Monday, July 29, 2013

Cold Steel Micro Recon Review

In the game of limbo that is finding the right blade length, I have tried everything from a 1.5 inch blade all the way up to a monster, a 4 inch Cold Steel Recon (this was many, many years and knives ago).   It is a tough thing, that exact right proportion is not something I can reel off in my head.  It is a matter of how something feels in the hand.  Right now I'd say the PT CC or the Small Pathfinder are just about perfect.  Right now.

But going down the scale in terms of blade length doesn't really bother me all that much.  I do a lot of utility cutting and you know what, a utility knife (a Stanley for all you Brits) has a cutting edge of about an inch and half.  So when I saw the Cold Steel MICRO Recon, I thought it was worth a look.  After all I really liked the Mini Recon and I was quite smitten with the Mini Tuff Lite, so much so that last year I awarded Cold Steel "Best Year by a Gear Company" my version of the overall best gear company award.  All of these knives eschewed the bigger is better mantra of the old Mall Ninja Cold Steel in favor of more restrained and compact designs all with the very excellent Tri-Ad lock.   I am not a Cold Steel fanboy, but I recognize a turn around when I see one.  This is a company that has risen to meet the ever more vicious competition out there.  Even now, their Warcraft series of fixed blades looks awfully interesting because of the steel, and how cool would it be if the company known (in part) for super rugged knives adopted a high end line of their folders with that most rugged of production steels--CPM 3V?

But the Micro Recon is proof that no one is perfect.  This is a meh knife from a company that seems to either get a very good (though not perfect) score or make stuff so ridiculous I have no interest in it.  The Micro Recon is not Gerber-bad, but in the current marketplace, you need to make something better than the Micro Recon to get noticed.  I am going to lay out why that is the case here.

Here is the product page. The Micro Recon will run you $25.  There is a Tanto version and there are four handle scale colors: pink, green, orange, and black.  I like the colors a lot--they are vibrant and a good change of pace from black everything.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review.   Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Micro Recon, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is my review sample:

IMG_0058

Twitter Review Summary:  Ergonomic disaster saved in part by a great lock and good blade shape.

Design: 0

The hump on the spine of the knife caused all sorts of problems for me.  I couldn't figure out a way to have the knife sit comfortably in my hand, and even though the thing is tiny and has no pocket clip almost every task produced some kind of hotspot.  I get that this knife, or any knife of this size, is going to have some serious handle issues, but comparing the Micro Recon to something like the Spyderco Ladybug, Manbug, or Jester proves to me that you can do tiny and not have a terrible handle.  The problem is so bad that in terms of how this thing would look on a blueprint or in a CAD drawing, I can't give it anything other than a zero.  The hump seems like such an obvious and serious flaw from my perspective.  There is no grip in which this knife is comfortable to use, even for a limited time.  Maybe it works if you have REALLY tiny hands (I can safely assume big mitts don't do better because big mitts always have a hard time with small blades), but I don't see how that is possible.  It was so bad that unlike many flaws, I saw this one as soon as I pulled the knife out the of box.  My first impressions were confirmed again and again by daily use and by other reviewers impressions of this knife.  The Fox Knives/Spyderco SpyFox, OD-2, the Benchmade Benchmite, and all of the above listed Spydercos prove to me that this not a flaw inherent in the super small knife format, just a flaw with this design.  

The ratios are both above average.  This is a tiny blade, so there is not a whole lot of weight.  The blade:weight is 1.81, which is quite good.  The blade:handle is .76, very good.  Note that the blade:handle is helped out a lot by the fact that the pivot portion of the blade actually sticks out of the handle.  I don't think it is an issue, but if you dinged it or dented it, deployment could get screwed up.

IMG_0061

Fit and Finish: 1

Dear Cold Steel,

Please stop using this black paint on your knife blades.  First, very few of us need black blades. Second, because is not PVD or TiN coating and is really just paint, it as actually pretty darn glossy, defeating the purpose of a black blade.  Third, it has horrible wear properties.  Even the lightest uses produce instant flaking:

IMG_4504

Sincerely, Everyday Commentary.

Seriously, I get that the blade coating is supposed to come off.  Over time every coating comes off (I will note here that the ESEE Candiru's coating did not come off during the testing period AT ALL, and it faced more difficult tasks than this guy did because it was a fixed blade).  But this stuff comes off like dandruff.  That's not the biggest deal, more of an annoyance than a fit and finish issue that impacts performance.  The second ding is the handle material.  Faux G10?  Blah.  Why fake something that is so cheap in the first place?  The faux G10 is quite thin and flexes a great deal.  I am not a fan of liners and this flex doesn't make me change my mind, but wow.  The final piece of the less than ideal fit and finish is the lock.  I really, really like the Tri-Ad lock.  It is strong and tough and easy to use, but the lock on the review sample tended to stick quite badly to the point where I had to use another tool to disengage it.  It didn't happen every time, but it happened enough to annoy me.  This knife has a bunch of small niggling issues none of which are fatal, but all of which detract from the knife.

Grip: 0

This is a total and complete failure.  The hump on the spine is very bad, almost always creating a hotspot, but the slippery handle material is also bad.  Again, I know that knives of this size represent a compromise, but this is not just a compromise, it is compromised.  

Carry: 2 

This is a tiny blade, as you can see from the above picture, so it carries very well.  There are no snags or hitches, in part because there is no pocket clip.  The knife comes with a split ring (you know my hatred of split rings; this like a candy bar that COMES with a cavity) as a carry option, but I never used it other than to test things out.  The knife carries slightly worse with the split ring, but it still is a nice slender knife, excellent to drop in your pocket or tuck in your coin pocket.

Steel: 1 

AUS8 is the averagest of average steels.  It gets sharp and is easy to sharpen but it doesn't hold an edge all that well.  I hate black coating on the blade, but the steel is perfectly average.

Blade Shape: 2

Skip the tanto, you'll never, in one million years, use a knife this small to pierce cut ANYTHING.  The drop point is amazingly nice, especially in a knife this size.  For all of the jankiness associated with the humpback whale handle, the blade shape is perfect.  Simple and perfect.  The drop point here is the perfect example of "If it ain't broke don't fix it".

IMG_0059

Grind: 2 

The Micro Recon has a very good hollow grind, like the blade shape this is a don't-mess-with-success success.

Deployment Method: 2

The threaded thumb studs are decent and easily adjustable for lefties or righties.  Like the Tri-Ad lock they are an ingeniously simple innovation and, the better thing, they really, really work.

IMG_0062

They kinda look weird on such a small knife, but they actually do work well.  I'd prefer another kind of opening method, but these thumb studs are very, very good. 

Retention Method: 0

The split ring included is too big.  I hate lanyards, but really the problem is the lack of a pocket clip.  You CAN do a pocket clip on a knife this small, but it is a challenge.  But that is not the only solution.  Some of the smaller AG Russell knives have a bail and that would work here.  The inclusion of a split ring is a concession to the fact that a retention method on this knife is nothing but an afterthought.

Lock: 2 

The Tri-Ad lock's brilliance comes from two things--its strength, which is well documented, and its familarity.   The Tri-Ad lock is just a modified lock back.  The lock back itself is a simple yet effective design.  They have been around for so long that virtually everyone knows how to use them and so by using the lock back as the foundation for a new design means that knowledge is imported over right away.  The Tri-Ad lock shows good stability and is easy to engage and disengage.  This is a very good lock and it is well implemented here, aside from the initial stickiness mentioned above (it went away over time).

