Gerber hasn’t enjoyed the best reputation in the knife community as of late. That’s probably being overly kind – Gerber has made some borderline garbage knives in the last twenty years. Which is weird when you think about it. A number of big names in the knife community have the phrase “…started their own brand after leaving Gerber” including Pete Kershaw and Al Mar.
Some big names have designed knives for Gerber, including Ernest Emerson, Rick Hinderer, Blackie Collins, Bill Harsey, Chris Reeve, and Rex Applegate. Gerber’s hunting knives and combat knives like the LMF and LHR as well as some of their military-grade automatic knives like the 06 are truly badass tools.
But somewhere along the line, something went wrong. It’s hard to blame it on the Fiskars buyout (which is commonly mentioned) because that was more than 30 years ago. Maybe it was when Gerber started marketing things under the Bear Grylls name that couldn’t survive shipping, much less hard use. Maybe it was the enormous ad campaign for the Gerber Instant, including Super Bowl spots for a product that was later recalled for “laceration hazards.” Maybe it’s been years of products that overpromised and under-delivered – like the 39 series lockback. I’ve said for years that the best product Gerber makes is the Shard keychain multitool.
But Gerber is trying to make a comeback, and this time with products, not marketing. They’ve had a minor hit with the Flatiron folding cleaver, and the recently released Fastball has many people in the industry talking about how Gerber has actually made a desirable knife. So when Gerber reached out to us to see if we were interested in checking out a Fastball, I said “of course!” I put the knife to use over several months to get to know the knife and see if it’s the real deal or if it’s just really good marketing hype. The results are mixed. Let’s jump in.
Key Specs: Gerber Fastball
The blade on the Fastball isn’t breaking any new ground; it’s designed for everyday carry use without being too fragile to hold up to what life throws at you. It measures 3” long with a 2.75” cutting edge, cut from 0.10” blade stock. Blade shape here is a modified wharncliffe/drop point hybrid with a shallow flat grind. The odd blade shape has its merits: it offers a very acute needle tip point but the blade stock remaining thick halfway down means there’s still some meat behind it, so it’s less prone to snapping off than, say – a Kershaw Leek. (We’ll get to that later.)
There’s an unsharpened swedge towards the tip, and a hint of a thumb ramp where the spine intersects the handle when opened. The sharpening choil is surprisingly well executed – the plunge line drops steeply and intersects behind the small choil, leaving the entire sharpened edge an even width up to the choil. The Fastball is available in three versions currently – flat sage and urban grey with a stonewashed blade, or the version Gerber sent us for review – a black handle with a blackwashed blade. The coating is quite durable, with no notable scratches or discoloration after several months of use.
Blade steel on the Fastball should be familiar to our readers – Crucible CPM S30V is the powdered stainless steel I tend to compare most other steels to in this section. It’s the entry line for high-quality steel in the EDC market, balancing good edge retention with strong corrosion resistance and toughness. It’s a high-carbon steel, at 1.45% it’s approximately 50% higher than steels like 154CM and VG-10, but with similar chromium content at 14 percent.
It has a relatively high concentration of vanadium – 4% – which gives it a fine grain size allowing it to take a very clean edge as well as boosting edge retention and toughness. S30V has since been “superseded” by the newer CPM S35VN (which trades some of the high vanadium content for niobium, and has similar edge retention but is easier to sharpen) but is still an excellent steel for everyday use in my experience.
Deployment & Lockup
This is the first bearing pivot flipper that Gerber has made, which puts them a solid 10+ years behind the rest of the market in that regard. If you were preparing for disappointing, surprise! They did a fantastic job with the action on the Fastball. Amusingly, they refer to the pivot bearing as B.O.S.S. which is an acronym for Balls Of Stainless Steel. We’ll take a minute to laugh about this to ourselves before we move on.
The bearings are, as the name implies, stainless steel which are contained in a bearing race. This is where we get to the part where Gerber breaks the mold. Since the Fastball uses aluminum scales, and there’s only a single liner, normally a maker will put a stainless steel washer inside a pocket on the aluminum scale to prevent the hardened ball bearings from destroying the soft aluminum.
