‘Chopper’ knives are big, burly survival blades made to do heavy work in the wilds. We put three high-carbon steel choppers head-to-head to find the best. Which will slice, dice, and baton its way to the top?
If you are looking for a knife that can do some real chopping, you need to go up a few inches (and a few ounces) beyond the EDC realm.
This review focuses on knives that are around 7 inches or longer in blade length. The purpose is to evaluate three knives, all of which use high carbon steel, of various price ranges. I put them through a battery of tests I think fairly simulates how people use these knives in the real world. First, meet the knives:
Utility Tools Battle Axe in 1095 ($175)
Ka-Bar Becker BK-9 (starts at $90)
Mora Pathfinder (starts at $67)
I was provided the Battle Axe and the Pathfinder as review samples. I own the BK-9. In fairness, the BK-9 is more than four years old and I am the second owner. In order to produce more useful results I had it professionally sharpened prior to the test. It was dull and chipped from years of use and it was beyond my capacity to sharpen.
The Mora Pathfinder is the largest, or among the largest, of the Mora knives. It has a lot of the classic Mora features — a versatile Scandi grind, a rubber over-molded handle, a partial tang, and a simple blade shape.
It is, however, a departure from the thin-bladed Moras that are very common. The Pathfinder has a comparatively beefy 1/8 inch thick blade. The blade is 6.75 inches long. Also, it does not come with the typical Mora molded plastic sheath, opting instead for a slender nylon sheath with a plastic insert. The blade is DLC coated high carbon, but I could not find the precise steel designation anywhere.
MSRP is $129.95, but the knife can be found on Amazon for about $67.
Ka-Bar Becker BK-9
The Becker BK-9 is a large fixed blade produced by Ka-Bar and designed by Ethan Becker, an accomplished knife designer, an outdoorsman, and an inventor. His design know-how and experience outdoors brings features and refinements to the BK line of knives that are hard to find elsewhere.
The mark of a Becker is the classic parrot-beak handle. It is very good in the hand, producing few if any hotspots and locking the knife into your grip. The BK-9 has a small clip at the end of the blade for better penetrating cuts. It also has a thumb ramp just in front of the handle on the spine of the blade.
The end result is a grip that is perfect for a wide variety of tasks, from swing-with-all-your-might chopping to camp food prep to firecraft. The blade is 3/16 stock of 1095 and it is heavily coated. The knife sells for around $90 on Amazon. There is a clear coat version that hits $100+.
Additionally, there are a whole universe of aftermarket accessories for the BK-9 and all Beckers–sheath systems, handle scales, blade mods. If you can think of it, someone offers it as a service. The “Beckerheads” are legion and they are very creative.
Utility Tools Battle Axe
The Battle Axe is a robust offering from a small fixed blade knife company called Utility Tools. It runs 1095 steel, but you can upgrade to other steels for more money (A2 and S30V are about $30 and $60 more respectively).
It comes with a nylon sheath, but they also sent me a nice leather sheath. The micarta handle completely surrounds the tang of knife, resulting in a durable yet comfortable handle.
The blade is a quarter-inch thick and comes to the cutting bevel via a flat grind. It has a nice, elegant drop-point, delivering plenty of steel to a surprisingly pointy tip. The knife sells for $175, making it the high-end option in this review.
Best Survival, Bushcraft Knife
I carried the knives on day hikes of various lengths. I also put the knives through their paces in terms of chopping and wood splitting by building fires with them. I also used them to clear brush around my house, testing their ability to cut green wood as opposed to dry wood.
Tough To Carry
All three knives were tough to carry. All three are quite big. Even the Pathfinder, the slimmest and lightest of the bunch, is still well over 10 inches long in its sheath. The Battle Axe’s leather sheath, while leagues better than any of the nylon offerings, was heavy and, on occasion, cumbersome.
Hiking up and down steep grades is impractical with these knives on your belt. All three were much better when strapped to a MOLLE equipped pack, though the leather sheathed Battle Axe was even noticeably heavy there. The reality is that knives of this size are just hard to carry. You know that going in and if you want the benefits these big, heavy blades provide, you have to accept their poor carry as a trade off.
Though it is rarely mentioned in the hatchet/axe vs. chopper debate that seems to be a perpetual conflict in the knife community, I think this is the biggest drawback of the chopper-style knife. The physics of chopping wood with a knife demand a blade so big and thick that it is just a bear to carry.
Knife For Fire Prep
Fire prep is not only a common task to do with big choppers, it includes a wide variety of cutting jobs that test various aspects of a blade. Generally I prefer to make fires without matches or an accelerant, instead using a firesteel and a homemade kit that includes dryer lint. Using that as the tinder, I make feather sticks and shavings to transfer the fire from the uber-flammable lint to the wood.
Here the choppers were used to make the shavings, a task that is decidedly out of their wheelhouse. Shavings are best made by slicing knives and even the Mora, a brand known for its slicing ability, was too thick for doing this task perfectly.
After that first test, I batoned the actual wood logs. I used a variety of wood: dry and green pieces of pine, maple, and oak. Batoning is also a controversial topic in the knife community, as its utility as a survival technique is questionable.
It is, however, a superb test of a fixed blade. Using the knife as a froe, you split the wood to expose its dry interior and to make smaller pieces to better control the heat and ferocity of the fire. Here the bigger knives, the Battle Axe and the BK-9 did better than the thinner knife, the Pathfinder (see image below).
