Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tops Knives CUMA Evolution, a Waysun Johnny Tsai Design Built to Take A Beating!

Can you tell I've improved the quality of the photos on this blog?  I realized I had a fantastic light source right under my nose, and tweaked my cheap little point n shoot until I found the optimum settings.  Here's a detail shot with the serial number visible.
      I feel like martial arts & knives go hand in hand, naturally on some level.  They are both interests that captivated me very early in life, and often when I think of one, the other pops into my head as well.  There have been points during the relatively young life of the tactical knife market category that have been dominated by designs from Special Operations folks, in addition to professional, career knife-makers.  Most production knife companies collaborate with all sorts of professional soldiers, police officers etc. to produce signature model knife designs.  It's not rare to see knives out there designed by people with martial arts backgrounds, but it's more uncommon to see knives designed by what I might call, "pure" martial artists.  Datu Kelly S. Worden of Modern Arnis fame comes to mind as somebody that, by most standards would be considered a pure martial artist, who has worked his knowledge and fighting expertise into a successful segue into the world of knives & tactical gear.
Sifu Waysun Johnny Tsai, of Tsai's Kung Fu in Chicago, is one such "pure" martial artist.  He's made a career of teaching martial arts in many different ways to people from widely varied backgrounds and professions.  Waysun is the son of Grandmaster John Chi Yuan Tsai, one of the world's foremost teachers of Shaolin Kung Fu in modern times.
  If Waysun Johnny Tsai's name is new to you, it won't be long before you're hearing it in many more places, in connection with the worlds of self defense and tactical products.  Johnny is the founder of his own CUMA system, that's Combined Universal Martial Applications.  He has more than a quarter of a century of experience teaching martial arts.  Johnny Tsai is still a young man, it makes sense that when your father is a grandmaster, that you're going to get an early start, and lots of individual learning at a young age!

     SiJo (founder) Johnny Tsai defines his CUMA sytem as follows; "C.U.M.A. is a “Hybrid Fighting System” designed to develop a practitioner’s skills in the art of PRACTICAL martial art applications. It focuses on all ranges of practical armed and unarmed combat."
I have watched some of Tsai's CUMA instructional DVDs, and as somebody with a modest bit of on & off martial arts experience since I was 13 (that's 20! years ago, gah!) I can say that Tsai's CUMA system IS indeed practical.  It seems to take an amalgamation of some of the most logical and effective martial arts techniques across different personal combat ranges and fuse them into a practical grab-bag of knowledge & muscle memory.

Johnny Tsai making a statement on the cover of a 2007 issue of Inside Kung-Fu
      For most of us, knives are a tool first, and God forbid the worst scenario arises, a weapon second.  But where do we draw the line, if at all?  It's almost as if, because a tool happens to be a knife, it also has the capability to be used in a defensive role under extreme circumstances.  Tactical Knives Magazine Editor, Mr. Steven Dick is a hero of mine.  I used to read TK avidly, and I still pick it up when I think of it.  I remember his statement about what it is exactly, that qualifies a piece of bladeware as a Tactical Knife.  It seemed to be the consensus of Mr. Dick, and most of the TK writers, that a tactical knife, is simply one that is meant to be used.  I would agree with that.  Fantasy knives, in my opinion, are not tactical knives, because they are constructed to look neat (or dorky) on a wall.  On the other hand, you could call a Swiss Army knife a Tactical Knife, because it's a handful of utility, meant to be used in even more ways than say, a pure fighting knife.  Regardless of your exact definition of what constitutes a "Tactical Knife", there can be NO arguing, that Idaho's Tops Knives makes Tactical Knives that beg to be used!

This is a gorgeous piece of work intended for hard use, I would not think twice about using this as a camp or self defense blade, if the need arose!

