SHOT Show may have moved online. But knife manufacturers are as busy as ever getting their latest and greatest to consumers without the trappings of trade shows.
With COVID numbers in unprecedented territory, SHOT Show 2021 was canceled. As a result, companies are debuting their new wares via the web and sending out press packets and review samples to select people. I was lucky enough to get both this year.
2020 was one of the best years ever in knives (see my Gear of the Year Awards on my personal site for more). 2021 looks like a consolidation year, with a lot of major brands recycling older designs with new steel.
Read on for notes on what’s new and what to add to your personal collection in 2021.
SHOT Show 2021 Preview
Note: Because Reate, WE, and Artisan — along with most other Chinese brands — don’t release catalogs for the year in advance, their releases aren’t covered here.
Only WE opted to release anything at all in January, and its release is not extensive, especially compared to the brand’s annual output.
Spyderco’s business model has fundamentally changed over the last few years. The brand used to release knives on the same cycle as everyone else and competed with rivals across multiple retailers. For the last 3 years, however, it has focused on sprint runs and exclusives.
That model is an interesting move in a competitive field. And it has resulted in a boom in the collectors’ market. But it means Spyderco’s annual releases have been pretty meh. This year is no different. There are a lot of old knives with new steel. K390 has been fully integrated as a high-wear-resistance option on most evergreen models (Delica, Endura, etc.). LC200N is also more broadly available.
There’s also a slip-joint version of the Lil Native ($180), making it a premiere working knife in countries with knife lock laws. In terms of actual new designs, there’s nothing at all.
- Overall grade: Incomplete because of lack of new items
- Must-buys: 0
This isn’t your father’s CRKT. The company is moving solidly into the higher end of production knives. Its pattern of releasing high-end versions of knives alongside more budget-friendly versions gives the brand an impressive and innovative catalog in 2021.
This year’s key innovation is the new Field Strip system. With a single slider and flawless action, the new Field Strip improves on the old system dramatically. There’s no cross-threading of the rear wheel and no missing the connection point at the pivot.
In terms of new models, there’s the Pilar III ($80), which is a larger, curvier version of the Pilar and the Large Pilar (aka the Pilarge). CRKT also has a wide range of colors for the Joe Caswell-designed Provoke.
Finally, the brand’s high-end offering, the Bona Fide ($250), is a new Ken Onion design with excellent ergos and Field Strip II. CRKT has always been innovative. And it’s now pairing that innovation with good materials and good fit and finish.
- Overall grade: B
- Must-buy: Bona Fide
Kai (Kershaw & Zero Tolerance)
Kershaw’s lineup has, for many years, been overwhelmed by toss-away designs with generic black or metal handles and subpar steel, usually 8Cr13MoV. Some have D2 if they’re fancier models. All of these are made in China.
The reality is that the market has blown past these kinds of knives. With CIVIVI and CJRB making knives with better tolerances, materials, and designs, there’s no reason to look at Kershaw’s line up. Unfortunately, nothing shown in 2021 changes that. Just to put a point on this (or not) — the most innovative knives in the lineup have plastic blades.
ZT’s offerings are similarly bland. There are only three knives, two of which are rehashes of previous models — the new version of the 0308 ($375) and the stripped-down version of the 0999, the 0990 ($275).
The only genuinely new blade is the 0762 ($400), a large, carbon fiber-handled flipper with 20CV blade steel. It has ZT’s Tuned Detent System, which I’ve had on other knives. None of these models are particularly exciting or innovative. They’re all pretty expensive, especially considering other brands are using the same materials for half the price.
Kansept Knives released a knife with an M390 blade and Timascus inlays for $217. That is a real problem for ZT. Nothing ZT offers is even close to that kind of value.
- Overall grade: D
- Must-buys: 0
Benchmade has had a few good years since the brand (1) lost the patent to the AXIS lock and (2) released the Bugout. The Bugout introduced a new approach to knives — a laser focus on EDC.
2021 is no different. Benchmade is releasing a high-end Bugout ($300) with CF handles and S90V. This is going to be a competitor for the knife of the year in 2021. It also has an even lighter version of Mini Bugout ($160) with the brand’s new carbon fiber composite material it showed off in the larger Bugout.
There is also a new Mini Adamas ($250), which is a sweet, aggro-looking blade. Finally, there’s the new high-end Gold Class Tengu ($550). Benchmade is also offering a Mini 940 ($205), this time without a coated blade. Lots of good stuff here, though nothing groundbreaking.
With the release of the Terminus XR a few years ago and then a full rebrand and exit from Big Box, SOG is now clearly targeting the enthusiast market.
It needed a big showing for 2021 or people would dismiss the brand as doing color swaps on old designs. Fortunately, SOG is bringing the big guns with better steel (S35VN and XHP) and innovative designs.
In particular, the new Terminus XR LTE ($140) takes the Terminus XR and makes it better. Carbon fiber scales bolster rigidity, and the steel is now S35VN. A lighter Terminus XR with better steel is automatically one of the best EDC knives on the market.
The Mini Kiku ($250) is similarly light and has even better steel — XHP. With the midprice revamps last year and the tweak of the higher end, SOG is really in a good position going forward.
- Overall grade: B
- Must-buy: Terminus XR LTE
Will Hodges has been making some of the best pens around for a few years. 2021 marks his move into knives.
His first entry is a high-end titanium frame-lock flipper called the Rockwall. With XHP steel and Hodges’ trademark design and fit and finish the Rockwall is amazing. Look for the Rockwall soon for a retail price of $300.
TRM is showing off its first sliding bar (read: AXIS)-lock knife, the Shadow ($279). The brand is also still working on the TiCoon Atom. I am sure that folks like Enrique Pena and Brian Nadeau of Sharp by Design will continue to release new models in short runs (the Pena X Series Trapper was released in the Blade HQ color).
From being a newer maker to becoming the standard-bearer of high-end knives, Chris Reeve announced an upgraded Mnandi ($400). Long one of the best production knives ever made, the Mnandi sports two significant upgrades: a new opening method and new steel.
Instead of the rounded-over nail nick that made the Mnandi a two-handed knife, it now has a long opening hole. It also has S45VN steel, the grandchild of S30V, a steel Chris Reeve Knives was instrumental in developing. This is a great knife made better — and a sign that Chris Reeve is following the market closely.