Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sebenzalternatives Shoot Out

For some time now I have been gathering knives that I thought would make for an interesting shoot out--knives that attempt to fill the same purpose and market niche as the Sebenza.  The Sebenza is, rightfully, a benchmark in the knife industry.  It is a perennial award winner and a knife that both custom and production companies have to consider when making products.  Like a Star Wars movie released during the summer, everyone tends to get out of the Sebenza's way, either looking or performing different or by having a substantially lower price.

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But the Sebenza, while an awesome knife, isn't perfect (go back and look I, change my score).  Its good, great even, but there is room for improvement.  And the Sebenza 25 AIN'T that improvement.  So here is the idea--I gathered together four knives all of which are made as Sebenza alternatives.  This way I will figure out which is the best of the Sebenza Alternatives (Seb Alts) and which is better than the benchmark knife itself.  The four knives are:

1) the Bradley Alias II;

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2) the James Chapter Knife;

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3) the AG Russell Acies 2; and

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4) the Kizer Ki 3404-3

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I am comparing them to the Small Sebenza 21--no frills, inserts, or Insingo blade shape.

A word about some other titanium framelocks--there are a lot of them, but many aren't marketed as Seb.alt.  Some, like the Boker Albatross, have clearly inferior steel and a different purpose.  Others, like the Spyderco Techno (which is every bit as worthy as the others), is just not the same size.  The knives I have chosen are all roughly in the same price range (the Kizer isn't), with the same intended purpose (all around EDC) with premium materials (ZDP-189, S35VN; the Chapter's D2 is a little below par).  One knife I wanted to compare it to was the Sage 2.  Alas, the stars didn't align...

Another thing--all of the knives in this shoot out are decidely above average.  They are all good to great blades.  Choosing any one of them is not a bad thing.  This is like picking your favorite Ferrari--even if you have to pick last your still getting a winner.  

What I am going to do is give each knife a non-numerical score in each of the ten categories in a folding knife review--better, equal, or worse compared to the Small Sebenza 21.  I am going to give the 21 the benefit of the new steel, S35VN, even though I didn't review it with that steel.  

Here we go:

Design

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AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II : worse
James Chapter Knife: better
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal
 
When you set out to top a classic design, you better bring your "A Game" and frankly both the Acies and Alias are classic versions of me-too designs.  Look through the long and tattered history of consumer products and look at so-called X-killers, whether it was the iPod killers or the Sebenza killers, and in that grouping will be a few yawn inspiring designs.  Compared to the original, both the Acies and the Alias are boring enough to make you sleepy.  The Kizer is quite good, a design made better by sticking to classic knife tropes, like the drop point with a swedge.  All together it looks clean and knife-y.  The best model in terms of design is, easily the Chapter Knife.  It is amazingly beautiful, unlike any other knife out there without looking so weird it is unintelligble as piece of cutlery.  And yes, I like it better than the Sebenza.  Both are minimal classics, but the Stormtrooper color way on the Chapter Knife is just super cool.     

Fit and Finish

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AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal

Look, I have handled hundreds of knives on an extended basis and critically evaluated around 150 and in that time, the Sebenza's fit and finish has stood out.  Its not perfect.  Mine had a loose pivot screw that required Loctite, but it was superb in virtually every other way.  There is a reason it is the standard by which other knives are judged.  Its not just hype, its not just bullshit, its true--the Sebenza is made to standards that most knives can't achieve.

Compared to the field here, every knife is worse or equal.  None are better.  The Acies 2 has a bit of fidget in the lockbar as does the Chapter Knife.  The Alias doesn't have any lockbar issues, but its generally less polished (this is easily explained--they are made by Benchmade, which, as good as they are, isn't CRK).  Only the Kizer was equal.  And frankly it had no issues at all, unlike the Sebenza, but it lacked that hydraulic feel to the lock up that so many people, deservedly, rave about with the Sebenza.  The Kizer is solid, but not spectacular by comparison.  

Grip

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AG Russell Acies 2: equal
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal

Its hard to explain just how grippy the Sebenza is until you get it in hand.  The subtle curve the of handles, coupled with the matte texture and the excellent jimping make the Sebenza a truly great knife in hand--secure without being obnoxious.

The Acies 2 does well here because of the classic AG Russell handle, the small parrot's beak at the end being especially good.  The Alias is below par, but it is the Chapter Knife that flunks the comparison here.  The Kizer is actually quite good with pronounced curves in all of the right places and a good finger guard/indexing notch thanks to the flipper tab.

Carry

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The Sebenza's simple profile, excellent clip, and thin size make it a superior knife in the pocket.  Beating it in this category just ain't gonna happen as there is nothing I have seen that is better.  The Chapter Knife, with its rounded off handle slabs, is excellent, equal to the Sebenza.  Everyone else is far behind.

AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: equal
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

Steel

AG Russell Acies 2: better
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal (identical, actually)

S35VN is a great steel, but ZDP-189 is better. The Acies 2's steel is not wasted either as AG Russell really knows how to get the best out of any steel.  The  Alias never got an update and while S30V is good, it is, in my opinion, just worse than S35VN.  D2 is quite good, especially for a budget steel, but it is not going to compete with the other steels here.

Blade Shape

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AG Russell Acies 2: better
Bradley Alias II : worse
James Chapter Knife: equal
Kizer Ki 3404-3: equal

A clip point blade is pretty simple, but it is also darn good and the Sebenza's clip point is especially nice. I like the Kizer and the Chapter Knife for the same reason--simplicity.  The drop point on the Acies is, however, better.  Again, I think AG Russell's position in the knife world is much less high profile than it should be. He really knows how to make a good knife. This wide and tall drop point makes the knife so much a better slicer, even better than the Sebenza itself.  The Alias II's very shallow belly makes it substantially worse than the other knives here. Everything is really clustered, but for the Acies and the Alias.

Grind

AG Russell Acies 2: equal
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

There are few things that are as difficult to appreciate as the Sebenza's grind.  Its deep, hollow grind makes for an excellent slicer--an ideal EDC grind.  

In the Seb.alt group, only the Acies 2 can hang with the Sebenza.  This is probably because AG Russell knows more about knives than just about everyone else.  The Acies's blade is very tall and the flat grind terminates in a very thin edge before the actual cutting bevel.  Finally, the cutting bevel itself is quite wide.  All of this makes the Acies 2 quite good.  Its worth noting here that the ZDP-189 steel allows for a harder blade and this, in turn, allows for a steeper cutting bevel. This makes the Acies 2 perform even better than you might think.  

The Kizer is merely good--nothing great, nothing bad, but when the benchmark is the Sebenza (a.k.a. damn good) above average won't cut it.  The Alias is actually a bad grind.  Because the silly facets, flats, and swedges the actual main grind is very short leading to a bunchy blade in lots of materials.

Deployment Method

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AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: equal
James Chapter Knife: equal
Kizer Ki 3404-3: better

The Sebenza's thumb studs are the weakest part of the knife and even then, they are pretty darn good.  But, if there is any place where competitors can gain ground this is it.  Unfortunately the Acies runs the angled Kershaw thumb studs (and for good reason, KAI is the OEM for the Acies) and they are horrible.  Some people love them, but for me they are too shreddy.  They also dictate how you should open the knife--a classic design no-no.  

The Alias runs almost clones of the Sebenza's thumb stud and they are good, for that very reason.  The Chapter Knife runs bigger studs, but they are eminently coin flip-able, let you pop the blade out with flipper-like speed, once the knife breaks in and you master the technique.  

The real winner here is the Kizer.  Its flipper isn't just good, its great.  In fact, it is one of the best I have ever used--leagues better than the Sebenza's thumbstuds and a whole raft of flippers on production knives all the way up to customs.  Of the knives I have handled only the ZT0454 and a Tim Gaylean custom were clearly superior and that Gaylean custom is, without question, the best flipper I have ever seen.  

All of this leads me to a single point--Chris Reeve needs to make a flipper version of the Sebenza.   Failing to do so is just leaving stacks of money on the table.  And  I don't want to hear that BS about him not liking peoople flicking open their knives.  There have been enough flippers made at this point to prove it is possible to do a good flipper that stays locked up over time.

Retention Method

AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

Simply put the double dip pocket clip smokes all of the wannabes.  None are really worth mentioning in a positive way, but the AG Russell clip is worth highlighting in a negative one.  This clip is a design abortion, like someone told the designer "We need an over the top clip" but the designer never looked at anyone elses designs.  It stands out, it creates hotspots, it is way too shiny.  Overall, it is pretty miserable.  A lower profile bead blasted number would be awesome. Note that the ZT0560 clip fits on the Acies 2, last time I checked, and it is a huge improvement.

Lock

AG Russell Acies 2: worse
Bradley Alias II: worse
James Chapter Knife: worse
Kizer Ki 3404-3: worse

One the hallmarks of the Sebenza is its lock up and for good reason--not only was the Sebenza the knife that popularized the framelock, its framelock, even 25 years later, is superior to just about everything else.  Wittgenstein was famous for arguing that language was the limit of thought and in a way that is true because no matter how much I describe it, you cannot understand the solidity of the Sebenza lock without handling one yourself.  Language may be the limit of thought, but it is not the limit of experience--in other words, you have to experience this for yourself.  All of the rumors and videos about lock rock all point to one thing--a person that likes to abuse knives.  You can mess up anything if you want to, but if you use the Sebenza as intended, its lock will be rock solid.

