Friday, July 26, 2013

Queen Cutlery Copperhead Review

I have never owned a traditional knife of any kind. I have had knives with nail knicks, but they were SAKs. I have had knives with less utilitarian handle scales, but they were high end custom modern knives. Given my lack of experience and an inability to properly fit a traditional knife into my scoring system, I am going to do this review relatively freehand, without the normal 10 category, 20 point scale. There is precedent for this--my first custom, my first fixed blade, and my first pen were all reviewed without the scale. If you were looking forward to me putting a number on this gem, sorry.

This whole traditional knife appreciation started when I was doing research for the CRKT Swindle, one my favorite stylish knives on the market right now. It turns out that the Swindle is a modern vision of a very traditional pattern--a swayback. Marked by a wharncliffe blade shape and a very unusual positive handle angle, the swayback is but one of a myriad of traditional knife patterns or formats. You can read more about the large number of different patterns here. This review is of a Copperhead pattern knife, so named because of the unusual bolster on the pivot end of the knife, which kinda sorta maybe looks like a snakehead and fangs in profile (not really, but that is the only explanation I could find). The bolster has a point that rises up to cover the exposed rear tang of the blade when the knife is in the closed position, something I really like. Traditionally the Copperhead had a large clip point blade. Some variations came with a smaller pen blade as well. Finally, the Copperhead pattern has a rear bolster as well as a pivot end bolster. The dimensions of a Copperhead vary, so unlike some other traditional knife patterns, you can find them in sizes ranging from humongous to pocket friendly. Case makes two variations on the Copperhead pattern--the Copperlock, which is a lock back version of the Copperhead, and a mini Copperlock, which is a small Copperlock. 

Here is my overview of traditional knives. Here is the product page.  This knife costs around $60-70 depending on handle material. Here is a written review. There are no video reviews. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Copperhead, though they are sold out of Stag Handled version (they have the 2013 Zebrawood handled version in stock as of 7/23/13), and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my personal knife, which I am using for review:

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Twitter Review Summary: Very competent EDC with the handsome touches of a traditional knife.

The choice of which knife to buy was pretty easy. I wanted the simplest traditional knife that still followed the form of a traditional knife--amber stag bone, bolsters, a nail knick etcetera. I also wanted one with decent steel, as the Tru Sharp steel on Case knives seemed too soft for my tastes. Finally, after reviewing my grandfather's collection (which contains is father's everyday knife, as this was well before the term EDC was coined), I thought I couldn't buy a brand other than Queen. Is there any better advertisement than saying: this knife was a good tool for 80 years? Wading through the dizzying array of options, I decided that the multi-blade variants weren't a good place to start. I may eventually think the additional weight is worth it, but for now, without an intimate knowledge of what I want and need in a traditional knife, I opted for a single blade knife. Next, I wanted something that was as pocket friendly as possible. The whole reason, in my view, to carry a traditional knife over a modern knife, aside from aesthetics, is the superior carry. Screwing that up with some janky exposed tang would ruin the whole thing, so the Copperhead was a natural choice.

 The design is really not that big a deal with traditional knives, as the pattern IS the design. The Queen Cutlery version of the Copperhead is very good knife, it has a nice size and shape to it, and the Copperhead pattern, especially the single blade versions, are very pocket friendly. While design is not really important in a traditional pattern, the implementation of that pattern is tremendously important. Here we have some really top notch materials--amber stag handle scales, brass liners, and a pair of nickel silver bolsters. The steel, D2, is mirror polished. As such this Copperhead is not only a faithful rendition of the pattern, it is an especially handsome rendition. If you are in the hunt for a traditional knife, then you love the stag handles and bolsters already, so this knives' sterling appearance is not much of a surprise.

The size is quite nice.  Here is the blade up against the Zippo for comparison's sake:

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The ratios are quite good.  The blade:handle is .73, probably slightly better than average.  The blade:weight is 1.19, well above average and one of the big reasons traditional knives are worth a role in your EDC.  You get so much blade for so little weight (and yes, I know, it does have a little to do with the fact that traditional knives usually lack a locking mechanism).  

The fit and finish of virtually every traditional knife is better than the fit and finish of a comparably priced modern production knife. When the traditional knife has stag handles at the $60 price point, the modern knife has, at best G10. When the traditional knife has a mirror polish blade, the modern knife has a satin finish. People that like traditional knives revel in these touches and I have too. The Queen Copperhead probably has secondary stag handles, but even these are nicely done. The shield or logo on the knife is a simple inset circle with the stylized "Q", the trademark for Queen Cutlery.  It looks very nice:

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The blade's polish is really insane, better than any other knife I have ever owned. This isn't the "smokey" mirror finish of a Victorinox, this is a true mirror finish.

