Monday, September 28, 2015

The .Alt Recommendations

On occasion my evil twin takes control of my email and answers incoming gear recommendation questions and comments.  I have gathered them together to show you how big an a-hole I, err, I mean, he, can be.  Here goes:

Q: I want a great EDC knife.

Q: I want a great EDC knife that is a little bigger.  
A: Try the Benchmade 940-1.

Q: I want a great hard use folder.  
A: Try a fixed blade.  No, seriously try a Bark River Lil Creek in 3V
Q: You weren't paying attention, I want a hard use FOLDER.  
A: I was paying attention.  I don't think hard use folders are a good idea, but if you really insist, look at the Spyderco Paramilitary 2 in M390, CTS 204P, S35VN, or Elmax.  

Q: I want a cheap hard use folder.  
A: Try the Becker Necker or ESEE Candiru.  
Q: GRRRR.
A: Look up the Cold Steel Recon 1 in CTS-XHP.

Q: I want a traditional folder.
Q: I did, its not available.  
A:  Patience Grasshopper.
Q: You're a condescending A-hole.
A:  I would recommend the Tom's Choice Barlow, but that's even harder to find.  Try the Case Copperhead or Swayback Gent.  

Q: I want a traditional folder, but I like modern conveniences.
A: That's an AG Russell Medium Barlow, my friend.

Q: I want a big chopper.
A: You need a Ka Bar BK9.

P1050908

Q: I want a high end big chopper.
A: Lobby Ka Bar with me to make a 3V BK9 with micarta scales and a nice sheath.  Or try a Bark River Bravo of appropriate length.  Also look at the TRC Apocalypse. And watch Andrew's video.  
Q: I thought you'd recommend a Busse.  
A: I though you'd like a sheath. And something that has a good cutting edge.

Q: I want a good camp knife.
A: Get a Fallkniven F1z.  It weights less than many high end folders.
Q: What about a Mora?
A: Get a Fallkniven F1z.  It weights less than many high end folders.

P1040945

Q: I want a light knife.
A: Go for an Al Mar Ultralight Hawk.
Q: That's too heavy.
A: Cut off your toothbrush handle and remove a few more soup can labels.
Q: You are infuriating.  
A: Try the Fallkniven Bear. 

Q: I want a fun flipper.
A: Try the Kizer Ki3404 or the Lionsteel G10 TRE.
Q: Merica!
A: The Skyline is bitchin', and the ZT0450 is decent once you figure out how to hold it JUST RIGHT. 

Q: I want a classy knife, something I can take to church.
A: You realize the idea of "church knife" means two things--one, you have too many knives and two, you have run out of real reasons to buy knives.  
Q: Can you answer my fucking question?
A: Okay, try the Chris Reeve Mnandi.

Q: Should I buy a Sebenza?
A: Yes. 
Q: Really?
A: Yes, or a Mnandi.  Its nicer and looks like its worth the extra money, while the Sebenza looks pretty plain--workman-like, blue collar, but at white collar prices.

Q: I want a folding knife with a 4 inch blade.  Any recommendations?
A: Stop compensating.  
Q: God, your a dick.
A: Spyderco Military.

Q: I want to give a knife as a present, any recommendations?
A: You know your family will think you are a weirdo, right?
Q: I read your site, they already know I am a weirdo.
A: Touche.  How about a CRKT Drifter?  Its a great starter knife and if the person stows it in a drawer you'll be out a coupla subs from Subway.

Q: Everything you recommend is really expensive.  Do you like anything cheap?
A: Gas.

Q: [In Simpsons Comic Book Guy voice] Um, hello, you claimed that the lumens output on the Gen. 2 S10 Baton runnning a 3.7V 18350 and using an XM-L2 emitter is 880 lumens.  Don't you know that is impossible, from a purely theoretical electrical engineering perspective?  
A: Ya got me chief.  I use manufacturer specs.

Q: You said in an article you wrote that the human eye can't perceive the jump from 500 lumens to 510 lumens. But I can.  
A: Science says you can't.
Q: But I can.
A: Sorry bub, not possible.
Q: Nope, I can see it every time.  I have better than 20/20 vision.
A: This isn't a matter of eye sight accuracy.  Your brain cannot perceive such slight increases in light output.
Q: Mine can.
A: Congratulations, you found your X-Men ability. Its not as cool as claws and healing factor, but you found it.

Q: Why don't you like piece of gear X?
A: [Lists a long set of detailed points based on the experience that comes from systematically reviewing more than 250 pieces of gear].
Q: You're an idiot. You fucking fan boy.
A: Oh, and by the way, I saw your video where you explain that this is your first knife.  You are so smart, listing the specs and reading the sticker on the box to the camera.  Can you show me how to do that?

Q: Why don't you like piece of gear X that has been superhyped by the manufacturer and has only been released for two days?
A: I just got it, so I can't say for sure, but it has a 2 inch blade, a 15 inch handle, and weighs 9 pounds.  
Q: God you are an idiot. It is for use in this specialized martial arts that three people with male pattern baldness practice including myself.  It makes an excellent EDC.
A: Listen, Lynn Thompson, your ridiculous ad copy isn't going to change my mind.
Q: I am not Lynn Thompson.
A: Boop your dead.

Q: I want your opinion on the new MegaCock OPMT.
A: It looks like a waste of money.
Q: I just bought it from the maker in a lottery on Instagram.  It only cost me $495.  It is awesome.
A: You know it is just a piece of flat bar stock with a hook on the edge to open bottles.
Q: Yes, but it is made of adamantium and has a tumbled finish.  That's a lot of work, craftsmanship, and time.
A: You know it took more time to post it on Instagram than it did to make it.
Q: But I can sell it for $600.
A: Awesome, there are at least two people that prove that medical science has thwarted the process of natural selection.

Q: What do you think of my custom knife I just got?
A: It looks like a turd with a flipper tab.
Q: No, no, no...that is acid washed zirconium.  It just has finger scallops.
A: Its hideous.
Q: You don't understand the custom knife scene.
A: Here, Jim Jones gave me this recipe for very delicious Kool-Aid.




Friday, September 25, 2015

Anso Matrix Card Holder Review

Before we start this review, let me get one piece of business out of the way.

Its pronounced  Ahn Sue.  Not An So or An Zo.  Ahn Sue.  That's what he told me himself.  Ahn Sue.  How would you like to be called Joan instead of John? Ahn Sue.  

