Thursday, January 31, 2013

TAD Gear Dauntless Mk. II Review

In this age of the Internet, when Etsy and Kickstarter empower the small guy with the big idea, we are treated to a bounty of amazing things.  Craftsmen, lost for five decades in a march of machines, can now make a living, selling their wares directly to a buying public.  The small boutique that had no chance of finding critical mass in one of the many suburban malls that ring our metropolises can now live and thrive in a digital age.  The power to bring people together with similar niche interests has allowed specialty makers to gather enough numbers to make their enterprises profitable and sustainable.  We, those fans of quality and innovation, are the beneficiaries.  It is this trend, found in craft beers and $750 jackets, that makes TAD Gear possible.  And in this precious, precocious economic space, they have dared to dream of a knife like no other--the Dauntless.

The idea of the Dauntless or more accurately the entire Dauntless project is a genius one.  There is, you see, a form, an idea that is the Dauntless, a Platonic conception in the mind of TAD Gear's founder Patrick Ma, for a capable, rugged, and muted beauty.  It marked by fullers on the blade and the scales.  It has the heritage of a Strider, with a spearpoint blade and generous finger choils.  But that is all--this is an idea, not 4 apples or oranges, but simply 4 itself.  And that idea was given to masters of the form, folks like Rick Hinderer and Michael Burch, and each produced an iteration of the design adding their own aesthetic touches to the Platonic idea of the Dauntless knife.  Customs, resplendent in their quality and lines, are then sold in painfully small numbers on TAD's site.  They have created a following, a cult of cutlery--the Dauntless Owner's Group.  Here is more on the Dauntless project, with links to gorgeous photo archives.  For knife knuts, the Dauntless project was the culmination of the rebirth of the craftsman and the distillation of knife utility to perfection, with a dash of limited edition, hard-to-find scent thrown in for good measure.

Then last year, TAD announced that they would be making a production version.  The first batch sold out in minutes, even with the impressive $400 and $300 price tags.  The second run, a few months later did the same.  The production knives quickly paced into custom price ranges on forums and ebay.  Few blinked or hesitated when a production Dauntless came up for bid at $600.  It is a testament both to the knife and to TAD's meticulous management of the Dauntless brand.

All of this breathless text goes to one point that I must lay out before the review begins.  This was an exceptionally difficult knife to review.  I think I can say with little doubt that I have never been so eager to review a product before.  I have craved a Dauntless since I first saw its fullers and flippers and choils.  It was hard to modulate expectations.  As a person that has written reviews for two years now, I know that expectations are the most difficult thing to work around.  The over promise under deliver can make a decent product seem bad (the Kershaw Cryo for example) and the under promise over deliver can make a good product seem great (the Kershaw Skyline for example).  So my first challenge in writing this review was tempering my expectations.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  I got the review sample just weeks after my Covert pants (more on them in a later post) came in and after a few weeks with them, my expectation for TAD products was Everest high.

There are three production models--the Mk. I which has an all titanium handle (product page here), and the Mk. II in Black and Mk. II in Green (product page here), which have a titanium scale on the lock side and a G10 presentation scale.  Here is a video review of the the production Dauntless.  This is the first written review.  Here is the Dauntless review sample TAD sent me:

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Design: 2

The Dauntless idea, worked over by more than a dozen of the finest knife makers in the industry, has been distilled and focused to its purest essence in the design of the production Dauntless.  This is the Platonic idea of the Dauntless in material form.  Having done this for two years and been a fan of blades for much longer I can tell you there is no other knife that I find as aesthetically appealing as the Dauntless.  It has just the right amount of style (which also happens to be functional) and the style it has is a cool, muted functionality.  It is industrial, not organic.  Clean and functional, without being boring.  It is a serious tool, but does not look like the weapon of a Klingon warrior.  The fullers provide an almost, but not quite, an Art Deco look to the blade.  It is pulled back from the precipice of design excess by the color choices and materials--bead blasted S30V and smooth, large weave black G10.  The bright stainless steel pivot screw is the only piece of polish and it gleams in contrast.  This is a fully realized piece.  Everything is in service to function and that, in turn, gives the knife its solid aesthetic.

