Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The All Time Ugly EDC

The core of my EDC is a few items--a light, a knife, a pen, and a watch.  Its supplemented by the normal person's EDC--keys, a wallet, and a phone, but the light/knife/pen/watch combo is the heart of my carry.  With the discovery of the $65K Sly Stallone Montegrappa Chaos Fountain Pen, I have decided to outline the ugliest pocket dump possible. If your gear is in this dump, I am sorry.  I didn't intend to offend you, only point out the stupidity of your decisions.  With that non-caveat out of the way here we go.

Ground Rules

To reach the level of truly hideous requires more than just a few mistakes, it requires a blind devotion to tastelessness.  In that blindness, there were a few themes. 

For whatever reason the skull motif is strong in the gear community.  Perhaps it is because the cocks sketched out in Super Bad are trademarked or something, but regardless of the reason, the skull is everywhere.  Especially on the All Time Ugly list.  I guess you could have a tastefully done skull motif, but the Golden Age of tasteful skull motifs died out with Black Beard the Pirate and his favorite flag.  No, what we are treated to is the Vegasification of the skull motif--skulls smiling (without lips), skulls with knives clenched in their teeth (without muscles), and skulls laughing with baseball caps on. They carved on hideous pocket clips, and laser etched on blades, or worst of all worked into the barrel of a pen.  

But, oddly enough, there is another common theme among hideous gear and that is Sylvester Stallone. The Lyle designed Rambo knife was truly awesome, a beautiful piece.  The Hibben design was...um...less so.  But aside from those two things, anything Sly touches gearwise is pretty terrible.  If you knew nothing else about the piece of kit, not even what it was or what it looked like, but merely the fact that at some point Sly Stallone has something to do with it, you can just steer clear.  Its not just a pile of steaming cow shit, its a pile of steaming cow shit infected with Ebola, that as a severed human finger sticking out of it.  So, for the sake of simplicity here is the Gear Design Axiom:

Sly + Gear=Chunk-from-Goonies ugly.

Its like the Pythagorean Thereom of Gear.  Its a bed rock princple, an unshakable foundation of knowledge.  Now that we have first principles articulated, lets get to the gear.

The Pen

Image courtesy of Luxury Magazine

Oh my...the Montegrappa Chaos is just insane.  I am Italian, so let me do some translating for you.  Montegrappa is Italian for "mountain of crappa".  And Sly Stallone is Italian for "I saw what he made and I threw up in my mouth a little and then swallowed it and realized I had chili for dinner last night".   After digging and doing some real investigative journalism, I found this--a transcript of the design meeting between Sly and Montegrappa:

Sly: "Uh, yo, what do you think if I put a skull on dis ting? Dat'd be cool, right?"

Montegrappa: "Si.  Skulls-a are awesome-a"  

Sly: "Uh, yo, what do you think if I put a snake on dis ting? Dat'd be cool, right?"

Montegrappa: "Si.  Snakes-a are awesome-a"  

NOTE: I am Italian, so according to some unwritten cultural rule, I can make fun of Italians.  You can't because your not Italian, but I can. There has to be SOME benefit to having hair greasy enough to lube engine parts and having to shave twice before lunch.

The only piece of man iconography missing from the pen's barrel is a penis.  So Montegrappa and Sly, let's see a Gen 2 of this pen with a giant gold penis on the barrel.  That's what could take this thing to the next level.  

Montegrappa: "Si.  Penises-a are awesome-a."

The Light

 
Image courtesy of Monkey Edge

Starlingear.  Oh Starlingear.  What happened?  And Lens Light, you should know better.  

What we have in the light category is both ugly and stupid.  First you have the "engraved" skull bead from Ryk Maverick.  And then you have a digicam flashlight.  What?  A device to help you see in the dark and it is camouflaged?  Yep. Of all the times when you DON'T want something camouflaged, reaching for a flashlight is #1.  You are reaching for your light because YOU CAN'T SEE.  You definitely don't want a light that you CAN'T SEE, too.  This is the pocket frosting trend taking to its (il)logical and silly extreme. Skulls, camo, SKULLS AND CAMO.  AWESOME.  And ugly.

The Knife

There are quite a few contenders here.  If there is a skull on a pocket clip, especially a three dimensional one soldered in place, that knife is ugly.  If there is a giant laser etched skull on the blade, ugly.  Really ugly.  But that's not what we are talking about.  We aren't talking about run of the mill ugly, or superficial ugly.  Lots of DPx Gear has a skull here or there, but it happens to be lasered on to some pretty good looking knives.  That's like a super model with a pimple.  Not what I am talking about.

No, in the knife category, skulls get you some ugly points, but the truly hideous stuff is, unlike with pens, skull free.  There are really three contenders, a multi-horse race, like the debate between greatest pitcher in the last twenty years (Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, or Pedro).  

The first contender is from a company that knows how to make some truly gorgeous knives.  Some of William Henry's stuff is very impressive with engravings and other touches that seem impossible for a production company to pull off.  The subjects of that engraving, well, lets just say their not museum worthy.  Sure there are a lot of Merica Rocks engravings, and I am giving them a pass because, well I am kind of a silly patriot and you know what...Merica does ROCK (if you would like you can reread that sentence while listening to the Hendrix rendition of the Star Spangled Banner).  No, its the other engravings that get WH in trouble. Tigers, skulls...you know.  But the Pinnacle of Hideous (or one of the Triple Peaks of Hideous) is the infamous "Pirate" engraving, seen here:


The engraving work is fine, the image is the issue.  I am not sure why WH wanted to celebrate the long and storied history of pirates having seizures while steering a ship, but there it is. This isn't nearly as cool as the villainous pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean or from my son's Imaginext toys.  No, this is something much worse.  This is all time ugly.  