     Mike Fuller and company over at Tops have been putting out a wide array of hard use tactical knives for a long time.  Mike's in-house crew is comprised of a group of people with real-life experience in many different fields.  From the Tops website;  "Our Knives are TOOLS designed, and built, using the extensive knowledge and REAL LIFE experiences of 12 Operators with backgrounds in the Military, Law Enforcement, Outdoor Professions, and the Martial Arts."
Tops has designs that are created in-house, with the input of the core group & lots of other knives which are designed by experts in various fields like military, law enforcement, survival and martial arts.  Past collaborators include knife writer/survival expert Terrill Hoffman, Tracker Tom Brown (the knife used in the film 'The Hunted'), survival expert Ron Hood, and Canadian Special Forces Vet & knife-maker Brent Beshara, just to name a small but impressive handful!  The aforementioned Steven Dick, one of my knife-writing heroes & a man with a ton of military experience even designed a great all around camp/outdoor knife called the Pasayten.  Tops has always impressed me with the sheer number of designs they have produced over the years.  They even make folding knives!  Their website is a virtual treasure trove of knives for every imaginable use, from big survival knives, to small covert neck knives, they even make a "tactical steak knife"!  Tops, as a company does have a refreshing sense of humor in some of their product names, but their knives are certainly no joke.  They have a hardcore reputation for real world use, both by military & law enforcement folks, as well as adventurers & civilians.
It's no surprise that Waysun Johnny Tsai would team up with Fuller & Tops at some point.  It seems like a pretty natural collaboration.  Tsai is one of the foremost street survival teachers out there, who has been practicing martial arts since early childhood, a man who was practically born with a combat mindset.  The CUMA Evolution is a nice, large fixed blade with a beautifully clean looking spearpoint, and an additional sharpened edge on top.

Let's check the specs:
Overall Length: 10"
Top Edge Blade Length: 4"
Bottom Edge Blade Length: 4 5/8"
Thickness: 3/16"
Steel: 1095 HighCarbon RC 56-58 (Rockwell Scale steel hardness rating)
Handle: "Rocky Mountain Tread" Black Linen Micarta
Blade Color: Black Traction Coating
Sheath: Nylon with a hard insert.

     The CUMA Evolution starts its life as a piece of 1095 high carbon steel.  The knife wears Tops' classic black traction coating, a sort of powder coat, if I'm not mistaken.  The fact that the blade is sharp on both sides adds a unique visual flare to the CUMA Evolution, with the black coating converging into a point, right before the knife's tip.  I really like the fact that the back edge is truly sharpened, it is NOT a "false edge", it is truly sharpened.  I wondered where Tsai drew his inspiration for this knife from.  I could tell the first time I held it, that it was balanced differently in the hand, it's just a bit handle heavy, which actually gives it a great feel.  With just a bit more handle-weight, the blade sits at a very natural angle in the hand in a more traditional "sabre grip".  The Rocky Mountain Tread micarta handle (which I'll touch on in a bit) makes a transition to reverse grip, and other slightly modified grips very easy & quick.  This feels like a very clear cross between a pure fighting knife, and a hard use utility fixed blade.  I actually thought "hmmm pure fighter/hard use utility" as I handled the knife.  It turns out, I was not too far off the mark of Johnny Tsai's vision & design influence.  This knife can dance with the best of them, it moves very fast for a knife its size and very graceful as well.

Waysun Johnny Tsai told me;
  "The Cuma Evolution was designed to function both as a combat and a sportsman's knife. The double edged blade was designed for both piercing and slashing. I wanted a combat blade that had great balance and enough cutting edge so that if it should have it's tip broken in the field, it would still have plenty of cutting power."

     Wow!  Statements like that are why it's clear to me, and many of Tsai's associates, that although his roots are in a fairly traditional martial art, Kung-Fu, that he brings a very modern, open & urban mindset both to his CUMA fighting system, his teachings, and any products he has a design role in producing.  I realize that the term "Kung-Fu", because of poplar culture, and probably a bit of Western ignorance, has become a very broad, non-specific sort of catch-all phrase for many martial arts fighting styles of Chinese origin.  I'm simply trying to say that it's apparent that Johnny Tsai is a master at combining the most useful pieces of martial knowledge and fusing them together, so they work well together.  I am most impressed that Tsai seems to have designed the key points of this blade to be useful in real-world applications, for soldiers, hunters and adventurers.  Again, that just speaks well of his "big picture" mindset.  I can't wait to see what Sifu Waysun Johnny Tsai brings the world of tactical knives & weapons in the coming years.

The rear/unmarked side of the blade.  Look at those clean lines and gorgeous spearpoint tip!  The back edge is sharpened as well.
     The CUMA Evolution's handle slabs, like many, if not most knives that Tops produces, are made of black linen micarta.  Micarta is, in simple terms, layers upon layers of tough, papery cloth squashed together at insanely high pressures in a resin-like plastic to make a material that is lighter, and tougher, than say, wood.  From WikiPedia;
"Micarta is a trademark of Norplex-Micarta industrial high pressure laminates and refers to a composite of linencanvaspaperfiberglasscarbon fiber or other fabric in a thermosetting plastic"