Now on to the review.

Okay, Anso makes great knives.  His handmade knives are amazing.  His production knives, even when crippled by penny pinching accountants at production companies, are still awesome slicers.  He just has a knack for knives...

Actually, that's not true.  Anso has a knack for good product design.  The Matrix Card Holder is a bit far afield from his comfort zone of stuff like knives and OPMTs.  But even here, the Anso penchant for creativity and effectiveness comes through.  In short, the Matrix is a great wallet alternative and if you don't carry cash, its damn hard to beat.

Here is the product page.  The custom version is $250.  The Kickstarter version, which is a production run, was $110 with a few fees.  Here is an overview.  Here is the review sample (purchased with my own money):

IMG_9576
Twitter Review Summary: Damn good shit.

Buying Experience:

This is the first item I have purchased directly from a Kickstarter campaign.  I have reviewed other Kickstarter items, but this is the first I have purchased.  Anso's entire campaign was utterly flawless.  It didn't help that at the time I was also in on the Pinch Kickstarter, which was, frankly, a disaster.  The Pinch took months to arrive, there were a number of obviously stalling "updates" ("Any change of address?  How about now?  And now?"), and there was a ton of unnecessary solicitation.  When the Matrix it was--pledge, follow up email, one solicitation email with AWESOME stuff, and one update which was: shipping now.  Ansoo actually shipped either before or on the date he said he would.  Simply, utterly flawless.  This is how all Kickstarters should work.

Design: 2

Think of this is a titanium framelock wallet that doesn't do cash well.  To Anso's credit he says that up front.  This isn't a wallet, it is a card holder. Now you can shoehorn in a bill or two, but this really isn't a way to carry cash, especially a lot of it.  Mob bosses need to look elsewhere for their carry needs.  But if you can accept that limitation, man is this a sweet piece of kit.  

P1050666

The incorporation of knife tech into a wallet, in the form of a bent metal leaf, is ingenious.  It solves a problem inherent in all hardside wallets--how to hold cards in place when there are a variable number of cards.  With one card, the tension is enough to prevent it from sliding out.  With two or three, it requires a good hard shake.  With more than that, only a purposeful pull or push will work.  I carry six cards and a twenty in my Matrix and I have never had anything slide out.  

The design has a few touches besides the framelock worth mentioning. Because of the cutouts the wallet is quite light.  The cutouts also serve two other purposes.  You can use them to push or pull contents out and you can use the one on the side opposite the logo (see below) as an ID window.  

The use of G10 and carbon fiber not only lends a unique visual element to the wallet, it also makes it lighter.  The blue, as my favorite color, seems striking here and, well, if you read this site I am assuming that you like titanium and carbon fiber.  I don't go a day without someone saying to me: "Wow that is an interesting wallet."  I could be a dick and correct them "Its a card holder," but that is not my style.  

Overall, the clever touches, the lightweight, and the choice of materials makes this the best hardside wallet I have seen.  If you can live with the lack of cash carry and the rigid in pocket shape, you will be delighted with the Matrix. 

Fit and Finish: 2

The Matrix was design and the prototypes were machined by Anso, but the Kickstarter run, as he was clear to state in the campaign, was manufactured here in the US.  In fact they were made in my home state of Massachusetts.  They are fantastically well made.  All of the edges are flush, the materials are nicely finished, and the entire unit feels like it is made of one piece instead of a bunch of smaller pieces.  There is nothing to complain about...well that is not EXACTLY true.  My blue G10 was slightly discolored, but I could care less than that.  

Materials: 2

Again, titanium, carbon fiber, and G10.  Nothing to complain about here at all.  All of  the materials are top shelf and all of them are well done here.  They aren't just cool pocket frosting though, they all serve a purpose.  

Carry: 2

The Matrix is by far the smallest hardside wallet I have ever used or seen other than a straight up money clip.  Its actually just slightly bigger than the cards it holds, as you can see here:

P1050671

This was one of things I didn't love about the Obtanium.  It was so much bigger than it needed to be in all three dimensions.  

Accessibility: 1

With a run of jimping down the G10 sides and two cuts in to the materials its very easy to get things in the Matrix.  The cut on the bottom lets you push stuff out and the cut on the top lets you pull stuff out at the top.  Overall it is very good.

P1050667

There is one point, however, that I am not thrilled with regarding the accessibility of contents.  When you push stuff back in, it runs into the "framelock" portion of the titanium side and is pushed into the carbon fiber side.  There is potential for this to cause the carbon fiber to fray.  A quick push from the side opposite to framelock realigns everything for smooth operation, but it is another step you need to take when putting stuff back in the Matrix.  Its not a huge problem, but it is worth noting for this reason--you will be taking all or most of the cards out every time you get something out of the Matrix. It is very difficult to get out one card at a time.  This means a lot more time with all of your stuff out in the open and an increased potential to lose or misplace cards.  These two things together--the misalignment problem and the "full deck" problem result in a 1 point deduction.  So far neither have been issues, but it prevents you from thoughtlessly using the Matrix as a straight up wallet replacement. 

Appearance: 1

Let's face it--this thing is weird looking.  No one, not one of the two or three dozen people that have asked me about the Matrix when I took it out of my pocket (this may seem high, but I go through a magnetometer or two a day in court) guessed that this was a wallet.  Some may like highly unconventional looks, but for me, I just want something subdued and functional.  This is an attention seeking piece for sure.  If you are okay with gawks and stares that accompany carrying a massive Direware custom or a behemoth Cold Steel Espada, you'll be fine.  For the rest of us, this is a bit of a men-wearing-skirts-on-the-first-episode-of-Star-Trek: The Next Generation gadget.  A "what the hell is that" item for sure. 

Durability: 2

If the constituent material can hold up to use on a knife, I think it will be fine in a wallet.  In fact, it is almost certainly overkill.  Cool, sexy, overkill.

Retention: 2

Anso's use of the framelock has solved the single biggest problem with hardside wallets in a way much more elegantly than others have tried.  The retention on one card is fine.  With more, they are really locked in.  I was very impressed when I first got the Matrix and I am continually impressed each time I carry it.  Nothing is falling out--nothing.

