Monday, June 29, 2015

Cold Steel v. CRKT, Part I

NOTE: This is Part 1 of 2 of my take on the Cold Steel suit.  First up is a take on the suit from the perspective of the consumer.  Next is the legal analysis of the suit.

On June 3, Cold Steel's lawyer filed a lawsuit against CRKT in the Central California Federal District Court. That same day Cold Steel sent out a press release announcing that they had filed the suit. Cold Steel claims that CRKT's language that their lock safeties (the LAWKS, the AutoLAWKS, and the LBS) turn folders in to "virtual fixed blades" constituted false advertising under the Lanham Act.

The lawsuit is strange, but Cold Steel's behavior after was even stranger. At the end of the press release, they included an email address for further questions. I sent an email and got no response. Then I called out Cold Steel on Twitter. I wanted them to release the complaint, the official document that lays out their legal claims. Its part of the court file and the entire file is a public record. There is simply no reason for them to not release the complaint to me, as, by definition, they had to file it to start the suit. But they refused for a better part of two days. Finally, they said that Cold Steel's president, Lynn Thompson was going to address the issue on Cold Steel's site.

The statement was a regurgitation of the press release and more of a marketing stunt. Trying to play the role of dogged reporter, I contacted the Central California Federal District Court and they pointed me to PACER, the electronic court file system. I paid my fees and got access to the documents. Unfortunately, the complaint had not been uploaded, but it was noted in the records. I found the attorney of record and contacted him. He gave me the complaint in about twenty minutes. The runaround Cold Steel sent me on was entirely unnecessary. I have since sent him questions about the suit but he has not gotten back to me.

I have finished reading the complaint and while I have some intuitions about its merits, I want to do some research and read case law before I say anything about the law. Whatever the legal issues are, the reality is simple--this lawsuit is bad for everyone. It is bad for knife enthusiasts, its bad for the knife industry, and it is bad for Cold Steel.

In the past, when Cold Steel was trying to grab the spotlight with its antics like boycotting blade, the gear media was small and diffuse. It was basically two magazines--Blade and Knives Illustrated. Forum boards were in their infancy and the bloggers, like myself and many others, that follow not just the products but the business of gear were few and far between. The community is much more aware and armed with this awareness, the reaction has been swift, uniform, and brutal. Everyone has expressed disdain for Cold Steel's behavior. Since the June 3 press release and legal filings, Lynn Thompson has said that the money damages he is seeking will be donated to Knife Rights, but this seems like backpedaling. One wonders why he didn't just take the money was spent on filing the suit and donate THAT to Knife Rights, if that was his intention all along.

Why its Bad for Consumers

The knife business is full of small companies. The vast majority, including CRKT and Cold Steel, are well less than 500 employees. Only Gerber and KAI USA, both subsidiaries of much larger companies, are real corporate giants. The brands we know and love are almost all 30 or 40 folks (or less) working to make us great stuff at good prices. These are not Apple or Samsung. They do not have near infinite resources. Legal cases are time consuming, prohibitively expensive, and in the civil arena, rarely decide anything of import (most civil cases, and in fact most cases in general, settle before trial and many civil settlements are confidential). If small companies like CRKT, Cold Steel, and others are forced to engage in protracted legal battles they will have less time and money to devote to making, designing, and producing great knives for us.

This suit is bad for consumers.

Why its Bad for the Knife Business

In addition to the divided attention problem I mentioned above, there is also the issue of culture. The knife business, from custom makers to "big" companies is a interconnected and collaborative place. Sure there are some instances of bad behavior, like the ZT0777 and the Matrix, but the reason that story stood out is because of how rare and blatant it was. Thomas, one of the highest ranking officials at KAI USA not only came on Gear Geeks Live, he also did a tour on Utility Talk too. This is a small and welcoming place.

Compare that with the world of high tech and big pharma. Not only is the competition voracious, but it has become so vicious that what transpires no longer bears even a passing resemblance to classic capitalism. Instead of making products and trying to outdo each other, big tech and big pharma have basically become addicted to manipulating intellectual property laws and suing each other. Fights over patents are the heart of two enormous lawsuits--Apple v. Samsung and a collection of suits against Microsoft. Billions of dollars are at stake. In each suit a sizable chunk of each company's revenue for the year hung in the balance. Big tech companies regularly buy up vast troves of patents, hoping to land a gold nugget that they can use as shields in the event they are sued in the future. Small firms are gobbled up not for their products but for their patent portfolios. Inventors, the tech/pharma equivalent of custom makers, well, they don't even figure.

If this corporate climate took hold in the knife world, in a few years we'd cease to recognize what we see. We are living through a Golden Age of Gear, with products are at the absolute zenith of the industry coming out yearly, if not monthly. The best is redefined in the blink of an eye. And all of this innovation comes relatively cheap compared to other industries like the bloated watch industry. Compare that with Big Pharma, where the "next big thing" is the extended release version of the pill you are already taking. If the lawsuit mentality takes over, small companies will get crushed and big companies will get boring quickly.

This suit is bad for the knife business.

Why its Bad for Cold Steel

Cold Steel is in a weird place in the knife business. Its not quite as ubiquitous as Kershaw, Gerber, Leatherman, or SOG. They are not in every single Big Box. But it is also not the enthusiast's choice. Cold Steel blades never reach the podium at Blade (though their corporate behavior might have something to do with that--Blade awards are voted on by others in the industry). More telling, they never do well on the secondary market and are rarely in production but out of stock. They are not Zero Tolerance or Spyderco, in other words.