Overall Score: 12 out of 20

Overall, this knife is not quite what I would want.  Sure it is cheap (though the OD-2 is cheaper and better), but even at the price it is available for, it is not a good value.  I'd much rather have a Spyderco Ladybug or Jester in this product class.  The problems arise from both the incredibly bad handle shape and the less than impressive fit and finish.  Its nice to see Cold Steel releasing smaller knives, but this one is clearly an afterthought.  If you want something small from Cold Steel opt for the Mini Tuff Lite, its only $6-8 more.  That is a very good blade.


IMG_4354

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:

IMG_0024

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:

IMG_0025

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:

IMG_0016

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.

IMG_0021

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.

IMG_0022

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:

IMG_0017

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.  



Monday, July 22, 2013

Spyderco Southard Review

One thing that I have had to really work on in doing reviews is correcting for and anticipating the hype. A product is previewed, tons and tons of folks love the way it looks, and the hype train pulls out of the station. By the time the product hits, the hype train is traveling at an unstoppable speed. The prerelease hype for the Cryo is one of the reasons why I was so taken aback by the knife. My fear that I negatively and unfairly reacted to that hype is one of the reasons I decided to do a re-review (the score changed only slightly).

I mention this because the hype for the Spyderco Southard was also insanely high. This hype train left the station the minute the video on the Southard was put up on Spydercollector's website. This knife has a lot of really great features, features that, until its release, were not found on any other Spyderco knife. The most important feature was the flipper, though the bearing pivot was a close second. Even now, the Southard stands alone in those two ways in the Spyderco line up. It also debuted a new Carpenter steel, one designed compete with B-U's Elmax, so clearly the showdown was on (there is, of course, a shootout coming between this knife, the Benchmade 300SN, and the ZT560). Spyderco made a bold statement with this knife. The question is whether the hype train got it right. 

Here is the product page for the Spyderco Southard. This is a pricey production knife coming in around $250.  Here is the Edge Observer video overview and here is the Edge Observer's written review. Here is Nutnfancy's video overview.   Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Spyderco Southard if not they are all sold out, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is the Southard I received on loan from a generous reader:

IMG_0007

Twitter Review Summary: This is a weird knife.  Not bad weird.  Just weird.

Design: 2 

This is a weird knife. There are all sorts of amazing features and displays of manufacturing skill right next to some truly boneheaded ergonomic gaffs. It is wildly popular as it has been sold out virtually everywhere for a while and sporadically on and off since its release, but that is to be expected--this is the first Spyderco entry into the Ti flipper framelock arms race.

On the one hand, the flipper is sumptuously designed and implemented. Its gentle shape and perfect size and positioning make this knife a joy to flip. You can flip the knife with no wrist action at all. Excellent. The Ti side of the handle is excellent as well--clean and rounded. But on the other hand there are a few weird things--the humpback whale blade shape is strange though effective, the routed edge on the handle scale allowing for access to the thumb hole (which doesn't work really) is very pokey, the cut outs to allow the lock bar to bend in are pokey, and the pocket clip is bad.  All of these issues are addressed by specific categories below, so I am not going to ding a point here.

The size of the knife is probably one of my favorite things--this is a thick knife but it is not so wide that it is a pain to carry.  The non-functional hole doesn't need much of a hump allowing the blade to really lay in the handle.  The ratios are decent.  The blade:handle is .77.  The blade:weight is .84.  Neither are records.  Both are around average.  Here is a size comparison with the Zippo:

IMG_0008

Here is the knife in my hand (along with the Peak Eiger):

IMG_4381

The funny thing is that if the Benchmade 300SN was so thick in the scales that it looked like a hamburger, I couldn't shake the impression that this knife looked and felt just like a hot dog, with the brown handle scale doing a good bun impression.  

Fit and Finish: 1

Here is something that is definitively un-Spyderco:

IMG_4388

This is how I held the knife when I was flipping it (or one of the ways).  Note where my finger tips fall--right on the lock bar cut outs.  Usually this is no big deal as they are rounded over or on the inside, but here, they aren't they were actually a little sharp.  This is definitively un-Spyderco for two reasons.  First, putting your fingers right over the lock bar cut outs is a something of an ergonomic flaw.  Second, the crude finishing on those cut outs is even bigger flaw.  Both together is just downright shocking from Spyderco, especially on a $250 Spyderco.   The pocket clip is like this as well, but I will leave that for below.

Here is how a great custom maker does it:

IMG_0039

The rounded off edge on the ridges in the lock bar cutout on the EDMW is a great touch and something that could have easily been done here. 

The weird thing is that the fit is superb, even if the finish is not.  Look at how perfectly the overtravel tab was machined into the handle:

IMG_0014

Holy cow that is nice.  There are other touches like that.  Blade centering is insanely perfect.  The lock side is quite nice to the touch other than the cutouts.  And the flipper oh man that flipper.  It is literally the perfect size and shape for a flipper with an excellent polish to it.  It is not so polished as to be slick, but it is finished nicely.

A mixed bag here leads to a score of one.  The cutout problem and the pocket clip problem are just unacceptable from a company like Spyderco on a knife this expensive. 

Grip: 1

This is one category where I have debated between a score 1 and a score of 0.  The G10 is too grippy.  But it is not so bad as to sink the knife, not like the G10 on the Cold Steel Mini Recon.  Its too grippy, but not offensive.  But that is not the real problem.  This is:

IMG_0013

That routed edge on the G10 around the thumb hole is really unpleasant when using the knife.  In a normal forward grip your index finger drapes over the beginning of the router cut on the left side of this picture.  Unfortunately that little router cut creates one hell of a hotspot even in mild "folding knife appropriate" uses.  Unlike the rough G10, that is actual problem.

Then there is this:

IMG_0018

This is allegedly jimping, in the same way that Whitey Bulger is allegedly not guilty.  In both phrases "allegedly" means something like fictitious.  In fact, it actually tucks into the knife BELOW the handle scales, not that it would do much if it were above the handle scales.

These things together mean that the knife should get a zero--two pretty major flaws equal zero, but here is the strange thing: the curved shape of the handle really makes up for the flaws.  This is a knife that seems bent into a perfect ergonomic shape for your hand, another example of this knife getting the big stuff spot on and then missing with easy, small details.  Tough cuts induced no real slippage as the coarse G10 made up for the alleged jimping and the slight banana shape (both because of the thick scales and because of the curved handle) just worked.  That counts a minor redemption here, so the overall score is a 1.    

Carry: 2

The knife tucks into the handle so well that the overall profile, despite the hot dog bun handle slabs, is still quite slender, especially for what is essentially at 3.5 inch knife.  I was impressed at how the knife rode, even in shorts during hikes and running around chasing my little one.  The clip placement is better than that on the ZT 560 and the overall knife is just slimmer.  It carried very, very well for a knife of its size.  Not quite as well as the Manix2 LW, but there is a reason I gave that knife a perfect score. 

