Saturday, April 27, 2013

CRKT Swindle Review

NOTE:  This review has been very challenging.  Not only is this knife highly unconventional, I got the production prototype.  CRKT sent me the knife, that in all likelihood, was the one on screen at SHOT Show.  It gave me early access, but as with all prototypes there was a flaw.  The main pivot screw had a strong tendency to wiggle loose and effect the entire blade.  After consulting with CRKT and their engineering folks, they gave me advice on a fix (Loctite Blue 242) and it worked.  This should not happen on a true production model.  That being said, once fixed, the knife worked exactly as intended.  Given the fit and finish on other CRKT products I have had I will assume (safely, I believe) that this problem is based solely on being a prototype.

In the knife business, no one calls them "models".  They are and have been for many hundreds of years, called patterns.  This is a throwback to when knives were cut from steel sheets and the outlines of the blade and handle were, literally, patterns on the steel.  The idea of creating a knife from a solid billet of titanium was many years in the offing.  One of the most unusual patterns is an old folding knife design known as a "swayback".  Here is an archetypal swayback knife from one of the two best classic knife makers in the world, Tony Bose (the other is Ron Lake, who straddles classic and modern knifemaking):

The photo shows all of the elements that make something a swayback: the palm swell at the end of the handle, the positive angle sweep of the handle, and the wharncliffe blade shape.  It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful of the traditional knife patterns (after researching for this article, I might have to break my promise to avoid classic knives and go get a Bose Case of some sort...they are gorgeous).

What would a modern rendition of a swayback look like?  It would be the CRKT Swindle.  When I first saw the knife in SHOT Show 2013 videos I knew it was a modern swayback (here is that post).  The Swindle, with the heritage obvious from its name, is what happens when you take modern knives and classic knives and mix them together.  The end result is a knife like no other on the market.  Aside from the classic knife heritage there are a number of design features that make the Swindle unique.  It is, in my mind, one of the most intriguing production blades on the market and an excellent choice for a gentleman's folder.

Here is the Swindle's product page.  There are two models, an upscale model with Sandvik's 12C27 steel and striated handle scales and the model I reviewed, the budget model with plain handle scales and 8Cr14MoV.  There are no video or written reviews as this is the first. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the CRKT Swindle, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is the Swindle CRKT sent me as a review sample:


That is about as slim and as gorgeous a knife as I have seen in a long, long time.  More on that in a minute.

Design: 2

This is a Ken Onion design.  I normally dislike Ken Onion designs because of their needlessly busy appearance and hard to sharpen recurve blades (the Ripple being a partial exception, it was busy but I liked it anyway).  But this knife is different.  It is in a league all its own.  It is something of incredible beauty.  It looks so slender and organic almost like a muscle attached to the skeletal frame.  It is balanced and aesthetically graceful.  In short, nothing else in the knife world looks anything like the Swindle.  Yet, in all of its distinctive modernity there is still an unmistakable element of the swayback pattern.  Here is the knife open:

Note the swayback hallmarks--the wharncliffe blade, the palm swell at the end of the handle, and the positive handle angle.  Make no mistake, this is a swayback pattern with distinctive modern touches.

I love the spine riding pocket clip, as it both adds to the palm swell and preserves the knife's clean lines.  I also like the convex handle scales. They are slick but fill the hand well.  The flipper is discrete but effective.  The blade shape is nice with a tiny bit of belly.  On paper and in the flesh this is one of the most striking designs out there, utterly and perfectly clean when closed and stylish when open.  I like the smooth handle scale much better from an aesthetic point of view than the grooved version, but the grooved version has better steel.

The ratios are okay.  The blade:weight is decent, but no more than that, at .96.  The Chill, a very good knife in terms of ratios, is a 1.56 on blade:weight.  The blade:handle is .75.  The Chill is .81.  Here is a shot with the Zippo:


Fit and Finish: 2

If you set aside the prototype issues, which I think is only fair, this knife is really quite elegant and refined in terms of its fit and finish.  The IKBS bearing system deserves special mention here, as it makes the knife incredibly tight and rigid.  Once tightened down and locked in place, the benefits of the IKBS pivot were clear--everything on this knife is just right.  The lock walks in about 1/3 of the way across the thin blade stock, there is no movement in the blade at all, and the spring loaded, articulated clip is excellent.  The texture on the flipper is good and the texture on the pocket clip is excellent.  The best part of this blade's fit and finish though is the immaculate handle scales.  They are so well done and so uniform they really set the knife off.  A normal pocket clip would ruin the elegance of this design. 

Grip: 1

This is a gentleman's knife so don't expect something crazy here.  That said, even for a flipper this knife doesn't have a lot of traction.  The palm swell created by the spine riding clip is awfully nice, but the teeny tiny flipper and no choil means this is probably not the knife you want to take on your mountain hiking trip as a survival blade.  I will say that the positive handle angle was a huge surprise.  I loved it.  In role the grip is fine, not great not bad.  A perfect example of what gets a 1.

Carry: 2

There is nothing that really carries like this knife.  The fact that the blade completely hides in the handle and that there is nothing on the scales to cause wear or problems is great, but the spine riding clip is truly outstanding.  It allows you to rotate the knife easily in your pocket and once positioned correctly, it kind of locks into the fabric of the pocket.  I cannot say enough about how awesome this knife is in the pocket.  I'd give it a 3 if I could. 

Steel: 1

8Cr14MoV is not bad at all.  It is probably one of my favorite 1 point steels.  It is, in fact, consistently though not significantly better than good 8Cr13MoV.  I'd take nicer steel, but this is good enough here.

Blade Shape: 2

As a swayback patterned knife you know the Swindle is going to have a wharncliffe blade.  This is an excellent rendition of that blade shape, having just a little bit of belly.  It works well in slicing tasks and has enough curve to do some roll cuts (I cut some pepperoni with it and it very good). 


Running the knife through the hair-paper-cardboard-paper cut tests showed me that the blade shape is quite good.  In a weird way it reminds me of the sheepsfoot on the Mini Grip 555hg.  I like that blade too. 

Grind: 2

Do you like radiused grinds?  I don't think they work everywhere, but here, in this sinewy, curvy knife they look great.  I would note the uneven ricasso in terms of the cutting bevel, but everything else is outstanding.  CRKT's Chinese OEM does a great job with their grinds and the Swindle is no exception. 

Deployment Method: 2

Here is the tiny flipper:


But really, you don't need much more than that.  Once I fixed the prototype, the IKBS bearings and the tiny flipper popped the blade open with perfect ease--no wrist action required.  I really have come to love IKBS pivots and it is a testament to CRKT that they can get bearing-based pivot systems into their cheaper knives.  Spyderco and Kershaw seem to reserve them for their $200 plus blades.  That, my friends, is an example of good value.  How awesome would a Leek be with KVT instead of an assisted opener?

Retention Method: 2

I like every single thing about this clip.  It is a daring and unconventional design and the bravura pays off in spades.  I LOVE this clip.  It has rocketed past the Spyderco spoon clip and the Kershaw/Strider clip to become one of a four or five favorite clips of all time.  GREAT.  Oh yeah it looks good too:


Lock: 2

Once the fix was in, the lock was great.  IKBS has a huge impact not only on the deployment of a knife, but on its lock up as well.  The bearings give the entire knife a certain level of rigidity that does not occur on non-bearing pivot knives, at least on those under $200.  I will note that the lock disengagement grooves are the little shallow and the convex taper on the handle scale makes the lock edge a little tiny bit uncomfortable, but it is nothing at all concerning. 

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

Ken Onion has truly come into his own with the Swindle.  No more are we forced to endure wavy undulating blade shapes and Alien-like handle scales.  We get simplicity and elegance.   We get an update to a classic knife pattern. And we get all of this for a bargain. I love the look and feel of the Swindle. If you are looking for a unique blade, if you want to try out something a bit different, this is a good choice. So long as the pivot issue is limited to my prototype, which I have good reason to think it will be, this is a fun gentleman's folder to carry, use, and fidget with--highly recommended.

