Friday, January 29, 2016

Steve Karroll SES Review

This is the rarest of knife reviews--a long term review of a USER handmade knife.  In many ways, the gear hobby is about buying and selling gear more than actually using it.  Nothing is more emblematic of that trend than how most people treat handmade (custom) knives (see here for why I prefer the term handmade over custom; this is a handmade single source knife, BTW).  They are like Pokemon--the fever is in the acquisition of them, not the using and carrying of them.  And the idea that someone would--gasp--hold on to one for two years AND use it the entire time, well, that's like a supermodel that eats food or a politician with integrity--a true rarity.  The funny thing is there have a been a few times when I thought I might have to sell the SES, but fortune shined on me and I was able to keep it. I am very glad I did because this is a knife that, for me, epitomizes why people should even bother with handmade knives--it is a unique, high performance, and distinctly pleasing tool to own, use, and handle.  There are no production knives that have the feel of the SES and for that reason, it makes it worth the hassle, money, and effort to track one down.

When I reviewed the EDMW a few years ago Steve had been making knives for a while but wasn't a big name.  He still isn't the biggest name in the knife world, but folks know who he is and his knives are collected and sought after.  There is a distinctive feel to a Karroll knife--beefy and tough but not Klingon or Bunyanesque (some would say Rubenesque).  Its a knife that can do real work and is still available at a reasonable price (don't ask me what that is now, contact Steve, here is his Facebook page).  Awesome thing about Steve is that he still regularly sells knives on his page for table cost.  Its rare, but it does happen. 

No product page, this is a one of a kind (though Steve does make other SES's).  My SES cost either $450 or $475 (I bought it in person at a Northeast Cutlery Collectors Association show, here is a plug to join your local knife club...the annual membership fee is easily offset by the ability to rub elbows and chat knives and occasionally land an awesome blade with zero wait at table prices), I can't remember. No reviews or videos other than the one I posted earlier in the week.  Here is the write up I did for Gear Junkie (with more pics, this is one photogenic blade).

Here is my SES (purchased with my own money and mine to keep):

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and here is the knife two years later:

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Twitter: All of the reasons you should buy a custom in one place.

Design: 2

My favorite thing about the SES and Steve's knives in general is that they are built with everyday carry in mind.  The knife is a short knife.  For me, the handle is a three finger grip, but Steve designs these smaller knives with the intention of having a lanyard give you an extra finger of grip.  The large lanyard bead and the tight knots make it perfect in that roll of extra grip.  It also makes the knife easier to retrieve in the pocket.  I know lots of folks include a lanyard, but to have the knife built around this idea is interesting to me.  For many knives it's just a place to store some extra bling.  For Steve, it's an essential part of the design.  

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How do I know it is an essential part of the design?  Well, I bought the knife without the lanyard because it had yet to receive one.  Steve offered to send me the knife the next week, but I was transfixed by a new shiny and opted to go without.  When I sent the knife back to Steve (more on that below), it came back with the lanyard and it was a much better knife for it.  

The rest of the knife is just as nice--the show side G10 is contoured with divots to accommodate better grip.  The blade is massively thick with good jimping and the thumb stud is just right--enough to hit with a thumb, but not so much that it snags on stuff.  In short, the design is unlike anything else (other than another Karroll) and yet it works exceedingly well.  

The performance ratios are weird, as is this whole knife. Because this is a unique knife here are the specs:  The blade is 2.75 inches exactly and the cutting edge is 2.5 inches, again, exactly.  The knife is a bit of a chubby thing, weighing 3.78 ounces (notably still below the arbitrary but good Nutnfancy rule of 4 ounces).  Closed length is 3.5 inches.  With clip, the knife is .75 inches thick.  The blade at its tallest is 1.125 inches tall.  The blade:weight is .73. The blade:handle is .79.

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Fit and Finish: 1

When I got the SES the knife was tight.  Very tight.  As many customs are when they ship.  But over time it loosened up.  During this process I noticed that the blade started to walk away from the lock when closed, to the point that it rubbed the liner.  I loctited the pivot to no avail (and with Steve's approval).  So eventually I sent it back to Steve and he fixed it.  Two years later, the blade has yet to walk on me, so I think the problem is cured.  Steve dropped in the black pivot screw because that is what he had at the time and he tied on the lanyard.  Overall, the knife came back better than it was when I sent it, but the pivot thing is only one part of the point deduction.  The grind near the ricasso is a bit sloppy and Steve's logo isn't the cleanest etch I have ever seen.  It makes the blade look perpetually dirty.  None of the issues that exist now impact performance and this is my user handmade knife so I am not too concerned with the mismatched pivot screw (though I think a complete black out version would look sweet), the wobbly grind at the end, and the messy logo.  That said, this knife was almost $500 so all of that together results in the loss of a point.  

