The Internet loves lists like kids at a fat camp love smuggled-in candy bars. I already have a list of my most recommended knives, found here (and updated yearly all of which can be found here). There are lots of good pieces of gear out there and I recommend them frequently in emails, DMs, and on social media, but there is a difference between my favorite stuff and stuff I recommend. Recommendations are things that I think are excellent pieces of kit and will appeal to most people. My favorites are things that appeal to my tastes and my tastes alone. There is significant overlap, but the two lists are not isomorphic. For example, I would never recommend the Scott Sawby Swift. Its cost, especially now that Mr. Sawby has all but stopped making knives, is so prohibitively high that it makes no sense for me to recommend it to others. I love knives. I am an enthusiast and I am willing to save and wait for five years for a knife. Most folks aren’t and I get that. Hence, it is not a knife I recommend, but it is one of my favorites. I am sure, if you had to, you could guess some or all of these, but just as a thought experiment I want to put this list into writing and see how it changes over time. These are not in order because I change the order just about every day. The Top Five have remained unchanged for over a two years now, so they seem pretty set, but even in that group I couldn’t pick a favorite and have it be the same over time.
So without any additional blathering, here are my five favorites:
Chris Reeve Mnandi (Old Nail Nick)
The old saw about Chris Reeve Knives being as nice as a custom and as available as a production is borne out here. With its proportionally massive inlay, slim figure, and elegant clip (even in the early iterations), the Mnandi is a great knife if you want only one knife or if you want a nice knife. The best part of the knife is its clever nail nick/scoop design that gives you the clean lines of a nail nick with the easy opening of a thumb hole. But only in the old models. The current Mnandis have a rounded over edge at the nail nick making it virtually impossible to open one handed. Previous versions, however, left the edge sharp and it was easy to open. I am particularly taken in by the Box Elder inlay as the caramel color really pops on the titanium handle. If the Sebenza made CRK famous, the Mnandi is their magnum opus.
No knife better represents my tastes in knives than the Dragonfly II in ZDP-189. It is small, light, inexpensive (relatively speaking), and it works amazingly well. The cutting performance is as good as it gets. It opens with ease. It carries excellently thanks to a great over-the-top wire clip. If I were on an extreme budget or I wanted a nicely priced knife and didn’t want to ever buy another knife, this would be my recommendation. Like the traditional knives of yore, this knife stows away in the pocket with ease. Remember—the Greatest Generation crushed the Nazis and they did it with folders no bigger than a Case.
While I like the Mnandi and the Dragonfly, there is no knife that is more tailored to my tastes than this knife because, well, Gareth made it exactly to my tastes after my review of the original Shamwari. The fact that these preferences went on to become part of one of the hottest custom knives in the world is still kind of strange to me. What is not strange is that people like the blade. Gareth’s fit and finish, design, and cutting performance is top notch. It also helps that this knife has my favorite deployment method, my favorite clip, and is my favorite size. Over and over again this knife is my preferences instantiated into a form produced with remarkable expertise. I will also admit to really loving the entirely-for-looks hand rubbed satin blade finish on the grind, which contrasts beautifully with the mirror flats. If you haven’t handled a Shamwari, you owe it to yourself. It is a superb knife.
There are an epic number of traditional knives out there right now. Quite a few are outstanding. I really love the Barlow pattern, but in a lot of knives the rear tang is basically a secondary cutting edge. This smaller version of the Barlow, a pattern traditionally known as a “Boy’s Knife” shrinks down the rear tang and has a beautiful mirror finish on the 440C steel. The walk and talk are superb and the fit and finish is equally nice. The Gold G10, which is really translucent yellow G10, is exceptionally nice but was an AG Russell exclusive. Adding to the difficulty of finding one is the fact that Canal Street Cutlery closed while the run was still being sold at AG’s site. The end result is a truly beautiful knife that has all of the touches that make traditionals great with the allure of a chase knife. If you find one, buy it. Unfortunately, odds are you won’t see one, though. For reasons I can understand, they don’t appear on the secondary market all that much. The wood handled versions are much more common, but they lack the eye catching, lightning bolt appearance of the AG exclusive. The Gold G10, as you can see in the pictures above (none of which have been retouched in any way) almost glows. Honest to God, this knife really looks like that.
Despite my protests to the contrary over the years, I am a knife collector. This is my one collection piece, my one knife that doesn’t get carried or used, my one knife that sits in a little lamb’s wool case and gets buffed with a microfiber cloth. And the reason is simple—to me, this is an exemplar of truly top of the line knife making. Sawby’s form is sleek and innovative, with a lock of his own design. It is put together in a way that my mind can’t really comprehend. The joints between materials are just smooth, or finger flush, they are outright invisible. And the blade, oh the blade. It is a thing of molten beauty, a blade so beautiful that all knife fans, regardless of ilk or preference, cannot help but enjoy. And then there is the engraving. Ray Cover, like Scott Sawby, is a master. Together, Sawby’s form and Cover’s style make for a symphony of visual treats. This is a knife pushed to the limits of my tastes. Even if I some day acquire a Walker, I’ll still have the Swift. This is a favorite for life and a splendiferous display of the knife making art.
The 5 Favorites seems pretty locked in, but the the next 5 are in a bit of flux. Last year’s bumper crop of insanely great knives sent one knife into the top 10, and if expanded to the top 20, there would be at least one other representative of 2018 (TRM Neutron, which I significantly underrated in my review…I will fix that soon). But drawing the line at number ten gives me this list:
Tom Krein TK-3 Whitetail
I love the PT CC’s handle, but having owned a few, the fit and finish is spottier than a cheetah’s coat. The Whitetail is absolutely superb. It is only not in my top 5 because, well it would make it a top 6. The Mini Grip is absolutely great and probably the most expensive knife you can price justify. It is just, um, slightly boring. But as Patrick Rohne has noted, good stuff tend to be boring. The Spydiechef is a bonkers high performance knife, a Pagani Zonda Cinque Roadster in a world of Honda Odyssey mini vans. But it is not a knife I carry regularly because of the size. A Mini Spydiechef just might give me a heart attack. And the Gent, oh the Gent, its a great knife, super, but I don’t have enough time with it yet to put it in the top 5 or to cement it on the top 10.