     Needless to say, if you have been around a significant number of custom and factory knives in the past 20 years, you have likely (hopefully) seen and felt micarta, and you know it provides a very good grip, is light weight and very strong.  Tops takes this a step further with their proprietary rocky Mountain Tread handle pattern.  The micarta slabs are ground with grooves, or wide channels across the handle's width.  Every other groove is a full-width channel, and the others meet in the center of the handle, creating a flat little "peak", hence, Rocky Mountain Tread.  This pattern was created by a man named Leo Espinoza.  I found out from the Tops website, that Leo "The Lion" Espinoza is a Tops Design Manager, and also an accomplished knife maker & designer in his own right.  My hat goes off to Mr. Espinoza, the grip works, and passed my little "wet hands" test.  I took it a step farther.  With the bath faucet running and water in the tub (don't worry guys, I was fully clothed, kneeling out-side the tub!), I immersed my hand in the water.  Good grip when wet.      Next I went and got the liquid dish soap.  I didn't think there would be ANY way the grip would work well with the slick mess.  I expected the CUMA Evolution to shoot from my hand like a ketchup-saturated hot dog off of a tightly gripped bun.  I figured if I was lucky, I wouldn't lose an eye when the knife hit the fiberglass tub wall & ricocheted into my head.  Surprisingly, even with dish-soap slicked hands, the knife stayed nicely in place.  I realized the reason for this, is because Leo's Rocky Mountain Treads serve as channels to drain away any sweat, mud, rain, blood soap!  Ok, it far exceeded my expectations in the grip department.

An excellent, more artistic photo crafted by my great friend Eric Bauer, who did some gun writing early on when I launched this site in 2008.  See more of Eric's fantastic HDR photography @
     What about cold hands?  Sportsmen during hunting season are certainly gong to face wet & cold hands, even if they're only using the CUMA Evolution as a camp cook knife.  I have family that lives on a little Puget Sound saltwater bay.  The water there is VERY cold, especially in November!  The CUMA Evolution smelled as if it had been treated with Tuf-Cloth, or a similar rust-preventing product already from the factory.  Just to be safe, I gave it a good coating of Sentry Solutions' Tuf-Glide, the stuff that they saturate their Tuf-Cloth with.  After wiping the excess off & letting it dry, I ended up immersing my knife-gripping right hand in the freezing, shallow water until I couldn't stand it anymore.
  I had lost a significant amount of feeling in that hand up to my wrist, I still had the dexterity to grasp the knife, but I was losing fine control because of the cold.  Of course, this is nothing to the conditions that professional soldiers, outdoors-people & hunters might face, I just wanted to see what sort of a grip the RMT handle provided with cold, wet hands.  I'm happy to say that I never lost control of the knife, not even while choking back on the handle, as you might for light chopping, with a 3 finger grip.  Tops' Rocky Mountain Tread design works as intended, plus it looks really cool.
A better look at the micarta Rocky Mountain Tread handle slabs, which provide an excellent grip with dry or wet hands.
     I'm confident that Johnny Tsai's design, as manufactured by Tops Knives USA, can take pretty much anything you can throw at it, I'll update readers as I have a chance to really let it perform.  Right out of the box it was shipped in, the CUMA Evolution was hair-shaving sharp on both edges.  I always emphasize this because on knives that are made from thick, beefy stock, as this one is, it can be harder to get that acute, scary sharpness, even straight from the factory.  The back edge shaved, just as the primary edge did, but it took just a tad more pressure to make the arm-hairs fly.  Still, the back edge sharpness is impressive, and way, way more than good.  I'm pretty impressed when the secondary edge on a knife is sharper than the main edge on many other knives!  As far as manufacturing executions goes, everything on my CUMA Evolution is perfect.  Bevels and lines are clean, when held to a bright light source, there are no gaps or wide spots between the blade steel & the handle material.  There are no uncomfortable areas or 'hot spots' anywhere on the handle that I could find, and I tried a wide variety of grips.  Tops Knives gets an "A+" for manufacturing quality, the knife is clean, and looks & feels just about perfect.

      I've been struggling for weeks to find something to gripe about!  Alas, I think the only way this knife might not be perfect for an individual depends entirely upon the specific needs of that individual.  This goes for any knife or tool.  If you want a "fishing knife", you should probably peruse the Tops website and pick something a bit smaller, if you are going for concealment, they (Tops Knives) do offer a ton of personal sized knives specifically for concealment.  I absolutely think our soldiers in the Middle East would really love this knife because it offers them all of the utility of a more conventional fixed blade knife, plus a secondary, fully sharpened edge in a package that moves quick & gracefully.  There's no doubt that the CUMA Evolution would rule the day in properly trained hands if used to defend life & limb.  Certainly just from the knife's full USA pedigree, and the involved parties that made it a reality, you could probably guess that this is a knife that will excel in a combat role.  I say combat, in its purest sense, man against man, but I know from talking to servicemen that combat is not simply about "fighting".  A "combat knife" should be capable of being useful in many aspects of a combat zone.  I have to reinforce once more, if you have any preconceived notions that the CUMA Evolution is simply "just a fighting knife", you should take another look.  Bushcraft, survival, military, hiking, camping, I could go on, but realize that this is very much an all-purpose knife that happens to have been designed by a man to whom personal combat is his bread & butter.