Organization: 2

Wait...a 2...how is that even possible?  Well, Anso is a clever man and even a device with one place to store things and no dividers allows for organization.  Here's how.  The cutouts in the frame of the Matrix not only allow you to have access to the contents, they also act as an ID window.  See the picture under "Accessibility" for what I mean.  Also, there is an optimal way to orient cards, so that the raised numbers of one card, match up with the raised numbers of the next card in the stack (they face each other with one card flipped upside down).  This not only stabilizes the stack of cards preventing bending and the like, it also means that ideally your valuable credit card data will be on the inside of the stack making harder to steal and, unlike with a leather wallet, leaving no impression on the wallet itself (this is a benefit of all harside wallets).  These two subtle points make the Matrix function much better than it would otherwise.  I am sure the first thing was intentional, but I am not so sure the second was.  As the wise Branch Rickey said "Luck is the residue of good design."

Efficiency: 2

The entire Matrix is surprisingly thin.

P1050668

While its tough on the bum, its small size does allow it to be carried in the back pocket if absolutely necessary.  Its more of a front pocket carry and in that location it is very good.  It does give rise to some pocket pendulum effects, as all hardside wallets do, but it was significantly less than the other hardside or semi-hard wallets I have tested.  The Matrix is also small, being just slightly bigger than the cards it is holding.  

Score: 18 out of 20 

This is one awesome piece of kit.  It is also confirmation that Anso is one of the best designers, not knife designers, but product designers, in the world.  One day when the snooty folks at Apple or Mont Blanc discover the Anso aesthetic and have him make something, a la Marc Newsome, those of us in the gear community can say we knew him when he first got started.  

I am confident that this is not just a fluke, given how good his knives are, and how good his carabiner is according to Andrew Gene.  From the Zulu to the Matrix, nothing he has had final say over has been anything less than awesome.  And the Boker Zero would be awesome if they just made it like the original.  

The Matrix is why I write this blog--its a clever design, a useful and fun thing, made by a small maker that knows and loves his craft.  If you have even passing interest, go buy one.  They are a bit unconventional, but you know what, conventional can be boring.  And who doesn't love carbon fiber, titanium, and G10?  Enjoy the framelock wallet.  The production version is totally worth the dough.  The custom one, well, that's a lot of money...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bring the Thunder

Okay, so I will admit it.  Perhaps I was too blindly by the silliness of the ZT0999.  After the mail I received this past week, its clear to me that I prematurely declared the end of the Golden Age of Gear. We aren't in the Baroque Period just yet, even if we are trending in that direction.  The arrival of the TRE G10, the oLight S1 Baton, and the American Knife Company Forest Knife has proven to me that there is still amazing stuff being released that is not first and foremost bling or pocket frosting.

Each of these pieces of kit is just an amazing slice of what we have at our fingertips.  In many ways it is the promise of refinement, bleeding edge tech, and (Brett Hart please let me borrow this) the excellent of execution.  

The TRE is not revolutionary (skip the baloney of the modular design--it, like modular shelves, is unnecessary for 99% of people).  It doesn't break the mold. It just refines it.  The carefully sculpted handles and the rounded over edges and the rounded spine make the knife JUST perfect in the hand. It really is Sebenza level nice.

And then there is the S1.  Ever smaller, ever brighter, ever longer run times.  Quickbeam's design dilemma for flashlights (small, bright, long runtimes--choose two) has been pushed over the years, but the S1 is really the light that breaks it, at least the first production light to do so.  And its UI, a clicky, is quite good (and no Scurvy, its not like the Zebralight--you can't ACCIDENTALLY fall into some completely unnecessary secondary mode were the lumens differences are 100% imperceptible).  This is one hell of a light.

Then there is the Forest Knife.  Its Mors Kochansky's knife made real.  Its a better balanced, more readily available Skookum Bush Tool.  And it takes a beating with ease.  The convex grind is great, the handle is sweet music, and the sheath is killer.  This is a great all around fixed blade.

The Golden Age has caught a second wind.

But this leads to a dilemma--what to do about Gear of the Year.  This year I am going to open up voting for everyone and use a survey site to create a survey folks can vote on.  Check the link above for a description of the categories and ideas of what I am looking to nominate.  The long and short of it is--I need some suggestions.  Comment below with suggestions.  I will pick one and that person will win a Kershaw Strobe.  A suggestion is required to win and I think I fixed the comment system, so fire away.

Also, this year will be the first year with negative categories.  So Overhyped Gear of the Year beware...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Brand Analysis: Benchmade

I thought it might be interesting if we take a look at each of the major knife brands (Benchmade, Buck, Boker, Cold Steel, CRKT, Gerber, KAI, Leatherman, SOG, Spyderco, and Victorinox) and see where they are, what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong, brand-wise.  I am a strongly brand agnostic person, avoiding cheerleading and outward signs of brand loyalty (no, I don't want a patch with my knife, just get me the knife please). This is a mix of fact and opinion.  The company history and the product line history are fact (or as close as I can get without financial data). The company's direction is opinion, as are which products are favorites.

Background

Benchmade is a relatively small company, still properly considered a specialty manufacturer in the knife industry.  It is probably one of the largest of the small companies, but it is not close to the size of KAI or Gerber (Fiskar).

Benchmade Knife Company, Inc. began life as Bali-Song, making balisongs in California in the late 1970s.  In the 1980s they changed their name to the Pacific Cutlery Company.  Eventually they moved to Oregon and became known as Benchmade Knife Company.  Benchmade is an entirely privately held company and thus there is no official documentation of their revenue or number of employees.  Most business investor evaluation sites have Benchmade's annual revenue pinned at between $20-$50 million a year and their staff as being something between 75-150 people.

Benchmade has been run since the beginning by Les De Asis and his wife Roberta.  Over time Les has been involved in the day to day operations of the company or had a person with business school training do the day to day stuff while he managed big picture things.  Currrently, Les is doing day to day work.  Inside the industry Les is known as a very affable person with a good knowledge of knives and someone that is particularly keen on learning more about business and management at the highest level.

Benchmade's US manufacturing is in Oregon.  In 2011 they expanded their production facility to 55,000 total square feet and the entire facility is LEED Gold Certified (LEED is an architectural environmental certification that stands for Leadership in Energy and Enivronmental Design; it is very prestigious and Gold, while below the pinnacle of Platinum certification, is an accomplishment).