And until SHOT 2015 their offerings were decidedly behind the times. A few years ago, they upgraded to the wonderful Tri-Ad lock, but the blade steels on virtual every knife were state of the art in the 1990s. But in January of 2015, Cold Steel doubled down on their corporate rebranding effort and announced that virtually every knife in their line up would receive a steel upgrade. CTS-XHP would be the steel of choice on their standard bearer Recon Series, by far the best steel on that kind of knife (compare it to VG-10 and 154CM on the Spyderco Delica and Benchmade Mini Griptillian respectively). This was just part of the repositioning. They also announced nearly a dozen new designs including the amazing 4MAX. In short, Cold Steel was reinventing itself.

The 4MAX is not Cold Steel's first foray into the uber premium market. They tried a few years ago with some high polish, high priced knives, but they utterly failed. The aluminum bolsters and AUS8 steel didn't justify the price tags of those knives. But the 4MAX is different. It has the premium blade steel, 20CV, and the custom design provenance to do well. The 4MAX is emblematic of the whole of Cold Steel--there is a lot riding on this repositioning. If the rebranding succeeds Cold Steel could enter that most profitable (on a per unit basis) part of the market--high end production knives. Cold Steel could finally become a true enthusiast brand, with the likes of Chris Reeve, Spyderco, and Zero Tolerance.

But with divided attention and resources caused by this silly lawsuit, all of that hangs precariously in the balance. Lynn Thompson should be making statements about how amazing the 4MAX is and testing some XHP blades, not rehashing a press release that is, itself, a rehash of a document Cold Steel refused to release to the public, despite it being a public document.

Despite its corporate image and criticism from enthusiasts, I like Cold Steel products. Look at my reviews. I really enjoyed the Recon 1. I was positively enthralled by their fixed blade offerings. I am not a fan of any brand, but I think Cold Steel offers quite a few very good knives. If they were fold up shop, I'd be sad because they make some unique stuff and because consumers would have one less option.

This suit is very bad for Cold Steel.

Conclusion

Cold Steel's behavior, by filing the suit and then refusing to release legal documents, shows that its not being forthright in dealing with the public. This action is also in direct contradiction to Cold Steel's corporate ethos--the Warrior Way. Though I am admittedly not an expert in the history of Japanese or Viking legal systems, I don't think samurai and berserkers often resorted to legal pleadings to get their enemies to submit. And no real warrior boasts of their behavior in one instance and then hides what they did the next. But this suit is bad not because of its corporate ethos mixed messaging. Its bad because, in the end, it has the potential to damage everyone. Knife enthusiasts are hurt by this. The knife business is hurt by this. Cold Steel is hurt by this.

Lynn Thompson should do the right thing and withdraw this suit. It is silly, bad for customers, and bad for business.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

AG Russell K12 One Handed Knife Review

Bill James, one of the best baseball writers and argument makers in the world, discussed what made a baseball player underrated in the Darrell Evans entry in his New Baseball Historical Abstract.  He identified a few factors that are common to all underrated players and then he proceeded to show just how good Darrell Evans (James's 10th Best 3B as of the late 90s, probably dropped to at least 13th now--Chipper, Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre are all clearly better and belong in the Top 10, with Beltre having a good argument for #2 or #3), a guy with a career .248 batting average, really was.  Everything James wrote was dead on, 100% right.  And some of those concepts carry over into gear evaluation.

The K12 is one of, if not the single most, underrated produced I have ever reviewed.  When gear is underrated doesn't necessarily mean that something is better than people think it is, often underrated gear is just ignored.  If you search for videos on the K12 you get very, very few, basically one from AG Russell and that's it.  Compare that to the number of reviews for a random Kershaw, something like the OSO Sweet, and you will see just how ignored this knife is.

Underrated or ignored gear, something I love finding, has a few common traits.  First it is generally made by a less high profile brand, but one that has a history of making good stuff.  Second, it often features an unusual design. Third, it is often out of synch is current trends.  The K12 has all of these features.  AG Russell is not Spyderco or KAI, but his knives have great designs (notably with very good performance ratios) and excellent fit and finish.  The K12's lock is quite strange (more on the lock below).  And the VG-10, thumbstud design is definitely different from the market darling titanium framelock flipper.  But you ignore the K12 at your peril.  Okay, so not really "peril" but ignoring this design is really a shame because it is a damn fine blade.  

Here is the product page.  Here is an overview of a few Russell blades including the K12.  There are no video reviews, but here is the product video.  There is no affiliate link (AG Russell should really work on that).  Here is my review sample (purchased with my own money):

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Twitter Review Summary:  The Darrell Evans of knives--insanely underrated.

Design: 2

AG Russell knows how to make good knives.  Even if budget stuff is, from a perspective of blueprints, pretty damn amazing.  The K12 is a remarkably slim knife, in the hand and in the pocket, and yet it gives you the feel of a much larger blade.  Part of this is the way that Russell squeezes in blade length, but it is also has to do with the fundamentally solid components of the knife--the handle is simple but great, the blade is straightforward and excellent.  Everything here is just very good.  Experience counts for a lot and AG Russell has a lot of experience.

The novelty of this knife--its completely ambidextrous design--is more than a gee whiz thing.  It really works.  I like the strap lock a lot and everything else about this knife is well-considered and thought out.  Even the way the onlay is chamfered around the index notch in the handle is nicely done.  There are so many small design niceties that I have to conclude that these were all intentional and that they came about because of Russell's superior eye and massive knowledge base when it comes to knives.  

