EDC Recommendations Under $500
Tony Sculimbrene 12.30.13
At this point in our EDC recommendations series, we are now beyond the point where even knife knuts and flashaholics need to go. If you’re spending $250 each on both knife and light, then you are buying something more elusive than just performance. You can find super steels and ultra high output emitters in much cheaper knives and lights. At this level you are talking about gear for true aficionados, folks that appreciate the subtlety of good design and impeccable craftsmanship. This is probably has much as you can spend on legitimate production stuff. There are higher priced production items, like Benchmade’s Gold Class knives, but this is the last price point where you are getting production stuff that is not merely a gilded lily version of a knife or light you already have. If you go beyond the $500 price point, you are looking at mid-tech gear or small batch customs. Funny thing is, there are still some really good buys at this price point. You are spending a lot of money, but if you do it correctly, you can get real value.
Beware the Gilded Lily
Before I get to the recommendations themselves, a word about special editions or what I called “gilded lily” versions of products. Production gear is made in large batches with huge machines and molds and standardized processes. It gives you a great deal of uniformity and precision. It also helps you spread out or amortize costs. Each one of those dies costs a lot of money, and the more products, both in terms of the same model and different models, you can get from each mold, the more profit you get. This is why Buck has about seven or eight different models of Vantage knives. (The Vantage line has three price levels, as does the Vantage Force, and the Paradigm is very similar. There used to be even more when they made Large and Small models of all three Vantage knives.) It is also why Benchmade has the Gold Line of knives and why Sunwayman and JetBeam produce exotic metal versions of their best sellers. Companies are able to use the same equipment and same processes to make products they can charge 300%-500% more for. When buying in bulk, the material costs are negligible (especially compared to the profit margins), and since the machining is all set up, there is a tremendous incentive for companies to do these gilded lily products.
And you may really, really like them. I’d probably look twice at a Gold Class Mini Grip with SM100 blade steel. Heck, I bought the gilded lily Dragonfly II (Blah, its okay, but I like the FRN version better.), but in the end, I don’t think these products are good ways to use your money. The increase in performance is usually negligible, but the cost can be far greater. Collectors like them, but I am not a collector (or so I tell myself). They have a place in the market and can occasionally warrant attention, but by in large I think they are waste of money.
Knife: Zero Tolerance ZT0560
There are a ton of recommendations I could make here. The Spyderco Caly 3 is awesome, the Spyderco Domino and Techno are very good, and the Benchmade Barrage and 940 are well-conceived products, but in terms of pure bang for your buck awesomeness, nothing really matches the feel and machining achievement that is the ZT0560 series (including the CF version, the tan version, the ZT0561, and the Black Wash version). This is a pricey blade and a gargantuan one. It is not super practical, but if you are spending this much on a blade, you’re not doing it for practicality’s sake.
The ZT0560 pushes all of the right buttons. It has the fit and finish of a custom, the look of a Hinderer, and the tuning and precision action of a Swiss watch. The flipper works marvelously (better than the XM-18, either the 3 inch or the 3.5 inch, in fact). The cage bearing pivot is like glass. The lockbar problem of the original runs has gone away, and in its place is an amazingly stable but still easy to disengage lock. The clip is very good. The handles are actually very, very comfortable. I liked them a lot. The blade steel, Elmax, has received a few complaints, but I like it quite a bit. It worked very well on my review sample. This knife is a HUGE bargain at around $265, and it’s really great for what you get. It’s too big, but there is no better show piece of the Golden Age of Gear than the ZT0560.
Light: HDS Rotary Executive 200
Unlike with the knife choice, there is very little competition here. Honestly the previous price point’s light, the MBI HF-R Ti, is probably as good as anything else on the market under $400. But choosing the same light would be boring, and the Rotary does offer you some things the HF-R doesn’t. First, it is a massively overbuilt device. This is a light that feels like it can take an absolute thrashing, and the tests HDS did prove that it can. It also offers a more traditional UI. I like them both equally, but the Rotary is more familiar. Finally, the battery, CR123a, is more readily available than the weirdo battery used in the base HF-R and has more capacity than a rechargeable AAA if you use the alternative body tube.
The Rotary is a great light in its own right, with an amazing UI allowing for full one handed operation. It also has a level of fit and finish you are unlikely to find anywhere else in the production world. Finally there are bevy of options. I like the Executive because it can tailstand (sometimes, there is a quirk with the tailcap that makes it susceptible to pressure changes that cause bulging). You can get the light with a Hi CRI emitter as well. Also, HDS announced that a pocket clip is on its way, fixing one of the few glaring weaknesses in a world class light. The programming options are sophisticated and thankfully entirely hidden. The only real drawback to the Rotary is the limited availability, but that is being fixed slowly and surely.
This is all hardcore gear geek stuff. It is beyond what you will ever realistically need, but boy is it fun to play with and great to use. The ZT0560 is a true flagship product and something that was unimaginable in a production run even ten years ago. There are other options out there that are more practical, but none that show off just how good gear is right now. The Rotary is an absolute, unquestionable classic. It works flawlessly and is durable enough to last an epoch. All together they come in around $450 well, below the $500 mark.