Saturday, May 16, 2015

Gareth Bull Shamwari Review

I have been looking for a knife like the Shamwari for a very, very long time.  I like the Sebenza a lot, but I really want a flipper version.  When I found the Shamwari I knew I had what I wanted.  This is a clean knife--a really clean knife.  Looking through the normal sources for custom knives was unsuccessful.  As a South African knife maker, many of the custom sites, which are US-based, don't have a huge stock of Gareth Bull's blades.  After this I went to the forums and again struck out.  There weren't a whole lot of Shamwaris or Warlocks (his other model) to be found.  Then I got a tip from a friend that there were a run of Shamwaris in the works.  I instantly put my name on the books.
In many ways this knife is the culmination of years of searching.  I wanted a clean, simple flipper.  But today's market doesn't produce a whole lot of those knives.  The fact that the knife is a front flipper is a huge plus, cleaning up the profile even more.  By now you know that I am a minimalist when it comes to both carry and looks.  Simply put--there is no knife that is a locking flipper more minimal in appearance that this.  The only flourish (which I wish was not on the knife) is the proprietary fastener on the pivot.  Other than that, aesthetically, I couldn't have asked for more, or less, depending on your point of view.  

There is no product page or website, though there is a Gareth Bull Knives Facebook page, found here.  This run of Shamwari knives costs $550 (NOTE: I mistakenly listed the price as $450) each direct from the maker.  There are no written or video reviews of this run and they are different enough from previous runs to make other videos unhelpful.   Here is my video overview of the knife:

Here is my review sample:


Twitter Review Summary:  Clean, calculated, and clever.

Here is my video overview:

Maker Feedback

My experience with Gareth Bull Knives was splendid.  A friend tipped me off that his books were open, I contacted him and I received an email response within 8 hours (pretty good given the time difference, he is in South Africa).  We then went back and forth I placed an order for his second batch.  He then contacted me a few days later and said that the someone dropped out of the first batch and he had a knife to spare.  I jumped on that and had the knife in hand about a week and half after emailing for the first time.  The communication was excellent and the speed of the transaction was quick.

Some research found complaints on various fora that there have been serious backlogs with Gareth Bull Knives, so bad that he was kicked out of the South African Knife Maker's Guild.  I put this question to the man himself and here is his answer:

As to the Guild story. Yes, there is truth to it. In short, I overextended myself and started falling massively behind on orders (orders with deposits paid mind you). Understandably people became concerned and those concerns were put to the SA Guild. After chatting to the heads of the guild, it was decided that I should bow out until such time as I have all my back orders fulfilled, I intend to re-join and have been assured that there's a spot waiting for me, all in good time.

This is not a great thing, of course, but two things make me think this is a thing of the past--the complaints originated three years ago and since that initial blip I can't find anything.  There have been no recent complaints and if my experience was representative it is easy to see why the complaints have dried up.  Second, the maker was quite forthcoming.  He tackled the issue directly and gave me a direct answer.  I can't vouch for the maker, but I can tell you my experience was great and my research gives me confidence in dealing with him.  

Is this a "custom"?

I posed this question to the maker and here is his response:

Hi Tony

I consider these to still be handmade. I did use waterjet to cut the blanks for the handles. From there everything else is 100% handmade (save the screws of course:)). The blades, clips and even the bronze washers are handmade. This is the new generation of the Shamwaris, an easy identifier being the screws running through the stop pin, and the milled clip (previous iterations had hidden screws and bent clips).

Design: 2

I imagine that there was a CAD drawing on a computer somewhere with all of the standard features of a pocket knife--thumb stud, traction jimping, a busy swooping know the sort.  Gazza, this knife's maker, highlighted each feature and played around with it.  After a few painful sessions at the keyboard of highlighting and changing, he just got fed up and clicked the "Delete" button.  The feature vanished and somehow the knife still worked.  He did again and again until in the end, he was left with the Shamwari.  A quick expansion of the rear tang, enough to make the knife a front flipper, and all of sudden you get what has to be one of the cleanest, most resolute, and useful knives I have ever used.


