El Pionero (The Pioneer) is a new knife from TOPS knives designed by Ed Calderon. Ed is a former paramilitary law enforcement officer from Tijuana, Mexico, who specializes in edged tools and weapons. First previewed in working prototype form at Blade Show 2022, the much awaited knife finally became available on Cinco de Mayo 2023. It immediately became a top seller.

A few years back, Ed visited TOPS Knives in Idaho Falls to do a class and shared his expertise on their podcast, TOPS Daily Grind. During his stay, he and Leo Espinoza (TOPS’ President) decided to collaborate on a knife design that would combine Ed’s experience and TOPS’ quality. Most of Ed’s knives are designed based on the experiences he had as a kid. El Pionero is inspired by the humble paring knife that is ubiquitous around the world. When Ed was growing up, his mother always had a small kitchen knife handy for utility and protection.

The paring knife gets its name from its role of paring vegetables or fruit. It is light in weight and easy to hold in the hand, with a short sturdy blade to do delicate jobs with precision. But don’t let its small size fool you. It is quite capable of taking care of business. Cheap “fruit knives” are common weapons in Mexican criminal culture. Ed calls them the AK-47 of the knife world.

El Pionero is a collaboration between TOPS Knives and Ed Calderon, a leading expert in the field of personal security. It is based on what is probably the most common knife type on the globe – a paring knife. It has other features that Ed has found to be useful on knives.

About Ed Calderon

Ed Calderon has a wealth of experience in dealing with counter-narcotics, organized crime investigation, and public safety in Mexico’s northern border region, where he worked for more than 10 years. He also provided executive protection for high-level government officials and visiting dignitaries in some of the most dangerous areas of the country.

Ed is a leading expert in the field of personal security. He has extensively researched the Mexican criminal culture, including its occult practices and unique modus operandi. He has shared his knowledge with federal law enforcement agents such as the FBI and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), Navy SEALs, Indonesian Kopaska, intelligence service operatives from Mexico and the United States, and special forces groups from around the world.

Now living in the Untied States, Ed currently offers security consulting and seminars and private training courses in North America. His topics include anti-abduction, escapology, unarmed combat, region-specific executive protection work, and unconventional-edged weapons work. Ed has appeared several times on Spotter Up podcasts. Check out Ed’s website for more information: EdsManifesto.com.

TOPS Knives El Pionereo

The blade of El Pionero is straight-backed and plain-edged, with a full tang. The blade is made of 1095 steel with a hardness of 56-58 on the Rockwell scale. It is tumble-finished. The blade is 3.38” long and 0.090” thick, with a 3.13” cutting edge and a 1.5” swedge (tapered false edge). The blade has a saber grind. The overall length of the knife is 7.63” The knife weighs 2.9oz. The handle scales are tan canvas Micarta® with red G10 liners.

At first glance it may look simple in design, but there is more to this knife than meets the eye. El Pionero combines Ed’s expertise and abilities to create a very effective self-defense weapon. It has several features that reflect his unique vision and skill.

The Blade

El Pionero features a versatile 3.38” 1095 high carbon steel straight-back blade that is suitable for a wide range of tasks. The false edge aids in penetration capabilities.

The straight-back blade of El Pionero is traditional on paring knives. A straight-back blade, also known as a standard blade, has a straight spine and a curved edge. It is commonly used for slicing, chopping, and carving tasks. Straight-back blades are versatile and easy to sharpen, making them popular among hunters, chefs, and woodworkers.

Ed took the traditional blade and optimized it for personal defense. He added a swedge to further enhance the stabbing ability of the already capable narrow blade, while maintaining its all-around utility and also avoiding the legal restrictions that would often be posed by a double-edged blade. He chose a blade length that is short enough to allow it to be easily concealed it in the hand, while being long enough to still be effective for self-defense. The comparatively thin blade provides a sharp edge and excellent slicing capability, much like to a paring knife.

TOPS is known for its 1095 steel. 1095 steel is a high carbon steel with 0.95% carbon content. It also has other trace elements like manganese, phosphorus, and sulfur. This steel is excellent for knife making because it is reasonably tough, holds a good edge, and easy to sharpen. It has been used by the military for many years.

The drawback to this type of steel is that it rusts fairly easily. TOPS applies a high-quality oil that prevents rust before shipping each blade. To avoid rust in normal use, clean the knife after use and regularly coat the blade with a good knife oil or a dry film rust inhibitor. All fixed blade knives purchased directly through TOPS (and all TOPS folders regardless of where they are purchased) ship with a bottle of TOPS-branded HP100 Knife Oil.

TOPS does a differential heat treatment on its carbon steel knives. It differentially alters the properties of the steel, creating areas that are harder or softer than others. This helps create a tough blade with a wear-resistant edge. The given RC hardness is for the edge. Differential heat treatment makes TOPS knives stronger and capable of withstanding the sideways stresses that many other knives cannot. The renowned feudal Japanese Samurai swordsmiths also used differential heat treating on their blades.