The second contender again is not just somewhat ugly.  Its not Boker Batman knife ugly.  No, it too, like the WH Pirate knife, is REALLY barf worthy.  And it is the soon to be released Mike Draper Spyderco.

 
Image courtesy of Knife Center
 
With each leak and picture that knife cements its place in the history of ugly gear.  Its not just the web mofit on the handle though.  Its the fact that the blade is awkward looking AND that the web mofit has blue sparkles on it.  If there was ever an official knife for the Championship Team of Pairs Rollerskating circa 1974 this is it.  

The third contender is not really a knife, but a theme used on knives--blood.  You have seen these knives--neon green handles, neon green blades, and blood spatter (not splatter, haven't you seen CSI?) everywhere.

 
Image courtesy of Knife Center

A lot of the gear on the All Time Ugly Pocket Dump comes out of that part of the brain that remains unchanged since the knife designer was 12 years old.  A la Herman's Head, that part of the brain says:

"Okay guys, ready for this: BLOOD!  Let's put BLOOD on the knife, out of the box."

The reason this idea made it through all of the sensible voices in the person's head was because inside the knife designer's head, the crazy little voice was actually a raving psychopath and MURDERED everyone else.  And so, we are treated to blood soaked knives, out of the box.  If there is one thing people can point to and say to us "you are a bunch of infantile morons with an obsession with violence and knives AREN'T tools..." this is it.  Finally odds that one of these knives shows up in a legislative hearing in the next twenty years to illustrate how violent knife owners are are better than even.  Thanks dumbass knife companies that put blood colored paint on their knives.  Ugly AND stupid.

The Watch

The watch is easy.  Its anything made by those hoaxsters from Florence, Italy (Italy is showing up a lot here...hey, we also have Michaelangelo and Da Vinci...just remember that).  The ugliest watch is any Panerai. Its not just the twee face or the obnoxious crown guard.  Its not the dinner plate size. Its not just the faux retro art deco styling.  Its not the uber pretentious look.  Its the fact that they did stuff like the Brooklyn Bridge edition.

 
Image courtesy of Chrono24.com

Ugly on the outside is one thing, but Panerai takes ugly to a whole new level, cramming in parts from a K-Mart watch in its hideous cases and selling it to suckers for tons of money.  That's truly and purely ugly.  That evinces not just a lack of taste, but a lack of morality.  This is a whole different level of ugly.

Oh and just so you don't think this is the only reason why it is the ugliest watch, here is the other piece. Panerai was a brand from the early part of the 20th Century and was revived when...wait for it...Sly Stallone bought a few vintage models and gave them to friends.  Remember the Gear Design Axiom?  Bam, confirmation of the hideousness of a Panerai.  

There you have it, a collection of gear that puts the "dump" in pocket dump; daily carry from Hell's sewer system.  If I offended you, your taking this exercise to seriously.  Remember the date after all.  But this isn't a "HA! I fooled you" piece.  I believe everything I wrote here.  This is more a "HA! You got fooled if you bought any of this junk" style April Fool's Joke. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Stop with the "Sheeple" Talk

  Your watching a crime show on TV.  The story follows a pair of detectives and things get gory--a body was found, the person was shot.  A few minutes later on the show, they are at the medical examiner's office and out on the slab is a grayed body, split open, stem to stern with a bone saw.  The detectives have a look of mild disgust on their faces as the body. Then, for dramatic effect, the medical examiner is poking and prodding inside, sending waves of revulsion out towards the detectives and the viewers.  Then, in a point of gallows humor, the poking and prodding continues in graphic fashion, only now the TV medical examiner is drinking a cup of soup in one hand and poking innards with the other.  The cup of soup's contents look a lot like the pooled fluids in the corpse and the rookie TV detective goes off screen to puke.

In real life this would (probably) never happen, but medical examiners do deal with corpses in a way that most people find odd, to say the least.  Similarly, sanitation workers at plants jump into "the fresh" all of the time, without much regard for what it is, aside from their safety gear.  Folks at chicken plants debeak chickens like folks assemble cars.  This is the whole premise of the TV show Dirty Jobs--our context can desensitize us to our surroundings and our behavior.  

This leads me to the term "sheeple" (one of my two least favorite words used by the gear community, "pimping" is the other).  


I absolutely HATE this term.  In fact, its very existence is an indictment of the knife community.  Guess what?  Not everyone is comfortable with knives.  That doesn't make them a wimp or a moron.  It makes them different from you and me.  Their context is different.  My family has gotten used to me carrying and fidgeting with a knife, but not everyone has that context to draw on.  And while I think the demonization of objects is stupid, I think being insensitive to others is even dumber.  

Part of this is an issue of being conscientious of others. I don't want to be the guy that purposely takes up two parking spaces.  I don't want to be the guy that gets his mail in his underwear, a la Tony Soprano. I don't want to be the guy that screams and yells at his crying kid in a store.  Being part of humanity, being with others, means, that on some basic level human decency makes you, on occasion, think of others.  So when you want to open a pack of gummy snacks with your Microtech Scarab and you are doing so in a crowded park full of families, think twice.  Be discrete.  Don't be THAT guy.

