Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kershaw Knockout Review by Ben Schwartz

While the cutlery industry continues to stagnate, wallowing in high-end frippery as in a tub of old bathwater, Kershaw remains pleasingly grounded. Granted, they’re not totally without showmanship, and are also at an advantage because their parent company has relegated most of the Baroque period lily-gilding to ZT, but I like to imagine that Kershaw, regardless of who owned it and larger industry trends, would always maintain its levelheaded, utilitarian perspective, and continue to add interesting and useful designs to their gigantic catalog.

That catalog is so Borgesian in its size and complexity that it’s possible to overlook a great knife for years. Such was the case, for me, with the Knockout, although t wasn’t just the catalogue’s vastness that stopped me from picking it up: at 3.25”, the Knockout was a bit bigger than I like to carry; and besides, my big knife needs were fully covered with the Paramilitary 2. But, seized by a need to make some kind of knife purchase, and with so much of the upper-end of the market anathema to me right now, I picked up the Knockout. I’m happy I did. Happy, but not thrilled. The Knockout is so plainspoken in its goodness that it’s hard to get excited about. It succeeds less through its uniqueness than its near-perfect representation of idealized knife qualities. In hand and in use, the Knockout feels like what the word ‘knife’ sounds like in my mind. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece or a must-buy, but it simply, totally, Platonically Good.

Here is the product page. Here is Nutnfancy’s review of the Knockout. The standard Knockout costs between $58-75, depending on where you go and what color you get: you have a choice between a black handle and a stonewashed blade, or a green handle and a coated blade. There are also models with brown handles and Elmax blades (one coated, one not); these are about twice the price of the basic model.  You can find the Knockout here and all proceeds benefit the site:

Blade HQ
Finally, here is my Kershaw Knockout (sorry for the not-up-to-Tony’s-standard photos; EDITOR'S NOTE: Ben forgets all of my truly terrible pictures...):

Knockout Full

Twitter review summary: Unadorned and thoroughly useful, a capital-G capital-K Good Knife.

Design: 2

In an interview which I am now unable to locate, Judd Apatow said that his approach to writing comedy was to tell as many jokes as possible in a given stretch of time, because something would be sure to stick. I feel that Kershaw takes a similar approach to knife design: they churn out a bewildering array of fairly similar knives, seeing what lands (Skyline) and what doesn’t (the Asset). That’s an oversimplification, and it doesn’t do Kershaw’s in-house design team justice, but there is an element of truth to it. The Knockout, for instance, is very similar to the Kershaw Piston, but the differences make one knife appealing to me and the other not.

First, the Knockout has regular tiered thumbstuds, whereas the Piston has the godawful angled Blur thumbstuds; even in an assisted opening knife (which both, alas, are) they are not ideal. Second, the Knockout features the deep carry pocket clip seen on the Cryo; much preferred to the Piston’s spoon-style clip; part of what makes the Knockout so carryable despite its size is that it buries deeply in your pocket. Third, the Knockout, though it has a much broader blade, has a shorter one at 3.25”, compared to the Piston’s 3.5”, again contributing to its EDCability (for me). These are a series of small differences that add up.

Comparisons aside, the Knockout is a very cleanly-designed knife. The Sub-framelock is interesting and functional. The handle is devoid of obnoxious scallops or grooves beyond the fairly standard index finger notch. It doesn’t do anything audacious, but what it does do, it does without gimmickry or embellishment, and I like that.

Fit and Finish: 2

I’ve never been disappointed with any Kershaw’s fit and finish relative to what I paid for it, but the Knockout’s is outstanding. All the edges of the handle are chamfered, which is really important in an all-metal knife, and especially important in one this thin. The blade is perfectly centered, and has remained so through a fairly rigorous testing period. The anodizing is clean, and the Parkerizing on the clip and Sub-framelock is great. The blade has a vibrant, even stonewash as well:

Knockout Blade

I’ve never owned a ZT knife before, but this is always the level of fit and finish I imagine those blades having when I read about them. The materials and processes on the Knockout obviously aren’t as complex as those of some ZTs, but I can say that the Knockout is one of the finest-finished blades I own, in a collection that contains a few very expensive and exclusive knives.

Grip: 2

As a subscriber to R.D.’s Law of Diminishing Returns regarding finger grooves, the Knockout would score a 1 here if it had a single ‘ergonomic’ scallop more than it has. As it stands, with one deep groove for your index finger, I like it. The chamfering on the handle makes the knife comfortable even in hard use, and helps the Knockout fill the hand despite it being a thin knife. There’s also a nice, subtle dip in the handle just behind the stop pin to place your thumb during harder cuts. Great.

