I like small EDC knives. The Dragonfly is a speck of a blade, but its superlative design allows it to do virtually every EDC task I encounter. But for some folks that phrase "virtually every EDC task" is not praise but an indictment. To these folks an EDC blade should be able to do EVERY EDC task you encounter. Going from a blade that can handle 95% of the chores you use it for to a blade that can handle 100% of the chores you use it for is not an easy thing to do. Those last 5% of tasks have such wide and varied demands that getting a blade that can do all of them requires that you fundamentally alter what you are looking for--you need a hard use folder.
Many folks will rightly point out at this moment two things: 1) a hard use folder is an oxymoron; and 2) there are a slew of good EDC fixed blades out there. These folks are right. A good, small fixed blade, like the Candiru that I loved so much, or Skyline fixed blade, can handle 100% of your chores. But it is not easily carried, even the Candiru with it is delightful sheath. Furthermore, if you thought folders elicited a negative response, bust out a fixed blade at Target and see what looks and reactions you get. You need a hard use folder then. But you also want it to be eminently pocketable.
These two things, as I have found out after reviewing gear for 18 months, are not really compatible. Sure, there are the guys that carry around bags full of stuff and the guys that insist their Extreme Ratio RAO is an EDC knife (it weighs 12 ounces!), but you don't like carrying bag or boat anchors, the number of true hard use folders that are also EDC friendly are few and far between. This shootout is a comparison of three folders that I believe are both hard use and pocketable. Furthermore, I believe, based on discussions online and search results, these three knives are the ones you are most likely considering if you are looking for a truly pocket-friendly hard use folder.
You might think that these are "tactical folders", but as I have been clear about for a while now, I know nothing about "tactical" stuff. I think the word is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but even if there is a core meaning, I have no tactical experience at all. I would also point out that these knives have blades that are shorter than those typically labeled as tactical knives.
In this shootout I will be comparing the Spyderco Paramilitary 2, the Zero Tolerance 350, and the new Cold Steel Mini Recon 1 (reviews in the hyperlinks). Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find all three knives, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:
Unfortunately I can't do a group shot because I no longer own the ZT350 and the CSMR1 and PM2 were review loaners. Here they are one at a time though:
Spyderco Paramilitary 2 (PM2):
Cold Steel Mini Recon I Spearpoint (CSMR1):
The rules of the shootout are simple: I will use all of the same categories as the normal scoring system, but the products will be ranked, using a weighted rank system (like the baseball MVP voting; this prevents mere inclusion from being a huge bonus). The best product in a given category will get 5 points, the next best 3, and the worst 1. After that I will tally the points and then divide the points by the average price of the product. The product that is the best value (most points per dollar) will be the winner. There will be no ties. If there is a tie, so how, in the value calculations, I will break the type based on my own opinion of which product is better.
The ZT350 Is by far the most unusual of the three blades design-wise. It is quite unusual looking with a flipper and a slew of curvy lines. It is also the heaviest of these blades. Alas, the shocking and unusual looks limit the knife's performance, as I will detail below. It is a very good design, but up against this competition it is clearly the third best. The other two blades, while more conventional, are, in the end, more successful in implementation. The PM2 is absolute design dream--the extension of the Paramilitary/Military design taken to its zenith. Here is a shot showing just how thin this blade is (thanks to the nested liners):
It is quite big (3.44 inch blade), but incredibly light (3.75) AND incredibly tough. There is a reason why everyone and their mother loves the PM2. It is a capable blade that weighs just slightly more than a Delica. The CSMR1 is similarly capable and even lighter (3 inch blade in a 3 ounce package).
Fit and Finish
It is here where ZT's premium heritage shows. The cutting bevel on the PM2 was sloppy and the ricasso was poorly finished.
Similarly, the CSMR1's G10 was about the worst I have ever seen and the blade coating is rubbish. The ZT350, however, was perfect--beautifully centered, perfect coating, and crisp, nicely finished handles and jimping. The ZT is ahead of the other two by miles here. None of the blades were fatally flawed, not at all, but the ZT350 had no production flaws at all.
All of the curves on the blade stink, but all of the curves on the handle make for a superior knife in the hand. I have yet to encounter another knife that surpasses the ZT350 in terms of grip (though the CRKT Eraser is its equal). Here is the secret:
Behind the rear flipper there is a HUGE cut out for your index finger. The jimping also helps around the edges, but nothing like that choil to lock in your hand. The PM2's choil, while quite good, is not EXACTLY as helpful as the ZT350's. The CSMR1 lacks any sort of choil and the G10 is so rough it is painful to use. Here the top two are close with the CSMR1 falling behind quite a bit.
The PM2, despite its very long length, is an excellent blade in the pocket. It is relatively thin and quite light. Additionally, the Spyderco hour glass clip gives you a bunch of options. The CSMR1 is a bit thick, but nothing offensive. The ZT350 however is a house. It is really, really big. Its wide. Its heavy. Its thick. All of these make for a good hard use folder, but this is right at the limit of what I consider a true everyday carry folder (the larger CRKT Eraser was excluded for this reason--that is an even bigger and heavier knife).
