Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Gear of the Year Ballot

Same rules as always: no repeats from the big three to the individual categories and it needs to be "substantially new" as of 2015.  I also want to try to include things that were available in 2015, but sometimes you are seduced...what can I say.

Overall Gear of the Year: Kizer Gemini


I really think the Mk. III Aeon is the best product of the year, but it is still in the prototype phase and won't actually be on sale until 2016.  Its still an amazing piece of gear warranting mention (see below), but its not really fair to call it the best product of 2015.

The Gemini, on the other hand, WAS available in 2015, in both a high end version (ti handles and S35VN steel) that was $170 and a budget version (with G10 handles and VG-10) that came in under $100.  Spyderco is selling similar knives (with slightly better steel) for $250-$300 (the Spyderco Southard).  Both are made overseas.  This has better action and a better handle (by far).  The Gemini is both a great piece of gear and a great value, hence the overall winner.

The action on the Gemini is incredible, as smooth and as snappy as a custom.  The simple look and elegantly finished handles are remarkable.  Overall, Ray's design is both clever (look at the shape and position of the flipper) and timeless.  This is a perfect example of a great knifemaker collaborating with a new top flight knife manufacturer.

As I wrote in the review, in many ways the Gemini is superior to the custom Jasmine.  Many took that to be a slight of custom knives and Ray in particular, but it's not.  Ray's design is a breakthrough--a comfortable, thoroughly stylish, and very well crafted knife.  The fact that a multimillion dollar company can make it as nice or nicer than he can by hand is more a commentary on how good machining has gotten and less a commentary on the state of handmade knives.  The Gemini is a gem, plain and simple.

Company of the Year: Kizer

The interesting thing is that the Gemini is just one of three collabs between Kizer and Laconico.  It is also only a slice of their collabs overall and just a fraction of their very large catalog, all of which are good, if my two blades are representative of the whole.  Kizer wins because they did awesome stuff in 2015 but also because they are the vanguard of a new class of manufacturers--high end production Chinese knives.  When Todd Begg collaborates with a Chinese company to produce production versions of his intricate and stylized knives you know the times are changing.  Reate and Kizer have been great.  Thanks to folks like Epic Snuggle Bunny who popularized and discussed many of these companies.  Before Austen, people just assumed these were SRM knives with huge mark ups.  Austen's popularization of these blades has shown the knife community just how good they can be and in 2015, led by Kizer and Reate, the burgeoning Chinese knife market boomed.  I can't wait to see what happens next?  Are we on the verge of a high end Pakistani or Indian made blade?  Could we see even more high end stuff?  How about a traditional knife pattern done by Kizer?  The possibilities are tantalizing.  The Chinese makers, more than anything else, have put wind back in the sails of the gear world, which, a year or two ago looked like it was about to die of overembellishment--a sort of machining version of gout.  There is still a bit of that, but ZT, Spyderco, and Benchmade now have real rivals in the East we are all the beneficiaries.  

Best Value:  oLight S1 Baton 


I like the D25AAA from Eagletac and it is a great value, but time and again this year I came back to the S1.  It is an amazing light and a great value.  For $50 you get a state of the art, do anything you need EDC that is the size of your thumb.  Every year the old Quickbeam flashlight design conundrum seems further and further broken (size, brightness, runtime--choose two), but the S1 just decapitates the principle.  You could use the S1 for the rest of your life and never be disatisfied.  It's that good. 

Production Light: Surefire Titan Plus


It's hard not to choose the S1.  The Surefire Titan Plus is very good, but it is basically a one trick pony. The S1 does better at that one trick than the Titan Plus does and it does other things better as well.  I loved a lot of lights this year, this was truly a boom year for flashlights, production and custom, but none were as awesome as the S1.  That said, given the S1 won one of the three big awards, the Titan Plus wins by default here.   

Production Knife: American Knife Company Forest


An old pattern, tweaked by a knife veteran and made by one of the finest, if not THE finest, production fixed blade maker in the world is a recipe for success as much a sure thing as dough, cheese, and tomato sauce. The knife is great, of course, with a fun and useful blade shape and a superb handle, but the sheath is a really awesome surprise bonus.  Any tool that rewards skill is a great tool and the Forest does that in abundance. 

