Automatics

Knife Review: Gerber Propel Auto

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Gerber Propel Auto. Radically different than my typical EDC, but a pretty good knife overall.

Welcome to Day 4 Day 3 of Gerber Week. The Gerber Propel Auto was slated to finish the week, but Nathan needed an extra day to wrap his Gator S30V review. This one is ready to go.

Thanks to the efforts of KnifeRights.org, automatic knives have been legal in Tennessee since July of 2014. I didn’t race right out and buy one. I had virtually no experience with them and wasn’t convinced of their utility.

That being said, I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to test and review an auto. I was already on the way to developing a fondness for spring assisted flippers, and using the automatic Propel put me over the edge. Carrying my Benchmade Mini-Grip or Spyderco Native and manually flipping them open (NYC excepted) now seems strange despite that being my primary method for decades.

The Propel hits a number of firsts for me. Not only is it my introduction to automatics, it is the first tanto that I have ever carried for an extended period of time. With my outdoor background I typically lean towards leaf and drop-points. I am about as tactical as Red Green.

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The original mall ninja

In Will Woods’ The Truth About Tantos, one reader commented that he likes using the front bevel for scraping, prying, and other rough tasks, thus saving the slicing portion of the blade for cutting. I found this to be true for me, especially for peeling stickers. The transition point between the primary and secondary bevels is useful for trace-cutting a drawn line. It isn’t going to replace a utility knife  for cutting stuff out, but as a Mr. Mom it is a frequent activity (think cutting a “box top for education” from a package),

Construction:

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The 3 faceted blade was a pain to sharpen

Blade: The blade is 3.5″ of 420HC, a mid-range steel that pedigreed American companies like Gerber (and Buck and Case) have mastered heat-treating to its maximum potential. Nothing fancy, but a proven track record. Perhaps a bit pedestrian for a $200 knife.

There are 3 cutting areas on the blade. The front bevel is 1″ and is sharpened bifacially. The primary edge is divided between the plain (~1.25″) and serrated (~1.5″) portions. The plain portion is also bifacially sharpened matching the front, while the back-side of the serrated portion is flat.

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The relative lengths of the different blade facets

This makes sharpening it a pain. The serrated portion is great on the pointed side of a Sharpmaker rod (there is nothing better for serrated knives) The plain portions have to be ground individually, which is awkward on a Sharpmaker, especially the front bevel. It is an unfamiliar motion to drag the edge over the rods.

I suppose that I could use a stone for the plain portions, but I would still need the Sharpmaker for the serrated. This isn’t exactly a simplification, though it would probably do a better job with practice.

There was a noticeable up/down wobble when the blade was opened. you couldn’t feel or see it while shaking the knife’s handle, but it was noticeable if you tried to wiggle the blade. It was less than the typical amount of lateral wobble on my Benchmade mini-Grip, and much less than the lateral wobble on a Byrd Meadowlark. Strangely, the Propel has virtually no lateral-wobble at all.

Because it was not noticeable when you were holding/using the knife, it is simply a disappointment rather than a dealbreaker. I just think a $200 MSRP knife ought to have less slop.

Scales/handle:

The scales are g-10. This is a nice upgrade from glass-filled nylon which is common in Gerber knives. There is aggressive checkering, with additional deeper grooves. The handle is large enough to fill my hand. There is a slight swell to the palm, and a large recess under the index finger, which leaves a small bump that functions as an additional contact point with your hand.

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The handle is aggressively textured, with additional deep grooves.

The scales are attached to a metal frame with small torx screws, four per side, plus the adjustable pivot.

Pocket Clip: The Propel’s pocket clip can be mounted 3 ways. Right pocket tip-up or down, or left pocket tip-up. I opted for the default right pocket, tip-up. At one point I caught the clip on a door and tweaked it, but I removed it and bent it back into shape. Worked just fine.

Carry:

Not the most discrete EDC

 

It carries comfortably provided one’s pants have enough structure. I frequently wear quickdry shorts and these are just not rigid enough to keep the pocket from sagging. Twill, canvas or denim is fine.

The aggressive texturing does make the Propel a bit of a pocket shredder. It is a fact of life for a knife enthusiast. I don’t get in a twist over it. But I am dressed casually 95% of the time so YMMV.

The Propel rides fairly high in the pocket. Coupled with the knife’s aggressive styling, it might not be the best choice for those valuing discretion in their EDC.

As I mentioned, I carried the knife with the safety off.  In a right-pocket, tip up configuration, the blade is blocked from opening by the back of the pocket. Even if this were not the case, I never had an accidental opening. I couldn’t even get the mechanism to fire even when I punched or pressed directly on the knife in my pocket.

