Thursday, July 3, 2008

Sharps, Part I: In the pocket

You're looking at my favorite knife: an Ulster Official Boy Scout Pocket Knife, circa 1968.

In a world of myriad-function folding pliers, high-zoot folders and obscenely priced über knives, give me a basic pocketknife -- every time.

From pruning a rose bush to surviving the worst, nothing is as useful as a good knife. But in order to use a knife, first I must have it with me. And that's the humble pocketknife's greatest advantage -- I can carry it everywhere, every day.

(Commercial aircraft and courthouses notwithstanding, of course.)

I retired my trusty Ulster from everyday carry some years ago, eventually becoming a fan of the Victorinox brand of Swiss Army-type knives. These days, my first choice is the Victorinox Soldier.

To most people, "Swiss Army Knife" means red plastic scales (handle material) and a dizzying array of tools. The Soldier -- which happens to be the Swiss Army's standard-issue knife -- has "Alox" metal scales and only four basic tools. In addition, the main blade is larger and thicker than those found on Victorinox's consumer-grade knives.

That it closely resembles my old Boy Scout knife is no coincidence.

I've found the Soldier to be durable, capable and well-made. It's not a budget-buster, either -- suggested retail is $34, although it's widely available for less than $20.

About a year ago, I started looking for a pocketknife that offered a bit more than the Soldier, for times when my pockets could accommodate a bulkier knife. What I settled on was another Victorinox, commonly called the Bundeswehr (retail $50, street $35). A variant of the One-Hand Trekker, it's the standard-issue knife of the German Federal Defense Force, or Bundeswehr.

It features the same tools found on the Soldier, but they're slightly larger and stouter. The Bundeswehr adds a Phillips screwdriver and a saw blade, and the main cutting blade is equipped with a thumbhole for one-handed opening. Both the half-serrated main blade and the screwdriver/bottle-opener tool benefit from liner locks.

No toothpick, no tweezers. Fine with me.

As an accessory to a suit and tie, the Soldier's lower profile and classy Alox scales get my personal nod over the Bundeswehr's relative bulk and olive-drab plastic. But almost everywhere else -- backyard, trail, bug-out bag -- the Bundeswehr works better for me. Its larger blade and tools, along with a beefier and more ergonomic grip, make it easier to apply more force when I need to. And because it's still a pocketknife, the Bundeswehr loses little in the way of nimbleness.

Granted, my preferences bend toward Victorinox, but many other companies make quality sharps -- buyer's choice.

I'll also admit that there are situations and tasks for which a multi-tool, a large folder or a heavy fixed-blade knife is superior to a pocketknife -- but when it's sitting in a drawer back home, a better tool gives up all of its advantages to a good knife in the pocket.