Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Tops/Despins Back Bite, a Purpose-Built Fighting Knife on a Whole New Level

The Back Bite hanging out with my Lanyard Zone pewter glow skull.
     Regarding the state of the modern tactical knife industry in 2011; it seems that many martial-skills based knife designers are a lot of BARK and not much BITE.  The martial-skills based knife designer, in general, talks big & barks loudly about his SpecOps experience, & all of the dangerous hot zones he's survived in his storied career as a certified bad-ass.  If his design is produced by a factory knife company, they whip up some whimsically awesome advertising copy trying to suck you in, & give you tons of reasons why your life is neither safe, nor complete, without this precision-made killing machine.

     The martial skills based designer's knife brags about its hi-tech materials, & exaggerated indestructibility, & why You, the awestruck knife fan, should pay your hard earned money for it.  What I mean by "martial skills based" is, the knife designer that has a primary professional background in military tactics, martial arts or close quarters combat etc, but who is not necessarily a knife-maker him or herself.
     You know them, you see them all over the web, some are legit, some are lesser known, and many are just blowing smoke up your ass-hatch.  All BARK, big talk, but no proof of effectiveness or actual credentials.

     If you're just now hearing about a fellow named Colin Despins, know that you'll continue to see his work in the tactical gear & knife industry for a long time to come.  Despins is somebody I would definitely consider a martial-skills based knife designer.  Colin Despins has studied martial arts his entire life, & is a devoted knife collector, & end-user in his own right.  He has extensive experience in professional Close Protection/Bodyguard work, as well as real-world experience in competitive intelligence, (aka: "****" edited per request).  Despins' work in these intense fields has taken him all over, but he has spent a significant amount of time in Israel, where he had the opportunity to work in a number of  fields.  Despins is personable, honest & armed with a great sense of humor.  Throughout various email/FB message conversations I found Despins to be incredibly straight forward both verbally, and also in typed text.  He's done a lot of cool stuff, both in his professional life, and personal life, but does not come off as somebody who feels the need to brag or talk about himself.  Have I become acquainted with the rare martial skill-set knife designer who can certainly walk the walk?  I think so!

     Colin has trained in a ton of different martial arts disciplines, but there is one that changed his life, and his way of looking at, & thinking about combat & personal defense forever.  Russian Martial Art.  Hard to explain, difficult to teach & obtuse in its approach to all aspects of training. Russian Martial Art could be described as a holistic combat system encompassing aspects of mind, body & soul working together to transform the practitioner's body into an adaptable combat chameleon, ready to engage any challenger, & switch gears on the fly while thinking, fighting, & moving creatively.  Despins was first exposed to Russian Martial Art through a chance encounter at the gym, with a man who would eventually become his mentor, trainer & friend.

Despins demonstrating the alternative, sabre grip with his Back Bite.  Photo courtesy of Tops knives, Idaho, USA
  As I was studying the Back Bite, I looked at various sites dedicated to RMA, I found a very interesting interview with Mr. Vladimir Vasiliev.  Vasiliev's name is one of those that is famous in the cultural sphere of martial arts in general, not just Russian arts, specifically over the past 20-some years.  I remember hearing about Systema ("The System", essentially another synonym for RMA) as a kid back when I was in Taekwondo.  I used to trade knowledge and books & magazines with my fellow students, hoping to absorb as much martial arts knowledge as we could.  Bear in mind this was the early 1990's, early enough that it was rare to have daily access to a computer, & before internet use was common among the masses.  We used to stay after class & exchange dog-eared copies of magazines like Inside Kung-Fu & Black Belt Magazine, hoping to supplement our growing knowledge of sport TKD with anything we could find that would make us more knowledgeable, or make it sound like we knew what we were talking about at our tender ages of 13-16!  I remember picking up on various articles about Russian arts & thinking it was too cool that these guys often just trained in fatigues or more-or-less "regular" sports clothing, instead of being bound to the traditional white "dobok" or gi that we wore.
  
The Back Bite with my newest "bright" item, the awesome Surefire G2X Tactical LED light, a formidable pair of tools indeed!

Tops outfits Colin's menacing knife with a very secure Kydex sheath.
      Anyhow, as I was mulling over the phone conversation I had with Despins, I found a great interview on Vasiliev's own site, with Mr. Vasiliev himself from back in 2004; conducted by a Mark Hemels, for Meibukan Magazine #3.
     Here's just a quick excerpt:  "Why do you find the Russian System more effective than, for instance, karate in real combat practice?"
"The Russian System is more mobile. You can be ready instantly. There are no forms or patterns that you have to prepare yourself with. In the Russian System I learned how to move, and not so much the actual techniques. Techniques are learned step by step, by way of certain patterns, and then it becomes a style. The Russian System focuses more on how to move."

