I’ve had a boat load of pocket knives over the years, but few of them have ever had the button that makes the blade swing out with an anti-social thwack. This is primarily for practical reasons – I don’t think that springs and triggers and assisted open mechanisms actually add any utility to a pocket knife, and they’re frequently a liability instead of an asset. But today I’m reviewing the automatic Kershaw Launch 5.
Automatic knives aren’t really any different in reality than modern flippers – on a recent flipper knife, you pull/push a switch (the flipper tab) and the blade snaps out in the blink of an eye. On an automatic, you push a button and the blade pops out in the blink of an eye. Then you cut open your box from Amazon. The only differentiation comes from legislators who don’t know what on God’s green earth they’re talking about, and some of that anti-switchblade legislation was actually inspired by fear of West Side Story-style knife fights. So the only difference is the spring, which, you’ll notice, is also present in assisted open knives.
Key Specs: Kershaw Launch 5
So then what’s the difference between assisted open and automatic? Well, an automatic knife fully deploys the blade with the press of a button. An assisted open knife has to be partially opened before the spring takes over and “helps” you get it the rest of the way out. Anyone who has ever used a Kershaw Leek knows this is horseshit. Assisted open knives are just automatics that don’t have a button to open them. Buttons scare congressmen. Buttons are scary.
To evaluate the practicality and usability of an automatic knife, I didn’t want to set my wallet on fire and buy a Microtech, so I went with a relatively affordable US-built automatic knife from Kershaw, the Launch 5. “But KnifeInformer,” you’ll say, “the Launch 5 has been discontinued!” You are correct! But the entire Launch series from Kershaw is made using the same blade and handle materials in the same factory. So we’ll use this review to cover the Launch series itself, and if one of the different shapes calls to you (I wanted a Launch 11, but they were sold out at the time) you can apply most of this review to that knife.
Great blade on this Launch 5. The Launch 5, like some of the other Launch series knives, is a collaboration design, this one with Ernest Emerson. It looks like an Emerson, for sure, and the blade is quite a practical thing. Measuring 3.5” and cut out from 0.12” thick blade stock, the Launch 5 has a mild clip point which places the tip above the pivot line slightly. It has a high flat grind with a diagonal plunge line that runs down behind the sharpening choil, leaving a small “beard” at the end of the blade. There’s a hint of a recurve in the belly of the blade, but I’m not entirely certain it’s on purpose as it’s asymmetrical. A clip point, to me, is just the drop point’s cooler looking brother, and they’re both equally useful at day to day tasks – maybe a clip point is slightly better for piercing thanks to the more acute tip geometry, but maybe that’s just theoretical.
Blade steel on the Launch 5, like all of the Launch knives (other than special editions) is Crucible CPM-154. CPM-154 is a modified version of classic 154CM steel, but made using Crucible’s CPM (powdered metallurgy) process rather than made in ingots. This means the steel itself is more homogenous and has more evenly distributed carbides – meaning you get cleaner edges, tougher steel, and greater ease of machining while retaining the same edge retention and corrosion resistance properties. In material properties, CPM154 has 1.05% carbon (which determines edge retention and hardness) which is higher than budget steels like 8Cr13MoV (0.8) or Sandvik 12c26 (0.6) and marginally higher than 440C (1.0) but considerably lower than high end steels like CPM S30V (1.45).
Chromium content at 14% puts it over the threshold of stainless (generally speaking over 12%), similar to 8Cr/12C27/S30V but lower than highly corrosion resistant S30V (17.5). CPM-154/154CM is a relatively simple steel, the only other notable element being Molybdenum (4.0%) which effects strength and hardness. In practice, 154CM and CPM154 are both adequate everyday carry steels, balancing the line between edge retention and being easy to sharpen pretty well. I think of it as similar in performance to D2, with slightly less edge retention but better corrosion resistance and easier to put a nice edge on in my experience. No complaints at this price point.
Deployment and Lockup
Here we get to the crux of the review: deployment and lockup. Sure, the Launch 5 has a nice blade and a comfy handle. But the real point of the knife is the automatic deployment. We’ll split this up into two sections: how it works, and how I really feel about it.
How does it work? Pressing the button next to the pivot screw (which has two concentric red rings like all Launch knives) depresses the blade lock plunger, allowing the spring tension to release counter-clockwise and snap the blade out. It has a coil spring with two 90 degree “elbows” – one slots into the blade and the other into the handle. When the blade is closed it winds up the spring creating tension. This spring works exactly the same as the spring on the “assisted open” SOG Flash AT except there’s no closed detent, so pressing the plunger releases the spring tension. Distinctions without a difference.