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The handle scales, liners, and the back spring are all snug and virtually perfectly aligned. The bolsters mate with the stag handle nicely, even matching the divots and contours of the stag itself. The only small complaint I have is that the kick, the part of the blade that holds the edge up off the backspring when the knife is closed, is unfinished entirely. This might be intentional as it means that the contact point won't show noticeable wear.

One thing that traditional knife fans really look for is the "walk and talk" of a knife, and the Queen Copperhead has excellent walk and talk. The walk portion is how smoothly the knife passes through its arc of closing. When the backspring puts pressure on the tang of the knife it causes friction and one sign of superior fit and finish is that the tang is very cleanly finished and the result is a glass smooth walk. The talk portion is how authoritative the click is when the kick comes in contact with the backspring as the blade closes into the handle. This is a sign of a strong backspring with lots of life left in it (perhaps the equivalent to "early lock up" in a frame lock). Here the Queen Copperhead snaps closed with an almost whip crack like sound.

There were two things with the fit and finish that bugged me, both of which were small issues.  First, the blade's tip is VERY close to being exposed.  I never had the knife snag during testing but if you try to you can get it to catch on the fat pad of your finger.  Its a little too close for me.  Second, the mirror polish blade, while gorgeous is something of a fingerprint magnet.  This isn't just an aesthetic thing either.  The need for two hand opening means that you will ALWAYS have fingerprints on the blade and this being a non-stainless steel, even of the polished variety, means you will need to keep it relatively clean.

The steel, D2, is not just fine; it is a darn good steel, especially in light of its age. The TCC for D2 is 666, higher than Spyderco's S30V, for example. In this application D2 is quite good. I will note that the Queen Cutlery knife does come sharp, but not insanely sharp out of the box. This is not unusual for the company or traditional knives. The idea is that you would be able to put the final edge on as you see fit, so they will get you 90% of the way there and you finish it. This happens even to this day with high end woodworking hand tools. Veritas's iron planes still come to you needing a few strokes on a stone. This might put off fans of modern knives, but when these designs were made famous everyone, literally everyone, knew how to sharpen. It was an essential skill for almost everyone. Men that worked in construction or cabinetmaking needed sharp tools as there were no powered drills or saws. Those that worked in the house, mainly women at the time, needed sharpening skills for cutlery in the kitchen. As such, it was not silly or lazy for a knife to come 90% sharpened. After a few strokes on the Sharpmaker the D2 was laser sharp and it held an edge for a long time. D2, it should be noted, is vastly superior to many of the steels used in traditional knives. Case's CV steel is well regarded, basically the same as Ka-Bar's Cro-Van 1095, but their Tru Sharp is stinky. Some traditional knives are made of more modern steels like ATS 34, 154CM (Bose's Case collaborations), Sandvik 12C27, and even 8Cr13MoV (AG Russell's stuff). Even among this competition the D2 here is excellent.

The blade shape and grind, like the design, are largely determined by the pattern and a Copperhead's main blade is ALWAYS a clip point. This is an excellent blade shape for EDC, and the size of the clip point here is very good for lots of utility tasks.

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The grind is immaculate, a very shallow hollow grind with a nice wide cutting bevel.  The combination of the steel, the blade shape, and the grind make this a very good slicer.  

Deployment is, well, traditional.  The nail knick is deeply cut, but make no mistake, this is a two-handed opening knife:

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This is a drawback, no two ways about it.  I never use my knives in self defense, but even I can see the practicality of having a knife you can open with one hand.  The backspring is very strong, but the tang is smooth so this is a gliding, but slow opening knife.

There is no retention method at all--not a clip, lanyard hole or even a bail (a customary latching point on traditional knives) to be found.  This is a true pocket knife, but that is not a bad thing.  The materials and the shape are so pleasant in the pocket that I have never had a problem with this knife either as a bully to my other EDC or as a pocket hog.  What it lacks in retention it makes up for in splendid carry.

The grip and blade safety are rolled into one here.  It is rare for traditional knives to have locks and so to with the Copperhead pattern.  The knife blade is held in place by use of a backspring.  This backspring provides a good deal of resistance once the knife is snapped open and a good deal of resistance when the knife is closed.  That alone would not give me pause, provided, of course, you are careful when you use the knife.  Knives without locks give me pause during hard use tasks, such as batonning or heavy whittling/carving, but for normal utility tasks they are perfectly fine.  The tension of the backspring is complemented by something of a forward choil.  In the open position the kick and the bolster for a nice upside down V for the index finger to fall into.  Not only does this give you better control over the blade, it also prevents the blade from closing on your fingers, much like the choils do on Spyderco's Slip-It knives.  These two things together not only make the knife plenty safe, but they give the knife better than average grip for a traditional knife.  This is not a Griptillian, but it is vastly better than the polished surfaces of a Sodbuster, for example.