     I felt that this sort of helped define Russian Martial Arts, in my head.  As Despins had told me, it's a somewhat difficult art to define, and an even harder art to teach.  For a deeper look at Vasiliev's Toronto RMA school, & more on Russian Arts in general, start with the rest of the interview quoted above.  It was enlightening, and gave me a bit more perspective on Colin's design influence for the Back Bite itself.  Vasiliev, being one of THE most prominent names in Russian fighting arts today, had some high praise for Despins' design, which is strongly influenced by his own years of experience training in RMA.
Upon reviewing the Tops/Despins Back Bite knife, Vasiliev replied to an email from Despins with the following;
 "(The) Back Bite is a very unique blade. Due to the creative shape and feel, this knife provides new possibilities of applying it in a confrontation. It gives more variety of knife movements and work. A great addition to anyone’s knife collection."    -Vladimir Vasiliev, Chief instructor - Systema Headquarters, Toronto

     The above statement speaks volumes, in my mind, to the potential of the Back Bite, not only in Russian fighting arts, but in pretty much any other style.  I spent a couple of years having trained in Filipino Martial Arts, & based on my limited knowledge I shudder to imagine the damage a trained Kali/Eskrima practitioner could do to an assailant with the Back Bite.  Despins has written that it is not his intent for his design to be exclusive to Russian Martial Art, & in fact, I have already heard plenty of people with non-RMA backgrounds comment on the knife's smart design & comfortable ergonomics.

the engraving on the "flat" side of the blade.
    Every time I look at, or handle the Back Bite, certain phrases enter my mind "outside the box", "20 years ahead of its time", "unique", & "unlike anything else".  Those are still common thought-streams when I handle the knife!  It almost feels as though this knife came from a warrior society from another time-frame, or dimension.  Sounds corny, but get your mitts on one of these & you'll know what I mean.  Perhaps it's because of the Russian Martial Art influence?  One thing I do know, is that after lots of online reading, and a long conversation with Despins about his knife design, I understand the concept, & I'm getting a feel for its RMA influences, yet I still have a hard time explaining it in simple terms!  Could it be that RMA is so esoteric, so forward-thinking & so holistic that examining a purpose built knife based upon its foundations is just plain tricky?  Usually when a knife design finds me at a loss for words, I know I'm holding something special. 

     As far as what I consider the conceptual "Meat & Potatoes" of this knife, let me quote Colin Despins in a piece he wrote earlier this year, on his own website, MaxVenom.com.
   The following sentences were the ones that sort of "brought it home" for me, in regards to Despins' intent with the final product that is the Back Bite fixed blade knife:
Despins says:  "The Russian system of hand to hand combat includes notably ellipse like striking "patterns" that enable any point of contact from any angle or trajectory to be utilized to devastating effect. This allows for a near unlimited array with which to engage any and all targets of opportunity. In no case is Russian Martial Art blade craft limited to inflicting damage upon the adversary through application of the edged implement alone.  
The Back Bite is enabled for this purpose by the concave strike face (edge out) section of the blade. This blade section allows the operator to strike the target with the fist when gripped in the blade down concave edge forward (RGEO, primary) configuration. The strike in turn draws the concave strike face section blade over the surface area of the strike creating a devastating wound in the process."
     So, simply put, the "home", or primary grip is reverse grip (the knife in your fist with the tip pointing at the floor), with the concave, curved edge facing out toward your attacker.  This makes sense, and the knife is certainly very comfortable in this position, but the Back Bite feels good in more traditional grip styles as well.  There is an odd, natural feeling of balance when you hold the knife in your hand in any grip, surprising considering there is really not a single thing about this knife that could be considered "symmetrical" or "traditional"!
a close view of what some have called the "unsharpened chisel" blunt force portion of the Back Bite blade
     Essentially, a sharp edge on either side enables the user to use their own arm-retraction momentum to facilitate a second strike as their fist & arm travels back toward their own body.  This would be where the highly logical moniker for this design comes from, it "bites forward", as well as "biting back", as in, on the way back in.  There's the straight Wharncliffe style edge, and the concave strike face on the other side.  Despins notes in his own description of his design that that "straight" back edge can be utilized for inflicting damage using various trapping methods as well.  What I have come to view as the knife blade's "third surface", is a flat chisel-like edge.  This "flat" edge is intended to add blunt force to a strike, and also aids in overall tip strength, and penetration qualities, lending itself to creating a very nasty wound channel to the unlucky bad-guy who finds himself facing off against a victim who is toting the Back Bite!
     The design is meant to be a "Purpose Built Fighting Knife", based on these manifold martial principles, but there's nothing stopping a Back Bite owner from performing general utility tasks with the thick blade.  I could possibly see a soldier carrying it as a "backup" type weapon, and also using it for the occasional prying task that would damage a smaller knife, or a folding one.  This is one burly piece of steel, 1095 carbon steel to be more precise, a time-tested classic that seems happiest when it is used to make hard-use fixed blades, like camp knives & fighters!
     So, regardless of your preferred martial style, be it Russian, Filipino, or any other art that is creative & adaptable, if you have some martial arts training, chances are you'll immediately see this knife's potential.  I should note that on the truly edged surfaces of this knife, that the "flat" reverse side is actually sharpened as well.  Tops took great care to grind a very thin, straight bevel on what could be called the "flat" side of the knife, or the side with the logo & engraving.  (I noted in my video preview of this knife that personally, I've typically found "chisel ground" knives like the Emerson CQC-7 etc, to cut better if I drag a fine ceramic rod across the flat back of the blade, then strop (basically 'wiping' the knife with some pressure toward the edge) the knife on cloth or my old disused wide leather belt that serves as my "ghetto" knife strop.)    
     I assume that this was A) part of Colin's original design, or B) something Tops decided on during manufacture, either way, putting a small grind-line on the flat side of the sharpened areas definitely lends itself to easier re-sharpening, and in-my-opinion, helps a chisel-like knife cut more smoothly.