Gerber came up with an even smarter idea: that oversized pivot pin is actually the bearing race, being made out of hardened stainless steel. It’s held captive by a lip in the aluminum scale, and the pivot screw holds it in place. Gerber is able to combine two parts into one here in a creative manner, making the knife simpler to build as well as slimmer and lighter.
The action on the Fastball is… well, as we mentioned before this is the first bearing pivot flipper Gerber has made, and they absolutely nailed it. The shape of the flipper tab is great – a chunky square with some jimping on the leading edge for grip, and no extraneous jimping to tear your finger up on the spine. Detent strength is perfectly judged, it won’t tear your finger up like the Kershaw Bareknuckle will but it’s stiff enough to reliably pop the blade open every time. It’s not quite drop-shut smooth like some of Kershaw’s KVT knives, but that’s okay. Everyone that handled the Fastball was impressed with the action, even causing one coworker to ask if it was an assisted open knife – it’s that snappy.
Lockup is fine. The Fastball uses a stamped steel liner lock and aside from some fit and finish quibbles (more on that in the next section) it functions as it should – no vertical blade play was noted on my sample, and horizontal blade play showed up after several months due to the pivot screw backing off slightly – easily fixed by tightening the pivot back down again. There’s no lock stick either, regardless of how hard you flip the knife open. Lockup is a little late for my preference at around 60%, but it’s solid and stable. The Fastball uses a conventional external stop pin that’s located by the scale and liner.
Features, Fit & Finish
The Fastball is available in three versions – the black anodized/blackwash blade version here, as well as a flat sage/stonewashed blade and an urban grey/stonewashed blade variant. I’m not a huge fan of black on black on black knives primarily because they’re dorky looking – tactical chic was embarrassing even in 2007 – but also because they age more like milk than wine. I’ll give Gerber credit, the murdered out Fastball has held up admirably to wear. The finish on the handles is a satin-smooth matte black finish, which feels nice but is pretty slippery.
Features-wise, the Gerber uses the pocket clip from the recently departed 39 Series lockback folder, configured for three-position carry: right hand tip up and tip down, or left hand tip up (as the oversized pivot prevents it from being mounted left hand tip down.) The flexibility is a nice touch but I will note that mounting the clip right-hand tip down obscures the pivot screw, meaning you’ll have to remove the clip when you want to tighten or adjust the pivot.
Construction on the Fastball is interesting: along with the aforementioned dual purpose pivot/bearing race, which is a Chicago-style screw with a female barrel on the show side and a male screw on the lock side, the Fastball is held together by two full width body screws that pass through the opposite direction, going through the show side and threading into the aluminum scale on the lock side. There’s a plastic backspacer with locator pins that the body screws pass through to stabilize the scales, and it also includes an oval-shaped lanyard hole towards the end.
Of course, we must talk about the elephant in the room: Gerber’s build quality. I’ve certainly held worse knives with a Gerber logo on them, but it’s fair to say this knife isn’t going to keep anyone awake at night at CRK. The edge grind on the blade is uneven to the naked eye – on the show side it’s wide at the tip and the ricasso and shallow in the belly, while the grind on the lock side transitions from narrow at the ricasso to wide at the tip. I don’t know how this happens.
The stamped steel liners on this knife are ugly, with a rough finish to the edges from die tear. The end of the backspacer is ground crooked, the anodization on the pivot pin is uneven, and the pocket clip screws sit unevenly.
The biggest quality issue with my Fastball was the pocket clip itself: despite having never loosened or removed it at all (since the knife ships with the clip mounted right hand tip up) one of the screws managed to wiggle loose and damage the threads in the aluminum handle so it couldn’t be tightened down. I tried swapping the clip to tip-down and those threads didn’t work at all. The issue is more of design than quality: these pocket clip screws thread into the thin, soft aluminum handles and there’s only maybe 2 turns of thread engagement. So the gradual wiggling of going in and out of the pocket loosens the screws, which then strip out the threads and render the clip unusable.
So the Fastball has some quality issues, but so did the Buck Marksman, and I still loved it. Same with the Fastball: it’s just a pleasure to use. If you can keep the clip screws from backing out, the knife carries very well despite the “parts bin” pocket clip: it’s fairly light at 2.79 ounces, and thin across the handles at 0.41”. The straight and narrow shape means it disappears in the corner of your pocket, and the clip has good tension without chewing up your pockets thanks to the smooth finish on the scales. The three position option is convenient as well.
