Saturday, July 30, 2011

EDC Book: World War Z by Max Brooks

Okay, so there is something of a zombie craze going on, and I am sure you have noticed it. Personally I feel it is little silly, especially when you have grown men talking about their equipment for the Zombie Apocalypse. I do appreciate that the majority of people are merely using zombies as a proxy for all sorts of epic scale disasters. That said, why do we need a proxy? Oh well, I guess it is all in good fun.

But if there is any person that reignited the zombie fire that really took hold in the 50s after George Romero's classic, Night of the Living Dead (go back and watch it, it is AWESOMELY scary and tense, a great flick), it is Max Brooks. Brooks wrote the Zombie Survival Guide and the truly great and pulpy World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

It is definitely a good read and I appreciate the unusual narrative perspective, that of an oral historian being told tales of the apocalypse from various people, but it is the subtle and not so subtle social commentary that I think makes the book more than it seems. It is sort of like how Animal Farm is not REALLY about a farm or animals (though the quote--"All animals are created equal, some animals are more equal than others"--is too good not to reference).

There is some really biting commentary on environmental issues (the whole outbreak is sort of a "Gaea's Revenge" scenario) celebrity status, the pitfalls of technology, Chinese communism, nuclear power, anti-social computer shut ins, gear geeks (oh no....), utilitarianism (the Redeker plan), and nationalism. Plus, in some parts, it is really, really gruesome and scary. Over all an excellent read. I can't imagine that people that would read this blog haven't at least heard something of the book, but if you haven't track it down. It is a good summer adventure. Just make sure you have a LOBO handy.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Top Ten Values from the Recommendation Series

There is only one more article left in the Recommendation Series, the more than $1000 price range, and with the sky as the limit, I thought it might be a good time to look back over the series and highlight some exceptionally good buys.

The point of this post is to review what was recommended and find the best overall values. Some "best value" items didn't win the overall recommendation in their price range because value was not the sole criteria. I looked at the price ranges like this: if I had X to spend, given the specs, the feedback from various sources, and the company's reputation, what would I buy. So while the Skyline may be a better value at $30 than the Delica is at $50, the Delica, in my opinion is the better knife for under $50. That said, some folks just want to know PURE value--what is the best buy for the money, regardless of the price range the item falls into. I created this list for those people.

Many of the items are the recommended tool, knife or light in their price range, but sometimes there are items that are great buys, but not necessarily the best item in their price range.

Without further explanation, the ten best values in tools, knives, and lights:

10. Lumapower Incendio: A recommended item, but also one hell of a light. Each year, instead of scrapping all the work they have done Lumapower just updates, tweaks, and perfects this already good light. Seems to have worked out for Spyderco.

9. Leatherman PS4: Until the PS4 was released you were always forced to choose between scissors and pliers in the cheap multitool realm. No cheap Leatherman or SAK had both. The PS4 ended all of that and it is a GREAT little tool. Fits perfectly into a jeans coin pocket or even on a keychain.

8. 4sevens Quark MiNi 123A: If there is one light that you can recommend to someone that cares even a smidgen about performance, this is it. It is not terribly expensive, complicated, or large. A perfect recommendation for the newly minted flashaholic or someone who prefers nicer things.

7. Spyderco Delica 4 FFG: It is not the cheapest knife in the world, but it is darn near a perfect knife. The grinds, the highly refined ergonomics, and the thumb hole opener make this a great improvement to an already great design.

6. Spyderco Dragonfly II ZDP-189: Okay, this is the perfect knife. I don't consider the Ladybug a "real" knife, as it is too small to use comfortably for long tasks (like whittling), so this is the smallest "real" knife with ZDP-189. It is also one of the cheapest, again, losing only to the ZDP-189 Ladybug. But it is such a superior design, carrying the finest steel on the market, all of the updates to the DF design, and the best ergos on the market.

5. Kershaw Skyline: This knife is so cheap for what you get, but ultimately it is not QUITE the performer that the Delica is, so it lost out in the recommendation for a blade under $50. BUT, and this is a big deal, for $25-30 (street price, I got one at Wal-Mart for $25 last week) this is an OUTSTANDING blade. On pure value there is little out there that compares to the Skyline. I am in the process of testing one for review now and the steel has been a nice surprise.

4. Mac's Tri EDC: How can a $200+ flashlight be a great value? Because it performs and is made like a $500 flashlight. Honestly, the Mac Tri EDC makes it SUPER hard to jump up to a McGizmo. The lights have gotten astoundingly good reviews everywhere and with more than 500 lumens out the front in such a small package, everyone should be re-evaluating their designs. Mac's stuff is truly bleeding edge without making your wallet bleed.

3. Spyderco Calypso 3 ZDP-189: I got a Sebenza for Christmas and in doing the research I had narrowed the choices down to four: the Sebenza, the WH EDC, the Strider PT, and the Caly 3 ZDP-189. It was a tough choice, but not between the knives you'd think based on the price. The choice was quickly whittled down to this knife and the Sebenza. The super refined design, the steel, and the Spyderco hole make it an excellent choice. It even has a high tech handle material to give it an extra bit of class. This is a high end knife in almost every way except for price. That, in my opinion, is the very definition of value.

2. Ka-Bar Mini Dozier: dollar for dollar this knife is amazing. Think of it as the Manny Pacquiao of knives--for around twelve bucks you get a very decent blade steel, a nice shape, and a simple straightforward design. The size of the knife is also quite nice, making it a perfect EDC choice. For budget folks, this is the knife, unless you want something bigger, in which case, you could opt for the full sized Dozier or the Skyline. AUS8 for $12 is always a winner and a great value.

1. HDS Executive 120: Thick, overbuilt body, renowned and beloved UI and programming features, plenty of brightness, and a fit and finish reserved for custom lights, and all this under a hundred dollars? Sold. There is no better value in lights than this little puppy. You could buy it now and still be using it in thirty years. No questions about it, this is the best value in lights and tools out there.