This is another category where there is distinct clumping. The ZT350 outpaces the PM2 not because there is a difference in steel (there isn't) but because it's coating is actually effective. It stays on and makes the great S30V steel just a smidgen better (mostly a friction thing). The AUS-8 on the CSMR1 is one of the big drawbacks of the knife. This same knife with a respectable steel, like 154CM would be awesome.
I am a sucker for that classic Spyderco shape. It really does work. The tip is thin and pointy. There is something like a belly. Overall it is very good. The CSMR1 in Spearpoint is also quite an excellent blade. It is a very sturdy shape with good belly and excellent cutting performance. The ZT350's recurve is something I cannot tolerate.
It just doesn't work. It helps a little in cutting but it makes the knife and the very hard S30V a real chore to sharpen. In the end that is why I got rid of the knife.
I like the PM2's full flat grind a lot, but the cutting bevel on my review sample was, shall we say, messy. It was like a kindergartener's finger painting. It didn't really effect the cutting performance at all, but it did look bad. The the ZT350's grind with the multiple facets and angles is just unnecessarily busy. In the end, the simple lines and immaculately clean grind on the CSMR1 tops the shootout by default--it was the only one that was not self-defeating either by a lack of finish or an inherently overly complex design.
The Spyderhole on the PM2 is enormous. With that size comes an ease of deployment like no other Spyderco I have used. I am still partial to the thumb hole, but the flipper on the ZT350 is quite nice. My big issue with the flipper though is that it is not smooth at all. The detent is massively strong and the assist is an absolute necessity because of that. I'd prefer an unassist flipper that is also smooth. The thumb studs on the CSMR1, while clever, aren't really anything more than REALLY nice thumb studs. And, as we all know, thumb studs stink.
While the ZT350 is truly a pocket anchor, it's pocket clip is just about perfect--simple, not overly showy, and very, very effective. I liked it a lot here and even more on the Skyline. The PM2's hourglass clip is nice, but pretty standard fare. Coupled with a nice as slim and light as the PM2, the clip seems very good, but it is really the knife and not the clip. Falling far behind here is the CSMR1's curved clip.
Not only is it ugly and forces you to use it in a specific way, it is not swappable. There is no reason for this now in an age of refined pocket clip designs.
Both the ZT350 and the PM2 are tough. They are really, really tough. I like the locks on both of them, the compression lock just a little more than the stout liner lock on the ZT350, but in the end, the Tri-Ad lock outdistances both of them by a significant margin. I am not sure if it is REALLY all that much stronger. I don't have any way to scientifically measure it and I am sure in that regard all are strong enough. The two big advantages of the Tri-Ad lock is first it operates exactly like a lock you already use (it is really a modified lockback); and it FEELS more solid. As stout as the locks were on the PM2 and the ZT350 I was hesitant to do full on batonning with them. With the CSMR1 I had trouble putting it in that role and having confidence that it would succeed. And boy did it ever. This is, in my mind, perhaps the best lock on the market and in this knife it makes it unbelievably tough.
Prices at BladeHQ as of 12/26/12:
Points per dollar:
PM2: .30 points for every dollar you spend
ZT350: .20 points for every dollar you spend
CSMR1: .39 points for every dollar you spend
I was worried about the shootout's scores going in, as I was worried that the CSMR1 would not be adequately represented stacking up against knives that are twice the price or more, but as you can see, it worked out perfectly. The CSMR1 is, without question, the best value here. It hangs with the big boys quite nicely in every area except for steel. The G10 is obnoxious, but it wears over time and isn't the biggest drawback in the world. Additionally, the raw scores conform to my initial impressions. The PM2, price no object, is clearly the best knife here and the difference between the ZT350 and the CSMR1, price no object, is negligible. I have yet to do a shootout with scores that synch up this well to my initial impressions, so I feel very confident that this is the right result. All of these knives are good blades. The PM2 is an excellent overall blade, one of the best, but it is not quite the buy that the CSMR1 is. That knife is just awesome. If Cold Steel used better steel, it just might be the best production blade under $100.
As a side note, only the Spearpoint version would rank this high. I hate Tanto grinds and the clip point, while better, is still not as utilitarian as the good ole spear point. This is a great knife and one of the reasons why I think Cold Steel had probably the best year of any gear company other than TAD. If you have Christmas money to spend and are looking for a hard use EDC knife, try the CSMR1.
One other knife that I think falls into this category that I did not have a chance to review is the full sized Benchmade Griptilian. It is a big knife, with decent steel, and a great lock. I also like the thumb hole version. Its clip is an issue, as you know from the Benchmade Mini Grip review, and it is quite pricey for what you get (around $100-$105, though you might hit one cheap before Benchmade catches the retailer going below their suggested price). It might slot in between the CSMR1 and the PM2, had it been included. This is, of course, just a guess as I have never had a chance to spend a good deal of quality time with the knife.