Grasso Bolo II Review
By: Kevin Estela, Founder and Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education, LLC
The Philippines is an island chain that has seen occupation by the Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and the United States over the past 500 years. Despite years of foreign flags flying overhead, no occupying country has lasted forever. The indigenous people turned their cultivating tools into weapons and guerilla warfare tactics were difficult to combat. One reaction was the development of the .45 ACP after the Navy .38 revolvers failed to stop Moro warriors during the Philippine Insurrection in the late 19th century. The Filipino edged weapons received a fierce reputation, and for good reason. Now, years later, the blades once found in the hands of farmers and tribal warriors are still deeply embedded in the culture and continue to be utilized today by Filipino Marines, martial arts practitioners and everyday people.
Travel approximately 8250 miles East of Manila and you’ll find a modern day Filipino bolo, the Grasso II Bolo, being made in the Bark River Knife and Tool factory in Escanaba, Michigan. A collaboration between LAPD Detective and Weapons Expert Mike Grasso and Bark River Knife and Tool Owner and Master Knife Maker Mike Stewart, the Grasso Bolo II is a medium sized bolo for general use. It is constructed of 5160 Spring Steel (an upgrade from truck leaf springs common in the PI) and measures 14.875” overall with a 9” blade. My sample to test and evaluate came with matte finished black and green linen micarta handle slabs and a snap retention cross draw sheath with an open design to accommodate the shape of the blade.
I’m no stranger to Bolo designs. I’m half Filipino, an avid Filipino Martial Arts practitioner and therefore, someone who has spent plenty of time training with one. Also, a bolo of my own design made by Scott Gossman, has been a “go to” blade while teaching survival courses, heading up canoe trips and as my all-purpose camp knife. With these facts known, I wanted to start fresh with my testing and evaluation and not be influenced by my own bias or affinity for a particular bolo design.
I started my testing with a clean slate and approached a trusted authority for guidance, Tuhon Ray Dionaldo, the founder of Filipino Combat Systems. Tuhon Ray is a well-known master of the karambit, Tabak Toyok (Filipino Nunchuck), Sarong, rattan sticks, barong, bolo and virtually anything he touches. Look up his videos on YouTube and you’ll see the man’s ability and presence. He is a world traveler and Master Level Instructor,Tuhon, in the system I train in, Sayoc Kali. He is also a well-read PhD and someone I call a friend. We spoke on the phone one morning recently and discussed edged weapons and their uses.
According to Tuhon Ray, there are generally two types of Bolo designs, the pointy matulis design and the better known and more widely recognized Bonifacio. The matulis is characterized by light and fast attributes while the Bonifacio styles are heavier and more weight forward. Bolos, in the Philippines, are generally made one at a time for the individual and the construction is from whatever materials are available. Filipinos are able to use seemingly any material to make the tools they need. Tuhon Ray told me truck tires are now being used as handle materials and they’re shaped the same way a synthetic handle is. This material, much like my linen micarta model, is impervious to water and salt. On a side note, Tuhon Ray told me all of his personal blades have linen micarta for handle slabs and he prefers the feel of the material. But back to the Bolo. The shape will vary from region to region depending on the primary purpose. There is even a bolo with an S shaped edge (think Spyderco Civilian) used for harvesting coconuts.
After an informative history lesson from Tuhon Ray, I asked him what advice he would give to someone who has never used a bolo before. He told me, “allow the weight of the weapon to do the work”, meaning, don’t muscle it. This is a concept I’m familiar with as it is what I tell my students when they use axes. The bolo then is a one handed chopper that utilizes its weight to do the work. Tuhon Ray informed me any horizontal or diagonally upwards cutting is using the arm muscles and fighting gravity. Cuts are made on a 45 degree angle downward incorporate the weight of the bolo in the swing. All you have to do is use proper body mechanics. Tuhon Ray further elaborated, “it is almost like a whipping motion just without the pull back.” I would use the correct manner of cutting during my testing. I also tried another method called snap cutting (giving a flick of the wrist at the end of the swing) and found it to be effective, but slightly more tiring, in the short term too.
I moved onto testing the Grasso Bolo II extensively. I used it in lieu of a small hatchet or hand-and-a-half axe to limb a tree that recently came down on my property. Working from the base of the trunk towards the top and allowing for a generous follow through, the Grasso Bolo II made quick work of the limbs. This test is meant to duplicate the efforts a person would make in creating a spruce bough bed. Other than resin from the wood, there was no issue in working the blade this way. Not satisfied with simply working a softwood, I used the knife to chop through a good seasoned beech limb. For a relatively thick knife, the blade sunk deeply and didn’t bind as I thought it would. I attest this to the edge geometry the folks at BRKT are famous for.
Years ago, Mike Stewart cut a section of manila rope in mid-air with a knife. I don’t recall what diameter it was so I taped 3 pieces of scrap 3/8” manila cord together and gave it a swipe. I’m no competitive cutter but I am a knife user. The Bolo went right through and the pieces of manila cord fell at my feet. Had I more time and admittedly more cord, I would have tried more. I am sure my technique would only get better and more cords could be cut with practice. The remaining cord I press cut through until I was left with scraps fibers. Then I tested the edge and it was still very keen.
I tested the penetration ability of the tip on 3 pieces of 8-10 oz. leather. This is almost ½” of leather. With a solid thrust, the tip of the bolo went right through all three pieces of leather. Despite a wide stock, the tip is surprisingly capable of penetration.
For fine work, I used the Grasso Bolo II for kitchen duty. Despite a thick spine, the convex edge sliced well for a big knife. Rather than using it for slicing only, I choked forward of the grip and used a pinch grip close to the tip. Popular with indigenous tribes around the world, this grip allows a big blade to be used like a smaller blade for fine work. The unsharpened swedge found on this blade was not uncomfortable to hold onto and anyone can imagine when this edge is sharpened, this style of cutting is dangerous to attempt.
A more morbid test and homage to the late Ron Hood, was the edge holding test on bone. Bolos were always heavy tools used for thicker wood clearing but when thrust (no pun intended) into weapon service, they were infamous for limbing and decapitating. I had a leftover ham bone and proceeded to chop it. I highly recommend glasses when working with bone like this and luckily I had a pair of safety glasses on because more than once I was struck with bone fragments. Bone can seriously damage thin edges and steel with a bad heat treat. I am pleased to say the 5160 steel held up fine in my tests. I cut through the thickest part of the bone for my test and did so easily.
No test of a bolo would be complete without testing the carving sweet spot just forward of the ricasso. Upon examination of the handle design, the forward sweeping shape of the handle allows for perfect thumb placement while fine carving. Leave it to the folks at BRKT and Mike Grasso to take this use into consideration when designing the handle shape.
After extensive testing, I’m very pleased with the Grasso Bolo II. It is a knife I would recommend to anyone looking for a large chopping tool in a somewhat compact package. While not an axe substitute, it is certainly capable of cutting through hardwood. Given the performance of this knife, I am eager to see how the other models (Grasso Bolo I and III) will feel in the hand. For now, I’m very impressed and believe you will be too.
Available through any Bark River Knife and Tool Distributor or Dealer
Kevin Estela can be reached at Estelawildernesseducation @gmail.com
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Special thanks to Tuhon Ray Dionaldo for his assistance in completing this review.
Edited by Estela on 12-30-12 03:23.33. Reason for edit: No reason given.