Every so often, a movie will make a gun or a knife astonishingly and surprisingly famous. Dirty Harry did it for the Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver, First Blood did it for sawback knives with hollow handles, Crocodile Dundee caused a resurgence in the popularity of giant, impractical bowie knives. And in the early 2000s, The Hunted did the same thing for the now legendary Tom Brown Tracker survival knife.
Sometimes, a movie doesn’t even have to be a runaway hit to make a standout prop like a unique gun or knife popular in the real world. Almost 20 years after its release, The Hunted (2003) is a forgotten movie for some and a classic for others. I have a theory that it’s actually a covert adaptation of the First Blood novel by David Morrell with the names changed, but that’s a theory that belongs in a longer post. It wasn’t a big hit but rather slowly accrued most of its fandom after the movie left theaters.
At the time, pretty much nobody outside of hardcore survivalists and bushcrafters knew what the Tom Brown Tracker knife was. It was a handmade knife made one at a time to order that people had to seek out. But thanks to the movie’s eventual status as a rental and cable cult classic, people were soon coming out of the woodwork looking for the knife with the unconventional blade shape that was part hatchet, part saw, and part knife.
As for the role the knife played in the movie: a lot of what the characters do with the knives, and the knife fighting, is bullshit. But some of it is excellent, and it’s all fun as hell to watch for non-martial-arts experts. The movie has definitely caused a lot of long, heated arguments among people who should never get into a knife fight about the best way to fight with a knife. Demonstrations with paper-towel tubes are frequently involved.
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Hollywood Comes Calling
As a film, The Hunted hints at a story more than it tells one. It relies on the constant movement punctuated with obstacles typical of chase movies to move things along as Aaron Hallam (Benecio Del Toro) evades capture. He’s a US covert operative who took orders from a shadowy corner of the Pentagon, trying to stay one step ahead of government agents and his former instructor who are all chasing him down.
He’s wanted for murder after wasting two hunters in the woods — or were they government sweepers sent to take him out after a covert mission went bad? Has Hallam become detached from reality because of too many intimate assassinations and the resulting PTSD, or is his paranoia justified? Bits and pieces are revealed through flashbacks and brief conversations, which makes it overall intriguing and a bit unique for the sub-genre.
Tommy Lee Jones plays a grizzled expert in hand-to-hand combat and wilderness skills, L. T. Barton. Barton trained a lot of people for the government in what appears to be a sort of SERE school that focuses on edged weapons and survival and tracking skills. Hallam, of course, is one of his most accomplished students who became an expert killer using little more than shadows and a knife.
Barton even taught him to make that knife, which we see in flashbacks to his training. We see him use that training when a hurried escape involving a leap from a bridge leaves him bladeless. (The practicalities of hammering a leaf spring into a usable blade with nothing more than a campfire and another leaf spring for a hammer is, again, a topic for another post.)
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Since it was going to be such a big part of the plot and get so much screen time, the knife chosen as the preferred blade of Hallam and Barton had to be memorable and badass — and something audiences hadn’t seen before.
From the time the script was finalized, Tom Brown Jr. was part of The Hunted. The survival expert and author, who calls New Jersey home and runs a survival training school there, inspired many to hone their wilderness skills and minimalist survival and bushcraft abilities through his writing. Barton’s character was partly based on Brown and his history of assisting law enforcement agencies in tracking down missing persons, fugitives from justice, and prison escapees.
He also designed the knife that came to be known as the Tom Brown Tracker. It was meant to be a do-it-all survival knife that was all one piece with no attachments, extra parts, or a hollow handle to weaken its construction. The goal was versatility with nothing extraneous.
For some, the amalgamation of a knife seems like an overthought kitchen gadget out of the gate — and the Tracker certainly has its detractors, and always has. Others see it the way Brown did — as the perfect survival knife.
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How the Tom Brown Tracker Came to Be
Brown was inspired to create the knife at the beginning of the 1980s. So the legend goes: he was doing an interview and the reporter asked him what he considered to be the best survival knife out there. He responded that such a knife didn’t exist. When the reporter asked, “Why not?” Brown said, “Because I have not yet designed it.” And that got his gears turning.
Brown reportedly contacted legendary knifesmith Robb Russon in 1981 about creating a new kind of survival knife. Russon made a prototype that was 11 inches long (the currently produced model is 11.8 inches long) and 1/8 inch thick. However, Brown didn’t credit Russon with creating the final version of the knife.
He went in a different direction and commissioned another knifesmith, Ed Lombi, who made a batch of 11 knives. They were based on Russon’s prototype, but with the micarta handles replaced by wood. They were originally called the “Medicine Blade.”
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For a while, Russon’s son, Mark Russon, was making a version of what he claims is the prototype his father created called “The Survivor” or the “Tracker Survivor” (it’s not quite clear) under the banner of Utah Knife Works. His site, which doesn’t seem to be offering the knife for sale any longer, says:
“Utah Knife Works owner Mark Russon says that almost 40 years ago, his father, Robb Russon, came up with the design for what could eventually become known as the Tom Brown Tracker knife (which appears in the 2003 film The Hunted) but never got credit for it. So the younger Russon gave his Dad’s model a 21st-century makeover and renamed it the Tracker Survivor.”