The Handle

El Pionero has canvas Micarta scales that provide a secure grip. The finger divot is a signature of Ed’s that he learned from his mother. It makes it easy to know edge orientation and also helps with extraction.

A knife is only as good as its handle. The handle of El Pionero is designed to accommodate any grip style comfortably. The finger divot is a trademark of his that he learned from his mother. It allows you to feel the blade orientation in low-light situations. It also helps with retention during extraction. Ed states that when you go into large joints, bone or anything dense you will get things getting stuck, so for that you need someplace to grab onto. It provides a good, solid grip. The rounded pommel allows to reinforce your grip with your thumb when the knife is held in a reverse grip.

Ed’s preferred way to grip a self-defense knife is RGEI (reverse grip edge in). RGEI is a strong ripping and pulling grip that provides powerful downward thrusts. RGEI is uniquely well-suited to close combat due to the use of gross body mechanics in all facets and capability to be used as a trapping movement. El Pionero works exceptionally well for this.

The canvas Micarta is a durable and grippy material made from layers of canvas cloth and resin. It is often used for knife handles and other outdoor products. It has a natural look and provides a good grip even when wet. The scales can be easily detached for cleaning purposes. They are secured by hex-socket screws made of stainless steel.

The handle features Ed’s distinctive skeleton design, also known as “sneak reaper”, laser engraved on both sides. It adds a unique touch to the knife that looks cool too. It also adds a very slight amount of additional texture that further aids in the grip.

The Sheath

El Pionero comes with a low profile KYDEX sheath. The sheath is easily customized by the end user to be worn in multiple configurations.

A black KYDEX® fold-over style self-locking friction-fit sheath accompanies El Pionero. The sheath has a minimalist design for easy concealment and can be customized for various carry options. The sheath weighs only 1.2oz. It adds very little to the size of the overall package.

With many knives, the sheath seams like an afterthought. This is not the case with El Pionero. The sheath is designed to allow for a good fighting grip on the handle straight out of the sheath without any need to realign the hand.

The sheath is very secure but allows for easy deployment. All TOPS Kydex sheaths are initially fit to a standard and then individually adjusted for fit before shipping. There isn’t any blade rattle in the sheath that came with El Pionero sent to me.

The sheath is equipped with a low-profile clip made of spring-tempered carbon steel with a black oxide finish. The clip can fit belts up to 1.75” wide and can be used iwb or OWB, with or without a belt. The clip provides solid retention. It can be mounted for right or left hand carry and high-ride or low-ride positions. It is verical carry only.

Some people opt to remove the clip and attach a static line to the sheath for static line carry. El Pionero works very well for this mode of carry.

My Thoughts

El Pionero is an excellent small fixed blade knife for personal defense or utility. A sharp small blade can do as much damage as a large blade if the user knows what they are doing. It is easy to carry, conceals well, is easy to deploy and is very maneuverable in tight quarters when things get up close and personal. The knife is lightweight and well balanced. The blade geometry and handle shape of the knife perform well. It is a solid knife for everyday tasks as well as backup. Due to its 1095 carbon steel construction, it will require a bit more care. Fit and finish are outstanding. The knife came razor sharp. All TOPS’ knives are made in the USA and individually serial numbered. They come with a lifetime warranty. MSRP for El Pionero is $220.00 USD.

El Pionero held in RGEI (reverse grip edge in). RGEI is a strong ripping and pulling grip that provides powerful downward thrusts and capability to be used as a trapping movement Rounded pommel allows thumb reinforcement.

One of the questions that always comes up is why TOPS’ knives cost what they do. All TOPS’ knives are made to order. They are labor intensive. After everything is CNC machined, everything else is done by hand. According to TOPS, there is a minimum of 10 people that handle the production of every knife. There is a level of care that you do not get with many companies. When it comes to a potentially lifesaving tool, there is no room for a single point of failure.


TOPS Knives

Ed’s Manifesto

TOPS Knives
El Pionero

Maker: TOPS Knives
Model: El Pionero
Designer: Ed Calderon
Knife Type: Fixed Blade
Overall Length: 7.63″
Blade Length: 3.38″
Cutting Edge: 3.13″
Blade Thickness: 0.090″
Blade Steel: 1095 RC 56-58
Blade Finish: Tumble Finish
Blade Type: Straight-back with Swedge
Grind: Saber
Handle Material: Tan Canvas Micarta
Knife Weight: 2.9oz
Weight w/ Sheath: 4.1oz
Sheath Included: Yes
Sheath Material: Black KYDEX
Sheath Clip: Multi-Position Spring Steel
Use: EDC Multi-Role Utility, Self-Defense
Origin: USA
MSRP: $220 USD
Warranty: Lifetime

Material Disclosure

I received this product as a courtesy from the manufacturer so I could test it and give my honest feedback. I am not bound by any written, verbal or implied contract to give this product a good review. All opinions are my own and are based off my personal experience with the product.

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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