But is not clean for its own sake--the design is still fully capable.  There is a very tight run of jimping on the spine of the blade its usual place and it is great.  The clean look makes for a good cutter in hand with little to cause hotspots.  The only thing, literally the only thing, that I dislike about the design of Shamwari is the choice of a proprietary pivot screw.  


Knife makers, I get it. I do. The ability to put your own spin, your own touch on a pivot is fun.  Screws are a boring, workman-like part of crafting a knife, and having talked to a few of you I know you HATE the process of making or selecting screws.  So when you get the chance, you want to do something--FUN.  Well, from the user point of view, this flourish is always, always an annoyance.  A knife is a tool, first and foremost.  To make part of it hard to use, on purpose, is to thwart that essential nature.  And is unnecessary.  There are quite a few good, decorative pivots on production knives that still have normal fasteners inside all of the flourish.  Look at knives like the Kershaw Injection or the Zero Tolerance ZT0450.  It can be done.  And remember--you are making all of our knives with things worse than Whitworth bolts.  Next time you go to the mechanic, ask them how much they enjoy working on cars and trucks with Whitworth bolts.  



Since there is no product page, here are the specs that matter: the knife weighs 3.36 ounces.  The blade is 3.125 inches with a cutting edge of exactly 3 inches.  The handle is just under 4.125 inches.  The blade is just under 1 inch tall at its tallest point.  These numbers result in quite competent performance ratios.  The b:h is .76 (rounding up) and the b:w is .93.  Both are above average.  

Fit and Finish: 2

Break in periods on knives make me nervous.  Especially ones with really rapid break ins. I am always worried about two things.  First, I am worried that this notion of break in is merely a way for knife makers to pass off shoddy work and delay complaints.  Second, I am worried that the knife might continue to break it, past smooth, into downright sloppy.  Well, I am here to report that neither of those things happened with the Shamwari. It did have a potent break in period where the lock was VERY sticky.  I used both the pencil trick and the Sharpie trick and both had only marginal impacts on what was the stickiest lock I had ever used.  Then, one day, as if by magic, the lock started to open like a vault.  Since then, for about two months now (hence the delay with the review), it has stayed exactly where it was--solid but smooth.

The rest of the knife is really immaculate, and given the spare appearance, it had to be.  The blade is dead centered, even though this photo makes it look like it leans away from the lock side.  The blade has a very coarse stonewash on it.  And the handle has again, a very coarse stonewash.  If you look at the photo above you can see a massive scratch in the handle scale. That  was there when I got the knife.  And there are little scratches like that all over the knife.  It is part of the stonewashing.  The maker does offer other finishes, but be aware, his stonewashing is super aggressive.  I like it quite a bit, much better than the matte finish on a Sebenza where every scratch and use mark stands out like its highlighted, but if you are fussy about your knives, think about a different finish.


Grip: 2

A grippy finish, good handle shape, a run of extra fine jimping, and a good index notch make the Shamwari a persistent tool in the hand--it ain't going anywhere. 


Its hard to imagine something more locked in than the Shamwari without using some of the gimmicks out there--like trac tape inserts.  

Carry: 2

With its slim figure and rounded off shape, the Shamwari is an excellent pocket companion.  I have an issue with the clip, but aside from that, its a perfect gentleman, never bullying the other things in your pocket.

Steel: 2

N690 is a widely used steel in Europe and Africa.  Its exceptionally corrosion resistant, almost to the level of "seaworthy" steels like H1. I found that it was excellent in use, like an improved VG10, which is not surprising because the formulas (formulae for all you grammar and Latin nerds) are similar.  I found that it did not chip or roll as much as VG10.  N690 just might be the most advanced of the non-powder steels, the last innovation before steels were made on the molecular level.  

Blade Shape: 2

Bob Loveless got so much right, but the most lasting of his contributions is this blade shape: 


The drop point is not only a perfect utility shape, it is also (especially in this rendition), quite visually appealing.  I found that not only did the blade look nice, the lack of thumb stud, flipper tab, or thumb hole made it especially good at working material.  I could choke up or hold the blade by the spine only and not worry about where my fingers were (sort of....its still a knife) or whether the material was going to get jammed somewhere. 