The other part of this is much more self-centered.  Members of a community are, for better or worse, seen as representatives of that community. All gun owners are branded by the media and politicians by of the actions the least responsible gun owner.  And when that person inevitably makes bad choices the government steps in.  Over the years, government's track record of managing and dealing with discrete issues like this has been--well, there was only one Amendment to the Constitution ever repealed...So flipping your Woods Titan in Target is not just inconsiderate, its the kind of stupid behavior that inches us closer to more dumb legislation (see: the Switchblade Act).

They aren't sheep people because of their antipathy or discomfort with your knives.  Being overtly intimidating by playing with knives in an obvious and inappropriate way is both inconsiderate and the kind of stupidity that invites legislative action. And that mindset starts with a word and that word is Sheeple.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Smock Knives Mini Southard Review

The well-worn path from modder to custom maker is one that we have all become familiar with, and for good reason.  Quite a few of the best new custom makers out there started as well-known modders.  I have had a chance to handle the work of a few of those folks and I can say without hesitation that Kevin Smock (formerly Bower Bladeworks and now Smock Knives) is unsurpassed in quality and innovation he brings to the modding game.  I have had long term, hands on experience with two of his mods and they are as good as any modded knife I have ever seen or handled.  His Mini Southard is, frankly, one of the most comfortable, refined, and graceful knives I have had the chance to handle--custom, production, or otherwise.  If this was how the knife came from Spyderco it would have probably been product of the year in 2013.  Simply put Kevin's work made a good knife one of the best EDC blades out there.  If you can snag a Mini Southard, do so.  

The Mini Southard is really in a category different from the stonewashing and hand scale swap mods of the world.  While my Buck Advantage was awesome, it was still a Buck Vantage, even if superficially different.  The Mini Southard belongs to a more sophisticated world of mods, of things like the Dietz modded Boker Kwaiken (I have a review of that in the works as well, and Smock did that mod for me, as Alexander Dietz is not taking orders anymore).  These heavy mod knives take the basic platform of a production knife and alter things a great deal.  It is not simply an aesthetic tune up, it is a complete overhaul, like the the conversion from the Enterprise of TOS to the Enterprise of the first ponderously slow and boring movie.  The bones may be there, but everything else is redone.  And these heavy mod knives can range from the clever, like the Dietz modded Kwaikens, to the...um...abrupt like Johnson Knives chopped Sebenza (done for legal reasons, though the B:H looks so weird), to the sublime like the Mini Southard.  In many ways, some of these heavy mods greatly exceed their source material.  The Dietz flipper Kwaiken is one and this knife is another.   

There is no product page.  This review sample was on loan from a reader and begrudgingly returned to the reader.  Here is my review of the original, unmodded Spyderco Southard.  Here is my review sample of the Mini Southard:

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Here is my video overview of the Mini Southard:


Twitter Review Summary:  The Pinnacle of heavy mod knives

Design: 2

I was never a huge fan of the original Spyderco Southard.  It came and went through my hands with a collective meh.  The only thing positive I remember about the knife was the CTS-204P steel, which is Carpenter's M390 competitor.  I also remember that it got me looking more closely at Brad's customs, most especially the Downing.  The size and shape of the Spyderco Southard were not my cups of tea.  And more troubling was the fact that it was so close to being awesome.  There were just a few things, a few glaring mistakes that were utterly un-Spyderco-like, that held the knife back from greatness.

Well, those things are fixed.  First, and most insignificantly was the weird blade shape and spine.  It was as if the knife's spine was designed to accommodate grinds that Spyderco forgot to include.  But Kevin's mod chops off a part of the blade and eliminates the unsightly hump.  What's left is a very simple, very excellent blade shape.  More on that below.

Kevin then contoured the handle, which is now smaller thanks to the chopped down blade.  The overall in hand feel is superb.  He also fixed the weird lock bar area that was surprisingly pointy and he cured both the indexing notch and the pocket clip of similar pokey parts.   

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As a true custom job, the B:H and B:W ratios aren't useful.  One changes with the amount of blade chopped off and the other is altered, sometimes significantly by the handle material used and whether or not there was a liner delete (there was not on the review sample).  That said, here is a shot next to the Zippo to get a sense of scale. 

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Fit and Finish: 1 (fault of the original knife, not Kevin)

The work Kevin did to the knife is, frankly, 100% flawless.  There was not a line or a polished edge that was mismatched or out of synch.  If you didn't know it, you'd think this was a production knife or a custom knife.  Kevin's work is absolutely flawless.  Look at the fit on the lockbar overtravel insert:

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Now take a look at the work on the scales, which is especially impressive for three reasons:

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First, the scales are contoured, which is always more of a challenge than a slab handled scale.  Second, they are perfectly matched to the remainder of the liner.  And third, and most notably, these scales are lightning strike carbon fiber, known to be very hard to work with.  Generally, the wire inserts are very pokey around the edges or on the slopes of contours, but here Kevin did a 100% flawless job.  There were zero snag points here.

The one fit and finish issue that I had with this particular review sample was the pivot screw.  It worked itself loose a few times and if I had been the owner, I would have Loctited that thing (here is an overview of my favorite maintenance tools for EDC gear).  Alas, I wasn't, but the issue was noticeable, so I am mentioning it. I can't see how this is a flaw attributable to Kevin's work, so I am blaming Spyderco for the slippery pivot screw.

Grip: 2

One of the most surprising things about the original Southard was how uncomfortable it was in your hand.  This is a knife from Spyderco--THE knife brand for ergonomics and yet the original Southard was just slightly less comfortable in the hand than a pine cone.  Here, with a sigh of relief, Kevin fixed each and every problem.  The uncomfortable chamfered edge is gone, replaced by a smooth contour.