Be aware that I have seen Steve's later work and it is much better in all three areas.  The logo is cleaner, the ricassos are nicer, and this is the only Karroll I have seen with that particular pivot problem.   

Grip: 2

It's really kind of shocking how necessary the lanyard is.  When it is on, this is a fantastic knife in the hand.

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Without it is decent, but not great.  The overall shape is very pleasing to the hand and the contouring is quite good, too.  Steve knows what he is doing.

Carry: 2

Man, I love carrying this knife.  It's just the right size to drop into a good size coin pocket and even in those confined quarters its not so wide or thick that it feels like you are wearing a splint.  This is a good knife in your pocket.

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The lanyard makes retrieval a breeze and this is the first lanyard that I have really ever liked (I like my Edge Observer lanyard bead, but I have yet to find a lanyard set up that does it justice).  As a clip carry, the knife is quite friendly with other gear, in part because of its short size.

Steel: 2

When I got it two years ago S35VN was a BIG DEAL.  It's still a damn good steel and here, with a wicked grind, it has performed very well.  I do think there is a real improvement in S35VN over S30V.  I have found it easier to maintain an edge and it's less chippy.  Given how long I have been using this knife I feel like it's enough to warrant an increase in cost.  To me, the jump between VG-10 and S30V was big only in the edge retention department, but here S35VN is just so much better.  This is one of those differences that matters to folks that aren't steel snobs.  

Blade Shape: 2

Well, the reverse tanto blade shape, so long as it includes a real belly, is one of my three favorite blade shapes (drop point and Spyderco's leaf shaped blade are the other two).  Steve's version here is by far my favorite, even if you include another knife I love, the Benchmade 940-1.  The continuous curve of the belly is quite useful for a whole range of cutting tasks and the thick tip allows for great penetrating cuts, like the first cut into a giant cardboard box.  It's not simple and usually that is my preference, but time and again, the reverse tanto shape has just worked and I have found no better iteration of that blade shape than the one on the SES.  This and the grind are the primary reason using this knife is so entrancing.  It just does everything well.

Grind:  2

There is something magical about a really deep hollow grind, something that lets you do more work than you should.  Here, the thickness of the blade stock requires a good grind and Steve happens to be pretty damn good at putting belt to steel.  There is a small wobble on the cutting bevel near the ricasso, but the primary grind, with its many facets, is superb, and the edge, despite the one mistake, is sticky sharp.  Two years on, it still pops hair, though I do strop the knife pretty regularly (usually once a month I go through all my blades and strop them).  

Deployment Method: 2

Steve has always done thumb studs well and these are great.  Once you get the hang of them, you can easily deploy the knife with a coin flip, no wrist action necessary.  These are substantially better than the thumb studs on the EDMW I had and they are among my favorite I have seen.  I can't remember if they are off the shelf or custom, but either way, they are very good. 

Retention Method: 2

Dear Knifemakers, 

I know it is trendy to make sculpted clips or funky clips (see Munroe Sigil), but for those of us that use our knives (which I will concede is a very small percentage of your customers), a traditional stamped clip is perfect.  It holds the knife in place, it lets you access it easily, and it is very secure.  No, it can't be made of mokuti and no, Jim Skelton won't rave about it, but it makes your knife more useful.  Oh wait, that doesn't matter?  The vast majority of handmade knives are never used?  Oh, okay, never mind then.  Keep making those terrible Baroque crappy clips. 

Sincerely,

The Curmudgeon aka Everyday Commentary

This is a damn good clip.  It works, holds the knife in place, and isn't a paint scraper.

Lock: 2

You can have all of the overtravel stops and harden steel pieces you want, but a well made titanium frame lock will work and work for a long time.  In two years of real use I have not seen the lock budge at all.  I am not using calipers to measure this stuff, but just eye balling it, it looks exact the same as it does in this shot, which was taken about a month after I bought the knife.

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I mention this because this is not a sure thing.  I have had customs that did not do this, but the SES has been perfect.  Also, the lock is easy to engage, easy to disengage and there is no blade play or lock rock at all.  Exactly what you want and it has a tight, bank vault feel that makes you think that handmade knives are, in fact, special.  

