Everybody loves a classic, but sometimes even a classic needs an update. This is true of knives just like it is with cars. Take the new SOG Flash AT, which certainly looks like the SOG Flash you’ve been able to buy in a blister pack at Dick’s for years, but rest assured it is not. It’s entirely new under the skin, even if the package itself seems immediately familiar.
Terminus XR, a really excellent EDC knife with very few caveats. It served as the introduction to the SOG XR-Lock, a derivative of the axis-lock concept after the functional patent expired in 2016. SOG has now expanded use of the XR lock to multiple other models, and brought out the new AT-XR lock with these three models.
Key Specs: SOG Flash AT XR
The Flash, Aegis and Trident were picked as the tip of the spear for SOG’s revised brand push because they’re the core of SOG’s products and thus the most deserving of an update. They also help split the brand up into three primary “user groups” – Everyday Carry (Flash), Outdoor (Aegis) and Professional (Trident) with design and features to appeal to specific users. The folks at SOG sent us a Flash AT – plain edge, black on black – to check out.
One thing that the Flash always got right – and in the revised Flash AT, continues to get right – is the blade. A no-nonsense, function over form, get-shit-done drop point. On the Flash AT, it’s tall and thin, 0.12” wide and 3.45” long, with a very high flat grind. The tip of the drop point is relatively high to the center point of the handle, well above the pivot, vaguely reminiscent of some LionSteel blade shapes. The Flash AT has a nearly straight spine, unlike the original Flash which had a strange downward curve, with no recurve or false swedge. A long run of jimping runs along the spine above the thumb stud. The primary grind runs diagonal down towards the sharpened edge and leaves an unusually tall sharpening choil, allowing you to sharpen the edge evenly all the way to the base.
Blade steel on the Flash AT has been upgraded from AUS-8 on the old model to Cryo-treated D2 on the new version. This is a big step up in terms of edge retention, if not necessarily in terms of corrosion resistance. Perhaps this is why all variants of the Flash AT come with an abrasion-resistant Titanium Nitride coating on the blade; maybe it’s also for looks. D2 has been around for a long time and is a benchmark for hard-wearing tool steels. It has about double the carbon content of AUS-8 (1.5 vs 0.7) which is the main determinant of wear resistance and hardness, but chromium (which increases toughness and is the primary ingredient that determines corrosion resistance) is lower than AUS-8 (11.5 versus 14.5.)
Compared to other comparable steels in this price range (like 154CM, BD1, and VG-10) D2 is very high carbon – about 50% higher – and low chromium. It also has about four times the vanadium content than the others, which increases strength/toughness and wear resistance. This all means D2 is less balanced than your typical EDC steel, leaning more towards hardness and wear resistance than ease of sharpening and corrosion resistance.
Action & Lockup
The Flash AT uses the new AT-XR lock, which is the assisted opening variant of the XR bar-style lock. I have mixed feelings about it, but it definitely works as intended. The AT-XR lock uses a coil spring wrapped round the pivot that pulls the blade open once you overcome the detent strength – in contrast to Kershaw’s assisted opening knives, which use a torsion bar. There’s also an ambidextrous safety switch on the spine, which allows the blade to open when pushed forward, but locks it closed when pushed back – it features a small red dot on the side in the open position, similar to the visual marking on a gun safety. This safety switch only functions in the closed position and does not act as a secondary lock when open. Like the regular XR lock, the AT-XR uses caged ball bearings in the pivot for a faster action.
This knife opens so hard it’s vaguely anti-social, bringing the real world difference between assisted and automatic knives ever closer to “literally nothing.” It announces to everyone in the room with a loud crack that you’re ready to open up an Amazon package. There’s not a subtle, quiet way to open the Flash AT that doesn’t annoy your spouse or initiate the creation of an FBI file with your name on it. Some people really like knives that open hard, and the old school action film fan in me loves it, but it’s a bit over the top. The detent is very strong, requiring a very precise up-and-out motion on the thumb stud to pop the blade open.
The lock itself works flawlessly, not exhibiting any blade play in the horizontal or vertical axis, nor any lock stick even after a month plus of daily use. You can close the knife one-handed, but it takes practice – pull the lock, allow the blade to fall down to where it starts to interact with the spring (about 10 o’clock if you’re holding the knife vertically) then press the blade all the way closed on the spine with your thumb.
Features, Fit & Finish
The Flash AT is absolutely loaded with features, possibly to the detriment of overall satisfaction. There’s a lot going on inside this knife, and I must warn you that taking it apart is not recommended as it’s a colossal pain to reassemble. The lock bar uses dual springs on each side to actuate. The safety switch has its own detent plate built into one of the liners, which holds the lock bar in place when you rock it back. A deep pocket in the scales houses the coil spring, with one tab engaged in a slot in the handle and the other one sitting on a peg in the blade – which is all wrapped around the bearing assemblies, which have thin stainless washers to prevent the bearings from chewing up the plastic handles. The pivot screw is a Chicago style, the pivot tube keyed to the handle with a D-shaped slot to keep it from spinning.