Benchmade's Line Up

Benchmade makes folding knives, a few balisongs, a few autos, some fixed blades and one set of kitchen knives.  They sell pens as well.  These are of the tactical/Fisher refill variety.  They have a few safety cutters in their line up too.  Of course they sell a bunch of branded hats, t-shirts, and sweatshirts.

Benchmade makes or has made knives under a few different labels.  First, they have the main brand, Benchmade.  All of those knives (in their three product classes--Blue, Black, and Gold) are made in the US by Benchmade, not, to my knowledge, by an OEM.  They also produce H&K branded knives.  These knives are produced overseas by an OEM, and though it is not clear where, the steels used, 8CR, 9CR, and D2, indicate Chinese origins.  They used to have the Harley Davidson brand, but that license was not continued and now HD knives are produced by Case.

Benchmade's product line has been a jumbled mess for years now.  Entire lines are phased out, new "brands" invented, pushed, and then dropped.  And they have acquired brands only to kill them.  Following what is a Benchmade product and what is an OEM product sold by Benchmade has become VERY difficult.  

A few years ago the main line had four product cases--Red, Blue, Black, and Gold.  Red Class knives were overseas produced and were entry level knives.  Red line knives have been discontinued with a few models being integrated into the Blue line or the H&K line.  Blue Class knives were USA Made and were higher end, general use cutlery.  Black Class knives were also USA Made and were designed for "tactical" use.  Gold Class knives are highly embellished versions of other Benchmade knives, except for the kitchen knife set, which is exclusive to the Gold Class. 

In addition to the three classes and the licensed brand, in recent years Benchmade has launched not one but two hunting focused lines and it purchased an outdoor centered brand, Lone Wolf.  The initial hunting launch was a collaboration with the Bone Collector brand, which is better known for its hunting gear.  After a few years the collaboration ended.  The following year Benchmade launched its own sub-brand, Benchmade Hunt.  That brand has a selection of fixed blades and folders many with traditional looking materials (Dymondwood handles) and some nail knick openers.  

Benchmade has also had collaborations with other higher end product brands.  They produced a knife case with Gerstner (it was hideous--they decided to stain Gerstner's traditional honey oak a bright blue).  They are currently producing a co-branded version of the Valet with Shinola.  

Benchmade's main designers are in-house or at least brand exclusive folks like Warren Osborne and Joe Pardue.  Their external collaborations have been top notch.  They have knives designed by Shane Seibert, Allen Elishewitz, and Ken Stiegerwalt among others.   

Benchmade also offers a service that allows customers to choose a wide variety of parts and features on some of Benchmade's best selling knives such as either Griptillian or the Barrage.  In addition to choosing colors the customer can even choose the steel used.  The service, in my experience, was very good and only a small premium over a stock version of the knife.    

Best Designs

Benchmade's best seller is either of the two Griptillian designs, either the full sized Griptillian or the MiniGriptillian.

P1000283_759

We don't have sales data for any company so this is a guess.  Both are available in a wide variety of configurations.  These are very solid designs and among the best knives in their price range or for the size.  The only drawback, or at least the most common complaint, is that the handles feel plasticky or hollow.  I like both, but the Mini Grip is the sweet spot for me.  The Barrage and the Mini Barrage are also very good knives, though I prefer the thumb hole opener on the Mini Grip.  I like the Valet as well and it is probably the best EDC knife in the entire Benchmade line up.  Lots of folks that like bigger EDC knives rejoice for the 940 and my 940-1 is one of my all time favorite blades.

P1040438_1618

The 940-1 might be the best Benchmade folder ever made.  

Folks have high praise for the Benchmade balisongs and some of the out of production versions go for massive premiums on the secondary market.  Similarly both Infidel models, their OTF switchblades, are well regarded.  Having handled some of the balisongs and both the regular and min Infidel I can say with confidence that their good reputations are well deserved.  

There are two out of production blades worth highlighting--the AFCK and the Aphid.  Both are truly awesome.  Some folks like the Blackwood collabs--the Ruckus and the Skirmish--but having handled both I can tell you both are underwhelming and not worth chasing down.  The AFCK on the other hand is worth chasing down, but collectors and users know how awesome it is and they rarely come up on the secondary market.

Brand Strengths

Benchmade's machining is some of the best in the business. They can do just about anything.  Their grinds are good, their handles are uniformly excellent.  They don't have the bleeding edge capacity of Lionsteel or the top flight fit and finish of Chris Reeve or Al Mar, but they can do just about anything with a CNC machine.

The Axis lock, a Benchmade exclusive (at least in theory, there are three or four variants that function identically and of course there are rip offs), is very good.  I don't think it is as strong as the Tri Ad lock, but it is plenty strong for anything you'd do with a folder.  

Benchmade, by in large, has a conservative approach to knife design, which is good when it comes to blade shapes.  All of their blade shapes are very solid, simple designs.  The worst you get is a silly swedge here or a missing ricasso there.  

Benchmade also does a very good job of choosing custom collaborators.  Their stuff with Shane Seibert, except for the Pocket Rocket, has been amazing.  Similarly their Elishewitz designs have been very good (love me the tan Ares) and the Steigerwalt stuff is just classic (the Torrent).  They need to reach out more often, but the people they pick are usually very talented.

Benchmade has a very strong brand, especially outside of the knife world.  For many folks, LEO/Mil/EMT types, Benchmade is synonmyous with "best knife".   The LEOs I have encountered at work all talk to me about Benchmades once my secret identity as the writer of this blog is revealed.  

Brand Weaknesses

Their conservative approach to knife design results is a huge number of knives that look and feel the same. Aside from some small variation in size or blade shape there are about twenty knives in the Benchmade line up that are essentially interchangeable.  The fanatic devotion to the Axis lock and the love of thumbstuds means there are just too many knives that are too similar.  The one flipper in the line up, the 300SN, is just awful.

The product line's shifting image is also a strong detriment to the overall brand.  The more brands Benchmade starts, stops, and buries, the harder it is for consumers to figure out what Benchmade itself stands for.  The use of OEMs and production of sub-brand knives, like H&K, has been handled very poorly and this confusion means that promises like "Made in the USA," which means a lot to some consumers, including me, are diluted.  This is the easiest problem for Benchmade to fix.  BE CLEAR.  BE CONSISTENT.  