A left-hander might want to use the safety as the button would be pointed to the outside. If you run your thigh into a tabletop for instance, you could have an accidental firing.

Action/Deployment:

You can see the operation of the safety in the video below. It locks the blade either open or closed, and is a good idea to get in the habit of using. It is not difficult to accidentally push the button, which also functions as the lock release while using the knife. Better safe than stumpy.

Deploying the Gerber Propel Auto and activating the safety lock in a single motion.

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I did not use the safety when the knife was in my pocket, I will explain more below. I was more likely to turn on the safety when I left the knife out on the counter, lest it pop open when moved or picked up carelessly.

The knife has a good spring in it. In the first week alone, I probably fired the mechanism 1000 times or more, and am certainly near if not into 5 figures at this point. I needed to go back and tighten things up a bit, since a bit of excessive wobble developed as the screws shook loose. In less than 2 minutes, it was back to “normal” with just the slight up/down wobble noted above.

When rapidly cycling the knife’s action, the button would very occasionally stick slightly and the blade would rebound from the stop and fail to lock. This was also something that would happen (again quite rarely, but it happened) if you held the button down for too long. It wasn’t something that I ever noticed when deploying the knife for use.

Close-up of the release button/lock. The plunger travels into a recess on the inside of the frame/scale, allowing the blade to swing open or closed.

One thing I learned would help prevent this is getting in the habit of bumping the safety with the bottom of my thumb in a single follow-through motion when  pressing the release. Not only was this a good habit to get into to avoid accidental closure, it forced me to not hold the button for too long.

 

TTAK Testing Protocol:

When given a choice, we at TTAK prefer to test plain-edged knives. Uniform edges allow for more objective testing. It is obviously difficult to make clean slices of paper or cardboard with a partially serrated knife.

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That said, I gave it a whirl. The serrated portion is lousy at newsprint, but I could slice ribbons with the plain portion and proper technique. Cardboard was a mixed bag. The reason we slice cardboard is to test the rate at which the edge degrades. We measure this by when the blade begins to tear as opposed to slice.

At least 50% of the time, the cardboard tore, at least for part of the slice. So this measure is not very good for cross-blade comparison. However, I am going to default to real-world experience. The 420HC on the Strong Arm made it through about 150′ of cardboard. It is likely that edge holding roughly similar on the Propel, or roughly middle of the pack as far as steels go.

That being said, the Propel has been my default EDC since the end of June and I have broken down a lot of boxes with it. While I can’t quantify the Propel’s edge holding results, I can say that I only touched up the Propel on the Sharpmaker twice. Not out of necessity, rather because it was in my pocket when I had the Sharpmaker out and set up.

In other words, the edge holds up just fine for EDC use.

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One slice made it mostly through 1″ sisal. Only a quick clean-up cut was required.

Serrations are useful for cutting rope. In fact it is extremely difficult to shear 1″ sisal in a single pass with a 3.5″ plain-edged blade. The Propel doesn’t have the mass to cut through either the 1/2″ static climbing rope or 1″ sisal in a slash/swipe. However, a slow pull will cut the climbing rope in a single pass and the 1″ sisal in 1+ a cleanup pass.

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You can see the failed slash as well as how cleanly the Propel cut the rope on a slow pull.

Culinary Testing:

No one is going to mistake a serrated tanto for a kitchen knife. That being said, food makes a good objective and reader-replicable substrate for testing.

For slicing meat, the blade shape is not a hindrance. It could cleanly slice muscle provided my pressure favored the plain edge and not the serrations, and the blade did an acceptable job of disarticulating wings.

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It is not a kitchen knife, but can work in a pinch.

I tested a bunch of knives on a half-bushel of apples making apple crisps one afternoon. The Propel was not the easiest knife with which to peel an apple, but it did a passable job.

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Not an Opinel, but acceptable.

The last thing I played around with was not technically food, but from the garden nonetheless. I took the left over sunflower stalks, and tried to cut them with a variety of knives. Both sawing with the serrations and a very hard press and pull of the plain-edged portion were effective at cutting the stalks.

The Propel did a solid job of cutting sunflower stalks, both sawing with the serrations as well as a hard press-and-pull cut seen here.

As I said, the Propel will never be mistaken for a kitchen knife, but is nimble enough and has enough utility to pretend.

Other Testing:

I don’t have as many photos for this review as I have had in some others. As I mentioned, I used this knife as my primary EDC for a good portion of the summer. I did a lot of EDC things with it. They were individually small and inconsequential, but in aggregate cover a wide range of activities, just as all of your EDC knives do.