Next up, the wild and crazy world of unlimited price recommendations. Also, sorry about the delay, I was under the weather.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

2011 $1000 Max Recommendations

Here are the rules. Here is the $25 and less entry, the $50 max entry, the $100 max entry, the $200 max entry, and the $500 max entries (tools and lights).

Well, we have finally made it. This is the end of any semblance of reasonableness. Spending more than $1000 on a knife and light is really completely unnecessary. In all likelihood, even $1000 is silly. But, at this price range you are looking at the some of the very best gear in the world: small, handmade batches, or extremely refined production stuff. This price range is the F1 racecar price range. Here you can insist, rightfully so, on only the very best. These knives and lights can be the equivalent of the Rolexes. The pimp my ride phenomenon from the previous category still exists here, so be careful. There is nothing worse than paying $350 for a knife that offers no performance upgrade over a $50 knife.

The Tools

There are very few knives in the Spyderco/Benchmade/Kershaw lines that are worth paying more than $300 for. There are things like the Benchmade Infidel which are exceptions to this rule and are not simply "prettified" versions of cheaper knives. Other those few examples, it is time to move beyond these more mainstream brands.

There are the three American made knife companies that people in this price range always mention: Chris Reeve Knives, William Henry Studios, and Strider. Zero Tolerance makes some reasonably sized knives in this price range as well and their new 777 sent the knife world into tizzies before BLADE show. There are also a few import knives that are worth considering from Klotzli.

One thing seems to set the price or value proposition for all of the blades in this price range--the basic Chris Reeve Sebenza 21 either large or small. The knife is so well made, the tolerances so fine, that a blade either needs to come in significantly cheaper, do something spectacular, or do something radically different. If it doesn't, why not just buy a Sebenza?

Sebenza 21 small and large are classics, as the "21" designation indicates, having been around for 21 years. The new versions use the next gen Crucible steel, S35VN. Both are exceedingly simple and unspeakably perfect in their execution. I love my Sebenza small, as it is just the right size. For people looking for something a bit bigger, you have the Sebenza large or even the Umnumzaan, an even bigger CRK blade. At the small end, you have one of the most elegant gentleman's folders I have ever seen, the Mnandi. Personally I think the "enhanced" Sebenzas are bit of gilding the lily, but the Mnani, for some reason, just seems right as the upscale choice. I love the wooden handle choices available too, things like Walnut strike me as particularly beautiful next to the titanium handles. The fanciest knife CRK offers is the Ti-Lock. I am not sure if it is even released, as there seems to be some issues with production. The knife, in my opinion, is not part of the same aesthetic whole as the other three CRK knives and lacks the minimalism that makes the Sebenza so attractive to me. Out of the CRK family of folders, the Sebenza 21 small is my favorite, but I am trying to figure out a way to get a Mnandi as well. If I could only have one, it would be Sebenza 21 small.

The Strider PT is certainly a different approach to knives in this price range, as it is based on the very aggressive looking Strider SNG and SMF. I think the PT and the SNG are really everyday carry sized knives, but I am sure that someone out there hauls around the SMF. One issue that seems to hold the PT back, in my mind, at least, is a regular and persistent criticisms of the fit and finish of the knife. DarkChild 57's review typifies the lot--little things are missing here and there. I love the size and the shape, especially the finger choil, but I am worried that even for all this money, the little things aren't done right. And at this price level this is a concern you should not have. I know that they replaced the pivot screw on the Gen II PTs. I also know there is a clipless PT CC with a convex G-10 handle scale. Still, for this much cash you have the right to expect perfection and I am not sure you get it here.

Microtech, a maker made famous by their high quality auto knives, released a gorgeous folder in time for BLADE 2011 (it won the Most Innovative award). The Microtech SF is a beautiful looking design, but has not been released long enough for their to be a lot of useful feedback. Still, based on Microtech's reputation, the specs, and the look of the knife, there is obvious quality here. I like the thin handle, recalling the precision feel of the Delica's long thin handle, and I like the blade shape. The steel is also nice--S35VN. If you are looking for something a little more aggressive looking than the Sebenza, but you want a bit higher fit and finish than most Striders, the Microtech SF may be the way to go. Again, all of this is with the caveat that there is no real meaningful feedback out there yet.

William Henry Studios makes some really nice and really fancy blades. The WH EDC 6 was covered in the last recommendation. Its larger brother, the EDC 10, can now be purchased, as it is about $50 more than the $250 EDC 6. Both are fine knives that use a button lock. I handled an EDC 10 at a knife show around its release last year and I was impressed. It was light and felt very solid, a surprising combination. I guess you are paying for the inlay and this odd combination of lightness, solidity, and size. Again, you have the Sebenza problem, though. At this point and this price, why not just get a Sebenza? The look and feel are different, but the fit and finish is about the same. The only issue for me with the EDC 6 and 10 is the steel. I like D2, as tough as it is, but it is substantially below par in this price range.

AG Russell Acies is sort of like the knife equivalent of your fantasy baseball team--it has a combination of all of the best features from other knives into one knife. It has a low riding pocket clip, a Hinderer lock stop, a Chris Reeve style frame lock, a stepped and angled thumb stud from Kershaw (who actually makes the Acies for AG Russell), and it has a ZDP-189 blade. My only concern, other than size, is the fact that the fit and finish aren't as good as they should be. Many video reviews note a wobbly lock bar when in the locked position. I have seen this before on my Leafstorm, and it is not a fatal flaw, it just inspires a bit of worry. And, again, there is nothing like this on the Sebenza and, as you have noticed, the refrain is the same: at this price, why not just get a Sebenza? Fix the lock bar issue and make it in a smaller size and I think the Acies could rival the Chris Reeve classic. As it is, opt for the Sebenza.

