Sunday, July 3, 2011

2011 $200 Max Recommendations

Here are the rules. Here is the $25 and less entry, the $50 max entry, and the $100 max entry.

We are now finally getting to a place where the gear is really interesting. At $100 total you will find really well-made utilitarian stuff, but nothing cutting edge. At the $200 level, that all changes. Now you can find stuff with the finest steels--ZDP-189, S30V (or the new S35VN), Elmax and Vanax steel. You will also find lights with really nice emitters, very high end clickies, and extraordinary runtimes, some even with funky custom batteries. The other thing is that gear this pricey starts to get into what hand tool guys think of as heirloom quality stuff, stuff that will not just last you a lifetime, but stuff that could, with proper care, be passed on to others in fully functioning order.


Finally, we make it the Benchmade knife that everyone RAVES about--the Griptilian series. The large Griptilian is well liked and a suitable, large carry knife. I think it is a little too big for EDC use, but is not insane to carry in this capacity. The Mini Griptilian seems to be a better size. I prefer the thumb hole version, the 555HG, but there is a thumb stud version as well, you know, in case you don't like innovation (well, stolen innovation, but innovation nonetheless). Lots of people like the lock, which has gotten rave reviews, especially since they fixed the problem with the omega springs on the lock bar. It is a very good lock--locks up well, puts no pressure on the blade during opening, and is really tight. I really don't like the steel these knives use, 154 CM. I had a Benchmade Sequel that used this steel and it rusted like I stored it in a jar of ocean water every night. Still, the handle shape is really sweet. I like the sheepsfoot on the 555HG, it has a more utilitarian shape. You can, if you want, get a Griptilian or Mini Griptilian in S30V you can get a Ritter version, found here. They come in at $19 and $12 over the price limit, but they are very well regarded. You can also get a custom Grip and Mini Grip from Benchmade, and by custom I mean you can chose the handle color, blade color, hardware color, and steel. See here for more info on the customizing site. I can't link to it because it requires a sign in. It is odd though because the "custom" Mini Grip costs $130 and the Ritter version, which has a more highly regarded blade shape, is $112. Also, super cool upgrade: the Wilkins Grip. A Ritter Mini Grip with a Wilkins Grip scale would be super sweet. Wilkins even offers a blade replacement for the larger Griptilian--so at some point you have to wonder what is worth keeping. It does use a better steel though--VG-10.

Benchmade recently bought Lone Wolf knives and they kept one of the most impressive designed the company offered--the Paul Axial Lock--a slim gentleman's knife with one of the coolest locks on the planet. It is serves triple purpose as a lock, a pivot, and an opening mechanism. The Paul Axial 235 comes in at about $100 and though it is probably not heavy duty, it looks to an excellent urban/gentleman's knife. Only bummer? The steel, which is AUS8, substantially below par in this class.

SOG makes a bunch of knives in this price range but only a few are interesting. The Visionary is a beautiful blade, accentuating SOG's meticulous grinds. It also has a "bar based locking" device, a la the Griptilian. So far as I can tell there is only a negligible difference between the Axis lock and the Arc Lock. The VG-10 steel hits par in the price range, but is nothing spectacular.

AG Russell has a few knives that aren't nailnick models, including the newly released Titanium Button Lock. The steel, 9CR13CoMoV, is a step up from the typical 8CR steels, with more carbon (for strength) and more chromium (for rust resistance). The button lock is nice, usually found on more expensive folders like William Henry knives. It has a thumb stud, a clip, and great styling--merging the best of an old fashioned folder with the modern features and steel of a Spyderco. Even the size is spot on--a slightly less than 3" blade with a weight under 3 ounces. The scales are sweet, something more than what you get elsewhere in this price range--either cocobolo or white bone. This is a really great addition to the AG Russell line up and a good summation of what they, as a company of knife makers, can do--old fashion class, new fangled performance. So far, if I had to pick a knife in this price range, this would be it. AND its is around $80.

CRKT finally offers knives with decent steel in this price range. I cannot describe in mere words how awesome the IKBS pivot is on the Ripple. I handled both a small and a large at a local knife store ("local" meaning an hour away, but still that is local considering my other options). The fit and finish on the Ripple is really amazing. I hate the "fish skeleton" look of the handle and a minimalist "Sebenza-like" aluminum or titanium handle with a blade (and pivot) stolen from Ripple would be an home run. One other slight hit--the off centered pocket clip. I cannot say enough about the pivot, it is just insanely nice. The blade shape, thankfully, is more of a traditional one than the normal Ken Onion, curves for the sake of curves design.

I really like a lot of the Leatherman options in this price range. Both the Charge and the Wave are well regarded and you can even get the Charge, the TTI version, with an S30V one handed opening blade. The TTI can be had for easily less than $100, and the Wave for even less. The only issue here is carry. These are big tools, the TTI weighs in at 8.2 ounces, but it does have a pocket clip to go along with the awesome Leatherman holster.