Friday, April 26, 2013

CRKT Enticer Review

SHOT Show 2013 was great for CRKT and its fans. Two or three years ago there was a noticeable improvement in their quality and innovation. They started using different steels like Acuto+ and invested in the IKBS bearing pivot system. Those improvements bore fruit immediately, but SHOT Show 2013 was the first show where EVERY SINGLE PRODUCT was affected. This is a different CRKT. The Swindle looked interesting, the tomahawks looked bad ass, and one knife that was shown but didn't get a lot of press caught my eye--the Enticer. The shape wasn't too radical and the materials weren't insane, but the ratios looked great. This is a 3.125 inch blade that weighs 2 ounces. Slim, lightweight, with plenty of blade. That is a pretty simple formula for garnering interest.

The Enticer is the first production knife, to my knowledge, to be designed by a woman, Mary Jo Lerch (MJ Lerch). I believe she is the wife of famed knife maker and designer Michael Lerch (who came up with the Optimiser assisted opening). The overall package the Enticer represents is a very appealing knife for everyday carry. There is one large flaw, but given the knife's size, weight, and performance, the flaw is something worth working around. Think of this knife as the beautiful car with a hideous spoiler or the gorgeous woman with bad teeth. If you obsess over the flaw you will never be happy. If you look at the knife as a complete package, it will be just one part of an otherwise promising design.

Here is the product page (with specs). There are no video or written reviews yet.  Here is a video interview with Mary Jo Lerch.  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the CRKT Enticer, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally here is my review sample generously provided by CRKT:


Design: 1

With a faint persian feel to the handle and an excellent blade shape, just on looks alone the Enticer seems like a winner. But then you pick it up and notice that it is only slightly heavier than a nice pen (the Enticer hits the scales at 2.0 ounces and the Ultimate Clicky comes in at 1.7 ounces). Great. There is also the fact that this knife, even with its incredibly light form factor, has metal liners. You read that right, metal liners that don't make this thing a pocket anchor. However CRKT did this, everyone else should take notice. I am not normally a fan of liners, but since they seem to add virtually nothing to the blade's weight and they did increase its stability in very tough cuts (see more on this below). On these points alone this blade is a winner, even with the flaw it is still a very good blade.

The flaw, however, is an unavoidable one. CRKT calls it the FireSafe, while the idea is admirable one--safe, fast deployment, as the design works in this case, I just don't like it. The system works by having a rotating thumb disk disengaging a part of the liner lock which holds the knife in a closed position. The system is not only finnicky, it is also very noisy as the disk is loose and rattles quite a bit. Kudos to CRKT for pushing the envelope, but it just didn't work here.

The ratios are amazing, of course, and this is why, despite a major flaw, the knife gets a one. Here is the Enticer next to the Zippo.


The blade:handle is .82. The blade:weight is 1.62. Both are quite good. The blade:weight is second only to the what seems to be unbeatable Al Mar Hawk (.84 and 2.81 respectively). Note that the Enticer bumps out the recent second place finisher, the Chill. Companies have apparently heard us on the forums talking about getting something for nothing.

Fit and Finish: 1

Overall, the fit and finish is better than a 1, but the rattling thumb disk drove me bonkers during the testing period. Everything else is fine if not better. The lock is nice and tight. The blade has a nice satin finish. The handle is well made. This is a good knife with a bad part. I tried fidgeting with the thumb disk to no avail. If it was tight enough not to rattle it was very difficult to deploy the blade. If it was loose enough to deploy the blade it would rattle. Ugh.

Grip: 2

There is a reason why the persian-style knife shows up time and again. There the aptly named Spyderco Persian and the Benchmade Bedlam as well as the Cold Steel Espada. The Enticer's gently curved handle puts it squarely in the persian knife heritage and the grip the form affords is amazing and versatile. The Enticer allows for three different grips, a pair of forward grips and a comfortable reverse grip. Additionally, the blade's thin profile makes the handle really nice in the hand. The minimal jimping is blah, but it is the handle shape that is the star here.

Carry: 2

A relentless focus on weight saving and a slim profile make this a good knife in the pocket. An elegant clip, more on that later, makes this a great knife in the pocket. When you add in all of the gentle curves and nicely finished edges and surfaces, this knife becomes a true all star in the pocket. What did you expect? It is 2 ounces. Wonderful.

Steel: 1

The steel is 1.4034, a European designation for a steel that is roughly equivalent to 420 or 420HC. It has a low carbon count and a low chromium count, but hardens to roughly 56-58 HRc. The blade is thin ground, the stock itself is slim, with a max thickness of .09 inches. In my cut tests (paper, then cardboard, then paper again finally hitting up the forearm) the steel was decent, very similar to the steel on a SAK. This is understandable because they are very similar in origin, both were European steels originally, and very similar in chemistry.

I was really surprised, however, when I took the knife out into the field, literally, the field behind my house (insert gear geek joke about some moron hacking down a tree on accident that destroys his car).  My son and I spend a lot of time out there, hiding, looking at rocks, smashing stuff, and chopping things down.  One particular day, my son wanted a stick to play with and asked for a small woody weed. I took out the Enticer and using a series of alternating chops, cut it down. It was very fibrous, sappy, and about an inch and a quarter in diameter.


This is not green white oak, but it is much more than I thought the steel could handle. After taking the sap off with some Goo Gone (a favorite blade cleaner of mine), I was still able to shave arm hair with it.   It did dull eventually, but it was easily touched up on my Sharpmaker.  Overall the steel performed much, much better than I thought it would. In the right application, these low carbon steels can be good.  I liked them in SAKs and I really liked one in the Enticer.  They aren't great, but they are good compromise, especially for the cost.

Blade Shape: 2

The Enticer's blade shape is about as conventional as they come and the knife is all the better for it.


There is a pronounced swedge and that makes the knife great in penetrating cuts. The drop point has plenty of belly and a good straight portion. The 3.125 inch blade is simple and simply well done.

Grind: 2

This is a nice flat grind, something that combined with the thin blade stock makes this knife an amazing slicer. The swedge is also nice in that it lightens the overall blade and gives the entire knife an excellent cutting and piercing capacity. The cutting bevel is wide and even. The entire knife's grind is very well done.

Deployment Method: 0

Here is where the rubber meets the road. The FireSafe method might work in another knife, but with the rotating thumb disk, I just don't like it. I can get it to work on a regular basis, but it has a learning curve. As a test I gave the Enticer to my Dad. He is a tool guy and an engineer, so he knows his way around gear. It took him quite a few attempts to get the knife to open and even then it did not deploy quickly. For whatever reason, when he hit the thumb disk the Optimiser bar didn't kick in. He tried over again and again, but it never worked. When I was learning how to use it, it would just not deploy. With lots of work the combination of the thumb disk and the Optimiser can send the blade out fast, but you have to hit it just right. This is a problem, not something that bars me from recommending the knife, but it is something you should consider.

Retention Method: 2

The slim gracile clip is both unobtrusive and effective.


It is virtually snag proof and an excellent design. Hopefully, CKRT will use it again in the future. It is an excellent clip on par with the classic Spyderco spoon-style clip.

Lock: 2

This is a thin liner lock. It works. During the chopping incident, the liner lock floated all the way over to the far side of the blade tang, but it did not fail. Future use showed that the liner lock actually held up well as there is still no blade play in any direction. The lock float is a bit of concern, but I was really surprised how well it held up.

Overall Score: 15 out of 20

It was the best of times--incredible lightweight and good blade shape with surprising performance--and the worst of times--a finnicky deployment method and a rattle prone thumb disk.  But unlike the excruciating experience of reading the dreadful Tale of Two Cities (or at least the my high school experience of reading that novel), the Enticer is probably worth the time and hassle.   Once you get the hang of the FireSafe and thumb disk this is an impressively fast opening knife.  The Optimiser is my favorite assist mechanism and having had previous experience with it on the Benchmade Aphid I can confirm that it works well.  If they dropped the Firesafe opener this would be one of the best values in the EDC market.  As it is, it is a knife with a flaw, albeit a non-critical one. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How to Use the Top 5 Tab

I have realized that with the pace of reviews I am probably not going to be able to finish the Recommendation Series in a timely fashion.  Additionally, those articles are so time-intensive in terms of links and research that I dread writing them.  Instead, I have decided, in a nod to the Pen Addict, Brad Dowdy, to have a tab with my Top 5 Recommendations in different product classes as a permanent page on the site.  I will update these frequently.  Let me know if you have any suggestions for other categories or products.  Because this will be a "live" page, I will leave some things open and add to them as they come to me.  Basically, if you want to know what you should be looking at in terms of gear for you next purchase, start with the Top 5 Tab.

