Gareth Bull Small Shamwari Review

Strangely enough, I have never reviewed this knife.  I did, of course, review one of the early Shamwaris here, and I found it quite good.  But in sketching out what I wished it was, I inadvertently gave Gareth the blueprint for this knife.  As you may know, after that review Gareth built my idea knife, this knife, unbeknownst to me, and then about six months later, he contacted me and let me know that he had done so.  The result is my favorite knife I have ever seen, the Gareth Bull Small Shamwari (my top three: Spyderco Dragonfly II in ZDP-189 and the Scott Sawby Swift engraved by Ray Cover).  Since this knife came to me Gareth’s stuff has exploded in popularity, according to him, because this site got the ball rolling.  Given how difficult they are to get now, I thought it might be a good idea to go through a formal review of this knife to give people saving up for a custom an idea as to whether or not its worth the money. 

If you don’t want to go through the whole rigamarole, here is the short version—yes, it is worth it. 

There is no product page for this knife as it is a full custom.  Gareth makes a wide variety of Shamwaris, this is the Small.  He makes a 3,” a 3.3,” and a 3.5”.  He also makes a smaller and thinner knife that is similar to the Shamwari called the Trapper.  There are a huge variety of Shams out there—Mokuti, Dr. Frunkey’s amazing copper chip, shredded carbon fiber version, and even a midtechish version from Gareth that he designates as “field grade.”   My Small Shamwari is a very simple, plain titanium version.  I have had mine for about two years now and I have carried and used it quite often.  The original bead blasted finish has been slowly converted into something like a bright stonewashed finish. 

Because this is a custom knife, here are the specs (sorry metric people):

Blade: 2.75”

Handle: 3.5”

OAL: 6.375”

Blade Height: .75”

Handle Thickness: excluding clip: .4375”; with clip: .625”

Weight: 2.22 ounces

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Twitter Summary: The apotheosis of what I think a folding knife should be.

Design: 2

The original was a superb design—a study in simplicity.  This knife is better still, even simpler still but now with a bit of curve and elan that the flat-ish, blocky original was missing.  The crowned spine and contoured handles are perfect, a symphony of siren’s songs to the hand, the eye, and the fingers and excellent in the pocket.  Of course the front flipper, is, aesthetically and functionally speaking, superior to the pocket pecking traditional flipper.  It gives you a visual cohesion that the more traditional flipper can never have.  Protuberance and afterthought become an integral part of the look of the knife.  Gareth dropped another design bomb in this blade a sculpted deep carry clip with blind screws.  The effect is marvelous.  There are exactly three exposed screwheads on this knife one on each side of the lone standoff and one on the lock side of the pivot.  The overall appearance is of a knife reduced to its stunning essence, a miracle of simplicity. 

But one thing that evades detection in the first, second, or fortieth brush is just how well this knife ages.  Its simple lines and basic materials allow the use and carry of the knife to impart a level of character that is hard to capture in photos but is the very first thing you notice when you see and handle the knife in person.    This is not just a stellar design, it is a design that gets better with use, like a baseball glove or finely crafted shoes.  That is, to quote the popular saying “next-level shit.”

The performance ratios are, of course, good—an outgrowth of truly superior design—though none are record breakers.  The B:H is .78, which is very good, though not the best ever.  The B:W is 1.24, again, excellent, but not a record breaker.  The result is a knife that performs like a big knife but carries like a small one.  Basically the ideal pocket knife.     

Fit and Finish: 2

So fine was the gap between the handle and the pocket clip that, for a second, when I first received the knife, I thought it was an integral design.  Turning the knife over in my hand, I realized it wasn’t but it was the first sign of many that this is a knife of exceeding refinement.  The handrubbed satin finish on the main bevel pairs nicely with the mirrored flats and the crowned spine.  The blue pivot collar/overtravel stop is fingernail flush with the pivot screw.  The plunge lines are snappy and the edge is even.  The contouring is symmetrical.  Time and again, this is a knife that just doesn’t let up on superb attention to detail.  Gareth’s stuff, as seen in this knife, is as good as anyone in the non-art knife custom game, noting that I have not yet handled a Rexford in person.  

Grip: 2

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You don’t need a big knife or a big handle for a good grip.  This is a full four finger handle, no problem, and yet it is still compact.  The eased, almost buttered edges on the clip and the nipped off corners of the lockbar access/index notch make the one possible problem spot a comfy place to rest your fingers.  I have long had a disdain for obscenely large (compensation-large) folders and this is one of the reasons why—plenty of real estate for my medium sized hands despite modest size.  Good design makes a lot of things possible.

Carry: 2

With a knife so slim and so light and a pocket clip as graceful as it gets, the Small Sham is a great pocket companion.  I could easily see myself carrying this knife for twenty years and being perfectly happy with it the entire time.  It vanishes in jeans and is quite quiet (though not silent, no knife is) in slacks.  Without any rough spots or shred points, the knife plays well with pocket materials. 

Steel: 2

You know M390.  That one steel that has a near perfect balance of hardness, toughness, and corrosion resistance.  It strops nicely and holds on to an edge like an action hero hanging on the edge of a cliff during the fight at the end of a movie.  More so than ZDP-189, M390 mirrors up beautifully.  I’d have a hard time picking between the M390 family of steels, ZDP-189, and LC200N.  So really, I like the choice here. 