The blade shape is useful for day-to-day tasks, with the downward angle of the tip relative to the centerline of the blade making it easier to cut tape and packaging. I had originally worried that the chunky geometry of the blade grind would make the Fastball a sub-par slicer (that short flat grind means that the primary bevel angle is wider than most smallish pocket knives which use a high or a full flat grind, meaning there’s more friction with the material you’re passing the blade through) – but in practice this knife performs well, cutting through an apple with ease and even cutting up a sushi roll without totally destroying it. It’s no Santoku but it gets the job done.
The upside to the thick grind is the stability of the tip, which you can jab into medium-density materials without bending it like you would on a Leek. The overall size of the blade is also just about ideal for everyday carry use, being long enough to be useful without being unwieldy or hard to control.
I’m not as sold on the handle, though. The shape of it is good – a nice forefinger guard, minor edge contouring, a gentle arc to the spine, a total lack of hotspots – but the anodized texture is another matter. It looks great, and it’s pretty tough, but it’s incredibly slick even when your hands are dry. If you’ve got oil on your hands, or even worse oil on your nitrile gloves it feels like the knife is covered in soap. This is one of the few knives that would actually benefit from a little bit of jimping somewhere, because it’s quite slick. I have a suggestion for how to fix this as well as the pocket clip issue, which I’ll get into at the end of the article.
The ball bearing action on the knife stays smooth even with extensive pocket carry, and no significant wear-in of the detent was noted – it was still crisp and satisfying several months later. This design doesn’t seem to suffer from gunk intrusion as bad as non-caged bearings like IKBS. It might be smoother with ceramic bearings but it’s still a surprisingly great flipper, and detent strength is balanced well between “too hard to be really useful other than for Instagram Videos” and “Benchmade 300 series” for reliable day to day use without having to commit too much brain power to opening it.
Sharpening the Fastball is straightforward- I’ve been using the Work Sharp “Ken Onion Angle Set Knife Sharpener” they sent a while back lately, and it made quick work of putting a nice edge on the blade. The fully terminated sharpened edge and lack of recurve help to remove complication from the task, although S30V is still a pretty hard steel.
The big downfall for me was the failure of the pocket clip screw threads which rendered the knife unusable after several months. I’ll be sending the knife out to be repaired (Gerber has a limited lifetime warranty) but it’s still disappointing for something that is so simple in theory.
The Gerber Fastball has a $105 MSRP and retail has varied – at time of writing it’s on sale for $80 at (BladeHQ), but retail was closer to $100 originally. A 3” blade with that kind of price tag has a lot of competition from several places – most notably from Kershaw and Spyderco.
The Fastball reminds me a lot of an improved Kershaw Leek, in terms of shape and function. The standard Leek is a good bit cheaper ($40 retail) than the Fastball, but it uses cheaper materials – Sandvik 14c28n blade steel and 410 stainless handles with a basic framelock. It’s a little heavier at 3 ounces, but dimensions are similar – it has a 3” blade with a 7” overall length and measures 0.35” wide across the handles (the Fastball is 3”/7.1”/0.41” in comparison) but the big difference is the action.
The Leek was the knife that popularized assisted opening to the knife market with its clever torsion bar spring tucked into the handle scales. Kershaw has made a steady stream of upper-level Leeks for years with nicer handle materials and blade steels – currently there’s a carbon fiber handled model with stonewashed CPM 154 blade steel for ~$90 retail which is a pretty straight comparison to the Fastball. It’s usefully lighter at 2.41 ounces, but I still prefer the Fastball overall – it’s stronger tip, smooth ball bearing action, and lack of assisted opening makes it a winner for me. After all, ball bearings make opening and closing easier – assisted opening makes opening easier, but closing harder.