If I don't have a link to the product that means I haven't reviewed it.  In cases where I have no review, I am using the same process I have in the past during recommendation series articles, research on the Internet, checking specs and materials, and cross referencing price.  Obviously people whose opinions I have used in the past to good effect are people I will rely on more heavily, especially compared to random a random YouTuber.  

The rankings are based on a composite of things--the score, the product's reception among enthusiasts, and my sentiments about the product over time.  There are some products that score high but lack that something special, that unique thing that makes them stand out.  Then there are products that fall down in one or two ways, but nothing too bad, and stand out in others.  I'd rather have something that does one thing FANTASTICALLY well than have something that is merely decent in every way.  That is why, for example, the cheaper Kershaw Skyline is in the Top 5 but the Spyderco Delica 4 is not.  Both are great blades, but the Skyline has that little something extra, be it the low weight or the cool flipper or slightly better steel, that makes it the knife I'd rather have.

These recommendations are made not based on score or value alone.  Instead I am basically answering the question: what X should I get?  Without information about the product's intended use, and assuming general EDC tasks, these are what I'd recommend.  The main recommendations, the actual top 5s are price sensitive, but quality trumps price.  I'd rather pay $70 for a great product than $50 for a good one. 

A few general things about recommendations.  When given a choice I'd never get serrations.  I don't do a lot of rope cutting and thus serrations are offer no benefit to me to off set the difficulty of sharpening them.  If you plan on doing rope cutting or the like, factor that in.  Second, I am not doing a lot of search and rescue, so throw is not that important to me in a flashlight.  I like SOME throw, but not to the exclusion of carry.  I dislike assisted opening knives because they are generally unnecessary when a knife is properly designed.  More parts to break for no added benefit, as I see it.  I prefer selector ring, QTC, or stage twisty UIs, but clickies, when done well, are acceptable.  I do not like pure twisty (twist, twist again) style UIs. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Surefire EB1 Review

Total Internal Reflection is an optical property that has long been known, studied, and mathematically defined.  Here is the wikipedia page on the topic.  In total dummy terms (those being the only ones I can understand when it comes to advanced optics), total internal reflection, for purposes relevant to this review, occurs when light strikes the boundary of a normally transparent material at an angle insufficient to let the light pass through.  Here is a good example.  Viewing water a certain angle results in it being transparent, you can look right through it.  But viewing at a different angle, makes the water's surface function like a mirror--you can't see beyond it and it is totally reflective.  This is Total Internal Reflection.  Normally this occurs when you are looking at the boundary of water at a very acute angle, such as when you are in water, looking up towards the air.  Here is an image that best demonstrates this phenomenon:

When I explain it, it sounds weird, but when you see the image you know EXACTLY what I am talking about.  Total Internal Reflection or TIR is something we all have experience with, but it has just made its way into the world of flashlights. 

Surefire is a brand that while not on the bleeding edge of emitters, is constantly pushing the boundaries of flashlights in other, and in my opinion, more meaningful ways.  Which would you rather have: a DX flashlight that says it is "500 lumens!" or the amazing throw/flood array of the Surefire A2 Aviator?  If you read this site, the answer is a no-brainer.  Likewise, the time and energy they spend in perfecting the reflector and beam pattern greatly outweighs the need for a new, new, double new emitter (see here for more on why you don't need the newest, latest, and greatest).  All of this is a very long lead in to say that the move towards the TIR optics in Surefire's newest lights is yet another example of quality over quantity at Surefire and one of the reasons why, even in the hyper competitive flashlight market today, Surefire still stands out.  The EB1, the TIR upgrade to the E1B, is an evolutionary step, but a very big one.  Reviewing this light, with such new and powerful technology, is a daunting task and something that took me quite a while to do.  In the end I was convinced that this is the way things should go.  Production lights with TIR produce beams very much like the finest, high end, perfectly tuned, custom lights at a fraction of the cost.  They are not QUITE as good as a Haiku, but they are awful damn close.  The future of production lights is, without question, TIR optics.

Here is the product page, with specs, for the EB1.  The heads are compatible with the E series, but the tailcaps are not.  Additionally there are two models, one with a shrouded tailcap and the other without.  I reviewed the shrouded tailcap version.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Surefire EB1, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is the review sample Blade HQ sent me:

Design: 2

Surefire's designs have always been stout and tactical and the EB1 is that, but to a lesser degree than any other Surefire.  It has the muted functionality more closely related, aesthetically speaking, to a Dauntless than the Klingon lights found elsewhere in the Surefire line up.  The muted aesthetics appeal to me a great deal and the overall robust feel has not been diminished in the least.  This is a light that looks and feels bombproof because it is.  It is easily ranks as one of the best 1xCR123a production lights on the market in terms of design.  The shrouded tailcap has issues, but the clip, the bezel, and the clicky are all absolutely first rate.  Surefire designs again lap the field.  

The TIR head is a weighty and relatively big.  This makes the EB1 a very big light for the 1x CR123a class of lights.  The head is also large in diameter, another way in which this light is bigger than normal.  I prefer much smaller lights, but I can see why folks like this size (it is roughly the same size as the HDS, which is also a very large single cell light).  There is a moderate size difference between this light and a 2xCR123a light, but the body is not so small that it is hard to manipulate or use.  Here is a size comparison between a standard Mag Light 2xAA and the EB1:


Weight:lumens is 60.60.  Total lumens output is 260 (200 lumens on high for 1.3 hours).  High mode actually gives you the greatest number here, something that is unusual.  

Fit and Finish: 2

Surefire's designs are stout and their fit and finish is equally impressive.  This is an immaculately well made light.  The emitter and the entire TIR unit is beautifully finished with amazingly clear optics.  The anodizing is incredibly thick.  The clip is sturdy.  All of the lines are evenly cut and the lettering is clean and without chipping, color bleed, or mis-stamping.  The rubber boot on the clicky is thick and well textured.  There is nothing on this light that turned out poorly and the consistently high level of fit and finish on the Surefire products I have owned over the years proves to me this is not a fluke.  Surefire NAILS fit and finish. 

Grip: 2

With the larger body tube and the raised tailcap and head, the EB1 is amazing in the hand.  These are the advantages of a bigger body.  Reviewing this at the same time that I had the Aeon Mk. II made this comparison pretty stark.  The clip also aids in grip as well.  Finally, in a great ergonomic move, the clicky is easily reached from the normal position your hand would be in when holding this light.  Overall, great grip.

Carry: 1

On the flip side of the larger than normal body, this light does not carry anywhere nearly as nice as other more traditionally sized 1xCR123a.  Compared to an ultra compact light like the Aeon Mk. II, the EB1 is huge (but almost all lights are huge compared to the Mk. II).  Additionally the TIR head is very heavy for its size, making the light both heavy and very unbalanced in your pocket.  On its own, the light would get a 0 here.  There are quite a few 2xCR123a or 18650 lights that aren't much larger.

However, this is the superior pocket clip on the market for flashlights.  Even the vaunted McGizmo clip, an old personal favorite, pales in comparison to the utility and versatility of the two way Surefire clip.  Here it is, in all its glory:


Output: 2

Alright, the high is not the best in the world, on paper.  200 lumens is sort of yawn inducing in the current marketplace.  But the TIR head really makes that 200 lumens AMAZING.  It really punches above its weight and another example of why lumens counts aren't that important.  It held its own quite easily against my MAG-TAC which is rated at 320 lumens. 