Steel: 2

I tried to get the TCC numbers on this steel, CTS 204P (here is the product page for the steel), but Carpenter didn't have them (they did give me the TCC numbers for CTS XHP and BD-1 which are 808 and 566 at ideal hardnesses; see the Manix2 LW review comments for more).  The Elmax comparison is apt, both in terms of its performance and it is recipe.  CTS 204P has 1.9% carbon, Elmax 1.8%.  CTS 204P has 20% Chromium, Elmax 18%.  Even the more esoteric elements are similarly proportioned: vanadium in CTS 204P is 4%, in Elmax it is 3%.  There are strong similarities with Duratech's 20CV and BU's M390 as well.

For all of the quirks and weird finishing touches, this steel is simply awesome.  Like the Elmax on the ZT560 it just cuts and cuts and cuts.  It runs forever without needing a sharpening.  I will be honest and say that I didn't beat on this knife because it was not a review sample or my own property, but in the test cuts I did, whittling, cardboard cutting (CURSE YOU small recycling bin!), and paper, it did exceptionally well.  It also exhibited zero corrosion, but that is not surprising for a steel this advanced.

Blade Shape: 2

Okay, this goes back to the Twitter Review Summary, the blade shape here is just WEIRD.  I am not sure what the small hump is for, and I don't like the look of a blade without a flat portion behind the belly on the cutting edge.  But here is the thing--for as weird as this looks, it cuts like crazy.  I love using this knife for all its quirks.  

IMG_0017

It cuts very well, in part because of the blade shape and in part because of the negative blade angle which presents the cutting edge to the material in a very aggressive way.  I absolutely love the way the blade shape works.

Grind: 2

This is a hollow ground knife, an excellent one at that.  This too makes the knife a very good slicer.  I really like hollow ground blades, especially when they are done well on very hard steels as you can get a really, really thin cutting bevels.  The cutting bevel is nice and even and wide enough to register on sharpeners.  It is not super wide, but not too narrow.  

Deployment Method: 2

At the tail end of the testing period for the Southard I got in a full custom flipper from Charles Gedraitis.  With that in I was able to compare the flipping action on this knife to a knife that has more in common with a high end watch than a knife, at least in terms of its fit and finish.  With a ceiling like that, the differences between a production and custom flipper were clearer.  This does not flip as well as the Gedraitis.

BUT....

That is not the whole story.  The truth is that I have reviewed quite a few production flippers and this is as good as the best of them.  I think the flipping action on the Southard is as good as the flipping action on the ZT 560.  It is better than the flipping action on almost every other knife (though, funny enough, the flipping action on the Kershaw Chill is incredible, its a Martin design, so really what do you expect?).  Having had a representative and large sample I can say with little reservation that no production knife flips better than the Southard.

Why?  Well first there is the size, shape, and finish of the flipper itself.  This is a pull flipper and it works very well.  The bearing pivot also helps.  This is a big blade and flipping requires a careful management of momentum, especially with a large knife.  Here, the bearing pivot makes that easy.  Next, there is the excellent, point perfect detent.  The detent is more than strong enough to keep the blade in the handle when it is shaken, but not so strong as to stop even the most lazy flip attempts.  All of this works together to make the Southard a gold medalist in flipping.

The difference between the custom flipper and this knife is not subtle though.  In production flippers there is this sense of wiggle.  You push on the flipper and the knife moves a little in the detent and then boom it explodes.  In my Gedraitis custom the flipping action is more of a zero-sum event--pressure on the flipper does nothing at all to the blade until the critical point and then it is an effortless, seemingly friction-free glide of movement.  That amount of tuning is something that is simply not feasible in a production knife and so, while the Southard is great, it is not in that stratospheric echelon of very good custom flippers.  The Gedraitis flips better than quite a few customs I have handled, so the comparison is not exactly fair but I think it is interesting and informative, so I included it in this review.  

Retention Method: 1

This clip is pokey to no end.  I am not the only person to mention this.  It also cannot be reversed or switched to the pivot end.  It creates hotspots in use as well.  Blah.

IMG_0016

But it does do a good job of holding the knife in place, much better than the ZT 560's clip, for example.  I don't mind the lack of deep carry either, but the pokey point is again another small detail that doesn't match up with what Spyderco normally does. 

Lock: 2

Its a framelock.  Its a good framelock with a clever and well-made overtravel prevention device.  At this point framelocks are just passe.  The lock engages and disengages easily.  It is quite stable.  It is an excellent lock.    

Overall score: 17 out of 20

The devil might not be in the details, but the last three points of a perfect score certainly are.  This is a very, very good knife.  It is not a perfect knife though and the odd thing about it is the places where it falls down are not the places where Spyderco's usually fail.  Here the problems are small ergonomic details, something Spyderco is renowned for.  The mistakes here are frustrating because the knife overall is wonderful.  The steel rocks, the flipper is amazing, but the tiny errors are annoying.  Its like a fumble on the 1 yard line in a kickoff return.  In the end, the best I can say is that this is a weird knife.  Very good and inexplicably off at the same time.  There is a reason why this knife is one of the hottest mod platforms for custom knife pimpers right now--lots of good bones with little things that can be corrected.

IMG_4382

High End Production Flipper Shootout Coming between this, the ZT560, and the 300SN.  Stay tuned.

Friday, July 19, 2013

EDC Primer: Minimalism or What EDC folks can learn from Ultralight Backpackers

Have you ever looked at the packing list for some serious ultralight backpackers?  I am not talking about the folks that buy ultralight gear, but the folks that MAKE THEIR OWN.  Here is a modest 3-day pack, not even an extreme one.  But the thing all of these packs have in common, aside from shedding weight, is the idea that they only carry what they use or absolutely need.  There is very little "just in case" stuff.  I have railed against this before, but here is where I will lay out the whole argument--the rather have it and not need it approach is TERRIBLE.  It is expensive.  It is cumbersome.  It makes you look like a weirdo (because you ARE a weirdo).  And it doesn't work.

On the weekend my EDC is down to a few things: my iPhone, a knife, a light, and a wallet.  That's it.  If I am doing a project, I will swap out the knife for my Skeletool CX.  Rarely do I carry more than that, and when I do, it is always a water bottle.  If I am going on a day hike, it is usually that plus a walking stick (little guys on the shoulders wreak havoc on your sense of balance).  Notice, no watch, no pen, no pack of any kind.  When I am at work I will usually scale up and include those things, but the pack is really my Tom Bihn Cadet briefcase.  I carry my keys, too, of course, but nowadays the keys are pretty spare, having no tools on them whatsoever and being housed in the tiniest of set ups--a BladeKey (the 3D printed production prototype is still going strong), a Nite-Eyes 1/2 Steel S-biner (no need to fret about the gate, this thing is SNUG), and my car key/fob (which is all one piece).  Total weight is rarely over a pound and that is usually when I am testing something.  Recently it has been hot and so I go with the ultralight rendition:

Al Mark Hawk Ultralight (.96 ounces)
Steve Ku 40DD (.7 ounces with battery)
Big Skinny Wallet (2.5 ounces)
iPhone (4.8 ounces)
Blade Key Keychain (1.8 ounces)


In that configuration my weekend EDC is something like 11 ounces.

I have a three year old.  He is demanding.  He wants to run jump climb crawl roll all of the time.  I want to be able to do these things with him.  I don't want to have unload gear like Mad Max at the entrance to Barter Town before I play with him.  I want to focus on doing stuff, working on projects around the house, going on hikes, going for bike rides, wrestling with my son in the front yard.  None of these things requires a ton of gear or a ton of weight.

