2018 was the best year for gear since I started the site. There were great high end releases, great lower priced releases, huge surprises and delightful comebacks. If you were a gear fan in 2018 your wallet (and significant other) hated you. I started working on this article in late September because I knew it would be a challenge and during the writing, new entries came out.
In particular the knife category was very strong. Production blades, thanks to high end Chinese makers, were driven to a new level this year with amazing fit and finish. But it wasn’t just Chinese makers—makers all over the world responded to this push and as a result the knife market was exceptionally strong, proof of the logic of capitalism on a small scale.
As always there are few rules. First, the product has to be released in 2018. The Gent, for example, had a drop in 2017 but thanks to Massdrop’s pokey pace, it didn’t actually get into most people’s mitts until 2018. That counts. I also count upgrades of prior versions of kit, so the S35VN Pilar counts. This is not a terribly strict rule, but one designed to highlight new stuff even when old stuff is pretty strong. Second, once a product wins a big award (Overall GOTY, Best Value, Most Innovative, Biggest Surprise), it is out of contention for the product-specific awards (Best Knife). This allows me to showcase as much cool stuff as possible. Finally, in categories where there is cross over, such as in the pens category, I am considering things in terms of how they perform as EDC gear, not in terms of how it functions as a pen qua pen. This is important because, for example, metal barrelled fountain pens fair much better than acrylic barreled pens in EDC, but as far as pen folks are concerned, the added weight of metal is a drawback. So with the ground rules laid out, here we go.
Here is the Everyday Commentary Amazon Store.
Overall Gear of the Year: Massdrop x Ferrum Forge Gent
Nominees: CRKT Pilar in S35VN, Nik’s Minimalist Wallet, Frelux Synergy I
The Gent is the Practically Perfect Knife. Its got whippy, kinetic action, looks great, runs a very good steel, exhibits an excellent build quaity and possesses smart design features, like a finger choil that still allows the edge to be sharpened all the way to the end. This is an excellent knife. When I first got one in trade I didn’t know the price and so I assumed it was in the $150-$200 range. I thought it was one of the best knifes on the market for that price. Then I found out it cost $80. This is pretty clearly the best piece of gear released in 2018 and an achievement by Massdrop. All of a sudden, there is a new player in the knife game and they are dropping bombs on the market. Oh, and then they released an upscale version, with CF or rosewood handles and it too was pretty damn awesome. WE Knives, Ferrum Forge and Massdrop scored big here. I am excited to see what they do in 2019 (how about a WE Knives made, Massdrop sold, Mick Strider designed PT? Please....Or a LC200N Dragonfly. Either would be fine).
The other nominees and a slew of amazing folders would have won any other year, but this year is positively stacked. I loved the Pilar a ton, but I found myself carrying the Gent more and so, in the end, I am relying on habit to demonstrate quality. I could be persuaded that the Bihn Wallet is the best product of the year—it is certainly my most consistent carry of the year, but the Gent was something I looked forward to pocketing whereas Nik’s Wallet was just an auto carry. The big challenge for me, came in distinguishing the Frelux Synergy I from the Gent. The Synergy I is an amazingly cool light and it too was something that added a bit of joy to my day when I carried it. In the end, I used the Gent more and so I opted for that. Like I said, 2018 was stacked. And I didn’t even get to the slew of awesome folders this year.
Best Value of the Year: CRKT Pilar in S35VN
This is an upscale knife—carbon fiber and S35VN matching a great design—but at the same time it is still a good buy. At $67 this knife is $25-$30 cheaper than the Delica with better steel and better handle material. And the Delica, even post MAP jump, is still a decent value. This knife is cheaper than the TRM Neutron, the SOG Terminus XR, the Spyderco Chaparral, the Mass Drop Gent. And if you want to find something with S35VN that is cheaper you have to drop down to the LA Police Gear TBFK, which is a good buy but not an outstanding knife. This Pilar is the best value on the market and as I wrote in the review, if this marriage of high end design, high end materials, and elite value is a portent of the future of CRKT everyone else making knives should be worried.
