Saturday, July 9, 2011

2011 $500 Max Recommendations, Part I: The Tools

Because this entry is so long I am splitting it up into two parts: tools and lights. The tools will have a price range of $250 max. The same with the lights. If I didn't do this it would take me a week to get this out.

Here are the rules. Here is the $25 and less entry, the $50 max entry, the $100 max entry, and the $200 max entry.

The caliber of gear in this price range is really impressive. Nothing but the state of the art production stuff and even some small batch or custom items now. Also, the bar is raised significantly in terms of materials. VG-10 is no longer the par steel, in this price range the tools have, or should have, at least S30V or better. And most do. You will find exotic steels like M390 and even some non-steel metals like Talonite and Cobalt-based blades. In other words things are really, really interesting.

I am not sure that anyone actually NEEDS this stuff for daily utility tasks, but it is fun to play around with. VG-10 will suit most of your needs, but its not as fun or as cool as ZDP-189. The same goes with lights--in this price range you can now get lights with infinite variable brightness output. I am not sure how useful this is, but it sounds cool.

One thing that happens unfortunately for those of us that value performance, is that a lot of the gear in this price range is really gear from the previous price range modified in some way that does not improve performance, but does improve its looks or exclusivity, and priced much higher. For example, the Benchmade Opportunist, is offered regularly with S30V steel and wood scale handles for around $180 MSRP/$100 street price. But the Gold Class version is made with carbon fiber scales and a blue topaz in the thumbstud. It is priced at the ridiculous $350 MSRP and probably ran about $250 when it was in production. The carbon fiber offers very little performance upgrade, perhaps only a few tenths of an ounce off the weight. And the blue topaz, well, that does nothing at all. So beware, some of the stuff in this price range is really just gussied up versions of cheaper stuff. The Gold Class from Benchmade seems to typify this approach, though they are hardly the only ones out there doing this. Easy rule of thumb: if it has Damascus steel on it, avoid it.


I hate Damascus steel. First off, it offers no real performance benefits. Second, it rusts SUPER easy. Third, it is not even REAL Damascus steel. What we call "Damascus steel" is really FAKE Damascus steel. It looks something like the original, but has none of the amazing properties of the original, which are due to carbon nanotubes and nanowires that come about from the processing of a material call wootz using techniques lost in the mists of time. Here is a good article on wikipedia about real Damascus steel. What we are seeing is really more properly known as Damascended or Damascus-like steel and it is a waste of money. If your a collector, fine, but don't think for a second it offers any real benefit. It just looks pretty, though I don't even like the look of it.



Its nice to see an updated design from AG Russell, something doesn't look like it belongs in your grandpa's attic, and the AG Russell Dozier Tab Lock has a nice steel, D2 and unique lock to boot. If it is a little too big you can choose from four different handle materials in the AG Russell Spire. The Spire is the second generation production of a knife that used to be an "off shore" William Henry. They did not sell well, apparently, so they dumped the design. Personally, I think it looks like a winner of a gentleman's folder, a cheaper alternative to a knife I'll look at in the next recommendation, the CRK Mnandi. Given William Henry's trend, I think they sold well they just could justify the ridiculous mark up many of their blades carry by adding pimptacular decorative touches that do nothing to aid in performance or include silly accessories like a solid wood display case.

The Benchmade Opportunist is a fine little gentleman's folder with a bit of wood on the handle and S30V steel. It is a tad overpriced for what you get, but then again I think that is Benchmade's motto, right? The Benchmade Emissary has been addressed on this blog elsewhere and again, I think it is overpriced. The Benchmade Seibert MPR is a massively overbuilt knife, and I am not sure that is a good thing in this case. It is to pocket knives what George Constanza's wallet is to regular wallets. It has not gotten universally good reviews, but it does come with an AWESOME steel, M390, which has a HUGE amount of chromium in it to promote rust resistance (the recipe is 20% chromium, VG-10, for example, has 15% chromium). The Benchmade Subrosa is, stop me if you have heard of this before, a titanium framelock with an S30V blade. But, in a classic more-must-be-better twist, it has an assisted opening. It is also around $200.

For that price I'd rather have a Bradley Alias II, which is one heck of a good buy in this price range, I put it at 85% of a Sebenza at 1/2 the price. So far, this would be the winner. There, are, however TONS more knives.

I don't really like the look or feel of the Cold Steel Espada Medium, but the lock is a world beater, the cutting edge right now, so it deserves a mention. None of the bigger Espadas can really be considered utility knives unless you are: a) Conan; or b) regularly encountering slabs of beef tucked into clothing. If so then look into the bigger sizes.

One hard use knife that DOES look promising is the Emerson Mini A-100. Emerson's have a very polarizing reputation. They are not known for their high end fit and finish and they use an odd chisel grind (ground primarily on one side) on their blades, but some people LOVE them. Of their knives only the Mini A-100 looks like a reasonable size for carrying around everyday. It is also super, duper slim, using a thumb plate for deployment instead of a thumbstud. The knife is not terribly expensive in this price range, hitting around $140-150. It does use a liner lock, if you are one the people that hate liner locks, and it uses slightly below par steel--154CM. My experience with this steel in three different blades has varied greatly. If you get the Leatherman version that I have on my Skeletool, it is fantastic. If you get the Benchmade version from my Sequel it is wretched. I can't speak for the Emerson steel, but the design looks super sharp.