Ultralight backpackers have a thing for gear, sure, but the gear is in service to experiences.  That is why we get this stuff--so we can go do things and still be covered, still be ready for something if it comes up.  The gear is not the end in and of itself; experiences are.  The further I get away from that the more miserable I am.  When I am in that mood the next package that arrives at my door reminds me of the gluttony of modern western living more than it makes me excited for what's inside.  Don't get me wrong, I like gear.  I spend a lot of time thinking about it and writing about it.  But the minute the obsession with gear takes over from doing things with the gear, well then, I quit.  I am selling everything and spending the money on cotton candy (which is the most frivolous thing I could think of off the top of my head).

The next time you look at your "load out" think about what you do with it.  People always say things like "this knife is good for everyday tasks like cutting open packages and light food preparation" on YouTube reviews.  When was the last time you did something that necessitated a 4 inch folding knife?  Sure you might do things other than just cut open packages and light food prep, but virtually nothing I do requires a 4 inch folding knife.  If I need something that big, I'd rather use my RD-7.  Its tougher and more comfortable to use.  Go back and really think about what you do with your gear and why you bought it.  What did you want to do with it?  Are you doing that?  If not, why not?  And if there is no good reason to do that thing, there is no good reason to carry that piece of gear.

Ultralight folks can take things to extremes, sawing off the handles of plastic toothbrushes to save .1 ounce, but that fanaticism is in service to a higher good--the cherishing of experiences.  The lack of weight makes those experiences MORE enjoyable, not less.  Your EDC should be the same way.

Leave that fucking fanny pack at home. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Spyderco Rock Review

As someone that writes a blog on EDC gear, fixed blade knives rarely occupy my focus, but every once in a while I hanker for a big ole slab of steel. Fortunately, the kind folks at Blade HQ were good enough to accommodate me and send me a Spyderco Rock, designed by Ed Schempp. You and I both get that fixed blade itch and a week or two later, once the slab o' steel arrives, we are outside swingin' and choppin' with gusto. I will come clean and tell you that I do, in part, imagine myself as Indiana Jones making his way through the Amazon jungle to the mouth of a cave--you know, the one with the boulder in it. 

The Rock is designed by Ed Schempp, an in-house Spyderco designer. Schempp's style is one of curve and exotic flair. He is the man behind many of the Spyderco Ethnic series knives. His Persian and Mini Persian are favorites among the Spyderco cognoscenti. He likes post-pivot choils and negative handle angles (the handle's spine is below the spine of the blade). All of these things come together brilliantly in the Rock. It is part American chopper, part khukri. It has the negative handle angle and the late choil of his folders. And, like all Schempp designs, it is truly wonderful in the hand. 

Here is the Rock's product page. There are two versions: the Rock Salt H1 version and the cheaper VG-10, which is the model I reviewed. The VG-10 version is cheaper running around $150, while the H1 sold for more when it was in production. Here is a written review of the Rock, albeit the Salt addition.  Here is a video review.  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Spyderco Rock, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is my review sample:

IMG_0094

Design: 2

The Schempp style is really an ergo-first sensibility that is disguised as lots of curves. Looking at Schempp's essential touches and those of Ken Onion you might not be able to tell the difference between the two, but years of using designs by both have shown me that while Onion is happy when aesthetics and ergonomics coincide, such as in the wonderfully sleek Swindle, Schempp is all ergos, all the time. He just happens to be SO good at designing knives and tools that they look as good as they function. The Rock is this in spades.

Here is the Rock next to a Zippo:

IMG_0098

Its a big knife.

Clearly an attempt by Spyderco to make a chopping knife with a twist, its big blade (6.75 inches) and aggressive approach to material, thanks to the khukri shape, make it a formidable chopper. Machetes and choppers occupy a spectrum, with long, thin, forward-leaning machetes on one end and thick, balanced choppers on the other end. The Rock is dead center on that spectrum, with a blade steel that is 3/16" thick. It is not as thick as the premiere ax replacement blades from Cold Steel, the Trail Master and Recon Scout, both of which come in at 5/16", but it is not as thin as the vast majority of machete tools available, all of which hover around 1/8" thick. This compromise thickness has its advantages--the Rock is much easier on the arm and shoulder--and its disadvantages--the lack of thick blade stock lessens the wedge physics a chopper uses to split and baton wood. Overall, I think I like the compromise, but you need to be aware up front: this is not a knife that can't easily pop apart wood in batonning. Compared to my 1/4" thick RD-7, the Rock is a slow and painful batonning knife. It can do it, but it is not at its best during this task. But if you just need something to fell saplings and clear brush, more machete work, the Rock is perfect in this role. It is more confidence inspiring than a spring steel machete and lighter and more maneuverable than a pure chopper. 

Fit and Finish: 2 

The sheath, the handle, and clip are all quite nice, but the blade itself is a splendor to behold. All of the grind lines are crisp and the satin finish is among the nicest I have ever seen.

IMG_0102

This is a pricey fixed blade, but a lot of that cost went into making a very good looking and very nicely finished tool. 

Handle Design: 2

Schempp's design chops and ergos first approach is seen best in his handles. Even when limited by the form, such as in a folding knife of a particular style (like his Persian), he makes knives that sing in the hand in multiple positions. The Rock is no different, except here he is free to do virtually anything he wants. The result is a fixed blade that feels better in the hand than just about anything else I have used. The handle is good in a full swing grip, when you use the forward choil, or in a reverse grip. It is thin for a fixed blade handle and that thinness makes for a great knife in your hand. It is convex and checkered with the normal Spyderco pattern and all of this is almost seamlessly mated to the full tang steel underneath the scales. Truly great, probably the best part of this very good knife.

Steel: 2

I am not a huge fan of VG-10 in folders, but in choppers it seems like a very good steel. The 5160 I have in the RD-7 is good but it has a tendency to roll and chip (odd combination, I know). It is hardened to 54-56 HRc. The VG-10 on the Rock hits a bit higher, as Spyderco's VG-10 is typically between 57-59 HRc. But VG-10 is still a relatively soft steel. In the high shock application of a chopper it is really quite good. After batonning oak it still had a good utility edge, not hair shaving, but very good. After two, it was done. In between though, I did tons of cutting, using the Rock around the house for yard work (oh fuck yeah, I was THAT guy). Despite the loss of an edge, there were no chips or rolls to speak of really. It is superb as a fixed blade steel, better than the RD-7's 5160 by a wide margin. 

The VG-10 version is probably the one I would opt for if both were available (the H1 Rock is out of production). I say this for two reasons. First, I have no need for the more expensive rust free steel. VG-10 is plenty corrosion resistant for my needs. Second, H1, while impervious to the elements, holds an edge roughly as well as chalkboard chalk. For that reason as well, I'd opt for the VG-10 version. It is nice to know that the H1 version is out there if you are seafaring bloke and need it. 