P1040678

The obnoxiously grippy G10 has been swapped out for a mellow, curving slab of polished lightning strike carbon fiber.  The pocket clip, which was a barbed-wire-level hot spot, is appropriately subdued.  And the lockbar cut outs, which were mere stepping-on-Lego-in-the-middle-of-the-night hotspots, are also tamed down.  Overall, the refinements are noticeable in seconds and a huge upgrade.  Again, I can't help but think--this is how the knife SHOULD have been.

Carry: 2 

The old knife didn't carry poorly and this was is even better, so there is not much to say except--darn good job Kevin.

Steel: 2

The highlight of the original Southard, along with the wonderful flipper, was the Carpenter CTS-204P steel.  Very chemically similar to M390, 204P really does do it all--its hard, its tough, and it is corrosion resistant.  I loved it on the original and I love it here.  These M390-type steels, M390, CTS-204P, and 20CV, are all just dreams to use, sharpen, and carry.  Enjoy the bounty for this is what the Golden Age of Gear has brought us, metallurgically speaking.

Blade Shape: 2

AH...It may be my favorite blade shape, a modified sheepsfoot, not unlike the blade shape of the Benchmade Mini Griptillian.  The original blade shape was a neither here nor there kind of deal, but this blade shape is something that is very useful, sturdy, and more visually pleasing.  

P1040673

Kevin should get credit finding a truly useful set of curves inside the stock blade.  In particular, I like the belly on this blade and the negative angle of the blade near the pivot.  Also note that Kevin put a true ricasso on this blade, something missing from the original.  Overall, a much improved part of the knife. 

Grind: 2 

The original grind was good, but Kevin's reshaping of the blade makes it even better,  The extra length on the original was, well, awkward.  It was quite slicey, but it was also kinda clumsy.  But shortening up the blade Kevin to a great grind hidden to a minor degree by a bad blade shape and made it awesome.

Deployment Method: 2

As I mentioned above, the star of the original was the steel and the deployment method.  The deployment method remains solid.  Even with less steel and mass to fling around the pivot, the Mini Southard opens with authority AND without wrist action.  The flipper tab, unchanged from the original, is the best on the market.  This is damn good.

Retention Method: 2

Pokey the Porcupine, the name of the original clip, is no longer appropriate and with that change, Kevin made the Mini Southard clearly superior to the original yet again.  Look:

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The difference in appearance isn't huge, but the effect is.  This, among all of the small flaws on the original, seemed to be the most glaring and easiest to fix.  Kevin proved that my intuition in that regard was true and did a few alterations that made the clip much, much better.

Lock: 2 

With the lockbar relief cuts rounded off, the knife is just a better knife.  Fortunately doing so didn't screw with the dialed in lock up.  Was great.  Still is great.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

This is a glorious knife, one worthy of a production run all on its own.  Spyderco or Southard himself should just bite the bullet and make a version of Kevin's knife, which, in a perfectly postmodern turn, is a version of their knife, which is, to Jean Baudrillard's delight, a simulacrum of Brad's custom.  Frankly, doing so makes good business sense.  Folks are willing, in fact lining up, to have Kevin alter their $250 production knife, often times spending quite a bit on the changes.  I would not be surprised if the knife didn't come in at around $400 when all is said and done.  That's a pretty penny, but these are extraordinary knives.  

The Mini Southard is, in my mind, the high water mark of modded knives, and the finest of the heavy mods I know of.  It is also a testament to Kevin's skill and a delightful preview of his custom that is in the works.  If you have the means, you should pick up a Mini Southard. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New Sponsor--Mass Drop

After my ranting rant about ranty things where I bashed Optics Planet pretty hard and puffed my sponsors--the great Blade HQ, Knives Ship Free, E2Field Gear, and HL Human--I was a little worried that my vetting was too harsh to allow anyone else short of St. Judes to be a sponsor.  Fortunately there are a lot of great companies out there and Mass Drop is one of them.  I worked with them before on a review of the excellent Fallkniven F1z and I have participated in a number of drops myself, including the pending Native 5 in FRN (for $74 right now, but with the chance to get it down to $69...come on folks that is a steal!). 

Mass Drop is not just an awesome new idea and way of buying things, it does something that goes to the heart of what this site is about--finding the best through sharing information.  I know this sounds like a bullshit platitude, but the truth is, I learn as much or more from readers than I could ever put out.  And with the wisdom of enthusiast crowds at work at Mass Drop, the same is true there.  The stuff that wins votes for drops is always good, even if it isn't necessarily my cup of tea. 

If you haven't seen Mass Drop, click through the link and look around.  The EDC community is quite robust and they do a good job of finding new and cool stuff, like the soon to be reviewed Scout 2.0 Slingshot.  Yep, another slingshot.  They are my EDC guilty pleasure.  Sue me. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Brick and Mortar: Evans On the Commons

I drove past Evans every day for over 9 years before I stopped in to see what they had.  I had assumed they were just a shoe store and never bothered to take a closer look.  Then one day when searching for a Filson jacket (CURSE you Jim and Kyle!), the store locator on the Filson site said there was a store  very close.  I was stunned.  It was like looking for ketchup and discovering you lived on a tomato farm.

So one day I decided to drive to Townsend, Massachusetts and there, across the street from a New England town square so picturesque Norman Rockwell would blush, was Evans.  The instant I walked in I knew things were a bit different.  It had the smell of a real place.  This was not an upscale boutique, but a place run by knowledgeable people.  Its presentation was utilitarian, there are pipes hanging from the ceiling, but the goods were second to none.  Inside I found outdoor gear I had only seen on the Internet, but here it was, all in one place, all in person.  Filson, Kuhl, RAB, just about anything you could ask for, was all in stock.  

