Thursday, April 7, 2016

Production Titanium Framelock Flipper Shooutout

There are a lot of titanium framelock flippers out there.  I have reviewed my share.  So inclusion here is not just a matter of there only being three, but these three being the best I have handled.  First a word on some notable absences.

You might be surprised to see ZERO ZT knives here.  The reason is pretty simple--they all have weird lock bar issues.  It's like their VERY sensitive actors--if you put even a bit of pressure on them, they get stage fright and stay inside their handles.  It was pretty bad on the ZT0450, but even bigger knives like the ZT0456 have this issue.  Until ZT fixes it, I will like them, but not love them.  It's also fair to note that while the issue is barely there on the stunning ZT0456, that knife is decidedly out of the price range here.  I wanted nothing more than around $200, though I know the TRE G10 can retail for more than that in some places.  The funny thing is I had to think long and hard as to why the Skyline doesn't make this list.  That knife is so damn good, even now.  I love the steel, one of my favorite non-PM steels, and the flipping action is first rate.  Oh and it is still under $100, despite Kershaw bumping the price up a few times since its release.  

Spyderco's flippers have been pretty uneven.  The two Southards (Positron and Southard) have been less than stellar (it pains me so much to write that, Brad Southard is one of my absolute favorite knife makers and Spyderco just makes great stuff), the Dice and Domino are too wide in the pocket, and the Carey stuff never excited me, though the Rubicon might be more tempting if you could actually access the lockbar.

Benchmade's exclusion is easy--they don't make a titanium frame lock flipper.  Yep, that's right--one of the major production companies is completely absent in the fastest, most profitable part of the market.  Come on, don't pretend like your surprised, it's Benchmade.  Just be thankful that they updated the Griptillian line, it's only been a decade or so since they touched it (compared to Spyderco, which releases high end steels on its evergreen stuff once a year).  If they were a car company they'd still be trying to convince us of the benefits of low gas mileage engines.  

Similarly, Chris Reeve has no entry into this market segment.  He does not believe in flippers (despite what my April Fools post showed!) or even flipping open his knives and he is busy making a slightly different version of the Sebenza to sell his fanboys.  This one will be called the Iripzuof and it will be between the Small Sebenza 21 and the Inkosi, with a 2.80 inch blade.

Also, note the dearth of Boker stuff.  Boker just hasn't turned the corner yet, no matter how much I like my Mini Kwaiken.  Their fit and finish is still suspect and this says nothing for their choice of steels.  I'd love to see better steels in their knives.  VG-10 just doesn't cut it anymore, well it does cut it, but well, you know what I mean.  

Finally, I wish CRKT would release another premium steel knife like the Hi Jinx.  The flipping action on CRKTs is among the most refined of any production company and they are getting this level of performance out of lesser materials--no ceramic ball bearings, high end steels, etc.  The GSD was a sweet knife, but it was a boat anchor.  Similarly the Eraser flipped like a dream (there is a reason some folks think of it as a budget Tilt), but the steel keeps it from being competitive here.

The one area I don't feel 100% comfortable with is Chinese knives.  I wish I had more experience with the new high end Chinese flippers, but they have gotten so expensive so quickly and there are so many of them that it is hard to keep pace.  Between Custom Knife Factory (made in China assembled in Russia), Reate, Kizer, and the private label stuff for folks like Liong Mah and Todd Begg, the Chinese release a new titanium frame lock flipper a week. 

The three knives left standing after all this consideration are all uniformly excellent.  If you stopped now and chose one at random, you'd be satisfied for a long, long time.  They are all GREAT.  But as usually, I will pick a winner here.  The way it works is all three knives will be scored compared to each other in all ten categories of the knife scoring system.  The best in a given category will be given a 5, the second place will be given a 3, and the loser a 1 (this prevents bunched scores and bars a knife with three really good features but wretched everything else from winning).  After that I will break down the scores by the price, to determine which is the best value.  If the knife with the highest score is also the best value it is the winner.  If not, I'll discuss why.  No matter what, no bullshit ties or inconclusive results like the comparison reviews done in Blade Magazine (Note: I do not sell ads for knives, so I can review them unencumbered by ad dollars...just sayin').

The three knives that are part of this shoot out are:

1. The Lionsteel TRE G10 (designed, I thinks, by Paul Molletta)
2. The Kizer Gemini (designed by Ray Laconico)
3. The Spyderco Mantra 1 (designed by Eric Glesser)

Each of these three knives scored a 19 or a 20 and each of these three knives is somewhere between $165 and $200.  Though they are not cheap, they are modest compared to other offering out there and I think these three are representative of both what people are looking for when buying a knife like this.  

Design

Gemini: 5
TRE: 3
Mantra 1: 1

There are touches on the TRE that I really enjoy, like the rounded spine, but by in large I find it a smidge busy.  This, it seems to me, is the downfall of many Lionsteel products, especially the actual Three Rapid Exchange version of the TRE.  They can't resist going for it.  If it can be done machining-wise, they go for it.  The end result is a machining feat but a busy design.  This knife would be much better without all of the cuts and divots and machining marks.  A smoothed out version in micarta would be smokin'.