Carry: 1

So close. You can tell that the team at Kershaw really tried to make this big knife carry small. It is so thin. The problems, however, come from two places. First and foremost, this knife is WIDE. It isn’t quite as wide as the Paramilitary 2 is at its widest point, but whereas the PM2 narrows down after the opening hole, the Knockout stays almost the same width throughout. It’s still very stable in the pocket, but it demands a lot of real estate.

Second, the giant (and superfluous) thumbstuds snag when you take the knife out or put it away. They are super annoying. By themselves, they wouldn’t earn the Knockout a 1, but combined with the wideness, they are enough to make the Knockout suboptimal in the pocket.

Steel: 2

14C28N is a great choice of steel for mid-price knives. Like N690Co, it punches above its weight. It is often compared to S30V. I find S30V stays sharper longer, but 14C28N can get just as sharp, and touches up a lot easier. It also chips less than S30V.

Whereas some steels, even some very good steels like S90V, get ‘coarse’ as they get dull, 14C28N keeps a clean edge, even as it gets less sharp. In my day-to-day cutting tasks I tend to prefer precision over aggression; I’m trying to separate instead of remove material, and for this sort of thing that clean edge is a real boon.

Blade Shape: 2

 As you saw above, a super bold, super wide drop point. It can break down boxes, take chunks out of wood, slice through plastic packaging. I don’t use my knives to cut up food all that often, but this thing slices through apples, meat, and cheese with aplomb. I wouldn’t say it is the best at detail work, for opening letters or the like, but for the things you’d tend to use a mid-sized knife for, it excels.

Grind: 2

The edge bevel is super clean and super even all the way through. The stock is nice and thin behind the straight portion of the knife, but gets thicker out through the belly and the tip; it reminds me of the Benchmade 940 more than anything—especially when you look at it from the top and see the thinning and thickening-back -out even more clearly:

Knockout Grind

I don’t know if all Knockouts are this excellently done, but this one is phenomenal.

Deployment Method: 0

On Judgment Day Ken Onion will stand before the Blade Gods and all the good he has done will be weighed against his invention and popularization of the Speedsafe mechanism, and it will not be enough to save him.

Assisted openings are unnecessary. They are one more thing that can go wrong. They make any knife seem more aggressive; manually opening a Spyderco is far less threatening than the whipcrack of the Knockout being deployed. If they don’t break on you, they age poorly. There just isn’t a valid reason for their existence in this era of IKBS and KVT and whatever other asininely-acronym’d ball bearing systems there are out there. I understand the business angle, in that assisted knives historically sell better than non-assisted knives, but I can’t imagine that non-knife guy users wouldn’t be impressed by a smooth, ball bearing flipper design.

Originally I gave the Knockout a 1 in deployment method, despite the Speedsafe. Then the Speedsafe broke on me when I was closing the knife. I wasn’t doing anything untoward (I know that keeping the blade in a position where tension is on the torsion bar is bad for it), just closing it like I have a hundred times before, when I heard a snick and knew it was busted. This is the second assisted-opening Kershaw I’ve broken. It’s ridiclous. The issue isn’t getting it fixed-I know Kershaw will take care of it for me-but that, by simply making the knife a manual-opener, it could’ve been avoided altogether. I hate Speedsafe.

Beyond the macro issues I have with assisted openers, there’s another problem with the Knockout’s deployment: while it deploys swiftly and surely when you use the flipper, the big doofy thumbstuds are terrible. Unless you put a lot of pressure behind your thumb and flick them at exactly the right angle, for some reason the blade kind of lolls behind its torsion bar detent a bit before it deploys. While not actually dangerous, this does mean that your thumb is pretty close to the blade when it finally does flip out. You’re better off just using the flipper, which is excellent and keeps your fingers out of the way.

Retention Method: 2

This is a clip found in several Kershaw and ZT models now: deep carry, low profile; excellent. For a while I had a thing for big clips, because I thought they kept the knife from swinging around in my pocket, but now I’m learning that it’s really a matter of design, not size (um...that’s what she said?)—and the smaller clips have less of a chance of catching on car doors, door jambs, and the like.