In this price range there are very few Kershaw knives. The one that stands out is the Blade of the Year 2010, the Kershaw Tilt. It has a truly unique design, a variation on the ball bearing pivot used in a knife with an IKBS pivot and the new high nitrogen steel, Vanax 75.

Mcusta seems to make really beautiful knives, but I am not sure how good they are to use. They seem to be making safe queens, which is something that I am completely opposed to. I'd much rather have someone find my gear a hundred years from now and notice that it is in good, but used shape. Safe queens, especially for things as widely produced as knives, seems stupid. I also don't happen to like Mcusta's aesthetics so, even as safe queens, they strike out for me.

The Ontario Hossom Retribution is, like the Manix 2, at the very edge of pocketability, but if you like the size, the materials and design are very, very nice looking. I really like the N690Co steel, too, and you can't go wrong with Micarta handles.

Spyderco has a few good choices in this price range. The Delica and Endura both come in ZDP-189, which is, in my opinion, the best steel out there. These classic designs with great steel are undoubtedly winners. You can't go wrong with either of these blades. The Spyderco Sage II seems to set the bar for Ti Framelocks, coming in much cheaper than the Bradley Alias and various other Ti Framelocks. Leave it to Spyderco to take a classic design and make it better. Oh, and cheaper too. I love the Spyderco Leafstorm, quirks and design flaws and all. There are very few knives as stocky and well built as this little blade that just disappear in the pocket. Well, we now know that the Spyderco Native 5 will run about $125 according to the preorder on which was just posted this week. It is definitely in the running here, along with the Bradley Alias II. Lots and lots of folks love their Spyderco Paramilitary/Military knives. The Military is a behemoth of a blade, 4 inches, with tons of variants. My favorite, by far, is the Fluted Ti Framelock version, seen here: drool. If I were going to get a bigger blade that would be the one, but it is just too big for everyday use, in my opinion. The Paramilitary is a bit smaller, but not as appealing, for some reason. Of all the Spydercos in this price range, one truly shines--the Spyderco Calypso3 CF. The Calypso3 is widely regarded as one of the finest, most refined Spyderco designs. All of the curves fit into the hand with a grace usually associated with the shifter on a high end sports car. The finger choil is placed perfectly. And the steel, oh the steel: a laminate of 420J and ZDP-189. All the benefits of the new super steel with the toughness of a soft steel. It has a wire clip and full flat grind to go with the immaculate design. This is one fine knife. How perfect is it? Something tells me that the dimensions aren't an accident: exactly 3 inch blade, exactly 4 inch handle, exactly 7 inches overall. One thing that is hard to figure out is the price. Some places will sell it for as low as $100, but I have never found a reputable place that sells them that cheap, until today, July 9th, when I saw that an Amazon partner sells them for $105.00. This is the cheapest I have ever seen them and if you can, in fact, get them at this price then the Caly3 would win the previous recommendation over the Ritter Mini Grip, by a healthy margin. If you can't find them this cheap you will just have to settle for a superb blade for around $125. There was a G10 handle version, but it is out of production and ran VG-10 steel instead of the delicious 420J/ZDP-189 sandwich of the CF version.

If you think the regular Spyderco design is great, but the handles and backspacers lack a little bit of zing, try a blade from They have been around for a quite a while and some of their designs are truly amazing--a Caly3 in VG-10 steel with Desert Ironwood scales. Talk about pimp my ride. Or how about this wicked looking Spyderco Lava? They were wise to choose great performing blades to customize as there is no real drawback, you get a great look and working blade that is pretty much unique. They typically hit right at the top of the price range here, but still you'll never run into someone at a knife show with the same knife as you.

Only one knife in the SOG line up in this price range caught my eye--the SOG Stingray. There are a bunch of variations and it is a smaller brother to the SOG Tomcat, a big knife, which is, in turn a smaller brother to the SOG Fatcat, which is a ridiculous knife. The Stingray has a 3 inch blade and various inlays. It hits the top end of the price range and it has a laminate steel using 420J as well, but the "meat" part of the sandwich is decidedly under par for the price--VG-10. Swing and a miss.

The William Henry E6 CF is the cheapest William Henry knife made. It looks really sweet--I like the D2 blade steel, though it may be prone to rust as D2 has 12% chromium and the threshold for "stainless" is usually 14%. The big thing here is that blade is 2.75 inches, which is decent, but the carry weight is a feathery 1.5 ounces. That makes it almost as light as the Dragonfly 2, the SOG Flash I, and the Al Mar Hawk, all with about a half inch more blade. Generally, I think WH knives are overpriced, but this one is a beauty considering what you get (or in the case of the weight, what you don't get) for the money.

Recommendation: Spyderco Calypso 3 in Carbon Fiber
Price: $127.50 (Knifecenter), if you can find it for the $105 price tag linked above, it would also be the winner for the previous price range recommendation, it is that good.

Honorable Mention #1: The Bradley Alias II. You get a great deal of knife for the money.

Honorable Mention #2: The Spyderco Sage II. You get EVEN MORE knife for the money than the Alias.

Honorable Mention #3: The WH EDC-6 in CF. You get LESS knife for the money and that is a feature in this case. Awesome design.


  1. Hey Tony, I don't suppose an updated remake of this series is in the works?

    1. Search gear recommendations and alloutdoor and you will find an annual installment of this series. I did it for 2015, most recently.