2018 is looking like the year of the budget knife. As much growth as there’s been on the top end of the market, with crazy sculpted MokuTi clips and steels no one has ever heard of, there’s been a satisfying amount of movement down-market. Not just a flood of new gas station knives and Z-Hunters, but actually well-thought-out and well-built knives at affordable prices that choose materials and features carefully to focus on what works rather than what looks cool. I reviewed the affordable Steel Will Mini Cutjack and the D2-bladed Esee Zancudo earlier this year, and they both offer a surprising amount of performance and design excellence that really isn’t there in a “big name” $40 knife these days.
Buy It: Amazon
So when Kizer Knives announced last year that they were bringing a line of more affordable knives to market – to fit below the Vanguard lineup of mid-priced offerings – my interest was piqued. The new brand is called Tangram, and if you’re looking to get your hands on one you should start at Amazon. Kizer sent us a number of models to review – the funky button-lock Vector, which will be the subject of its own review, as well as the Orion and Progression. Because of the size and material similarities of the Progression and Orion we’ll be examining both in this review. Both can be found for about $40 on Amazon – the Orion here and the Progression here. And both knives were designed by industry veteran Dirk Pinkerton.
Key Specs: Tangram Orion
Both the Orion and the Progression are made from Acuto Stainless, which is a variant of the classic 440C steel made by Aichi in Japan. The chemical composition is largely similar except for increased amounts of molybdenum (for hardness, machinability and grain size) and the addition of a small amount of Vanadium (also helps for small grain size.) Acuto 440 is not a powdered metallurgy steel, so these additional steel elements help it to take a clean edge. 17.5% Chromium content means it will be highly corrosion resistant (generally 12% and higher is what’s considered “stainless” steels). It’s certainly not a crazy high-end steel like M390, but it’s edge holding is not too far off mid-range steels like 154CM or VG-10 while being relatively easy to service.
Both the blades on the Progression as well as the Orion are similar in length; the Progression coming in at 3.46” and the Orion at 3.35”. These are about as long as I think one should go with an EDC blade, the Progression feeling slightly on the large side. The Progression has a mild hollow grind, which helps make up for the fairly tall flats, and is a pretty standard drop point shape with a half swedge on the spine. The Orion is less conventional, a dramatic wharncliffe with a high flat grind and a partial swedge on the spine as well.
Both of these knives have perfectly executed sharpening choils: the Progression’s terminates just forward of the vertical plunge line, and the Orion has a charming ¾ circle spanning from the sharpened edge to the flipper tab, with the plunge line intersecting it in the middle. Both have a stonewashed texture, a nice touch at this price point.
Deployment & Lockup
The Progression and the Orion both open solely via flipper tab and lock in place with liner locks. Both also use external stop pins to locate the blade in the open position, generally considered superior to internal stop pins for strength of the blade and ease of maintenance. These knives flip on ball bearing pivots, and each of them flip remarkably well – better than, say, IKBS equipped CRKT’s at this price range.
I’m not in love with the Progression’s oddly shaped flipper tab (a chunk square that’s angled rearward, with a run of unnecessary jimping on the spine right where your finger lands after you flip it.) The Orion skips this oddness, with a traditional right triangle shaped flipper tab – a smooth vertical surface where your finger rests on it when closed – and smooth liners behind the tab itself. The detents on both are well dialed-in to avoid “misfiring” while not being overly stiff and uncomfortable, making them very fidget-worthy.
When closing, the Progression’s blade will get hung up on the detent ball requiring an extra push, unless you hold the lock all the way open and close it past the detent – which is hard to do as the flipper tab hits your thumb nail. Not a deal breaker, but the Orion doesn’t experience this when closing. Once past the detent, both will “shake drop” shut despite having never been disassembled, cleaned or even oiled – these pivots are remarkably good. If I had to point to one as having a better action than the other, I’d say that the Orion has a slightly snappier action and is smoother closing, as well as having a more ideal flipper tab shape and no irritating jimping on the spine where your finger lands.
Both knives have solid lockup from the liner locks, with no blade play horizontally or vertically. I haven’t experienced any lock stick with either knife. With a solid flick, both knives still lock up slightly early but with a firm contact patch against the tang of the blade, which is good for wear-in characteristics. Overall, impressive performance in deployment and lockup from both blades.
