We independently evaluate all recommended products and services. Any products or services put forward appear in no particular order. If you click on links we provide, we may receive compensation.
Microtech is the biggest name in automatic knives since the 1900’s, and they carry that badge of honor today as well. But, many of us knife afficionados (for either legal reasons or plain old preference) like manual folders over autos, and Microtech seems to have picked up on that. With a few new models this past year, they have designed a new lock for their manual folders, and piqued the interest of a more broad market. And, continuing their common “tactical” nomenclature, the MSI, or Microtech Standard Issue, they have brought us a new offering in their lineup geared toward hard use. So how does a new blade steel, new locking system, and new model hold up to their OTF and side auto knives? We just might have some thoughts on the matter.
Key Specs: Microtech MSI
I’m a sucker for a good sheepsfoot blade, and Microtech has done well with the MSI’s blade profile. With a length of 3.85” and a cutting edge of 3.35”, and a stout blade thickness of 0.15”, it’s apparent that this blade was designed with heavy EDC use in mind. The stonewashed blade finish is executed well; it looks smooth and uniform and aids in making long cuts, preventing the blade from binding easily. The show side of the blade has the traditional Microtech logo, and the small lettering for the blade steel; M390MK.
There is not a lot of information to be found on the “MK” variant of the M390 blade steel used on Microtech’s new lineup of knives, other than the quote from Tony Marfione – “Microtech worked closely with the engineers at Böhler to tweak the properties of M390 for better edge retention, corrosion resistance, and polishing. This is an exclusive steel for Microtech through Böhler and you will see it used quite extensively in the future!” Bascially we’re looking at standard M390 steel with maybe some incremental differences for the desired features listed above in the quote.
Deployment / lockup
In my opinion, and opening hole on a blade is the best method of deployment on folding knives. When thumb studs are done well and are in a comfortable position, they can be great too, but the opening hole allows for different deployment methods, and is always ambidextrous by design. The oblong hole on the MSI blade is cut well, has great chamfering, and is long enough to allow it to be actuated in a variety of grips and hand positions. But here’s the crux of the deployment issue with the MSI: the pivot area is quite tall, putting the blade at a further distance from the hand than what you might expect.
What this does in deployment, is that it makes it harder to flick the blade all the way open from the closed position, because the blade opening hole is positioned too far from the pivot. I commonly had the blade only open half or two-thirds of the way open just trying to open it normally, even when trying to give it a little extra push, I had to really focus on opening it fully. After a little tinkering with the pivot tightness and a little pivot lube, it improved, but still felt sluggish in my hands.
Once the blade is extended to it’s fully open position, the lockup is truly solid. Most folders can show a little blade play from side to side, or even a touch of front to back movement with enough effort, but the MSI really felt “locked”, and still had zero lock stick. There was a slight bit of lock stick in the first few hours of handling it, but this went away for me and didn’t return, so we’ll chock that up to a quick break-in period. Unlocking the blade with the Ram-Lok mechanism was quite easy, and natural in feel to compliment the design and use of the knife. With little to no effort, the blade falls shut, and drops closed, so long as you release the Ram-Lock button in time.
Features, Fit and Finish
The Microtech MSI has a great list of features, and even though they’re not my usual list of desired attributes, they compliment the knife well. Starting with the bottom of the polymer handle scales, is the deep carry clip. This clip is quite strong, has large T8 screw heads holding it in, and has Microtech’s logo and serial number lasered on it. It looks great and doesn’t create any hot spots in hand. The polymer scales felt decent in hand, albeit a bit slippery, and could have been finished better from the factory. They’re also sitting on top of steel liners, giving plenty of rigidity to the handle. Right where your index finger lands on the grip, the polymer is quite sharp and uncomfortable. This can easily be remedied with a little sandpaper and time, but it really should be finished better from the factory. There is also an option for G10 scales with either plain or frag pattern, and carbon fiber scales are coming soon as well.
The blade options are Microtech’s usual array of plain edge, partially serrated, and fully serrated, and our test unit was the standard plain edge model. Moving up the handle into the pivot area, they have opted for a bearing pivot system, which again works with this type of knife well, and compliments the Ram-Lock, too. A made-in-USA attribute is a plus for most buyers, and the MSI can proudly wear that badge as it’s made right here in the states. With these features and a weight of 5.2 ounces, you can be confident that this knife will fill the hand, have just enough heft for a solid feel, and is well balanced in hand.
Although the MSI has a great list of features, and is executed well overall, I did have some issues in use. The first nitpick, which is more with how it carries than how it’s used, is the pocket clip. I do like it’s position in pocket, being somewhat deep carry, but the retention was next to none. Something in the way the clip is designed along with the semi-slick scales, allows the knife to fall out of the pocket quite easily in the right angle. More likely it can get snagged on something and be inadvertently pulled out of the pocket, but i like my knife to have at least a little friction on the clip. I even tried removing it and bending it inward quite a bit, to no avail. Along with the lack of retention, the clip screws stick out far above the scales, making them snag on the pocket seam when taking the knife out of the pocket, or when trying to re-pocket it.
