Today, Zero Tolerance (or “ZT” for short) is considered to be one of the “big three” for mid-high end production knife brands, along with Benchmade and Spyderco. While some may disagree with this assessment, it’s hard to argue with what ZT has accomplished especially considering the short lifespan of the brand compared to the Spider and the Butterfly.
Best ZT Knives: Summary
- Zero Tolerance 0562
- Zero Tolerance 0450
- Zero Tolerance 0055
- Zero Tolerance 0456
- Zero Tolerance 0560
- Zero Tolerance 0801
- Zero Tolerance 0850
- Zero Tolerance 0920
- Zero Tolerance 0900
- Zero Tolerance 0392
First, some background. If Spyderco is BMW and Benchmade is Mercedes-Benz in this metaphor, let’s put a label on it: ZT is Lexus. That’s because Zero Tolerance is the upscale, premium-materials older sibling to Kershaw, much like Lexus products are in many ways just “fancy Toyotas.” But the metaphor stretches further, because much like Lexus – which has some product overlap but mostly bespoke mechanical components, while you can tell that ZT’s are cut from the same cloth as Kershaw’s, they are much, much nicer in terms of materials and in most cases fit and finish. Let’s take a look at the best that KAI USA’s niche brand has to offer.
The 0562 is one of many ZT and Kershaw products designed by Rick Hinderer, who is probably one of the best known names in custom knives. His semi-custom XM18 reset the rules on the secondary market years ago, routinely selling for 3-4 times its retail value almost as soon as it hit the lucky buyer’s door due to limited supply, restricted sales (Hinderer originally only sold direct to LEO’s and Firefighters) and insane demand. The market for the XM18 has cooled to the point that you can pick a used one up for less than it was new (what a concept!) but it’s still a hard sell thanks to the ZT0562 line.
The 0562 is the ZT analogue to the 3.5” XM-18, with Rick’s unique “slicer grind.” A dramatic plunge line rises from about level with the pivot all the way up to the spine, intersecting the swedge. The point is to provide a grind that does a little bit of everything – thin enough behind the edge for delicate tasks like food prep, but with enough beef along the spine to baton through wood. The 0562 is offered in two variants: the standard version and the 0562CF, which is another $40 on the retail side. The regular 0562 uses a G10 show side scale and CPM S35VN steel, while the 0562CF adds – obviously – a carbon fiber scale and upgrades to CPM-20CV steel.
It’s worth noting that the steel on the 0562 line has changed a few times – the original 0562 used Bohler Elmax stainless steel, and the 0562CF originally came in Bohler M390 up until 2015, when it switched to Carpenter CTS-204p, before recently switching to Crucible CPM-20CV steel. Regardless of the steel shenanigans, all 0562’s feature flow-through construction with hourglass standoffs, Kershaw’s KVT ball bearing pivot, flipper tabs, a bolt-in stainless lockbar insert, and a Hinderer-style lockbar overtravel stop. It’s a little on the heavy side, but it’s right in the sweet spot for blade size, features and functions for a beefy EDC knife.
The 0450 was one of the first ZT’s to break the “proudly overbuilt” mold. Not that it’s a flimsy knife – more that it’s not a half-pound knife that requires a special kind of belt to hold up your pants with. The 0450 is based on the award-winning 0454, which won the “Overall Knife of the Year” Award at Blade Show in 2013. While the 0454 was huge – a 4.1” blade and just shy of 9.4” overall – the 0450 is a much more manageable size. A 3 ¼” blade is right in the sweet spot for daily carry, and 7.4” overall means it’s handle-heavy – good for control.
The 0450 now comes in numerous variants, but the original was all titanium: stonewashed, with a small “zero tolerance” logo embossed above the pivot pin. The design is pure Sinkevich: super slim, sleek, with a gentle curve to the handle that’s balance by an inverse one to the spine. The blade is a modified drop point with a high centerline, a flat grind, and a long swedge to give the 0450 a needle tip. Features abound: the 0450 uses KVT, Kershaw’s caged-ball bearing pivot. There’s also a stainless steel lockbar insert that serves as an overtravel protection stop, red anodized standoffs, and an ambidextrous tip-up stainless spring clip for retention. Two-tone stonewashed and satin finished CPM-S35VN blade steel strikes a perfect balance between durability and ease of sharpening.