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The performance ratios are quite good.  The b:h is .80.  The b:w is 1.03.  The b:w is good, but the b:h is amazing, third only to the perennial performance ratios winner, the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight, and the also underrated Kershaw Chill.  AG Russell always does this very well, recognizing the benefits of free blade length from a long way back.  One caveat though--not all of the blade length is cutting edge--there is a true ricasso as well as a longer than normal flat section, so the cutting edge ratio is about normal, a little above average.    

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Fit and Finish: 2

Whenever you have a new mechanism on a knife, be it a pivot or a lock, its always cause for concern--is this novelty going to through off the whole design?  Are they going to be able to make it correctly?  Here there are no concerns.  Russell's OEM in China has been producing very nice knives for him for a while now.  The Barlows I have had are very nice.  The Skorpion was good (not great, but good), and this knife is the finest of them all.  Even the strap lock is nicely done.  

Grip: 2

The K12's basic handle shape is one that is used throughout AG's product line.  Its simple and effective.  Here the only point of concern was the exposed titanium edges on the index notch (the place where your index finger rests).  There, the metal was a bit sharp when the knife was VERY tightly gripped.  Its not a big deal, not enough to deduct a point, but it is worth noting.

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Aside from that, the knife worked well in handle during all sorts of cuts.  Long pulls through thick cardboard were fine as were slices through apples.  This is a very good handle.  The lack of jimping isn't an issue and the plate at the end of the strap lock does provide a bit of extra grip.

Carry: 2

The K12 isn't a tall knife at all and while it is a bit thicker than something like Russell's Skorpion, its not bad at all in the pocket.  I was worried that the plate on the strap lock would be a snag point when you removed the knife from your pocket, but it wasn't.  This is a very discrete pocket companion.  The size, shape, and placement of the clip is 100% correct for a knife of this size and shape.

Steel: 1 

VG-10 is not my favorite steel.  It does get very sharp and it does repel corrosion, but as with every other VG-10 knife I have used over the past 5 years, the steel just doesn't hold that viciously sharp edge long enough.  This blade's steel is quite nicely done, with an excellent satin finish, but even that can't really make up for the lack of edge retention.  There is  a newer version of this knife, one that uses 9Cr and I am not experienced enough with that steel to say it is better or worse, but I'd be interested in trying it out.  VG-10 is nothing special and this knife with a different steel could be really amazing.  There was a very limited run made a few years ago using the ultra-hard ZDP-189ish Cowry X steel and that might be worth tracking down if you like this design but dislike the steel.  Be warned though--they are few and far between on the secondary market.

Blade Shape: 2

The blade shape here is really quite nice--a clean steady spearpoint blade with just enough belly to do roll cuts and make sharpening easy.  One reader was worried about the extra long ricasso behind the sharpening notch, but in practice that hasn't really bothered me.  I have moved away from my old way of using a knife where the space right next to the pivot got lots of work (this is, I think, in part because my first real knife was a combo edge Delica and I developed bad habits because of how easy the serrations cut through stuff), so the long unsharpened edge was not a problem.

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The blade shape reminds me an awful lot of the Kershaw Leek, a knife that has a fragile thin tip.  This blade has the same overall profile, but delivers more steel to the end of the knife making it much, much stronger at the tip.  This difference is why experience matters--same profile, better performance.  

Grind: 2

The grind on the K12 is quite clean and reduces the surprisingly thick blade stock to a very fine edge at just the right angle.  The knife's stock is thicker than quite a few knives of the same size, but the expert grind made the K12 great in the kitchen, slicing apples with ease and making translucent thin wafers of delicious salami (thanks Uncle John!).  I am not sure if this is a hollow grind or a flat grind but either way it works, and that's what really matters.  Sometimes I think we let taxonomy get in the way of practicality.

Deployment Method: 2

Okay, I can easily see why someone would deduct a point for the thumb studs.  As you can see below:

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they are quite pointy at the end.  There is one too many terraces to the thumbstud and the result is a somewhat pokey opening if you slow roll the knife.  If, however, you coin flip the thumbstuds are they wonderful.  The  pivot is very finely crafted, so nicely done that despite constant contact and pressure for the strap lock, you can reliably pop the blade out with no wrist flick.  There are no Spyderco lockbacks (which cause a similar a friction of the blade of the knife) that you can do this with out of the box. In the end, the coin flip method is my method of choice and so I decided not to deduct a point.

Retention Method: 2

Again the K12 proves that you don't need something complicated or fancy to make a knife work.  Here the clip is dead simple--a discrete over the top deep carry clip with no funky upturn at the end--and it works amazingly well.

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Big bonus points for the matte finish and the reversibility (this is a 100% ambidextrous knife).  Carved titanium clips are good looking, but this is vastly more functional.

Lock: 2

And so we get to the place where the K12 differs from most other knives--the Strap Lock.  Give credit where it is due--this lock was invented by Pat Crawford, who loaned it to AG Russell.  According to legend Crawford didn't think it could be patented, but Russell tried and succeeded.  Because Mr. Russell is the soul of honor, he then gave Crawford payment for the design even though it was never something Crawford had requested.  This is one of many examples of how wonderful the knife business is--Crawford being kind enough to lend out his design and Russell being honorable enough to pay the man, even though it wasn't required.