The Mantra 1, by contrast, is as about as by the numbers as it gets.  It is literally a Delica with a few improvements and a flipper. This is not bad, it's just not all that creative.  And when the knives are close in quality as these three are, I can be nit picky and award or deduct points for things like creativity of design.  It, like the TRE, works wonderfully, but it is not the most inspired thing I have seen.

P1060996

Fit and Finish

TRE: 5
Gemini: 3
Mantra 1: 1

P1060999

All of these knives are very nicely made.  You won't find a single flaw on any of them.  Centering, blade finish, handle finish, lock up--everything is just perfect.  but the TRE's appearance is most complex with lots of machining and contouring (the Gemini has contouring too).  And so, just like in Olypmic diving, its going to win because while it is equal to the others in terms of execution, what it is executing has a higher degree of difficulty.  And so to with the Gemini compared to the simpler Mantra 1.  Still, this is so close that differentiating the knives by score is almost frivolous.  

Grip

Mantra 1: 5
Gemini: 3
TRE: 1

This is a place where there are meaningful differences.  The Mantra 1 and the Gemini are close, but the TRE is far behind, relatively speaking.  The issue with the TRE is that with all of the curves and cuts on the handle there are times when the knife generates hotspots.  I found the index notch/lock access cutout to be exceptionally sharp.  The Mantra 1 and Gemini, by contrast are great in the hand.  The only thing that makes the Mantra 1 stand out is the knife feels more "solid" in the hand thanks to heavier beadblasting.  It's grippier without being offensive.  But this is a very slight difference from the Gemini.

Carry

TRE: 5
Mantra 1: 3
Gemini: 1

P1060995

This is pretty simple--the TRE is the lightest of the knives and so it is the best to carry.  They pretty much go in weight order, though I do think the rounded spine on the TRE is another small bonus that puts it at the top of the heap.  The Mantra 1 is not a trade paperback by any means, but it is wider and a smidge heavier.  The Gemini, again, while not bulky, is bigger and heavier still.  

Steel

TRE: 5
Gemini: 3
Mantra 1: 1

Boy is this complicated.  M390 is probably my favorite or second favorite steel on an EDC knife, so it's hard not to put it in the top slot, but M4 is just so incredible at cutting and holding an edge.  And S35Vn is just an all around all-star.  In the end, I think this is a tight bunch, but the tarnish potential of the M4 puts it at the back of the line.  As between M390 and S35Vn, it's a photo finish, with the differences being so small as to be negligible in theory and undetectable in use.

Blade Shape

TRE: 5
Gemini: 3
Mantra 1: 1

I love the TRE's blade.  It is just so pretty.  The rounded spine and slight drop point have worked on knives for decades and here it is just as sexy as ever.  GREAT.  The Gemini's drop point is also good, but a little too droopy for me.  It matters little in the real world, but every once in a while I feel like the point should be higher than it is, or at least my hands tell me so.  The Mantra's blade shape is classic Spyderco, which I like a lot, but it is quite wide, probably too wide for what you get, hence the last place finish.  The finishes are pretty staggered here with the TRE leading, then the Gemini, and then a real space and the Mantra 1 at the end.

Grind

Mantra 1: 5
Gemini: 3
TRE: 1

P1070002

Neither the Gemini or the TRE is chubby, but the grind on the M4 on the Mantra 1 is so razor thin, you can shave with it.  In fact, while horsing around with the knife, I DID shave with you.  You know the story--your convinced it is the best slicer you have seen and so you put it to the test, lather up your face, and give it a peel or two.  Okay, maybe that's just me, but I do want to be thorough...and I love playing around with steel.  The Mantra 1 leads by a large margin here with the other two merely sharp, as compared to atom-splitting keen.

Deployment Method

Gemini: 5
Mantra 1: 3
TRE: 1

There are many, many customs I have handled that have worse deployment than the Gemini.  Among production knives only a few, like the Tilt (insert choir music, and thanks Elliot for the loan) and the ZT0454, have had better.  It's smooth, snappy, and responsive.  The flipper tab is just the right shape too.  The Gemini wins here by a country mile.  The Mantra 1 is very good, just not elite.  I like the flipper tab's shape as well (NO JIMPING ON FLIPPER TABS PLEASE) and unlike the Gemini the detent is strong enough you can't shake the knife out of the handle when closed.  But the action is not quite there.  It feels a little gritty or more like a set of bike gears than a top spinning on glass like the Gemini.  The TRE's flipping action is good, clearly above average among production knives, but the sharp edges of the handle in the "landing strip" (the place where your index finger goes after flipping open the knife) are sharp and the flipper tab is a bit too small.  Overall, all three are above average, probably well above average, but the Gemini is just amazing.