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

Other than the fit and finish issue with the screw and a very small wobble in the grind towards the ricasso, this is a flawless knife, and interesting tool, and a very high value custom.  You aren't gioing to find a production knife that has the same look, feel, or performance.  Steve is a very creative guy and he knows knives and the SES is an outgrowth of that.  It is a superb everyday carry and despite a few money crunches over the years that almost required me to sell it, I am very glad I didn't.  Its part of the permanent collection now, the only handmade knife in my untouchables.  This, friends, is the joy of handmade knives--unique, fun to use, and a great discovery.  Go see if you can find a Karroll.  They come up for sale every now and then and they go fast, but man, are they sweet.  And you know Steve has great taste--I saw him tying lanyards with a Reese Bose Texas Toothpick at a knife show once.  This is the work of a craftsman that has deep knowledge of his craft and boundless creativity.  

The Competition

There is not a lot out there like the SES other than stuff from Steve.  The Techno is similar (and for good reason, Marcin Slysz is one of Steve's main influences), but the SES is even beefier and significantly better in hand.  It is also a better slicer thanks to on heck of a grind.  The upcoming Sinkevich ZT0456 is similar, though bigger.  In the end, the lack of comparables is one of the reasons I like the knife so much--there is little out there like it.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Steve Karroll SES Overview

I think I have enough hands-on experience with the knife to do a review, so that means I should probably put up the video which has been up on the YouTube channel forever.  Yes, I got the name wrong in the video. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Spyderco Positron Review

Avert your eyes if you don't want to be a pained knife knut.  Brad Southard is AWESOME.  He is a nice guy.  He makes incredible knives.  He is a real craftsman.  But the Positron, his second collab with Spyderco is not a great knife.  It is not a bad knife by any means, but, and stop me if you have heard this before, in this market its just not competitive.  I have gone back to this line a lot recently because, as I explained before, the gap between acceptable and good is huge right now.  Put another way, five years ago the Positron would be one of the ten best production knives under $300.  Today, I am not sure if it is in the top 50.

But I think I need to go into this a bit more in this review because, well its a Spyderco designed by Brad Southard and when such high quality ingredients produce a less than stellar product it warrants closer examination.  That and Youtube user Colby Davis said in the comments section of my overview that I am "stupid not to love my Positron."

So here is the premise of my argument, aside from the one I made before in the above-linked article.  At some point, and I think it is safe to say I have passed that point, a person has enough experience with the various knives out there that they can, with some degree of confidence, say that one design is better than another.  I have reviewed probably 300 items in the past five years.  I have tried to be thorough and systematic.  And in that time I have handled well more than that, probably twice as many, knives I didn't review.  Suffice to say I think I have a good handle on what is out there right now in the modern folding knife world.

That experience leads me to certain conclusions that are hard to explain without simply saying--trust me I have a lot of experience.  In many ways this is like that old Supreme Court line about pornography: "I know it when I see it."  Stewart Potter's point in Jacobellis v. Ohio was this--through experience we create useful, reliable heuristics when it comes to making judgments and these heuristics are hard to verbalize.  This is the essence of experience and why there are certain fields of knowledge that cannot, by definition, produce prodigies.  Mathematics and chess can have prodigies because the knowledge in that field is crisp and defined.  There are no prodigies in the law--it is all about judgments and good judgments require lots of experience (and, as a corollary, more experience, all other things being equal, produces better judgments).  I don't think I have as much experience as say, Jim Nowka or Mike Stewart or the ever-controversial Cliff Stamp, but I do think I have enough to say that the Positron is not a great knife and is not something that is particularly competitive in the marketplace right now.  So, Colby Davis, and others, read on.  Hopefully I will explain my position well enough that you don't think I am stupid and without resorting to hollow sounding, but true statements like--trust me I have lot of experience. 

Here is the product page. The Spyderco Positron costs $167.50. Here is a written review. Here is a video review. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Spyderco Positron, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:

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Twitter Summary: You can do better. 

Design: 1

I think there is a group of people that would classify this knife as ugly and I kind of agree.  It seems awkward, especially compared to the graceful, almost muscular look of Southard's customs.  I don't think this is a big deal, but it is something that I think people will comment on.  But that's not the real design issue here.  For me, the Positron is a big whiff in terms of its footprint.  The Positron is a porker, the EDC knife equivalent of a plus-sized model.  I am not a fan of slab handles, but the gently contoured handles of the Kizer Gemini make the knife comfortable, but don't add a ton of thickness.  Here you get contouring, but the handles start out massively thick.  There is no way around it, the Positron is just too wide and thick for what it is.  I am fairly certain there are no other knives in this size that are this thick.  And the thickness is a detriment.  It makes the knife worse in a bunch of different ways, many of which I will get in to below, but design-wise it seems totally unnecessary.   