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The lock itself is a wonderful design.  It is simply put the easiest lock to disengage with one hand.  I am not convinced it is the strongest design in the world, but it is plenty strong for EDC use (this is one reason among many why I think the Cold Steel lock test videos are pointless).  Thanks to some really nice fit and finish, the lock exhibits no wiggle and there is zero blade play when the lock is engaged.  This is really a fine design.  I think its applications are limited because on a very large or very small blade the strap could be hard to implement.  On a small blade it would be hard to get the strap to flex sufficiently to disengage the lock and on a large blade you might have to make the strap too thick.  I am not sure that's right, but from my month of use and carry, it seems correct.  Either way, I really like this lock.  Note that while it is not identical to the Nak Lock from Benchmade it functions very similarly, so if you can't find the K12, that might be a good substitute.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

Overall the K12 is proof yet again of just how good AG Russell is.  It also emblematic of just how important simple design is when backed by years of experience.  Everything just works.  Only the steel is a real knock against the knife and even then I could do just fine with VG-10 if I weren't a bona fide steel snob.  For 99% of people the steel isn't bad enough to matter.  That said, the quality of the design here makes me want to hunt down a Cowry X version.

I also know that AG Russell is closing out the VG-10 models in favor of an entirely Chinese made version with 9Cr steel.  Hopefully the lack of importing steel (VG-10 is a tightly controlled Japanese steel) will lower the price.  At the $115 I paid the knife is worth it, but probably a little below par in terms of value.  

I also think that AG Russel has a real star here that they don't push enough.  I'd love to see sprint runs of this knife with better steel on a more regular basis. I also think they should release user-swapable scales--they are so easy to remove.  If KAI made this knife there would be forty versions already--its that solid and unique of a design.  

I am not sure how many of the K12 in VG-10 are left, but if you want something that is very good and very different, its definitely worth a try.  Their lack of presence on the secondary market (something that is true of all AG Russell exclusive designs) is telling.  Once you get one, you don't want to let it go.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

AG Russell K12 Overview

Its so weird how some knives are meh and get a lot of a attention and some are very good and skirt under the radar. The AG Russell One Handed Knife one heck of a great knife and one that has received virtually no attention.  As a platform of upgrades there are tons of options and there are some really cool versions made by AG Russell a while ago.  Most of them have appreciated dramatically on the secondary market.  This is the mid range version of the One Handed Knife, updated for 2012, hence the K12 designation.  All of the One Handed Knives are cool, but this one is probably better as an EDC than the FRN version thanks to the excellent clip.  Full review at the end of the week:

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Simple Shot Slingshot Scout and Torque Review

I am not going to develop a scoring system for slingshots because I don't really know enough about them to make such fine distinctions. I have a good handle on the band shapes and materials.  I understand the basics of side shooters v. normal slingshots.  But I am not super serious about them, not as serious as some.  Given that, think of these reviews more as a summary of my experience with the two units and a quick overview of the plus and minuses as opposed to the more critical, cerebral reviews of knives and flashlights that I normally do.  I am not a slinghshot aficiando, but merely someone who likes to take out a few bottles every once in a while.  And that's the great thing about slingshots--for a few bucks and a little bit of time you can get a damn good shooter that is accurate, tough, and fun.  You don't need invest a lot on slingshots to have fun.

Simple Shot Slingshots are really the first system and full product line of enthusiast-grade slingshots.  You don't just get a fork and band--they have thought of it all--bands of all types, pouches, forks, everything.  And it is not just products and accessories, they have the entire thing down pat.  How so you might ask?  Well, their bands are sealed in their packages to ensure that the bands remain elastic until you decide to open them.  They also have a design aesthetic and inventiveness that goes beyond merely rethinking the shape of slingshot.  

The two that are reviewed here are both entry level slingshots, one of which is the core of an incredibly versatile system that can take you from backyard plunker to backwoods dead eye, and the other of which is, for lack of a better term, an EDC slingshot.  Both are available from and designed by Simple Shot Slingshots.  The "system" slingshot is known as the Scout and the EDC slingshot is the Torque.  Both offer a great pick-up-and-play experience and both can be very accurate.  For their price, $39.95 and $29.95 respective, the Scout and Torque, while not a part of my core EDC kit or my hiking gear, make any trip outside a bit more fun.

Twitter Review Summaries: A pair of awesome plunkers.

The Scout

I have owned a few slingshots before, including the very good one I reviewed here.  In the end, they all fell to the wayside because changing the bands was a pain the in ass.  I'd shoot it for a while and then the bands wear out (they always wear out, bands are like batteries--a consumable).  I'd replace them, finding bands where I could.  Then it would come time to shoot and whaddyaknow one was slightly shorter than the other and the whole slingshot would pull to one side.  I'd untie them and try again and again and again.  Untying rubber is not an easy thing to do, but getting your bands dead even is even harder.  The Scout coupled with Simple Shot's pre-assembled bands solves all of those problems.


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Yes, the bands will cost you more than just getting rubber tubing at Home Depot, but given the amount of time I was spending redoing bands, I was getting paid something like eleven cents an hour (you know, time is  money).  The pre-assembled bands come with the pouch centered and the FlipClips on the Scout make retying a thing of the past.

Here is a shot of the front of the FlipClips:

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and a shot of the back.