Any deficiency in task accomplishment can be attributed to the nature of a half-serrated tanto blade, and are not a shortcoming specific to the Propel. As discussed above, the tanto-shape does have several functional advantages. While I am not a convert to a tanto as my EDC of choice, I am now convinced of the style’s utility.

One final test I performed was a quick fuzz stick and ferro-rod scrape. When I shave wood, I like to use the portion of the blade closest to the handle but this was not an option with a serrated blade. It took concentration to whittle with the plain portion but it is possible.

The spine of the blade is too rounded to use the ferro-rod. I was able to use it by scraping the forward portion of the blade, thus sparing damage to the primary edge. I can’t quite imagine a scenario where I would have a ferro-rod and no knife besides the Propel. My car kits have a spare knife and I do not carry the Propel while hiking, but I figured that mentioning this here is a good way to address the rounded spine in a testing context.

 


Stats:

  • Overall Length: 8.52″ (21.64 cm)
  • Blade Length: 3.5″ (8.89 cm)
  • Closed Length: 5″ (12.7 cm)
  • Weight: 4.28 oz. (121 g)
  • Steel Type: 420HC
  • Handle Material: G-10
  • MSRP $199 / $135 Street (BladeHQ)
  • Country of Manufacture: USA

Ratings (out of 5 stars):

Aesthetics/styling: ****
I am not a big fan of “tacticool”, but if you like the style, the Propel executes it well.

Blade: ****
It is a pain in the butt to sharpen, but it holds a decent edge. I never “needed” to sharpen it despite months of carry. I touched it up out of convenience. I liked being able to use the tip bevel differently (rougher) than the cutting edge.

Ergonomics:****
Surprisingly comfortable for such an aggressively checkered and blocky knife.

Ruggedness/Durability: ***.5
The knife will loosen up with heavy use, but is easy to tighten. That said, I was never able to eliminate blade wobble without torquing the pivot screw enough to prevent the action from opening smoothly.

Overall: ***.75
I know that it is splitting hairs when I am breaking it down to 3/4 of a star, but I think an overall grade of 75% is appropriate. 3 stars is a 60% and 3.5 is barely a C grade. This knife is better than that. There are some warts, most importantly the blade wobble. However, the Propel stood up to months of EDC use, and impressed me enough that I intend to leave it in the rotation. Plus, I have found that automatic knives are exceedingly fun to play with.

*disclosure: This knife was sent to us by Gerber with no stipulation on use or return.

Click here to see all of our Gerber Week reviews.

Discussion

8 responses to ‘Knife Review: Gerber Propel Auto

  1. Own it. Don’t like it. Blade shape is crap. For the money, there are better options out there. If it were a traditional blade-shape, I’d like it more. The deployment, is slow, if the pivot is tight enough to work. If you loosen the pivot to allow kershaw type deployment speed, the wobble in the blade gets so bad that it borders on unsafe.

    This one is not in the rotation any more. I got a Pro-Tech for my auto knife needs (mostly when I’m in uniform). Not exactly a competitor at the same price-point, but it’s a waaay better knife. (Steel, lockup, centering, deployment, etc).

    • I don’t disagree with regards to price point. For $20 more you can get the Benchmade Serum which seems to have a tighter fit and finish.

      If I could have the Serum’s blade on the Propel’s handle, I would be set.

  2. So, $200 price point for a wobbly, budget steel blade that sells out any utility to ill conceived corporate ‘tactifool’ styling and an auto button that does what? Its competing at high end Benchmade levels, but could be beat by any number of decent flippers offered at 1/10th the cost. You’ve got to be kidding!

    • That would be the glass half empty way to put it. It is my honest opinion that with a better steel it could justify the price. It is a pretty solid, American-made auto. But probably about a $165 knife with the 420HC. 154CM would better justify $200.

      Some people like a tanto blade for EDC use. I am not there yet, but I have a greater understanding of how someone can reach that conclusion.

      I think assisted flippers are probably the sweet spot. I think auto probably doesn’t justify the increase in price, but I no longer like centripetal-opening a knife anymore.

      I am still in the fixed-blade whenever possible camp.

  3. Must say I’m a bit disappointed in the review. I’ve had my A6 auto for four trouble free years now, except for perfectly normal wear on the finish. It’s in my EDC rotation, but it is a pretty big knife more suited to causal carry. S30V steel, drop point blade, solid lock up and zero wobble, all for around $150, IIRC. I’d buy a second one in a heartbeat if they made a non-serrated model (subtle hint, Gerber).

  4. Clay, I get it and you’re the one who has tested it, but I see Gerber’s tacticool styling bias coming at the expense of practicality and, frankly, expense on all three knives so far. What’s behind door number 4?

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