I like big knives. Big knives like bowies or those simple blade shapes common among the early Quebecois traders and North American mountain men. The Tom Brown Tracker knife is surprisingly modern, complex, and frankly I thought it was too specialized to work as intended.
I’ve spent the last year proving myself wrong.
Like a lot of kids that grew up in the 80’s, I reveled in the “survival” craze of that decade. Living in a rural and remote part of Texas, I had ample opportunity to test myself and try out everything I read in books and magazines. Most of it was junk.
Tom Brown Jr’s book “The Tracker” wasn’t. Although I learned a lot from my dad and my uncles about hunting and living off the land, it was Tom Brown’s breakthrough book that was the first time I saw something like that in print, and I was hooked. I spent weeks by myself living in forts I created, eating only what I trapped, picked, and fished, and loved every minute of it.
Tom Brown Jr.’s books were a big part of my education, as well as my own individual philosophy. Years later, I was proud to go to his tracker school. Years after that, I sent my kids up to him as well.
Most folks have never heard of Tom Brown Jr. If you’ve seen the movie “The Hunted”, Tommy Lee Jones’ character is very loosely based on him. That’s the same movie where the “Tracker knife” designed by Tom Brown Jr. takes center stage during multiple shots throughout the film.
Mr. Brown had already come up with the design of the knife and had several well-known custom knife makers produce them before the movie came out. A few still do, and they demand high wait times and high dollar amounts. After the movie came out, demand for Brown’s knife exploded.
When that happened, Tom Brown Jr. asked the folks at TOPS Knives in Ucon, Idaho if they could produce his knife at a volume and a price folks could afford. To this day the Tom Brown Tracker Knife is the most popular knife TOPS makes, and they make a lot of knives.
A few days after I got home, I put the knife to work.
The first thing I did with the knife was to gut, skin and butcher two white tail deer and a spike elk. For this work, the only tool I used was the Tom Brown Tracker knife. This was a great introduction to both the advantages and shortcomings of a blade of this size and shape.
First, the shortcomings. The blade has no sharp tip and it’s not flexible. The flexibility really only matters when it comes to boning the animal. A long, flexible knife is easier to use when creating some cuts of meat, but it’s not required.
The real problem is the lack of a sharp, pointed tip. Something like this is absolutely necessary to cut the bung of the animal out. Of course, there are other ways to dress a quadruped, so that’s not such a hassle. The real issue is that there are lots of small spaces on an animal, like getting to the tasty fat behind the eyes, that can’t be done without a smaller knife with a point. Beyond that, there are chores like digging out splinters and spines in your own skin, where a small, sharp point is required.
Since this is absolutely required, and yet absent on this blade shape, it means you’ll need another knife to go along with it. TOPS sells the Tom Brown Scout companion knife just for this. I like something smaller, like the very small fixed blade knives people usually wear as neck knives. I have them everywhere. I’m partial to the Winkler Jason Knight Zipper, which is now, of course, apparently made of unobtanium. In the TOPS catalogue, this would be something like the Hoffman Harpoon Mini, Baghdad Box Cutter, or the Lil Fixer.
So go get yourself a little pointy blade to go along with your Tracker, because despite my original misgivings, this oddly designed blade is very much at home in the woods.
Although not the first thing most folks notice, the handle of the Tom Brown Tracker is itself unique. It’s really two grips in one. There are a lot of smart things on this knife, but it’s the handle that shows off the designer’s knowledge of how large knives are really used in the woods.
Most of your work will likely be done with a grip closer to the blade itself. Check out the photo above. Here you’ll see where the user’s thumb naturally rests on the upward sweeping section of the spine of the blade, and the hand fits neatly in the forward position. This is a safe, no-slip grip that gives you lots of control over a large blade.
Held a little farther back, the long flat section gives the hand plenty of purchase and leverage for heavy chopping. I tested this many ways, including cutting down and sharpening bamboo poles to hold bait for an alligator hunt. I held far at the rear to cut through the bamboo, and a little farther up to shape the tips into points.
The handle features a full width and length tang, with practically indestructible Micarta scales. The scales are held in place by hex screws, and can be removed if you want to lash the knife to a long pole and harpoon aquatic mammals…just in case.
The elongated grip also allows for the hand to be turned around while using the straight section of the blade as a drawknife or while batoning. These are both critical features for a survival knife.
The Tom Brown Tracker is a complex blade, with three useful surfaces. It features a widely curved blade with a big belly, a short straight edge nearer the handle, and saw teeth at the end of the back of the blade.
The large sweeping edge is what handled most of my gutting, skinning, and butchering work.
When held by the forward section of the handle with my thumb on the back of the blade, it was easy to make long, efficient cuts during skinning, while maintaining the precision necessary to keep from cutting through the other side of the hide.
This was the same edge that made short work of trout and salmon, splitting them neatly open to gut the fish. It doesn’t work well when you fillet since the knife doesn’t flex at all, but trout and most other scaled river fish are best served whole as it is.
There’s always an advantage to a large blade over a small one when a lot of cutting needs to be done. Even though the Tracker’s edges are split near the middle of its length, the large curved belly means there’s still tons of blade length on the wider side.
Lots of edge length means that less of any one particular spot is doing the cutting, spreading the work around. As a knife edge is nothing more than a molecular wedge, the more we can spread the work out, the less likely that wedge will get pushed around, dulling the knife. In short, you can gut a whole lot of fish, or skin and prepare a lot of animals before you need to sharpen it again.