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Simply unscrew the clamp, feed in a bit of the band, and screw the clamp back down.  It takes about 90 seconds to get DEAD even bands.  The FlipClips also allow for over-the-top or traditional configurations and take all sorts of band shapes--flats or tubes (generally, flats are faster shooters but tubes are more durable).  The rest of the Scout's body is high strength plastic with a rubberized grip.  It can be shot either side shooter style or traditional, and there are finger impressions to guide your hand to the perfect grip position.  Overall, the impression the Scout makes is a good one.  Slingshots are no longer the exclusive domain of small home brew guys.  Simple Shot's stuff all looks and feels high end, on par with any of the rest of the gear we carry.

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The Scout is also available in ton of color combinations and I chose white and red to make sure I wouldn't lose the slingshot if I put it down while on a hike.  The entire thing is very compact and very sturdy.  A few minor fork hits have done little to the entire unit, but more on that in a second.  There is no question that the Scout is a huge leap forward for slingshots, the perfect shooter for someone like me that has an interest in slingshots but doesn't do it all the time.  I imagine that the band adjustment process becomes quicker with experience, but with the Scout, why bother?  This is a great starter shooter and its versatility means it could be your sole shooter as you move up to become a more experienced marksman.

There is one thing that the Scout did poorly.  The FlipClips have three pieces--the clamp, the screw, and a small plastic ring that acts as a seat for the screw.  Without the ring, the screw passes through the forks and pokes out the other end.  It also can tighten down too much and damage the forks.  The ring isn't strictly necessary but without it the Scout probably won't last as long.  Well, that's a problem. A few fork hits, minor ones really, shatter the ring on the right fork.  I did some fiddling and got the FlipClip to work without them, but it wasn't ideal.  I then took a quick trip to the hardware store and found some neoprene washers.  They worked perfectly, solving all of the problems the ring was intended to solve AND being far more resistant to strikes.  This isn't a fatal flaw, but it is something Simple Shot should look into.  The solution is a very inexpensive one.  

Overall, the Scout is an excellent slingshot, the center of a shooter system that could last you quite a long time, but still a fun plunker good for beginners.

The Torque

The Torque is an entirely different beast.  It is small, simple, incredibly lightweight and an exclusive over the top shooter, side shooter.  There is a honeycomb pattern cut into the body to make the Torque exceptionally lightweight without any real lost of strength or rigidity.  The Torque review sample (sent by Simple Shot, the Scout was purchased with personal funds) was tube banded with doubled up configuration.  This combination is perfect for the occasional shooter, as it is strong and durable, much longer lasting than the Scout's out of box flat band configuration.  

In the picture below you can see just how small the Torque is.  Its size and weight make it an ideal EDC slingshot according to Simple Shot, though I am never going to EDC such a specific and attention grabbing item.  For me, the size and weight made it easy to tuck the Torque into the pocket for a hike.

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The cutouts really do lighten the load here as they are both numerous and large.  Despite the proliferation of perforations (oh man), the Torque was strong in hand, demonstrating no flex at all and withstanding quite a few fork hits as I was learning to shoot it.

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One thing I would note about the Torque is the side cutouts in the forks for threading the tube through, they make it possible for the bands to slip out when shooting.  If you used the over the top method, they will never come out, but newer users or less careful folks might pull the bands out of place.  Putting them back in is easy, but them slipping could result in a misfire.

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The Torque was an excellent plunker, a fun thing to take when you hike around water.  It was very durable and the double band configuration added to that.  It is small enough for my five year old son to use (with safety glasses and close supervision). While not as versatile as the Scout, the Torque has more "pick up and play", as you don't need to fidget with band attachments and the like.

Both the Scout and the Torque are miles ahead of other slingshots on the market both in terms of design and execution.  There are a lot of custom sling shots out there (yes, there are customs) that are nice,r but in terms of production stuff,these look factory made while most other stuff looks like it was made in someones garage (because they were).  Either would make a good, fun summer item, but if I could only choose one and I had no illusions about wanting to get obsessed with slingshots, the Torque would be my first choice. If I thought there was a chance I'd fall deeper into this weird rabbit hole, I'd buy the Scout.  Both are good starter units, and both are better than any other company's production slingshots I have seen.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Be Ready

Why do you carry what you carry?  In the scrum of acquisition we sometimes forget that these things we take with us are supposed to have a purpose, not to be worry stones or outlets for our fidgeting.  The bustle of conversations over steels and emitters and the like sometimes fogs our view.  What is it that these things do for us?  We need to ask that question every now and then.

For me there are four kinds of tasks I do.  First there are the constant things--being a father or a husband or maintaining a house.  These are endless things you simply do as a function of living your life.  Making sure these are meaningful, it seems to me, is one of the guarantors of happiness in life, but that is another subject for a different post.  Then there are the big projects, long term things that have an end point, but usually span years.  For me things like this are no problem.  I have always been good at putting my head down and chipping away.  I huffed it through law school and philosophy graduate school (and Being and Time in German), so these things don't daunt me.  Then there are the medium sized tasks--projects smaller in scope that take a few days or a week.  I have never been plagued by these either.  But then there are the things that nibble away at your time--reading emails, returning voice messages (only to leave a voice message in an endless string of unanswered phone calls), paying a bill, getting a prescription.  None of these are projects.  None take up all that much time, but if you don't manage them as they come up they consume all you do.  You fight them off until, like the tide, they overwhelm you.

Its these things that necessitate, for me, carrying what I carry.  Sure I have a knife on me for an emergency and a light can get me out of a pinch, but in reality those events are so few in far between, that they would not justify me carrying either item.  But when you turn things around look at what you really do, what really consumes your time during the day, you realize that these microtasks are your enemy.  My EDC is my weapon against these enemies.