Once the blade rotates out, the same plunger that held it closed is pushed into place by its own coil spring to lock the blade open. The blade is located by a stout external stop pin – and I say stout because that stop pin has to deal with a lot of force. How reliable is this setup? Well, it always opens, but doesn’t always lock. Sometimes the blade comes out so hard that it will bounce off the stop pin and the plunger won’t lock the blade in place, requiring you to manually open the blade all the way for it to lock. Most of the time it works fine, but after this happened a few times I had to make sure the blade was locked before I use it. To close the knife, you depress the plunger and fold the blade back in.
Pretty simple, then. But how do I feel about it? It seems anachronistic, like a relic from a time when there wasn’t a better way to open a knife up quickly. Sure it opens fast, but not as fast as a really good ball bearing flipper knife. These opening speed differences are pretty academic in nature anyway, as long as you’re able to easily open the knife with one hand that covers the actual need to access a knife quickly – like, to open something up you’re holding in your other hand without having to set it down. So a button press versus a flipper tab? Doesn’t matter. What does matter is how much harder it is to close the knife versus a manual knife. You need to depress and hold the plunger while you close the knife against a fairly strong spring.
The safest way to do this is two-handed, which is mighty inconvenient if you’re using your other hand to actually do something. I’ve found I can press the plunger down and then press the spine of the blade against my pant leg to close it, but this requires some dexterity and familiarity and is still a little iffy. The convenience in a one hand open knife is also that it’s a one hand closing knife, and this doesn’t have that. Trying to close it one handed is dangerous. Then there’s also the wear and tear on those parts – that spring will break. The hard thwack of the blade hitting the stop pin will eventually deform the pin – or the holes it’s mounted in – or the blade – or god knows what. Working on the knife is not recommended either. It’s much more difficult than a normal blade without a coiled spring, and also if you mess something up you can’t ship the knife directly to Kershaw – it has to be returned to an authorized retailer who sends it in to Kershaw for work. Again, all for a feature that doesn’t really add anything to the knife.
Features, Fit & Finish
Like most high end Kershaw’s and ZT’s, this knife is US-built and generally very well made. The handles are anodized aluminum with a black satin finish that feels very nice to the touch. A series of deep grooves are machined into the handle for grip and looks, and there’s the silhouette of a US flag etched on the back side of the handle near the pivot. The two body screws are one-way – going through the back side and threading into the lock side, and there’s no separate backspacer – the scales form the halves that meet in the rear. Like a lot of Kershaw’s (such as the Bareknuckle), the pivot screw is a Chicago style setup with the female side being a hex bolt that nests into the scale to prevent it from rotating when loosening or tightening. All the body, clip, and pivot screws are standard Torx screws – no special hardware needed, thankfully.
A lanyard hole is present in the butt of the handle, running parallel (rather than perpendicular) to the spine with two holes to pass paracord through. There’s a pronounced thumb ramp with a long run of jimping, as well as a rearward finger choil/guard for a secure grip. The pocket clip is nothing special – a bent steel clip with a “parkerized” texture and a Kershaw logo held by two screws, configured for ambidextrous tip up carry. The most notable exterior feature is the decorative pattern on the deployment/lock plunger, two concentric red circles to warn you that this will make the blade snap open. It’s a design trope shared with the rest of the otherwise disparate Launch lineup.
There’s quite a bit of signage on this knife, mostly on the blade – “Auto Kershaw” and the Emerson Knife Designs logo on one side, and the model number/KAI logo/Made in USA as well as the steel type on the other. The Kershaw logo on the clip and the flag logo on the handle make the knife pretty busy looking in combination with the stylized grooves in the handle. Build quality is good, other than the aforementioned asymmetrical edge grind on the blade. The anodization on the handles is smooth and even, and the deep stonewash finish on the blade reflects sunlight in an entrancing way. It feels like a premium product when you hold it, similar in construction to the Bareknuckle.
This isn’t a knife that carries well. The square profile pocket clip leaves a good chunk of the knife sticking out of your pocket with the mounting screws being pretty far down the handle, and the slick anodized surface the clip touches doesn’t give a lot of grip. From the factory my clip was slightly loose relative to the scale (you could touch the end of the clip and it would “tap” against the handle) but removing the clip and adjusting it in a vice helped, at least temporarily. The knife is also somewhat heavy at 4.1 ounces, so the lackluster clip and high positioning and heavy weight meant this knife slid out of my pocket and onto my car seat several times. The shape of the clip also likes to grab steering wheels and car doors and even seatbelts, which is exciting.