Runtime: 1

My beef here is not with the high, which is fine at 1.3 hours, but the low.  At 5 lumens we need more than 40 hours of runtime.  My Aeon, which is cheaper in the AL version, runs for 40 hours at 30 lumens.  The Mk. II on 3-5 lumens will run for days.  This is just a matter of tuning the emitter and current regulator.  Surefire, get on that.  I want to see something like 80 hours at 5 lumens or 120 hours at 2-3 lumens.  That would work well and make the runtimes equivalent to the best lights on the market and equal in quality to other aspects of this extraordinary flashlight.  I have noticed that a lot of folks with light meters have found the regulation on this light to be lacking, but I did not have the chance to figure out if this was the case.  It worked fine for me, a little short, but fine.

Beam Type: 2

TIR destroys the old beam type paradigm of flood v. throw.  It used to be that on EDC lights I liked floody beam types as I was more likely use the light up close than spotting stuff in the distance.  But here, the TIR gives you a good hotspot and excellent spill.  You can use the light to throw and to flood.  The hotspot is very intense, but the spill is excellent.  The bar has been raised by this:


TIR is a winner and the beam type is custom amazing.  

Beam Quality: 2

No artifacts, no dark patches or rings, again the TIR kills it.  This light's output looks like the Haiku's and the price tag is less than half of Don's jewel.  I love this beam.  The tint, a concern during the first wave of EB1 releases, is, to my eyes wonderful.  It is not Hi-CRI, but it is pretty darn neutral.  Here are some beam shots.






Note the distinct hotspot and lack of artifacts.  The colors are rendered very well, with the red bodies of the Bessey Revo clamps (upper right) popping.  Additionally, the white scale is good, as the true white of the pegboard is distinct from the off white of the band saw body (upper left).  The spill is good, even though in the low picture it seems non-existent.  It is so faint it is hard for my cheapo camera to pick up, but it is definitely there in person.  

UI: 2

The dead simple clicky is very nice.  The UI is great, but be aware this is a tactical set up (high first).  I am biased against this, but I recognize that if you are in the market for a Surefire, the tactical set up is probably what you are looking for.  Given its intended use I am not going to dock it a point for the high first set up as everything else is very easy to access and requires zero amount of Morse code-like bullshit.  

Hands Free: 1


D'oh!  Surefire, seriously, how did you miss this?  Why bother with the shrouded tailcap if you aren't going to make it be able to tailstand with ease?  I know the company has a heritage of tactical lights which eschew tailstanding in favor of easy access clickies, but if they are going to make the effort to offer a different tailcap, make it work.  The clip is an excellent anti-roll device though and the light works well in the teeth or on a cap (thanks to the awesome two-way clip), so the net is a 1. 

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

One concern or problem with my scoring system, like all scoring systems, is that a fix upper limit does not accurately reflect something that is truly and distinctly great.  This is a product that demonstrates that problem perfectly.  The EB1 is not just a good light, it is one of the best 1xCR123a lights in the world, production or custom.  It hangs in there with my Haiku in terms of beam quality and that is something I just couldn't believe.  TIR is the future and the beam here is so brilliant, so well-balanced, and so good at throw that this light sets a new standard.  In the same way that the Eiger set a new standard for versatility in production lights, the EB1 sets a new standard for beam quality and beam type.  The old scoring method for beam type--a balance between flood and throw--is completely thrown off here.  The TIR allows the EB1 to do good on close up work and still hit treetops a 100 yards away with ease.  This is a 17, but one of the best products I have ever reviewed.  It is a quirk in the scoring system, but having a score and text allows me to account for those quirks.  If you are in the market for a 1xCR123a light, this has GOT to be something you consider.  Using it will change the way you look at lights.  

Friday, April 19, 2013

Benchmade 300SN Review

The Benchmade 300SN was a surprise.  One day it was nothing and the next day it was on retailers' doorsteps, dropped there overnight like a baby from the Stork.  It is part of what Dan at Blade Reviews and Andrew at Edge Observer have called the Flipper arms race.  The idea of a brown/earth colored flipper knife is pretty familiar by now, having been done before by both ZT (the ZT561) and Spyderco (the Spyderco Southard).  The Benchmade iteration on this theme is very, well, Benchmade-y.  It has superb fit and finish.  It runs 154CM steel.  It has an Axis lock.  And it has a few design quirks that are classic Benchmade pitfalls.  At least Benchmade is consistent.  When it falls down, it does so the same way almost every time.  This is a decent knife, just not a very good or great one.  Thus, when the competition is so fierce and so similar, it seems worse by comparison, if for no other reason than the comparison is so easy to make. 

Here is the product page with specs for the Benchmade 300SN.  Here is a review of the Benchmade 300SN from podcast cohost Aaron.  Here is a video review from Nutnfancy.  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Benchmade 300SN, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is my Benchmade review sample (sorry about the uneven quality of the photos, the first was taken outside and the rest were taken inside with new, less effective lighting; I have since modified by lighting set up):


Design: 0

The design of the 300SN has a few flaws, two of which are major.  This is not to say the knife is a failure.  It is actually a decent hard use blade, but as an EDC it is less than ideal and as a hard use blade there are many better options.

The two flaws are simple to explain: 1) the flipper is pathetically slow; and 2) the overall size of the knife is just too big for what you get.  The slow flipper has to do with the fact that the Axis lock pin rides against the tang of the blade (as it does on all Axis lock knives).  This places pressure on the knife as it swings open, slowing down the blade.  The Axis lock also impacts the detent, altering the normal flipper mechanincs and requiring you to approach the 300SN differently.  The flipping motion and action are slightly different form a normal flipper and the blade is worse for it.  I know why this is an Axis lock knife (it is Benchmade's go to lock format and a very good one), but in this case, Benchmade should have abandoned its efforts to squeeze the lock into this kind of knife.  After reviewing quite a few flippers, including the Twitch II, which also uses an lock not normally seen on flippers, I can safely say that if you want a knife to flip well it needs to have either a frame lock or a liner lock (I think a compression lock or Nak lock would also work).  Any lock that puts pressure on the blade as it opens really screws with the fundamental mechanics of the flipper.

But if this was merely a slow or awkward flipper, I could overlook the problem.  After all the Surefire Jekyll has a weird flipper and I still very much liked that blade.  The second problem with the design of the 300SN is more acute.  This is a massive knife.  Look at the shot below under "Carry" and you will see how thick this knife is.  I just don't get why it has to be this thick in the first place.  The blade is 3 inches long.  That is not enough to make this a true "tactical" folder (though I am wary of even using that word).  Compared to similarly sized hard use folders this thing is a chunk.  The Paramilitary 2 weighs more than 2 ounces less and has an extra .40 inches in blade length.  There is no need for full steel liners here.  I recognize that the Axis lock requires some kind of liner, but something around the pivot would work as would milled out liners.  But the weight is just part of the size problem.  More so than any other knife I have carried or reviewed this knife seems much thicker than necessary.  It is like carrying two knives stacked on top of each other.  It is just too thick for what you get. 

There are other flaws here as well.  I dislike the scalloped handle scale, with finger grooves.  It feels okay, I would imagine, if you had hands that size but it forces you to grip the knife in a particular way and if your hands aren't the right size the grip can be uncomfortable.  Finger grooves like these are a beginner's way of making something SEEM ergonomic.  Another small flaw is the flipper itself.  I like its shape and texture, but the channel cut into it to allow for it to pass around the Axis lock pin can collect lint, making the knife difficult to close properly.  This also screws with the detent, which is already problematic. 

Then, there is the price.  This is a very expensive knife for what you get.  I don't normally mention price, because money means different things to people, but here the price is completely out of whack with its market competitors.  The knife sells at Blade HQ for $148.95.  The PM2 sells for $119.95.  You get a better knife with a better steel (154CM v. S30V) for $30 less.  The full sized Griptillian has the same steel and same lock from the same maker and comes in at $109.25.  The G10 scales (which are quite ugly) and the flipper are not worth the additional $39.  Compared to the Cold Steel Mini Recon 1, this knife is exorbitantly priced, more than double the cost of the Cold Steel blade.  The upgrade from AUS 8 to 154CM and the addition of the flipper are not worth the cost.  This knife should retail for the same price as the Griptillian.  If it did it would be a significantly better value.   