The performance ratios are decent despite the thickness because of the construction approach--real CF and tab-style nested liners.  The blade:handle is .76; while the blade:weight is 1.16.  Both are very, very competent.  The big thing with the Positron is the full carbon fiber handle (unlike the normal Spyderco G-10/CF laminate) with nested, minimal liners.  There is  no question that the Positron does very well on the numbers, but it is just an awkwardly thick knife. 

Fit and Finish: 2

The Positron is a Taichung, Taiwan knife.  These are the best made Spydercos and among the best made knives in the world.  Even some of the masters of knifemaking have a hard time competing with the fit and finish of a Taichung knife.  The Positron is no exception to this rule.  It is just amazingly well made.  The only small issue I had was a void on the edge of my carbon fiber handle, but it wasn't something that was a problem and surveying reviews from other folks mine seemed to be an anomaly.  

Grip: 1

There are lots of curves on this knife, both on the blade and the handle, and I can see how, in the abstract, they could be good, but this is not the case here.

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I found that the "butt" of the knife was not all that comfortable.  I have medium sized hands and it just constantly hit me at the wrong place. 

Carry: 2

A knife this size, with this light weight, even portly handles can't make it bad.  The Positron is a great carry knife and just about disappears in your pocket.

Steel: 1

We have arrived at the point where S30V is no longer a 2 on certain knives.  If the knife costs $50, then yeah, S30V is good.  But on a premium priced knife, which, for now, let's say is anything more than $100, this is not a competitive option.  Kizer and KAI offer S35VN on knives at the same price or cheaper than the Positron (and in some cases, WAY cheaper than the Positron).  I can't say I have any complaints in particular about the steel here, but it didn't strike me as some amazing version of S30V.  It was just S30V.  If there was so extra layer of polish or some great heat treat (see the Al Mar Hawk's AUS-8 or the Buck Vantage's 420HC, respectively), I could be talked into bumping the score up, but just for regular ole S30V, I am not so thrilled at this price point.  

Blade Shape: 2

I like the blade shape enough.  It wasn't mind blowing or anything like that, but it was very competent.  Part of me wants to be a fuddy duddy and say something like "If it ain't broke don't fix it, and so far as I can tell, the drop point ain't broke."  That's not really fair though because here, the new amorphous blade shape was very good at the task knives are designed for--cutting stuff.  A meh for the weird appearance, but a YAY! for the performance and in the end I carry stuff for its utility not its appearance.

Grind: 2

In the year or so I have been testing EVERY single knife on the apple test, only a few performed as well as the Positron.

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Spyderco has consistently and thoroughly proven that they make knives that cut and slice as well as any in the industry.  The full flat grind on the Positron, coupled with the thinner than usual blade stock makes this knife AWESOME at slicing.  Great grind. 

Deployment Method: 1

Like the TRE G10, the Positron is a good, but not great flipper.  The action isn't snappy and the blade feels light when deploying the knife.  About one out of every ten flips fails to fully deploy the knife.  It might have to do with the thin blade stock, lacking enough weight to give the blade good momentum.  I am not sure that's it though as I have had other knives with just as thin blade stock (Kershaw Skyline) that flip much better.  It might also be the flipper tab.  For some unknown reason Spyderco changed the shape of the flipper tab from the original Southard, which is odd, because as much as I disliked that knife, the flipper tab was one of the best things about it.  It might be something else, too, I just don't know.  Whatever the cause though the action is not what it should be for a knife of this price, especially given the competition. 

Retention Method: 1

I am a huge fan of the wire clip--HUGE.  So why did I give the knife a 1 here?  Two things.  First, the clip is off centered.  Most clips ride something like the centerline of mass on a knife and this good because it prevents or reduces the amount of roll in your pocket.  With extreme off centered clips, like, say, on the Leatherman Skeletool, there is a tendency for the tool to want to twist around and as it twists it either comes unclipped or it gets tangled up in the fabric of your pants.  The Positron is not as off centered as the Skeletool clip, but was off centered enough to get tangled in pants made with thinner material, like some thin jeans and dressier pants.

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It's not a big deal and didn't happen all of the time, but it happened enough for me to mention it.  The second, bigger problem was the fact that the knife was placed on the handle in a way that gave me hotspots when doing heavy-Irish work like breaking down boxes.  I had this knife over the Christmas holiday and it was surprisingly warm in New England this year at Christmas so there was a marathon box breaking session so that I could jam everything in our recycling bin. 

