Gerber had a bit of a hole to dig itself out of. Nathan had gone as far as writing a post titled “Gerber Sucks“. When David and I realized that Gerber was not at Blade, we asked aloud the question: “Is Gerber still even a knife company?” The new company President, Rob Kass, doesn’t even have a knife background. He is from another division of Fiskars (the Finnish-owned parent company of Gerber). There was a string of recalls and legal settlements. Add to this that fact that the first thing many people think of when they hear the name Gerber is the gaudy, failure-prone, Chinese-made, marketing-over-substance line of Bear Grylls series of survival tools.
That aside, David, Nathan, and I went into this process with open minds. We wanted the blades to speak for themselves. We hope we gave them a fair shake, and that our efforts have been interesting and informative for you all.
There were a couple of questions that we wanted to answer. First, can Gerber still make a high-quality knife? Second, where do Gerber knives fit in the broader universe of knives in terms of design and value.
I want to start by saying that we realize the knives were to a degree cherry-picked. They were all USA Made, and came direct from Gerber as opposed to off a retail shelf. We would very much like to explore some of Gerber’s less expensive imported knives to see how they compare both to these and other similar offerings from other companies.That being said, the Manager at Gerber with whom I have been corresponding, Andrew Gritzbaugh, did highlight the expansion of their Portland, OR production and the greater relative percentage of USA blades in their line of offerings as emblematic of the commitment the company has made to righting the ship.
So how do the knives stack up and answer these questions? I think an individual recap of each is probably appropriate.
This was probably the best knife of the bunch, and was the one that Andrew was the most excited about. It is without a doubt a quality knife. At $86 MSRP, it might be a tad steep for 420HC steel, but Jake Middleton found it for $50 on Amazon tonight, and at that price it is a steal. Even $86 is not extreme. The knife that I find most similar among my collection is the Ontario TAK, which is 1095 steel, and has an MSRP of $100.
So the Strong Arm hits the marks for quality and market niche. What about design and innovation?
My biggest beef was with the ergonomics, but that might just be a personal thing. Some readers (and David as well) expressed the concern that Gerber is showing a design bias for a “tacticool” aesthetic, especially when you factor in the Ghostrike and Propel. I see what folks are getting at, but that isn’t at all the case with the Gator certainly, and looking at a broader selection of Gerber knives than those we tested showed plenty of more traditional looking knives as well.
David’s review of the Ghoststrike boiled down to this: It is a well-built example of poor design. In terms of quality, it is solid (other than a terrible factory edge). The sheath is quite good. However, I second David’s opinion that the ergonomics are seriously off. I did not log near the time with it that David did, but I played with it enough to say that I just could not find a really comfortable grip which translates to awkward and inefficient use.
Maybe we are just missing something because neither of us is particularly tactical in our POV. We do feel that the knife a bit overpriced for a 420HC neck knife. There are better options for less money. I would honestly put a CRKT minimalist up against it from an EDC point of view. What it lacks in size it makes up for in price ($25) and phenomenal ergonomics which allow one to perform a tremendous range of cutting tasks comfortably.
Definitely the most “tacticool” of the knives we tested. In terms of quality, I just can’t overlook the amount of blade wobble. It is not acceptable in a $200 knife. That being said, it is not noticeable with use, only when trying to wobble the blade, and thus is not a deal-breaker for me as far as carrying this knife given the fact that I possess it.
If one looks back to my Hootenanny review, there was a discussion in the comments about the pocket clip. I had expressed my dislike of the extreme pointiness of tip. It was uncomfortable to brush or press against. I described the situation in detail, even highlighting the fact that a random person mentioned it to Ken Onion, the designer, in my presence. It is an issue for people, myself included. However, I did not find it to be so awful as to tarnish my opinion of what is in all other regards a wonderful knife. Others may, and do in at least the case of reader Jon M. feel differently. I can only be upfront with you all in my decision process, and let you judge for yourself.
What isn’t debatable in my opinion is the price. I understand that there is a cost scaling issue with automatics. For any number of reasons including personal choice and local regulation, a company will not sell as many automatic knives as other styles. So there are fewer units with which to defray the cost of design and production tooling. However, $200 is really steep for a 420HC knife. The Benchmade Serum is $229 and comes with 154CM steel. With 420HC, the Propel should really be more of a $165 knife tops, especially when there are so many high quality assisted openers like the S30V Kershaw Blur which have high-end steel and come in at under $100.
Another solid effort. If not for the loose bolster, darn near perfectly executed. Without a doubt the most comfortable ergonomics of the 4 knives we tested. Nathan didn’t put a lot of work into the reedge, but when you dial in S30V, it can take and hold an incredible edge. Edge+ergonomics = function. It is my impression that it would be a better batoner than Nathan experienced. I typically find that anything smaller than 2/3 of the blade length can be batoned, and a thick slab of s30v is not likely to break from this.
Nathan’s biggest issue was with the sheath. I don’t disagree in the sense that I too dislike sheaths with snap-loops and no positive retention. I mentioned this in my review of the Benchmade Steep Country. In the case of the Gator sheath, it is virtually exactly the same as the venerable Buck 119’s sheath. If you don’t like the style, you won’t like this. If you don’t mind mind it, you will be fine.
The knife bears a lot of similarities to the Buck 119 both in niche and in form. I think the Gator looks like what you would get if you redesigned the 119 to be a drop-point hunter. The 420HC Buck 119 retails for about $95, The S30V Steep Country (smaller and not nearly as much knife as the Gator) is $115 MSRP. The Gator Premium $146, which seems just about right in terms of relative price.
If not for the bolster. There should not be loose pieces on a $150 knife.
Is Gerber back? (if you believe they ever left) To a degree the verdict is still out. None of the knives were home-runs, though the Strong Arm was close. Both the Strong Arm and Gator are solid B efforts. The Propel is very good, but the price is off for the steel, and the blade slop was too much for a $200 knife. Only the Ghoststrike was fundamentally flawed, the ergonomics are just too far off for EDC use. However, it was well made and the sheath system is well designed and executed.
We want to test a handful of Gerber’s imported offerings both against the American made blades and against other imports of a similar price.
That doesn’t change the issue of Bear Grylls being the face of Gerber. They need to pay the billsAndrew at Gerber is of the opinion that the line serves as a good introduction to knives for your mass market consumer. I could agree if they have truly sorted out the issues like snapping blades and cracking plastic handles.
Andrew says that there has been a tangible change at Gerber, both on the shop floor and in the office. He says that folks recognized that their position was slipping and the more savvy knife-owner was losing faith with the company. Steps have been taken, including a greater focus on American production. Only time, new designs, and attention to detail in the legacy ones will tell if the seed that has been planted bears fruit. There are solid signs that this may be the case.