Saturday, June 27, 2015

AG Russell K12 One Handed Knife Review

Bill James, one of the best baseball writers and argument makers in the world, discussed what made a baseball player underrated in the Darrell Evans entry in his New Baseball Historical Abstract.  He identified a few factors that are common to all underrated players and then he proceeded to show just how good Darrell Evans (James's 10th Best 3B as of the late 90s, probably dropped to at least 13th now--Chipper, Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre are all clearly better and belong in the Top 10, with Beltre having a good argument for #2 or #3), a guy with a career .248 batting average, really was.  Everything James wrote was dead on, 100% right.  And some of those concepts carry over into gear evaluation.

The K12 is one of, if not the single most, underrated produced I have ever reviewed.  When gear is underrated doesn't necessarily mean that something is better than people think it is, often underrated gear is just ignored.  If you search for videos on the K12 you get very, very few, basically one from AG Russell and that's it.  Compare that to the number of reviews for a random Kershaw, something like the OSO Sweet, and you will see just how ignored this knife is.

Underrated or ignored gear, something I love finding, has a few common traits.  First it is generally made by a less high profile brand, but one that has a history of making good stuff.  Second, it often features an unusual design. Third, it is often out of synch is current trends.  The K12 has all of these features.  AG Russell is not Spyderco or KAI, but his knives have great designs (notably with very good performance ratios) and excellent fit and finish.  The K12's lock is quite strange (more on the lock below).  And the VG-10, thumbstud design is definitely different from the market darling titanium framelock flipper.  But you ignore the K12 at your peril.  Okay, so not really "peril" but ignoring this design is really a shame because it is a damn fine blade.  

Here is the product page.  Here is an overview of a few Russell blades including the K12.  There are no video reviews, but here is the product video.  There is no affiliate link (AG Russell should really work on that).  Here is my review sample (purchased with my own money):


Twitter Review Summary:  The Darrell Evans of knives--insanely underrated.

Design: 2

AG Russell knows how to make good knives.  Even if budget stuff is, from a perspective of blueprints, pretty damn amazing.  The K12 is a remarkably slim knife, in the hand and in the pocket, and yet it gives you the feel of a much larger blade.  Part of this is the way that Russell squeezes in blade length, but it is also has to do with the fundamentally solid components of the knife--the handle is simple but great, the blade is straightforward and excellent.  Everything here is just very good.  Experience counts for a lot and AG Russell has a lot of experience.

The novelty of this knife--its completely ambidextrous design--is more than a gee whiz thing.  It really works.  I like the strap lock a lot and everything else about this knife is well-considered and thought out.  Even the way the onlay is chamfered around the index notch in the handle is nicely done.  There are so many small design niceties that I have to conclude that these were all intentional and that they came about because of Russell's superior eye and massive knowledge base when it comes to knives.  


The performance ratios are quite good.  The b:h is .80.  The b:w is 1.03.  The b:w is good, but the b:h is amazing, third only to the perennial performance ratios winner, the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight, and the also underrated Kershaw Chill.  AG Russell always does this very well, recognizing the benefits of free blade length from a long way back.  One caveat though--not all of the blade length is cutting edge--there is a true ricasso as well as a longer than normal flat section, so the cutting edge ratio is about normal, a little above average.    


Fit and Finish: 2

Whenever you have a new mechanism on a knife, be it a pivot or a lock, its always cause for concern--is this novelty going to through off the whole design?  Are they going to be able to make it correctly?  Here there are no concerns.  Russell's OEM in China has been producing very nice knives for him for a while now.  The Barlows I have had are very nice.  The Skorpion was good (not great, but good), and this knife is the finest of them all.  Even the strap lock is nicely done.  

Grip: 2

The K12's basic handle shape is one that is used throughout AG's product line.  Its simple and effective.  Here the only point of concern was the exposed titanium edges on the index notch (the place where your index finger rests).  There, the metal was a bit sharp when the knife was VERY tightly gripped.  Its not a big deal, not enough to deduct a point, but it is worth noting.


Aside from that, the knife worked well in handle during all sorts of cuts.  Long pulls through thick cardboard were fine as were slices through apples.  This is a very good handle.  The lack of jimping isn't an issue and the plate at the end of the strap lock does provide a bit of extra grip.

Carry: 2

The K12 isn't a tall knife at all and while it is a bit thicker than something like Russell's Skorpion, its not bad at all in the pocket.  I was worried that the plate on the strap lock would be a snag point when you removed the knife from your pocket, but it wasn't.  This is a very discrete pocket companion.  The size, shape, and placement of the clip is 100% correct for a knife of this size and shape.

Steel: 1 

VG-10 is not my favorite steel.  It does get very sharp and it does repel corrosion, but as with every other VG-10 knife I have used over the past 5 years, the steel just doesn't hold that viciously sharp edge long enough.  This blade's steel is quite nicely done, with an excellent satin finish, but even that can't really make up for the lack of edge retention.  There is  a newer version of this knife, one that uses 9Cr and I am not experienced enough with that steel to say it is better or worse, but I'd be interested in trying it out.  VG-10 is nothing special and this knife with a different steel could be really amazing.  There was a very limited run made a few years ago using the ultra-hard ZDP-189ish Cowry X steel and that might be worth tracking down if you like this design but dislike the steel.  Be warned though--they are few and far between on the secondary market.