Blade Shape: 1 

Okay, okay the blade shape is fine, great actually, when cutting. It is sharpening that is a challenge. I absolutely HATE recurves, but as a chopper the recurve is really great. It brings the blade to the material at an aggressive and constantly changing angle. But trying to get this big blade over the stones on the Sharpmaker with the recurve, well, let's just say it was not fun. There are ways to put an aggressive angle on the blade without using a recurve, a negative angle on the handle, for example. The recurve is nice, just not worth the improvement in cutting performance when compared to the hassle of sharpening. 

Grind: 2

As with the rest of the knife, the grind was immaculate. The grind lines were clean and wobble free. The cutting bevel was wide, but not too wide. The main grind is a very good hollow grind and the top swedge is a big weight saver. The only knock here, and it is a small one, is that the swedge, while not sharp, is pointed making batonning a bit of a challenge. The hammer wood is often pulpy by the time you make it through the main piece. Overall, very good. 

Sheath Carry: 1

I love the sheath's shape and size. It is very well made.

IMG_0091

But the attachment point is TOO low. The handle of the Rock was well past my elbow when the sheath was attached to my belt. I am sure I could fidget with it, but this is a real issue. Running or fast, flexible movement is all but impossible. This is not a knife you can carry on your hip on a long hike and given what fixed blades are often used for, this is an issue. A custom sheath is an option, of course, but for this price, you'd rightfully expect a little better. 

Sheath Accessibility: 2

This is not like a custom sheath, the ones that have death grip on a blade. There is a little rattle, but not much. The knife is REALLY in there with nothing but the worse snag capable of taking it out on accident. Running through bush did not dislodge the knife. However, a quick, confident tug by your hand pops the knife out with a single clean jerk. Probably as good as you can get in a production sheath--a great balance between retention and removal.

Usability: 2

I did some serious chopping with the Rock, limbs of trees, batonning, brush clearing and the like. The knife worked better than my RD-7 in part because it was lighter and better balanced and in part because the handle is so expertly crafted. No hotspots developed even under very heavy use (removing a ten foot tall rhododendron bush from my backyard).

IMG_4373

At some point I probably should have used a saw, but no matter what I did the Rock worked very well. Any heavy blade will give rise to shoulder fatigue after a while and the Rock is no different. The mark of a fixed blade with high usability is that it takes longer than normal to get there. With that as the benchmark, the Rock performed excellently.

Durability: 2

There was nothing that caused me to panic when using the Rock. Even the most forceful strikes during batonning proved no match. The handle scales never budged either in my hand or on the knife. The sheath laughed off blows and scraps. And the 3/16" thick VG-10 handled everything very, very well. I was concerned that such a thin blade stock, relatively speaking, wouldn't hold up, but it was fine. You can get by with 3/16" in a chopper provided you are aware that it will make batonning more work. Its not an issue of ruggedness though. Without the more steeply angled wedge driving the wood apart I had to pound longer and harder (insert joke here) than I would with the thicker stock of the RD-7. But never did I feel like I would break the blade. The Rock is just that--a rock of ruggedness, thanks in large part to the wise use of VG-10 and the excellent blade shape (for chopping at least).

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

This is a better knife than the RD-7. The steel is nicer, especially because coated fixed blades ALWAYS look like garbage after use. The blade shape is very good. The stock is a little thin, making some ultra-heavy duty tasks more difficult, but for the most part, it worked very well. The handle shape, classic Schempp in style, is a wonder to behold. I think a very focused chopper design might incorporate a lot of the good features of the Rock, retaining the excellent balance and control, and adding that final element that makes something the perfect chopper--unadulterated mass. Between the RD-7 and the Rock, there is no question which is better. The sheath is a meh largely because of where the clip is positioned, but that is a small knock. I am looking for a chopper from the Falkniven, the Busse stable, and the new Cold Steel Warcraft fixed blade line (Cold Steel fixed blade beefiness, CPM 3V steel, and sculpted G-10 handles, no kraton crap...sounds good, but they only have a Tanto available right now) to find out what the absolute high end of a the production chopper world looks like, but until then, and for under $150 the Rock is an excellent choice. The Rock is also an excellent choice if you want a big fixed blade but can’t justify buying a pure chopper. It is maneuverable enough to work as something less than a chopper, but it can be pressed into that role with only minor issues.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Trolling for Hate: The Pernicious Kevin John

I have been wanting to write about the rampant counterfeiting that is going on in the gear world right now, but until this piece I really had no formulated opinion other than: its bad.  But I think the issue has a little more nuance to it than that.  I am well aware that this opinion might cause some push back, I think I can defend this position.  And if I can't I'll say so in a future post.  

If you have Googled "Hinderer XM-18" or "Strider PT" in the last three months or so you probably saw the name "Kevin John". Kevin John is synonymous with forgery. The knives produced and sold under the name Kevin John are counterfeit knives. They look like the originals, they are designed to mimic the originals, they bear intellectual property marks of the originals, but they are not authorized by the makers of the originals. They are clearly nothing more than blatant theft. Furthermore like all counterfeit knives they harm the originals.

Counterfeits are a very particular kind of copy. First there is the design homage, where the new item echos the old, like the C7 Corvette shadowing the design lines of older models.  Here is the C7:


And here is the old Stingray:


Then there is the reproduction, something like a Windsor chair made in the style of 18th century makers. A copy, no doubt, but one designed to pay respects to a great design and, of course, not something copyrighted or otherwise protected by intellectual property laws. Then there are the clones, like the San Ren Mu 710, a knife that looks like a Sebenza but has lesser fit and finish and
materials.

San Ren Mu 710 and the Sebenza:

 
It gets closer to the straight rip off, but it does not purport to be the original, only a lookalike, the Mr. Pibb to Sebenza's Dr. Pepper (mmmm...Dr. Pepper; funny enough, Dr. Pepper is even a rip off of the true Dr. Pepper, Dublin Dr. Pepper, I HIGHLY recommend you try some if you can, and I hate soda). Then there is the most insidious form of copying--the counterfeit. It looks exactly like the original, and even bears the trademarks of the original, but it is not. 

In the case of Kevin John stuff, the seem to be a step above the run of the mill counterfeits. They claim to use a good steel, mostly D2. They appear to have decent fit and finish. And they fastidiously copy the original down to the finest details. These are high end counterfeits, but counterfeits nonetheless.

In reality counterfeits do not hurt the original brands like most people think. Studies in economics and IP law have shown that the harm is not a reduction in sales because people are buying the cheap knock offs, but because people are refraining from buying the expensive originals. In other words, the harm from counterfeits doesn't come from the budget buyer looking to get a "Strider" for $99. Those people would, in all likelihood, never buy a Strider if they only want to spend $99 AND are willing to buy a clearly illegal, black market copy.  Instead, the REAL harm to brands from counterfeits in situations like this is that folks that ARE willing to shell out of the $300 for a real Strider PT are less willing to do so because they are afraid of paying for a real PT and getting a fake.

This sort of problem not only impacts the makers of the real knives, it impacts their distributors. Only the most established distributors, ones with lots and lots of history or big budget sites, are seen as being trustworthy enough to carry the real thing. The up and coming distributors, the ones that are trying to make a name for themselves by carrying upgraded items like Strider knives aren't seen by the consumer as being a safe bet to get the real thing. This means these up and comers suffer the loss of sales and confidence by the consumer, all but guaranteeing them to remain in their second tier status.