The ratios are slightly above par given the knives I have reviewed.  They are evidence of the fact that this is a big knife (at least for me), but still one conscientiously designed and proportioned.  I decided to do all my own measurements this time.  The blade is 3 3/8 inches long (with a much shorter cutting edge because of the large choil).  The handle is 4 5/8 inches long.  The knife weighs 4.3 ounces.   The blade:handle is .73, right in the middle of the pack of the blades I have reviewed, better than the Delica (.68), for example, but worse than the Al Mar (.84).  It is about the same as a Mini Grip (.75).  The blade:weight is .78, very decent.  Finally, here is a scale picture, with, of course, the Zippo:

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Fit and Finish: 2

At the beginning of one of the most challenging books I have ever read (because of the ideas, not the language)--Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, the French thinker posits an idea that has dogged science for ages--what if you could make a copy of something that is perfectly precise and accurate?  At what point does the copy simply become the thing itself?  In Baudrillard's example it is a map.  The map makers decide to make the map all encompassing and perfectly detailed.  Eventually they realize that the map is the size of the land it is trying to depict.

The fit and finish on the production Dauntless is like that map.  They have been so painstaking in making it look and feel like a custom that they have essentially created one.  The quality level is so high that when handling the knife you get this sneaking sensation that the production company, the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), just kept pushing and pushing until, well, they had made a large batch custom blade.  The fit and finish on the production Dauntless blows away virtually every high priced production knife I have seen.  Honestly, it is probably a little finer than my Sebenza and at least equal to the Al Mar.  There isn't a stray line or grind.  Each type of finish, the polish on the pivot, the bead blasting on the blade, and the buff on the G10 handle, is perfect.  The lock travels over about halfway and stops.  It disengages with ease but there is not a smidgen of wiggle.  The blade has no play in any direction when the pivot is appropriately tightened.  The jimping on the blade and the lockbar is aggressive without being shreddy.

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Frankly there is nothing I can fault on this knife in terms of fit and finish, even if I wanted to be a picky as the price tag and hype demand.  In terms of fit and finish, I have never seen a production that is its superior.   Only the most stratospheric and elite customs, such as those by Howard Hitchmough (who made surgical tools before knives), exceed the tolerances and fit and finish on the production Dauntless and even then it is not by a mile. 

As a side note there is something of a conspiracy theory developing around the OEM.  It was originally claimed that one of three custom makers--Brian Fellhoelter, Les George, or Brad Southard--were making the production Dauntlesses for TAD Gear.  One of the makers debunked that theory over on USN.  Another rumor popped up that it was Kershaw, the seemingly default company for OEM Ti framelocks, after it was revealed that the AG Russell Acies and Acies II were made by Kershaw (the Blur and the Acies's shared thumb stud was a giveaway).  One reviewer online thought that the OEM might be Protech.  Its fun to try and figure out who made this blade for TAD Gear, but whoever it is, they did one hell of a job. 

Grip: 2

I am not one that worries about the loss of cutting edge when it is taken up by a good choil.  This is just such a knife.  When both choils are used, this knife gives you rock solid control.

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I used it to cut out paper strips for a project at work and I was stunned by just how tiny I could cut them and just how easy it was.  This is a task better, or more commonly, given to a knife like the Al Mar, but even with a beefy blade, the Dauntless handled it gracefully.  The combination of the choils, the jimping, and the fullers, which are actually functional, make this an excellent knife in the hand, one of the best I have ever used, rivaling my beloved DF2

Carry: 2

I was worried that a knife this big and this heavy might be a problem, but it doesn't seem to take up any more real estate in my pocket than, say, the Spyderco PM2.  The knife is actually not that wide, lacking either a flipper or a thumb hole.  As you can see, all of the edges are all nicely rounded over and the rear tang is completely covered.

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The knife slides into the pocket like a bar of soap and stays there quietly until you need it. 

Steel: 2

S30V is still a very good steel and this is an excellent rendition of the material.  I'd prefer a stonewashed finish, as I think most people would, but the bead blasting doesn't seem to have encouraged rust to take hold.  I haven't babied the review sample, as you can see above there is a mark on the blade, but there is no rust and despite some heavy cutting including a lot of excess Christmas boxes, the S30V steel is still hair popping sharp.  This is a beefy slab of steel too, at around 1/8 inch thick.  

Blade Shape: 2

The blade shape is the place where the Strider influence is strongest.  The knife is a gorgeous spear point blade with a healthy choil.  There is a nice swedge on the blade taking the thick S30V stock down to a great tip.  The tip is actually something a masterstroke as it is not too pointy as to be fragile, but did quite well in my super detailed paper cutting task.  The spear point lends an excellent belly to the blade, something that general utility tasks benefit from and something I really like. 

