The Kershaw 1990 Brawler is a budget friendly EDC sized assisted opening pocket knife. At the time of this writing it is the best-selling Kershaw product on Amazon. Not a small feat for a knife introduced in 2012. After a few weeks of use, I see why this rough and tumble knife is such a popular offering among the crowded Kershaw line up.
Key Specs: Kershaw Brawler
The Brawler is a high value American Tanto liner lock knife featuring Kershaw’s Speed Safe assisted opening technology. The knife is a very comfortable size and weight for every-day carry. The handle scales are made of textured ‘fiber reinforced nylon’ (aka FRN), and the stone washed liners are just thick enough to provide a strong lock up without adding undue weight. The Ergonomics are very functional and the aggressive styling cues are hard and angular. I could not find design credits for this knife, but I find it to be very reminiscent of Rick Hinderer’s work. Overall the knife makes for a great cutting tool that is easy on the wallet.
The hollow ground American Tanto blade is made of 8Cr13MoV steel. This is a quality budget steel and used widely across the knife industry on Chinese made knives. Kershaw’s implementation here is very typical of the material having decent edge retention and corrosion resistance and easy sharpening. Bolstering the corrosion resistance is the black oxide coating. This finish is more durable than paint, but will quickly show wear. If you happen to be the sort who appreciates the appearance of good honest use and wear on your tools, the Brawler will more than happily show the world that this knife is anything but a safe queen.
Tanto blades are at best controversial in the knife world. These blades are specialized for piercing, as they leave the maximum amount of material possible at the tip for maximum thrusting durability. However, they do this at the expense of the curving belly found on most other blade shapes. Belly on a knife is utilized heavily in slicing, skinning, and many other outdoors tasks. However, the Tanto sub tip, where the two sharpened edges come together, make for quite exacting slicing. I find this to be especially true on small Tantos like this one. Never once did I feel like I was lacking a proper tool for my slicing tasks. On full size Tanto, the trade-off of curved belly for sub tip feels like much more of a hindrance, and I quickly loose interest.
Out of the box the edge was quite usable, but far from shaving sharp. The bevel was uneven especially next to the sharpening choil where there was quite a bit of extra material. The sub tip was again functional but rounded, far from the ideal acute point one would hope to find on a Tanto.
When the blade needed sharpening, it took quite a bit of time on my diamond stones to get to an even, workable bevel. I had to remove quite a bit of material to even out the original factory grind. After that though, 8Cr13MoV steel polishes up with ease allowing the rest of the job go quite quickly.
Once you have established a quality bevel, maintaining an edge on the Brawler will be child’s play. The straight lines of an American Tanto and generous blade flats make both hand or clamp style sharpening a breeze. 8Cr13MoV steel is only a moderately tough steel, and as such hones quickly. Your edge won’t last forever, but touch-ups will take no time at all.
Deployment on the Brawler is snappy due to Kershaw’s Speed Safe assisted opening. The lock-up is reasonably solid, with little to no play. The liners and liner lock are a good compromise between weight and strength. There is no traditional stop pin in this knife; it instead solely relies on the blade stops’ contact with the handle scales to keep the blade locked in place. This is true for both the open and closed positions. The blade stops function excellently in securing the blade and there was no blade play out of the box. However, after several weeks of testing, very slight left to right blade play did develop but the lock up remains very secure.
There are two options for opening this knife, a flipper tab and blade stops that double nicely as thumb studs. Both options work equally well. On Speed Safe knives, thumb studs all too often feel like afterthoughts, and in the models I have tested rarely work well for deployment. Here however the blade stops work every bit as good as the flipper tab to deploy the knife.
Speed Safe and assisted opening knives, in general, are somewhat dated technology. The design requires the user to manually start the blade in motion, and thereafter a spring gives just enough help pushing the blade open to ensure consistent one-handed deployment. This mechanism largely avoids the legal stickiness of a fully automatic knife (one that will open completely on its own with the touch of a button). The drawback to spring assist knives is closure. You must fight the spring tension every time you close the blade, making for awkward one-handed closure.
In recent years Kershaw has re-tuned their Speed Safe to be less of a hindrance to closure. Older Kershaw models used stronger springs tuned for the strongest deployment while the newer models, including the Brawler, utilize a lighter spring that provides a better balance between consistent opening and easier closure. A step in the right direction if you ask us.
With modern knife technology there are many alternative deployment options that do not hinder the closure of a knife. Current washer and bearing systems allow knives to open with so little friction that a spring assist is superfluous. Plus, the assisting spring is a wear point, and if a Speed Safe knife has a mechanical failure it is often this spring that breaks. Spring steel can only flex so many times before stress fractures form and potentially compromise the spring.
As with most older technologies that stubbornly refuse to leave the marketplace, there are advantages as well. First and foremost it provides the most consistent deployment, especially in the most dirty of environments. The assist from the spring helps power through far more debris and obstructions than manual knives do on their own. Users in deserts, machine shops, or any other especially gritty work place might benefit from a spring assisted knife.