Counterfeiting causes other problems as well. High end makers are less likely to make new designs for fear that they lose money when that design is inevitably counterfeited. Additionally, like a single drop of ink in a glass of water, counterfeits don't just hurt high end brands, eventually it becomes profitable enough to counterfeit mid tier stuff like Spyderco Delicas and then the problem becomes rampant. If Delicas are being counterfeited in large numbers, then essentially no knife or light is safe and reliable. We aren't there yet, but things could go in that direction soon. Counterfeits are brutally bad for the entire industry and if there is no profit for the industry there are no products for us.

But this is not a simple argument of counterfeits are bad. Some of the companies involved bear a small percentage of the responsibility for rampant counterfeiting because of radically unmet market demand. In a market where demand is high and the authentic product is simply not being sold, counterfeiters thrive. For example, it is hard for Hinderer to say that counterfeits are preventing buyers from purchasing REAL XM-18s because you can't buy them. There is really no direct from Hinderer or a distributor alternative--you either pay 300% mark ups on the secondary market (which of course does not benefit Hinderer) or you buy a counterfeit. Everyone other than the LEO/MIL/EMS folks out there, market is out of luck. Counterfeits probably do take away from the market for Hinderer's licensed goods, like the Kershaw Cryo and Thermite or the ZT56x series, but there is no way that counterfeits hurt the market for a real XM-18 because, in essence, there is no market for these knives.

Strider is a little better, but not much. The history of the Strider PT is one of constant QC problems, issues with fit and finish or tang geometry or pivot construction have resulted in new iterations on a regular and unannounced basis.  Right now the Strider PT is almost (I snagged one from Plaza Cutlery very recently, one of three or five) entirely out of production. Given this uneven product quality and availability, counterfeits again thrive. It is odd that every other product on the Strider webpage is readily available but the PT, one of the more common counterfeits, is not. In a market without production, its almost impossible to avoid counterfeiting. The demand is certainly there, but again, the products are not.

The Sebenza knockoffs seem to be a counter point to my argument, but I think they are a special exception.  The Sebenza has passed into hallowed territory--it is the common definition of ultra luxe knife and has been for some time.  Even folks that have a scant or passing interest in knives, know about the Sebenza and so while there are counterfeits out there AND there is lots of product on the market, I think the counterfeits fall into the "Rolex" and Gucci class of counterfeits--intellectual property pirates just capitalizing on the most famous product in a given market.  It seems to me that we have had Sebenza counterfeits for so long and supply has been there that makers of the counterfeits aren't really benefiting from production shortages or unavailable products.  It is, for some reason, less opportunistic in the case of the Sebenza than it is the case of the PT and XM-18 counterfeits.  I am not sure I am completely right here, but that is what I think is going on.  Of course we will never know for sure because the counterfeiters are about as likely to open up their books as they are to donate to a charity.  

Kevin John or whatever company is behind these knock offs are hurting the knife business as a whole and consumers of high end stuff in particular. But these blades only exist and are as readily available as they are because the real stuff is just not available. Supply and demand. It is an old lesson that for whatever reason some makers haven't learned. When there is a gap between supply and demand crazy things happen, including high-end counterfeits. People should NEVER buy these blade, but makers also bear some responsibility here. Make this stuff. We will buy it. Counterfeits prove there is a market for these things, so it is time to meet that demand.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Strider PT CC Review

 
From that silhouette alone you know what knife this review is about, or at least which brand (provided you ignored the title of the post). That profile is famous among knife knuts and for good reason. It is the profile of one of the most expensive, controversial, and storied production knives in modern times. From the price, to the fit and finish, to the maker--nothing about Strider is without controversy.

Let's get the obvious and painful stuff out of the way: there is good evidence that Mick Strider has had legal problems. Here is a summary. Folks work very hard to keep that link at the top of the Google results for "Mick Strider." If true, the things represent a serious lapse in judgment. They are especially painful to most folks that care about gear as they seem to tarnish the reputation of the US military, or, in the least, borrow it without permission. But here is the thing--everyone makes mistakes. It is what you do after the mistake that matters. After his mistake or mistakes Mick Strider has made some fucking awesome knives. If you can't get past this issue, I totally understand and I can readily see how people can't, but I can and if you can too, keep reading.

Here (USN log in required) is a comprehensive (and I mean COMPREHENSIVE) overview of the entire Strider folder line, current and out of production models. There are five main folders in the Strider line up: the beastly SMF, the medium (but still large) SnG, the diminutive PT, the SJ, and the SJ Mini. There are a few knives that pop up into production every once in a while and there are many different flame patterns, steels, blade shapes, handle materials and textures, and a bevy of custom versions. Additionally, the SnG and the PT come in clipless models with convex handle scales. These are the Concealed Carry models. This is a review of the PT CC.

The PT was a model that many Strider fans were not thrilled with from the beginning. It did not fit their idea of what a Strider folder was, in large part because it was too small. Striders were beast blades, not pocket trinkets. But over time folks warmed up to an Strider-shaped knife that was eminently pocketable. But there were problems with the pivot screw and the lock face geometry. Time and again the PT would go out of production and come back with a tweak. This is not a bad thing. It is a testament to Strider's commitment to getting things right. Would you prefer they do nothing and let a slightly substandard product leave their production facilities for sale? But it did make buying one a challenge. One other thing that made finding a PT vexing was their tendency to produce only PT or PT CC versions at one time. Every time I though I could tolerate the roughly handle scales of the PT model, the CC was the only thing available and vice versa. Finally, I decided to bite the bullet, having handled a PT CC at a recent knife show and falling under its thrall immediately. About a month and half ago a small package arrived with my PT CC, a Ranger Green model. It has been my most carried knife ever since (even more than the Dragonfly). This, my friends, is one hell of a blade.

Here is the product page.  There is a great deal of price uniformity.  New PTs of either variety cost $300. Here is a written review. Here is a video review.   Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Strider PT, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link (they come in small waves so they may not be in at Blade HQ when this review goes live):

Blade HQ

Finally, here is my beloved PT CC:

IMG_0058

Twitter Review Summary: Perfectly sized, sumptuously finished, and cuts for an eternity--an ideal EDC with one flaw...

Design: 2

The ratios are above average to very good.  The blade:handle is .73 (much worse if you subtract the choil, but I actually prefer a choil as it makes the cutting edge more useful than simply adding length).  The blade:weight is 1.15 (again worse if you are looking at just cutting edge).  These are not all time greats, but the blade:weight is quite good.  The blade:handle is probably around average (one day I am going to go back and calculate all of the data so I know what average is). 

Here is the PT CC up next to the Zippo a.k.a. the common object used for size comparisons. 

IMG_0054

Here is the PT CC in my medium sized hands:

IMG_0067

Fit and Finish: 2

If you watch DarkChild's review (the link above) for the PT you are left with this impression that this is an overpriced undercooked blade. Warnings like this one confirm that reputation. Undaunted, I ordered one anyway and what arrived was simply put the finest finished knife and perhaps piece of gear I have ever handled. Only the McGizmo Haiku, the Muyshondt Aeon, and the Al Mar Ultralight Hawk are in the same league. Even the vaunted Sebenza is not QUITE the polished beauty that the PT CC is. It starts with the blade, of course. There is a small angled cant to the knife when the blade is open giving the edge an aggressive posture towards the cutting material. The edge and grind are spectacular, more on that below, but the stonewash is like nothing I have ever seen. It is glorious, almost jewel like.