Moving back, you find the second edge. This roughly two-inch section is flat, with a more gradual angle. This edge, nearer the grip, is great for a series of common tasks, like whittling, cutting notches in wood for traps, or using it as a drawknife to tiller a bow.
I used this edge to cut notches into branches for rabbit traps. These traps performed very well, which was unfortunate. Unfortunate because they seemed very effective at catching skunks, which my dogs immediately found. I didn’t appreciate it. My dogs did not appreciate it. But the turkey and ground bird population likely will.
This flat edge, when combined with the swooping geometry of the back of the blade, is also great for batoning or splitting wood. If you aren’t familiar with this method, look it up and give it a try. It’s far more efficient, more accurate, and less dangerous than hacking away at a larger piece of wood.
Finally, there’s the saw edge on the back of the knife. I find most saw edges on knives fairly worthless and would prefer a serrated edge there most of the time. For this one, TOPS has angled each tooth in contrasting directions.
The result is a much sharper point to each saw tooth than would otherwise be available on such a thick blade. It actually works pretty well to create sharp lines and deep, flat cuts in wood, bone, or plastic.
Over the last year, I’ve got to test out every portion of those blades. Beyond all the cutting of various meats, including deer, elk, fish, and bear, I’ve used every bit of the knife to make traps and housing. Late last Fall, I built what my family has long called a “bear fort.” This is simply a lean-to, with a round stick-shelter attached.
After fleshing the elk hide with the Tracker, I used the same blade to cut, split, and pound Sotol leaves for cordage. That gave me what I needed to make the roof, stretched between the trunks of some juniper trees.
After that, the rest of the entire fort was made by just stacking and weaving downed branches and trees around the roof. Finally, I used the tracker to split one of the elk thighs to make a shovel, and dug a smokeless fire pit inside the shelter. With a little maintenance, it’s survived all winter, never getting wet or icy inside. The only tool I used to make it was the Tom Brown Tracker knife.
Although there are other versions that feature stainless steel blades, this original version of the Tom Brown Tracker features a 1095 carbon steel blade. 1095 steel takes an edge pretty easily and will maintain it well for general cutting work. According to the TOPS representative I talked to, these are the features Tom Brown Jr. specifically asked for when he worked with them to produce the knife. It’s not the steel I’d want on a thin blade, but for something like this, it works well.
1095 still will rust. Because of this, TOPS coats everything but the final edge with their “Traction Coating.” I got the tan blade because that was the only available at the time, but the original black and grey model is coated with the exact same stuff. I’m not sure what that coating is, but it’s solid. Despite over a year of very hard use, there has been no significant wearing of the coating at all. It’s etched with the Tom Brown Jr. logo, as well as that of TOPS Knives.
There are a lot of different methods to knife sharpening. The best method is…don’t let your knife get dull. Ceramic honing rods are great, and I’d put one in my kit over a traditional whetstone any day. Get in the habit of checking the edge every time you pick it up, especially when you’re working with the knife, and give that rod a few passes every time it won’t easily shave your thumbnail.
Each of the Tracker models comes with a Kydex sheath, molded around the blade and front section of the handle. It mounts horizontally to a belt with large, study metal clips. If you want it to hang vertically, you can simply remove one of the clips and turn the other one 90 degrees, although it will now be in a left-handed draw configuration.
As a plus, the sheath has a nice audible “click” that lets you know that the knife is fully seated. I’ve carried that knife all over, up and down the mountains looking for bear and deer, and it has never come loose.
This is a big knife. At almost a foot long and 21 oz, the Tom Brown Tracker is not a light-packing blade. This is a sturdy, “my life depends on it” tool. Everything about it looks like it will stand up to some serious use, and it does. For most work, I prefer a large blade, simply because of the mass it lends to heavy chopping, as well as the aforementioned issue with keeping a blade sharp. Plus, lots of tiny cuts on meat make the work look sloppy.
After a year of hard use, doing pretty much anything you’d need to do on your own, the Tom Brown Jr. Tracker has turned out to be a heck of a knife. This one has earned a place on my “things have gone awry” bag in my truck. I’ve put beaucoup blood and miles on this blade, and it’s none the worse for wear.
Beyond just having a solid survival knife, there’s a ton of satisfaction that the Tom Brown Tracker is a solid survival knife. It’s great to see one of the tools my childhood hero is so well known for stands up to real-world use. It turns out that crazy old man knew what he was talking about all along.
The fact that it’s made by some great folks up in God’s Country, USA makes it all the better.
Specifications: TOPS Knives Tom Brown Tracker #1
Knife Type: Fixed Blade
Overall Length: 11.88″
Blade Length: 6.38″
Cutting Edge: 6.25″
Secondary Edge: 2.13″
Blade Thickness: 0.250″
Blade Steel: 1095 RC 56-58
Blade Finish: Coyote Tan Coating
Handle Material: Green Canvas Micarta
Knife Weight: 21ozWeight w/ Sheath 27oz
Sheath Included: Yes
Sheath Material: Coyote Tan Kydex
Sheath Clip: Rotating Spring Steel
Designer: Tom Brown, Jr.
MSRP: $310 ($240 retail)
Overall * * * * *
Elk and deer and bear, oh my. Salmon and shelter, too. The TOPS Knives Tom Brown Tracker knife exceeded my expectations and lives up to the hype of a childhood hero.