Lock: 2

Steel framelocks are superior to titanium ones in all ways except for weight. The Knockout goes to some length to ameliorate the weight difference by utilizing a Sub-framelock. You probably can guess/already know how it works, but if you don’t, there’s basically a steel lockbar inset into the aluminum handle, so that lock strength is virtually uncompromised but weight is saved. This was a design originally seen on the much-vaunted ZT0777, and, while I can’t say I think it is groundbreaking or anything, the weight savings is much appreciated, and whatever testing may bear out in relation to ‘real’ framelocks, it is very, very good in actual use. No movement in any direction, super smooth to disengage, and the steel will wear much better than titanium.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Knockout is a Good Knife. Design-wise, it does nothing that is not knife-like: there is not a single frill or embellishment to be found on the Knockout, and it is all the better for it. Charismatic, capable, and extremely well-made, the Knockout is a beater with character.

The Competition:

The closest competitors to the Knockout are the Cold Steel Mini Recon 1 and, of course, the Paramilitary 2. Up against the Recon 1, the Knockout wins hands-down; it’s lighter, carries better and is a better slicer, and has a lock that’s equally fit for all reasonable use. Compared to the PM2, the Knockout is a less compelling proposition; as good as it is, it is just not as good of a design as the PM2. The PM2’s profile is better. It has a finger choil, making it excellent for both small and big tasks. It is a manual opener. The locks are comparable in strength for all regular uses. The existence of the PM2 is the reason why I could never recommend the Knockout in Elmax; they cost about the same amount of money, and one is clearly superior to the other. However, the regular Knockout, with its appealing sub-$100 price, makes more sense. I’d still say it’s worth it to save up for the Paramilitary 2, but the Knockout is a great knife regardless.


  1. Great review, even apart from the fact that I agree almost down the line.

    I thought the Knockout's exemplary thinness compromised its Grip a bit more than Ben did, though it was not unpleasant. On the flip side, my Speedsafe didn't break. Thus I'd have scored it exactly the same, 17/20.

    This knife embodies a side of KAI I like a lot and hope they stay in touch with. It looks awesome, is fairly priced, and is built to cut. The sort of "solid citizen" knife that should form the bread and butter of most people's collections.

  2. BTW I fear Ken Onion will also have to answer for opening the floodgate to bulbous, aesthetically frivolous, nonpositionable pocket clips that snag on stuff and don't function well.

    Sadly, this can ruin some otherwise nice designs (e.g. CRKT Shenanigan: clip is a disaster and knife is too big to drop in pocket). It also sets a bad example for other designers.

    1. He's definitely a designer of extremes: he does really excellent things, and really terrible things; most times that means that his knives fall somewhere in the middle for me in terms of appeal (Shenanigan), but every once in a while (Swindle) are total homeruns...

  3. Does it have a detent ball? Can you de-assist it? I did that with the ZT0770CF and I like it much better than when I bought it. It's not a perfect flipper, but just about as good as my Skylines.

    1. It has a detent ball, but no hole for it to fall into. I could get someone to drill one for me, I suppose, but that's a process I'm not entirely sure is worth it...

  4. I suppose in the vastness of the Kershaw catalog, you also missed the Camber? It is very similar to both the Knockout and the Piston, but lacks vestigial thumbstuds, has a 3 inch, S30V blade, and has a proper detent so it can be de-assisted if desired. Sorry to say, but I think you chose the wrong knife as the benchmark of platonically good. For about $10 more than the Knockout, the Camber is my choice.

    1. Fair point. I can't speak for Ben, but the big, high-contrast logo plastered on the show side(!) of the handle kills the Camber for me.

      Such a pity, because as you say, it is a spec monster, decent price, and every other aspect of the design is as clean as a whistle.

      I literally refer to that knife mentally as the Kershaw Logo. Just a darn shame.

    2. You're right, the Camber is a great knife. I prefer the Knockout for a few reasons: first, I don't like S30V steel all that much and, if we are talking about great "standard user" knives, I think that 14C28N is better in that role. Second (and this is along the lines of what R.D. said), I don't find it as aesthetically pleasing as the Knockout; the logo kind of irks me, but the lines of the knife in general, although fine, don't appeal to me quite as much as the Knockout. Third, the price difference, at least where I was shopping, was closer to $20. And on the topic of price, once we get into the $70 range there are other knives I would start to look at outside of Kershaw (the FRN Native 5 comes to mind).

  5. My experience with the KO was like when You find the woman who's the One, perfect in almost every way. You live together for a while. And You find out she cheated on You.
    I love 14c28n, loved the subframe lock... And when I started to think I found the perfect edc the (useless) thumbstuds cracked the blade. I didn't drop it or abuse it in any way. Kershaw would have replaced it of course, but since I live in Europe the shipping wouldn't have been cheap, and honestly I just couldn't trust it anymore.