Features, Fit & Finish
First up, the Orion. Of the two, it has the nicer grips – G10 that’s been slightly contoured towards the edges, with deep grooves that run the full width of the handle vertically, and a chamfered edge that goes around the entire circumference of the scales. The liners are polished and are skeletonized for weight reduction, and the point on the locking liner that your thumb contacts to open it is scalloped to make it easier to get a firm grip on (and stands slightly higher up than the non-locking side.) At a $40 price point you don’t expect a ton of gadgets and gizmos, but the Orion seems well screwed together.
The handles are tapped for four-position carry (a nice feature) and all body screws are standard Torx T6 and T8 fittings for disassembly and maintenance. This isn’t a knife that is going to really excite people who are enthusiastic about machining and tolerances, but it works. There is some height variation between the liners and the scales, and the finish of the liners is somewhat rough with visible tooling marks on some of the edges. This is still a fairly well made knife – blade centering is perfect, it doesn’t have any blade play when open, that kind of thing – but it’s more functional than beautiful.
There’s minimal jimping – some along the spine towards the rear of the handle, and a run of it above the Tangram logo on the blade that’s very interesting – it’s actually a series of half circles only cut partway through the blade on both sides, leaving the center of the spine intact – so it’s got some grip but it’s still relatively smooth to the touch.
The Progression has a similar construction to the Orion, only… not as nice. Despite having a longer handle, it only uses two standoffs to hold it together versus the Orion’s three, although it doesn’t feel flimsy in hand – perhaps the third standoff on the Orion is superfluous. It is also drilled for four way carry (tip up or down left or right hand carry) and uses an identical clip to the Orion, with two parallel mounting holes (more on this later.)
The G10 on the Progression isn’t as detailed or nice as the Orion, with slab sided scales with a series of shallow diagonal grooves cut in the middle. It does have a lanyard hole if that’s your thing, something the shorter Orion lacks. Like the Orion, the steel liner behind the show side scale is skeletonized to save a little weight.
As mentioned above, it has a run of jimping behind the flipper tab right where your finger lands when you flip it which is massively annoying, but on the upside it has a thumb ramp with widely spaced jimping that is very effective. There is also jimping on the rear of the handle, both on the spine side and the underside. The Progression has a scalloped liner lock cutout where your thumb contacts it to unlock the blade, and the show side handle is slightly more cut away making it a little easier to disengage the lock than the Orion.
Both of these knives make decent daily carry options. The Orion weighs in at 3.5 ounces, and while there’s no weight quoted online for the Progression (as it’s only retailed through Amazon) by rough estimate I’d guess it was somewhere around 4 ounces. The Orion carries better than the Progression thanks to its smaller size and lighter weight (it’s also slightly narrower as well), but the clip on both isn’t impressive. It’s too shallow to fit over thicker denim comfortably, and on the Orion the contact point (in right hand, tip up configuration) rides in a weird spot.
The flared out tip at the end (to make up for the shallow clip depth) ends up catching on things, and the two-screw fastening method means that the clip is prone to migrating around – on the Orion I would find the clip had moved around at the end of the day, and no amount of tightening the clip screws eliminated this issue, to the point where it felt like the screws were going to strip. The clip also seems short relative to the overall length of the knife on the Progression, giving it “pendulum” syndrome in pocket. I didn’t have the migratory clip issue with the Progression, but it’s still a sore point on otherwise good designs.
One oddity: the brown G10 on the Progression seemed unusually prone to collecting dirt and grime, but a few swipes with a wet Magic Eraser (or other melamine foam) will take marks off easily. I did notice after carrying the Progression for a few days that the pivot had loosened, causing horizontal blade play and the blade to scrape the liner when closing. I applied a dot of medium-yield thread locker and tightened the pivot screw back down, and the issue has not recurred – this is not uncommon, and frankly I’d prefer this to a knife assembled with high-yield (red) threadlocker which results in stripped hardware when you attempt to adjust it.
As far as cutting performance, I’ve got no complaints. Both of these knives were surprisingly sharp from the factory, sharper in fact than the other Kizer models that I received (the Feist and the Matanzas.) The Orion in particular feels thin behind the edge, and the Progression maximizes the cutting performance of its shallow primary bevel with a hollow grind. They both slice paper with ease out of the box. My preference here still goes to the Orion, thanks to its deeper finger choil and more pronounced contouring on the handle giving it more depth in hand.