Three Sisters Forge TSF has a Ti framelock, and it looks excellent. A fellow EDCFer put up a review and from the review and the specs, this knife looks like a contender. It sets itself apart from the Sebenza by using the IKBS system in the pivot. It also has deep pocket carry. The steel is excellent as well (S35VN). Finally, it can be a bit cheaper than the Sebenza depending on the options, so in my mind, this knife is worth a look.

Why mess around with things that compare to the Sebenza, when, at this price, you can just GET a Sebenza? It is that simple. The only knife in this recommendation I'd strongly consider other than the Sebenza is the Three Sister Forge blade and that is because it is cheaper with identical materials. I also expect the Microtech will get great reviews, but it is so new, we just don't know.

IMG_0025

Recommendation: Chris Reeve Sebenza 21 Small
Price: $330 (EVERYWHERE, no price deviations at all)

The Lights

Lights are much simpler affair. There are very few lights in this price range. There are upscale, Ti versions of the Mac Custom TriEDC and the Muyshondt Aeon. There used to be a company called Lumencraft that made a beautiful light called the GatLight. They seem to have gone out of business. That leaves a few McGizmos and a few other unusual lights to consider.

We now get to main lights made by Don McLeish, unquestionably one of the finest flashlight makers in the world. He has five lights in production, the previously covered Sapphire (a Ti Arc AAA), Haiku, SunDrop, the Mule, and the Makai. The Haiku is the all around light. It does tons of things very well and I absolutely love mine. The fit and finish is beyond anything I have ever seen, perfectly cut without any machine marks whatsoever. The design is superb and the reflector is a thing of beauty. I am not sure if I need to say more. The Sundrop is a bit different. It is a High CRI light (though the Haiku comes in a High CRI version as well) without a reflector. It is primarily an outdoor lighting source, I imagine a boon to photographers. It has no throw due to the lack of a reflector and so I'd skip it unless you have a specific task that calls for it. The Mule is similar to the Sundrop but without the aspheric focusing lens. It has even more limitations, in my mind, and thus I'd skip it. The Makai is a thrower and the head makes it too big, in my opinion, to use as an EDC light.

If it is all about lumens for you and nothing else, then the answer has to be the Moddoolar Pocket. I covered this light here. It looks really nice and it is not too expensive. I especially like the tailcap, which is compatible with Surefire lights.

Lenlight makes a really snazzy Ti light that is focusable. I covered it here, and it is pricey. Still, it is something a little different and the specs and heritage of the design seem to indicate that it is a quality piece.

The pickins here are slim, especially if you exclude lights from the previous category. That said, the winner, in my opinion, is pretty clear: the McGizmo Haiku is the finest EDC light in the world. I have made the case in the review and I stick by it.

IMG_0002

Recommendation: McGizmo Haiku
Price: $495 (Don's Thread on CPF)

Honorable Mention #1: Spyderco Calypso 3 and the Mac Custom TriEDC.

That's right, nothing in this price range touches the two things that I ended up recommending. In fact, to find a pairing that rivals these, just by a quirk of the market and production quality, instead you have to go back to the previous price range to find stuff without any flaws or issues. All of the blades seem to be mimics of the Sebenza or not as refined and the Moddoolar light, while a true pocket rocket, requires specialized rechargeable only batteries. In the end, none of this stuff is better than the Caly 3 and the TriEDC. If you can't get the Sebenza/Haiku combination, get the next best thing and save a few hundred bucks. Even then, the Caly 3/TriEDC combo certainly gives this light&saber pairing a run for its money.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Spyder Hole and the Cantilever Chair

In 1926, for an exhibition of some sort, Mart Stam, a famous designer in Europe, designed a chair with two legs. "Wha!?" you say, "A chair with two legs?" Yes. It is a design that you have undoubtedly seen, perhaps at your slightly too modern dentist's waiting room. It is the cantilever chair. I imagine slack jawed gawkers staring at the chair and then waving their hands were the back legs should be. The idea of the chair is that the use of new materials, in this case tubular steel with a high tensile strength, coupled with impeccable design could balance or suspend a person's weight on a cantilevered seat. The design, aside from being striking, is a perfect example of innovative design in an object that is so old that innovation seems impossible. We have had chairs with three or four legs for tens of thousands of years and then Mart Stam busts out the two legged chair.

What does this have to do with the Spyder Hole? Well, two things really. First it is an example of less being more through good design. Second, it is, like the cantilevered chair, and example of innovation in a space so old that innovation seemed impossible.

I am sure that someone down through the ages had thought of the hole opener before Sal Glesser did, but no one, and there can be no real dispute about this, has promoted it as well. Here is the thing about Glesser's innovation, and the reason why I think he should be viewed as not just a great knife maker, but a great designer (not "knife designer" though he is clearly that, but just "designer"), it is something that ADD features by REMOVING something. The hole makes knives easier to open and it reduces weight without reducing strength in any meaningful way. It also, in many cases, adds to the grip of the knife, giving your thumb a place to rest in high pressure cuts and preventing your hand from sliding forward in stabs.

Compared to the inelegant thumbstud, the hole is genius. You don't need additional parts. You don't need to figure out a way to attach the stud to the blade. You don't need to spend time and manpower attaching the stud. Just drill a hole and your done. Its simplicity of design carries over into a simplicity of manufacturing. Additionally, unlike the thumbstud or thumbplate, is does not attract gunk and pocket lint (though you can get finerprint swirls on the blade around the hole). It is simply a better solution to the problem on one handed opening.

The flipper, especially a well executed one, like on Gerry McGinnis's knives, is a thing of beauty as well. Perhaps not as pocket or retrieval friendly as the Spyder hole, the flipper does double duty as well, acting as a finger guard. It is more difficult to make than the hole, but it is a pretty elegant solution in its own right. Still, the less makes more of the hole, in my mind gives it an edge in terms of design chops.