Now none of this stuff is cheap.  Its all expensive.  Don't expect to leave with anything less than $100.  But its all amazing stuff.  The Outdoor Research gloves they carry are rated down to -40. And they are commensurately expensive.  

Upstairs is where things get interesting.  Upstairs there are two sections--outdoor gear and discount stuff.  What kind of gear?  They have Mora knives right next to Helle blades (and the contrast is stunning...those Helles are super nice...).  They have a bunch of different pack brands and a wide assortment of REAL outdoor gear--water filtration, fire starting, and the like.  This is not the outdoor section at Dicks that has Fieldline camo packs and portable seats (though Evan's does sell portable seats).  

Once you negotiate the outdoor gear there are racks of discount items.  And you can find real bargains.  I got my Filson jacket, a model that was two years old (though never worn or used) for a huge amount off.  It was originally around $600 and I paid $248.  The stock here is basically random, whatever didn't sell on the first floor, but if you are careful you can find tremendous bargains.

Evans staff is also great.  Not good, great.  Imagine someone as knowledgeable as the best REI staffer, but without the weirdo piercings and attitude and instead possessing of small town charm.  The outdoor guy knew a ton about Helle stuff, more than I could find online.  

Evan's is totally worth a trip.  There are a bunch of places around there to hike.  Over the line in Mason, NH is Parker's Maple Barn for a good breakfast and down the main drag in Townsend there is a restaurant called Bailey's (I can't vouch for them, as I haven't eaten there, but I can for Parker's--its great).  

Oh and they sell a ton of great shoe brands too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sebenzalternatives Shoot Out

For some time now I have been gathering knives that I thought would make for an interesting shoot out--knives that attempt to fill the same purpose and market niche as the Sebenza.  The Sebenza is, rightfully, a benchmark in the knife industry.  It is a perennial award winner and a knife that both custom and production companies have to consider when making products.  Like a Star Wars movie released during the summer, everyone tends to get out of the Sebenza's way, either looking or performing different or by having a substantially lower price.

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But the Sebenza, while an awesome knife, isn't perfect (go back and look I, change my score).  Its good, great even, but there is room for improvement.  And the Sebenza 25 AIN'T that improvement.  So here is the idea--I gathered together four knives all of which are made as Sebenza alternatives.  This way I will figure out which is the best of the Sebenza Alternatives (Seb Alts) and which is better than the benchmark knife itself.  The four knives are:

1) the Bradley Alias II;

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2) the James Chapter Knife;

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3) the AG Russell Acies 2; and

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4) the Kizer Ki 3404-3

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I am comparing them to the Small Sebenza 21--no frills, inserts, or Insingo blade shape.

A word about some other titanium framelocks--there are a lot of them, but many aren't marketed as Seb.alt.  Some, like the Boker Albatross, have clearly inferior steel and a different purpose.  Others, like the Spyderco Techno (which is every bit as worthy as the others), is just not the same size.  The knives I have chosen are all roughly in the same price range (the Kizer isn't), with the same intended purpose (all around EDC) with premium materials (ZDP-189, S35VN; the Chapter's D2 is a little below par).  One knife I wanted to compare it to was the Sage 2.  Alas, the stars didn't align...

Another thing--all of the knives in this shoot out are decidely above average.  They are all good to great blades.  Choosing any one of them is not a bad thing.  This is like picking your favorite Ferrari--even if you have to pick last your still getting a winner.  

What I am going to do is give each knife a non-numerical score in each of the ten categories in a folding knife review--better, equal, or worse compared to the Small Sebenza 21.  I am going to give the 21 the benefit of the new steel, S35VN, even though I didn't review it with that steel.  

Here we go:

Design

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AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II : worse
James Chapter Knife: better
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal
 
When you set out to top a classic design, you better bring your "A Game" and frankly both the Acies and Alias are classic versions of me-too designs.  Look through the long and tattered history of consumer products and look at so-called X-killers, whether it was the iPod killers or the Sebenza killers, and in that grouping will be a few yawn inspiring designs.  Compared to the original, both the Acies and the Alias are boring enough to make you sleepy.  The Kizer is quite good, a design made better by sticking to classic knife tropes, like the drop point with a swedge.  All together it looks clean and knife-y.  The best model in terms of design is, easily the Chapter Knife.  It is amazingly beautiful, unlike any other knife out there without looking so weird it is unintelligble as piece of cutlery.  And yes, I like it better than the Sebenza.  Both are minimal classics, but the Stormtrooper color way on the Chapter Knife is just super cool.     

Fit and Finish

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AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal

Look, I have handled hundreds of knives on an extended basis and critically evaluated around 150 and in that time, the Sebenza's fit and finish has stood out.  Its not perfect.  Mine had a loose pivot screw that required Loctite, but it was superb in virtually every other way.  There is a reason it is the standard by which other knives are judged.  Its not just hype, its not just bullshit, its true--the Sebenza is made to standards that most knives can't achieve.

Compared to the field here, every knife is worse or equal.  None are better.  The Acies 2 has a bit of fidget in the lockbar as does the Chapter Knife.  The Alias doesn't have any lockbar issues, but its generally less polished (this is easily explained--they are made by Benchmade, which, as good as they are, isn't CRK).  Only the Kizer was equal.  And frankly it had no issues at all, unlike the Sebenza, but it lacked that hydraulic feel to the lock up that so many people, deservedly, rave about with the Sebenza.  The Kizer is solid, but not spectacular by comparison.  

