Friday, July 4, 2008

Sharps, Part II: On the belt

As practical and appealing as I find pocketknives to be, sometimes there's a better (and bigger) tool for the job.

Almost without exception, "better" and "bigger" are accompanied by a higher price and a belt sheath. While the latter may be necessary, the former, at least for me, has its limits.

To be sure, there's nothing like using an expensive handmade knife. I'll even grant the higher quality and, in some cases, superior durability and utility of handcrafted blades and tools -- but are their ultimate attributes, whether real or romantic, worth $500, $1,000 or more?

That question must be answered by each buyer. For this buyer, the answer generally is "No."

With that said, here are some sharps that belong on my belt.

The story about my choice of multi-tools is as simple as these gadgets are complex: the
Leatherman Wave (street $75).

I find it easy to one-hand the Wave's pliers, and the two main cutting blades are designed to be opened with a flick of the thumb with the tool closed, an arrangement that works for me. I own both the original Wave (pictured) and the newer version (slightly larger blades and interchangeable screwdriver bits). Typical of my experience with Leatherman multi-tools, both are solid and durable.

To be fair, a bunch of other companies offer excellent multi-tools (Gerber, SOG, Buck and Victorinox among others) and I've used many of them. The one I most want to love is my SOG Paratool -- it's light, tough and full-featured, but I find the blades and small tools difficult to deploy quickly, so it rarely takes a ride on my belt.

My collection of single-blade folding knives began 26 years ago with a
Case #2159 -- big and heavy, solid-brass frame and bolsters and phenolic scales. Its hollow-ground clip-pattern blade takes and holds a dangerous edge. I've worked that knife to the brink of abuse, but it refuses to surrender. It now lives in semi-retirement, a bona-fide keeper.

I'll confess to being seduced the first time I handled a Spyderco knife, and judging by the rash of shameless mimicry, many other cutlery companies were likewise smitten. My Endura 4 (retail $80, street $60) actually gets clipped to my pocket, not stuffed into a belt sheath. Its light weight belies its sturdiness and makes it a pleasure to use hard.

Today, my preferred go-to folder is the SOG Tomcat 3.0 (retail $230, street $110), a knife that fanned my lust for years before I found a good deal and gave in. It's stout, smooth, quiet, perfectly balanced and remarkably nimble for a large folder. The Tomcat's mild-recurve edge might just be my favorite blade -- ever.

Fixed blades
Among my retired knives is a small fixed-blade Western, similar to those made by that company for the Boy Scouts. I bought it at a trailhead outfitter during a long-ago summer in Montana, and it served me well on numerous treks into the wilderness. Despite the fact that it doesn't feature exotic steel or a high-tech serrated edge, it was a faithful companion that never let me down -- probably because I know a bit about bushcraft and respected the limits of this particular knife.

I'll wager that most fixed-blade knives in circulation are mass-market skinners or hunters like my Buck Special #119 (retail $80, street $35). Some will say that the tip of the blade is prone to breakage and that the phenolic handle material can be slippery when wet, but neither has been a problem for me. While this Buck may not be the ideal survival knife, when worked within its very reasonable limits I find it to be an excellent bushcraft tool.

I picked up the SOG Seal Pup Elite (retail $120, street $60) only recently, but based on its design and my previous experience with SOG, I have great expectations of the knife. At this point I can say that it's finished well, balances like it should, fits my hand perfectly and cuts like a demon. With a minimalist survival kit stashed in the front pocket of its nylon sheath, I can see this knife becoming the centerpiece of a compact grab-and-go system.

The closest I come to recommending a pricey handmade knife is the Bravo-1 from Bark River Knife & Tool (retail $220, street $150). The sharps produced by Mike Stewart's Michigan company inspire almost cult-like loyalty, and this knife shows why such devotion is deserved. Developed in cooperation with the USMC Force Recon Training Unit, the convex-grind Bravo-1 excels as a versatile, no-nonsense survival/bushcraft knife. Once you have it in your hand, you'll see why I believe that this Barkie is a winner.

(Read more about the Bravo-1 here and here.)

Like most people, sometimes I have a long wish list and a short wallet -- after all, I need to put together a go-kit for each member of my family. And I want to keep a knife in each vehicle. And I'm looking for a decent fixed-blade utility knife to carry while I'm doing yard work.

With that in mind, I like the Glock 81 Survival Knife (retail $50, street $20). No, this isn't the crème de la crème of fixed-blade knives -- some will deride it as "a brand-name bayonet" (which is pretty accurate) or even "a sharpened pry-bar" -- but in the bang-for-buck category, the Glock 81 is hard to beat. I've found that working the teeth of the "root saw" with a triangular file, followed by a few minutes' attention to the cutting edge with a good stone, makes the Glock quite capable.

These two posts aren't meant to be the last word on sharps -- other people will make different choices, and experience continues to shape my preferences.