Lock: 1

I love liner locks.  I get that the trend is for every knife to be a framelock, so much so that there is virtually nothing else on the market in the custom world, but liner locks are great, giving the user a nice handle AND a sturdy lock when well done.  But here, as you can see, the liner is virtually inaccessible.

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The problem is not isolated to the Positron either.  The Spyderco Rubicon has the same problem.  This is just a boneheaded error and easy enough for Spyderco, modders, or any ambitious person with a Dremel to fix.  Though easily remedied, as is, the lock is just to use.  It does not exhibit any lock rock, stickiness, or other problems, its just a hassle to disengage it.  

Overall Score: 14 out of 20

A 14 is exactly right--its not terrible.  Its above average in fact, but its not good or great.  This is an above average knife.  That's it.  And in today's marketplace, even with the Spyderco brand and the Southard name attached, that's not enough to get me all that excited.  And it is a shame because there are things the Positron gets right--the sculpted handles, the elegantly nested liners, and the super slice grind.  But those things are outweighed by the bad, when compared to what else is out there.

After two swings and misses from the Southard Spyderco collab I am still not worried.  Brad is one of the best knifemakers working in the modern style and eventually things will just click.  Perhaps they will do the obvious thing and make one of Brad's early knives, one that borrowed the Spyderco hole.  I'd love to see a Downing or Mini Downing from Taichung.  That could easily reverse the fortunes of what should be one of the best collaborations in the knife world today.

Competition

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The Gemini destroys this knife.  It does everything this knife does, but does it better, with nicer materials for the same money.  That is the very definition of superior competition.  I also think that the more expensive Lionsteel TRE G10 is a better knife, with marginally better flipping action and a better steel (M390 compared to S30V).  The funny thing is that the Positron is SO very close to being a Smock Mini Southard--so close, and yet Kevin's mod of Spyderco's version of Brad's knife just crushes this thing.  Seriously, Spyderco if you want to make a Southard flipper in this size, just make it a production version of the Mini Southard.  That knife was splendorous.  This knife is tepid.  The choice is easy.     

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Spyderco Positron Overview

Hmmm...this is a weird knife.  Seeing it in video form is important because photos don't accurately convey just how fat this little blade is.  Its not a bad knife, not by any means, but it is also not as good as it could have been or as good as the competition. 

As such, here is the video:



Review coming on Saturday.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Surefire Titan Plus Review

This light has been delayed time and again, but like Shigeru Miyamoto once said--a good game is delayed until it ships and a bad game is bad forever.  All of the waiting resulted in a light that is at one in the same time the best EDC production light on the market and woefully behind the times.  Its great and stupid all at the same time.  And it is very difficult to evaluate.  My opinion has changed since I recorded the overview.  In fact, it has changed since I initially wrote this review.

I have owned two (it was a mistake, I bought one, never received the shipping confirmation, from Surefire, and then bought another one thinking the Surefire purchase had somehow aborted).  Both have had the same issues, so I am fairly confident it is a matter of design and not that I got a lemon.  But both also have some remarkable features.  This isn't a case of good stuff and bad stuff evening out to a score halfway in between, in fact, during the three month review period I have gone back and forth between thinking this is the new standard to thinking this is a waste of money.  After about 90 days of use I am fairly confident I have a bead on how good the light is.

Here is the product page. The Titan Plus costs $99.95 (and thanks to Surefire's pricing policies there is little variance, maybe $10 bucks here or a stash of free CR123as there). Here is a written review. Here is a video review. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Surefire Titan Plus, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary: 300 lumens from a 1xAAA covers up a lot of problems

Design: 2

The Titan and Titan Plus are the second generation of Surefire's first EDC-centric flashlight, the Titan T1A (well, third if you include the ultra limited edition T1, which ran on CR2 batteries).  But this is not a case of clear progression.  In many ways the Titan Plus, the upgraded version of the Titan, is a dramatic step backwards for Surefire.  First, unlike the T1A, the UI here is strictly inferior--a twist, twist again UI, instead of a smooth twist selector ring type mechanism on the original T1A.  That is a nod towards price.  The Titan Plus is less than half the price of the T1A.  But that's not the only thing that's strictly worse.  The decision to make the body out of brass is inexplicable.  Its heavier, softer, and offers no performance boost over aluminum.  

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The skeptic in me says that they chose brass because its easier to machine (making it cheaper) and it is heavier giving the light heft that stupid people equate with superior goods.  There is a whole history of companies making things heavier because people think "heavier=better".  The great Danish audio company Bang and Olufsen is pretty explicit about why they included a zinc weight in their remotes for ages.  People picked up the remote and naturally thought it was better made and a better product because, again, for some reason people thing "heavier=better."  In the EDC world, heavier is not better and this light is worse because of the choice to run a brass body tube, but its hard to break the habits of stupid people.

