Monday, March 7, 2016

Trolling for Hate: Lock Strength Doesn't Matter

Dear Lynn Thompson,

Lock Strength doesn't matter.

/s/,

Reality

Okay, so that is a bit of hyperbole, but not as much as you might think.  For years, centuries actually, there were two kinds of knives--fixed blades and folders.  Neither had locks.  And yet both were used in self-defense, hunting, and every day tasks.  Generations of people used knives and never thought they needed locks.  Because they didn't.

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It's not that locks are bad, they aren't.  But they aren't necessary.  It used to be, when I first started this blog, I wouldn't even consider reviewing a knife without a lock, but like a lot of things--with experience my opinion changed.  I have been using and carrying slipjoints for two years now and I have yet to accidentally lop off a finger.  Put another way: as between an ounce of what Knives Ship Free's Derrick Bohn calls knife sense and a 1000 pound lock, I'd take an ounce of knife sense. 

Here is the deal--the vast majority of knives made by reputable companies have sufficiently strong locks.  They may not be able to dead lift 1000 pounds, but under normal use they are more than adequate.  Cold Steel and their fanboys would have you believe that lock strength is like the top speed in a car--sure you can't drive 200 MPH on the highway, but it's nice to have it when you want to go a little faster than 65.  I get that, but I think the analogy fails for one simple reason--I am not convinced you need a lock at all.  If the analogy worked, a knife without a lock would be like car that couldn't move, but there are all sorts of very effective knives without locks.  Instead, I think the analogy would be to something like a spoiler--it can help, but is 100% not essential.  It also works in the sense that I think there is a huge cross over between aftermarket spoiler fans and Cold Steel fanboys--both groups have a penchant for gratuitous and tacky displays.  

Now, of course, there are going to be some people that protest and say that locks are necessary for self defense.  You might be right.  I know exactly nothing about the use of a knife in self defense.  Assume you are right.  But history and my professional experience says otherwise.  Brutus wasn't testing his knife's lock the night before he betrayed Caesar.  

 
And the vast majority of the stabbing cases I have seen involve none of the knives we talk about here.  Almost all of them involve kitchen knives.  So sure, you might need a lock for self-defense, I don't know.  But two pretty important data points--history and experience--don't seem to confirm these things.  

Someone else might claim in the comments below that you need a good lock for hard use, outdoors tasks.  I am not Paul Bunyan or a survival expert, but it does seem silly that you'd opt for a folder in this role when fixed blades are, by any account, stronger.  Why compromise on the tool, but insist on a uber lock, when you can get the tool without compromise and not have to worry about the lock at all? Occam's Razor, in a modified form, seems to apply here--the simplest tool is most likely the right tool, all other things being equal.  If you can get superior performance AND you don't need to worry about the lock, why bother with a folder?

One thing I think is a fair criticism is to point out that not all non-locking folders are the same.  I vastly prefer slipjoints to friction folders.  I also like the slipjoints that are more like lock backs than the Anso Monte Carlo style knives that use a detent (see also, Spyderco Dogtag folder).  That said, there are ton of slipjoints that I have found are truly superior tools.  I write this ahead of the Spyderco Roadie review and that is a knife, thanks to the choil, that feels just as safe as a locking knife of the same size.  Similarly, the pull on some of my GECs has been incredible--they aren't closing on accident.  

Finally, I think there is one thing that lock strength proponents ignore--accidental deployment.  I have no fear that my Indian River Jack is going to fall open in my pocket.  I have had that happen with locking knives.  It only happens with knives that have a flaw, but that flaw is more common on locking knives as the designers assume that with a lock all is fixed.  I'd much rather my 1 year old stumble across my GEC Small Jack #25 than the latest flipper I am reviewing.  

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One is much more likely to fall open and cut him than the other and it is not the one without a lock.

The only place where lock strength matters is on the Internet.  If you want to make a video of you "testing knives" in your backyard doing silly things like 200 spine whacks or dead lifting weights, then lock strength matters.  The last time I checked two things are true: things that matter only on the Internet really don't matter AND in real world use I have never done something like a spine whack or dead lifting weights with my knife...never.  I am not sure what the proponents of these tests think they are proving.  As a dude, and the father of two boys, I appreciate the thrill and joy of blowing stuff up.  When our second most recent vacuum cleaner died we took it apart to see how it worked and then we smashed it up like it was a copier in Office Space.  I get the giddy glee that comes along with smashing stuff.  But it is not "science" or valuable performance evaluation to perform excessive spine whacks or to baton through a cinder block.  It's just abuse.  I wouldn't claim that a Veyron is a shitty car because it can't crush cars Monster Truck-style and I refuse to think that a knife is a shitty knife because it failed one of these bro science "tests."