Lastly a quick work about aesthetics.  I have already mentioned that the handle scales are ugly and boy are they ever.  But the cluster of pins, levers, flippers, and screws around the pivot are especially distracting.  It looks like the knife has acne, a problem I noted in the aesthetics of the Emissary.  This is a natural occurrence on Axis lock knives but there are things that Benchmade could do to lessen this effect like coloring the metal pieces or hiding the screws like they do on the Griptillian (again a cheaper knife).  The pattern on the handle is purely aesthetic as the grooves are not deep enough to add traction.  They are also ugly.  This is, simply put, a hamburger of a knife--a massively thick, bespeckled, brown handle (the silver metal pieces are the poppy seeds). 


As you can imagine the ratios are not good.  The blade:handle is .74 and the blade:weight is .64.  Compared to the recently reviewed Chill and the upcoming Enticer, these are both very bad numbers.  Compared to more conventional designs, the blade:handle is okay, but the blade:weight is bad no matter the comparison.  Here is a shot of the knife next to a Zippo for scale.   


Fit and Finish: 2

For all of the garish bolts and hideous coloration and fat size, this is a Benchmade and no one in the production world does fit and finish like Benchmade.  Every knife they made that I have handle is utterly superb.  The 300SN is no exception.  The surfaces are finished well and the blade itself is nice and centered.  The Axis pin is well textured and nice to use and the flipper is finished very well.  The 300SN does nothing to dent Benchmade's well-earned reputation in terms of fit and finish.  Great, as always.  

Grip: 1

This knife has, as mentioned above, a series of finger grooves.  They happen to work for my hands, but in other, different sized hands they can be a problem.  My Dad recently came into town and I handed him the knife and he did not like the handle at all.  The finger grooves are a cheap and easy way to make something FEEL or SEEM ergonomic when it really isn't.  The G10 was good as was the jimping, but I just couldn't get over the fact that this knife tells you how it MUST be held, instead of suggesting a number of ways it COULD be held. 


Carry: 0

Have you ever put a hamburger in your pocket?  It isn't comfortable, is it?  Oh, wait you haven't...well, have you ever tried to carry one of those so called pocket dictionaries in your pocket?  Its like that, but instead of soft flexible paper, this knife is made of unforgiving steel.  I love the clip, more on that later, but I hate the knife's size and weight.  Only an actual hamburger would be more conspicuous in the pocket.   This picture says it all:


The knife is just too thick.  It also happens to be wide, in part because the blade is wide, but also because the flipper adds width.  This is not a fun knife to carry. 

Steel: 2

I like 154CM.  It is a very good steel.  After a few anomalous experiences with it, I have come to realize that this is a very solid steel--it holds an edge well and is still quite easy to sharpen.  I like it a lot, but at this price, it is slightly below par.  The Buck Vantage Force Pro has S30V steel and it is $88.  There is nothing wrong with this steel at all, but for the price, I would expect a little more.  I am not willing to ding the knife a point here, as the steel, without consideration of price, is very good, but you get my point.

Blade Shape: 2

Okay, I have been pretty hard on this knife, though deservedly so, but here, at the all important category of blade shape, the 300SN hits a home run.  This is a great blade shape with a classic look, plenty of belly, a great ricasso (one of the things that Benchmade kills Spyderco on; fanboys FIGHT), and a good swedge. 


The knife performed well on my cutting tests (paper, cardboard, paper, arm hair) and did not need sharpening at all.  For all of the blah, blah, blah in the design section, the blade shape and the grind save this knife.  This knife thanks to these two things, is a very good cutter, and that is, after all why you buy knives, right? 

Grind: 2

With a high price tag and great fit and finish you are bound to get good grinds and here is no exception.  I loved the cutting bevel, as it was wide enough and perfectly consistent.  I liked the flat grind as well.  The swedge is excellent as is the main grind.  This knife has thick blade stock and the grinds really taper everything down to a nice cutting edge quickly.  Great job Benchmade.

Deployment Method: 1

The flipper is lazier than a pig on a hot day.  It just won't flick out.  It is smooth, make no mistake, but it is just SLOW.  I like the shape of the flipper here, it is quite good, but the Axis lock puts too much pressure on the tang of the blade.  I have labored on this point too much already because while it is slow it does work.  It is merely not as nice as I would want for this price.

Retention Method: 2

This is the same clip as the Emissary and I loved it then and now. 


This is definitely the best clip Benchmade makes and is in the running for best production knife clip overall.  I really, really like it. 

Lock: 2

I love the Axis lock.  I really do.  It screws with the flipper here, but as a lock it is great.  There is no blade play whatsoever and the lock up and disengagement is clean.  Excellent job by Benchmade, of course.  I think this knife would be much cooler and faster with a frame lock, but that is because they play nicer with flippers, but as a lock irrespective of deployment method, the Axis is about as good as they come. 

Overall Score: 14 out of 20

This is a competitive marketplace for knives right now, especially given the Flipper Arms Race.  In that marketplace, the 300SN is a merely okay option, a me-too design released at a time when other, better blades are out there.  Those knives, the ZT 56X and the Spyderco Southard, are more expensive, but they are better blades.  The materials are under par for the price and the flipper would be slower only if the pivot was made of tar, but this knife is a good, solid cutter.  If you knew nothing of its competitors, you'd probably be happy with it, until you had to lug it around.  But given that you do know about the competitors I would search them out or opt for a PM2, a full sized Griptilian, or probably a Cold Steel Mini Recon I.  They are similar hard use folders that are lighter in weight with longer blades and all are cheaper.  Nice try Benchmade, but after the Griptilian and Mini Grip, we all expect a little more.  A flipper with the same size and shape as the Mini Grip would be really amazing.  Hint, hint.   

Monday, April 15, 2013

Thomas W.'s Comments and the Cryo Revisited

The Kershaw Cryo review lives on.  No other article has spawned as many substantive comments as this one, but one in particular is pretty important.  When Thomas W. comments, you listen.  If you browse knife forums at all, you know that Thomas W. is an active and outstanding member of the knife community and he also happens to work for one of the Big Three--Kai USA.

When an email alert told me that he had commented on the Cryo review, I knew I had to take a peek.  What he said was really interesting and given how well respected he is in the community and how much I respect his opinion, I thought it warranted its own post and a response from me.  If I were a movie critic, this would be like Stephen Spielberg sending me a note about my review of Lincoln.

Here is what Thomas W. wrote:

Hi Tony

This is Thomas from Kai USA. Sorry to hear of your disappointment with the Cryo.

I'm not really looking to argue with you about your review, although it seems exaggerated.

Just wanted to drop in to let you know that the Cryo is the most popular new item our company has seen in a long time. It's numbers have shown it to be our biggest volume sku in our current line-up. I'm not sure how that could happen if the Cryo is as bad as you advertise. There have been multiple requests for variations of the Cryo (black and bead blast), and the pre-orders on the larger Cryo have been very, very, solid.

Suffice to say, calling the Cryo junk is just not accurate, not even as an opinion. We know knives. We know execution. I own a Cryo. It's far from junk, and I find your claim distasteful and disrespectful.

I'll assume you are here as an advocate of the knife community. Please remember as good as it felt to write this, you have a responsibility to the community, not just your viewers here.

Throwing out the word junk in the easy fashion as you have here is just not responsible. I'm unsure why Blade HQ would utilize you for reviews when you self admit bias, and there is an obvious lack of industry experience/understanding, but little surprises me anymore.

I appreciate the ability to respond here, and would like to shout out to the readers that the overwhelming percentage of Cryo owners are very much satisfied with the knife, as are we.

The Re-Review Policy

This is not a comment I can brush off and it contains points that really made me think, not just about my opinion of the Cryo, but what I am doing writing about gear in general.

In response to Thomas's comments I have decided that I am going to amend my review policy.  At the prompting of a maker, I will, at my discretion, re-review a product.  The re-review will take place no sooner than six months after the original review is posted.  This will be an appeal of sorts (as a lawyer I am familiar with the complexities of an appeal).  The purpose of one my reviews is to inform you the reader.  It is not to be a smug jerk.  I want, above all, to get the review right.  I want to make sure my reasons are clear and my opinions are based on facts.  I want to make sure that my opinions are defensible as well.  But I am convinced, based on 35 years of errors, that even a well-reasoned argument based on facts, can be wrong and so, I am going to re-review the Cryo.  This time I will purchase the Cryo and keep it as long as I need to do the review, but I am going to use it for at least a month and I am going to do my new cutting tests with it to standardize the review of its cutting performance.