In the end, the Spyder hole and its dozens of imitations, solved a problem with folding knives and made the need for automatic knife much less acute. And it did it with a design flair not seen since 1925 and the two-legged chair.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sweet Handle Scales

You just got a really nice, but not super fancy knife, a Delica for example, and you want to jazz it up a little. What do you do? How about order up some custom scales? Here are a few great spots:

Cuscadi: They have, by far, the largest custom scale operation out there. I have never ordered anything from them but they have been referenced positively on the knife forums. They can make scales for dozens of models, Benchmades, Spydercos, Bokers, and Striders. They also have dozens of different materials, including carbon fiber and a lot of high end hardwoods.

Kevin Wilkins: He makes scales for three models: the Mini Grip, the full sized Grip, and the production LeafStorm. It seems that the LeafStorm scales are out of production. You can buy them from Wilkins himself.

Philip Dobson
: This guy is definitely not as well known as the other two, but not for a lack of quality. He uses a bunch of different materials, but it is his wooden scales that are the most amazing. Check out the custom cocobolo scales on this XM-18:


That has got to be one of the most beautiful knives I have ever seen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dragonfly 2 ZDP-189 Review

In the world of gear the word "perfect" is taboo. It's like being an art critic and saying something is the best painting ever. You just don't do it. Nothing can ever be perfect because everyone has such different needs and there are so many different tasks, so the collective wisdom goes. Well, so much for collected wisdom.

The Dragonfly 2 in ZDP-189 (DF2 ZDP-189) is perfect. It does everything not just well, but with ease. I have been using and carrying this knife almost exclusively since I got it in May and it is awesome. Light, laser sharp, and made to fit your hand, there is nothing that I would do differently in designing this knife. Spyderco and Sal Glesser outdid themselves. And while $70-80 is not a cheap knife, it is a bargain at that price. When released it was the the lightest and cheapest knife in the production world to use ZDP-189. It has been displaced by another Spyderco knife, the Ladybug. Here is my DF2 ZDP-189:

IMG_0005

Here is the product page for the DF2 ZDP-189. Here is a good street price for the knife. There are no customer reviews for the ZDP-189 version on Amazon.

Design: 2

The Dragonfly design has been around since 1994. There was a subtle change in the late 90s, moving the hole further away from the handle, widening the knife. Then last year, real upgrades came--the molded clip was retired in favor of a wire clip, the bodies soft edges were tightened up a little making the sides more crisply angled, and finally jimping was added to the choil and thumb ramp.

Fit and Finish: 2

Things are bit tighter on the DR2 ZDP-189. The wire clip, for instance, seems significantly stiffer than the wire clip on the Caly3. The blade on mine came perfectly tarnish free, which is not always the case with ZDP-189, which has a tendency to tarnish because of the uber-high carbon content. Also, the knife was more than razor sharp, it was insane, really.

Grip: 2

With the addition of the jimping on the blade, the knife, which had a fine grip before, is now outstanding. If I could, I'd give it a 3, but doing so would ruin the scale, so 2 it is.

Carry: 2

The DF2 ZDP-189 is still a wide knife, but it also kept is slim figure, tipping the scales at 1.2 ounces. The crisper edges have no impact on retrieval nor do they make the knife hard to carry.

Steel: 2

ZDP-189 is really in a class all by itself in terms of steel. It has, by far, the most carbon (3%) of any regularly used steel on the market. It also has a huge wallop of chromium, 20%, to fight off rust that may be attracted to all that carbon. The steel is leaps and bounds better than S30V in terms of edge retention. I had to break my sharpening=review rule because more than a month of use after I wrote that article, the blade still pushes paper. It is probably going to be a bitch to sharpen, but if I only have to do it once a year, its worth it. Also, I have not babied this blade. I cut massively thick cardboard to make my son a fort from our grill box. I cut rope and twine. I cut extra thick rubber. Nothing stops this steel. It is simply the best I have ever used by a huge margin. Again, I'd give this a 3, but...

Blade Shape: 2

Same great shape, with maybe a slightly more acute angle from the handle. Great.

Grind: 2

Perhaps the neatest and cleanest grind I have ever seen in a Spyderco knife. Excellent.

Deployment Method: 2

The crisp edges to the FRN handle make deployment even easier than before, not that it was a chore. The adjustable pivot is also nice, but I didn't need to use it. The pivot does seem a bit smoother or looser, but nothing that causes blade play.

Retention Method: 2

I love the wire clip. It is my second favorite clip design, after the Sebenza's double dip clip. It is perfect and aids in holding the knife.

Lock: 2

Again, the lock seems a bit looser, but nothing that causes the blade to wiggle. Easy to use, basic, and simple. Great lock.

Total Score: 20 out of 20 (Perfect Score)



This is really a no-brainer. If the DFI with its molded handle and VG-10 steel is an 18, there is no way this knife, with its better clip, jimping, and truly superior steel is not a 20. The size of the DF is what makes it so appeal. It is non-threatening, easy to carry, and yet cuts like a lightsaber handling chores that seem appropriate only for much larger knives. I love this knife and all of the improvements made it...perfect.

Ads

I finally gave in and allowed Blogger to post ads. It got to the point where: a) they were bugging the shit out of me; and b) I was running out of stuff to review. Here's the plan: once I get enough from the AdSense revenue, I will buy new gear to review. Once the review is finished, I will give it away to a random reader. None of the ads are things I control, so I am obviously not endorsing the stuff. If they get really obnoxious, let me know, and I will take them down.

Monday, July 11, 2011

2011 $500 Max Recommendations, Part II: The Lights

Just like the blades, now the lights get really interesting. Surefire, Nitecore, Sunaway, JetBeam, and HDS all make lights that compete well in this price range. There are even a few custom or small batch production lights available: the McGizmo Sapphire, the Mac Custom's EDC, and one of my favorite lights of all time, the Muyshondt Aeon. There are so many choices and so many outstanding lights and outstanding features that this is an exceptionally competitive field.

If the lights, or light, in the last recommendation is a high end production car, a sporty BMW, the lights in this recommendation are custom built race cars. They are NASCAR racecars, but still, they will blow the doors off the competition just a few bucks cheaper. The F1 cars, they come in the next round. Still, these are truly awesome machines.