IMG_0062


The convex handles are nicely shaped and fall into the hand perfectly during use. The entire knife has a buffed feel to it, as if it has been used for a decade and then refinished to bring the materials back to a high level of polish. The G10 is smooth, not as smooth as a silken G10 on the de Coene Hybrid, but pretty darn nice. The jimping is smooth in on direction, but grippy in the other. The lock is well made, but more that below. Perhaps Strider has gotten better at QC or perhaps the CC lines are fussed over more. Whatever the answer, there is no reasonable basis to complain about fit and finish on this knife. It is as good as I have seen on a production blade.

Grip: 2

This is, folks, why that silhouette is so well-known. These knives, from the biggest SMF to this, the smallest PT, simply melt in your hand. The choil is excellent, allowing for excellent control of the cutting edge, and the rest of the knife handle fills your hand. The jimping on the knife is quite good and well-placed. Just letting this knife rest, in place, across your fingers tells you how well designed it is. Every single cut and curve, every straight line and run of jimping is in service to the act of cutting. This knife is among my favorite folders in the hand, and despite its diminutive size, it allows for a comfy four finger grip.

Carry: 2

The PT CC's light weight and curved shape go a long way in making this a very pocketable knife.  One thing that seems like a small touch but really puts this knife over the time in terms of carry, is the thoroughly smoothed out and polished feel.  It is as if this knife has been carried and handled everyday for a decade, gaining the softened edges and warmth that regular use provides.  This knife has Atwood's famous "buttered" edges on virtually every surface.  All of this makes for a glorious, pocket-friendly blade.

Steel: 2

Ah...S35VN.  I really do like this stuff, this being the fourth knife I have reviewed with Crucible's next-gen EDC steel.  It holds an edge very well.  It is not impossible to sharpen.  It resists all forms of corrosion that you'd encounter during normal wear and use.  The standard cutting test tasks--push cutting paper and cardboard and whittling wood--were very easy here.  The knife didn't come insanely sharp out of the box, but the edge held up well over a long month of cutting.  Additionally because of the thick blade stock, it was more durable than a knife of this size would normally be.

Blade Shape: 2

That blade shape...oh...that blade shape.  It is the classic spear point Strider and though they have branched out significantly from this original shape it is because of a desire to experiment, not any problems they incurred.  This is perhaps, my favorite all time blade shape, better than the Sebenza's clip point because the tip is sturdier.

Behold, the classic:

IMG_0065

Also I know a lot of people grumble about the cutting edge consuming choil but the reality is the control it gives you over the blade is well worth the trade off.  Every roll in which you could reasonable use this knife, the choil is worth the real estate.

Grind: 2

The grind is a virtually full flat grind.  That is pretty awesome.  The cutting bevel is quite well done.  No complaints there.  But the star here is the ricasso.  Really, you might be asking, the friggin' ricasso?  Yes, the ricasso.  How many shit ricassos have you seen?  Even on expensive knives?  Tons.  How many on Spyderco knives?  Tons.  Yet here, it works.  Not only does it prevent your finger from getting sliced if it moves forward and out of the choil, it makes sharpening the ENTIRE cutting edge a dream.  

Deployment Method: 2

I GUESS you could the thumb studs, if you really, really had to, but the best bet for ideal performance is the oval thumb hole.  The positioning is just right (hitting close to the Spyderco magic number of 1.1 inches, I get something just over 1 inch here).  

IMG_0056

The hole is cut sharply enough to grab the fat pad on your thumb (who you callin' fat?).  And the pivot flows like a jeweled movement on a watch.  This isn't the fastest set up in the world, but it is a very, very good one.  

Retention Method: 0

No clip.  So sad.  I'll fix that.  Oh yeah, I hate lanyards.   

Lock: 2

Look at that, just look AT THAT:

IMG_0060

After some fidgeting, Strider got it right.  The angled face and angled tang meet up in perfect unison and the result is a strong, stable lock, but one that disengages quickly when you mean to do so.  Also, the jimping on the lock bar aids in disengagement. 

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

This is about as good as you can get for an EDC knife. I like it better than my Sebenza and at least as much as the Dragonfly.  It is a superior tool, with exalted fit and finish. I just miss having a pocket clip. As much as I tried, I couldn't get around not having one, and so I decided to have one made. See here for more details. This knife is just better than the normal PTs I have handled. There are so many little touches that make it insanely great. I love this knife.  If this particular PT CC is an example of the entire line, Striders are, in my opinion, worth they money and earn their reputation. This is a great pocket knife.

The cost is something that warrants its own special comment.  Andrew often points out on the podcast that he is not sure why these knives are so expensive.  S35VN is a great steel, but it is not exactly Damascus or SM100.  The framelock is well made, but so are many framelocks on cheaper knives, such as the ZT560, and it is not often that the ZT560 is the cheaper knife in a discussion.  What gives?  What makes this tiny blade worth $300?  First, like the Sebenza, it does a lot of things very, very well.  It has thicker than normal steel for a blade of this size, meaning that it can cut and pry more than you'd expect for a 2.75 inch blade.  The blade shape is quite nice and very useful.  The fit and finish is superb.  There is just very little this knife does poorly.  It is an all-around performer.  But for me the thing that sets this apart from other knives, even the Sebenza, is the ergonomics.  Let's be honest--Spyderco schools the rest of the cutlery world on ergonomics.  Very rarely do knives beat the Spyderco of the same size and price.  Its their thing (and a good thing to specialize in).  But with the Strider, I think I have found a knife that has the fit and finish of a Sebenza (or maybe a little more) with the ergonomics of a Spyderco (or maybe a little more).

At this point, I have reviewed so many things and I have had so many knives pass through my hands that I don't really have any buyer's attachment, even to a $300 blade.  If it stunk I would say so, but here, it doesn't.  I really, really like the PT CC.  It is a great but imperfect EDC knife.  It is worth the hassle of tracking it down.  

Update: 17 out of 20, 1 point off for grind.

Over the years I have come to realize that the grind on this knife is just too thick.  The problem with the blade, made evident by the use of things like the Indian River Jack, is that the blade is just monstrously thick behind the cutting edge.  That final cutting bevel grind is so acute in large part because of the stock's thickness that the knife cut poorly in places where slicing was required.  It is hardly a shock to say this, but the Strider is better for hard use tasks, and given the size of the PT and my needs, that combination--small but pry capable--never came up.  Even compared to the also port stock of the Techno, the Strider wasn't a great cutter, and, in the end, that is why you own a knife.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

CATRA's TCC Numbers and Why They Matter

Andrew of Edge Observer called it "Bro Science" on the podcast, Episode 8, for those wanting to track it down, and that term is spot on.  Testing knives, evaluating their cutting abilities and resistance to damage or failure, is nothing like real science.  Instead it is guys in their backyards trying to break shit.  I love that.  Hell, roughly 50% of the allure of the Slingshot Channel is watching stuff go boom (you've never heard of the Slingshot Channel?  For shame, it is part Mr. Wizard and part Demolition Derby).  What exactly is a spine whack supposed to simulate?  What real world use is it an approximation for?  And why do I need a fixed blade that can be bent into a horse shoe?  What does that prove?  All of these tests are distinctly unscientific.

