar attachment point. There are no written or video reviews. Here is a link IM Outfitters, one of two retail outlets for the Battle Axe. 

Here is my review sample:


Twitter Review Summary: Works great after receiving more abuse than Lou Pinella gave umpires.

Design: 2

In my mind, all choppers are going to be compared to the Becker BK-9.  That is a a very high bar to meet, as the BK-9 is simply amazing.  But after a good deal of cutting, I can say that the Battle Axe is quite competitive.  There are places where it does better and places where it does worse.  Design is one of the places where the Battle Axe does better.  It is simpler, easier to use, and cleaner looking.  The  Battle Axe lacks the thumb ramp that the BK-9 does and frankly it is a better design for it.  Compared to a lot of other choppers--Ontarios, ESEEs, and the Beckers--the step up feature here is the full handles, as opposed to slab constructed ones.  This is a design feature that is definitely more difficult to pull off, but the benefit--fewer hotspots--is a big one given the way choppers are used.  I also like the simple look and feel of the drop point blade.  Choppers are a place where design flourishes magnify problems.  Because the blades are so intensely used, anything that departs from a pure functional approach, either causes problems or is revolutionary.  The margin of error between the two is very small.  Getting rid of recurves, thin tips, and clip points makes the Battle Axe all the better.     

Fit and Finish: 2

There is simply no question here--compared to the other choppers I have reviewed (which includes the Cold Steel Recon Scout, the Ontario RD-7, and the BK-9), the Battle Axe possesses a level of finish that few choppers have.  This, of course, is matched by the commensurately higher price tag, but in terms of grind, handle seams, coating, and other small details, the Battle Axe is on a different level from the rest of the choppers I have tested.   


Only the Spyderco Schempp Rock and the Fallkniven F1z (which is not a chopper) are in the same league as the Battle Axe.  I am very curious now to try some higher end choppers, stuff like the TRC Apocalypse, a Bark River Bravo III (how I wish Mike Stewart made a 2.5), and a Busse.  It seems weird to write this given that you are just beating the snot out of these knives, but a bit of refinement does make a difference.  It also reminds me that even when your knife is something you thump on, cutting is always a precision operation, given that the action is being done by a very small part.  Knives, even hard use outdoor choppers, aren't like shovels--the details still matter. 

Handle Design: 2

This knife has a very unusual handle construction among choppers.  Many have slab handles that simply sandwich the tang of the blade between two pieces of micarta, plastic, or G10.  It is a simple and cheap method of construction.  But it is also can produce hotspots over time (higher end slab constructed handles, like those on Bark River knives do not have this same problem).  If you take the scales off or if they loosen over time, the tang becomes exposed and the end result is a metal edge in the middle of where you grip the knife.  Its not a deal breaker for a knife to have slab constructed handles, but it is something that is all but required on cheaper knives.  Many, but not all, of these slab constructed handles are also very square.  

Here the handle construction is different.  Without taking part the review sample it is impossible for me to say for sure, but it appears as though the handle is either two slabs that fully surround the tang of the knife OR a hollowed out channel.  Whatever the method of construction, the result is a handle that is comfortable and easy to use.  


I'd prefer a more pronounced parrot's beak at the end of the blade, but that is the most minor of nits to pick. And just so you full tang people are assuaged, here:


As you can see from this shot looking down on the handle and spine, nary a piece of steel is visible.  Undoubtedly this is a more expensive method of construction and one, along with the very fine grind on the blade, is the reason this knife is much more than the BK-9 price range of knives.


That said, the extra cost is probably warranted as I found this handle to be among the best I have used in terms of grippiness and long term, hard use (such as splitting and batonning oak).  

Steel: 2

1095 is really an ideal chopper steel--super tough, capable of taking and holding a good edge, and, when coated, plenty corrosion resistant.  Even if they were the same price, I'd probably opt for 1095 over the S30V version.  S30V is an awesome steel, a better steel, but in application I am not so sure, especially if it is hardened to Crucible's recommended levels of around 58-60 HRc.  At CRK's levels around 56-57, it might work out, but at 58-60 it is just too chippy, especially when compared to 1095.  It sounds like a nostalgia statement, but 1095 has worked in choppers for a long time and my experience with the Battle Axe has proven it is still quite capable.  

I'd also note that in the role of chopper steel is not as important as grind and blade shape and here the Battle Axe proved that to me.  More on those points below.

Blade Shape:

Grind: 1

In woodworking, high end planes, customs and expensive production planes, come to the user with the expectation that the use will tune the cutting edge him- or herself.  To talk of "out of the box" sharpness is to speak gibberish.  So our fixation on factory edges is not universal across the cutting tool realm.

That said, the edge on the Battle Axe was especially thick.  Its not simply that this is a chopper, so is my BK-9, but even for a chopper its pretty thick at the edge.  My BK-9 has been with me for two years and I have sharpened it and I just had it mildly reprofiled, but even out of the box, it was thinner behind the cutting bevel and the cutting bevel was much wider, making for a superior cutting experience.  The edge here is just too thick, and I think the main grind itself could be a bit thinner too.  It got stuck more than once in material that the BK-9 plowed through.  Here is one such instance:


Personally, I am not so bothered by this, as I think this gives the user the choice of what to do with the knife, but in the modern climate of "out of the box" sharpness, the Battle Axe is too thick. 

Sheath Carry: 2

The knife comes with two sheath options, one nylon and one leather.  

The single benefit of nylon, so far as I can tell, is that it is light, conforms to your body, and is great in terms of carry.  Other than that I hate nylon, for reasons articulated below.  My experience with the Battle Axe in the nylon sheath is no different than other nylon sheathes.  It works and carries quite well. 