All of this said, the fundamentals of the design are solid.  The form factor is great and the clip is the best on any Surefire or any 1xAAA light on the market.  If it weren't for the greatness of the original T1A, the Titan Plus would seem like a big and genuine improvement over the flood of chintzy 1xAAA lights we have been seeing for two or three years now.  But if your Surefire you are always fighting with your past--the history of Surefire lights is heavily populated by some of the best and most innovative lights ever made, production or custom.  Topping that is hard for any company to do, even Surefire.  I wrote this entire review and knocked the Titan Plus a point, but then, after thinking about it, its probably not fair to deduct a point here because it is not as slick as the original Titan when I don't do that for every other light.  In the end, the overall solid, if simple, design is above average.    

The performance ratios are decent, though not great.  The lumens:weight is obviously poor coming in at 150 (300 lumens/2 ounces).  If you choose to make a light out of brass you should expect it to do poorly here.  By contrast the direct competitor light, the oLight S1 Baton, is cranking, scoring 303 on the lumens:weight comparison.  The total lumens output is achieved on high with a rating of 18,000 (lumens x output in minutes).  Again, it comes out behind the S1 28,800.  The total lumens output is, however, the best of any 1xAAA light I have owned.  More on this in a minute.  Here is the Titan Plus on an Expedition Edition Field Note.

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For all of the dings, the light is JUST the right size and shape. 

Fit and Finish: 2

The light goes together well and all of the edges are decent.  My first one was pretty roughly machined and others, including EDCish's Aaron, have noted the same issue.  But the second one was fine.

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The coating isn't super hardy, but everything screws together nicely and the overall feel of the light is one of solidity.  There is no wiggle between the parts and no gaps.  I miss the old uber thick Mil-Spec HA from the yesteryear Surefires, but other than that one thing, this is a well-made light.    

Grip: 2

I loved the feel of the Titan Plus in hand.  The hex barrel and the finishing (as flimsy as it is) just feel right.  Add to that the magic length to diameter ratio, and the Titan Plus is a clear winner.

Carry: 2

Its heavy for its size, but the Titan Plus is still so small that it doesn't really matter all that much.  Add to that an amazing clip and some pocket friendly surfaces and you have a super EDC light, probably one of the best on the market.  Note to all of the other manufacturers--this is how you do a pocket clip.  Drop those BS friction fit clips.  They are terrible.  

Output: 2

This thing is a flamethrower.  Its high, 300 lumens, is more than double what you can find on many 1xAAA lights.  On specialized lights, like the Peak Eiger and the MBI HF-R can go higher in this form factor and they do so at great cost.  The runtimes on those lights are microscopic compared to the runtimes on the Titan Plus.  And so, if you are looking for the brightest light in the most convenient form factor, the Titan Plus is it.  

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I'd like to see a true moonlight low from Surefire, but they seem unwilling to go down that route for some reason.  But like the reigning supercar--when you can just outmuscle your opponents in an objective criteria like top speed (or lumens in this case) you are going to get noticed in a crowded market.  

Runtime: 2

Again, a pure, incontestable win for Surefire--300 lumens for an hour on a 1xAAA is a feat of engineering we have not seen.  You pull off a trick like that and a lot of stuff gets forgiven, including having a paltry 7 hour runtime on your low setting of 15 lumens.  

Beam Type: 2

All flood baby.  Even with the normal Surefire pattern (lots of hotspot very little spill), the uber small reflector (yep, still a reflector, no TIR optics) limits what you can do.  In the role of pure EDC light, that's not a problem at all, but if you are a Surefire fanboy rounding out your collection, don't expect what you get from other Surefires, which is throw well beyond what they should be able to given their size.

Beam Quality: 1

For a $100 I want something a bit nicer.  The artifact free pattern is nice, and Surefire has always been able to do that, but I want a higher CRI emitter here.  I know it shaves off some lumens and that is this light's whole deal, but this yellowish green tint ain't my thing.  The Mk. III Aeon which uses a Hi CRI emitter and hits 200 lumens isn't significantly dimmer but just looks nicer.  

UI: 1

All right Surefire, what are you doing?  The original Titan had one of the sweetest UIs on the planet and now we get a clunky, and I mean rusted Transformer clunky, UI.  The twist, twist again UI is meh, but here it's weird, I can't, for the life of me, get it to run up to High without first going into medium twice.  It was like that on both lights.  I am not sure this is a "flaw" or a "feature" (some BS about protecting your eyes and your battery or something like that), but whatever it is, it is super annoying.  That said the spacing is good and there is no flicker, so it's average.  The biggest issue with that is that the original Titan was (and still is) state of the art.  Sad face.  I am sure it was a concession to hit the $100 price point, but man that potentiometer UI was sweet.

