Monday, May 11, 2015

Did We Pick the Wrong Flipper Design?

In the 1980s, once the US Supreme Court cleared the way, the home video recording market exploded.  Two competing formats vied for consumer dollars--VHS and Betamax.  Betamax was a proprietary tape system developed by Sony.  VHS was developed by Matsushita (Panasonic's parent company) and JVC and licensed to anyone that wanted to make a machine.  On paper, Betamax should have wiped the floor with VHS.  The video quality was better, the tapes were smaller, they could have a longer record time (5 hours on Beta III tapes) and the machines were better made.  But in the end the market famously picked VHS.  This was not the first nor the last format war in electronics (MiniDisc versus DCC was especially terrible--the formats killed each other), but it is probably the most famous because the clearly inferior product won and dominated the market.

In the knife world the flipper deployment method has taken the market by storm.  If you watch Jim Skelton's videos you might think that there is no other way to open a knife other than a flipper.  But the reality is there are multiple ways to open a knife and, in fact, multiple flipper designs.  Two work fundamentally the same, the traditional flipper tab flipper and the exposed bottom tang flipper (as seen on Dietz modded Kwaikens and Smock Knives upcoming SK23).  The third kind of flipper, the so-called front flipper, works fundamentally differently.  I have had two knives with a front flipper design, the barely passable Boker Exskelimor and the amazing Gareth Bull Shamwari.  In my short time with the Shamwari, it has done a good job of convincing me that perhaps we as a knife community have chosen the wrong flipper design.  Its not as clearly superior as Betamax was to VHS, but it does have some big advantages.  Here is my video on the flipper differences:

By the way, I have practiced more and the Shamwari opens every single time without fail.  Its an issue of muscle memory not design.  

Advantage #1: Looks

Traditional flipper tab flippers can be very nice looking knives, but there is simply no way around it--the tab itself breaks up the profile of the knife.  It, by design, juts out of the knife.  Lots of folks have made that element something interesting or nice.  Some try to hide it.  Some use it as a quillion or guard.  But there is no doubt--the flipper tab itself is something knife designers have to work around and work with, it can't be ignored.  

A front flipper, on the other hand, does very little to disrupt the visual flow and design of a folder.  In fact, many knives that aren't front flippers have exposed tangs like a front flipper does. The Sebenza, for example, appears to have something of a front flipper tang.  There is no alteration or consideration for the tab in the design of the handle either.  No swoops, indexing notches, or guards are necessary.  Both in terms of design and look, a front flipper greatly reduces problems that arise from the use of a traditional flipper tab flipper.

Advantage #2: Speed Control

With a properly designed front flipper (no the Boker ones do not count) you can both roll the knife open and snap it open, something that is very hard to do with most tab flippers.  The reason is simple--in a tab flipper, you are overcoming the detent to deploy the knife.  Here you are overcoming a detent, but you are also working around the pivot screw.  Because of that, the knife doesn't need to have such a strong detent.

You can slow roll or snap open a thumb stud knife or a thumb hole knife, which is one of the reasons I still like them despite the ease, fun, and elegance of a tab flipper.  But having tried this flipper it gives you all of the joy of a tab flipper and the speed control of other deployment methods.  And really, do you want to be the jackass in Target that snaps open a blade to slice open a bag of fruit snacks (why all of my examples involve Target and fruit snacks, I have no idea...actually wait, I do).  

Advantage #3: Easy Carry

Pulling tab flippers in and out of your pocket isn't THAT big of a hassle, but it is a hassle.  Every once in a while something will get caught and maybe, just maybe, the knife will deploy in pocket, which is a good way to ruin your day.  This isn't a huge issue.  The hassle factor is small and the accidental deployment, with a properly detented blade, is like zero, but some chance compared to no chance is a big deal.

If the front flipper didn't work as well as the tab flipper, I'd say easy of carry is a tie, but the good front flippers do (look, bad flippers of either kind just stink).  Given that, why mess around?

I am not sure tab flippers are inherently inferior, but having a good front flipper around, like the Gareth Bull Shamwari (review coming next) makes it hard to avoid that conclusion.  What I am 100% confident about is that US knife knuts have severely underrated the benefits and fun of a front flipper.  Based on the quality of the design it should be a 50/50 market share (at least) and it is nothing like that.  Perhaps front flippers are harder to make on a production level.  I am not sure what the answer is, but what is clear is that tab flippers shouldn't be the only game in town.  


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  2. I haven't tried a front flipper yet but every time I see someone open one, it looks difficult to operate. I will hold my judgement till I try it. The main appeal to me on flippers is the fidgeting factor and the "click-bang" of the action. Correct me if I'm wrong but I'm guessing the front flippers don't have a very strong detent. I know you don't like a strong detent Tony but the knife enthusiast market has shown that is what they prefer. They don't necessarily want to open it slowly. If there were more compelling designs and more legality of automatics, they would probably be much more popular.

  3. Seems clunkier than a ZT 0450 deployment, so not sure if this is pure novelty, or there really is some advantage.

  4. That front flipper looks interesting. I'd like to try one in person.

    What are your thoughts on the quasi-flippers of Kershaw's OD series?

  5. Reminds me of a seriously trimmed down case xx design that has been around as long as I remember.

  6. The biggest adv. of the rear flipper is that it can become a finger guard.

  7. Which Tony mentions, but to me it's decisive.

  8. seems as though there is a longer distance traveled with a front flipper?

  9. I know someone who likes tab flippers because he considers himself to have "mitten hands," which is to say he naturally does not have very dextrous fingers. He finds tab flippers easier to open in most situations than thumb studs/holes/discs/anything else.

    I wonder how the front flipper works in that regard? I have never used one, but I would imagine you don't have as much purchase on the "flipper" part of the blade as you do with a tab. Have you compared flipper types while wearing gloves, for instance? Or while your hands are greasy/sweaty?

    I totally understand that those are extreme situations and may not be important for an edc knife. But I think those situations are good comparisons for someone who just has a hard time in general with hand/finger dexterity.

  10. I can only speak for myself, but the tab flipper has been a godsend. I use it almost every day at work, wearing gloves, and I've never had any of the snag problems described here. If it's just an aesthetic thing, I get that, but for pure utility purposes, the tab is easy to use, easy to fire in a lot of different situations, and frankly makes the front flipper look just impossibly fiddly.

  11. I've been using a Burger front flipper for years - I love the fluid motion, the ease of use, the ability to discreetly deploy and the simplicity of the front flip.

  12. This is a niche thing. It requires skill and practice not unlike the balisong, trifolder, and wave to use efficiently and optimally. I like it but only because an unskilled user, who might clandestinely acquire one, would not know how to easily or quickly open or deploy the knife. In a way it is a built in safety feature. Nice.