Here is a pretty typical day:

I wake up, shower and check emails.  I then say hello to my wife and I then get dressed and notice a thread hanging off my tie.  I go greet my son in his room and he tells me he lost one of his stuffed animals.  I get him dressed and try to get him downstairs.

In that quick twenty or so minutes I already have two microtasks--cleaning up my tie and finding my son's stuffed animal.  Obviously I cherry picked this morning to make a point, but the point still stands.  There are so many little things that come up and end up consuming your day that if you have a little bit of kit with you, you can take care of them instead of letting them linger.  The longer a microtask is on your to-do list the more time consuming it becomes.

I carry with me the following on a daily basis:

My smartphone--an iPhone 5S
My water bottle--a red Hydroflask
My wallet--a Bellroy Card Sleeve
My bag--the Tom Bihn Cadet
My keys--with the awesome slim Blade Key
A pen--one of a few in rotation with a couple of spares in the bag
A knife--again one of a few in rotation
A light--rotation
A watch--rotation

Here is a sample pocket dump, sans the work stuff--the bag, the pen and the bottle:

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With this complement of things I can do a lot of stuff.  I can open packages.  I can help a coworker change the lamp in her headlight (though she has since got married to perhaps the only guy good enough for her, so Steven, I bequeath this task to you; Steven reads this blog).  I can take a file downstairs into the dankest basement this side of the Tower of London.  I can jot a note or "transcribe" an entire court hearing.  I can slice open some weirdo fruit/vegetable thing that one of my coworkers brought for lunch or dispatch the insane packaging that toys come in nowadays.  Only the Hydroflask works at a bigger goal than an immediate, unpredictable, unforseeable microtask.

On the weekend I almost always carry my Leatherman Skeletool on of the days.  That one thing helps me get so much stuff done.  Every door knob in my house or loose switchplate is fixed.  It is the cruise missile in my arsenal fighting the 50s monster movie creep of the microtask.

But that's not enough.  Taking care of little problems could justify carrying snake venom.  By carefully and thoughtfully analyzing what I carry I have stripped stuff to the bone and then beefed up my kit until I am comfortable.  Like many folks I have done this in successive waves and every once in a while something will stick.  

To me, this is the essence of why I carry things every day.  They make me more productive.  They cross those tiny microtasks off the list and prevent me from be overwhelmed by having ten little things to do, all of which are unrelated, and all of which take a different set of skills and tools.  By having a basic set of tools with me I can pass through a day and have as few of these "time barnacles" stick to me as possible.

Its not just about having cool stuff and showing it off on Instagram.  Its not just about having something made of an exotic steel or a stag handle. It is about getting things done and making life easier.  The minute your kit is detached from that rationale, as opposed to the mantras of preparedness that dominate the internet (the god awful "one is none" and "rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it"), you have become a collector or worse, you have become this guy.  Justify carrying things by using them. This notion that you need triple backups is great for preparing your home for an emergency like a big snowstorm, but it is not a way to go out into the world.  That mindset is not preparedness but paranoia. This is one reason why I don't bother with a paracord bracelet or a giant fighting knife--I just don't need them.  I can see situations in which a person would need those things, but I don't encounter those times and places in my daily life.  

Carry stuff to be ready. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tom's Choice Barlow Review by Benjamin Schwartz

Is it fair to say our Golden Age of Gear has led to decline-of-Rome decadence? SHOT has come and gone, and IWA, and with most of the rest of the year in knives a known quantity, I find it hard to get excited about much. The meaningful profligacy of a few years ago is gone, replaced by a tiring fixation on framelocks, flippers, titanium, and Rick Hinderer. That is not to say that quality is not there, of course; just that I don’t find anything in designs like the ZT0392 or the Kershaw Shield comparable to the paradigm shifts that were the ZT0560 or the Skyline. We don’t want for quality, but I think we’re lacking in innovation.

Running parallel to this stagnancy is the resurgence of traditional knives. Steeped in history, fairly affordable, eminently collectable, and in terms of EDC utility not far removed from (and, in a lot of cases, better than) modern folders, traditionals have positively exploded in popularity in the last few years. At the forefront of this resurgence is Great Eastern Cutlery. Founded in 2006, but with an industry lineage that goes back much farther than that, GEC has spent the last 9 years cementing its reputation as one of the very finest manufacturers of traditional knives. And among the many GEC models, few are as iconic and sought-after as the Tom’s Choice Barlow. The TC Barlow comes from what is known as an SFO, or special factory order; essentially, a production commission from somebody to make a certain number of a certain knife to their specifications. The TC Barlow is the brainchild of Charlie Campagna, and is a love letter to the Barlow knife (in fact, there is a literal love letter on the tube it comes packaged in); as such, it is the platonic ideal Barlow, an embodiment of all the qualities that make the pattern not only historically relevant, but useful to this day. Here is the product page. The TC Barlow is not currently available anywhere except the secondary market; there, it will usually run you circa $150-200, depending on condition, cover materials, blade shape, etc.

Here is a link to Tony’s overview of the TC Barlow. And here is a link to Knives Ship Free, which, while it currently does not have the TC, has an amazing selection of GEC models, including the #15 Huckleberry Boy’s Knife, the pattern of which the TC is a variation.  Here is the TC Barlow (originally Tony’s, now mine):

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Twitter Review Summary: Lovely, functional, and unique, the TC Barlow is required reading for traditional knife users.