I still prefer knives with locks, but that used to be more like a requirement than a preference.  I feel like it is at least possible that as I get older that preference will go away entirely until I prefer the opposite (as well as Werther's Originals).  This fixation on lock strength is just marketing.  Humans did well for thousands of years without cutting tools that lock.  I think we will be fine if our locks aren't super, uber, ultra overbuilt.  The majority of what we have is good enough, but that statement means that every knife, in this one way, is fine.  You only get the market differentiation that is useful to sales people when you make something important that isn't and then show how your product is better at that one thing than everyone else's product.  Lock strength matters more to marketing people than it does to you and me...or at least it should.  

26 comments:

  1. Anthony, your points are valid. However I would rather see enthusiast arguing over the strength of locks, a safety device, instead of S110V versus M390 on a knife that doesn't do anything but sit in safe. And I sure appreciate the engineering and manufacturing that goes into a great lock versus some sort of embellishment the dozen add anything to the function of a knife. All of these have a place and I'm not saying any of them are wrong, but I certainly tend towards the more practical than the artistic.

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    1. This is a really good point and one that I agree with. I wish I would have thought of this prior to publishing the article.

      That said, you could have all of the engineering and design grace of a good lock without an emphasis on lock strength per se. For example the Hawk designed CRK produced TiLock. A number of Michael Walker locks (of which there are four dozen or so) also fall into this camp.

      Great point!

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  2. 1. Ultra-high lock strength doesn't matter.
    2. Lock strength doesn't matter.
    3. A lock doesn't matter.

    These are 3 different claims and are listed in what I'd call decreasing order of plausibility.

    If you have a hard use in mind for an edged tool, then you should probably carry a fixed blade IF you can legally and practically do so. If you can't, then carry a locking folder. It will tend to be easier to tuck into normal clothing than a fixed blade, and there are certainly jurisdictions where a sizable locking folder is legal while a fixed blade just won't be. This is all that ever needs to be said to justify the popularity of the modern "tactical" folder.

    I would rather peel apples and open mail with a nice slipjoint, but there is other stuff I do, or might do, where a lock is better. Even breaking down thick box carboard (a very mundane job) I've had situations where a slippie "grabbed" in the material and the blade tried to fold on my knuckles. I avoided injury, I guess due to "knife sense," but it's still pleasant to not have to worry about that shit.

    Anyway, the answer is just to carry two knives. Many excellent pairings of bigger modern knife and smaller slipjoint can be put together for around 5 oz carry weight combined, less than an iPhone w/ case.

    OK, so sometimes a lock is highly desirable. Next, how about lock strength? Knife locks certainly need basic stability -- adequate engagement of surfaces, etc. What about lock strength in the narrow CS video sense -- ability to bear sustained weights and/or sudden forces? I'd say you need at least reasonable load-bearing ability. And some modern knives do seem to fail at that. I found the Cold Steel tests of the Sebenza genuinely unsettling. That's because the weights under which the Sebenza lock collapsed were quite modest -- on the order of 30 lbs IIRC. That's not hard to exert. Never going to bump your knife's spine into anything while doing a hard cut?

    So, locks are routinely valuable; and adequate lock strength is valuable too & should not be taken for granted. What that leaves, I think, is your implied claim that no one should choose between a Spyderco and a Cold Steel based on one of them withstanding "only" 150 lbs of hanging weights and the other surviving 200 lbs or whatever. Fair enough. At that point we're well into "adequate" lock strength on both sides and we've just passed over into marketing minutia.

    There's a constant, but creative, tension running through the gear reviewing community between the pure everyday-utility types and those of us who care about crossover self-defense/"tactical" functionality in knives and lights. E.g. if you want to be able to use your flashlight in the ways commonly taught for low-light confrontations, then something like the classic Surefire momentary-on tailswitch UI on the Lumamax LX2 (where you twist the bezel to get permament-on and to change modes) is strictly superior to any selector ring, side switch, or indeed any multi-mode clicky UI on the market. And since the classic Surefire UI is also a pretty darn handy UI for quotidian flashlight stuff, that is the UI I want on my EDC light above all others. Same deal with some of the features on Cold Steel knives.