Either of those do a great job as an everyday carry knife, with the nod going to the Orion for its better ergonomics and smaller size. Acuto 440 is a relative unknown in the cutlery steel market, with very few other companies using it, but for a budget steel it seems quite likable – it’s easy to put a very clean edge on with a Lansky style guided rod sharpener in about 10 minutes, and edge retention is similar to CTS-BD1 and slightly better than AUS-8 or 8Cr13MoV in my (admittedly anecdotal) evidence. It also seems highly resistant to staining, and at the price point frankly it seems like a great choice.
At $40 retail on Amazon for both the Orion and the Progression, you’re looking at a number of familiar competitors.
The Steel Will Cutjack and Mini Cutjack (3.5” and 3”, respectively) in FRN are right around the same ~$40 price point. They don’t have the slick ball-bearing pivots of the Tangram knives, or the G10 handle scales, but they do offer D2 steel – which holds an edge longer than Acuto – and stain resistant plastic handles. Of course, D2 is much easier to corrode than a fully stainless steel like 440, and the fit and finish and build quality of the Steel Will knives seems a little more indifferent than Tangram’s. I do like the Cutjack clip much better, but they’re only ambidextrous rather than 4-way configurable. Who wants to carry tip down anyway?
The Ruike P801 seems too good to be true from a materials to dollars standpoint. It has full stainless handles with a framelock, a Sandvik 14c28n blade, and opens via flipper or thumb studs with a ball bearing pivot. All this for $30 retail seems crazy. It’s not even very heavy, at 4.3 ounces with a 3.5” blade. Full flat grind, too. Definitely worth looking into.
Of course, there’s always the Ontario RAT 1 (3.6”) and RAT 2 (3”), long beloved by the EDC crowd as the perfect affordable pocket knife. There’s less design and more utility to the RAT series than the Tangram lineup, a bit more function over looks, and not everyone’s a fan of the RAT’s looks. They carry very well, offer no-frills thumb stud opening with a solid liner lock, and AUS-8 or D2 steel right around the $40 price point. Not creative, but no one will blame you for picking one of these.
The Spyderco Tenacious used to be the de rigueur answer to the question of best affordable EDC knife but I’m more a fan of the newer Efficient from the same lineup. It offers G10 over stainless liners with no-fuss phosphor bronze washers, Spyderco’s thumb hole opener, and 8Cr13MoV steel at about $45 retail. Spyderco used to be the value player in the pocket knife market but a series of MAP and MSRP increases over the years have put them at a distinct disadvantage in most markets; you’re paying more and getting less in terms of materials. It’s still a likable knife, especially with that forward finger choil.
Finally, another budget classic you shouldn’t ignore is the original Kershaw Skyline. It’s an exercise in minimalism: G10 scales with no show-side liner for weight reduction, a manual flipper on bronze washers, a simple pocket clip, and a practical 3.125” hollow ground drop point in 14c28n. It’s more expensive than it used to be ($50 at time of writing) but it’s still as great as it ever was. Only 2.5 ounces too, so you’ll forget you’re even carrying it.
It’s absolutely a good thing that the affordable market is burgeoning after years of more and more expensive, ornate high dollar production knives. A few years ago, if you wanted a high quality knife for $40 it was either a Spyderco Tenacious or a Kershaw Leek. Now, you’re spoiled for choice to the point where both of those are irrelevant from a materials and features standpoint (if not from a function standpoint, as they both work just fine!).
Tangram seems to be focusing on bringing surprising materials and features to this price bracket, and the utilitarian Orion and Progression are great examples of this. They’re not perfect but they offer great steel and sublime flipping action for only $40, so the risk of buyer’s remorse is frankly nonexistent. However, the real interesting Tangram will be the subject of its own review in the near future, the Vector – so keep an eye out for that.
My main issue with the Tangrams are actually less about the product and more about the distribution. They’re (at the time of writing, anyway) only available through Amazon. While this is nice in terms of shipping speed if you have Prime – although lately that’s arguable – you’re not actually dealing with a human when you buy one of these, and you’re also supporting a retailer that frankly is bad for the rest of our economy and doesn’t really care about the consumer.
Some people have no problem with Amazon – laissez faire and all that – and I’ve certainly ordered my fair share of things off their website, but I’d be happier being able to buy this from an independent retailer who actually has a stake in the knife community, like BladeHQ and KnifeCenter. That’s just me.
Buy It: Amazon
- Great steel choice, sublime ball bearing flipper action, both are good cutters, surprising value for the money
- Disappointing pocket clips, some fit and finish issues, the Progression is a little big and heavy for everyday carry, you can only buy them on Amazon.