Spyderco has a bunch of sweet options. None, to me, looks sweeter than the soon to be released Native 5. If you can wait until late summer 2011 the Spyderco Native 5 should be out. It looks like a superb knife. The design is exceedingly refined, with smooth edges and no hump. They also got rid of the complex and silly grind in favor of a beautiful full flat grind. The handle is G10 and has a great finger choil. And for the big news: it has Crucible's next generation steel, S35VN. If they can do what they normally do with the Native (which was designed as a cost cutting knife to sell to Wal Mart), it should be around $60 price tag. And at the point, it is an absolute steal. Easily and handily the best best on the market for the price. The upgrade in materials leads me to believe that there will be an upgrade in price, probably around $75 street price, but still, that is a lot of tech and design for the money.

The Sage I is a great knife that has gotten very consistently good reviews. It is an exceptionally refined design out of the Spyderco design philosophy--thumb hole opener, finger choil, great clip, and carbon fiber handles. At this price level you can start getting premium handle materials and carbon fiber handles don't just look nice, they are super light, too. The steel is S30V and it uses a liner lock. It comes in just at $100.

Probably the bulkiest knife I would consider for everyday carry, the Manix II is another Spyderco great. The ball lock works much like the Axis lock does, and looks sweet as well. The knife is covered, literally covered, in jimping. It also comes is a ton of varieties and sprint runs. The steel is most often the thing that changes in a new version and the choices are nearly all top notch.

The last Spyderco I am going to highlight is my personal favorite: the Dragonfly II in ZDP-189. It is, quite literally, my perfect small carry knife. It is model thin, ultra light, has an amazing shape, and, most importantly, what I consider the best overall steel on the market--ZDP-189. My DF2 has cut and cut and cut and still pushes paper. I am not exactly sure what I can do to dull it other than abusing it, but it has eating up everything I have thrown at it including massively thick cardboard. It can be had for much less than $100. I paid $69.95 for mine.

We can finally get to Al Mar knives. I stupidly asked why they were so expensive over on EDCF and got a good earful. The knives have amazing fit and finish. The Hawk is the only one in the price range here. Handling one after I made that post, I noticed that my nail glided over the pivot screw on the micarta without even noticing the change in material. The handle was so smooth, so gracefully elegant, and so masterfully finished that it compares much better to a custom knife than a production model. You are not getting premium steel, AUS 8, but it is nice little and light blade. No clip, though.

The Ritter Mini Grip ultimately wins, though comes in a bit over price. It gives you a great size and shape, with a premium steel, and is fully ambidextrous. The S30V is a substantial upgrade over the 154 CM on the regular Grip and worth the increase in price. The Native 5, however, could quickly unseat the Ritter Mini Grip, if the price is right.

Recommendation: Ritter Mini Griptilian
Price: $112 (Knifeworks)


If the tool category is jam packed with choices, the flashlight category is jam packed with pretenders. Not because they aren't good, but because they aren't as good as the unconditional recommendation: the HDS EDC E1S 120.

Imagine this: Ferrari releases a new car with all of the design grace, top shelf materials, and impressive fit and finish of a regular Ferrari but with a $35,000 price tag. The only drawback would be that this new Ferrari would "only" go 180 mph, instead of 210. Would you be interested in this car? Then this is the light for you.

This level of fit and finish is usually reserved for custom lights, but for less than $100 you can get the E1S. The light is an amazingly robust light: massively thick body tube walls, enormous stainless steel bezel, awesome clip (after the redesign; the original clip was awful), and the ability to tailstand. It is a bit long for a single cell 123A light, but its still imminently pocketable. The light is made in the US, it has great electronics, and it is based on a time tested body (the Arc4 body).

But all of this is just a list of features. The best part of light is the glorious reviews and feedback on CPF. In a recent list of must have lights the HDS topped the list by a massive margin. It received 66 votes and the second best light, the Surefire 6P, had only 38. To me, this better than any recommendation I or any one person could make. The reality is that the folks at CPF know more about flashlights than anyone else in the world. These experts live, breathe, sleep, build and design flashlights. And these people, with all of their diverse requirements, endorsed the HDS light by a huge margin.

This is the best value of anything I have recommended thus far. Nothing in this series gives you as much for as little as this light. It is the $35,000 Ferrari of the flashlight world.

Recommendation: HDS Executive Clicky
Price: $99.99 (HDS site)

Honorable Mention #1: AG Russel Ti Button Lock and HDS E1S. If you are a classy guy, the AG Russell Ti Button Lock, is a really nice looking knife and a good price.

Honorable Mention #2: Leatherman Charge TTI and E1S. This is really a great combination. You get so much for the money. I would really like this, but weight is an issue. If you are going to be hauling this stuff around all day, ugh.

Honorable Mention #3: DF2 ZDP-189 and the Muyshondt Aeon. By skimping on the blade you get the advantage of a great, truly great light. The size and weight of this combination is really amazing given what you get. This is my carry in this price range and I love it.

1 comment:

  1. I've been enjoying the overviews Tony, that HDS sounds tempting - mighty tempting. The Ritter Grip looks like a nice blade although I am partial to the Sage I that I picked up a couple weeks ago. Will have to try and get my hands on a Ritter grip for comparison.