What’s much more of a competitor to the Fastball is the Dividend M390. I’ve never stayed up late at night crying over having CPM S30V for a blade steel, but M390 is measurably better in every way – wear resistance, corrosion resistance, less chipping, tougher, etc. The Dividend M390 seems like a real screaming bargain at ~$80 retail, and it also features anodized aluminum handles and a four-position pocket clip. The Dividend is US-made and a similar shape and size to the Fastball – 3” blade, 7.25” overall, 0.36” wide, 2.95 ounces. It’s assisted opened like the Leek but that fantastic stonewashed M390 blade (in a useful wharncliffe shape) might outweigh the Fastball’s slick deployment.
I recently reviewed the SOG Terminus XR, which is another knife that I was absolutely blown away by. It’s a similar size to the Fastball, a 3” blade and 7” overall, but it’s a bit thicker (0.45”) and heavier (3.32 ounces) than the Fastball. It’s got a much more solid grip thanks to the textured carbon fiber handles, and it has a remarkably good action with the XR lock and ball bearing pivot. When I reviewed it the knife was made with CTS BDZ1 steel, which I liked – it takes a great edge and is easy to sharpen – but since then they’ve discontinued the BDZ1 model and now it has CPM S35VN steel. At $89.95 MSRP it’s undeniably a great deal, although like the Fastball the pocket clip is truly awful – it submarines in the pocket, wiggles, and it’s ugly.
Finally, there’s a cadre of Spyderco’s in the $100 range that compete with the Fastball directly. The most compelling of them currently is the Para 3 Lightweight, an FRN version of the Para 3 that drops the weight down into the 2-ounce range. It has a 3” full flat ground clip point blade with a thumb hole opener, and uses Spyderco’s renowned Compression Lock. A deep carry wire clip is configured for ambidextrous tip up carry, and the Lightweight has quickly become a favorite of the EDC community since its introduction earlier this year. At ~$90 it’s not as good of a value as the Fastball, with “downmarket” FRN scales and less high performance BD1N steel, but quality is much better and the thumb hole opener is excellent.
The Fastball is bizarre in the same with that the SOG Terminus XR is bizarre – to put it in car terms, it’s like Daewoo made a legitimate competitor for the Porsche 911. The knife isn’t perfect, but the bones of great design are there in search of better quality control and a few engineering changes.
First, the good. It’s the right size, shape, and weight. Long, skinny, light and ergonomic go a long way to making a knife that finds its way into your pocket regularly. This is the first bearing flipper Gerber has made and they knocked the action out of the park – great detent, great lockup, very smooth. The blade shape is practical and tough at the same time, a great balance for an everyday carry tool. The materials are good as well, aluminum and S30V are great. I enjoyed using this knife when I wasn’t having problems with the clip.
That’s the issue though, quality and design problems. Threading steel screws into aluminum is already risky business, but giving them just the bare minimum of thread engagement is asking for trouble. This doesn’t give a lot of confidence in the way the whole knife is built, since the body screws thread all the way across the backspacer and into the aluminum handles on the opposite side. I worry taking this knife apart would leave a high chance it wouldn’t go back together, which is never good. Also the lack of grip from the slick anodized handles makes it nerve-wracking to handle with wet or oily hands.
How could it be better? Well, I have a suggestion that would fix all these problems. Textured G10 scales over stainless liners would eliminate the “bar of soap in hand” feeling. Using separate screws per side threading into stainless hourglass standoffs (keyed to the liners) would provide more stability and a more solid construction, and would also give the clip screws a steel surface to screw into and avoid the stripping issue. Open back construction would keep the weight down as well, and if the liners were nested in the G10 scales then the width could also be kept down. Would this version cost more? Maybe. Would it be worth it to knife nuts? Absolutely. I’d buy one right now.
Designer Seth appeared on an episode of the Gear Geeks Live podcast a few months ago – which you can find here – to talk about the design and construction of the Fastball, and he mentioned that the single side screw construction is a result of cost savings from the production side of things. At $100 retail, they could save cost by ditching the neat looking anodized aluminum and going with more practical G10 and steel as an alternative.
Still, quality issues aside I do really like the Fastball and I hope that it’s a sign of things to come from Gerber. They’re one of the oldest American knife brands and I’m all for rooting for the home team. It’s not a bad option in this market, and it’s pretty staggering for a first effort from Gerber.
- Excellent flipping action, light and slim, useful blade shape and good steel.
- Quality issues, pocket clip screws strip out, slippery grip.