Surefire's lights are, almost by rule, expensive. They are, by rule, exceptionally well made. The E1B is emblematic of the entire company: solid, unfailingly simple, and made with the finest materials. It has a decent but not screaming high of 130 lumens and a good low of around 15 lumens. It uses a simple two click UI. It has an interesting two way clip. It is a bit big for a single cell light and it can't tailstand but if those aren't important to you then you should consider this light. It has what Surefire describes as a "melted" look, with few sharp edges. Pottery Barn calls that "eased" edges, but it just means the light goes in and out of your pocket easily. Finally, for a single cell light it is a bit big, around the same size as the HDS light. At $139 it is a great light and you pay for that greatness. There is a proposed Lumamax, LX1, that is a single cell light and if and when it comes out it will share many of the features of the E1B with that Lumamax segmented body look. Great light, but Surefire can deal in vaporware sometimes. The final Surefire light I want to look at is the T1A. Originally the T1 was released with CR2 power cell. That was a special edition and is highly sought after, if you can find it. It originally retailed for $500, so they are likely to be much more if you can find one. The T1A is essentially the same light with a CR123A power source. The high is nothing to write home about, 70 lumens, and it the light lacks a clip, but it is small and it has one of the best UIs available. The variable brightness UI on the T1 and T1A is awesome--twist head for on, twist more for increased brightness. It is simple, hard to activate accidentally, and amazingly useful. A low of 1 lumen and a high of 70, with anything in between all at the twist of the wrist is just too good to pass up. If you can afford the $249 price tag, it is a light without parallel in the production light world.

Novatac's 120 series were really great four years ago They are still good, but no longer cutting edge. They do a few things very well. They have about the cleanest beams available, rivaling my $500 McGizmo Haiku. They also have a great form factor too. Just be careful, the budget line of these lights is not that good at all.

5.11 Lights for Life seem like cars that get 500 MPG, but they really work. A police officer friend of my loves his and says it works just as advertised. He did notice that the body got hot during charging, but I can't see that being a problem. It also did well lighting stuff up. The 400 is just too big, but I suppose someone out there could EDC the 300. The bigger light is $169.95 and the smaller, $10 less. Interesting idea and probably worth a peek.

A few of the Chinese makers produce variable output lights. Nitecore makes the Infilux models. All of Sunaway's lights are variable output and they even made a shiny Titanium model, but just like in the tools section, some of these higher priced items are merely pimped out versions of cheaper things with no performance enhancements. JetBeam makes a series of variable output lights as well, and of those I like the RRT-0 the most. In fact, of the Chinese made variable output lights, it seems the best. I don't like the grip-style clip, but I do like the output (255 lumens on a single CR123A cell) and the fact that they give you both an AA and a CR123A body tube.

That said, the RRT-0 needs to be really good because in addition competing against the 120 lumen HDS from the last recommendation, it is also competing in this price range, with the brand new HDS light, the Rotary. The release of this light caused jubilation on the CPF boards (it also caused a wave owners of previous HDS lights to sell them off at greatly reduced prices, a boon to the rest of us). A few kinks on the technical side were worked out and we now have an awesome light. The rotary allows for more direct access to output levels and, in the menu mode, more intuitive programming. This light is definitely in the running.

We finally get to the first McGizmo and it is the diminutive and beautiful Sapphire (aka the Arc Titanium AAA). It's output is not too different than that of the beloved Arc AAA, around 10.5 lumens. It is made of Titanium though, so there is premium price. I am not sure I can drop that kind of money on a light with that small of an output. If I could bring myself to do it, though, it would be a tough call between the Sapphire and the Rainbow Killer from another custom maker, Photon Fanatic. Personally I like the aesthetics of the Rainbow Killers a little more than the Sapphire, but function-wise these are not much more than jewelry when compared to the Arc AAA.

Now that we are clearly in the custom territory, we can't fail to mention one of the most affordable, most highly praised, and brightest customs out there--Mac's TriEDC. It is a flamethrowing, sky brightening, pocket-sized lightning gun with 700 lumens in a package the size of a HDS light. With a custom Ti pocket clip the aluminum model comes in at $229, a stunning bargain for this performance and size. Peak performance does require a special battery, but rechargeables are available. Drop by Mac's site and drop your jaw--this is what cutting edge lights look like and the fact that they are handmade in the US, my home state of Massachusetts no less, by a true craftsman makes it all the better.

Now we come to what is probably my favorite light I have ever owned--the tiny David to every other light's Goliath--the Muyshondt Aeon. There is a warm and a cool tint option available and though I am perfectly happy with my cool version, the warm version had received raves. If I fawn anymore about the Aeon, I think that Enrique may take out a stalking order. Oh yeah, you can get it in Titanium too.

There are tons of options here, but if I had to choose, it would the TriEDC from Mac's Customs. It is so cheap for what you get, rivaling and in some ways surpassing a McGizmo that costs twice as much. If you are in this price range, go for this light. You won't be disappointed. Unless you hate weirdo batteries.


Recommendation: Mac's Customs Tri EDC
Price: $199.95 for light, plus $29.95 for Ti Clip (Mac's Customs)

Honorable Mention #1: Muyshondt Aeon. Can't go wrong here, just a different style light. If you are looking for small and light, this is it. A combo with the WH E6 would be an featherweight pairing with top shelf performance.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

MIA: Stuff not in the Recommendations

So as you read the recommendation series of commentaries you might be saying to yourself "Where the hell is X?". Generally, I tried to select things that I find interesting. I might have different tastes than you so that may be the simple explanation for the omission. In some cases there is a bit more.

Where the Hell are the Sodbusters, Pinched Peanuts, Canoes and other traditional-style knives?