Overall, I really like the Queen Copperhead.  The fit and finish is quite nice and the blade shape, size, and grind are excellent.  This knife had a few minor gaffs, things that aren't big issues, but things that keep it from being perfect.  It is hard to compare it to other things both because of my lack of experience and my lack of a score, but this seems to be around a 17 or 18 point knife.  Again, that is an estimate, but one I am comfortable with.  I prefer the conveniences of a modern knife--one hand opening, a pocket clip, and a lock--but traditional knives definitely have a place in my collection.  They carry exceptionally well, they are workhorses, and they are non-threatening.  In a world where knives are increasingly looked on with suspicion, the traditional knife reminds people of their grandpa and few people think he is threatening.  If you are looking for a change of pace from your collection of G10, tacticool blades take a look at a traditional knife.  You'll be stunned at how nice they are and how much you can get done with them.  



7 comments:

  1. Refreshing review! I'm sure a lot of your readers (myself included) grew up with traditional knives like this. For me, there is something much more deliberate and calculated to using a nail nick knife than something that "deploys" with a flick of the wrist, thumb, flipper, etc. They're as good to look at as they are to use. Thanks for writing this up!

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  2. Great review.

    For my part, I haven't gone full hog into traditional knives yet, but recently I've been really into the sort-of hybrid class. Knives like the Al Mar osprey and (two-hand opening) Cocobolo Hawk. Until it was recently stolen, by far my most frequently carried knife was the Spyderco-fox colab Spyfox. That knife is also, for all practical purposes, a two-hand opening "hybrid" knife. But also great-looking!

    As I recall, you didn't particularly care for the Spyfox, but do you have any general thoughts on knives like the above that fall into this sort of in-between category?

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  3. Haven't owned a traditional knife since I was a kid. Back then, I saved up my lawn mowing money and bought a nice 2-blader (Case?) at the local 5 & Dime. Bought a nice tiny Buck Arkansas pocket stone with it (its sitting here next to me as we speak).

    That knife taught me respect for blades, and that pocket knives without locks weren't for thrusting into anything. They were meant for slow methodical tasks - like fingernail cleaning, letter/package opening, and most of all whittling sticks into really sharp objects (spears/arrows).

    I moved onto lockbacks (Buck 110) and have progressed from there - learning each knife, and its uses/quirks, as purchased. I haven't really yearned for a traditional knife until this article - a nice, single-blade traditional knife made with D2 can probably make a LOT of really sharp sticks without needing that Arkansas stone too often.

    Thanks for the post

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  4. Tony,

    Thank you for this review. I started getting into traditional knives about a year ago, and they have largely eclipsed modern folders in my carry rotation, for three reasons. 1) They do pretty much everything I reasonably expect a knife to do in everyday use (I do not carry mine for defensive purposes), 2) They do their job with style and beauty, and I gain daily aesthetic pleasure from having a lovely pocket gem / worry stone with me, and 3) They are non threatening to others (in fact, my traditional knives often receive compliments), making them appropriate for nearly all environments (airplanes and courthouses excepted) and eliminate risk that they will invite the disproval of a Law Enforcement Officer (I go into NYC on business a lot). Yes I sometimes miss the convenience of one handed opening, but it is more than made up for by the overall functionality, aesthetic pleasure, and lack of worries in using the knife, anytime, anywhere.

    I think you may find an emotional attachment growing with your Queen knife that is different, and in some ways deeper than your Strider, and hope you will enjoy and review more traditional knives (highly recommend GEC's offerings).

    Thanks again!

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  5. Very enjoyable read. These knives deserve a place at the review table. Big ups!

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    1. Aesthetically, the one thing I'd change on this gem is to remove the Queen Cutlery logo from the blade.

      I'm all about elegant WASP understatement when it comes to traditional knives; the classiest knives should have no logos on the blade, just like the classiest suits and polo shirts have no visible logos either. The more of that beautiful mirror polish is exposed, and left plain, the better.

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  6. Mine (I bought the Curly Zebra) was terrible, blade at a huge angle from the handle, bolsters scratched and not close to flush, the tang was about 1mm higher than the spring when open, there was daylight shining right between the liners and handle on both sides, a horrifically crooked swedge and the blade was totally blunt. Blade HQ accepted it back and have sent me a new one that I'm hoping will be an improvement. I have another Queen, the small lockback, also with a tang that doesn't match height wise with the spring, a blade at an angle when open, daylight between the liners and handles and a crooked swedge. Also totally blunt. USPS lost it on the way to me and by the time it was delivered I'd missed the return period. My cheap as chips Case Sodbuster Jr is so much better made than either that it's an embarrassment. Frankly if you want a traditional knife, I'd steer clear of Queen unless you can inspect the model before putting down your cash.

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