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Knife/Gun Contest Entry: Zero Tolerance ZT561 Review

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By Lance S.

ZT561 Review

Ever needed a knife that could stab through tank armor, cut a tire off of a rim, and still dry shave? No? Me neither, but that didn’t stop the engineers at Zero Tolerance from designing a knife that could do it. Borrowing the design of Rick Hinderer’s classic XM-18, ZT built themselves one sexy beast. Utilizing titanium, G10, and the exotic ELMAX powdered steel, the 561 is a knife that is capable of performing the most demanding tasks and looks good doing it . . .

Without skimping on quality, the team at KAI put together a knife that is nearly equal to Hinderer’s original, but at a much lower price point (about $250 compared to the $750+ for a true Hinderer). Without destroying one of my favorite EDC’s, I attempted to subject it to a test that met or exceeded the standards of the people of the knife. While I didn’t go as far as Cold Steel goes with their hood stabbing technique, this test demonstrates the ZT 561 ups and downs of this tougher-than-hell blade.

Construction

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As mentioned previously, the ZT 561 features a two piece titanium frame separated by three spacers. These spacers allow the knife to remain light (relatively) and prevent the knife from retaining dirt, sand, or water that might damage the blade. Not to say that this knife is light. While 5.8 ounces may sound light, rest assured, in your pocket it is anything but.

Of course with a hard-use folder that isn’t the point. This knife, partly because of its weight, feels solid in the hand. Grip is provided by chain-link machining on both the Titanium scale and its G10 counterpart. The jimping at the top of the handle and extending onto the blade is very deep, and ensures a there is no way your thumb will slip, even in gloves.

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The ZT 561 denotes the color of its G10 scale. Its sister, the 560, features a black scale and is otherwise identical. Both knives feature a closed length of 5” meaning plenty of knife to hold on to, and the titanium frame lock ensures a tight lock-up. Unaltered, in fact, it is too tight. This knife locks up so tight you need the jaws-of-life to close it again. This can be a bit of a problem when your folder becomes a fixed blade, but have no fear, there is a simple fix. A bit of Sharpie on both sides of the locking point insures that the two edges glide past each other while still providing a firm lock up.

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Blade

ZT decided to go all out on this one. Using Hidnerer’s modified drop point design, and incorporating ELMAX powdered steel, a new, ultra-exotic super steel, they created one tough blade with beautiful curves. The 3.75” blade still has a solid belly for tasks such as skinning animals, or your apple, but it retains a decisively sharp point for penetration. To prevent compromising tip strength, the blade is over 1/8” thick almost down to the tip. The means massive strength whenever you need it.

The blade is flat ground and has a finer secondary grind so that it can be easily sharpened or reprofiled as the case may be. It also means that the blade is able to remain strong, but have a thinner cutting edge for slicing tasks. Still, the blade is beefy and does not lend itself to fine tasks very easily. That being said, it came from the factory razor sharp and has held its edge very well.

The downside to the ELMAX is that while it is technically a stainless steel, it got some tiny rust spots after a month of carry. As someone who takes very good care of his knives, this was somewhat irksome, especially for a knife designed to be a hard use super knife. The rust spots come off with just a little bit of steel wool, but they still should not have been there in the first place.

Also, for all of its edge-holding ability, ELMAX is a beast to sharpen. A few passes on the stone will bring my 420HC Buck or my VG-10 Spyderco back to a razor’s edge, but the ZT did not fare so well, making testing increasingly more difficult as I moved along. The ZT refused to return to the scary-sharp nature I got it in, and while it would still slice paper with ease, it could no longer replace my Gillette. While this is likely due (in part) to my shortcomings, it still should not be this difficult to sharpen a knife that will see everyday abuse.

Carry

This is not a sheeple-friendly knife, and must essentially be treated nearly the same as a gun in public. People jump back when this baby comes out of the pocket. When I was living in DC I had to worry where I would take it, and was stopped by the police on the street and questioned on account of the menacing bulge in my pocket. Now that I am free of the unhappiest place on earth, I am free to carry it, as long as I avoid wearing anything that isn’t remotely tight. If your cell phone does not easily slide in and out of your pocket, this is not the knife for you.

That being said, its four-position clip mount does allow for left or right handed tip up and down carry, making for a very versatile knife that will definitely find a spot in your gear. Again, while it is heavy, it is a great value, size to weight ratio-wise, providing huge cutting power for a minimum of weight. If you need to carry a knife that will hold up to the jobs, then it’s definitely going to be a weight savings over whatever you are carrying now.

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Testing

The Great Outdoors

While the pictures did not come out, I can assure you ZT made this knife to excel in an outdoor environment. It had no problem cutting small sticks into kindling for a fire, and quickly shaved down a thicker piece of hardwood into a nice spear. It also cut through thicker poles for making a lean-to with minimal effort. Using it more like an axe, it never gave out, and sunk deep in on every stroke. Its weight and size were a major advantage in this test. Had I had the opportunity to use it as a skinner, I’m sure it would have functioned flawlessly.

