Its that time of year—one quick post looking back at all of the awesome gear that came out this year. Two quick rules. First, to make sure I highlight as much interesting stuff as possible, once a product wins, it is ineligible for subsequent and more specific categories, so for example, the Overall Best Product cannot also win Knife of the Year. Second, I am highlighting things that were released in 2017, though I am not being hyper precise about it. For example, the BOSS35 was released in 2016, at the very end of the year, but 2017 was full of varaints of the light, all put out by TorchLab and so I will consider those for the awards below. As usual, this is all just my opinion. There is nothing scientific here, though I do try to make sure scores match winners as much as possible.
One note: there is a huge omission in knives—the high end Chinese brands. Its complicated by two things—first their price and second their role as OEM/independent brand. Many of these knives cost well over $500 and as much I would like to buy a Reate with Moku Ti inlays, I don’t feel it is a priority for the website because, well, I don’t see them as being particularly useful or all that high impact. I’d rather put out reviews of stuff lots of people are considering, like the Para3, than a review of a knife that costs $800. Second, it is very hard to track just who makes what. Consider the Steelcraft line. Todd Begg lent his name to a few knives made by Reate—the Kwaiken and the Mini Bodega. Then, later on, the Steelcraft line went to WE Knives to make the full sized Bodega. It can get very difficult to figure out just who made a given knife. That said, I recognize that WE Knives and Reate, as the tip of the spear for high end Chinese knives, are making great stuff. There is simply too much of it that is out of my focus for me to speak with any sort of insight. Also, and perhaps most saliently, they are all too damn big. How about a few sub-3” knives, please?
Nominees: Benchmade Proper, Olamic Busker, Barrel Flashlight, Tactile Turn Gen 2 Shaker, SOG Pillar
This was one of the best years for gear since I started the site. In a normal year any of the above could be the best product of the year. I love the Shaker 2. It is what I have always wanted in a machined pen. The Olamic Busker is a great small knife from a company without anything like a small knife. It still retains the essence of Olamic—variation, creativity, high end finish, and great performance. Oh and there are three blade shapes for a knife that has been on sale for less than a month. Olamic loaded all of the barrels before launching this thing. The SOG Pillar is a truly great fixed blade from a company that looked like it had abandoned enthusiasts for Big Box. The materials are awesome and design wicked, but it is the sheath that makes this knife great. Sheathes, apparently, can be done on a production scale. Barrel Flashlights allow you to accessorize your torch in a way that is quite interesting.
But in the end, nothing can touch the charm of the fantastic Benchmade Proper. From the moment it slid out of the box, I was entranced. As I wrote in the review, Benchmade scored a huge victory with the Proper. This is a knife that taps into all of those subliminal cues that traditional knives trigger in our brains but is completely new and unique. The thin, slicey blade, and the knife’s overall compact size make it a wonderful true pocket knife. I could have handed this to my grandfather 50 years ago and other than being amazed by the steel, he would have not blinked an eye at the Proper. This is an amazing knife in every way. I just wish they would have made two nail nicks...But that is literally the only nit I can pick. This is an easy and enthusiastic endorsement. I love the Benchmade Proper. It was easily the best piece of gear in 2017.
Nominees: LA Police Gear TBFK, Leatherman Skeletool KB, UltraTac K18, CRKT Pilar
All of the gear here is great. The TBFK reset the scale for materials an price. The K18 rivals the best lights at 1/4 the price. The Skeletool KB is a fabulous small knife. But it is silly to think that any value product could match the CRKT Pilar in 2017. It was a budget knife that routinely sold out. When was the last time that happened? So far as I know, the answer is never.
It had a winning combination of price, size, and looks. Maybe the Pilar will encourage production companies (other than Spyderco) to make smaller knives for the EDC space. The idea that a 3.5” or 4” blade works on a folder, especially one you want to carry everyday, is ridiculous. Hopefully, the Pilar has taught companies there is real money to be made with reasonable sized blades.
Now if we could just get a higher end version from CRKT. This knife with titanium scales and S35VN steel would be a massive hit.
Best Company: Benchmade
Nominees: Prometheus Design Works, WE Knives, Torchlab
WE Knives had an incredible 2017. They released a ton of designs, all of which were well made, and many of which were well received, but for me, there wasn't a ton of diversity in their line up, especially if you exclude their fidget spinner, which you should because you aren’t 7 years old. Torchlab had a great year as well, proving that you can make the best light in the world on a semi-large scale. But they made one product.