The leather one is a bit heavy, but actually quite good to carry.  It also has a drain hole, so even if it is raining, the sheath won't retain water while on your hip.  If you understand, going in, that leather is heavier than either nylon or kydex, then you will quickly realize that the this leather number is actually quite good when compared to other leather sheathes, at least in terms of how it feels on your hip.  


Sheath Accessibility: 0

While the leather sheath is beautiful and well made, both it and the nylon sheath are miserable when it comes to removing the knife.  This is not a one hand in or out knife.  The nylon sheath is worse, but both are substantially below par.

The nylon sheath's cardinal sin is the fact that it does not make clear which direction the knife should be inserted.  Furthermore, the plastic insert is so tight that putting the knife in the wrong way makes it very difficult and dangerous to remove.  My brother in law was up during the testing period for the Battle Axe and though he is an avowed non-knife guy the fun of a chopper was too much for him to resist.  After playing with the Battle Axe he put in back into the nylon sheath incorrectly and the fit was so tight that I had to use pliers and a bench vise to get the knife out.  Had that not worked I probably would have to destroy the sheath to get the knife out.

This is not merely a case of a newb mistake.  The design of the nylon sheath, which is an off the shelf model, not something made by Utility Tools, is just awful.  Without very little in the way of design-based instruction, its basically broken.  A press fit kydex model would be 100% better.  In fact, I am very tempted to have a kydex sheath made for the knife and try it out.

The leather sheath, which was made for Utility Tools, is better, but leather has some inherent limitations.  Unless the leather is very finely tuned for the knife your never going to get it to work as smoothly as kydex in terms of retrieval and replacement.  As far as leather sheathes go its about average in terms of accessibility, but average for leather is well below average given other sheath materials.  

I am not complaining here because the knife can't be deployed quickly (though if its possible to do, why not make a sheath that can do that?).  I am more complaining about the fact that using two hands both to get the knife in and out is cumbersome.  To put this in terms of folders, I find nail knick two handed openers to be fine, but imagine if the two handed open required you to tie and untie a piece of cord wrapped around the knife in addition to using two hands.  That's where these sheathes are. Its not about speed because most people never need lightning fast access to their chopper (or their folder for that matter), but it is about ease of use. 
Useability: 2 

The simple shape of this knife, coupled with a damn fine level of finish, makes the Battle Axe a joy to use.  The only thing that holds this knife back in terms of use, as I said above, is the especially thick cutting bevel and that problem only reared its head in very, very stubborn material.  In pine, with rope, and when doing general hacking, it was fine, but when pushed to the limit of what a chopper can do, such as splitting and batonning knotty red oak, the knife was slowed to a stop by the thick cutting bevel.  


The shape of the handle, the shape of the blade, and the nice touches, like an adjustable lanyard and the full surround handle scales made the Battle Axe quite excellent.  

Durability: 2 

The blade stock is monstrously thick, between 3/16 and 1/4 of an inch.  The handle scales are really locked in.  And the coating, which is leagues better than the coating on the chooppers one price tier down, was incredibly tough.  


I am confident that the Battle Axe will handle anything you throw at it.  Here is why--when splitting and then batonning that piece of red oak shown above, the knife got imbedded in the wood.  I am probably not too dissimilar from you are in this regard and I took this as a challenge from Mother Nature.  Instead of doing the wiggle maneuver to get the knife out I proceeded to beat the ever living shit out of it hoping it would plow on through.  My batonning stick, a double wrist thick piece of oak broke in the process.  I think switched over to an old shovel handle that I use in really stubborn instances (when I broke the shovel handle I cut it up for other uses, such as this).  I then broke that piece of wood.  It was only then that I decided to pull the knife out instead of pushing it through.  After some serious and sweaty work I got it free.  Honestly I pulled it out expect the Battle Axe to be twisted or irreparably damaged.  But it was perfectly fine, so undamaged that I have to consult the picture to figure out which of the two review samples it was.  Not even the coating shows significant wear.  

Again this is a place where the extra cost makes a difference.  None of the cheaper choppers would have faired that well and every other chopper I have used that had coating would have shown noticeable wear.  This is a beast of knife and short of purposeful abuse aimed at destroying the knife, I think it will handle whatever you dish out.  

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The knife itself is actually very good, rivaling and in many ways surpassing the BK-9.  Only the thick cutting bevel holds it back.  The leather sheath is, for a leather sheath, decent, but both sheathes do very poorly when it comes to accessibility.  It sounds like a broken record to say this but like with virtually every fixed blade I have reviewed thus far, the stumbling block is not the knife, but the sheath.  Sheathes are just hard to do in runs sufficient for production scale knives.  I will probably have one of these knives fitted with a kydex number to see how it works out, but as they come from Utility Tools the knife is awesome (and with a bit of grinding could be amazing) but the sheathes are merely okay.  

This is a step up chopper in almost every regard and in that sense, its damn good.  The knife can really take a thumbing and thanks to the superior handle design there are no real hotspots.  This is a very good knife and if you have some extra dough and you are looking for a chopper, this obscure cutter should 100% be on your list. 

The Competition

The BK-9 is a bit cheaper and if you aren't willing to do some grinding, it is a superior out-of-the-box cutter.  If you can grind the edge or have someone do it for you, the Battle Axe is probably a better knife and that is a pretty impressive thing.  I love my BK-9 and for the money it can't be beat, but this chopper is so nice and so refined, with a little work it will be better than my benchmark chopper.  


  1. How do you think the A2 version would be? Worth the cost of the upgrade?

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  4. Does the contouring make that much of a difference? It's hard to justify the expense after picking up a BK9.

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