Design: 2

One of the oldest and most functional knife patterns in the world; what else is there to say? I appreciate that this model has only one blade. Extra blades add unnecessary width and mess with the ergos of the knife. I can’t imagine any general EDC task that can’t be accomplished by a single, utilitarian blade, and I’m glad that this particular TC has just that. Second, I really dig the long pull nail mark. Other iterations of the TC have the standard crescent nail mark, which is fine, but the long pull provides a lot more texture, and, along with the firm-but-not-tyrannical backspring and thicker than normal blade stock behind the swedge, facilitates a much easier opening than, say, my 2014 Indian River Jack. Finally, the blade kick is pronounced enough to form a kind of forward finger choil, which helps with precision cuts and detail work.

Blade:handle is decent too, at .74.

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All in all, the finest interpretation of the Barlow I’ve had the pleasure of using.

Fit and Finish: 2

This is a “warm” finish, as on the custom knives I’ve handled: everything is rounded over and smooth, and gives the impression of having been gone over by hand.

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This quality actually contributes to the TC’s performance (which I’ll detail below), but suffice it to say for now it’s excellent. The red soup bone covers meet the end of the bolster perfectly, and the dye in the bone is even and rich. It’s hard to discern that the bolsters and liners are not a single piece of metal, they’re so tightly fitted together. This is the first GEC I’ve handled, but if this is any indication of their attention to detail, it’s easy to see why they have such an avid fan base.

Grip: 2

The Barlow pattern has always had excellent ergos, and I like the TC Barlow’s in particular.

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It is just large enough to accommodate four fingers without any awkwardness, and the smoothed-over finish really lends the handles some “phantom volume” in the hand; that is, without actually being a wide knife, it fills the hand nicely. The pseudo-choil (that sounds like the name of some Lovecraftian monstrosity), which I mentioned above, is also appreciated.

Carry: 2

Like most traditional knives, the TC Barlow carries quite well. The worry-stone smoothness allows the TC Barlow to vanish at the bottom of your pocket.

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Its smoothness also ensures that it won’t damage anything else you’re carrying around, either; a polite, genteel companion.

Steel: 1

This was a tough one. As you probably already know, most of the knives GEC puts out are made of 1095, a tried-and-true carbon steel. I’ll get this out of the way first: despite it being the de facto choice for traditional knives, using 1095 for a blade in 2015 is not just an interesting exercise in history; it is an adequate steel, with many admirable qualities. I’ve found that it’s fairly tough, and maintains a useable, though not razor sharp, edge for a long time; in addition, it responds very well to sharpening and stropping; much like the X90C steel on an Opinel, you can get the TC to a razor edge quickly and easily. The more I use knives, the less I care about edge retention and the more I care about sharpenability. Nevertheless it gets a 1. Not being stainless is, quite simply, a major con. That isn’t to say that it is hard to maintain, but the fact that it requires a level of maintenance beyond that of your standard stainless steel is a bummer. I like being able to throw a knife in my pocket, use it all day, and put it away without worrying about it. I understand that even stainless steels will rust, but in my experience it is far less of a concern. In a fixed blade, where I’m using it for specific chores in a specific setting, it’s not a big deal, but this is my everyday carry, and I don’t like that every time I use my TC, I worry about leaving moisture on the blade or in the joint. Additionally, I don’t like the taste that carbon steel knives give to food when you use them to slice it up. Like I said, this was a tough category to score. 1095 is a legitimate choice, but I don’t think it’s ideal. I would just love to see GEC make some knives with a modern steel; I know they use 440C in some knives, and as ambivalent as I am about that steel I would prefer it to 1095 in the TC.

Blade Shape: 2

An easy 2. GEC has a very distinctive, very seductive clip point design, and I love it.  A great tip, the perfect amount of belly, and a nice straight portion behind that. Most excellent.

Grind: 2

Clean and lovely. The TC actually has a fairly thick stock behind the swedge, but it thins down dramatically behind the edge. That edge bevel is very short, but quite even, all the way through the belly to the tip, which is impressive. The point where the swedge grind begins is, as Tony pointed out in his overview, a little sharp, but it doesn’t affect carry or use at all, so I’m fine with it.

Deployment: 2

Grading on the “Traditional Knife Curve,” the TC deploys excellently well. The thicker blade stock makes pinching easier, and the long pull is much easier to work with than the crescent nail mark you see on most traditional knives. GEC also had the foresight not to bury the mark too close to the handle, so plenty of real estate is exposed. Real good.

Retention Method: 2

Again, we’re using the “Traditional Knife Curve.” A clip would be ludicrous here. The fact that the TC has nothing to mess up its lines is one reason it carries so well. A slip case, à la the IRJ, would be welcome, and you could always supply your own, but it isn’t necessary.

Lock/Blade Safety: 2

I haven’t owned enough traditional knives to rate the pull of the TC. I can tell you that it is stiffer than that of my Case Peanut, but looser than that of my Indian River Jack.

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For me, it is just right. It snaps closed, open, and into its half stop with distinct tactile and auditory feedback. Additionally, that faux choil allows you to chock up beneath the kick and preclude any sort of accidental closing while cutting—which to begin with was a distant concern.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

The TC Barlow is a delight. It is a pleasure to look at, hold, and use. It is hard to find, yes, and expensive when you do find it, but despite that, and despite its reputation as a collector’s piece, it is an indisputably great tool.

Like the IRJ, like all GECs and other traditional knives coming to us in this traditional knife revival, it not only reminds us of the relevancy of traditional knife patterns and design philosophies, but makes them exciting again.