That said, the only other knife close is the TRE G10.  That knife, in the horde of titanium frame lock flippers, is a really good one, but it is just one of many, lacking the incredible action of the Gemini.  It's nice to see that the old stalwarts don't just dominate--there wasn't a ZT, Benchmade, or Spyderco that was close to these three blades this year.  

Pen of the Year: Tactile Turn Gist


I love this pen.  This is one of my favorite fountain pens I have used, which is admittedly not a lot.  The reason I like it so much is because it combines two of the things I want most in a pen--a good writing experience and toughness.  I don't need a "will-it-blend" tough pens most of the time, but I do need something that can stand up to a lot of use and a lot of travel.  Ideal writing conditions are out the window and while I am not taking notes in the mountains of Montana looking for dino bones, I am writing a lot in jails and prisons.  Dainty pens won't work.  The Gist ain't dainty.  The clip, in particular, is a tough piece of hardware and it puts it ahead of many "classics" of the fountain pen world.  But it is also a great writer.  A really great writer.  I loved the poly version Will sent me as it was balanced and light and the nib is very smooth.  All around a home run and Will's second in a row.  Piece for piece there is no one making EDC gear that has been as consistently great as Will.  

Custom or Midtech Knife: Smock Knives SK23

Whoops.  This is a clear omission on my part.  It should have been on the survey and I would have changed it, but some folks voted the evening I posted it making it impossible to go back.  This is clearly one of the cooler customs this year, loaded with features that make it unique and a good working knife.  This ain't no gilded lily.  And Kevin Smock ain't no pretender.  His mod work told me he had lots of potential.  This knife shows me that he stands out from an already crowded field.  

Custom Light of the Year: Muyshondt Aeon Mk. III


Okay, I have to give in.  This is one awesome light.  Yes it is not readily available, but damn is it good.  Trust me.   I love this light and the production upgrades will only make the light better.  I like the UI and I love the output and tint.  This is an all-around winner.  Get ready. 

Accessory of the Year: Scout Leatherworks Pocket Protector


If you carry a traditional folder you have got to, got to, go grab one of these.  The package--pairing a light and a knife--is something I have been partial to for a long time.  The Pocket Protector is a limited product in terms of its utility, but if you could use it, its awesome.  

Community Leader: 555 Gear

A long time ago I when I started this site I had hoped that there would eventually be enough of us talking about gear in a deep and systematic way that we could have a little network of folks.  Dan does it.  Andrew Gene does it.  Ed Jelley does it.  Aaron Shapiro does it.  And Andrew Lang does it as well.  There are many other folks that do this, but Andrew's in-depth research and great explanations are the standard for YouTube.  I really enjoy all of his reviews, but his best stuff, like the Iron Ranger review, is as good as it gets for gear criticism.  Plus who else has the moxie to set up in a movie theater lobby and talk about mechanical watches and Star Wars? 

Most Innovative: Surefire Titan Plus

Its not the best light on the market.  It will age poorly.  But man does it kill it when it comes to lumens.  Even with all of the preaching by flashlight aficianados, lumens are still the number lights are judge by and here Surefire did something no one--custom or production--has been able to do.  The Titan Plus hits 300 lumens for an hour on a 1xAAA cell (they cheat a bit--it is a NiMH cell).  Even the Peak Eiger, which can get brighter can't rival the Titan Plus's runtime on high--1 hour vs. 10-15 minutes.  I am not one swayed by specs, but here when they are this impressive, you have to tip your hat and say "Good job."  So: "Good job Surefire."

Best Crowdfunding Project: Anso Matrix


Folks--this is how you do a gear Kickstarter.  It came out.  He had a great video and a brilliant, unique design.  He then executed perfectly and mine arrived before I expected.  Oh, and it was cheaper than the handmade version and made in the US.  There is nothing that the Matrix doesn't do well and it was incredibly timely. 

Biggest Surprise: Spyderco Roadie

Call me blown away--this was an awesome little knife and one of my very, very favorite blades of the year.   I am stunned at how simple it is, how useful it is, and how good it is in the hand.  The in hand feel is on par with the Dragonfly and that is a great knife, if I haven't told you about it before.  The steel is thick but the edge is still quite slicey.  I love it.

Best New (and News) Site:

For actual newsy coverage of the knife world, as opposed to opinion pieces, which is what I generally do here, the new site Knife News is both timely and excellent.   From excellent surveys (I am not sure how statistically sound they are, but they use well constructed questions) to actual breaking news, this is a site you should add to your RSS reader. 