    When we stay at the superficial level of "does this gear item suck? does it have any flagrant functional defects?" these differences in intended use don't show up much. But because reviewing has become way more demanding, precise and focused in the community, these differences emerge more.

    Good times! I love Trolling for Hate.

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    1. These are good points. I think I would endorse at least position 1, but probably also position 2. I do like the reassurance of having a lock, but I don't think having the strongest one out there is necessary. Just about any well made lock will work--liner to Axis. The Tri-Ad lock is great, but for reasons not necessarily related to its strength (its wear capacity, for example, is more interesting to me than its strength). Its also great because it functions like something everyone is familiar with, but has noticeable improvements.

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  3. Ah sense at last. I guess these companies that fixate on one aspect are simply using it for marketing reasons to stand out in a saturated market.

    I would rather have the whole product do the talking.

    Now for the next rant - How 'made in the USA' is not an automatic guarantee of quality.

    Having lit blue touch paper I'll retire to a safe distance!

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  4. One point that I think is worth making for locks in general is that if you want one hand open and/or swift opening, a slipjoint is DOA. The lock strength argument, especially when carried to the ridiculous extent of CS marketing is of course exaggerated however the lock as a tool needed to enable OHO is valid. I say this as a traditional EDC carrier and user. When it's raining or cold outside, I'm using my Skeletool instead just so that I can have easy open with wet and cold hands. There are too few OHO non locking knives for the concept to mature as it would need to so that it could create a market. Especially when all the arguments against locks are created based on a legal rather than practical basis.

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    1. I like this point. One-handed opening/closing is more important to me than the actual lock. It's too bad there aren't more non-locking folders that can still be opened one-handed. The only "mainstream" one I can think of off the top of my head is the Viper DAN.

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    2. Spyderco has a ton of non locking OHO. CRKT has one as well designed by Liong Mah.

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    3. I think the question has to become, why not have a lock on a knife sized to be OHO other than just to be contrary or to fit a specific legal requirement? On a small or slipjoint knife the reason is apparent, to cut down on weight, size, perhaps cost and as a bow to tradition. Outside of those realms however I don't see the reason. Why not have a lock? Why not have that extra security? Just to be more macho? You can't do a flipper without a lock or indeed any other smooth and fast opening knife. The spring or detent or whatever gets in the way.

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  5. Tony, have you listened to the latest Modern Neanderthal podcast? They make the excellent point about the Cold Steel lock strength tests: they made the knives and the lock to pass their test. No other knives should EVER be expected to out-perform knives that are designed for the test. Personally, I'm not worried about the lock strength in a Sebenza. If it fails, it was defective and I send it back, or I was doing something wrong and it's not the knife's fault. Either way, I expect CRK to be testing their knives in such a way that makes sense for those knives, not some ridiculous weight hanging test.

    They also talked about someone comparing the Sebenza test to "if you crash a Ferrari and an F-150 into a wall, and then complain about the Ferrari being worse off, that's missing the point", and I agree. Even all else being equal, and it isn't, the Sebenza is almost certainly not going to do as well as a CS knife that's designed for hard use. I'd bet on the blade of a Techno being harder to break in half than the blade on a Chaparral(to use two same-steeled examples), and to compare "blade strength" on knives with such different design intentions would be silly.

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  6. I agree with you in part, but I do think your argument about history needs to be examined further. Locking folding knives have a very long and bloody history as weapons, from the Spanish Navaja and strap lock daggers, to the Filipino balisong, to the folding, spring-loaded bayonets mounted on flintlock pistols and muskets that are the ancestor of automatic knives, the Mercator K55K used in two world wars and widely adopted by street gangs in the states, to those same gangs with Italian stiletto-style switchblades and gravity knives, the Buck 110s and clones mounted in quick-draw sheaths worn by bikers, all the way up to Al Mar and the original SERE folder. All locking folders, all used as weapons by many and varied people throughout the years.

    Then add in that folding knives are responsible for more injuries than any other tool and I'd say some focus on lock strength is more than justified.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23849364

    I do think some focus far too much on lock strength and not enough on lock design (why is a lock that can make a folder totally useless if you hold it slightly wrong so popular?) and that the type of testing Cold Steel does is not really that handy.

    I'd much rather see locks tested on a modified Charpy machine. Sticking the tip of a knife into something generates a dynamic load that simply isn't well represented through a weight hang test. Let's see how much energy it actually takes to spring the lock and that will be significantly more informative as well as actually providing a real baseline number we can compare subsequent tests to.