the Back Bite, ready for action in my fat hand.

"Spec-Ops trust Tops", Aaron trusts Tops as well!  Seriously, this is a really unique piece of well made combat steel.


     Speaking of edges, and cutting, and all of that fantastic stuff which makes a knife a knife, the Back Bite arrived right on the cusp of 'shaving sharp'.  It was sharp enough on both the concave face, and the straight-line back edge to send some arm-hairs flying.  It wasn't a total hair-annihilating razor, but certainly more than adequately sharp!   This knife, in theoretical mortal use, seems to rely on angles, and the strength & speed of the person working with it, if the knife had come much sharper, it might almost be overkill.  I thought to myself, "it's damn sharp, but by God, it's a fighter! I'm going to see if I can make it obscenely sharp!".
       For simple "touch-up" sharpening, or putting sort of a nastier edge on certain knives when brand-new, I'm a fan of ceramic "dogbone" style rod sharpeners.  You can generally find them in different grits & configurations from several different companies, usually well under $10 USD.  They really aren't ideal for sharpening many knives, but they've become an essential part of my maintenance-sharpening arsenal.  So, disclaimer; just because one style of stone or hone works for me, doesn't mean it'll work for you.
       I usually encourage people to try various sharpening methods & practice on old kitchen knives or Swiss Army style knives until you are comfortable touching up pricier knives that you value more.  Anyhow, as I said, the knife came very sharp, no mean feat for a hunk of steel as thick as this, but using very mild pressure & a steady hand, I managed just a couple of slides with my ceramic across that thin bevels on the flat side of the knife, this was enough to give the blade even more kick.  I stopped at that point, thinking that "there's no way such a crazy-looking knife needs to be really any sharper", it's all about geometry, & I'm confident that the Back Bite could inflict some really awful cuts & pokes even if somebody dulled the factory edge considerably.  Sharp enough is sharp enough!
the heavy-duty spring steel clip integrated into the sheath design is rotatable 360 degrees!
     Here's a peek at the technical side of things: 
O/A Length: 8 1/2"
Top Blade Length: 3"
Bottom Blade Length: 1"
Thickness: 3/16"
Steel: 1095 High Carbon Steel RC (Rockwell-Scale Hardness Rating) 56-58
Handle: Black Linen Micarta
Blade Color: Black Traction Coating
Sheath: Kydex
Weight w/o Sheath: 5.5oz
Weight w/ Sheath: 7oz
Designed by: C. Despins


a shiny close-up of the sharp concave strike face
     I carried the Back Bite extensively across eight or ten weeks, very pleasantly surprised by its adaptability, and discreteness.  A spring steel clip is bolted to the inner side of the sheath, with a large rubber o-ring between the two.  You can rotate the knife, secured in the sheath any way you want, I wore it horizontally on my front right side under all manner of clothing.  I'm one of those "shorts year round" guys, I wear cargo shorts or khaki shorts as often, if not more than I wear long pants.  I wear 5.11's TDU belts, which are some of the best fitting, toughest belts I think I have ever worn.  I simply rotated the clip until it was at basically a right-angle to the horizontal sheath, clipped it onto my TDU belt, and forgot about it.  Same ease of use & carry whether shorts or pants, I even carried it the pocket of a ratty old pair of sweats for a quick trip to the grocery store late one night.
     None of my friends or family ever noticed the edged demon riding on my hip, even when my jacket rode up a few times or I twisted & my shirt became pulled up over the sheath.  I guess it's just a matter of, in some cases, being hidden in plain sight!  Whether the knife was hidden under a t-shirt, a light jacket, a hooded sweatshirt or windbreaker, the knife didn't "print", or (show its shape through clothing) very much, if at all!  Like nearly all Kydex-sheathed fixed blades, all it takes to unleash this little devil is a firm grasp of the handle, and a short push against the top of the sheath with your thumb.  I was able to deploy the knife with my dominant hand, as well as my weak hand, very easily from a number of different locations & positions.  I wore the knife at all manner of angles on both sides & had no problems freeing the knife for potential use, very quickly.