At only 2.90 ounces the 0450 is firmly within the ideal dimensions of an EDC knife, but the newer versions are even more enticing: the first to come was the 0450CF, which adds a black stonewashed blade finish and a carbon fiber scale on the show side for a weight reduction to 2.45 ounces. There are also bright acid-green backspacers to set it off. The limited-production 0450CFZDP had blue backspacers and an upgrade to Hitachi ZDP-189 super steel, but it sadly almost impossible to find. Finally, there’s a new 0450G10 model on the horizon that has a G10 show side scale, a 2.60 ounce weight, and comes in around $15 cheaper retail than the original full-Ti 0450. Lightweight EDC perfection regardless of your preferences.
Boy, the 0055 is a wild looking knife from the tip to the butt. There’s not a boring, unoriginal, derivative line to be found on the 0055. It’s basically a full-production interpretation of Gustavo Cecchini’s Airborne custom. If you’re a fan of that but you’re not an eccentric rich guy then the 0055 is good news; full custom GTC Airbornes typically sell for north of two grand, so the $220 price tag on the 0055 is basically a tenth of the price of the real thing. With that in mind, the 0055 does a remarkable job of emulating the real deal. The big talking point is the SLT flipper, which stands for “Spring Loaded Tab” – when at rest it points forward so it’s not jabbing your leg in your pocket. Pulling back on it against a spring puts it in contact with the tang, flipping the blade out on caged ball bearings. Once open the SLT flipper is totally concealed.
The styling is love it or hate it: angular, aircraft-inspired with a lot of fine machining detail on the titanium handle. The blade is also controversial: a compound grind is thin in the front and thick in the back, separated at a shallow angle at the changeover point. CPM S35VN blade steel is standard on the 0055 with a nice stonewashed finish. It also has a pocket clip that’s specific to just this model, an asymmetric bent titanium clip that’s configured for tip down ambidextrous carry. It’s not the most practical knife, but the 0055 isn’t meant to replace your Ontario RAT II as a useful daily carry knife: it’s far-fetched, advanced, creative, and interesting. It will also cut things, but that’s almost not the point.
At first glance, you might not guess that the 0456 is a Dmitry Sinkevich design – it’s chunky, broad, bulbous and not the normal sleek minimalist aesthetic that the Belarusian designer is known for. Despite its unconventional appearance it’s been a big success for the brand and the designer, winning KnifeNews’ 2016 Dealer’s Choice Award for Best Manual Folder. Based on his custom design the Pole, the 0456 has a 3.25” long sheepsfoot blade made from Crucible CPM-20CV, an ultra-premium powdered metallurgy stainless steel that’s similar to Carpenter CTS-204p and Bohler M390 in performance. Earlier build date 0456’s were made in CTS-204p but the steel was changed to CPM-20CV (along with a number of other ZT models) due to more reliable availability of the Crucible sourced super steel. It’s a very broad sheepsfoot blade with a small reverse tanto at the leading edge, reminiscent of the excellent Benchmade 940-series. A tall flat grind enhances the 0456’s slicing abilities.
The handle is quite a spectacle: it’s multi-faceted, with a series of “rays” emanating from a point behind the butt of the handle, with texturing towards the outside to boost traction. An eye-catching blue anodized gear backspacer is raised to give the handle some more depth and a fresh look, which is matched with an oversized decorative pivot that’s also anodized blue – and thankfully contains a standard Torx fitting for adjustment of tension. Like most other modern ZT’s, the 0456’s blade rolls out on caged KVT ball bearings and utilizes a titanium framelock that’s fortified with a bolt-in stainless steel lockbar insert which also prevents overtravel. A bright blue pocket clip mounts with two inline screws and is set up for left or right hand tip up carry. There’s also a limited production variant in a stealthy blackwash finish if you’re not into standing out.