But for me, this year comes down to two companies--Benchmade and PDW. PDW has finally made good on the promise of Patrick Ma. He is one of my favorite designers in the entire gear world and now, finally, his company is crushing it. No longer are they making reskins of other people's production knives. Their production Badger is an amazing blade and a genuine competitor in the EDC space. Their packs and clothing look great. And thankfully they have cut back on the release of tactical squeeze bottles and glow-in-the-dark glass octopuses. In another year, one where the best company didn’t have an extraordinary run of good stuff, they would be the clear winner.
Unfortunately for PDW Benchmade really brought it this year. The company had a series of releases starting in mid-2016 and running through the end of the year in 2017 where they released one awesome knife after another--the upgraded Mini Grip, the Anthem, the Proper, and the Bugout. Add to this some under the radar stuff like a heaping of autos and the incredible evergreen line up they have and Benchmade just killed it. The Proper is one of the best new knives in years--a traditional in every way despite being completely new. Imagine a Dusenberg released in 2017 with all of the niceties of an original, but with a 1,000 hp engine--that's the Proper. All of this is against a background of what could only be described as moribund enthusiast attention very recently. Two years ago this was unthinkable. And now, Benchmade is probably making the best stuff they have ever made. Incredible.
Biggest Surprise: SOG Pillar
Nominees: SOG Pillar, Spyderco Shaman, Fox Knives TUR
The Spyderco line up is full of knives that hover around the same size and shape. But for some reason the Shaman really connected with the community—the right combination of size, features, and lock. The Fox Knives TUR is a knife that flew beneath my radar, but once I saw it I understood the appeal instantly. This is perhaps the most pocket friendly of all of Jesper Foxnaes’s production collabs (either that or the Pingo). This is a knife that is definitely on the “to review” list.
These two pale in comparison to the Pillar. This is one of the coolest knives I have reviewed in years. From a master of the fixed blade like Bark River, the Pillar would have been their best knife released in 2017, but from SOG, a company that I long ago wrote off as Big Box-only, it was a revalation. SOG’s history is chock full of incredible, well made knives, but the majority of them came from Japan. So to see a high end knife from SOG was surprising. To see it being Made in the USA was a jaw dropper. Oh then there is the sheath. Fixed blades so often fail at the sheath that its routine for me to give a great knife a score of 16 (it loses a total of 4 points for the two sheath categories). The Bravo 1 LT in 3V, which I consider to be the best midsized knife available, got a 16. The BK9, which I consider to be the best big chopper under $200, got a 16. But here, again, SOG killed it. The Pillar is an awesome knife and a total surprise. If you are looking for a midsized fixed blade, this is it.
Nominees: PDW Badger, Olamic Busker, Benchmade Bugout
Yes, I remember that the Para3 came out this year and no, I did not leave it off the list accidentally.
The Benchmade Bugout is part of the string of hits Benchmade had this year. When I first handled one I thought I was getting lightheaded or something because its size is such a mismatch for its weight. That is a very good thing. But alas, it wasn’t the knife that captured my imagination. The Badger certainly falls into that category—a realization of promise that has been years in the making. From the v-channel in the backspacer to the glow in the dark thumb stud, this is a production knife with tons of high end custom touches. And it happens to be the knife we have all wanted Patrick Ma to design and release since he was at Triple Aught Design—a truly EDC-friendly blade. But this year, it was the Busker that caught my eye. Part of a trend towards reasonably sized, high end EDC knives, the Busker exuded charm, innovation, and performance. It flips like a gymnast, it carries wonderfully in the pocket, and it is already cued up with dozens of variants. This is a very good knife. More than that though, it FEELS like an Olamic, confirming beyond any doubt, that Eugene et. al. have a style and vision all their own.