The hallmark of science, the scientific method, has very little to do with what is happening here.  There are no hypotheses being tested, no reliable and repeatable methods, and no systematic documentation or consistent measurements.  Sharpness comes down to cutting paper or blue jeans stuffed with sides of beef.  Durability comes down to being the last to break.  And the problem is, even if that particular knife did okay, because it is only one of hudreds or thousands in a production run there is no way to generalize its performance to the entire group (this is the small sample size problem you here so much about around election time and the beginning of the baseball season). 

This is not to say that it is IMPOSSIBLE to use scientific methods to evaluate knives.  It is.  Folks do it all the time.  They measure hardness in a scientific way using the Rockwell Scale.  And they measure sharpness and edge holding abilities.  We just don't have access to this last kind of information.  Virtually all of the major cutlery companies own or rent time on something called a "CATRA machine".  Here is more information.

The CATRA machine is a pretty ingenious device, in part because it is so simple.  First there is a mechanism that holds a knife.  Then there is a mechanism that hold the cutting medium (usually pieces of silica impregnated paper).  These two things are brought together and the knife's blade is drawn against the medium.  The machine controls the draw cuts allowing for incredibly precise slices.  These draw cuts are repeated again and again until the machine has performed 60 cuts.  Once this is complete, the machine counts the number of pieces of the medium that were cut in the 60 draw cuts.  The total is tallied and referred to as the Total Card Count or TCC.  A high TCC number correlates very well with good edge retention and high sharpness.  A low TCC number correlates very well with poor edge retention and low sharpness.  Here is a video of the machine in operation:



There are some quirks that can throw the numbers off, such as the use of ultra high hardness surface treatments (TiNC coatings, for example) and the organization of carbides, but generally the CATRA machine tells you how hard a knife's steel is and how well it cuts.  This, it seems to me, would be incredibly useful information, but we don't have it.

For reasons I cannot understand the cutlery industry has been very reticent to release this information. Spyderco, has, in the past released, TCC numbers, though they do not do this as much as they used to.  Bohler Uddeholm has released TCC numbers for their steels.  Global Knives, a kitchen knife company, has released TCC numbers, as has Cutco, another kitchen knife company.   The fact remains, however, that a majority of companies don't.  The numbers we have are either cobbled together from information from the past, leaks from companies, or tests done by knife magazines.  Here is the most comprehensive list of TCC numbers on the web, thanks to Cliff Stamp.   For more on Cliff's take on CATRA and TCC numbers, see Episode 9 of the podcast.

First, the numbers themselves are fascinating because, unlike the B-U list, these are steels as they are implemented by knife companies on the knives we buy, not theoretical numbers on steels under perfect conditions.  Second, they show that hardening and heat treat really matter.  Note the difference between Elmax hardened to 62 HRc (TCC of 959) and Elmax hardened to 60 HRc (TCC of 762).  Third, it is interesting to see how super-hyped super steels fare.  Steel junkies and numbers folks, rejoice, there is a lot of data here.

S30V doesn't look all that different from 440C when it is implemented by Spyderco or tested from the Dozier/Knives Illustrated sample.  Of course, hardness and edge retention are only one set of benefits for S30V, but it does make a point--steel performance is highly variable.  Also, take a look at the numbers for D2, an oldie but goodie steel and a favorite of custom makers just starting out.  The TCC of 666 at an HRc of 61 is awesome.  Not only is it quite easy to get D2 into that hardness range, but the cutting performance once you get there is great, on par with many newer, supposed super steels.  M390 and M4 really do seem to be worth the extra cost.  I was surprised at ZDP-189's performance, it was lower than I expected, but again we have little information about the sample used.  In fact, we don't even have the sample's HRc.  Steel aficianados, like Cliff Stampe, will tell you that the amazing thing about ZDP-189 is its performance under ideal conditions.  More so than other steels, it really benefits from best practices, rendering impressive results like those seen on the "no sharpening needed" Rockstead blade (Rockstead claims they only need to be stropped). 

The problem is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Looking around you might be able to add a few steels to Cliff's list.  A thread on Spyderco's forum confirmed that BD-1 has a TCC of 570.  There are other nuggets elsewhere.  But why is this done piecemeal?  I had considered paying for ten blades to be tested to add to the information, but the cost was prohibitive, something on the order of $2,000-$3,000.  An email or two later to some of the blog's long time readers convinced me this was a waste of funds, but the idea still tempts me every once in a while.  HRc numbers are out there.  Why not TCC numbers?

Cliff Stamp thinks it is because manufacturers don't see a benefit from releasing this information.  There are too many ways to rig the system (like performing more than 60 draw cuts) for it to be reliable and there is no way to confirm what other manufacturers get for results.  He also thinks it would lead to an arm's race, something that is expensive for companies and potentially costly.   I am not sure this is what would actually happen, though I think Cliff is right in believing this is what knife companies fear.

They might be concerned because of the reductionistic nature of the TCC numbers.  They might think that if they release this information it will be the only think people look at when buying a knife.  This is just not true.  First, HRc numbers are released and I know of no one that bases purchasing decisions solely on these numbers.  Second, while there are ways to rig the system, I think people would quickly find out that this happened and even if it took a while, the backlash would be very bad. Third, I don't think the kinds of people, us, that would be interested in these numbers would be swayed by the numbers alone.  People that care enough to search out TCC data are the same kinds of people that understand that steels are complex and no one number is the end all, be all.

I also don't think it would lead to an arms race, per se.  Releasing the HRc numbers didn't do that.  I am not sure, but I think Victorinox has done quite well with soft steels.  People that are interested in this information have multiple knives and understand that different steels do different things.  H1 has relatively poor TCC numbers, but that's like worrying about a Ferrari's off road abilities.  Pinnacle edge retention is not why H1 exists and no one that understands knives enough to seek out H1 would be dissuaded by its TCC number.  There might be an arms race among steels that offer no advantage other than edge retention, steels like M4, M390 and the like.  I could see a race to Rex 121 and its bonkers high hardness happening, but people would quickly tire of trying to sharpen that steel and go back to a more balanced formulation.  S30V is popular not because it is the hardest steel on the planet, but because it is one of the most balanced steels on the planet.  

Finally, there is a compelling argument from the flashlight world.  Look at what happened when the flashlight industry adopted the ANSI standard cutting out or reducing the number of ridiculous spec claims?  Instead of hurting companies it only helped spur on innovation.  ANSI standards made emitter upgrades a real and important thing.  They became marketing tools and consumers, blessed with more information, have bought as many or more lights than before.  More information, especially this kind of information, is always a good thing.

Benchmade, release your TCC numbers.
Spyderco, go back to your old ways and release your TCC numbers.
KAI USA, release your TCC numbers.
CRKT, release your TCC numbers.
Cold Steel, release your TCC numbers.
Boker, release your TCC numbers.
Buck, release your TCC numbers.

Gerber, release....eh....who cares, your stuff is garbage anyway and something tells me 7Cr or "mystery meat" stainless steel won't do so well.

It comes down to this: would you buy a car if they refused to tell you the MPG?  Right.  This is useful information that knife companies possess.  It would be helpful for us the consumers to have this information.  And it wouldn't hurt their bottom line to release it.  So, show us the TCC numbers.