Worst Piece of Gear: Nitecore EC-11

It didn't work.  Twice.  The seller was an asshole.  The company was worse.  Amazon stinks.  It doesn't get much worse than this.  Nitecore has always had issues, but this was a new level of crapulence.

Most Disappoint Piece of Gear:  Chris Reeve Inkosi

There are about a million different things Chris Reeve could have released that would have been more exciting than this.  As it is the Inkosi was a huge snoozefest.  It wasn't a flipper.  It wasn't a new knife shape.  It wasn't something with a new steel.  It was a smaller version of a knives that was itself a derivative of the Sebenza 21.  In academics people accuse professors of having one good idea and going back to it too many times--slicing the baloney extra thin is one description I found apt during my decade in post graduate education.   This is as thin as you can slice the Sebenza baloney.  Does anyone need this knife?  Its hard to justify any uber pricey knife, but the Inkosi is so niche I don't know who this is intended for.  Uber CRK fans?  People missing a pinky?  Brewster from Brewster's Millions trying to waste money?  This knife just doesn't make sense to me.

Dumbass Move of the Year: Cold Steel "suing" CRKT

Given that Lynn Thompson settled this case in about ten seconds and the company refused to comment (after their email begged people to follow up) its clear the suit was nothing but a publicity stunt.  Everyone that pays attention to gear learned a lesson (if they hadn't already learned it)--ignore Cold Steel, their president, their stupid social media presence full of D-list celebrities and just pay attention to their knives.  Many of them are actually quite good.  If only the knives could get together and fire the people that run Cold Steel.  Either that or oust Lynn Thompson and install Andrew Demko as President.  He seems like a responsible adult, nice guy, and decent businessman.  If Cold Steel was a publicly traded company, the shareholders would be calling for someone head--after all the time and energy the brand spent over the last three years on retooling their knives and designs and upgrading the steels they use they lose a ton of momentum on what can only be described as the legal equivalent of an episode of Jackass.

There you go...my take.  If you didn't vote or just want to argue, comment below.  I am feeling cantankerous. 


  1. I love my Iron Rangers. I think its awesome that a company like Red Wing can release a product so outside its primary scope and succeed.

    It is no surprise that a Japanese designer brought these to life. The Japanese seem to have an intense passion for American work gear that was historically made with pride. Look who makes the best denim in the world now - the Japanese, who have bought all the shuttle looms from Americans to craft something truly iconic.

  2. * Kizer Gemini looks beautiful. I plan to confine my high-end knife purchases to freer societies such as US and Taiwan.

    * Agree that Demko makes a better face of Cold Steel than Thompson.

    * I think the S1 Baton has carry problems. I ended up losing mine. The light is brilliant (literally as well as conceptually) but it has a garbage clip. (Clips prove a big design challenge for compact 1xCR123 lights.)

    * People who want a Caly should get one in 2016. BHQ still has the discontinued ZDP 3.0 in stock, as well as the last Caly standing, the ZDP 3.5, a potent EDC that carries like a Delica. Best Japanese Spydies of all time. I'm not privy to any inside info, but Spyderco's trend of gradually discontinuing the line seems clear enough.

    Happy New Year!

    1. I grabbed a caly 3 when the 2016 discontinue list came out. For anyone on the fence - do what R.D. says and get it. It has a lot of characteristics I don't normally like - rivets, a backlock, zdp... But it turns out the knife is done so well, none of things matter and they end up being positives. I couldn't justify buying two for myself, but I liked it so much I bought one for a family member as a gift.

    2. If the Caly is anything like the Al Mar Eagle in ZDP, I second this! (They feel very similar in their execution, the way the back spacer, liners and G10 matches up, I'm assuming they're produced by the same OEM.)

      Also grabbed a Spydero Air when I heard they're being discontinued.

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  4. I don't know why in the world you would be looking for dinosaurs in the mountains in Montana. They're mostly found where the mountains aren't.

  5. Agree with you on the Cold Steel stupidity. Plenty other places to look, places with more integrity. Have been lusting after the Lucky dual blade folder but would prefer not to support CS.

    1. If it makes you feel better, the Lucky has a fairly major flaw - despite the nice, rounded carbon fiber handle, the spines of the blades are left squared off with sharp corners, making it uncomfortable in use unless you're using it Darth Maul style.