Retention Method

Mantra 1: 5
TRE: 3
Gemini: 1

P1060998

Spyderco doesn't get enough credit for the innovation that is the wire clip.  It is sturdy, discrete, and rarely creates hotspots.  I like the one here as it is more Dragonfly II stiff than Techno floppy.  The sculpted clip on the TRE is also good, generating no hotspots and holding the knife in place.  I was surprised that it could handle thicker material like jeans, but there were a few pair that felt like they were pushing the clip beyond the comfort zone.  The Gemini is the clear loser here.  The clip works well, but it does create a few hotspots.  This is the last part of the Kizer game that needs attention.  They do everything else so well that even average or slightly above average clips stick out (and cause) sore thumbs.

Lock

Gemini: 5
Mantra 1: 3
TRE: 1

P1060997

None of the locks exhibited any play at all and all engaged easily.  The only real differentiation is between the ease of disengagement. Here the Gemini is just a smidge better than the Mantra 1 and the Mantra 1 is better than the TRE.  But the clumping is pretty straightforward--the TRE is behind the other two because the edges on the inside handle slabs are a bit sharp, as all the edges are on the TRE's handle. Its not a big deal, but when forced to rank great knives, you have to find some way to distinguish great from merely really good. 

Scores:

Gemini: 32
TRE: 30
Mantra 1: 28

Value Score (dollars per point):

Gemini ($169.99): $5.31
Mantra ($167.97): $5.99
TRE ($199): $6.67

Conclusion

This was an incredibly close shootout and I think it is actually closer than the scores indicate because there is a lot of bunching in terms of performance in Grind, Blade Shape, and Carry.  In those three categories its essentially a three way draw, but minute differences gave them they ranks they got.  Honestly, I wouldn't say any of these three knives are worse than the other two.  It is close enough that preference alone should make the call for lots of people.  But having reviewed a ton of knives, I feel confident in my opinion that the Gemini is the best of these blades.  It all goes back to that genius Laconico design.  Sometimes I feel like Lionsteel is just making things difficult to make them difficult and though the Mantra is an improvement on the Delica, its not that much of an improvement.  The Gemini, based on the Jasmine, is just a beautiful blade in the hand, and in a picture.  It works and looks great.

I never plot these out before I write them, and so, to a certain extent each of these Shootouts is a surprise to me.  Fortunately I have never had one were the rankings didn't match my intuitions.  If I were standing at a counter at a knife store with you and all three of these knives were available, I would tell you pick which ever one you like.  If you didn't have a preference I would tell you go for the Gemini, then the Mantra, then the TRE and that's how the numbers come out.

In the end, all three of these knives are simply fantastic.  The steels are great, the flipping action is at least above average.  There is just so much to like with each one of these blades, its hard to complain about any of them. I also feel like these are hard ahead of other titanium framelock flippers I have handled.  But man, I love that Gemini quite a bit.  

13 comments:

  1. Excellent as always. I'll point out that, if you haven't seen this yet, I've read on forums that the Mantras are having some issues with the bearing system. Some folks are getting them with perfect action and some are getting them with what you describe. It may not be enough different to change the scoring, but it's worth noting.
    Being a Spyderholic, it's good to see Spyderco with an in-house design that seems very quintessentially Spyderco: simple, functional, light, great steel and ergos, and not super flashy. But it's also fairly cutting-edge(lol) as well with the steel, lock, and Ti construction, and it compares very well to other similar and excellent knives in the same price range.

    ReplyDelete
  2. http://www.benchmade.com/ti-monolock-family.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Unfortunately it is not a flipper. That knife came out two years ago to a collective forehead slap. So close, yet still so far away.

      Delete
    2. I have to go slap my own forehead now.

      Delete
  3. Interesting that you should mention Boker - they just released an updated version of the Exskelibur 1 (and 2, but it's not exactly a flipper) that has a titanum framelock, CF or Ti front scale, and runs S35VN instead of VG-10. Comes in just over 2.5 ounces, and if the blade is the same geometry as the older ones, will outslice most Spydercos.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Also, is the Kizer going to replace the Lionsteel in the Top 5?

    ReplyDelete
  5. This very informative shootout helped me decide on the Mantra 1.

    I actually find the Gemini's lines too feminine to want to carry it, though it's a beautiful knife.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A related question to Tony: Can you compare the overall width of the three knives when closed? I'm talking handle spine to blade spine. It looks like, in the pictures, that even with the Spyderhole the Mantra isn't a lot wider than the Gemini, if any.

      Delete
  6. BTW looks like the CRKT Jettison finally hit retail sources. That should be a great little urban pal, especially if the flipping action is dialed in as you reported. Looking forward to the review.

    Thesis: pointy-ass wharncliffe blade shapes not only make wicked fighting knives but are also very useful on small office-y EDC blades.

    Only thing they fall short on is (some) food prep.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nice review. I've had all three and basically agree, however as much as I should like the Lionsteel on paper, my hand hated every thing about it. I couldn't wait to sell it.

    Carrying the Kizer clipless has been awesome, like a wonderfully smooth stone in my pocket. I agree that there should be a slightly smaller version, and less drop in the point would be nice.

    But in the end I carry a Mantra 2 more often than most of my blades. Its not as slicey as the 1, but its a great design with a narrow in pocket profile that is rare in the Spyderco lineup. Plus M4 is probably my favorite steel.

    ReplyDelete