Most Innovative Product of the Year: Tom Bihn Nik’s Minimalist Wallet
I had my share of wallets pass through my hands before the Tom Bihn. Lots and lots of them. Some bulky, some not. A stupid one with a zipper. Wallet after wallet after wallet. Never buy a machined metal wallet, they are pain in the ass, literally. Wallets are so hard to design, so challenging to make, that I just gave up. Then I got the Nik’s Minimalist Wallet. The materials are great, not unusual, but great. It is the design here that scores the points. The wallet is designed using ideas from origami, and the result is a wallet with a single seam and an impressive lack of bulk. Over and over again, I carried the Minimalist and I was never disappointed, not once. This wallet just works, so much so that my search for a wallet is over. Tom Bihn solved the most difficult to design item in all of EDC and for that, they get the Most Innovative award.
Biggest Surprise: Frelux Synergy I
Nominees: Buck 110 Slim Pro, SOG Terminus XR, CRKT Pilar in S35VN, Knives and Tools Grailer 1
Like a sudden peel of thunder on a dark summer evening, the Frelux came out of nowhere. Ben isn’t a flashlight guy (well, he makes his own, so he is by default a flashlight guy, but he doesn’t traffic in them like most flashoholics). He didn’t just supe up an existing torch. And he didn’t charge an arm and a leg for his light. So when it turns out that the Synergy I is one of the best lights on the market, color me surprised. Knock me over with a feather surprised. Its just that good, that different, and that unprecedented. This is Ben’s first foray into flashlights. Imagine what that means for future designs.
Best Company: Massdrop
Nominees: Spyderco, Hinderer Knives, 47s, Three Rivers Manufacturing
The Gent killed it. But so did the Keen, the Crux, and the Prism. All had their fans. Then there were the Gavko, Ochs, and Terzuola collabs. That line up alone would make them one of the best knife companies this year. But they made other exclusive items too—a cool EDC case, a few exclusive pens. Massdrop has become a must visit site and if they can expand to collab torches and iron out the kinks in the glacial speed delivery system, they are poised to be the best place to buy EDC gear. They have a eye for knife collabs and even if that is all they ever do, they will still be an important player in the knife game. This year’s line up blew everyone else away. I’d like to see a bit of variation going forward, enough with the framelock flippers, but that is a picked nit given how good their releases were this year.
Best Knife: TRM Neutron
Nominees: Massdrop Gent, CRKT Pilar in S35VN, TRM Neutron, Spyderco Chaparral in FRN, SOG Terminus XR, Sharp by Design Micro Typhoon
I have rewritten this entry three times. In the first draft Ihad the Chaparral winning. In the second, I had the Mini Typhoon winning. And, I have two of the nominees winning in other categories. As you can see, this is a very competitive race. Honestly, I could have written a version where the SOG Terminus XR won too. If you picked any of these knives over the TRM I wouldn’t think you were crazy.
But, in the end, the Neutron’s ultra thin carry, ultra slicey blade, and funadmentally sound design means that it is just too good to ignore. The fact that you are getting an all American Made knife, even down to the steel for $159.95 is a testament to just how good the knife market is right now. Everything about the Neutron was perfectly executed—from the grind to the custom thumbstuds. The Neutron is a study in what works as opposed to a study of exotic materials. And when you are making a tool as opposed to a piece of jewelry going with what works seems to be a better choice. In many ways the Neutron is the anti-2018 knife. As high end Chinese companies start to take over the market with blingy, beefy titanium framelock flippers the Neutron is there, doing its thing, cutting and carrying like a champ all at a very reasonable price. There is always some value in going against the trends—it allows your product to automatically stand out. When you couple that with excellent materials and design you get a winner.
Finally, there is this point—the TRM Neutron not just a competitive knife for the price, it is a superior knife for the price and we have long been told by pundits talking macroeconomics that American companies simply can’t compete with overseas companies on price. WRONG.
