This has been a difficult review to write. It has been a long time coming. In the end, I have decided on the tone I want the review to take. But first, an analogy.
John Searle, one of the 20th Century's premiere thinkers, made an argument by analogy for why computers will never be able to think like humans. This example is now a famous thought experiment called the "Chinese Room." It goes something like this:
Suppose there are two people, one of whom speaks Chinese and one of whom does not. The non-Chinese speaker is locked in a room and has no ability to consult with anyone or anything other than a single, very large book. He knows that the person on the other side of the door speaks only Chinese and he wants to communicate with him. The Chinese speaker is outside the room and believes that the person in the room speaks Chinese. The Chinese speaker also has a desire to speak with the person in the room and so he writes a note in Chinese and slips it under the door. The non-Chinese speaker knows that the big book contains a set of rules that are 100% comprehensive. It basically says if you get symbol A, respond with symbol B. It does not translate symbol A into English, but instead gives you instructions on how to respond to symbol A or any other symbol or combination of symbols with the appropriate responsive symbols. This pairing of symbols, one in response to another, is so complete that the Chinese speaker believes that the non-speaker in the room is a fluent Chinese speaker. Any questioned asked in Chinese receives a perfect response also in Chinese.
Under these circumstances does the non-Chinese speaker understand Chinese?
Searle's point is clear--computers are just machines that respond to rules and the more powerful they are the more sophisticated their rules can be, the more responses they can store, and the faster they can provide responses, but they do not understand what they are doing because, in the end, they just respond with rules-based answers. Computers, even very powerful ones, do not have comprehension in the way humans do any more than the non-Chinese speaker in the locked room understands Chinese. There are some philosophical issues, I think, with the analogy, but for this review, its perfect.
Aside from the problem common to all Lionsteels--bland designs and chunky grinds, the Roundhead is a traditional knife made by the numbers, devoid of any warmth, and lacking the touches that envince a master’s hand. Its as if Tony Bose was locked in a room, understood zero Italian, and had to design a traditional knife made by an Italian on the other side of the door using Searle’s Big Book of Instructions (only this time in Italian). This is just a terribly forgettable knife. If you need a cure for insomnia in knife form grab a Roundhead.
Before we get to the review, I want to acknowledge that alot of what I dislike about this blade is 100% subjective. What I find cliche and boring someone else might love. But if the knife were just boring, I’d probably not hammer on it that much, but there are other objective flaws here that really make me dislike this knife. I am aware that in a knife I find boring those objective flaws are probably magnified, but, as with all of my reviews, my hope is that I describe the product and its flaws well enough that you can decide, based on the review, whether you will like it or not. This is always the case with a review of mine, but I figured it was worth explaining this up front in this case because of how much the subjective things color my view of the objective things.
Here is the product page on Collector Knives, currently the exclusive retailer for the Roundhead. It costs between $111 and $133 depending on scale materials. The first issue of the knife included an abalone version that was more than $200. There are carbon fiber, stag, ram horn, and canvas micarta versions as well. This appears to be the first written review. Here is a video review. Here is my video overview.
And here is the review sample:
Twitter Review Summary: A bland, boring, and by-the-numbers blade.
There is a subjective problem I have with the knife, which I detailed above—namely the knife is boring, but there is also an objective problem or two.
To start, I think the entire appearance of the knife is marred by the number and placement of the cover screws. Its just too much here. A traditional knife uses tactful brass pins, artfully blended into the cover material, either visually or physically, or both. Here, Lionsteel just drops two massive screw heads in the center of the knife handle and two more on the bolster and they stick out like sore thumbs, if the sore thumb was on your face instead of your hand. This is just a bit of design laziness. They could have, for a few pennies more, used hidden screws (attaching the covers to the scales from the inside). They could have also used pins, but I understand that a lot of people like the Roundhead because its easy to customize the covers. Either aesthetic solution would reduce the ease of customization, but they may make the knife more pleasing to looking at, thus reducing the desire to alter the knife’s appearance in the first place.
Aside from the screws I have two other objective criticisms.
First, of course, the exposed rear tang, is just too much. Even in inexpensive Barlows, like the AG Russell Medium Barlow, the tang is a bit reduced. If you look at the best production and custom Barlows out there, the tang is quite small. Compare this tang to that on the Canal Street Cutlery Boy’s Knife and you will see—one is made by a traditional knife master, the other is a crude rendition of the form. Even if that’s not a fair comparison, compare the Roundhead to the Proper and again you see just out crude this design really is in terms of its rear tang. If it were any worse, I could use it as a speedsquare in my workshop.
Finally, there are the proportions of the knife. This is 3 inch blade, but the knife itself is remarkably thin.
The knife feels odd in the hand and because of the lack of width to the blade, the grind is especially chubby, even grading on a curve that exists just for Lionsteel. This knife almost feels like a Melon Tester and not a Barlow. The difference is important—a Melon Tester pattern is a special use knife that sacrifices all around performance for the ability to do one job (guess which job) very well. The Barlow is one of the first true EDC knives and so to lose those jack of all trades proportions for no real reason strikes me as silly. It is as if they wanted to make a 2.5” bladed Barlow and did market research that told them that 3” would sell better, so they just stretched the design in CAD without accounting for the change in proportions.