They are in your grandpa's attic and that is where they belong. Seriously, these knives just don't interest me at all. I understand the tradition. I know Case makes really nice stuff, but I just can't get excited about a knife that lacks a clip, a lock, and a convenient way of opening the knife. That means, for me, it is missing 3 of the 4 ingredients that make a modern knife (the 4th being modern steel). This not the difference between manual transmission and automatic transmission, it is the difference between power steering and unassisted steering.

If you have to have one: A.G. Russell Hen and Rooster Model 107. The fit and finish rival any production knives I have seen and I have only handled a USED version of this knife. How polished is it? Even the liners are mirror polished.

Where the hell are the multi-cell flashlights?

In the closet, backpack, or drawer where you store your flashlights, which is probably where they have been most of the time because they are not convenient to use and carry regularly. Sure you get some extra lumens and runtime and in some models a bit more throw, but in the end, these lights are just too big to be useful on a regular basis. The other issue is that modern single cell lights have improved in quality so much that the performance gap doesn't justify the inconvenience.

If you have to have one: Surefire Lumamax LX2. This is a nice light with a really innovative clip. It is just slightly too big to stuff in your pocket. If you carry a bag then this is no problem. It is pricey though.

Where the hell are the fixed blade EDC knives?

They are in Bartertown with the rest of Max Rockatansky's weapons. Seriously, there are not too many places where you can unsheath a knife and not draw a bunch of looks. It is not about being socially acceptable, it is about using the stuff you carry. You can go and be a weirdo all you want, but really, fixed blades aren't convenient. If that doesn't dissuade you maybe the looks of "Oh My God" might (or should be) enough to convince you not to pull out the knife. If that's the case, then it is not likely to be used, and then what's the point of carrying it? If your in law enforcement or an emergency responder then I can see the merits of a small, tough fixed blade. If not, leave them to Mad Max.

If you have to have one: ESEE Izula. The blade shape is really nice, the hollow hand makes it light and the size is not TOO intimidating. And it is cheap, cheap, cheap.

Where the hell is the gear from Gerber?

In the trash. It is all either junk or overpriced underperforming wastes of money. There is nothing here to recommend. One small and elegant exception: the Gerber Shard. Poor man or smart man's Atwood? Depends on how much you think a tiny bar of steel can be worth.

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.

ASIDE

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.

END ASIDE

Tools

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 Knifecenter.com 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 CustomSpyderco.com. 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.

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.

Tool

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)

Flashlight

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.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fenix LD10 Review

This is my first review of a Fenix light. They were the upstart that really started the new wave of high quality, relatively inexpensive flashlights. Their lights now range from the cheap and decent E01 all the way up to the massive and expensive TK70, a 2200 lumen monster.

Here is my LD10 with its light&saber buddy, the excellent Spyderco Delica 4:

IMG_0055

I received this light in a trade. I sent one of my walking sticks to a fellow EDCFer and said "send something that you think is of equal worth back". I got the LD10 about two weeks later. Here is the LD10's product page. Here is a good review from light-reviews. It receives an average of 4.38 starts from 50 reviews on Amazon (33 were 5 star reviews).

Before I get into the review, let me say this: I hate AA batteries. I know that some people love them for their wide availability, but the reality is that CR123As are pretty widely available themselves. My local pharmacy, gas station, and small non-chain hardware store carry them. Furthermore, in an emergency, like the ice storm that hit New England a few years ago, the AAs were all gone, while the Ds and the CR123As were still in stock at the grocery store. The D cells were going, but the CR123As were fully stocked. Also, I dislike the lower lumens ceiling. Now most of the time the lumens difference between AA lights and CR123A lights is not going to make a difference because SUPER high lumens counts on EDC lights just aren't that useful. The difference between around 180 lumens (a good high for a single cell AA light) and 200 lumens (a mediocre high for a single cell CR123A light) isn't that big a deal, but why limit yourself? Most super high lumens lights, such as the Incendio, also offer a more useful medium high. Then there is the form factor. They are just not the right size. I much prefer the size of a good single cell CR123A light, especially in the pocket, to that of a longer AA cell light. I know that AA cells are more water resistant. But that one plus is drowned out by all of the minuses. Wait, you say, what about price? Well, really with the Internet you can get very good CR123As for about 90 cents a piece. Plus they can store forever--years. An AA light starts losing utility in days. Ever reach for a CR123a and find out it is dead? How about with a AA? Now I know that they make lithium AAs, but they ARE expensive, even on the internet.

Really it is not about choosing one over the other. I have a bunch of lights and they take a wide range of batteries: coin cells, button cells, CR2, CR123a, AAA, AA, and D cells. And really that is the way to go--diversity means that you will never be without light in an emergency. But if we are talking preference, then it is clearly CR123a batteries (though the Aeon makes a good case for CR2 batteries).

With that massive disclaimer out of the way, on to the review.

Design: 2

The LD series is Fenix's rugged EDC series that uses AA batteries only. The PD series is the same overall designs but uses CR123a batteries. It is not a full tactical light like the TA and TK series, but it is a little beefier than the "urban" or "office" EDC lights found in the E series.

The design is very well thought out. It demonstrates Fenix's evolution as a company--from knurled aluminum tubes, to a light with a clever anti-roll design and a nice tailstanding clicky. There is really nothing I would do to improve the design, assuming, of course, that I could not switch to a different battery.

Fit and Finish: 2

The threads are smooth. The clicky is tough. The light survived the "deep end dunk" (I threw all of my lights in the 10 foot deep end of my pool and retrieved them, the LD10 held up well). The reflector seems a little dirty, but more on that below.

Grip: 2

Good knurling and the hex ring just behind the head of the light does a great job keeping the light glued into your hand. Even the clip, which is not fixed into place, helps with grip.

Carry: 0

The clip is just held in place by friction and can move around rather easily. I have never had it pop off, but it does twist. Add to that the extra length necessitated by the AA batteries and the ridge around the clicky and this is an uncomfortable light to carry and retrieve.

Output: 2

Plenty of lumens for an EDC, about as good as you can get with an AA battery. I like the blinding high of a 200 lumen light, but 145 is not bad. The low and the medium are a little too close together, I'd prefer a moonlight low, but its not enough to dock a point.