Body hardware is all Torx T6 screws, with three body screws in the rear bolting into the backspacer from both sides for stability. The backspacer has a really interesting lanyard tube, a U-shaped cutout milled in that lets you thread a piece of paracord through it between the spine and the butt of the knife. The left side liner also serves as the blade stop in the open position, with a metal tab that folds over and locks into a slot in the opposite liner – allowing the knife to be made with one less part.
The pocket clip is a big improvement over the awful clip on the Terminus XR, a long thin deep-carry clip that slots into the backspacer on the butt of the knife and is secured with a single screw. It wraps over the top of the butt, enabling the knife to sit super deep in the pocket with almost none of the handle sticking out. It’s configured for tip up ambidextrous (left or right hand) carry. Handle scales are molded plastic with a series of diagonal grooves for grip.
Fit and finish is mixed; the scales don’t fit the liners very well towards the butt and there’s a small gap between scale and liner on the left side. The detent on the safety switch is oddly mushy, although that’s not super important to function of the switch itself, which sits in place reliably. Fitment across the spine as a whole is a little messy, but this is more of an aesthetic issue than a functional problem, and this isn’t a super expensive high-end knife to begin with. The blade is much nicer; with an even titanium nitride coating, a great factory edge, and a perfectly symmetrical grind.
Since some of you are probably asking in your head, the answer is no, the knife cannot be de-assisted. SOG had to create a very strong detent to keep the knife from opening accidentally, so when the knife is in the closed position the lock bar is all the way back – rather than sitting in the middle – and the blade is held very strongly closed, since the spring is pressing against it (as opposed to a torsion-bar style assist like Kershaw, which only starts to press on the blade once it’s partly opened). The detent and the spring are designed to sit in a perfect balance. Removing the spring takes out the force acting against the detent, and the knife is basically impossible to open without it. However, if you don’t like the safety switch, that can be removed without affecting anything – but again, I don’t recommend taking this knife apart (and it voids SOG’s warranty as well.)
Finally, a word on branding and packaging – both things that don’t affect how a knife cuts stuff at all. But with SOG’s revival comes changes to both, and for the better. The packaging this knife came in was very nice – a secure box with a clear front and a flap that covers up part, allowing you to see the product before you buy it. Nicer still is the ditching of the old SOG logo and mascot – the grinning skull in a hat – for a more subdued “studies and observation group” text on the blade, along with “Flash AT / Cryo D2” etched on the opposite side.
The arrival of the SOG Flash AT was serendipitous, concurring with the release of a new recall at my full time job as a mechanic which required cutting a lot of electrical fabric insulation tape and clips, so the knife got put to a lot of work quickly. The blade shape is a winner, thin enough to slip in between battery cables and plastic guides, but with enough meat behind the tip to cut through layers of half-melted electrical tape without bending. The flat ground drop point with a little belly is a shape that does everything pretty well; it’s easy to control, and good for piercing and slicing in equal measure.
Material you’re cutting does occasionally catch in the sharpening choil due to the super steep angle. D2 steel is good to go for EDC use, being very resistant to chipping or rolling if not the best in terms of edge retention. I found it quite easy to re-sharpen despite the reputation of D2 being a bear to put an edge on, being able to touch it up easily with a standard Spyderco Sharpmaker. I’m not normally a fan of blade coatings, but I think on a quasi-stainless tool steel like D2 it’s a good idea, as I’ve had D2 stain noticeably in the past. Besides, this coating seems to be abnormally robust, never showing any marks or rub-off in more than a month of daily use.
This knife carries quite well, and the new clip is a vast improvement over the shorter, fatter clip that’s on the Terminus XR. But it still suffers occasionally from submarining into your pocket – the gap at the top of the clip where it does a 180 to go into the backspacer has enough real estate to allow the hem of your pocket to get shoved up into that spot, making it difficult to retrieve one-handed. This is much more occasional than it was on the Terminus, and the longer skinnier clip does a better job of retaining the knife. It’s not particularly light at 4.5 ounces – nearly 50% heavier than the Flash II it replaced – which was 3.1 ounces with similar dimensions (3.5” blade, 8” overall versus 3.45” blade/8.29” overall on the AT). This is due to the full stainless liners, more complex lock, secondary safety, and the more hand-filling grip versus the old model.
Assisted open seems like more of a liability than a benefit to me here; although the knife opens hard, it’s tricky to reliably place your thumb right to get it open, especially in gloves, due to the super hard detent. It fires hard enough to have some recoil, so you need to hold the handle tightly. I’ve been playing with knives for years so I figured out how to close it one handed well, but less experienced users would need to use two hands – the blade working against a spring when closing means you have to be extra diligent to not cut yourself. The jimping on the spine of the blade digs into the side of your thumb when you’re closing it, too.