As a fisherman though, I need a knife that is as at home on water as it is in the woods. While I could see the less than amazing corrosion resistance being a problem here (I usually carry a cheap knife on the boat anyways in case it goes in the drink), I still felt I had to put it through basic seamanship. I used the knife to cut fishing line from 5lb mono up through 80lb braid, and while it is not ideal for the latter, it still went through it very efficiently. I stepped the game up and took it through some 5/16” braided poly that we use to tie off the boat. Too quick strokes and it was through. It worked equally well at picking out knots. Try doing that with your Leak. On second thought, don’t.

Back in the Office

While most of us do venture outside, a knife’s main habitat is often the office. From cutting open packs of printer paper to slicing through blister packs, knives can still get into some trouble. To test its chops, I put the ZT through office trials including slicing packing tape, cardboard and paper. While the 561 may be designed for the outdoors, it fits right in around the copier if you work with cool people, otherwise don’t show them.

We whizzed right through triple thicknesses of packing tape and carved cardboard with little trouble. Paper was a different story. The ZT will go through anything you throw at it, but not necessarily with much grace. It will take apart a cardboard box like a hungry pit bull on a chicken, but with about the same ferocity and cleanliness. Maybe it was getting dull, and since sharpening had produced little results, I had basically given up trying. The tape still proved no challenge, but the paper put up a fight, and while the 561 did go through, it left some ragged edges. The same was true of the cardboard. Maybe not the ideal office knife, but still a tireless work horse, here its wide blade only hindered its performance.

Pros

  • Strong like bull
  • Locks up like Alcatraz
  • Can basically replace all of your outdoor equipment
  • Feels and looks great

Cons

  • Thick blade makes detailed work difficult
  • Not sheeple-friendly (or maybe that’s a pro?)
  • Size and weight can restrict carrying
  • Difficult to sharpen
  • Pocket clip way too bendable

Conclusion

This knife is an amazing tool. If you need something to take you to hell and back, this knife will get the job done, but if you work in a sterilized PC environment, it’s probably not the knife for you. All of its downsides are plusses in other situations. Its difficulty in sharpening is counter balanced by its amazing edge retention, so if you need something that just won’t quit, ever, it’s the way to go. Since most of us don’t, it may not really fulfill your needs.

Specifications:

Steel:       ELMAX, stonewashed finish
Handle:  3-D machined G-10 front scale, 3-D machined titanium back handle, stonewashed finish
Blade Length: 3 3/4 in. (9.5 cm)
Closed Length: 5 in. (12.7 cm)
Overall Length:   8.8in. (22.4 cm)
Weight: 5.8 oz.
Price: About $250
Made in USA

Rating (Out of 5 Stars)Styling * * * * ½
Sexy, just sexy. Perfectly proportioned and curves in all the right places. The 3-D machining is a nice touch too.

Blade * * * ½
This blade will never give up and will tackle any task. I wanted to give it 5 stars, but its difficulty on the stone and its lack of precision in the office tasks won’t let me. A thinner blade and slightly softer steel would have made it perform much better in those areas, but at the cost of ruggedness. So while it performed perfectly in its element, it could have been more well-rounded.

Ergonomics * * * *
This is very subjective. For me, it is a perfect fit, but it may be too big for smaller hands, making it hard to hold onto, and any bigger hands might find it a little thin. Still the aggressive jimping and texture on the G-10 and Titanium ensures you won’t slip off the end.

Ruggedness * * * * *
I’d cover this page in stars. The knife is as strong as many of the fixed blades I’ve owned. It will not let you down, and can tackle everything and still ask for more.

Carryability * * *
It’s big, no two ways about it. It may not fit easily in your pocket and will likely not be very well hidden, even with its great deep carry set up. Still, size to weight, it’s hard to beat. For the performance it delivers, it’s worth standing out a bit.

Overall: * * * *
A great knife, especially in the outdoors, but there are certainly better options for EDC unless you work in a hostile environment. This may be remedied by its smaller, assisted-opening cousin, the 566, coming soon.

Discussion

6 responses to ‘Knife/Gun Contest Entry: Zero Tolerance ZT561 Review

  1. I’ve heard that with many stainless steels you have to use a diamond sharpener just to wear into the metal enough to sharpen it to a good edge, so you might want to try that if you’d been using a ceramic stone before. Sounds like an great knife, though!

  2. D,

    I started with a diamond grit Smith’s set, and finally went to an electric sharpener I use to put an edge on knives I make. That finally got if back, but did make the angle steeper than I would have liked.

    Lance

  3. I carry this knife (zt560) in my pack as a back up/companion blade to my (slightly) less durable benchmade 581. The only reason it’s not my primary edc is, as you said, the sheeple factor. Otherwise an exceptional blade. Great review, although I must say that I haven’t experienced the sharpening and rusting problems you mentioned.

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