Benchmade's prices, until the last year or so, have also been much higher than equivalent knives from other companies.  The so-called Benchmade Tax is real--there are more than a few knives that cost over $100 that run 154CM.  Three knives seem to be reversing that trend though, and let's hope it continues.  The Valet and the two 1095 choppers were both among the cheapest knives in their class, given the materials.  Neither were cheap, they were just very competitive.

Finally, Benchmade doesn't seem to follow trends or customer wants very well.  The lack of a framelock flipper is conspicuous when compared to KAI, Spyderco, or CRKT's offerings.  They are not really paying attention.  Their Axis lock variant excited no one and the choppers while good designs and priced well, are definitely me too products.  Benchmade needs to start paying attention to what people want.  

Trending: Mostly Down

Benchmade's Valet is one of my favorite new knives this year, but it has been a very long time since that has been true.  And the Valet is not exactly breaking new ground.  It is just a solid design.  Among knife enthusiasts, few if any knives in the Benchmade line up are exciting.  Many are very good, but none capture the communities attention the way some of the ZT offerings have in the last few years.  Their absence from the podium at Blade Show indicates that others in the industry feel the same way.  This is a good brand, with world class capacity, but no direction and little indication that they are paying attention to the market.  Only the Valet and the choppers give me hope that they are trying to be relevant.  They have been the clearest loser in the Golden Age of Gear arms race--as KAI, Spyderco, and CRKT took off, Benchmade is still plugging away with its 40 or so Axis knives that are all basically the same.  

Friday, September 11, 2015

Quick Hits: Three Swings and Misses

In this installment of Quick Hits I am running down through some things that I have had hanging around for a while, many of which turned out to be not so good.

One thing I have always been worried about was the "tally" effect of a scoring system.  I don't award negative scores in any category, so even a broken product can get a decent score.  So when that does happen, when something is fundamentally broken, I reserve a special notation for them--NOT RECOMMENDED.  I have given it out only a few times, such as for the wretched UI of the Balder HD-1 or the SPY 007 and its insane price tag.  But here we have a collection of three products that are just fundamentally broken.    

Boker Anso Zero

Get ready for another Anso.  This is a very competent knife.  Like all Ansos the blade shape is amazing and cuts like a demon.  It is quite thin.  It has N690 steel.  It has a very good pocket clip.  But man is the handle just hideous. This is not the Anso pattern, but some muted barfy version of the Anso pattern.  That's to be expected given that the handles are molded as opposed to sculpted, which is all but required to get the true Anso feel.  The color is optional, but please, never ever choose this color.  Its not tan, its baby poop tan.  Yuck.

P1050868

But the real problem with the knife is such a boneheaded omission.  Where is the deployment method?  Not even a nail knick?  Why?  Boker, the original custom had a thumb stud.  Why not include one here?  Its not a legal issue because most places that have a two handed law also prohibit locks, so that's not the reason.  And it is not for aesthetic reasons because, as I said, the original had a stud.  I know that two handed knives are okay.  I love my Indian River Jack, but in a modern style knife there needs to be reason to not include an opening method (such as in the Spyderco Pingo).  Here we get nothing.  And it stinks.  The Quiete was at least manageable to open with one hand.  Here it is almost impossible.  No amount of finger yoga is enough to pry this sucker open and that is very annoying. 

P1050869

Overall Score: 16 out of 20, NOT RECOMMENDED (1 off for Design for the cheapo and ugly scale, 1 off for Grip for the muted Anso pattern, and 2 off for utter lack of a Deployment Method)

Zebra Sharbo X LT3

Where is the line between versatile and complicated?  Well, wherever it is, the Sharbo X passed it a long time ago.  This is a versatile writing tool, no doubt, but it is insanely difficult to buy and hard to use.

P1060146

There are two problems--first it is a Japanese product and very few places have them in stock to purchase directly.  This is an Internet only item.  I am not so angry about this because a lot of the gear I review here is Internet only.  The bigger problem is that there are so many parts to order that getting them all right the first time is difficult.  You might be thinking that I am a moron right now (and maybe I am) but let me run you through all of the ordering options:

1.  Order the pen body itself--twenty four styles and color options (including upscale models)
2.  Order the pencil component--three options (.3mm, .5mm, .7mm)
3.  Order the pencil lead--three options (same as #2)
4.  Order pen refills sizes--three options (.4mm, .5mm, .7mm)
5.  Order pen colors in the above sizes--at least six options (blue, black, green, red, orange, and pink, at least)
6.  Order stylus (if necessary)
7.  Order erasers (if necessary)

There are literally thousands of possible Sharbo set ups and some of those combinations produce pens that don't work--like getting a .3mm pencil component with .7mm lead.  I am not sure I got all of the combinations correct either.  Just wading through the options again is too complicated.  

The LT3 body was only $36, but all of these components, shipped added up to something like $85.  I got a LT3 with one .5mm pencil component, .5mm lead, two .5mm inks (blue and red).  And through the confusion of ordering these things I ended up with a .7mm pencil component as well.  It also took a long time to order and ship all of these things.  This pen is a nightmare to get JUST right.

But once you get it JUST right there are still problems.  The ink cartridges lasted me about two days.  I recognize that I am an excessively heavy writer, but two days is not acceptable.  Because I have to then wade through the ordering hassle again and pay four dollars shipping for a $1.97 item.  UGH.

In the end, I can't recommend this pen under any circumstances.  Its just too complicated and expensive for what you get.  The brass body is well made and the pen is beautiful, but at some point you just have to say enough.  I am sure there are Sharbo aficionados that can run through all of the options in seconds and love this pen, but in the end it is too much work, hassle, and money to make it useful for me.

Overall Score:  16 out of 20 but NOT RECOMMENDED (2 off for a Design that requires a degree to get working, and 2 off for a dizzying and often incompatible set of refill options)

Retro 51 Tornado

"No reward is worth this."

--Han Solo, Sage of the Stars

Okay, there comes a point where we can't just wave our hands and say "It looks good.  And what do you expect for a $30 pen?"

P1040059

Over the past three years I have spent over $90 on Retro 51 Tornados.  I bought a black one three years ago, liked it for about ten seconds, then it broke.  Buoyed by the wave of good reviews on the internet, I bought a stainless steel model a year later and IT broke.  One broke where the clip attaches to the pen and the other's twist mechanism broke.  The third broke at the clip again.  