Survival Knife To Cut Tree Limbs
I used the knives to de-limb and fell a few small (wrist- or arm- thick) trees. This is the exact task big knives are best at and here all three did incredibly well. There is nothing quite like the joy of taking limbs off a tree in one swift, clean stroke. Once all three of these tasks were done I had a nice stack of fire supplies and a bunch of data.
As a side task I decided to use the knives to clear brush, a job best performed by a larger thinner knife like a machete, bolo, or parang (all traditional brush clearing blades from around the world). This, like tree felling, was a good test of the knives’ capacity to hack stuff down. The green wood and plants quickly made the blades messy and was often tougher to do than real chopping. None of the blades were great at this. Stick with a machete if this is what you need to do.
Mora Pathfinder: Lightest, Least ‘Choppy’
The Mora Pathfinder is the biggest of the Mora blades, but its construction (partial tang and rubberized handles) and its size made it the worst of the choppers. In all honesty, I am not sure that Mora even pushes this knife as a chopper, but it is the largest and thickest of their knives, so the comparison seems fair.
Chopping is about force and without the mass of the other two knives, the Pathfinder performed like a long camp knife and not like a true chopper. It gets points for being the sharpest out of the box and for being the lightest and best carrying of the three knives.
That said, it was just not massive enough to be able to perform some of the more arduous tasks. If weight is an issue, the Pathfinder CAN do all of the things you’d want a chopper to do, its just not great at any of them.
It is okay as a camp knife–doing decent in some slicing tasks and food prep, but I prefer a shorter fixed blade in this role, something like the Mora Companion or the Fallkniven F1.
Batoning was absolutely brutal using the Pathfinder, as it really roughed up the rubber handle and took a great deal of time (the thin blade did not operate well as a splitter).
Utility Tools Battle Axe: Chops Great, Poor At Fine Tasks
The Battle Axe was definitely better as a chopper than the Mora and it was a close second to the BK-9. I liked its heft and in the nylon sheath it was not a bear to carry. The leather sheath is truly beautiful and a great value, but its not the most practical set up, adding a ton of weight and bulk.
I had a kydex sheath made for the Battle Axe and in that sheath it was a great knife to carry, about as good as you can get for something this massive.
The Battle Axe did very well in most tasks, with one notable exception. It was, by far, the worst at making shavings, as it is both the thickest and has bluntest cutting bevel. It was excellent at tree felling and de-limbing. In fact, it was so fun that it was pretty hard to stop using it. Maple saplings dropped like dominoes when struck by the Battle Axe.
The micarta handle was a joy with no hotspots and plenty of grip. The fact that it completely encased the full tang blade handle was a nice feature and one of the reasons it has a premium price. This sort of construction is hard to do, especially compared to slab-constructed handles, like those found on the BK-9.
The Battle Axe’s very thick stock made it tough, but it also made batoning somewhat challenging. For the tests I selected a couple of different pieces of wood–dried pine, green pine, maple, and two pieces of oak (one with a knot and one with clear grain). The Battle Axe did well on everything but the very tough knotty oak. There it got stuck to the point where I had to use a pry bar to get it out. I probably could have pounded the bejeezus out of it to get it through, but it wouldn’t have been safe for me or the knife.
One thing I would definitely do if I were keeping the Battle Axe is I would re-profile the edge, putting a taller cutting bevel on the knife to increase its slicing abilities. This will undoubtedly make the edge more chip prone, but choppers shouldn’t be pretty.
Becker BK-9: Best ‘Chopper’ Style Survival Knife In Test
The BK-9 won this test, and while it’s far from conclusive, is the best of these three (albeit the largest and most cumbersome to carry).
The BK-9 did quite well on every task, coming in second behind the Mora on slicing tasks and making shavings. It was competent in every regard and excels in batoning. It was the only knife that made it through the knotty oak and it did so with relative ease. In tree de-limbing and felling it was lightsaber-esque.
There are three minor complaints about the BK-9, but none serious enough to hold it back from winning this shootout. First, the blade coating is wretched. Ka-Bar has noticed this and now offers a clear coat version. I actually prefer the weathered look, but the coating literally adds nothing to the knife (yes, I guess it is a barrier for surface rust, but so does a light coating of oil).
Second, the sheath is deplorable. Again Ka-Bar has noticed and now offers kydex sheathes as an upgrade. There are also a bevy of sheath makers that work on Becker models.
Finally, while the handle shape is truly the best in the fixed blade world, I’d like better scale material. Its not a big deal, but the micarta scales on the Battle Axe had me pining for better. There are, of course, Ka-Bar and aftermarket micarta scales for the BK-9. I would also note that while the BK-9 is only about an inch longer than the Battle Axe, that inch makes a difference for me, giving me better reach and making batoning easy.
Best Survival Knife?
The Pathfinder was adequate, while the Battle Axe and the BK-9 were both very good. I have to give the slight edge to the BK-9 has it could do some real slicing and it made it through the toughest pieces of wood.
I have no doubt that the re-profiled edge helped the BK-9, but the slightly thinner stock also made a difference. The Battle Axe is a superb chopper, but the BK-9 is just slightly better. I think the Battle Axe has more potential–with a custom kydex sheath and a re-profiled edge, but out of box I like the BK-9 just a bit more.
Winner: Ka Bar Becker BK-9