Blade Shape: 2

The blade shape here is really quite nice--a clean steady spearpoint blade with just enough belly to do roll cuts and make sharpening easy.  One reader was worried about the extra long ricasso behind the sharpening notch, but in practice that hasn't really bothered me.  I have moved away from my old way of using a knife where the space right next to the pivot got lots of work (this is, I think, in part because my first real knife was a combo edge Delica and I developed bad habits because of how easy the serrations cut through stuff), so the long unsharpened edge was not a problem.


The blade shape reminds me an awful lot of the Kershaw Leek, a knife that has a fragile thin tip.  This blade has the same overall profile, but delivers more steel to the end of the knife making it much, much stronger at the tip.  This difference is why experience matters--same profile, better performance.  

Grind: 2

The grind on the K12 is quite clean and reduces the surprisingly thick blade stock to a very fine edge at just the right angle.  The knife's stock is thicker than quite a few knives of the same size, but the expert grind made the K12 great in the kitchen, slicing apples with ease and making translucent thin wafers of delicious salami (thanks Uncle John!).  I am not sure if this is a hollow grind or a flat grind but either way it works, and that's what really matters.  Sometimes I think we let taxonomy get in the way of practicality.

Deployment Method: 2

Okay, I can easily see why someone would deduct a point for the thumb studs.  As you can see below:


they are quite pointy at the end.  There is one too many terraces to the thumbstud and the result is a somewhat pokey opening if you slow roll the knife.  If, however, you coin flip the thumbstuds are they wonderful.  The  pivot is very finely crafted, so nicely done that despite constant contact and pressure for the strap lock, you can reliably pop the blade out with no wrist flick.  There are no Spyderco lockbacks (which cause a similar a friction of the blade of the knife) that you can do this with out of the box. In the end, the coin flip method is my method of choice and so I decided not to deduct a point.

Retention Method: 2

Again the K12 proves that you don't need something complicated or fancy to make a knife work.  Here the clip is dead simple--a discrete over the top deep carry clip with no funky upturn at the end--and it works amazingly well.


Big bonus points for the matte finish and the reversibility (this is a 100% ambidextrous knife).  Carved titanium clips are good looking, but this is vastly more functional.

Lock: 2

And so we get to the place where the K12 differs from most other knives--the Strap Lock.  Give credit where it is due--this lock was invented by Pat Crawford, who loaned it to AG Russell.  According to legend Crawford didn't think it could be patented, but Russell tried and succeeded.  Because Mr. Russell is the soul of honor, he then gave Crawford payment for the design even though it was never something Crawford had requested.  This is one of many examples of how wonderful the knife business is--Crawford being kind enough to lend out his design and Russell being honorable enough to pay the man, even though it wasn't required.


The lock itself is a wonderful design.  It is simply put the easiest lock to disengage with one hand.  I am not convinced it is the strongest design in the world, but it is plenty strong for EDC use (this is one reason among many why I think the Cold Steel lock test videos are pointless).  Thanks to some really nice fit and finish, the lock exhibits no wiggle and there is zero blade play when the lock is engaged.  This is really a fine design.  I think its applications are limited because on a very large or very small blade the strap could be hard to implement.  On a small blade it would be hard to get the strap to flex sufficiently to disengage the lock and on a large blade you might have to make the strap too thick.  I am not sure that's right, but from my month of use and carry, it seems correct.  Either way, I really like this lock.  Note that while it is not identical to the Nak Lock from Benchmade it functions very similarly, so if you can't find the K12, that might be a good substitute.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

Overall the K12 is proof yet again of just how good AG Russell is.  It also emblematic of just how important simple design is when backed by years of experience.  Everything just works.  Only the steel is a real knock against the knife and even then I could do just fine with VG-10 if I weren't a bona fide steel snob.  For 99% of people the steel isn't bad enough to matter.  That said, the quality of the design here makes me want to hunt down a Cowry X version.

I also know that AG Russell is closing out the VG-10 models in favor of an entirely Chinese made version with 9Cr steel.  Hopefully the lack of importing steel (VG-10 is a tightly controlled Japanese steel) will lower the price.  At the $115 I paid the knife is worth it, but probably a little below par in terms of value.  

I also think that AG Russel has a real star here that they don't push enough.  I'd love to see sprint runs of this knife with better steel on a more regular basis. I also think they should release user-swapable scales--they are so easy to remove.  If KAI made this knife there would be forty versions already--its that solid and unique of a design.  

I am not sure how many of the K12 in VG-10 are left, but if you want something that is very good and very different, its definitely worth a try.  Their lack of presence on the secondary market (something that is true of all AG Russell exclusive designs) is telling.  Once you get one, you don't want to let it go.