    In short, lock strength matters, just not as much or in the way many people seem to think it does. Weight hang tests aren't like top speed in a car, they're like horsepower. A big, fancy number that seems impressive and may well indicate some qualities that you want, but numbers like top speed, low end torque and acceleration will actually tell you a hell of a lot more.

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    1. Great points. I would welcome a standard for this kind of dynamic test of lock stability.

      Would be useful info, particularly for would-be defensive knives, but not solely for them.

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    2. Two points--the historical reference wasn't to say there were NO locking blades, but merely to point out that people got on without them. Also, historically speaking, non fixed blades are a relatively new thing in the world of cutting tools. We had chipped rocks for thousands of years...

      I agree with the testing Cold Steel does. It is not very helpful in simulating real life uses. In a way it reminds me of the problem with coatings and the CATRA machine. Their testing exaggerates the strengths and hides the weaknesses of their lock.

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    3. I hear you and agree, but that more comes down to an argument about fixed vs folding than lock strength. I think we can all agree that fixed blades are just out-and-out better in terms of functionality for, well, everything, but there are pretty strong arguments to carry a folder instead. And if you have to pick a folder as a weapon, I would argue that history documents pretty strongly that it should lock.

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    4. I defer to you here...I never choose a folder (or a knife) as a weapon.

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    5. I have over 20 various type of locking knives,from the benchmade axis to the Cold Steel triad locks.I have frame and liner locks.My most used knife I own is a Swiss Army Pioneer which has no lock but is very safe and functional.I use it to breakdown boxes open mail and other task.

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  7. Doesn't this fly in the face of your recent post: The Difference between Acceptable and Good?

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    1. Only if you assume a lock is necessary. If you do, then of course you want the best lock possible, but even then I am not sure if the best lock and the strongest lock are the same thing. It might be that a lock that is 90% as strong but has ZERO play and is easier to engage and disengage is better.

      But again that assumes a lock is necessary. I don't think it is, and so, its not a question of whether something is acceptable or good. I have had a lock of nonlocking knives that are damn good. I never felt like I was missing something with these knives, like the IRJ or the CSC Boy's Knife.

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    2. But all of your top 5 knives have locks...

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    3. Not for long...see also, Alox Cadet.

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  8. While I don't like the aesthetic or image of Cold Steel, it's wrong to fault them for making a stronger lock. A lock might not be necessary in the first place depending on application, but if a user decided one is in fact necessary then it seems logical to choose the strongest. That being said, the difference in strength between the Tri-ad lock and the compression lock in a recent video is close enough to negligible. Let's not forget Chris Reeve's motivation for developing the Integral Lock: "...My first impressions of the liner lock style locking mechanism were very favorable but when I examined it more closely, I decided that I didn't much like the flimsiness of the thin liner. After some thought, I redesigned the concept and have created the Sebenza Integral Lock© which I believe to be the most rugged folding knife on the market.

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    1. Again, I am not convinced that "strongest" is necessarily best. So long as the lock is sufficiently strong, there are other attributes that I find more important, such as ease of engagement and disengagement and its wear capacity over time.

      The CRK comment about the ruggedness of frame locks seems like some marketing speak from someone that sells frame locks.

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  9. I don't care what you say, I like Werthers Originals. They remind of my grandma. . . Damnit

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  10. I own many knives from the Benchmade Axis locks to the Cold Steel triad lock. I own frame and liner locks. My most used knife is my Swiss Army Pioneer which has no locks on its blade or tools. This knife has been very safe and functional from breaking down boxes to opening mail and all other general task.

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  11. I suppose there are people out there carrying folders instead of guns for self defense. Sounds like trouble to me!

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    1. No offense, but that's not a thoughtful comment.

      1. It's not "instead of"; it's usually "as well as." E.g. waved Endura 4 carried offside to defeat a gun grab.

      2. Legality. There are lots of places (and whole jurisdictions) where one can legally / practically carry a knife but not a gun. Similar issues for folders versus fixed blades. Couple times every week I am in a place where I can carry a 4" Cold Steel folder clipped to my front pocket with no worries, but would face possible jail time if found with a gun.

      I will grant that a good can of pepper spray should also be with one; it is significantly more likely to see use than either. But sometimes pepper spray fails or is inappropriate for the threat presented.

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