Best Light: Muyshondt Beagle
Nominees: Klarus Mi1C, oLight H1R Nova
The Mi1C took a different path—opting for an aspheric lens over a TIR or traditional reflector. The result is a thumb-sized light that works differently than all of the other thumb-sized photon cannons out there. Oddly enough, this difference makes the light capable of work others are not. For instance, when I was swapping out a dead oven for a new one, the torch cast a broad clean swath of light that allowed me to use it as an area light, something most uber tiny torches cannot do. Its worth a look if you use a light for work. Similarly, the H1R Nova is a great headlamp that happens to also be a great light. But both lack the punch and panache that the Beagle has. This light is an easy formula for success: take the innovation of the Lunasol lights from McGizmo (the two different emitter set ups), put it in a beautifully machined tube of titanium, give them Enrique’s thaumaturgical runtimes, and go. The current best light in the world, the BOSS35, is rivaled by this light making it perfectly clear that we are in the midst of a rebirth of the custom/high end flashlight market. Both are incredible, but the Beagle was released in 2017.
The Marshall Hoots Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Community: Cedric and Ada
Of all the great gear we got in 2017, what we lost was so much more impactful. The owner of Going Gear, Marshall Hoots, passed away this year. He was the epitome of a Gear Geek—thrilled to talk tiny details about all sorts of things from OTF lumens to copper patinas. His videos were both informative and entertaining. Marshall also made impacts on design, helping oLight perfect the UI on the Baton series. In celebration of his life and to support his family oLight had a massive light sale. The sales were tremendous and a sign of just how great this community really is—makers and consumers. With that in mind, from here on out I am going to call this award, the outstanding contribution to the community, the Marshall Hoots Award. Marshall, may your light never run out of batteries and your edge always be shaving sharp.
Capturing Marshall’s passion for details, Peter, aka Cedric and Ada, created the most exhaustive list of steel performance numbers in the world (that are publicly available—we know makers and steel producers have tons more than we do). Cedric and Ada did all of this while raising his game in terms of production values on his channel. He also threw in ample helpings of his unique voice and personality.
While he dismisses his information as less than science, it probably the best information out there on real world steel tests. There are some CATRA results out there, some complied by Cliff Stamp and some by the magazines (BTW, Blade is completely gone from all area book stores; I am very sad), and Cedric and Ada’s data matches up quite nicely. He also teased out slight differences in different company’s version of the same steel, proving what I was already convinced of—Buck’s 420HC is a big deal. He did all of this with excellent production values and great humor. If you have not checked out his YouTube page, you are missing out.
Special mention here to Grayson Parker. His reviews are snappy, almost Motor Trend-like reads and his photography is really stunning. It wasn’t bad before, but now it is among the best out there for written reviews. I’d put him the same class as Aaron Shapiro’s consistently excellent pics and those from the pen master Ed Jelley. Good stuff.
Best New Reviewer: Journeywind Junk
In many ways, standing out as a review has to do with personal style and gear selection. Journeywind Junk, who technically didn’t start in 2017, is one of my favorite newish reviewers. He chooses gear off the beaten path and also covers the obvious stuff. I like his voice and his pictures are quite good. If you haven’t read one of his reviews, give it a try. They are smashingly fun to read.
Best IG Account: Urban EDC Supply
Andrew Gene is the king of EDC photography. It will be a long time before anyone approaches that pinnacle. But while the king’s community (as opposed to professional) output has been limited, there are still quite a few people that take great pictures and share them. Grayson Parker takes some truly excellent, still life quality shots (mixed in with birds of prey and pictures of Wizard Poker). Aaron Shapiro has mastered lighting and texture. Ed Jelley makes striking compositions. All are easily worth a follow. But Urban EDC Supply (who is a sponsor, though I’d choose them regardless) combines all of these things in winning pictures of complete kits. The careful integration of color into the mix just adds to the effect. These are the best knolling pictures anywhere.
Roundup and Odds and Ends
The best pen I saw or used this year was the TWSBI Eco T. Maybe TWSBI has finally exorcised their fit and finish bug. The best pack was the awesome Mystery Ranch Ubran Assault (review). The most innovative product, in a year of tweaking, was the Benchmade Bugout—it is so light you will think you might have vertigo.
If you like torches and you are in the Boston area, you simply must go to the Harbor Islands. Fort Warren is an amazing place to stumble around in the dark. If flashlight tourism ever becomes a thing, this will be one of the crown jewels of the world tour. The place has been used as a military base from the Civil War until after WWII and the result is a palimpsest of tunnels and structures. The island itself is beautiful in the summer and Winterfell-terrible in the winter.
Finally, a shout out has to go to oLight. They make great lights, we all know this, but they also proved they are good people too. Their support for Marshall’s family has been incredible. In the end, a buck is not as important as a good deed and this year oLight had many of both.