Blade Shape: 2

Gareth went with what works and as it turns out, when you are making a tool, that’s a good plan. 

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The thing that I love so much about this blade shape is its proportions.  The belly is good, the drop looks nice, and the straightaway is just the right size.  Like Orwell said, all drop points are beautiful, some just happen to be more beautiful than others.  Lionsteel SR1, I am looking squarely at you. 

Grind: 2

The stock’s not beefy at all, but Gareth pulls it down to a ribbon thin edge, making this not just just a good slicer but an elite one.  So functionally, this grind is top notch, but what really pushes this knife into elite territory is the fact that it is looks so beautiful.  It is hard to beat a handrubbed finish, but if you combine it with a mirrored section, I think you get that big, five-tier knife maker trophy of awesomeness. 

Retention Method: 2

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BEST. CLIP. EVER.

It looks good. It functions beautifully. And it is totally original design. Sculpted clips can be great. It just takes a lot of effort, but here we see the results of such an effort.

Deployment Method: 2

With smooth action throughout the opening arc and a crisp detent, this is my single most favorite knife to open. Its one of the few knives that I have a really hard time getting a false fire out of and yet does not fail the shake test (or if you are cop in NYC, the OMG its GRAVITY KNIFE! test). In fact, in thinking back, I can’t remember another knife that did this, though the Gent is pretty close.

Lock/Safety: 2

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Solid as a rock, easy to engage and disengage, and without bladeplay in any direction—that is the recipe for a perfect lock and the Small Sham fits that description exactly. Great knife with a great lock. The pivot collar/overtravel stop is a cool touch, too, a small flourish to let you know, in one more way, that this is a knife made by a master.

Other Considerations

Fidget Factor: Very High:

With a whip-like deployment and a very satisfying ping when the knife locks into place, I am sure this is one of the reasons I thought fidget spinners were stupid. Why mess around with one of those when you can get something just as finger friendly that ACTUALLY does something.

Fett Effect: Very High:

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Scarred and buffed over two years of carry, the Shamwari is starting to come into its own.  Like the handle on an often used spigot or the crank on a device used everyday, marks and use-polish have transformed what was a clean and beautiful knife into something with real warmth.  I love this look. 

Value: Beats Me; very high for me

When someone makes a knife to your EXACT specifications it is hard to evaluate value.  No other knife has been made to my specs, so in that sense it is the best value possible, but it is only such a value for me.  I paid $600 for this knife and if I lost it, I would pay that much again in the blink of an eye.  That said, this is still a knife that costs $600 or more and as such can’t be a good value in the most objective sense. 

Overall Score: 20/20; Perfect

Over and over again, I simply happy that I own this knife.  Paired with my Aeon Mk. 3, I have a carry set up that can do just about anything, weighs about 4 ounces and absolutely disappears in any clothing more substantial than a bathing suit.  Aaron’s Krein is HIS knife.  Whenever I see a Krein Alpha I think of Aaron’s and Aaron himself.  When I think of the knife I like the best, the one I am most likely to be carrying, I can’t avoid the notion that this is MY knife.  The Shamwari is one of the coolest, best designed, best made, and most useful knives on the market.  They are, unfortunately for knife guys, very hard to get, but if you can land one you will not be disappointed.  The Small Shamwari is amazing.  And yes, of course it is perfect.  It was made just as I wanted it.   

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Competition/Budget Alternative

Because this is so expensive compared to a production knife, I am going to draw out both competition and budget alternatives. 

In the custom world there are very few knives like the Small Shamwari.  Most are positively huge blades that don’t carry well and have long since forgotten about function.  Others are so festooned with frippery and pocket frosting that they don’t really serve as a knife, but instead as a fidget toy and a piece of man jewelry.  Slim, basic, functional knives with an extreme focus on the details and fundamentals are rare.  But not unprecedented.  I like the aforementioned Krein Alpha for the same reasons I like the Shamwari.  Its an excellent knife and despite my hesitation with thumbstuds the one I handled was very good.  I also think the Graham GT is similar.  Its funky blade shape makes it a less classical looking knife (and, let’s admit it, a bit ugly by comparison) but its snappy action and slim profile are good comps for the Small Sham.  I also think my Gedratis Small Pathfinder was a good comp for this knife, though again, I like the Sham’s front flipper design over the protuberance-based flipper on the Pathfinder.  In short, there is nothing squarely like the Small Sham with this front flipper, beautiful basics, and stunning pocket clip.  Perhaps this is why I like it so much.  Gun to head, the Alpha would be my next choice.  

One issue with finding a budget alternative for this knife is that while there are a lot of front flippers out there, most aren’t great.  The Kizer Lundquist is pretty good, but its feel, even in the improved generations, leaves something out.  The Boker Exskelimoor and its related knives are not even close to this.  Honestly, the knife that most reminds me of this knife is the Small Kwaiken from Boker—clean, simple lines with a hand-friendly feel.  Its not the same thing, but it shares the same gestalt (I feel like I have earned the right to use that word, its been nine years and I have never used it before in earnest…).