So, drama over who made the knife for Brown aside, what was the weird design Brown came up with supposed to accomplish?
Well, that big curved belly section on the blade was supposed to act as a small hatchet for processing firewood and shelter building, as well as larger slicing tasks. The straight part of the blade near the guard is meant for carving and push-cutting duties, and the sawback portion on the forward portion of the spine isn’t really meant to be a saw for cutting through branches — that’s what the hatchet part is for.
The saw is intended to be used to quickly create notches and shelves in wood for trap building and shelter construction. But you know what? It doesn’t make for a bad saw and will power through some thick branches enough to snap them the rest of the way if you’re building a shelter in a hurry or racing against the dark to break down some bigger pieces of firewood. The sawteeth on the early versions of the Tracker were finer and more numerous than the ones found on the production version, which are huge and cut at alternating angles.
Can you throw it with freakish accuracy and put the blade straight through an 8-inch sapling like Hallam does in the movie? I mean, no, not quite like that — but the knife can be thrown pretty well, as proven by this video if that’s something that matters to you or helps you win a paper-towel-tube argument:
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The Tracker knives were handmade to order for years, and there weren’t too many orders to keep up with usually. Lombi made the knives for a few years, and when he moved on to other things, Brown commissioned David R. Beck to continue cranking out his survival knife. When he called it quits, the knife was simply unavailable for years, and its legend grew a bit in survival communities as they became more scarce and treasured by those in the know.
Then came Brown’s gig as a consultant on The Hunted in 2001. Suddenly he was rubbing shoulders with Del Toro, Jones, and director William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame. It was Beck’s version of the knife that ultimately made it into the movie.
Since the knives were no longer in production, and at least some interest was expected from its role in the film, Brown brought his design to TOPS Knives to make a production model. TOPS makes some very popular and functional knives, and some over-the-top but undeniably badass blades, like the El Chete. Their more practical and tactical designs are made for law enforcement and military use and are pretty popular.
Before the movie’s release, Brown posted the following online:
I am proud to say that many of the skills we teach at Tracker School, such as tracking, hand drill, stalking, camouflage, and more – are prominently highlighted in the film. I especially enjoy a scene in the movie when the Tommy Lee Jones character saves a wounded wolf.
As the technical advisor, I worked very closely with the director, Billy Friedkin, to ensure the authenticity of the survival skills showcased, as well as other aspects of the movie, including those scenes involving knives.
I also need to remind you that the movie is Rated R for violence, and ask you to keep in mind that while I was the technical advisor and that the Tommy Lee Jones character is based on me, the director determines the ultimate flow of the film.
I like to put it this way. I created the colors of choice for Billy Friedkin, who then designed and painted the picture.
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The Tom Brown Tracker Today
The movie didn’t set the world on fire when it hit the box office, but it got a second and much longer life on video and cable; interest in the Tracker grew.
A few other companies tried to get in on the Tracker’s popularity like Utah Knife Works and Bark Rivers Knives with its “Trakker.” Most of those takes on it aren’t available any longer, but the Tracker continues to be a top seller for TOPS, which currently offers several versions of the knife in different sizes, including the Tracker #1, #2, #3, and #4 with various color options. Plus, there’s the Tracker Digger, which is a mashup of “a smatchet with a hori hori and the iconic Tom Brown Tracker.”
The company also offers the Tracker Scout, a small drop-point fixed blade meant to be paired with the original Tracker to perform a few of the tasks it’s not so great at. (Some bushcrafters find the Tracker’s point to be not pointy enough, and others have a hard time drilling with it or using the larger versions for delicate tasks.)
If you get yourself a Tracker and actually take it to the backcountry for some serious bushcrafting and survival duty, you may really hate it. Or you may have the patience to get used to it and love it, or you may get used to it and still hate it. There’s only one way to find out. Be warned: you can get dizzy shopping online for custom leather sheaths for it — all the cool kids carry it scout style in the small of the back, just like Benicio.
One thing is for sure; you’re going to get mighty pissed off when you try to sharpen it for the first time. The best thing to do is approach it like its two blades and use a rod sharpener or a small sharpening stone. Sharpen the straight edge first, then move on to the curved portion of the blade, and finally, work on cleaning up the spot where the two edges meet.
If you have the patience to think about using a knife a little differently than you are used to, the Tracker can be a versatile, robust tool that can tackle a number of tasks without the heft or bulk of an actual hatchet and a knife. Of course, having both tools would be better, but that’s not really the point of a survival knife, is it?
If you only have one tool, and you know how to use it, it would be better to have the Tracker than a hatchet and no knife, or a knife and no hatchet. That statement can incite a pretty good argument on a knife forum, but those arguments help keep the Tracker popular, just like knife-fight arguments keep people streaming The Hunted. (Hulu is carrying it at the moment if you’re interested.)