Aside from the clip issue, the cutting edge is much further away from your hand when using the knife. This may be a moot point for most users, but when trying to choke up on the blade, the choil is too small to use confidently, and the edge is too far from the hand when using the standard grip. But, on the other hand, the ergonomics of the knife are great, and the distance from the hand to cutting edge is more of a preference than it is an actual issue. When making long draw cuts in cardboard, I had no use making the cuts confidently and easily, but I did feel like the material was further from my hand than I would like, making the handle push on my pinky area instead of the index finger area where more strength is commonly had. Cutting abrasive rope was ok, not stellar, due to the somewhat polished edge from the factory. It’ll do, but requires a bit of back-and-forth cutting motion, which is further inhibited by the cutting edge’s distance from the grip.
Food prep wasn’t necessarily a strong point; it can be done, but isn’t optimal due to the thick blade stop. It will split most foods, rather than slice them, but this knife is much better suited “in the field” as the name of the knife suggests. I’d venture to say that a partially serrated edge on this knife is probably a great choice over the full plain edge, to give the blade some bite in rope cutting and various tactical applications. Aside from a little struggle to get the knife out of the pocket, and having to consciously position the handle for flicking the blade open, I did enjoy using the knife when I needed it. It’s a big, comfortable handle with a strong lock, and a great blade shape for use from the garage to the construction site.
Keeping the first alternative to the MSI in the same wheelhouse, another “new” model from Microtech is the manual Stitch. It’s quite similar to the auto version, but of course uses the new Ram-Lock, and has been redesigned for the new lock. It still carries the same overall style and look of the auto stitch, but uses fluted aluminum or G10 scales with liners instead of the auto’s full aluminum construction. The manual Stitch is 5.8 ounces vs the MSI’s 4.7 ounces (for polymer, the G10 variant is 5.2 ounces), and they both use a ~3.8” blade, but the Stitch loses even more cutting edge with a mere 3” after the huge choil and notch for the Ram-Lock. The MSI comes in with a base price tag of $175 for polymer, and bumps up to $250 for G10, while the Stitch is ~$300 and up whether you choose the fluted aluminum scale variant, or the G10 model. They’re quite obviously in the same family of knives when you look at them side by side, but they have enough variation in style and material to warrant the Stitch as an alternative to the MSI.
For a slightly more budget friendly option, Benchmade’s evergreen full size Griptilian makes a great argument for an alternative to the MSI. It uses either polymer or G10 scales depending on the variant, uses an opening hole for deployment, and has a very similar (almost too similar?) lock; the axis lock. If you’ve never handled an axis lock from Benchmade, and you find yourself reading this review, I’d be surprised. But, in that case, the axis lock is a bar-style pull down lock that’s similar to the Ram-Lock, but uses an Omega spring in place of the Ram-Lock’s coil spring. The Griptilian has a base price of $144, so it’s a good bit cheaper than the MSI, and uses S30V for it’s base model, with a stonewashed blade. The Griptilian is lighter at 3.7 ounces, and has a cutting edge of 3.45”, which rivals the MSI nicely. Aesthetics aside, these two knives compare reasonably well, all things considered.
Demko’s AD20.5 is another polymer / grivory scaled, bearing pivot, sheepsfoot blade manual folder that also rival’s the MSI in many aspects. It’s much thinner footprint carries a little easier, and weighs about an ounce less at 3.6 ounces. It has a smaller blade at 3.2”, but still has a 3” cutting edge, giving it just enough blade for EDC use. The AD20.5 uses the Shark Lock invented by the knife’s designer, Andrew Demko, and has options for full titanium construction and many different blade steels like CPM3V, so it may have more flavors to offer than the MSI. Although the MSI does have different scale colors and materials, none of them are full titanium like the AD20.5. The Demko is also a bit less expensive than the MSI at $149 at the time of writing, and is currently on sale for a mere $119. It is not, however made in the USA like the other two listed alternatives, if that makes a difference in your purchasing desicion.
The people spoke, and Microtech listened. They made a new line of manual folders to open up their target market, and came up with a new lock design to compliment the new knives. They worked closely with Bohler to enhance M390 steel to the M390MK for some upgrades to an already great steel composition. They kept the price at a fair point, and kept manufacturing in the USA, which is not easy to do these days, as many companies hire off-shore manufacturing for their designs.
The MSI is a great hard use EDC folder with a recipe of features that spell greatness on paper, but some of those attributes get lost in use. It’s not bad, it’s just not as great as many of us hoped. But, keeping a fair price point allows many of us to choose the MSI and overlook some nitpicks, as most of us probably have to admit that those nitpicks are indeed not big issues. The MSI is a reliable, USA made, heavy duty folder with plenty of gas in the tank as a standard issue knife, from the office to the special operations.