Kershaw make some of my favorite knives, especially inexpensive ones. I really like the Skyline--it was an amazingly light and capable blade. The diminutive OD-2 is probably one of the most underrated knives out there for EDC use, especially for the price. But recently a glance at their offerings shows a positively massive line up of incredibly similar knives. It also shows that they have some substantial holes in their line up.
Design by Numbers
To prove my first point take a look at this blade (I have changed the name to see if you can figure out what it is):
Name: Kershaw Impact
Blade Length: 3 1/4 inches
Handle Material: Black Resin-base Material
Blade Steel: 14c28n
Weight: 3.5 ounces
This knife features a speedsafe assist opening and a contoured handle to "really lock in your hand." It is sold through normal Internet sites and traditional brick and mortar retailers. This knife is really called...nothing. I made it up. There is no knife EXACTLY like this one, but there are many that are almost the same. By leaving out the blade shape, handle material, and blade finish in the stats, the Impact could be:
Random Task II
If we drop the steel type and allow for 8Cr13MoV, it could be one of about a dozen knives. If we expand the criteria to include blades that are 3 inches to 3.5 inches we get virtually all of the SpeedSafe line up.
I know that you could do this with other makers as well, but with Kershaw, especially right now, it is so easy to do. The point is that Kershaw's low and mid range lines are clogged full of knives that are virtually identical to each other, in name, appearance, and material. Worse yet, this seems like a corporate initiative to do design by numbers as opposed to anything design or customer driver. This design by numbers is so clear that I think there is a basic recipe almost all of their new knives follow.
Here it is:
1. Choosing a Name:
Unless it is a Ken Onion design (in which case you must choose from one of the many species of the genus Allium) you take a word that is a one, two or maybe three syllable synonym for "tough" (One Ton, Junkyard Dog), "fast" (Blur, Zing, Burst, Speedform), "conflict" (Clash, Brawler, Knockout), or "cool" (Cryo, Chill) and make that the new knife's name.
2. Choosing Blade Material:
This is a bit more complex, but the formula is quite easy. If the knife is made in the US and sells for $50 or less, it is usually their putrid version of 420HC (the Skyline being the exception). If the knife is made in China and sells for $40 or less, it is always 8Cr13MoV. If the knife is between $30-$60 you get 14c28n (which I do really like). But in the rare case when the knife is more than $60 you can actually get some pretty nice steel--like a composite blade or sometimes Elmax.
3. Choosing Handle Material:
Unless it is a Ken Onion design, all handles must be black. Cheap knives get black FRN. More expensive knives get black G10.
4. Choosing Blade Finish:
Again, other than Ken Onion knives, all blades are finished in one of two ways, with an alternate coating finish--cheap blades get bead blasted. More expensive blades get stone wash.
The recipe really works. About 90% of Kershaw's folders, other than Onion designs, are built in a way that matches this recipe. The Skyline's steel is different than the recipe would dictate, but that is about it (and one of the reasons why it is such a good value). The Ken Onion knives, which are Kershaw's bread and butter sales-wise, get lots of different things but I have found that a lot of those designs are played out. And then there is the interesting and highly un-Kershaw like Echelon. Other than those three exceptions, Kershaw's recent designs seem to all fit into this very predictable pattern.
Holes in the Line Up
They also have a problem with their mid-range of blades. They have lots of cheap knives, lots of slightly more expensive knives, and then they have high end stuff like the Speedform and the Tilt. There is nothing in the middle. Nothing to compete with, say, the Benchmade Sequel or the Spyderco Caly 3. There is a lot of room in their line up for these knives. I personally would like to see the BladeForum Skyline Special Edition released to the public (with its S30V steel and special colored handle scales). I would also like to see a high end version of the Zing, with nicer steel. I have mentioned before a desire to see a high end, integral Leek. Right now it is essentially the Echelon and that's it.
Finally, Kershaw has very few folders that are in the 2.5 inch range. The Scallion is an especially awful design and I assume the Chive is much the same. The Cryo is absolute disaster. But if you take out those knives the sub-3 inch blade part of the Kershaw's line up is devoid of anything that even has a sniff of interesting about it. Spyderco has proven that you can make great knives this size. They have also proven that you can sell them like hotcakes, even at premium prices with premium materials (like the Techno).
The competition for Kershaw is different than it was ten or fifteen years ago. During that time they were not at the top of the knife industry. But now, after great sales for their knives, the SpeedSafe mechanism, which essentially put them on the map, and some major dominance at Blade Show's awards, Kershaw is now among the three best knife companies in the world. Their competition is now Benchmade and Spyderco--a different set of players than the Cold Steel's (and Cold Steel is really stepping it up, too) and Gerber's (not so much as shown here and here; sad that two of their marketing campaigns are based on these knives--Gerber is just awful) of the world. They got to this position by being innovative, but now we are getting a flood of the same or similar knife designs, over and over and over again.
Kershaw, don't fall into a rut. You make great stuff. Cut back the size of your line up--you don't need 15 different models that are slight variations of each other. Focus on a broader range of prices and blade sizes. And promote Tommy Lucas to the head of design (he brought us the Skyline, BTW). Finally, and this is just a pet peeve of mine--drop the thumb studs on flipper blades--they are ugly and less effective.