Each time the most forceful voice in the chorus of fans was none other than the Pen Addict's host Myke Hurley.  I love the podcast and listening to Brad and Myke talk about pens is a Tuesday morning commute highlight for me.  Myke loves these pens.  He is right that they have great refills, the Schmidt EasyFlow 9000 is definitely the cream of the crop of Parker style (aka Fisher) refills.  Its as good as a ballpoint can get, circa 2015.  He is also correct in saying that they look beautiful, but they are the classic Monet product.  They look good on first blush, but the longer you use it the more it falls apart.

Simply put, other than the Gerber 600 there has been no product I have reviewed that disintegrated faster than the Retro 51 Tornado.  This is not "fit and finish" this is the step before that.  These pens just cannot hold up and after three samples, I feel confident in saying that I didn't get a lemon three times in a row.  Do not get seduced by the looks, this is a Singing Siren with an STD.

Myke Hurley, your Retro 51 addiction has cost me $90 of what, in about two months after purchase is a pile of loosely assembled non-function parts.

No pen is worth this much headache.  Just like no reward is worth a bossy princess.

Overall Score: 14 out of 20 NOT RECOMMENDED (2 off for Fit and Finish, 2 off for Durability, and 1 off for Carry for the snowflake fragile clip).

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ousting the 600 Pound Gorilla

I am no longer going to have affiliate links with Amazon.

There are three reasons:

1) Amazon has proven over the years that it treats its employees terribly;
2) I have had awful experiences there recently; and
3) Amazon's approach to the knife and gear business is antithetical to what I want to support with this site.

This will not be easy.  Expect a reduction in the number of reviews and review samples (many are purchased through Amazon with their affiliate checks).  Amazon's affiliate commissions are sometimes the highest of the affiliates for this site in a month, despite the fact that I rarely link to them.  This is because they have a ton of stuff and they give the biggest percentage to affiliates.  But this site is not about making money.  It is about being a voice for the consumer.  With that mission I can't support Amazon.  So...well...screw them.  I am done with their stupid shit.

Let me go into more detail about why I have made this decision.  It has been a long time coming.  When I did the analysis of Optics Planet, I had a twinge of guilt because I had an Amazon affiliate.  They are the Wild West of the Internet--anyone with anything can get a listing and sell stuff.  Hucksters and hoaxes abound, from the $50 "damascus" knives to fly-by-night operations.  The accountability is basically zero.  But I reasoned that everyone else had an Amazon affiliate so it was okay.

But its not.  Crowd morality is simply insufficient a justification for me.  Others do it and that's fine, that's their personal decision.  I am not going to tell them they are wrong, but I am not comfortable supporting Amazon anymore.  I wish I had the means to excise their malevolent bullshit from my entire life, but they have literally unbeatable deals on baby products and at the rate we go through diapers, it is a financial necessity.  But here, on the blog, in this slice of my life, I have had it.

I AM FINISHED AMAZON.

You cannot treat people the way they treat their employees.  You simply can't and expect there to be no ramifications.  It is true that we live in a free society and have essentially a free market, but while you can make deals anyway you want, eventually you'll piss off too many people.   The stunt in Pennsylvania, where they opened a distribution center without AC and instead paid paramedics to be in the parking lot was something out of Upton Sinclair's Jungle, not 21st century America.  It was cruel, inhumane, and revolting.  People treat their pets better than Amazon treats its employees.

But that was not the end of it.  This Sunday, the New York Times, in a rare display of actual journalism (not for them, they always do a good job, just for the media as a whole), did a take down of Amazon's corporate culture.  The people-as-widgets experiments of the turn of the last century, with things like social Darwinism (for all its misappropriation of Darwin's ideas) and work analysis, has returned, this time with the muted bloodletting of anonymous performance reviews and forcing people to work just after a miscarriage.  Amazon sounds like what happens when kids from the Stanford Prison Study go to business school.   Meet your boss--a conniving, passive aggressive, psychopath that thinks he is as smart as House so he can get away with being an asshole.  Well, Amazon, your folks aren't that smart and even if they were, there are more important things in life than being the smartest person in the room.

Strike 1.

Corporate abuses of employees, as sad as they are, are surprisingly common place these days.  Even with greater awareness, we still see things like factories where iPhones are made with netting around them to catch workers trying to commit suicide.  So in that regard Amazon is not unique, just especially stupid about how it abuses people (at least Apple has plausible deniability--its subcontractors were the problem).  

Another real problem for me regarding Amazon is the way their business model has shifted.  It used to be that you bought stuff FROM AMAZON.  You wanted a book, you bought the book, and it came from Amazon.  Not anymore.  Amazon Marketplace allows all sorts of folks to list items for sale on Amazon and the quality of these vendors varies significantly.  

My recent experience with the Nitecore EC-11 has been dreadful.  The vendor, Eastshine, has been awful to deal with, and my experience is emblematic of a larger problem.  I ordered the light about two months ago.  It arrrived and was decent.  Then, without warning, it stopped working.  I switched batteries, recharged batteries, tried batteries out in different lights, all to no avail.  So I contacted Eastshine.  They said that I needed to take a video of the light not working and send it to them.  I told them I would just send them the light and they could see it not working.  They refused to take it claiming that they were just the vendor, but Amazon actually fulfilled the order.  Eventually they changed their mind, but it was a hassle.  All of this run around, in the form of the worst written emails I have ever seen, is impossible to avoid.  Even if I complained Eastshine could just change their name and do the same thing to someone else.  There is very little the consumer or Amazon could do to stop them.  

Amazon Marketplace is the Wild West.  I have seen stuff for sale that would NEVER be sold on Amazon--such as Festool stuff at a discount (Festool guards their MSRP with a ruthlessness that would make Atila the Hun blush).  There is next to zero accountability.  Its just a giant shell game cloaked by Amazon itself.  

Strike 2.

Listening to Derrick from Knives Ship Free on The Modern Neanderthal Podcast persuaded me that Amazon's business model is ultimately not good for the gear industry or consumers.  We need to take the long view here--27 cents off a Spyderco Persistence compared to what it could be at a non-Amazon retailer is probably not worth the discount over time.  Sure, you might run into an Eastshine that bilks you, but even if you don't there is a bigger problem.  