Grind: 2

The cutting bevel on the Dauntless is wide, giving you plenty to sharpen.  The flats are, so far as I can tell dead flat, with the obvious exception of the fuller.  The main bevel is a flat grind that goes about halfway up the blade.

The thing that sets the Dauntless apart from other production knives in terms of grind is how the grind meets the choil.  Compare the picture above under the Grip section showing the choil on the Dauntless to this choil and ricasso:
 
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This is a picture of the choil area on the Spyderco PM2.  On the Dauntless the grind is elegantly swept down to the rear end of the cutting edge to give you flats near the pivot.  This is to accomodate the finger choil.  The grind, as it meets the choil (seen in the picture above), is perfect.  Unlike the PM2 choil, the Dauntless rendition lets you sharpen all the way up the edge, making sure the choil costs you absolutely no more cutting real estate than is necessary.  The grind is simple, yet thoughtful.  It is meticulous and designed for users to resharpen.  This is how you do a grind. 

Deployment Method: 2

The pivot itself is a liquid joint that flows smoothly and quickly, yet the blade doesn't swing free when between the locked and closed position. The thumb studs are big and sturdy.  They give you a lot of space to hold on to and, for thumb studs, they work quite well.  You can easily flick the knife open without the aid of any wrist action whatsoever.  That, my friends, is awesome deployment.  I'd give the Dauntless a three if I could.

Retention Method: 2

Here is a picture of the pocket clip:

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This is perhaps one of the few things that people have been complaining about on the Dauntless.  They claim that the clip is too bulky and hangs out of the pocket too much, but in my use I have found the clip to be nothing but stellar.  I love the over the top clip and the simplicity of the design, especially the screw holes.  

Lock: 2

This is how you do a framelock.  The cut is so tightly done and jimping is perfect.  The lockup is incredibly sound and the lock is around 40%.  There is no rock or wiggle in any direction.  I loosened the pivot on mine so the blade is a quicker, but it still locks up tight.  It compares favorably to the Sebenza.  That's about as good as it gets in a production blade. 

Overall Score: 20 out of 20 

After about a month of using it to do daily cutting tasks, outdoor work, roping cutting, and cutting up waste material (like pine door framing), I can say with certainty that this is an exceptional tool.  It rivals the Sebenza in terms of fit and finish.  It has an excellent blade steel.  It has unrivaled aesthetics.  This is a product that over promised and STILL over delivered.  I was worried that my expectations were too high, but as with all of the TAD stuff I have (a hat and Covert pants), your expectations, high as they are, are probably a little short of just how good their stuff is.  The production Dauntless's launch caused waves of excitement among knife knuts.  Having used one for a month now I can say those waves were warranted.  This is one hell of a knife.  It delivers in every possible way.

This is easily a 20/20, but in the end, I probably would prefer a smaller version.  This is a big blade, big.  I have found that I really never need more than 3.25 inches in a blade, and this is more than that.  The extra size and weight do nothing for me.  But, if you are someone that likes big blades, no question, this is a knife you need to look at and consider.  I said this in the video review (posted below) and it is true: it has the ruggedness and durability of a Strider, the fit and finish of a Sebenza, and a look all its own.  That is a winning combination in my mind.  A smaller version would be perfect for me, but if you are a fan of bigger blades, consider this your perfect production blade. 

BONUS:

Here is my video review of the production Dauntless:

8 comments:

  1. Nice review, Tony. The knife looks very well made.

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  2. It's a nice knife, no doubt. That being stated, I simply hate the massive finger choil on the blade. I'm all about maximum cutting edge relative to the overall knife length, though.

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    1. A real hard use folder should have a choil or a flipper guard to prevent serious injury in case the lock slips, IMO. SnG, para 2 and hinderer fit the bill as does this Dauntless. While I like the Sebenza, its going to do some damage if the lock fails.

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  3. How does TAD announce when the next batch will be released? I'd like to be ready.

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    1. Get on their email list and they send out hints on thursday and then an email on friday an hour before the release. If that doesn't work, I am giving one away in March of 2013. Stay tuned.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. It looks like the custom ones of this design were made by Ban Tang:
    http://www.arizonacustomknives.com/product.aspx?ProductID=151848&ReturnUrl=/bantang.aspx?product-listing.aspx

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