  1. Great review. I really enjoyed this one as I don't see many reviews of ag Russels, and I also don't see many knife reviews that start with Bill James references. (Side note: beltre has has quite an interesting career path, right? )

    The 9cr version is between $75 and $85 depending on choice of onlay. I'm not sure the difference between vg10 and 9cr is ask that significant. Anyone here have experience with both?

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  3. Intriguing review. The knife is visually classy and understated. Nice materials but no bling, nothing dandyish. It's like someone who actually is upper middle class, and thus is reticent about describing himself that way.

    The new run of K12s with 9Cr13CoMoV are indeed much cheaper. The G10 knife goes for $75 on AG's site. And it features dark green G10! Looks great.

    Chemically, the 9Cr steel seems to be AUS-8 with a little extra carbon and a whack of cobalt, which typically is used to promote hardness and hardenability. If it's well treated, that steel is probably broadly similar to VG-10, except I'd guess corrosion resistance would be lower. VG-10 has a lot of chromium. Not a huge concern for me. Basically, unless this 9Cr is way worse than its chemistry would predict, it's not $40 worse than a VG-10 blade, so AG made a smart move switching to a Chinese steel.

    I had not noticed before how many of AG's modern designs use the same basic handle shape, with the single index choil followed by a gentle curve. Smart man.

    I have what I call the "One Choil Rule" of knife design.

    A single, index finger choil typically adds value to a knife. The gain in security is usually meaningful, outweighing the slight loss of affordance. For example, setting aside considerations of fidelity to the traditional pattern, the AGR Barlow would be improved by a modest choil. But once you go past one and start adding additional finger grooves, the design starts to feel pushy, affordance diminishes, and the cost/benefit shifts rapidly into the negative.

    (I make a partial exception for certain unusual, melt-into-the-hand designs of the wharncliffe/box cutter variety, such as the Spyderco Kiwi and the CS Tuff Lites. They have two choils and work well.)

  4. I just received mine in the mail and the blade is severely off center. In fact it's touching the right liner. I tried adjusting the pivot to change it but with no success, so it's going back to A.G. Russell for a refund. This is the fifth knife I've gotten from them with deal-breaking issues, the four previous being a Skorpion, a Cowboy, and two Dozier Trapper flippers.

    I was a huge fan of A.G. Russell from the age of about 12 until pretty recently. I have gotten and read their catalog this whole time. I'm sorry to say that I am done with them as a company.

  5. Got mine. Very interesting little knife. The green G10 is handsome.

    My blade centering is perfect. The knife is very well finished except for two problems:

    1) I carry knives clipped to my back pocket. Done it for years. The first time I sat down on my lumpy leather couch with the K12 in my back pocket the knife's slender, fragile clip immediately snagged on the couch, bent, and snapped.

    (I must say this is consistent with my working theory: AG is a great designer of knife blades and handles who struggles with the characteristic features of post-1990 locking folders: pocket clips and thumb studs in particular. As for the latter, I find my K12's thumb studs a little pokey -- definitely see what you mean there -- but don't find them uncomfortable. The knife "coin flips" open great. Smooth pivot action. Tight lockup.

    2) The grind is really good and even ... except at the very base of the edge, where it runs into the sharpening notch and the plunge grind. There, one encounters a nasty looking scraggly "beard" of about 2mm of edge that juts out past the main curve of the edge. Ugly, but I believe it will sharpen away fairly painlessly.

    I am sure AG would replace the broken pocket clip but I don't think it was a defective part; I just think the clip's design is too slender to be durable. Pity; it looked good and seemed to have adequate retention in the 90 seconds or so I was able to use it before it broke. I will see how I enjoy the K12 as a true pocket knife, i.e. clipless.

  6. Oof. So the effort to sharpen out the jacked up "beard" before the K12's ricasso turned out to involve an hour of work on the Sharpmaker coarse stones. And while I successfully cleaned up the knife's silhouette, the edge turns out to be grievously obtuse under there. Part is even unsharpened.

    It ends up costing the knife about 1/3" of what should have been usable edge. You end up with ca. 2.4" of real edge that begins pretty darn far from your finger.

    This is pretty frustrating in a $75 Chinese knife since I am sitting here comparing it with my $40 Case Texas Jack (possibly the single best Case EDC pattern btw), a US-made knife with a dead perfect ricasso and sharpening notch, with a slim, clean edge all the way up to the notch.

  7. One last observation. If you go look closely at the picture of the current (Chinese steel) K12s on AG Russell's site, even the display knives all show some of this protruding "beard" at the base of the edge. Yet (after some squinting) I can't make out anything of the sort on your knife, with its VG-10 blade.

    It's kind of tempting to speculate that the steep, $40 price difference might not have represented only the use of a Japanese steel on the older K12s, but also having the blades actually ground (more skillfully) in Japan, then shipped to China for assembly. That really does seem like it would go far to explain the former price. But it is mere guesswork.

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  10. Just ordered one! Thank you for the reivew.