The performance ratios are surprising. The b:h is .78 which is decent and the b:w is 1.37, which is quite good. Ratios are good here.
Fit and Finish: 1
Normally fit and finish is Lionsteel’s calling card. After all they are the only company aside from Chris Reeve Knives to win the fit and finish prize (known officially as “Manufacturing Quality Award”) at Blade in the last decade and a half. But here there is a huge misfire. It doesn’t impact performance, but it is something you notice every time you handle the knife—one of the carbon fiber scales is smooth to the touch, while the other, show above, has the texture of a door mat. Its not that one is necessarily worse than the other (though my preference would be for the smooth texture—it looks cleaner), its just that they don’t match. How such a noticeable difference escaped Italy I don’t know. This is clearly not what we have come to expect from Lionsteel.
I am not going to ding this knife twice for been too slender or for the mismatched scales. In reality, its not that different from other Barlows in use, which is to say excellent. The rounded handle and the rounded edges on every surface here make the knife quite good in the hand.
As with all traditionals, the smaller footprint makes the delightful in the pocket. Here the leather slip does a good job of protecting the knife and your other stuff during carry. Generally pocket slips drive me crazy, as they had a ton of extra bulk to a knife—essentially stripping the traditional knife of its major advantage. In this case though, its just the right size and that makes the Roundhead a very good knife in the pocket.
M390 is a great steel, one of my favorite available right now. Lionsteel has always done a good job at picking steels—offering D2 on its earlier models, N690 on its cheaper stuff, and now most blades sport M390. That’s a pretty good steel line up. The only problem is how they choose to grind it.
Blade Shape: 2
Classic spear point Barlow shape is very good. Again, the blade is overly short, but that was counted in the design section.
No. No, no, no, no. This is not how you grind a traditional knife. The reason folks still bother with traditionals, despite the lack of one handed opening or a lock, is that they are great cutters. Some folks like the character and look, but it is hard to argue with just how good these knives are at cutting stuff. Thin blade stock and thin hollow grinds just works.
Yet, Lionsteel has always run their blades a bit on the chubby side. Thick stock with thick grinds is a recipe for poor performance. I have never reviewed a Lionsteel that I thought was a good slicer or even an average one. Compared to some of the ultrathin Spydercos, like the Chaparral or the Dragonfly, Lionsteels are well made knives that slice like a phone book. Here that fault is magnified—the stock and the grind are chubby AND the knife’s blade is quite short. The end result is, as I referenced above, a simulacrum of a traditional knife—it looks traditional, but lacks all of the essential elements of a traditional, most importantly: a wicked slicing ability.
Deployment Method: 2
The walk and talk, which is really a function of a fit and finish, was very good. I had no complaints at all, as the knife snapped closed with authority, but opened with a fluidity. Very good, because, of course, Lionsteel has mastered fit and finish (which makes the handle mistake even weirder).
Retention Method: 2
It is very surprising, given the screwed cover disaster, that Lionsteel didn’t drop a pocket clip on this knife, and truly ruin it. Fortunately they didn’t and that is the absolute right choice on a traditional of this size and design. The very good leather slip helps too.
I have no issues with the slipjoint tension. Only a moron would lose a finger with this knife, as is the case with most traditionals. Again, the walk and talk are important here and again, I have no problem. The knife is fluid yet tense through the entire opening arc.
Overall Score: 15 out of 20
Imagine if you had been fortunate enough to have live musicians playing every piece of music you had ever heard your entire life, kind of like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Now imagine that you all of a sudden were only able to access chiptunes versions of the sweeping symphonic pieces you were used to. That is what it is like to go from something like the CSC Boy’s Knife to this vapid simulacrum of a traditional knife. Yes, I love the blade steel, and yes the choice of the Barlow pattern was the right one. And I will even concede there are some nice details like the crowned spine, but overall this is a spiritless rendition of a knife that trades heavily on its warmth and style. But even if you set those subjective things aside, this knife’s Rubenesque grind, pronounced rear tang, and mismatched covers are objectively bad. And then there are the screws. Screws are to knife handles what pock marks are to a human face—the fewer the better. And here not only are there too many of them, they are huge. This is an ugly, bland, sliceless knife. The leather slip is superb. But you probably didn’t buy this knife for the slip.
Compared to other knives that sit in between modern and traditional blades, what I think of as crossover designs, the Roundhead is roundly outclassed. The Proper is the knife the Roundhead wishes it was—it has all of the performance and all of the charm of a traditional with modern steel. Compared to the quirkly but very good Spyderco Roadie, this thing is an ergonomic nightmare, which is odd because I think the Roadie might have been built by Lionsteel (at least I know it is built in the same city in Italy). I was going to do a shootout, but this knife is just not close enough to make the shootout worthwhile. Oh well.