Runtime: 2

Again, runtime is fine for an EDC light. It does not, of course, run as long as a CR123a light, but if you bought this light you have accepted that limitation.

Beam Type: 1

Fenix seemed to want to make this something of a thrower, as the light spot is tighter on my light than any other light I own. Its weird because with the reduced power of an AA battery there is hardly any chance this light gets used as a thrower.

Beam Quality: 1

The beam is nice and round, but the reflector seems to have odd spots it in making the beam surprisingly full of artifacts. Its not dust, its just holes and rings. They do not rise to the level of a Mag Light AA, but they are noticeable.

UI: 0

I have gone over the UI problems with this light in another article, found here. I do not like the need to do TWO motions to get to the true high. There is no need for a twist and a click, as the Preon's UI proves. Terrible, given that the competition has already figure this out.

Hands Free: 2

The hex ring and clip make the light stay put on its side and the ridge around the clicky helps with tailstanding. It can be used in both ways quite well.

Overall Score: 14 out of 20

Fenix started out as the cheap competition to Surefire, but now it has positioned itself as an upscale import in the flashlight world, some of a Lexus or Infiniti to Surefire's Cadillac. This is a good light. It does what lights are supposed to do, very well. If you want an AA light, consider this. If you want to reconsider your battery choice, good for you.

Friday, July 1, 2011

2011 $100 Max Recommendations

Here are the basic rules and assumptions for this series of commentaries. Here is the previous entry, the $25 and under Recommendations. Here is the $50 Max Recommendations.

This is the first price range where I can recommend things without reservations. You can now find tools, knives, and lights that will stand the test of time, that have all of the features you want, and have good build quality. In many ways, this price range is the sweet spot--it is the place where market forces have conspired to give you the most bang for your buck. Honestly, in many cases spending more is necessitated only by 1) your preferences; or 2) specific tasks. The gear available at this price range would suit a non-enthusiast for their life, if they take care of it.

The other thing about gear in this price range is that there is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many choices that a survey is just not possible. Instead, I going to highlight things that I like or that have a good reputation. Otherwise, this would take FOREVER. In particular, the number of flashlights available for around $50 is just staggering, especially compared to five or six years ago. A decade ago all you had was a Mag light, a plastic Energizer flashlight (which was designed to consume batteries so you had to buy more, probably why they were cheap or even free with a battery purchase), and Surefires at the other end of the price spectrum. Now there are a bevy of lights, perhaps hundreds of options.

Tool

Each of the major knife companies have one or two really good knives in this price range. There are quite a few out there from smaller companies that are good too.

We are finally at the point where you can get a decent knife from Cold Steel. I dislike some of their designs, seemingly appropriate for Conan and no one else, but they do make good blades. One small point--they have the worst serrations known to man, but a HUGE margin, thin as needle tips and just as durable. AVOID them at all costs. Their Voyager line was redone recently with a new handle pattern and the Tri Ad lock, which has gotten good reviews. The Mini Lawman has a nice blade shape and again carries the Tri-Ad lock, plus it comes in under the price limit. Both blades are made of AUS 8 steel which is not as good as you can get in this price range. If you really whump on your blades, then maybe the lock makes up for the steel, but in my mind I really would prefer better steel at this price level.

CRKT has started to produce really decent blades. They lured Ken Onion over to their design stable. The Shenanigan was awarded the best value knife from the Blade Show in 2011. Clean design, nice handle, but, unfortunately AUS 8 steel. This is the problem with most of the CRKT line--chintzy steel. The M-16/M-21 line is also plagued by ugly handle scales which seem to be designed solely to attract pocket gunk. The M-16 also has a silly and unnecessarily complex grind. The KISS is a little engineering/design marvel with tons of variations. Again, though, the steel is an issue. Here it is 420J which most manufacturers avoid for anything other than a clip or liners. It is just too soft to be a good blade steel. For a higher performing steel in the CRKT line you have to wait for the next price range.

Benchmade has a lot of options in their "off label" brands. The only one, other than the previously mentioned Mini Pika, that looks interesting is the Levitator, a knife that was shunted to the Harley Davidson line so that Benchmade could claim with great gusto that ALL Benchmade knives are made in the US. It is a great little design. As is the Aphid, another small knife, this time out of the Benchmade line. Again, steel holds these knives back, as the Aphid carries 440C and the Levitator AUS 8. At this price point, I'd opt for the Mini Pika over either of these knives.

Kershaw has the first serious contender here--the Skyline, a beloved blade. Nutnfacy raved about it. As it many others. Its appeal, I think, comes down to a few things: 1) it is a nice size, weight, and shape; 2) it is a smooth, unassisted flipper; and 3) its price. We don't have a recipe yet for the new Kershaw exclusive steel, Sandvik's 14C28N, (though it seems to be available for custom makers too). Reports are that it holds up well. Here is a good thread on the steel with a Kershaw employee chiming in. Initial reviews seem excellent (check out the pics in that thread, the tester OBLITERATED the blade). It also happens to be the most widely available of any of the knives in this commentary as it is a staple of the Wal-Mart hunting section across the country (both my local Wal-Mart and a Wal-Mart in Ohio that I went to by chance last week carry it). All of this at $34.95 at Wal-Mart. The Kershaw Skyline looks like the blade to beat. There are a ton of other Kershaw options in this price range--the Chive, Scallion, and Leek, but all come with inferior steel. Also I am not a huge fan of the design for these knives. See here for the Scallion review. The NRG and the Blur (which is a Top 10 Amazon best selling knife, BTW) both look nice with the NRG being out of production, but abundantly present on the internet, and the Blur being a mainstay. The Blur is bigger and clunkier in my opinion, but carries the 14C28N steel. The NGR uses the last gen steel 13C26, but has a smaller size and much cleaner look. Still, both are beaten out by the superior design of the Skyline.