     The CUMA Evolution comes standard in a ballistic nylon sheath, with a hard polymer insert that carries the blade.  There are 2 very high quality hook & loop (Velcro) straps that secure the handle, and they work very well.  The sheath is MOLLE/PALS webbing compatible and the only real limit to attachment styles is probably your imagination & your other gear.  The sheath also comes with a long length of OD paracord, to use as a thigh tie, I'm assuming, or for the user to use however they find it most useful.  There's a nice pouch built into the sheath that will fit a wide range of multi-tools, a folder, or a pocket stone.  Some people may want to have a Kydex rig custom made, but for my needs, and for many of us, the ballistic nylon sheath included with the knife is more than adequate.

The CUMA Evolution's ballistic nylon sheath is a basic affair, but does its job well.  It has a hard polymer insert that holds the blade, and a front pocket for a stone or additional folder or multi-tool.  It comes with a long length of OD paracord that can be used as a leg tie down, or be woven into a lanyard.

     I'm very impressed overall with the design and manufacture of the CUMA Evolution.  Johnny Tsai is a very interesting, multi-talented guy who definitely knows his way around a knife.  Both his lifetime of martial arts experience and his calm intelligence serve him well whether he is teaching, or designing knives & self defense tools.  Check out my review of Johnny's fantastic CUMA Ram Tactical Pen, if you missed it a couple months back, it's one of the most well-made items I saw in 2010, as far as overall quality, toughness & design.  Speaking of "best of" items, I'm going to come right out and say that the CUMA Evolution knife by Tops & Johnny Tsai is also one of the overall best items I have reviewed this year.  If the CUMA Evolution is on your list, you can get it straight from Tops Knives, mine was shipped very quickly, and exceeded all expectations, right out of the box.  For more info on Waysun Johnny Tsai, check out his site, Tsai's Kung-Fu, and seriously, no bullshit, his CUMA Ram Pen is the best tactical pen I have used yet, and fits my needs perfectly, check out the CUMA Ram.
    I'm really excited to see what projects Johnny Tsai is working on for 2011.  I'm willing to bet they'll be smartly designed and multi-purposeful, in addition to being manufactured with very high standards.

The tool/accessory pocket on the sheath's front.

The sheath's reverse with PALS webbing.
Another great shot by my great friend Eric Bauer, who did some gun writing early on when I launched this site in 2008.  See more of Eric's fantastic HDR photography @
Photo courtesy of blog supporter and friend, Alexander Wood, in New York.

Another awesome shot of the Tops/Tsai CUMA Evolution at home in nature.  Photo courtesy of my friend Alexander Wood, aka: Urban Lex in NY


CTone said...

Great review!

I could litteraly buy TOPS's entire lineup; everything they make is sexy.

I like the double edge on this one, although I see them as a trade off. I like to have a spine on a knife that I'm going to use for chores and less for hacking down the Zs, but for a pure combat knife to have on your side, this thing is it.

Also, I'm pretty much done using anything stainless as the stars have to be absolutely aligned to get them sharp again. Not so much with 1095. Good tough steel that's perfect for hard use.

Aaron said...

I hear you on stainless, people always expect that they can get a factory edge back on a stainless knife after they've whomped on it without touching it up for a year! I love the Esee/RAT Izula knives for a small carbon steel fixed. The CUMA does have a *bit* of spine still and while sharpened, that back edge is thicker. But I hear you for things like batoning a full-spined knife has definite advantages. I'm just stoked on it, it's the first TOPs I've had in awhile, and Mr. Tsai is a really cool dude.

Aaron said...

wow man, maybe I should change my comment enabling statues here, weird comment from a guy saying "nice artificial on the pocket knives", then leaving a weird link for some Swiss Army retail site. Evidently he realized he's an idiot because I followed the email notification link here and his comment had vanished. I am proud to write quality artificials about the pocket knives, and CTone, I'm glad to have a blog buddy like yourself who writes very funny and impressive artificials about the guns and things too, LMAO.

Aaron said...

whoops, stupid is as stupid does! I said, "maybe I should change my comment enabling STATUES here"
D'oh! the game of words is too cruel for a sensitive soul such as myself, I just want to write artificials about the pocket knive!