Hands Free: 2

Okay, so there is this plastic cap that goes on the top of the light that allows you to connect it to a keychain.  I had hoped against hope that underneath the flashlight toupee there would be a flat surface to allow the light to tail stand.  But no.  There is another, identical, keychain attachment point.  What a missed opportunity.  That said, it would be sweet to see Surefire come out with accessory caps.  That would open up a whole new space in flashlight design.  Personally I'd love to see a tail standing cap and a glass breaker cap, but I am sure creative minds could think of other uses.   So while I think the redundant connector points are stupid, I am not going to deduct points for it because there is a slim possibility that either Surefire or someone in the community will see the cap as opportunity to expand the functionality of the flashlight.  Also, it doesn't roll and is fine between the teeth.

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

This is a light that won't age well.  Once the rest of the market catches up and starts matching the Titan Plus's runtimes and output there will be literally nothing to distinguish this light from its competitors, except, the Surefire tax.  But for now, this is one of the best EDC lights out there.  I prefer the S1, as I like the clicky and the low and the high better, but if you are deciding between these two lights, you are already in a good place.

The thing that kills me the most about the Titan Plus is what it could have been.  If it had the T1A's UI and kept the runtime, it would be an instant and all time classic.  Maybe Surefire will release something like that in the future and when they do--watch out, I'll elbow you in the ribs to get to the front of the line to buy one. 

You might be wondering how a light that gets a score of 18/20 did so well in my GOTY ballot.  Simple--there are sometimes when a piece of gear does something so outstandingly well that I give more weight to that positive than I do to the negatives.  If the scale wouldn't be broken by doing so I would have given the Titan Plus something like a 4 in terms of output.  It just broke the barrier of what we thought was possible in this battery format and that is a big, big deal.

The Competition

Really there are two competitors--the oLight S1 Baton and the Peak Eiger.  I like the S1 a bit better and the Eiger a bit less.  All three are great, but the S1's form factor is not much, if at all, worse.  The upgrade in UI and better all around output levels makes it a favorite in my eyes.  The Eiger suffers pretty badly because it is very limited runtime.  Its still a great light, but its starting to show its age.  In the end, I have to say for all its flaws and limitations I carried the Titan Plus a lot.  Its a good light.  A very good light.  The S1 might be better, but the Titan is a real competitor.

There are two other factors that less flashoholics might want to consider--the format and country of origin.  A Made in the USA light that has all of the features of the Titan Plus, runs a common cell, and hits at right under $100 is a VERY tempting package.    

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Surefire Titan Plus Overview

Its been a long time coming, but the reason is a good one--this is a hard product to review.  It is more than a mixed bag.  There are sometimes when I think the Titan Plus is THE production light EDC and other times when I positively detest it.  Whatever it is, the Titan Plus is an important light for its crowning technical achievements.  Here is the overview:


Review coming at the end of the week.

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

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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 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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. 



Saturday, January 2, 2016

Gear of the Year Voting Results

Thanks to everyone that participated in the Gear of the Year Voting.

Here are the results with 232 voters:

Product of the Year:

Kizer Gemini: 29.48%
American Knife Company Forest: 7.47%
Surefire Titan Plus: 19.52%
Tactile Turn Gist: 15.94%
TAD Fast Pack: 7.57% 

Other mentions: 19.52%

S1 Baton
HEST/f Urban
TAD/Hawk and Hawk
Lionsteel TRE

I wish I would have included the S1 in the choices as I think it might have won, but other than that one item I think this fairly represents the best gear from 2015.  To me the Gemini was clearly one of the two best folders (the other being the TRE G10).  Its rank here is something I can't disagree with at all.  It is also emblematic of the new Chinese made knives. There is no way around this trend, whether you like it or not, Chinese knives, at least the higher end ones, are as good as American made production knives.  Congratulations to both Ray Laconico and Kizer for putting out one hell of a good knife.

Company of the Year:

Kizer: 36.71%
Surefire: 12.66%
ZT: 32.91%

Other mentions: 17.72%

Spyderco
oLight
GEC
Squale

This was a closer vote and again I think oLight would have made an interesting addition.  Still, I agree with the masses here as Kizer has just been killing it.  I am not sure if a vote for Kizer is actually a vote for that company in particular or a vote for the trend of high end Chinese made knives from companies like Kizer and Reate.