None of the competitors are even in the same league, though all are decent.  They are "above average for a production knife" while the Sebenza's lock is "above average for a custom knife."

Overall Score:

AG Russell Acies 2: better: 2; equal: 2; worse: 6
Bradley Alias II: better: 0; equal: 1; worse: 9
James Chapter Knife: better: 1; equal: 3; worse: 6
Kizer Ki 3404-3: better: 1; equal: 5; worse: 4

Winner: Sebenza, still...
Best Buy and runner up: Kizer Ki 3404-3

All of this is a long way of saying that the four Seb.alt knives I looked at were, in some way, not quite as good as the Sebenza.  Price not a factor, I think this Shoot Out got it right--I'd take the Kizer over the other three.  It is worse than the vaunted Sebenza, but being worse here is like saying Mike Trout is worse than Willie Mays--it is true only because of the superlative nature of the standard, not because of the failings of the thing being compared.  The scoring matched very closely with my intuitions going into this experiment.

But when you factor in price, the Kizer pulls very far ahead of the competition.  Its a knife that just kills the other three knives and is a real rival for a knife so hallowed that it has been in production for 25 years, despite a price that is about three times the average knife.  The Kizer is a superb value and a superb blade, no question about it.  Its not quite a Sebenza, but if I didn't want or have the ability to buy a Sebenza, it would be the knife I would choose among these four or, for that matter, among production titanium framelocks (that or the Techno).  

14 comments:

  1. I am glad I purchased the Kizer based on your review of it. It is a very nice knife for the money. It would have been interesting to add the Maxpedition Excelsa small into the mix. For the price the quality of the Excelsa is supposed to be quite good. Another great shootout. Thanks.

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  2. Would have loved to see the Grayman Dua in here....I haven't carried my sebenza since buying it!

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    Replies
    1. I have to second this - my Dua is easily Seb class for $300.

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  3. Check out the new ZT 0450, you'll probably love the shit out of that knife.

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  4. Great shootout. I love a lot of things about the Acies2 so was glad to hear your rundown. I would amend to say that AG Russell is an outstanding designer of those aspects of folding knives that were established by 1985. His blade shapes, grinds, handles, etc are intuitive and excellent. He has a less sure hand with "modern" folder components such as pocket clips, thumb studs etc. It may be telling that AG's "standard bearer" modern folder, the Featherlite K93, has no pocket clip.

    The Techno is a nice knife that is wonderfully well made. I do find the enthusiast praise somewhat overrates it. It is so quirky and interesting that it appeals to us nerds. But much of the appeal lies in how the design overcomes ... pretty much ... a set of daring self-imposed handicaps. So, it has a fairly acceptable grip ergos, not great, but that is a real feat given the strange lines of the knife. And it is a fairly acceptable cutter, not brilliant, but that is a real feat given the baroquely thick blade stock. You get the idea. I totally appreciate it for what it is, but as an actual cutting tool in the [sub-3" hard use Taiwanese CTS-XHP folder] category, I am confident saying it is going to get steamrolled by the updated Mini Recon 1 ... or rather the TWO XHP Mini Recons that it's now clear the consumer will be able to buy for the price of one Techno.

    BTW an awesome Trolling for Hate would be some musings on Spyderco's emergent pricing philosophy. Could throw in some "love" for the blue sparkles Draper folder. $300 street for that thing. VG-10. /smdh

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    Replies
    1. I have a CTS-XHP Recon 1 Clip Point (Plain Edge), and while it is good, it's not great. The clip is awful. The G10 destroys pants. The primary grind is fine, but there's a quarter inch of the secondary bevel that is completely unsharpened. Furthermore, when clipped to the pocket it hits the bottom of my jeans.

      Also, the new Spydercos look more like midtechs. Something to keep in mind.

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  5. You really should have waited until you got a Sage for this to be an interesting shootout.

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  6. I have both a Sage 2 and a Maxpedition small Excelsa I am willing to loan out on trade if you are ever interested in doing more of a mid-level expense version of this article. It's really the Kizer's true competition range.

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  7. Two categories that you might also have considered:

    warranty: Sebenza: 15 bucks gets you a totally reconditioned knife.

    maintenance: Sebenza: Encouraged by the manufacturer. One size hex (supplied with the knife) takes the knife apart. Everything goes back together without messing with the torques of the different screws and the pivot. Just tighten the three screws down and the blade is perfectly centered with no blade play.

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  8. Tony,
    When you are reviewing frame-locks and other "asymmetric" knives, would you mind adding thoughts about using the knife left-handed? I'm taking a pass on any frame-locks that I can't touch because I don't want to be stuck with an expensive knife that contains an obvious deal breaker for lefties. Unfortunately, that currently includes every knife in your review.

    Thanks!

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