Derrick spoke about how Amazon uses its market share to cripple its suppliers.  Here is a hypothetical that illustrates Derrick's point.  A small company like Spyderco sells stuff on Amazon.  The exposure is huge, and they move tons of units.  Spyderco's sales explode and Amazon becomes something like 25% of their entire market.  Over time that number creeps upward and Spyderco and Amazon become more intertwined.  Once Amazon is confident they are essential to Spyderco's survival, they go to them and demand lower prices.  Spyderco has two options--try to ween itself from Amazon's flow of money or produce a lesser product to meet their price demands.  

This isn't just Amazon though.  Lots of companies do this.  My problem is that Amazon does this to companies that I care about.  KAI USA is part of a massive company, but even KAI is a drop in the bucket compared to Amazon.  If anyone could muscle them into making lesser stuff, its Amazon.  But its worse than just hitting producers.   Folks like Derrick and Blade HQ have a hard time competing.  Derrick mentioned that Amazon is selling Spydercos for less than he pays for them from Spyderco itself.  That is obviously not something small sellers can endure over time.

Amazon's business model hurts both the companies we like that make stuff we enjoy and it hurts smaller businesses.  But with the Internet, it is just as easy to shop at Blade HQ or Knive Ship Free as it is to shop at Amazon.  It may cost a smidge more to do so, but that 27 cents savings just isn't worth it to me.  Support the companies we like, that listen to consumers, that make stuff we enjoy.  And support the retailers that are committed to good customer experiences instead of helping sham sellers like Easthine make money off us.  

Strike 3.  Amazon is out of here.

Its time we support folks like Derrick and Blade HQ.  Their prices are more or less competitive. They have stuff that Amazon doesn't bother carrying.  And they want customers for life.  Amazon wants to churn and burn us.  Its time that we, the consumers, ween ourselves from Amazon.  


Thursday, September 3, 2015

August 2015 Carries

I am going to run down what I carried in August, but this month, my first month doing this, I am going to also include late July carries because I went on a hiking vacation in Maine. 

So there are few things that I was basing my carry decisions on.  First, it was all shorts all the time.  It was exceedingly hot in New England (except Maine, where we had a fire going 4 days of the week).  So there was a lot of light carry.  In particular I liked this set up:

IMG_0451

This is the Graham GMT Stubby Razel and the MBI HF-R.  Both pack a ton of performance into a tiny package and I pair these together a lot.  Its a true drop em in and forget em set up.  By keeping things light and out of the way I didn't have to worry when running after a five year old or when getting hot.  Some gear feels like your carrying a trade paperback in your pocket and you get that sweaty leg thing going on, which is awful.  It makes you not want to carry stuff or not want to go outside, both of which aren't fun.  I also did a lot of kayaking so the Graham tail clip was great, ensuring I lost nothing.  Note that the TAD quick dry shorts were excellent both on the trail and in the boat.

In Maine I took the Stubby Razel, for the reasons listed above, but I also took my new Jarosz JSF, which is Jesse's small EDC fixed blade.  I am having a sheath made for it, but in the meantime I used a Knives Ship Free pocket slip, intended for slipjoints, but it worked fine for my purposes.  Here is that carry:

P1060056

I wore the Sinn 556i almost exclusively this past month as I wanted to get familiar with it and try out the mechanical watch features.  The Peak Eiger is one of the best EDC lights on the planet, and decked out here with the Oveready Tuxedo set up (silver head and blade body and Nichia 219 emitter), the Prometheus clip, and the Momentary On, it is very very hard to beat.  It can take any battery chemistry, has infinite variable brightness, has a high around 200 lumens, and runs a common cell.  The JFS was marvelous and I can't wait to get it back.  The finish, Jesse's acid camo, looks disgusting, but feels and works well.  Imagine a knife left in a puddle over the winter...that is what it looks like.  But its smooth to the touch.  There will be no sign of wear, pretty much ever.  And I don't mind the dirty blade look at all.  Here it is up close:

IMG_1035

Like I said--dirty blade.  The tan handles and dirty blade meant that I HAD to add the blue lanyard cord.  If not this thing vanishes into the leaf litter if dropped.  As it is, this is a very good EDC blade and my first with AEB-L steel, so I am excited about trying that out.  Jesse's grinds are, as usual, pure amazeballs.

As August wore on and got hotter, I decided I wanted to go even slimmer.  Here is a typical set up for work, where I wanted light, clean, and easy carry:

IMG_0890

The VP is just amazing, as always.  If you want a good out of the gate awesome fountain pen, this is it.  The Valet is very nice, a slim and again, out of the way carry.  I am still not 100% sold on the Dymondwood handle scales.  I want to see how they will hold up.  Note the HF-R again.  It is too good.  I am looking forward to Fall so I can diversify my carry, but for summer this is a good representative sample. 

Also, if you are going to a party or a place where its not so awesome to have a "scary knife" or if you just need something that is PURE utility with low fidget factor, you can't beat something like this set up:

IMG_0838

Note the old padded croc strap on the 556i.  That was TERRIBLE and I replaced it with a Crown and Buckle strap, found here.  The SAKModder Pioneer is a staple of my gear collection and I will have it long after the Internet has given way to the Holo-Internet and this site is gone (taken down, in all likelihood by spammers).  It is awesome, discreet, and super high functioning.  Again, the Peak...

That's a round up of what I carried this past month and why.  If this style of post stinks, tell me and this will be the last one. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Changes in Comments Policy

Spammers caused me to get a warning issued by Google last night.  The spammers had left spam comments on the blog so there are two things that I am changing:

1.  I will now delete comments.  In the past, in order to facilitate a good discussion, I never deleted a comment, regardless of content.  Now I will.  If it is a real comment, by a real person, and not a spam bot in the form of a Russian prostitute, I will leave it alone regardless of content.  If its spam, though, it is gone.

2.  You now have to have a Google ID to leave a comment.  I know that signing in is a hassle, but the alternative is that the blog gets shut down (either by Google or by me--I am not going to help spread filth).  So sign in and then post.  If you already have a Google ID this should be seamless.  If this doesn't work, I will increase the restrictiveness of the sign in requirement and make commentors join this site.  Its the only way to prevent some jackass from ruining the fun for everyone.