A more formal statement of the re-review policy will be added to the Contact page up at the top.


I do want to response to Thomas's points.  If Spielberg tells you you got it wrong, you owe him a response.

First to general points.  Thomas W.'s comments come when my review of the Cryo is the first hit on a Google search of "Kershaw Cryo Review."  Perhaps that is what brought it to his attention.  It has not always been the number one hit, but it is now.  I mention this because some of Thomas's criticism seems most pointed if you read the Cryo review in a vacuum.  If, however, you read it with other things I have written, like other reviews of Kershaw knives, some of the things he says make less sense.  The Skyline got an 18/20, the OD-2 a 17/20, the Zing SS an 18/20, the Chill a 16/20, and the ZT 350 an 18/20 (the Scallion got a worse review than the Cryo with a score of 8/20).  KAI USA's products are the second most often reviewed gear on my site, only Spyderco has more product reviews (7 reviews v. 12 reviews).  I am not a Kershaw hater and these scores indicate that I know they make good knives.  But these are general objections to his points.  Let me be more specific. 

I'm not really looking to argue with you about your review, although it seems exaggerated.

He stated that he felt my review was a bit "exaggerated".  I am not sure what this means, but I think he means that I was exaggerating how bad the knife was.  I believe that there certain facts that are simply unavoidable, facts that show the knife to be subpar.  As facts, these can't be exaggerated (though their impact can be).  First, the weight of 4.2 ounces.  I am not a weight maven, but for a knife with a 2.75 inch blade, the weight is just too much.  In Episode 4 of Gear Geeks Live Aaron and I hashed out the debate a little and I gave him this list:

Benchmade Griptillian
Spyderco Paramilitary 2
Kershaw Blur
Kershaw Cryo

Then I asked him which was the heaviest.  The answer is the Cryo.  And here is the more surprising fact--all of the blades in the other knives are significantly longer, around a half inch longer.  So based on objective facts--weight and blade length and a ratio of the two--the Cryo falls behind the crowd pretty substantially.  That is something I can't exaggerate--it is all facts, inches and ounces.

Then we talked about the Cryo in terms of similarly priced knives.  After all, all three of the knives in the example above are more than three times the price of the Cryo.  So I pointed Aaron to the Kershaw Zing SS.  It shows just how below par the Cryo is in terms of objective measures.  The handle material is the same, the blade material is the same, the lock is the same, the country of origin is the same, the company is the same, but the Zing weighs less and has more blade than the Cryo.  Additionally, the blade to handle ratio on the Zing is better than the Cryo.  You get more blade length for roughly the same handle size and 1.2 ounces less in weight.  Again, these are facts, and I can't really exaggerate them.  And to bring this home even more, the Zing SS and the Cryo are basically the same price, so this is not a matter of one knife benefiting from a higher budget and therefore better production quality than the other.  These two knives are very readily comparable and the Zing SS just gives you more.

As far as other facts, the fit and finish, especially the blade centering, on my knife was bad.  It was so bad that I got the scissor effect when I closed the knife as the blade contacted the handle and slid past it.  There is no exaggerating how bad my sample was, but perhaps I should not attribute these problems to the whole line.  That may have been an exaggeration.  I will get another Cryo and find out.

Just wanted to drop in to let you know that the Cryo is the most popular new item our company has seen in a long time. It's numbers have shown it to be our biggest volume sku in our current line-up. I'm not sure how that could happen if the Cryo is as bad as you advertise. There have been multiple requests for variations of the Cryo (black and bead blast), and the pre-orders on the larger Cryo have been very, very, solid. 

First, let me say I am so glad that the knife is selling well.  I like Kershaw as a company.  They won me over with blades and then again helping me prepare a case when a client of mine was charged with possessing a switchblade because of owning a Speed Assist knife (the law banning switchblades in New Hampshire has since been repealed).  But liking Kershaw aside, I have a few thoughts about Thomas W.'s comments on popularity.

First, when a knife is brand new good sales numbers are not an indication of quality design or product, but quality marketing.  It can't be anything else because no one has the knife in their hands to use.  If the sales are this strong ten years from now and/or the Cryo undergoes the CQI of a blade like the Delica, then the sales numbers and longevity will be an indication of quality.  Strong sales out of the gate is an indication of a fantastic marketing department, something Kai USA certainly has, not of product quality.  After all one of the worst reviewed movies of last year had one of the highest, if not the highest opening weekend grosses (Twilight Breaking Dawn, Part 1 grossed $290 million).  Initial sales are not indicative of quality.

Popularity is also not a great judge.  After all, quite a few people believed the world was flat and that turned out to be wrong.  If popularity or sales numbers were all that was needed to prove quality then this:

would be the third best knife in the world right now as it is really killing it on the Amazon Top 100 folding knives chart.  Obviously, popularity cannot a direct indication of quality.  Quality items are often popular, but popular items are not necessarily quality items.  Over time popularity tends to correlate with quality, but the Cryo is less than a year old and so popularity, right now, at least, is not helpful in evaluating quality.

Requests for variation could be a sign of quality.  I asked for a variation of the Cryo in my review.  There are things the Cryo does very well.  I said it in the review and I said it on the podcast--this knife has good bones.  With a few tweaks it would be amazing.  But calls for variation can also be a sign of problems.  People wouldn't ask for changes if they liked what they already had.  They might, but they also might not.  Requests for variations does not, in my mind, necessarily correlate to quality.  Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't.

Finally, if the Amazon reviews are any indication (and usually they aren't but with as many as the Cryo has they start to be statistically significant), this is not a knife of universal acclaim.  The knife has 243 reviews with an average of 4.37 stars, which is good, but not close to great.  The Dragonfly 2, with 53 reviews (an admittedly much smaller sample size), has an average of 4.8 stars.  The Skyline, with 208 reviews, has an average of 4.7 stars.  If the Amazon reviews are even somewhat helpful, the knife is liked or well liked, but not beloved. The difference of half a star on a 5 star scale is 10%, a sizable thing.  I don't think this is the strongest counterpoint, as Amazon reviews are notoriously fickle or silly, but it is all we have to go on in terms of objective metrics.      

Suffice to say, calling the Cryo junk is just not accurate, not even as an opinion. We know knives. We know execution. I own a Cryo. It's far from junk, and I find your claim distasteful and disrespectful.

Calling the Cryo "junk" is disrespectful.  I don't think it is or should be, but Thomas W. obviously took offense, so I can't really tell him to not be offended (especially given the fact that the "I am sorry you were offended" style apologies are one of my pet peeves).  The reason I called it junk was twofold.  First it is a clear and concise summary of my experience.  The Cryo I got flipped poorly, had poor grip, and was really off centered.  It was a junky version of the knife.  Second, it calls attention to the main problem I had.  I didn't call the knife ugly, I was taken aback by its seemingly cheap fit and finish, materials, and production choices.  The design itself is a great one, and with a few tweaks it could be a great knife, but the production issues make it a lesser knife.  It might be offensive, but I see my purpose as informing people and the word "junk" was both clear and informative.  My intent was not to be disrespectful, though I was aware at the time I wrote the review that could be a consequence.  As between being disrespectful to KAI USA and misleading my readers, I would obviously choose being disrespectful, though this is almost always a false choice.  My "customers" are my readers, not the folks that make the products.  I don't do this for knife companies and I don't do this for money or stuff (I give all of my review stuff away).  I do this for the readers and their interests come first.

Thomas's point that calling it "junk," even as an opinion, is not accurate is confusing to me.  It is an accurate summary of my opinion.  I used facts to back up that opinion.  That, it seems to me, is enough to say that my opinion is accurate.  You might not agree with it, but there is no doubt that "junk" accurately summarizes my opinion at the time.  I should know, after all, it is my opinion.    