Best Flashlight: Fenix E16
Going first gets you the glory. Going last lets you capitalize on the mistakes of others. And so it is with the E16, Fenix’s first micro-sized side switch EDC light. Built like a handful of other lights, the E16 succeeds by being just a smidge smaller, just a smidge brighter, just a smidge cheaper, and a whole lot better in terms of beam quality. The reflector here, a complex affair to be sure, is the real key—that and the very warm emitter. Both are standard and both make this one of the best EDC lights on the market right now. Its half the size of your thumb, weighs 1.2 ounces with a battery, has excellent color rendering and surprisingly good throw for a tiny torch. Its about as un-innovative as it gets, but what it lacks in new ideas it makes up for in polish. Great torch.
Best Pen: Prometheus Designs Bamboo Fountain Pen
Jason Hui has been making some of my favorite gear for years now. His torches are killer. His pens are amazing. His doodads, like the quick release, are great at making your EDC just better. But the Bamboo Pen feels like it is a step up. The quality has always been there, but this is an item that has a new and organic design yet still feels unmistakably like a Jason Hui-made object. This is the first item that doesn’t just have a great design, it has a bit of true artistry in it. Of course, it works sublimely well and it is about the toughest fountain pen you will ever find. This was an easy pick. This is clearly the best EDC pen of 2018.
Best Pack: Not enough info
Nominees: TAD Spectre 22L, TAD Axiom 24L, Boundary Errant Pack
Packs have really become hard to review (noting that they were already among the hardest items to review). The market has splintered in a bunch of different ways. Its not just that there are more packs or that they packs are designed for more niche uses than they used to be. The real problem for pack reviewers is that the sheer number of new pack makers is very high and that they originate from widely differing niches. I feel pretty comfortable with the more tactical packs, as well as business and travel packs. But the pack companies that made their mark by designing packs around camera gear are out of my realm of knowledge and comfort zone, but as the Boundary Errant proves, some of these designers and companies really know what they are doing. The Boundary Errant looks especially interesting because it has all of the gee whiz fabric tech and a nice design all while coming in at a very decent $110. The two TAD packs can’t even imagine what it is like to come in that cheap. One of my goals for the site in 2019 is to venture into new territory, I am working my first watch review, a review of the Sinn 556. In this push I also want to get more familar with all of these new packs. Thanks to Charlie in the comments section of the Nominees list for sending me down this rabbit hole.
Best Multitool: Ugh.
Yep, the multitool market can’t get much snoozier than it was in 2018. After Leatherman released a ton of interesting stuff a few years ago, the market fell asleep. The center drive Gerber was last year and, I am not sure you noticed, its a Gerber. The SOG line up was, again, innovative a few years ago. And like everyone else, SOG decided to not release anything all that different this year. Sure there were a million and one one piece multitools, but these have become more gimmick than gimme. Let’s hope there are some interesting items at SHOT because this is market segment is about as boring as it gets. Forced to pick I’d probably go with the Gerber Dime Bladeless. Yawn.
Best Accessory: Massdrop EDC Chest
Nominees: Takeya 18 oz. Bottle, Hydroflask Coffee Cup, USB Chargeable AAA
While both bottles are really excellent, one showing up old designs readily, and the other expanding those old designs into new territory, its the Massdrop EDC Chest that just captured my brain. I have a Gerstner chest for my gear, which is probably as nice a set up as I will ever need, but the Massdrop EDC Chest still had me hovering over the “Buy Now” button for a long, long time. The ability to store and display watches, lights, pens, and knives all in one place is pretty cool. The fact that you can charge gear in there too is awesome. But the real catch is the fact that all of this is available for $110. Even as I write this I am having a hard time resisting the urge to buy it.
Derrick Bohn/Marshall Hoots Outstanding Contribution to the Community: Advanced Knife Bro
This award is named in honor of two really great gear geeks—Derrick Bohn, owner of Knives Ship Free, and Marshall Hoots, owner of Going Gear. Both passed away far too early and both had an outsized influence on the gear community. They were genial, fun to watch, and had an unabiding passion for gear and the people that carry it. They both made the gear community a nicer, more welcoming, and enjoyable place. The award aim as highlighting someone that pairs Derrick and Marshall’s passion for gear with a sense of invitation and fun.