Sorry.  This is not what I wanted to do, but it looks like it is required.  I am very close to migrating the site off of Blogger as it is, and if I had the money I'd do it right now with a new redesign, but it is expensive.  My research showed that a custom site with a transporting of all the content would START at $3,000.  I don't have that right now.  Slowly, but surely.

And FUCK those people that ruined the fun for everyone. 

9/3/15  UPDATE: As you can see from below those increased precautions did not work.  So, all comments will be moderated by me and commentators will have to sign in.  If this doesn't work I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Trolling for Hate: "Pens" v. Pens

I recently purchased, on air while recording GGL, a Matthew Martin 400 series pen.  I also purchased, around the same time, a Scheaffer Sagaris Fountain Pen.  These purchases made me realize just how different pens can be and how the gear community has, for all intents and purposes, gotten the pen thing completely wrong.

My essential problem with the Matthew Martin pen, along with all of the pens of its ilk--the Hinderer pens, the Tuff Writers, the ZT, Surefire, and Benchmade pens is simple--they are not about performance, but instead about looks and branding.


IMG_0035

As a community, we are dedicated to focusing on performance.  We spend large sums of money on small upgrades in steels or insignificant increases in lumens.  But when it comes to pens we are enamored with what is, frankly, a bunch of bullshit.  

Now there are places where these hard use pens are useful.  If you are a police officer writing tickets on the side of the road in 110 degree heat or blizzard conditions, get one of pens listed above and call it a day (though even here you can still do better, see below).  They will write in just about any condition.  But if you aren't, you are settling for a massive downgrade in performance.  This isn't the pen equivalent of me railing against silly overbuilt knives.  There they are ostensibly still knives.  The difference between something like the Matthew Martin pen, even with a good refill, as opposed to the Fisher refill that is the default for all of these pens, and the Scheaffer is essentially an unbridgeable gulf.  

I used to think that these ballpoint refill pens were necessary as nothing as prissy as a fountain pen could withstand the rigors of EDC work, but after carrying a fountain pen for two years, I have put the lie to that claim.  A good fountain pen, like a Kaweco Sport, Pilot Vanishing Point, or the Scheaffer Sagaris, can handle daily use and lots of travel (air travel is a different story, but with precautions taken, they can handle even that).  I get that some fountain pens that don't hold up.  In particular, I have avoided Twsbi, but aside from cheap stuff and a few exceptions, the fountain pens I have had have been able to withstand the rigors of hard, excessive daily use. 

P1050472

And the performance increase--the writing performance increase (because, after all, these are pens and their task is to write)--is huge.  I switched to fountain pens because I take so many pages of handwritten notes a day that my hand became a claw when I was forcing myself to use ballpoints and gels.  You need so little pressure to write with a fountain pen that I can easily take twenty or thirty pages of notes a day, at a high speed under stress, with no problem.  I can't say the same for a ballpoint.

But its not just the ease of use that demarcates a fountain pen from other pens.  The fountain pen allows for a tremendous amount of variability in the width of the line.  You can get very thin lines for marginalia or massively thick lines for underlining important things.  With a ballpoint or gel, you can't do these things without a ton of effort.  There is also the fact that you can get very precise colors with a fountain pen.  I just bought my first bottle of ink (and at the rate I am using it I will still have it in five years), Pilot's Iroshizuku, and it is amazing.  The vivid colors and the change in tone from the edges of the ink to the heart of the line are incredible.  Your eye drinks it all in and your hand is thrilled at the prospect of continued writing.

In short, the performance difference between a fountain pen and other pens is so great that it is the the same as the difference between a high end ZT and the knife shaped objects sold at Wal-Mart for a dollar.  By focusing on things like the body material or the name brand on the pen, the EDC community has become blinded.  This is the only place where we accept truly subpar performance.  You can put all of the mammoth ivory you want on the body of a pen, but if it runs a ballpoint refill, your still just putting lipstick on a pig.

This is not as simple as fountain pens are better (though they are).   In reviewing pens and using them more than probably 99% of the population, I have come to realize that ballpoints are especially bad.  Gels are better, with better page feel, better lines, and better colors, but they are still not the same as a fountain pen.  I have found that only the Mont Blanc Fineliner refill approaches the performance of a fountain pen.  This is a case where I think it is probably worth having a discussion about performance.  Comparing a Fisher refill and a fountain pen is pointless.  The Fisher refill is awful.  100% total garbage.  But with the Fineliner you get something better and something different from a fountain pen.  These are real pens.  I also think the Sharpie refill is close to being this good.  It is just as "write everywhere" as the Fisher, but it gives you real page feel. 

The trend in EDC pens is pretty silly--massively heavy, overbuilt pens designed to withstand cannon fire, but can't write worth a lick.  If you write every day you owe it to yourself to do better than a ballpoint, roller ball, or gel pen.  If you only jot something down once in a while, well, I am sure the EDC pen will work, but it is no better than a Sharpie, even if it is in a titanium body.  And really, when as minimal use stopped us from pursuing performance?  Very few of us use our knives for hours a day, and yet we have no problem seeking out M390 and ZDP-189.

So it is a mystery--why do we accept clearly inferior performance in our pens?  Perhaps it is because we have reached the Baroque Period of the Golden Age of Gear and only bling, not performance, matters.  But I also think it is possible that some folks just don't know better.  That $600 mammoth ivory pen writes no better than a free bank ballpoint.  But for $5 you can get a damn good writer in a Sharpie.  And for $25 you can get a truly sublime and durable fountain pen in the form of the Kaweco Sport, Lamy Safari, or many others.

P1010337

And try as I might I can't find anything even close to the performance of a Vanishing Point, thanks to its best in price bracket gold nib, for around $125.

If you care about performance, if you want the very best, or if you care about value, stop kidding yourself with these three pound, ugly monsters and get a pen used by adults.  Get a fountain pen, or at least something that runs a Mont Blanc Fine Liner.  Or hell, get a Sharpie in a metal body with replaceable refills (they are like $7).

And if you can't bring yourself to do that, at least drop that Fisher refill in the garbage and get a Schmidt EasyFlow 9000, the best writer that is compatible with Parker style refill (which is what the Fisher is).  

I'll keep reviewing the ballpoint pens because they can be useful, they do write longer (though a large refill fountain pen lasts quite long as well), and people are interested.  But I think any person interested in EDC and performance should have a fountain pen in their daily carry arsenal.