Grip

P1040596

AG Russell Acies 2: equal
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal

Its hard to explain just how grippy the Sebenza is until you get it in hand.  The subtle curve the of handles, coupled with the matte texture and the excellent jimping make the Sebenza a truly great knife in hand--secure without being obnoxious.

The Acies 2 does well here because of the classic AG Russell handle, the small parrot's beak at the end being especially good.  The Alias is below par, but it is the Chapter Knife that flunks the comparison here.  The Kizer is actually quite good with pronounced curves in all of the right places and a good finger guard/indexing notch thanks to the flipper tab.

Carry

IMG_7632

The Sebenza's simple profile, excellent clip, and thin size make it a superior knife in the pocket.  Beating it in this category just ain't gonna happen as there is nothing I have seen that is better.  The Chapter Knife, with its rounded off handle slabs, is excellent, equal to the Sebenza.  Everyone else is far behind.

AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: equal
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

Steel

AG Russell Acies 2: better
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal (identical, actually)

S35VN is a great steel, but ZDP-189 is better. The Acies 2's steel is not wasted either as AG Russell really knows how to get the best out of any steel.  The  Alias never got an update and while S30V is good, it is, in my opinion, just worse than S35VN.  D2 is quite good, especially for a budget steel, but it is not going to compete with the other steels here.

Blade Shape

P1050045

AG Russell Acies 2: better
Bradley Alias II : worse
James Chapter Knife: equal
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal

A clip point blade is pretty simple, but it is also darn good and the Sebenza's clip point is especially nice. I like the Kizer and the Chapter Knife for the same reason--simplicity.  The drop point on the Acies is, however, better.  Again, I think AG Russell's position in the knife world is much less high profile than it should be. He really knows how to make a good knife. This wide and tall drop point makes the knife so much a better slicer, even better than the Sebenza itself.  The Alias II's very shallow belly makes it substantially worse than the other knives here. Everything is really clustered, but for the Acies and the Alias.

Grind

AG Russell Acies 2: equal
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

There are few things that are as difficult to appreciate as the Sebenza's grind.  Its deep, hollow grind makes for an excellent slicer--an ideal EDC grind.  

In the Seb.alt group, only the Acies 2 can hang with the Sebenza.  This is probably because AG Russell knows more about knives than just about everyone else.  The Acies's blade is very tall and the flat grind terminates in a very thin edge before the actual cutting bevel.  Finally, the cutting bevel itself is quite wide.  All of this makes the Acies 2 quite good.  Its worth noting here that the ZDP-189 steel allows for a harder blade and this, in turn, allows for a steeper cutting bevel. This makes the Acies 2 perform even better than you might think.  

The Kizer is merely good--nothing great, nothing bad, but when the benchmark is the Sebenza (a.k.a. damn good) above average won't cut it.  The Alias is actually a bad grind.  Because the silly facets, flats, and swedges the actual main grind is very short leading to a bunchy blade in lots of materials.

Deployment Method

P1040655

AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: equal
James Chapter Knife: equal
Kizer Ki 3404-3: better

The Sebenza's thumb studs are the weakest part of the knife and even then, they are pretty darn good.  But, if there is any place where competitors can gain ground this is it.  Unfortunately the Acies runs the angled Kershaw thumb studs (and for good reason, KAI is the OEM for the Acies) and they are horrible.  Some people love them, but for me they are too shreddy.  They also dictate how you should open the knife--a classic design no-no.  

The Alias runs almost clones of the Sebenza's thumb stud and they are good, for that very reason.  The Chapter Knife runs bigger studs, but they are eminently coin flip-able, let you pop the blade out with flipper-like speed, once the knife breaks in and you master the technique.  

The real winner here is the Kizer.  Its flipper isn't just good, its great.  In fact, it is one of the best I have ever used--leagues better than the Sebenza's thumbstuds and a whole raft of flippers on production knives all the way up to customs.  Of the knives I have handled only the ZT0454 and a Tim Gaylean custom were clearly superior and that Gaylean custom is, without question, the best flipper I have ever seen.  

All of this leads me to a single point--Chris Reeve needs to make a flipper version of the Sebenza.   Failing to do so is just leaving stacks of money on the table.  And  I don't want to hear that BS about him not liking peoople flicking open their knives.  There have been enough flippers made at this point to prove it is possible to do a good flipper that stays locked up over time.

Retention Method

AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

Simply put the double dip pocket clip smokes all of the wannabes.  None are really worth mentioning in a positive way, but the AG Russell clip is worth highlighting in a negative one.  This clip is a design abortion, like someone told the designer "We need an over the top clip" but the designer never looked at anyone elses designs.  It stands out, it creates hotspots, it is way too shiny.  Overall, it is pretty miserable.  A lower profile bead blasted number would be awesome. Note that the ZT0560 clip fits on the Acies 2, last time I checked, and it is a huge improvement.

Lock

AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

One the hallmarks of the Sebenza is its lock up and for good reason--not only was the Sebenza the knife that popularized the framelock, its framelock, even 25 years later, is superior to just about everything else.  Wittgenstein was famous for arguing that language was the limit of thought and in a way that is true because no matter how much I describe it, you cannot understand the solidity of the Sebenza lock without handling one yourself.  Language may be the limit of thought, but it is not the limit of experience--in other words, you have to experience this for yourself.  All of the rumors and videos about lock rock all point to one thing--a person that likes to abuse knives.  You can mess up anything if you want to, but if you use the Sebenza as intended, its lock will be rock solid.