I also agree with Thomas that Kershaw and KAI USA know how to make knives.  They really, really do.  They make some of my favorite production blades of all time.  I know, right now, that two are on the top of "to buy" list (the 556 and the Injection 3.0).  Also also wholeheartedly agree that Kershaw knows execution.  If I didn't believe this I wouldn't bother re-reviewing the knife.  There are certain things that are fixed, like the size and weight, but I believe, given Kershaw's long track record, that I could have received a very rare Kershaw lemon.  So I will re-review the blade.  I also think that some of the best knives I have used, for the money, or cost no object, have been KAI USA products.  They make fantastic knives.  NO DOUBT ABOUT IT.

I'll assume you are here as an advocate of the knife community. Please remember as good as it felt to write this, you have a responsibility to the community, not just your viewers here.

I also have to take seriously what Thomas said about being an advocate for the knife community.  I realize that what started out as me writing for a few dozen folks has transformed into something bigger.  With that bigger megaphone comes more responsibility.  Going forward I will take that into account in writing reviews.  For the record, I took no pleasure in writing a bad Cryo review.  I wanted that knife to be awesome from the day I saw it on a SHOT Show video.  If anything the review was written and fueled by a sense of profound disappointment.

Throwing out the word junk in the easy fashion as you have here is just not responsible. I'm unsure why Blade HQ would utilize you for reviews when you self admit bias, and there is an obvious lack of industry experience/understanding, but little surprises me anymore.

I didn't throw out the word "junk" easily.  The review took over a month to write and the product took as long to test.  The whole reason I use a 20 point system is so there is some order to my opinions.  None of these reviews are easy.  They all take quite a bit of work, all of which is unpaid.

Thomas also pondered why Blade HQ would sponsor me.  I think I do a good job reviewing products and getting the word out.  I think I provide lots of content for them for almost nothing.  I know, based on commissioned sales, things are going well.  But I have no idea why they choose to sponsor this site. I am incredibly grateful, but their motives are their own.

The one thing Thomas W. said that I most strongly disagree with is his idea that bias makes someone a bad reviewer.  Bias or subjectivity is the very heart of a review.  It is one person's take on something.  It is, by its very nature, biased.  I even wrote an article on what my biases were and how to account for them in reading a review.  I AM BIASED.  So is everyone else.  The reviewer that tells you they are not is lying.  They are the folks you need to be worried about because they are biased and they either don't know it or won't admit it.

I am also going to confess further.  I am a huge Kershaw fan.  I am always interested in what they put out.  I don't follow Gerber or Cold Steel like I follow Kershaw (check my Twitter account, I follow Kershaw and Knife Jen, but neither Gerber or Cold Steel).  There is a difference between being biased and being fair.  I think that I am fair.  I strive to be fair.  I bend over backwards to be fair.  I try to be transparent as well.  I try to ensure I benefit in no way from any review.  I reviewed the Tom Bihn Cadet and decided I liked it a lot.  But instead of keeping the review copy and sending them my money, I paid for it to go back to Seattle, then once it arrived, I paid for it to come back my way.  If I was trying to be slanted in some way, if I was not fair, I wouldn't go to all these lengths.  My reputation is all I have.  I don't have money or prestige, just people believing I am fair and honest.  Everyone has a perspective and so everyone has a bias, but I can recognize those biases and work around them to review things I wouldn't necessarily like or buy and still give them good reviews if the product deserves it.

As for the lack of experience I am the first to admit I have ZERO experience in the knife industry.  I don't have any clue whatsoever what makes a knife company profitable or a design good for business.  Thomas W. is absolutely right on this account.  But I don't think that, on its own, invalidates my opinion.  Bill James had no clue what made a ball club successful when he started writing his Baseball Abstracts.  He had an idea--the numbers contained crucial information that IN THE INDUSTRY OF PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL were missing.  Twenty five years later, the guy that worked as a night security guard at a baked bean factory while writing the Abstracts, has been proven right again and again.  He has a World Series ring to prove he is right.

I am not Bill James.  I am not as smart as he is.  I am no where near the writer he is, but the notion that only those inside the knife industry have meaningful things to say is hard to accept.  Maybe I don't understand how the price point of the Cryo requires certain compromises or how the branding shapes the product.  But I don't care about this stuff.  I have one focus--how good is this piece of gear.  It may take an engineering degree to design the knife (though I don't think that is a requirement either) and a business degree to market and sell it.  But anyone can use a knife and anyone willing to think about it for a while and write stuff down can speak meaningfully about how well it works.


Thomas W. I am incredibly grateful for your comments.  They will change how I write reviews going forward.  They were insightful in a fundamental way.  We disagree on a few things, but in general, I think you were right.  So, for the first time in two plus years, I am going to do a full blown re-review.  The Kershaw Cryo gets a second chance.    

Friday, April 12, 2013

Budget Blade Shootout

This has been a long, long time coming.  I wanted to do this shootout around October of 2012, and I purchased a commonly recommended budget blade, the Ka Bar Mini Dozier, for this purpose.  But after I received the CRKT Drifter I realized that the Dozier, while a good little blade, didn't really stack up to what the Drifter had to offer.  In the end, these shootouts make little sense unless all of the products score within a few points of each other.  With that figured out I moved on to the Byrd Meadowlark, the Delica sized knife from the Spyderco budget brand.  Both those knives retail for around $18, so I decided that whatever the third entry in the Shootout would be, it had to be under $20.  After some searching I found the Kershaw Chill.  It was significantly different from the other two knives, but was roughly the same size and price.  That was the final competitor and the shootout could start to take shape.   

There are a lot of knives that come in under $20.  A lot.  But many of them are small knives, like the Gerber LST.  I have owned and LST and actually gave it away in a trade as a special bonus.  It was a good knife, but it was too small, lacked a pocket clip, and took two hands to open.  In my mind it was not sufficiently functional to be an EDC knife.  It might be the perfect blade for ultralight backpacking (weighing roughly half what the Baladeo does, with a substantially better lock), but for everyday use, it wasn't up to snuff.  Then there are the horde of Chinese brand knives.  Note I did not say "Chinese made" knives because every single knife in this shootout is Chinese made.  The difference between these knives and the Bees and Elans of the world is that these knives come from reputable companies and if something goes wrong you know who to contact.  That, in my mind, is worth the extra two to eight dollars you will spend upgrading from a Bee or an Elan to one of these knives.

Here are the three competitors:

The Drifter G10 (Score: 18 out of 20):


The Meadowlark Lightweight (Score: 16 out of 20):


The Kershaw Chill (Score: 16 out of 20):


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:

Blade HQ

The Drifters came from CRKT and the other two blades came from Blade HQ.  I will be reviewing the G10 version of the Drifter because I think it is the better version and since they are the same price, it would be the one I would buy.


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, some how, in the value calculations, I will break the type based on my own opinion of which product is better.


The design of the Drifter is solid.  Nothing flashy, nothing unconventional, but no glaring weaknesses either.


The Chill is simply too long and narrow to be a great slicer.  The Meadowlark is, frankly, the McDowells to Spyderco's McDonalds (or the Big Mic to the Big Mac, whichever you prefer).  Everything about it is slightly worse than a real Spyderco.  It seems to me that Spyderco spent too much time making sure there was a difference between the Meadowlark and the Delica and not enough time focusing on whether the Meadowlark is a good knife on its own.  This is a case of one clearly inferior choice, as both the Drifter and the Chill are good to very good and the Meadowlark is yawn inducing or just a genericized version of "your favorite knife."  

Drifter: 5
Meadowlark: 1
Chill: 3

Fit and Finish

None of these blades had bad fit and finish.  Honestly I was a bit surprised by this.  The Ka Bar Mini Dozier was just wobbly all over.  It didn't work well at anything closely resembling a heavy duty task.  But here all were pretty darn close.  Two things makes the Meadowlark fall to the back of the pack: the uneven nature of the blade itself, seen best in the "that's good enough" finish to the ricasso:


Second, there is the really annoying and totally unnecessary ridge around the handle of the blade.  I am not sure what it is for or even what it is meant to do, but it surely is annoying when using the knife.