SOG finally enters the discussion with two knives that caught my eye: the SOG Flash series in its myriad variations and the Twitch. Both run AUS8 steel, which, for this price range, is a little under the average. Both are also at the very top of the price range. I dislike the design of the Flash I, as I stated before, but I can see its virtues. The Twitch's messy clip and weird finger guard leave me cold.

AG Russell makes a ton of traditional style knives in this price range, but like Case knives, I am just not thrilled with the idea of a two handed opening knife without a lock or a clip. AG Russell's FeatherLite is a really intriguing option for those that want a big blade and low weight. The price is right too. Its lack of a clip kills the knife for me, but if your a neck lanyard type, it can be carried that way.

Buck has a few entries in this price range but again its the Vantage and the Vantage Force (a more tactical version of the regular Vantage) that attract my attention. If the fit and finish issues are under control, the Small Vantage Pro, with its awesome design and S30V blade could be an all-time great knife. If anyone knows if the finish issues have been dealt with, please leave a comment. And holy shit, the little booger is only $49.95.

Spyderco has three knives in this range that I really like: the Delica, the Dragonfly, and the Cricket. There are bunch of knives in this range made by Spyderco, some with the super cool H1 steel, but these three are really gems. The Delica has two important variations in this price range--the normal grind and the full flat grind. Generally full flat grinds are better slicers, easier to clean and maintain, and less likely to balk up during cuts. They are a bit thinner though, making them less durable. I love the design of the Delica, and the FFG version seems even better. The VG10 steel is a great cheaper steel with excellent all around performance, probably the weakest in edge retention, but even there it is nice. The Dragonfly (that is a review of the Dragonfly I), especially with the upgrades, is probably my favorite knife to carry, even with a Sebenza in my arsenal. The VG-10 version is in this range and the H1 is as well. The H1 steel can't do a FFG for some reason, but the knife's ergos and size are perfect for utility EDC. The Cricket is probably best viewed as a specialized, gentleman's blade. It is really good at cutting with its wicked tip, and it is thin, thin, thin. I'd never buy one over the Dragonfly, but a lot of people like them as a slightly dressy, urban knife. One last note, the Ladybug is an okay blade, but it seems just plainly inferior in shape to the Dragonfly.

The SAKs at this price range tend to be bulky and I don't really think the additional tools make a difference. I also think that the Juice series, without a pocket clip, just fall short of utility carry, even though they get rave reviews. The Skeletool, however, is a worldbeater. It is, in my mind, the most refined, most elegant, and best all around multitool on the market. The seven tools are very well executed and the weight is just right. I love the blade shape and even the steel, mine an older version of the CX, 154CM is good (this version proved much more rust resistant than the Benchmade formulation). It is the same basic size and weight as the Juice, but with a better design and a pocket clip.

This is by far the closest competition thus far. The Skyline is a great knife. The Skeletool is probably the EDC item I use the most. But if I could only have one knife for the rest of my life in this price range, I think it would be the Delica 4 FFG.



Recommendation: Spyderco Delica 4 FFG
Price: $52.23 (yourcornerstore.com)

Flashlight

The number of options here are crazy. Every company out there makes a light in this price range except for the junk makers and Surefire. Five companies really stand out: JetBeam, Nitecore, Fenix, 4sevens, and Lumapower.

JetBeam makes dozens of lights, but it is the BC line that holds a lot of appeal for me. The BC10 hits a sweet spot in terms of price, size and output. It is a single cell 123A light with a simplified UI. It has a scorching 270 lumen high and a good 30 lumen low. I'd like a third moonlight mode low, but this is a $40 light. The UI involves clicking and twisting. Here is a review (where the hell is the product page? It is not on the first six pages of google searches).

Nitecore makes some sweet lights. The EX11 is a great buy, with its well designed UI and its clicky-style Piston Drive. It is a little too expensive for this price range, unless you are compromising on the price of the knife, but it is just too good not to mention, now that it compatible with a McGizmo clip.

Fenix makes a bevy of choices all of which are good. I dislike the UI, so I am going to skip them all. I am not going to actually recommend a single light because their UI is just weird. Similarly, the UI on the well-regarded Zebralights is just too clunky. Why would you make TWO sets of low-med-hi outputs? Dumb. Great design, but bad UI sinks a lot of lights.

Now we get to the real competition for the BC10, the MiNi 123, the Preon, and the Quark 123 all from 4sevens. I don't like the Quark's UI for the same reason I dislike the Fenix's UI--a click and twist for six different output modes is just too much fiddling around. The BC10's click/twist is for two modes and I still dislike it. But MiNi 123 is AWESOME. It has a nice UI, a good, well-selected output (low-med-high), uses a nice battery, and is a great size. For $40 you are hard pressed to beat it. But if you can from the 4sevens line, it is the Preon Package, reviewed here. For $50 you can't get more options than this. GREAT light.

But then there is the Incendio from Lumapower. It is a weird, small company, but this is THE light in the price range. They have tinkered with the design for about three years now and the end result is one hell of a light. It has a preattached clip (but it is still easily removable), a great UI, a great clicky, a great output, and a great price. It runs on both primaries and rechargeables. It does just about everything and does it all for $49.95.

This is not much of a contest in the light category as the Incendio offers SO MUCH for so little. The Preon is a good second choice and a great choice for lithium battery haters. But nothing even comes close to the Incendio, really.



Recommendation: Lumapower Incendio V3+ or V3 Upgrade (which was just released this week, July 4 2011)
Price: $49.95 (Battery Junction)

Honorable Mention #1: Skyline and EX11. By saving a few bucks with a cheaper (though great) knife, you can afford the better built EX11. I'd still opt for the Incendio, but the EX11 has some unique features that some people require in a light. For them, this is a great package for under $100.

Honorable Mention #2: Dragonfly II and Preon Package. If you want a smaller carry, this is the way to go. Both are GREAT, GREAT, GREAT options and together they works really, really well. See:

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