None of the competitors are even in the same league, though all are decent.  They are "above average for a production knife" while the Sebenza's lock is "above average for a custom knife."

Overall Score:

AG Russell Acies 2: better: 2; equal: 2; worse: 6
Bradley Alias II: better: 0; equal: 1; worse: 9
James Chapter Knife: better: 1; equal: 3; worse: 6
Kizer Ki 3404-3: better: 1; equal: 5; worse: 4

Winner: Sebenza, still...
Best Buy and runner up: Kizer Ki 3404-3

All of this is a long way of saying that the four Seb.alt knives I looked at were, in some way, not quite as good as the Sebenza.  Price not a factor, I think this Shoot Out got it right--I'd take the Kizer over the other three.  It is worse than the vaunted Sebenza, but being worse here is like saying Mike Trout is worse than Willie Mays--it is true only because of the superlative nature of the standard, not because of the failings of the thing being compared.  The scoring matched very closely with my intuitions going into this experiment.

But when you factor in price, the Kizer pulls very far ahead of the competition.  Its a knife that just kills the other three knives and is a real rival for a knife so hallowed that it has been in production for 25 years, despite a price that is about three times the average knife.  The Kizer is a superb value and a superb blade, no question about it.  Its not quite a Sebenza, but if I didn't want or have the ability to buy a Sebenza, it would be the knife I would choose among these four or, for that matter, among production titanium framelocks (that or the Techno).  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Response to Optics Planet

NOTE: Due to HL Human's recent beginning, I did not use them in the comparisons below, though do believe everything I write about my other affiliates applies to them; they are simply too new to have a page at the business review sites. 

I did not expect to get a post from Optics Planet in the comments section, but I am more than willing to lay out a response.  I really want to give them every single benefit of the doubt, to make it as fair as possible.  Also, while I didn't appreciate the way the call was handled, the customer service rep was not the main problem--Optics Planet web design and their "dynamic pricing" are the main culprits. 

Add to Cart Problem

Optics Planet's response to the complaint about the add to cart issue was that you can check availability on every product by clicking a hyperlink.  This is true.  But it also misses the point.  The Internet is a very competitive marketplace.  Most places get ahead in one of a few ways--different and exclusive products, superior customer service, or low prices.  That's it.  Unlike a brick and mortar store that can lure you in with a pleasant shopping experience (folks in New England know--Jordan's Furniture is fun to go to even if you aren't looking for a couch).  Optics Planet might have some exclusive products, maybe, but not in the product categories we are interested in.  They also don't have rock bottom prices.  So the last thing is superior customer service and here, they are clearly lagging behind.  It wasn't just the hang up though--that is a person having a bad day and that happens to everyone and is really pretty blameless--it was the add to cart process.  

Go to one of the affiliate links on the right hand side of the page.  You know what you will find?  REAL time inventory.  Blade HQ, Knives Ship Free, and E2Field Gear are great about keeping their website updated.  If a product is sold out, they let you know.  They don't take your money and tell you later that  "oh yeah, we forgot...you aren't getting the thing you bought."  BHQ and KSF both have in stock inventory counters.  You can see them go down over time and if you are worried you can buy that Indian River Jack before supplies get low.  So Optics Planet, if you want to compete in the hyper competitive marketplace that is the internet, you need to implement something like this.  The click through status marker is bullshit.  It is a way to encumber a customer and make it harder to find out information.  It is literally HIDING information.  Now, of course, you can un-hide it, but if you go to the affiliates I have carefully vetted over the years, you don't have to do this bullshit.  So that's the first response I have to the Add to Cart problem.

The problem goes deeper though--its not simply that the status was hidden.  It was the fact that the confirmation email never mentioned the lack of stock.  I got the email and it told me that my product was being shipped and that I would receive a shipping email later.  See, here is the thing, that is more than just bad customer service--that's a lie.  Its a lie in the Watergate-what-did-you-know-and-when-did-you-know-it kind of way.  When that email was sent, Optics Planet knew that what it told me was untrue or at the very best, exceedingly misleading.  My product wasn't being processed for shipping.  It wasn't even in stock.  And that is problem number two.

I am not the only person to complain of this.  Here is the feedback page for Optics Planet on Consumer Affairs.   There are multiple complaints dealing with orders not going through and at least one that had the exact same issue I did--ordering something, paying for it, and later finding out it is out of stock.  Here is the feedback page on Yahoo and again there are multiple complaints about orders not being shipped and again some folks experienced the exact same issue I did.  The Better Business Bureau lists them as A+, but if you look at the complaint section, found here, there are, again, multiple verified and responded to complains regarding stock and delivery of items.  I am not alone in complaining about this and Optics Planet's response did nothing to address my concerns and the concerns that, apparently, many others have had.  

Dynamic Pricing

So this is an interesting thing, this dynamic pricing.  Here is how dynamic pricing works--a retailer monitors its stock of an item, the price, and the price and stock of competitors.  The price is altered in response to the stock they have, the stock their competitors have, and the demand from consumers.  Its relatively new in retail, but it is something that merits discussion.  

First, to my knowledge my affiliates (except for Amazon) do not use dynamic pricing, other than the normal stuff-goes-on-sale sense.  They do not adjust prices based on algorithms.   

Second, the typical model for dynamic pricing usually requires an item to be in stock and being sold to work.  It requires the ability to measure supply and demand.  With no supply, how can you adjust pricing to meet demand?  Maybe they are using some kind of new dynamic pricing software.  It is entirely possible.  But this particular application of dynamic pricing seems weird.