Speed Safe also helps individuals with limited dexterity or strength, who often find assisted opening knives to be among the easiest to use. Many of today’s manual folding knives require some small trick of dexterity to open. Speed Safe can allow for people with differing abilities to easily access their cutting tool. Hard core knife enthusiasts will almost uniformly prefer a more fidget friendly deployment option, but for the right user or environment Speed Safe can be an optimal choice.
Handle and Ergonomics
The designers of the Brawler clearly chose to prioritize a positive grip. The handle easily accommodates a comfortable four finger grip in hammer, saber, and reverse grips. A key factor contributing to the positive grip is the .56 inch handle width. A typical width for a full size knife is about half an inch, and this smaller knife exceeds that. The stout handle profile noticeably fills the hand, and lets you know the knife is ready to brawl it out with any task you could safely throw at a folding knife.
The FRN handles have a fairly aggressive texture molded into them. The liners and back spacer feature recessed jimping on the thumb ramp, spine, and butt of the knife. Jimping proper is also found on the blade itself and extends out over the thumb ramp and past the blade stops. The hard angular lines of the knife are actually quite comfortable in my extra-large-glove-sized hands. Despite their mechanical appearance they fit the organic curves of the human hand quite well. The knife won’t chew up your hand, but the more aggressively you grip the knife, the harder it grips you back.
The only exceptions to the generally good ergonomics are slight hot spots on the peak of the thumb ramp and flipper tab. The peak does provide traction, but with extended use both can become a minor annoyance.
The Brawler features a four-way adjustable pocket clip, which is not a common feature at the ~$25 price point. All four clip positions are pushed as close to the edges as possible. The clip itself is a medium low carry, and does not scream out, “Pocket knife!” It’s actually very similar to the clips used on many flash lights. Together these features make for a mostly discrete carry. In pocket, the knife is reasonably small and light, but with the width you never quite forget it is there.
The Brawler will also unfortunately live up to its name in pocket and fight the fabric of your pants. Between the scale texture and stiff pocket clip, it will abuse your pants over time. After several weeks of testing I began to notice denim fibers caught under the pocket clip when I put it away for the night. This does not rise to the abuses of some of the most aggressively textured knives (I’m looking at you, Cold Steel), but over time it will still have to be factored into the total cost of ownership. It’s not a bad knife to carry, but the Brawler is better in hand than it is in the pocket.
Fit and Finish
Fit and finish are just fine for a mass produced budget knife. There are no sharp edges to be found, but the liners and scales do not line up exactly. Out of the package blade centering was close to center but not dead on. After a few weeks of testing it has drifted to the liner lock side of the knife, but not enough to make contact with the liners. This is likely from Kershaw’s use of nylon washers in the Brawler. Nylon washers are soft and can deform over time leading to the degradation of blade centering and the minor blade play mentioned above. These issues are totally cosmetic and will not hinder the utility of the knife.
The glaring finish fault was the poor blade grind mentioned above. Again, the edge was quite usable, but the bevels were uneven. With the proper tools the knife did not take excessive work to remedy. However, novice knife owners might struggle with the task, especially if they do not have an extra coarse stone to quickly remove material from the blade.
Here are a handful of alternatives you may want to consider if you’re thinking of purchasing a Brawler.
Kershaw Freefall (Amazon) – This is a full size Tanto from Kershaw with similar construction to the Brawler. In hand and pocket the Freefall is a little nicer. However, the K texture on the handle is of questionable taste. If you like what you have read about the Brawler and want a full size version, go with the Freefall it’s a great knife.
Kershaw Cryo Tanto (Amazon) – This is another one of Kershaw’s most popular Tanto knives. The Cryo utilizes a slightly smaller stainless steel frame lock, giving it a stronger lock up and better pocket manners. Unfortunately the recurved blade it is also much harder to sharpen. In hand though the Brawler is the clear winner for comfortable use.
Ontario Rat II – This is another knife made with similar materials and proportions, but in a manual opening format and a drop point blade. One of our favorites in the budget category, the action on the Rat II is hands down better. It is also an ounce lighter, and most users will prefer the utility of a drop point to a Tanto blade, especially for outdoors tasks. I still feel the Brawler is slightly better in hand, and a far more stylish and unique blade. Full review here.
FireBird F753M1 – This new Firebird features better materials (G10, 440C steel, finished hardware), pocket manners, and a slightly more ergonomic handle. It packs that same 3 inch blade length into a package weighing an ounce less. The Brawler does, however, have a better action. Additionally, even though both knives are tuned for piercing tasks, the Brawler has a much more robust tip and will likely outlast the tip of the F753M1 if you routinely pierce harder materials.
The Kershaw Brawler is, as its name suggests, a tough little knife ready to take on most any task you might throw its way. It is a strong but not perfect choice for EDC, and I have enjoyed my time testing the knife. My pants pocket however, clearly did not share my enthusiasm. The knife is great in hand, a pleasure in use, and a good value for your money. If the aggressive angular style, Tanto blade, and assisted opening appeal to you, this knife will put as much fight into your tasks as you are willing to dish out.
- Ergos and lockup, durable, feels good in hand
- Some blade play after extended use, hot spots on the thumb ramp and flipper tab, somewhat rough in the pocket
Review by Seth Gunn