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EDITOR'S TAKE: Ben hit the bull's eye on this one.  The knife is incredible.  I like other blade shapes better than the clip point, but man is this one well done.  This is not just a high fidelity version to the historic ideal, its also a very competent knife.  I too am less than thrilled with 1095 on a thinnish blade.  My score would be identical to Ben's for largely the same reasons. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"That's My Opinion"

Perhaps the best and worst part of the knife community is the various fora we all read.  They are the source of great information and great misinformation. They can be very supportive and fun or petty bores.  Recently, I was reading a forum review of a Medford Praetorian.  In the OP, the poster showed pictures of his Praetorian doing "food prep" and in those photos were two "slices" of tomato.  It was pretty clear to me that those tomatoes weren't really sliced, but more crushed.  The poster was confronted by some folks about this and he insisted that the tomatoes were sliced.  Remember the part about forums being "petty bores"?  At some point you just have to let the guy be happy with his knife.  No amount of reasoning or proof is going to cut through the happiness and post-purchase rationalization that allows someone to see tomatoes that look crushed as sliced.  To me, it seems like the only appropriate response to someone that is that entranced with a product is "I am glad you like it."

But one refrain that seems to be a crutch for online discussions when people disagree is "that's my opinion."  The problem is folks seems to forget what an opinion is, versus what constitutes a fact. And this is not just in the world of gear and online forum discussions.  Everyone, EVERYONE in politics seems guilty of this.  And all of this argument and reality avoidance reminds me of a favorite quote of my from the late great Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts."  "Blue is an awesome color" is an opinion.  "This knife is a good slicer" is not.  The knife either is or isn't a good slicer.  Its something you can go out into the world and find out.  I don't want to get to epistemological, but an opinion is something no one can or should argue about, but facts are a different thing.  Its important to discuss and argue WITH facts.  

As a critic of sorts, I run into this issue a lot, especially when a review offends someone.  The Cryo SS review is a perfect example.  I said the knife was too heavy for its size and people disputed that as an opinion.  The reality is this is a verifiable fact.  No knife I have reviewed weighed anything close to what the Cryo did, given its blade length.  B:W is a fact.  That fact can be used to compare one knife to another.  And in those comparisons the Cryo SS did poorly.  Now, of course I have not reviewed EVERY knife, but I have reviewed quite a few.  And of the ones I haven't reviewed, I have yet to find one with a worse B:W (though the zinc handled Gerber 39 seems like a contender).  Even if there are a few that are worse, that doesn't undercut the fact that the Cryo is far below average in this regard. So I feel very comfortably in declaring that the knife was too heavy for its size.  

One thing that has made criticism of all sorts much more difficult is this persistent belief that matters of aesthetics are pure opinion, that beauty is democratic.  Two hundred years ago, the prevailing belief was the exact opposite.  Immanual Kant and other intellectuals took very seriously the idea that there were objective standards in evaluating beauty.  I think that some of that discussion went too far, but I am much closer to that camp than today's modern notion that all evaluations of beauty are opinion.

Elle MacPherson makes a compelling case for me.  Yes, I think she is beautiful, but the reasons why are interesting.



Elle MacPherson was known in modeling circles as "The Body" and it wasn't just because she looked great in a bikini, which she most certain did and does to this day.  In fact, she was blessed with classical proportions--from her typical bra, waist, hips measurements to her height to her facial features.  Renaissance master and great painters found that the most visually pleasing bodies were exactly eight heads tall.  That is, their bodies were eight times the height of their heads. MacPherson is exactly eight heads tall, a rarity among human beings.  Gods were comically proportioned at 8 and half heads tall while average people were 7 heads tall.  You can see a whole raft of body proportion standards in Da Vinci's Virtruvian Man.   



Further studies (here and here) have shown that people respond strongly to certain body proportions.  There is hardwired into the human brain empirical standards of beauty in the human form.

I think it is fair to assume that there are also at least a few common touchstones of the aesthetics of objects as well.  Wassily Kandinski, famous abstract painter and teacher at the Bauhaus believed that colors and shapes were related and devised a very complex version of the standard artist's color wheel.  These  color shape relationships are seen in his paintings and art all over the world, even in different cultures.

This is all a way of laying a foundation for the argument that there are shapes in gear we find beautiful and I would even go further and say shapes we find useful.  Jim Nowka talked about visual tension on the episode of GGL that he was on, referencing an idea from the master Bob Loveless.  You can see it in some of the classic Randalls and many of Bob's knives.  But I think its not just an aesthetic thing--I think our eye likes these shapes because these shapes are useful.  Loveless's Drop Point Hunter, seen here,

Image courtesy of Knife Purveyor.

is not just a gorgeous blade, it is probably the most useful blade shape.  

I keep coming back to a few standards.  I think that a 9 inch blade is just about the limit on what I find useful in a knife (not a machete, a knife).  For a chopper 9 inches is just right.  Smaller and it is hard to baton, larger and it is unwieldy doing just about everything.  So too do I think that 3 inches is the sweetspot for a folder.  And here is the crazy thing--when I draw out gear or cut out mock ups as toys on my band saw these numbers come up again and again, even when I am not making a conscious decision about dimensions.  I can imagine that very large or very small people will have different dimensions, but for most folks these things seem to work.

And so I think we need to be willing to call an opinion an opinion and a fact a fact.  I think we also could benefit from a historical perspective on the history of aesthetics and a realization that there are some factual foundations to our notions of what is beautiful.  

And no dude, you did not slice that tomato.