Grind: 2

The  Shamwari's grind is, like the entire knife, simple, refined and excellent.  The blade is symmetrical from side to side and the plunge line is excellent and even on both sides.  The main grind is a hollow grind that gets very thin behind the edge.  The cutting bevel itself is quite thin, something I don't prefer with my rudimentary sharpening skills, but it cuts quite well.

Deployment Method: 2

We get to the interesting part of knife--the front flipper.  I am not going to say that this was easy when I first got the knife, but a few days after the Shamwari arrived I had the motions down to both snap it open and slow roll it.  It is now my preferred form of flipping and rivals the Spyderhole as my favorite deployment method.  This is a great design, truly great.  

Retention Method: 2

Hmmmm...I am not so sure I like the trend towards sculpted clips.  This is a gorgeous clip, simple and straightforward.  But it lacks the snap-to-the-frame feel that a spring clip does.  It works well and looks nice, but I think the trend will eventually give way to function.

Lock: 2

The frame lock is stable, engages easy and disengages.  The overtravel stop is not just effective but it is also quite nice looking. There is nothing to complain about here but the aforementioned stick lock that was an issue during the 4 or 5 day break in period.  


Overall Score: 20 out of 20

I am a petty bastard.  I am not awarding this knife a perfect score because of the proprietary pivot screw.  Unlike the clip, which is merely a preference, the pivot screw is an objective flaw.  Other than that, this is a wonderful and unique piece of cutlery.  It has made me sell other knives, knives that with the Shamwari around stand 0% chance of being used or carried.  Especially sublime are the blade shape and the deployment.  This is a thoughtlessly good flipper, among the best I have handled, and a truly compelling argument that we, the American knife buying public, got it wrong when it comes to flipper design.  I originally thought of this as an even cleaner looking Sebenza, but in the end I have come to like this knife as its own thing--a marvelous EDC at an excellent price for a handmade blade.

If you get a chance, save your pennies and get a Shamwari, it is a ridiculously sweet knife, something I both like on an intellectual level and something that gives me a bit of delight every time I take it out of my knife case and slip it into my pocket.  This is one of my favorite blades, right up there with the Dragonfly and the 940-1 and the Paramilitary 2.  Its certainly my favorite custom I own.  But more on that word "custom" next week.

Here is a sweet light&saber duo:



  1. Excellent review, sir. I picked up #4 from the initial run of Shamwaris, and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorite knives. However, much like you, the pivot kinda drives me nuts from a serviceability standpoint.

    I did a bit of interwebs searching, though, and I may have found the necessary pivot wrench on a South African knife supply site. I am awaiting confirmation from Gazza, but if I did find the appropriate tool, I will let you know.


  2. I agree about the sculpted clips looking nice but lacking tension. If you've had any experience with one, what are your thoughts on the G&G Hawk style clip?

  3. Any idea, Tony, why he chose to place the cutout on the locking bar on the outside of the handle rather than the inside like a Sebenza? Would have made the knife even cleaner looking.

    1. I have read in a few places that the cut out is theoretically stronger on one side versus the other, I forget which is which though.

  4. What are the pencil and Sharpie tricks?

    1. In both instances they are used to deal with lock stick. You take either the pencil or the sharpie and apply a generous coating to the rear tang of the blade where the lockbar engages the blade. They will act as a dry lubricant (in fact lots of dry lube is merely graphite). It can help ameliorate lock stick.

  5. How does one get on the list for one of these when a run is being made? How do you even find out when a run is being made at all? All I can seem to find on Gareth Bull is a Facebook page.

  6. Just contact Gareth through his Facebook page. You will not be disappointed.

    Damn you Tony. You told me the Sebe was a great knife, so I bought one. You told me the Sham was a great knife, so I bought one. My Sham arrived yesterday and after some break-in time, I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with every word in your review. Gareth listened to your feedback and shipped me a tool for the pivot. I have a bronze finish which is phenomenal.

    Nice work!

  7. Hello Tony , by any chance did you see the blue titanium and orange g10 handle combination on his Insragram account ?