Third, and here is where things start to get stinky--dynamic pricing seems to violate the Surefire vendor pricing policies, which strictly guards their MAP (mandatory advertised price).  Here is an email from a vendor regarding MAP.  I reached out to some friends I have in the gear business and they confirmed what you can find on Candlepower Forum (which started out as a Surefire forum).  Surefire's pricing structure is VERY strict.  They basically say to vendors "sell this at price X and if you don't that will be taken into account when we decide if you are going to be a vendor in the future."  These friends also confirmed that while there used to be smaller margins between MAP and wholesale costs, Surefire has recently made the difference bigger.  This seems bad for consumers and normally it is.  We have a history of problems with industry controlled pricing in this country.  I am not a fan of monopolies, and I like competition.  But, when you have a company like Surefire with such a long history of price stability, you kind of assume it is going to continue.  MAP enforcement is helpful in another way--you can count on a light being the same price across the board.  You don't have to hunt.  You can just go to your trusted website, and buy a Surefire light.  Having bought Surefires when this MAP policy has been in effect for more than a decade, I basically don't worry about where I buy Surefire lights.  The fact that the price changes at Optics Planet is quite strange, in light of the Surefire pricing structure.  Maybe with the increase in the difference between cost and MAP, they can do some dynamic pricing, but I am not sure.  This isn't a problem per se, but in light of what I found next, I am not sure if this is true "dynamic pricing."

But things get stranger...is it fair to a customer, even when you are using dynamic pricing, to sell an item at one price, not ship that item, and then drop the price the next day and not inform the customer who has yet to receive their item?  In the travel business, when you buy a hotel, you may not stay right away, but your rights to use the room at a certain point attach instantly.  This is a quirk of dynamic pricing as applied to retail that doesn't apply to other places where dynamic pricing is used.  But then when I called Optics Planet on the change, they hung up.  

Okay, final piece here--scouring the 'net I found lots of complaints about Optics Planet changing their prices in seemingly unfair ways.  Here is a screen cap of a forum post that reveals something different than dynamic pricing--this is deceptive pricing:



There are multiple sources (here, here, here, and here specifically Barry from Charlestown MA) that tell of stories that include price alterations and incorrect charges that harm the customer.  One particularly deceptive version of events includes issuing a coupon for a product and then increasing the price equal to the discount from the coupon.  I have no experience with that at Optics Planet, but the fact that others have makes me think my experience is not an isolated one.

Dynamic pricing is an issue we are going to have to contend with in the gear world.  But there is a difference between dynamic pricing and deceptive pricing and that this point I cannot conclude that what happened to me was the result of dynamic pricing and not something more deceptive.  Surefire needs to know that Optics Planet is doing this and I have already reached out to them on this point.  

Conclusion

In researching this response I discovered an overwhelming number of bad reviews for Optics Planet, with a huge majority being due to the Add to Cart problem.  There were a number of reviews claiming that they shipped used stuff as new, and then the general complaints.  A few, a small percentage complained about pricing shenanigans like the one I was dealing with in this case.

There was also the sheer number of complaints.  Any business with any volume will have some dissatisfied customers, but the number of complaints regarding Optics Planet is pretty staggering.  I know that Optics Planet is a big site with a huge volume of sales, but even accounting for that the number of complaints in various places was staggering.  On the Better Business Bureau, for example, there were 194 total complaints regarding Optics Planet.  Blade HQ has 3 in the same time span.  Knives Ship Free and E2Field Gear have zero.  ZERO.  Here are the complaint and review sites for Optics Planet and my three affiliates:

Optics Planet

BBB (194)
Consumer Affairs (21)
Reseller Ratings (7.63 out of 10 with 6,016 reviews)

Blade HQ

BBB (3)
No complaints on Consumer Affairs
Reseller Ratings (9.43 out of 10 with 3534 reviews)

KnivesShipFree (searched as KSF and Bohn Distributing)

No complaints on any of the three sites

E2Field Gear

No complaints on any of the three sites

Those numbers are just bad.  Its not simply that Optics Planet is a bigger site--they screw up, or more accurately piss people off more, and if my experience is representative, it is easy to see why.

In a marketplace with folks like E2Field Gear, BladeHQ, and Knives Ship Free, there is no reason to bother with Optics Planet.  You can find everything they sell elsewhere without the tricks, gimmicks, and hassles.  This is a small issue, a small complaint and not a big deal, in the grand scheme of my life (or yours) but in a world with so many options, why waste your time and money on buying stuff from Optics Planet when you can support good businesses that clearly do things the right way?  I appreciate the timeliness of their response, but in the end, the research I did proved to me that this was a whole lot of talk and very little walk.  Go with folks you can trust and reward people that are running businesses the right way--folks like Derrick at Knives Ship Free, who started a great Knives for Kids program, or Blade HQ that supports AKTI and helps with knife legislation, or Mike over at E2Field Gear who is a small site, but still puts his money where his mouth is.  I am done with Optics Planet.  I hope I laid this out clearly enough that you can at least evaluate the reasonableness of that decision on my part.  

I guess this means that Optics Planet and I aren't going to be friends and that they aren't likely to sponsor the site or the podcast, but I don't care.  I do this for fun and not for a living so losing some support is okay, plus, and most importantly, I have to inform you if some business isn't worth shopping at because in the end, the only thing that really matters to me is the trust of my readers.  My review policy is strict, my affiliates are carefully and personally vetted, and I go out of my way to research things and give people the benefit of the doubt.  That's because your trust matters to me.  I hope this response does nothing to alter that.