SHOT Show 2015: KAI Keeps the Hits Coming
Tony Sculimbrene 01.23.15
KAI USA, better known to folks as a Kershaw and Zero Tolerance, is one of the very few players that has both mass market appeal, with dozens of models in Big Box stores like Wal-Mart and high end credibility producing knives like the ZT0454 that rival customs. Last year was an absolutely stunning year for them both at SHOT Show 2014, and throughout the year as they released one amazing tool after another.
In my informal survey of gear geeks on my personal website, they had an almost unanimous sweep for Company of the Year. Led by Thomas Welk, KAI USA made awesome collabs with folks like Rick Hinderer and Ernie Emerson and produced amazing in-house designs with the help of Jim McNair and crew. KAI USA has always been one of the big players in the knife world, but last year they were the undisputed champ. It’s a hard act to follow, no doubt, but their 2015 line up is another swing for the fences.
First, like Cold Steel and CRKT, KAI is using new steel this year. There was some controversy in the knife community about KAI’s heat treat and grind of Elmax, a staple of their ZT line, so that might have influenced their choices.
For the record, I have never experienced any issues with ZT’s Elmax or Elmax from other companies. They may be addressing that issue, or they just want to try something different. Either way, KAI’s new high end knives, all in the ZT line, are running Crucible’s S35VN.
S35VN is the successor to the much touted S30V and has been on the market for a couple of years. Like its predecessor, S35VN is a powder steel, and it, too, was developed with input from Chris Reeve (maker of the Sebenza, among other knives). It is trying to be all things to all people, pushing performance limits in terms of hardness, toughness, and corrosion resistance. This is not a specialty steel like H1, but something designed for general use.
I have reviewed more than half dozen blades with S35VN, and I have found it to be a truly superior steel, among the best general use steels on the market. The formula is similar with S30V, with additional elements added, including niobium, which helps in the manufacturing of the blade. It is, in my experience, very similar to S30V, but with better resistance to chipping (the main problem with S30V) and greater sharpenability. It’s a good choice. I just hope the chatter about Elmax didn’t scare KAI off. It is also a very good, general use steel.
Kershaw’s new product line up is not as big as last year, but it would be virtually impossible to be bigger than last year’s showing. We get three new autos, which, while nice, have a limited audience, given legal restrictions. We also get a Kershaw version of the Hinderer Ecklipse called the Shield.
It is basically what the Cryo is to the XM-18–overseas produced, with 8Cr13MoV, a blade right at 3 inches, and a framelock with slick stainless steel handles. I am sure it will sell well, everyone likes Hinderer stuff, but having seen and used the Cryo extensively, I am just not that excited. It does have a very interesting tanto blade shape, so it might appeal to folks that way, but I found the Cryo to be heavy, expensive, and slick in the hand. The Shield looks no different.
The Shuffle II is a bigger version of the Shuffle, this time running 8Cr13MoV instead of the lesser steel that was originally on the Shuffle. There is a budget USA made knife, the Link (model number 1776), and it looks decent. It’s an assisted flipper made in the USA priced to compete well with overseas made knives.
My only reservation is the use of 420HC, a steel I strongly dislike. I know they needed to go that direction to get the price down and keep the knife all-USA, so I am not too upset. Let’s hope it’s as good as Buck’s 420HC, which is actually not that bad (thanks to the steel wizard Paul Bos and his proprietary heat treat).
There is a new blue Blur for obsessives to collect: a few new fixed blades (including a parang-ish blade, a tanto, and throwers), a blade changer knife, and a good looking RJ Martin budget knife, which, if the Zing is any indication, is a super value, and there is also a bigger Amplitude.
The last knife is something that will probably be the entry level Kershaw, the Filter, and it might street for around $15. My problem is that it runs probably the worst steel on a major brand–3Cr13MoV. Save some pennies and get a knife that is at least using 8Cr13MoV.
Two other additions were surprising, but welcome. The K-Tool, which is a Kershaw one piece multitool in the shape of a, you guessed it, K. It looks to have all of the major features and it is quite affordable. This is a market every knife maker should be in as the profit margins are huge and demand is high, so it’s nice to see someone other than Gerber and Leatherman entering this space. There is a small axe called the Tinder that also has some OPMT elements to it–a pry tip and bottle opener. These were nice surprises.
The 2015 ZT line up has the single knife I am most excited to buy this year, the mini version of the ZT0454–the ZT0450.
The original ZT0454 was a limited edition knife, and while I didn’t review it, I did own one for a while. It was incredible. The fit and finish was on par with any custom, and the flipping action was insane. The new ZT0450 is smaller, with a titanium handle and a 3.25 inch S35VN blade. Like its big brother, it runs exceedingly light, tipping the scales at 2.9 ounces. 100% guaranteed buy. There is also a less exotic version of the ZT0454, the ZT0452, which has many of the features of the original, except for the tri-composite blade. It also runs S35VN and both are manual flippers with KVT bearing pivots.
The ZT stable of collaborators expanded to include Les George. Known in the custom world for his wide variety of sizes and simple, excellent blade shapes, George’s aesthetic is carried over to the ZT line in the form of the ZT0900, ZT’sfirst sub-3 inch knife.
This looks like a stout little beast with a KVT bearing pivot and S35VN steel. This is a radical departure for ZT, one that I welcome whole heartedly. New, more pocket friendly knives are always a good thing.
There are new Emerson and Rexford knives, with the ZT0808 looking the most promising. This knife is based on the Rexford custom model known as the Cesium and has excellent blade shape. Both run S35VN (see, I told you it was everywhere). I would imagine high end versions are also on their way, likely to be shown at Blade as they did last year and the year before.
Finally, like Kershaw, we get a surprise from ZT in the form of three pens.
So-called tactical pens are another hot item, like the OPMTs, but this is a much harder market to break into. Not only are pens very complex and the intricacies of making a fine writing tool hard to master, there are a lot of companies already in this game.
The ZT offerings look about on par with SureFire and Benchmade pens, but none offer good writing refills out of the box. ZT opted for a Rite in the Rain refill, which is similar to the Fisher refill, and both, in my experience are poor writers. The real value in these refills is their ability to write anywhere, and for a hard use pen that makes sense. Fortunately, the ZT pens take Parker style refills, and there are dozens of choices, including many excellent writers like the Schmidt EasyFlow 9000 refill.
Overall, it was another amazing lineup from Kershaw and ZT. They are both pushing the envelope. That said, there was nothing in the Kershaw line up that is a guaranteed buy for me, unlike last year. The 1776 is an interesting concept and one I am very glad to see in the knife world–a budget USA made blade with good features. The presences of OPMTs and pens is a sign that KAI is watching the market carefully, as is the use of S35VN steel. The new ZT knives look simply stunning. Not as good as last year, but still damn good.