the Kydex sheath locks the knife in with a solid "click"! Audible feedback is something I value when inserting a knife into its safe place!  This is a great sheath system.
     Tops Knives did a great job executing this design.  Some manufacturers would probably take one look at the complex blade geometry & run away crying...but not Mike Fuller & his crew at Tops Knives in Idaho.  These guys have a long & always growing reputation for crafting hardcore, hard use knives in their own basic, bomb-proof style.  I kid you not, when I hear phrases like "tactical fixed blade" a black Tops knife, often their Steel Eagle, or a similar large fixed blade pops into my mind.  Maybe I'm a sucker for advertising, but somewhere across the years, in my odd, slightly atypical brain, Tops has become synonymous with big, burly fixed blade tactical knives!
     Despins gave the knife a nice handle length, likely with the intent of accommodating multiple grip styles.  The attractively patterned micarta handle is just under 4.5 inches, the perfect length for an average adult fist, at least, an adult man's fist.  I have fairly large hands & the Back Bite was comfortable for me in every conceivable grip.  I do think the knife would be comfortable in many womens' hands as well.  I showed it to one female friend who called it "sexy" and also commented that she liked the slightly thinner handle profile.  If I had to guess I'd say that the handle was designed to maximize maneuverability in a wide range of hand sizes.  There's no clumsy or overly-beefy handling here, just pure finesse, especially if you have even a small bit of stick or knife training!  I was impressed too with another small detail; in any grip, even in my big hands, there was enough of the handle-butt sticking out to act as an impact tool, just expanding your defense options that much further!  
Tops likes to use micarta for its durability, grip performance, and solid good looks.
 http://www.topsknives.com/
      Across my review process & showing various people the Back Bite, including posting photos on the Sharp Bright & Tactical Facebook page, it became apparent that the Back Bite's unconventional design appeals to a wide cross section of "knife people", including those who don't have any formal martial arts or knife training.  It's unique enough that I could see avid collectors & Tops knives fans picking one up simply to have as a unique part of their tactical knife arsenal.  It's certainly cemented its spot among my own collection, and made a permanent impression on me.  It's impressive as an unconventional facet of my collection, as well as being a knife that I know could help keep me safe in a really terrible area where I felt threatened.
here you can see the thin red spacers give the knife a bit more visual "pop!"
     I often speak about the ability of select, certain knives to give the carrier a boosted feeling of competency or confidence.  There are simply a few knives out there, whether fixed or folding, which imbue the user with this feeling.  I'm not talking a cocky "hey man...I got a knife!" type attitude, just a quiet feeling of having a silent partner with you, along for the ride, in a pocket, or on a belt.  This knife certainly gives off that feeling when I carry it around with me.
     At its heart, the Back Bite is an earnestly designed weapon fit for various practitioners of a number of martial arts styles.  Tops has done a great job of making Colin's idea come to life in 1095 & micarta.  This illustrates one of the key things I love about knives, particularly high-end tactical pieces; makers & factory operations start with fairly simple materials, & craft them into something infinitely creative, useful or aesthetically pleasing.  This knife is certainly all three.  Despite the potential complexity surrounding facets of the Back Bite's design & use, at the end of the day, it's a finely crafted weapon in a very simple & effective carry system.
For additional info, contact Despins' MaxVenom Product Group or Tops Knives.com
Damn!!!

the Back Bite's flat logo side, with the knife resting atop my Para-cord Guy OD Survival Bracelet http://www.theparacordguy.com/
Next Level, seriously dudes...look at that!
 http://www.maxvenom.com/

4 comments:

Jes said...

Worth the wait!

Aaron said...

Thanks for your feedback, as usual! I appreciate it! I actually threw out close to 3 drafts of this review within the last 2 months. This knife really stumped me as far as how to do a review, while conveying all I wanted to. It really is a very cool knife just for a collection because it's unlike anything. The main body of the review was actually done, & over the last week or two I found my groove. Thanks for your support Jes!
take care
-A

Alessandro said...

what a review.... Awesome knife,sick blade.
Like you said,"it's all about geometry". A floor sharpened prison shank does the job, so this will definitely do it EASIER.
I would have liked to see some kind of sub hilt maybe...but that's me,I love sub hilts.
Maybe it would have interfered with knife's combat uses.
Great job Aaron!

Aaron said...

thanks for your support Alessandro!