A note on some of the mentions.  I like GEC a lot.  They are clearly making some of the best knives in the world, regardless of the fact they only make traditionals.  Their fit and finish is insanely good.  I also think it is interesting that Squale is on the list.  Their dive watches are really engaging and this is from a person that hates dive watches.   

Best Value:

Kizer Gemini: 29.28%
Kershaw Link: 18.02%
D25AAA: 35.14%

Other mentions: 17.57%

S1
Urban Trapper
PM2 S110V

No question here that the D25AAA is the right choice.  It is a light that is hard to beat, even if you have three times the money.  Its only when you get into very high end production or custom stuff do you have a light that rivals the features and performance of the D25AAA.

Production Knife:

Kizer Gemini: 25.96%
Lionsteel TRE: 46.15%
American Knife Company Forest: 15.87%

Other mentions: 12.02%

LT Wright Jessmuck
Spyderco Positron
Northwoods Michigan Jack

I think that any of these three are a worthy choice.  I also like the other mentions as two are off the beaten path a bit.

Production Light:

47 Paladin: 2.70%
oLight S1 Baton: 67.13%
Surefire Titan Plus: 29.15%

Other mentions: 6.02%

Zebralight SC5w
Eagletac DX30LC2

This is the only landslide and it is deserved.  The S1 is better than any other light released this year.  The Titan Plus is a good light too, but not really in the same league. 

Pen of the Year:

Tactile Turn Gist: 49.74%
Karas Kustoms EDK: 33.86%
Baron Fig Spire: 6.35%

Other mentions: 10.05%

Darriel Caston Rocket Bolt
Pilot Metropolitan Retro Pop

I got some shit for selecting the Gist, but it is my favorite new pen this year, regardless of its similarities to other pens on the market.  Its darn hardy and writes well.  I think it is safe to say that as of right now Wil Hodges is making the best Kickstarter/machined pens available.  I think it would be interesting to see what he could do if he decided to go the Edison Pens route and make full customs.   The Darriel Caston Rocket Bolt is a pen I somehow missed, but it looks quite interesting. 

Custom or Midtech Knife of the Year:

Gough Resolute Mk. III: 23.57%
Gavko Spinner: 17.20%
Tom Krein Shard: 41.40%

Other mentions: 17.83%

Southard Tolk
McGinnis Proline
Smock Knives SK23

I totally missed this one.  The SK23, mentioned by many, is easily the most interesting release for me this year.  As a rookie effort it is quite impressive--the rear tang flipper, the button compression lock, and the overall look are very promising.  Kevin Smock has come a long way from his days as a modder and the SK23 is my favorite knife I saw this year.  Tom Krein is also at the top of his game, a veteran maker with real skill and a distinctive look and feel.

Custom Light of the Year:

OKLuma: 5.00%
Aeon Mk. III: 55.00%
Sinner Tri EDC: 33.75%

Other mentions: 6.25%

Oveready E2E
Oveready Wasp

The Mk. III is incredible.  The Sinner Tri EDC is great.  I want to test out an OKLuma in 2016.  None are bad choices and it seems that the drought in custom lights is finally over.  But let's be serious for second--the Mk. III is an instant EDC classic.

Accessory of the Year:

Scout Leatherworks Pocket Protector: 44.97%
Gamblemade Gatekeeper: 25.50%
Vox Zoo: 14.77%

Other mentions: 14.77%

Terzuola Dragonhead
Nock Co. Hightower
Handgrey Knox

Gawd is this category filled to the brim this year and the vast, vast majority of these items are of questionable utility.  Some are just a step above the mystifying Lucky Fatman.  The prices on the majority of these items are also insane.  The $800 ebay auctions for Burnley Cypops make about as much sense to me as vampire young adult novels.  But there is a lot of good stuff here too.  The Scout Leatherworks PP is amazing if you happen to carry the kind of stuff it is designed for.

Community Leader:

Apostle P
Brad Dowdy
555 Gear
Me

This is 555 Gear's year.  His serious, thoughtful reviews and commentary is raising the bar for what we in the gear community talk about.  In many ways I had hoped to start a thoughtful dialogue when I started this site, something informed by bigger ideas from other areas of knowledge instead of formulaic evaluations of everything (does this have jimping?).  555 Gear does just that.  His base of knowledge started with watches and now he brings that same level of intelligence and thoroughness to other gear.  The storytelling is quite good and he just might be the Paul Harvey of the Internet Gear Community.  I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the Red Wing Iron Ranger Boots.

Up next, my ballot.