People on the Internet take everything WAY TOO SERIOUSLY. Its not just gear. Go read some Star Wars fan posts about how good the Prequels were. They are an exhibit of insanity (and no, they were not good, despite the great production design and the fact that they gave birth to one of the best Star Wars properties ever—the Clone Wars TV show). Politics, cars, Star Wars, video games—anything where fans congregate online gives rise to insanely stupid arguing. Because, again, people on the Internet take everything WAY TOO SERIOUSLY. With passion comes nerd fights, apparently.
What’s the tonic for this in the gear community? Advanced Knife Bro videos. His amazing video skills are hidden by his steady stream of great one liners. When was the last time something online literally made you LOL? Well, if you haven’t watched AKB, then it has probably been awhile. He provides excellent information, has very good taste, and a willingness to make fun of himself and the online gear community. That, in my mind is a recipe for success, and just the kind of contribution that Bohn and Hoots would appreciate. They raised the discussion of gear by reveling in their love of kit and AKB does that as well, and adds in a bit of humor on the side. These videos are a must watch. Even the beer review ones.
Best Newcomer: Mark of the Maker Podcast
There are lots of gear podcasts by fans of gear. I run one. But there are very few podcasts hosted by gear makers. Mark of the Maker is one of them (there are, now, to my count four: Ernest Emerson’s podcast, Tim Reeve’s podcast, Andrew Demko’s podcast, and this one...though there are few others on indefinite hiatus). The casual banter and true knife geekery makes this podcast a gem. I get a bit of a thrill just seeing a new one pop up on my podcast feed. Tom Krein, Sean Kendrick, Michael Burch, and Mark Stheiner all have a great way about them and they tell stories that makes me feel like we were friends as kids. I too grew up in the woods intoxicated by the promise and potential of my Swiss Army Knife and an assortment of Rambo-inspired fixed blades. They have had a great selection of guests too, but like with all great podcasts, the best episodes are when it is just the hosts themselves. Go listen.
Most Important News Story: AG Russell Passes
There are very few people in life that can say that they were at the forefront of their chosen field for six decades. No athlete lasts that long. CEOs turn over three or four times in 60 years, even if the own the company and are the best in the world at their job. Heck even those occupations known for their longevity—golf and classical musician—rarely have folks hit the 60 year mark. But AG Russell was a singular person within the knife industry and probably American small business. AG Russell created a brand that was basically who he was in life—thoughtful, focused on quality, and always in service to the customer.
I am and have been a fan of AG Russell knives for many years. They are criminally underrated in the knife community. Their focus on performance and maximizing ratios and value make them hard not to like. That like and the website led me to a few conversations with AG. After one of the podcasts where we debated whether the “Featherlite” steel he marketed in the Skorpion was a gimmick or not, he reached out via email and we had a long conversation. It was clear to me that it was not a gimmick and a lot of thought and energy went into how the implemented the lightening holes. At the time AG was in his 80s, innovating, following the community, and emailing with a podcaster. I don’t know many folks in their 80s that know what a podcast is, let alone engaging with one.
The stories in the industry when he died confirmed that my interactions with him were not an anamoly. He was a curious and engaged person. He loved knives. He loved the knife community. He genuinely cared for his customers. Even months before he died he was introducing new knives and new designs, some with features that the community had been clamoring for (like bearing pivot flippers an a different version of the Light’n Bug’s ultralight design).
His warranty is now pretty singular, given that LL Bean wussed out and retreated from their version of the “return it for any reason at any time.” Given the quality and design of his knives I imagine it is rare they get returned. I had one such instance where I made the mistake and ordered the wrong thing. I called them and asked if that counted and they said sure. The woman that answered the phone talked to me like I was her favorite nephew asking what I could bring to Christmas dinner. They sent me the replacement before my screw up arrived in Arkansas.
AG Russell was a great man. I hope to God that I am as engaged and curious as he was when he died. His wife Goldie runs the business now. If you haven’t bought a Russell design, consider this a heads up. Go grab a Power Ball flipper or one of his traditional designs. You won’t be disappointed. Rest in Peace AG. We will all miss you.