I need to be candid here: none of these knives are completely perfect.  Choosing the best fit and finish on a $20 blade is very much like picking the smartest Kardashian sister--someone has to win by default.  There is a hint of blade play, side to side, in both the Chill and the Drifter, but nothing that is worrisome and really, when you are at the $20 or less price range, there are things that just cannot be avoided. A little slop in the product is part of what you have to accept.  If this bothers you your going to have to increase your budget.  There is no way to get around it.  That said, the Drifter was a smidgeon better.  With a good amount of tinkering you can get the pivot flicking smooth and still have a reasonably solid blade.  The same cannot be said with the Chill.  It is not the pivot, which is fine, but the thin blade stock over a longer run. 

Drifter: 5
Meadowlark: 1
Chill: 3


What the Meadowlark lacks in looks and fit and finish it easily makes up for in grip.  Both the Drifter and the Chill are significantly behind the Meadowlark and there is also significant spacing between the Drifter and the Chill as this Chill is pretty much grip free, by comparison.  None of the knives are bad, at all, but the Meadowlark is the clear winner here.  The handle's texture helps, as does the thumb ramp created by the hump and the jimping.  The choil is also a big bonus.  The Meadowlark is one grippy knife. 

Drifter: 3
Meadowlark: 5
Chill: 1


Again there is some significant spacing here.  The Chill is really slim and discrete, making it an excellent pocket passenger.  The Drifter is a bit wider and heavier, making it not exactly perfect, and the Meadowlark, for all its grippiness is just too wide, the Spyderco problem on steroids.  

Drifter: 3
Meadowlark: 1
Chill: 5


This is a no brainer--both the Meadowlark and the Chill have 8Cr13MoV steel.  The Drifter has the slightly but consistently superior 8Cr14MoV.  I did like the finish on the Chill's steel better than the uneven satin finish on the Meadowlark, so that is why it bests the Byrd blade here.  See more on this issue below in the conclusion section.

Drifter: 5
Meadowlark: 1
Chill: 3

Blade Shape

Again this is an imperfect choice.  The Drifter is closest to perfect as it has a nice conventional blade shape.


The only drawback here is the unnecessary recurve.  It looks cool, as almost all recurves do, but they are all--uniformly--a pain to sharpen.  The recurve here is not crazy, so I am not too worried about.  The Chill's blade shape is a problem for a different reason.  As I mentioned in my review, it is just too long and too narrow to be worth the effort.  The slim profile really does impact cutting performance making this a surprisingly weak slicer, especially given the blade stock.  The Meadowlark's blade shape is not so bad for cutting, but the hump, which is even larger than a hump on a Spyderco, is exceptionally wide making this knife a pocket choker.  It  can slice though, even with the crude and uneven grind, so it comes out ahead of the Chill.     

Drifter: 5
Meadowlark: 3
Chill: 1


Here we have distinct clumping again.  The Drifter and the Chill have pretty darn good grinds, especially for a knife of this price, but the Meadowlark, well...take a peek:


The grind is just messy.  The grind lines, which I usually find pretty cool when pronounced, are uneven and swirly.  The cutting bevel is wide, which is good, and somewhat wavy, which is not.  This is a clear example of saving money through an inferior grind.  It is funny though, it doesn't really impact cutting.  It will make the knife harder to resharpen and less likely to hold an edge, but with its toothy, rough grind, the Meadowlark sliced well at the beginning of my testing.  Not so much as time (and grind) wore on. 

Drifter: 5
Meadowlark: 1
Chill: 3

Deployment Method

RJ Martin-designed flipper:

You win.  Automatically.

In all seriousness, the flipper here, as I mentioned in the Chill review, is outstanding.  The thumb studs on the Drifter are also very good, which, along with both knives' silky pivot, makes them both a joy to unfurl.  The slow lockback on the Meadowlark coupled with the pinchy thumb hole means that it finishes last.  The Chill just ran away with this one, though because, again, RJ Martin-designed flipper.

Drifter: 3
Meadowlark: 1
Chill: 5

Retention Method

Okay, if you are going to shamelessly pilfer Spyderco's design, one place to definitely not screw around to make things look different is in the clip.  The classic Spyderco spoon-style clip is really quite good.  It is probably the benchmark for excellent.  If you are better than the Spyderco spoon clip, you are in rarified air.  Here the Chill's simple clip is nice, but loses out because of a lack of mounting options.  It is a shame to have a wonderfully ambidextrous flipper and pair with a lefty hating pocket clip.  The Drifter's clip is awfully wide.  It doesn't have any mounting options.  And it is just a bit snaggy in the pocket.  None of the clips are terrible, but some are better than others.    

Drifter: 1
Meadowlark: 5
Chill: 3


Two liner locks and a lockback.  Exotic company this is not.  Lockbacks are slow.  They almost always come with some kind of blade play  (including here).  But they are cheap and easy to make.  Liner locks are the other cheap way to make a lock.  Both are good liner locks, but the Chill's was slightly easier to disengage. 

Drifter: 3
Meadowlark: 1
Chill: 5

Total Points:

Drifter: 38
Meadowlark: 18
Chill: 32

Value Calculations

Prices at BladeHQ as of 4/7/13:

Drifter: $20.95
Meadowlark: $19.25
Chill: $20.95

Points per dollar:

Drifter:  1.81 points for every dollar you spend
Meadowlark: 95 points for every dollar you spend
Chill: 1.53 points for every dollar you spend


This was one of the closest of the Shootouts thus far and for good reason--the Drifter and the Chill are both excellent knives and have the same price.  The Meadowlark is no where in the ballpark, but all three are very good values for the money.  There is no slouch here, just better choices.  To use baseball scout lingo--all three knives have a high floor.

In the end, the difference comes down to, no kidding, the steel and the blade shape.  It is the 8Cr14MoV that put the Drifter ahead of the Chill's 8Cr13MoV.  As weird as that is, it does match up with reality.  My cutting tests the 14 steel does just a smidgen better than the 13.  If it was once or one blade, I would chalk it up to weird variation, but I have now used three blades with 14 steel in my cut tests (the McGinnis Tuition, the SS Drifter and the G10 Drifter) and they all held a better edge than the Chill at each stage in the tests.  At some point there is a enough experience to say that the experience is significant and demonstrative of something.  With three knives and hundreds of cuts in multiple mediums, I think I am there.  14 is better than 13 and that is the difference in this Shootout.  The blade shape is likewise better on the Drifter.  The shorter wider blade gives you a more gradual approach to the cutting bevel allowing for better slicing., you might be saying.  It was only a few points.  Yep.  Six points.  But at this low a price, each point, each design decision and production choice makes a difference.  Six points is important when you have so little money to spend.  But again, this confirms my experience.  The Drifter is a very good knife.  Not for the price, but in general.  CRKT has done a remarkable job with a pittance of cash for a budget.  The Chill is very good, very, very good, but not quite the same.   It is been a long time coming, this Shootout, but after months of testing and using these blades I feel confident in the conclusion above.  There is no doubt in my mind: 


What about the...

I have reviewed quite a few knives that could have been in this Shootout, including the Kershaw OD-2 and the Cold Steel Mini Tuff Lite.  Both are a bit smaller than the smallest knife in this shootout, so they didn't exactly fit, but they are all good budget options.  I guess I'd look at it this way--if I had no hard tasks to do, the OD-2 would be a good competitor to the Drifter.  If I had hard tasks to do, the Mini Tuff Lite would be a good competitor to the Drifter (I tested the Mini Tuff Lite last year doing yardwork including cutting open bags of fertilizer and mulch some in fabric sacks).  But the Drifter, even amongst this competition would still be in the running and probably a little ahead.  It is not as svelte as the OD-2 but it can handle a lot more tasks.  It is not as roughed as the Mini Tuff Lite, but it is a much better slicer (the ricasso on the Mini Tuff Lite was a huge problem).

With these knives thrown in, and using them for general EDC only, the rank would probably be something like this:

1. Drifter
2. OD-2
3. Chill
4. Mini Tuff Lite
5. Meadowlark

It is just a guess, but that seems about right.