As you can probably tell, I’m not sold on the automatic deployment of this knife, especially considering that the longer I carried this knife the more frequently it didn’t fully lock when deployed. I find the push button auto to be a hassle and a burden more than a feature, and this knife would be much better with a manual action and a thumb stud.
What doesn’t suck is the ergonomics of this knife, which – being an Emerson design – are excellent! The jimped thumb ramp and deep rearward finger choil give you an extraordinarily secure grip on the knife when you’re using it, and the clip sits flat enough and far enough back to not present any hot spot in use. The clip point blade is a useful shape, offering a very acute tip angle but with a lot of meat behind the tip making it excellent at puncturing hard plastic, and the solid grip giving you the confidence to do so. The clip point grind of the spine also makes it easier to get the tip around and behind a gasket to cut it, and the slight belly of the blade makes cutting foil tape or straps more secure as it “traps” the material before slicing through.
No, my issues with the Launch 5 were never with the blade or the handle. They come down to deployment. Perhaps there are situations where a push-button auto is helpful or a must-have, but they certainly aren’t ones I encounter in my life.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.
The Launch 5 is out of production now, but there are many other Launch knives still in production from Kershaw with the same materials and quality. The Tim Galyean designed Launch 7 is a touch bigger at 3.75” of blade length, but it’s got a slimmer blade and handle and it’s a bit lighter at 3.25 ounces – but otherwise uses the same materials. The Launch 6 is an in-house design, also with a 3.75” blade and a neat textured integral backspacer. Both retail for around $110 – similar to the $120 I paid for the Launch 5.
For $150, you can get a Buck 110 Automatic, which has a satin finish clip point blade and spring-action push button deployment added to the 110’s traditional back lock. It has ebony wood scales and brass bolsters, which explain why it weighs 7.1 ounces, and there’s no pocket clip – it carries in a leather sheath. Blade steel is 420 HC (high carbon). For another $50 at retail, the 110 Auto Elite bumps the blade steel up to Bos heat treated CPM S30V, along with black G10 scales and nickel silver bolsters. The 110’s are great looking knives and they’ve got nostalgia on their side, but both are non-starters at these prices (MSRP for the standard 420HC model is $200, which is insane) for me.
More interesting to me is the combat-tested Gerber 06 Auto. Like the Kershaw, it’s US-built in Gerber’s domestic factory in Oregon. It’s a seriously heavy-duty piece of equipment, weighing a significant 7.14 ounces, and boasting a beefy 3.625” drop point in CPM-S30V steel. It also uses a plunger for deployment as well as the lock, but in addition it has a secondary safety that locks it closed or open. The 06 Auto is pricier at $160 retail, but it also has better materials and more features than the Launch series.
You can get into an entry level ProTech push button auto for $150 these days, the minimalistic TR-3. It has anodized aluminum scales like the Launch 5, and a push-button deployment/lock without any secondary safety. The blade is a bead blasted 3.5” drop point in 154CM, similar to the Launch’s CPM-154, but the pocket clip is only right-hand tip up carry. ProTech makes an excellent quality knife, with fantastic action, and the TR-3 seems like a reasonable competitor to the Launch 5.
I wanted to try an automatic knife, so I did, and I didn’t like it – this one’s on me, not on Kershaw. I think the concept is flawed in this day and age of modern opening mechanisms. An automatic knife just doesn’t make any sense. Before, people would say “but what about people who only have one hand?” or other such mental gymnastics to justify it, but even that doesn’t make any sense with how hard it is to close the knife safely. Add in the fact that this knife doesn’t even lock securely pretty often, and I ended up really disliking it.
Which is a shame, because if this knife was manual – literally, just remove the spring and add a thumb stud – I’d like it a lot. Ernest Emerson knows how to design a pocket knife like few other people, the blade shape is super useful, I like the balance of performance and ease of sharpening of the steel, the ergonomics are excellent, it looks great – but man, it would be so much better without that spring action.
What’s the takeaway here? If you really want an automatic, the Launch series is a good bet. But I just don’t understand why you’d want an automatic knife in the first place.
- Great ergonomics, useful blade shape, priced well for what you get, makes you feel like you’re in Burn Notice when you open it.
- Automatic knives are not for everyone, frequently fails to lock when deployed, mediocre clip, messy blade grind.