Ergonomics beyond that are very good, with the relief that’s cut into the handle to allow thumb stud access also serving as a finger groove when open, and the shape of the handle has a natural finger guard to it. I always prefer thumb ramps versus jimping for retention, but the trade-off is they take up more pocket space, and the grip here is solid anyway. The knife feels comfortable and secure when you’re using it, even with gloves on – it’s made to work.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.The Flash AT retails for ~$75, and comes in three colors – Black, “Civic Cyan” (Blue), and Urban Grey, as well as a plain edge or a half-serrated blade. This means in addition to being 50% heavier than the outgoing Flash II, it’s also about 50% more expensive – but I think you’re getting at least 50% more knife. I never really liked the old Flash II, and the new one isn’t a home run but it is a great, usable knife for that price. They’ve improved the lock, the clip, the blade shape and steel, the handle shape, the grip texture, basically everything is new other than the name.
Talking with SOG’s PR representative Matt was informative; SOG is looking to target higher end brands with these new products rather than other blister packed products at big box stores. This is more than just marketing fluff, because the knife that seems most comparable to the Flash AT is the Benchmade Barrage. The Barrage has similar dimensions – 3.6” blade, 8.35” overall, 4.2 ounce weight. It also has a drop point blade – in stainless 154CM steel, which is more corrosion resistant and easier to sharpen but has less edge retention – and a very similar action, with an assisted-open Axis lock mechanism and a safety switch for the closed position. It doesn’t use ball bearings, it lacks a deep carry clip, and it’s a much older design, but the Flash AT reminded me of the Barrage I bought so many years ago – but it’s 45% cheaper in today’s market, and I won’t pretend that a mainstream Benchmade has a quality advantage to this. I’d take the SOG 7 days a week and twice on Sundays over the Barrage.
We can’t talk about assisted opening knives without bring up a Kershaw, of course – they pioneered the tech in this market with the Ken Onion-designed SpeedSafe assist. For around the price of the Flash AT, you can get the Kershaw Link with an aluminum handle and a CPM-20CV blade – which for $80 seems like the deal of a century. Other Kershaws in this price range (like the Knockout, Blur, and the KVT-equipped Bareknuckle, our top-rated budget knife) use Sandvik 14C28N steel, which is more similar in performance to D2 – a little less edge retention, more corrosion resistance, but still great. The 20CV Link features a 3.25” drop point with a flipper tab for opening, and a liner lock in the anodized aluminum handle. I like Kershaw’s implementation of assisted opening better because it can be removed and the knife still functions, but all these Kershaws lean a little more towards form than function compared with the Flash AT. None of the are a bad choice.
The Gerber US-Assist S30V is an interesting way to spend $100. It has a 3” drop point blade in CPM-S30V, spring assist with a ball bearing pivot, a plunge lock, a closed safety switch that passes through the handle rather than on the spine, and a deep carry wire pocket clip. It is set up for tip up or tip down carry but only for righties.
If assisted open just isn’t your thing, the Cold Steel Code 4 seems like a great alternative at this price point as well. At $80 retail, it offers a 3.5” blade in CPM-S35VN, super thin aluminum handles, the ultra-tough Tri-Ad lock, and ambidextrous tip-up carry with the included mirrored pocket clip. It’s a touch lighter than the Flash AT at 4.15 ounces, and has a better steel, but the modified backlock is basically fidget-resistant, the antithesis of the assisted opener on the Flash AT.
The Flash AT is at once an immeasurable improvement over its predecessor as well as an imperfect tool. It does have its appeal, for sure: the new lock that SOG is beginning to implement throughout its lineup is excellent without an asterisk, offering perfect lockup, ambidextrous access, and much more stable operation than the old Arc-Lock. But it would for sure be better without assisted opening and the compromises inherent to the design. What’s ironic is it doesn’t need it at all – the low-friction nature of this lock combined with the ball bearing pivot it’s equipped with would make it a super-fast manual deploying knife, if the detent was configured to allow that to happen. Which it can’t be, because of the spring. Also, it can’t be ignored that assisted opening is just that – opening.
AO knives, by nature, are worse to close than manual knives, requiring more force and thus more concentration and care, which is 50% of the opening/closing formula! If this was a manual knife, it would be a half-priced competitor for a lot of blue class Benchmade’s in terms of action and quality. But all the compromises and the weight they add make the knife worse, at least to me. It also makes the prospect of disassembling and servicing the knife daunting, especially considering that SOG expressly states that voids the warranty. For a ball bearing knife which benefits from cleaning and adjustment, this is a bad thing. I understand that assisted opening sells knives, but I think in terms of function it’s more consequence than benefit.
But the bones of the knife are great, and I don’t want to gloss over how good the basic design is just because I don’t like assisted opening mechanisms. The Flash AT feels like solid, heavy duty equipment because it is. The lock is faultless, the blade shape is a model of practicality, blade steel is good for this price point, and the knife feels natural in the hand thanks to comfortable, neutral ergonomics. The “mall ninja” aesthetics that plagued old SOG’s has been banished along with flimsy materials and quality, and a SOG Flash is now in “real knife” territory. Would I like to see a sprint run with a reconfigured detent, no spring, and 20CV steel? Of course. But this is still a good knife as is.
- A huge improvement in materials and quality, XR lock is solid, deep carry clip, loaded with features, great blade shape, good value for money, feels solid and secure.
- Assisted opening is a bummer that can’t be extracted even if you want to, fit and finish issues, heavy.