A name that’s no doubt getting borderline worn-out in the list, but can you blame us: Dmitry makes some amazing designs! The 0460 is one of his newest collaborations with Zero Tolerance, and in Cliff’s notes it’s the popular 0450 re-imagined with a bit of a Persian blade shape. That means a trailing-edge blade shape – like the Persian Shamshir swords – and an inverse curve to the handle to balance the design. The blade is very nearly full flat ground, with only the most minuscule of flats that reaches halfway down the spine. With 0.12” blade stock, the thin grind, and the trailing edge blade shape the 0460 is an excellent slicer for hunting or food preparation purposes, with a far more practical use profile than its dramatic blade shape would suggest. Blade steel is CPM S35VN, with a stonewashed finish to the flats and a striking satin finish on the primary grind.
The 0460 is a superlative flipper, much like its brother the 0450CF. Thanks to the KVT caged ball bearing setup, a strong detent, and the light weight of the blade the 0460 snaps open with remarkable speed. As is the norm these days, a stainless lockbar insert prevents lock stick that can occur with titanium-on-metal contact. The most eye-catching feature of the 0460 has got to be the handle on the show side. It’s made from carbon fiber that’s been mixed with bronze. It gives the handle a unique, shimmering hue that changes based on the angle you’re viewing it at, and it’s very cool in person. Because of the carbon fiber scale, the 0460 is configured for tip up right hand carry only. There are bound to be additional variations of this cool knife in the pipeline, but it’s off to a great start already!
And we finally get to a Todd Rexford design on the list with the long-running 0801. This knife has been around for a few years now, and has gone through a number of iterations, all with one thing in common: sublime ergonomics and superb flipping action. The 801 is arguably one of the best production flippers in terms of detent balance, speed, heft, and all the minutia that knife nerds geek out over. ZT’s had some time to perfect it, but it was still amazing out of the gate.
All of the 801’s share the same blade shape: a 3.5” drop point with a high flat grind and a pronounced swedge along the spine, the tip resting almost level with the pivot and giving the knife a very balanced look and feel in the hand. It’s practical to a T – it’s good for piercing, it can slice, it’s the type of blade shape you don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about or working around. The original 0801 had full titanium handles with a series of grooves cut in from the “bolster” back and came with a stonewashed Bohler Elmax blade. There have also been a number of special edition 0801 models: most striking is perhaps the 0801CF “Copperhead” which had bronze PVD coated titanium handles with upper and lower carbon fiber inserts with inlaid silver twill – and the blade itself (made from high-end M390 steel) was given a satin finish on the primary grind and a bronze PVD on the flats. There was also the 0801BRWCF which had a distressed/stonewash finish on the handles instead of the matte PVD of the CF. These are understandably hard to come by, as is the 0801S110V – which strangely featured plain slab titanium handles along with Crucible’s ultra-high-performance CPM-S110V blade steel.
What’s interesting is that after running a typical multi-year lifespan in the whirling, churning ZT lineup instead of discontinuing it, ZT gave the 0801 a late-life “facelift” in the form of the recently released 0801TI. The blade shape is the same but steel has switched over to CPM S35VN like much of the rest of ZT’s lineup. The handle has been redesign, now with a series of five holes cut in the show side of the handle and more pronounced contouring for a better grip. The new look is a welcome addition but it still has the same great blade shape and superb flipping action. A fantastic option for someone wanting a mid-sized titanium framelock flipper that does everything well.
At ~$300 retail (with a $400 MSRP!) the 0850 is pretty spendy in terms of a ZT, a good $100 above most other ZT’s. But man oh man, is it worth it. The 0850 is a collaboration between two of the biggest names in modern knife design, Dmitry Sinkevich and Todd Rexford. The 0850 is actually a production interpretation of a pair of customs they made at Rexford’s shop in Colorado in 2016. Obviously not every can get their hands on (or even hope to afford!) such a contraption, so ZT stepped in. The 0850 is still an absolute stunner in terms of materials even if it doesn’t have the panache of the hand-made custom. The show side scale is carbon fiber composite with a tinge of blue to give it some visual interest. An intricately machined decorative pivot has a series of 6 divots machined into it, a theme that’s echoed on the custom thumb stud that stands slightly proud of the spine of the blade. The backspacer is also 3D-machined to give it some depth.
The 0850 is unusual in terms of ZT’s in that it doesn’t have a flipper tab, the first folding ZT to utilize a thumb stud since the departed 0550 a few years ago. Still, it deploys ultra smooth, almost as though it was on caged ball bearings despite it actually being on phosphor bronze washers. The 0850 uses Kershaw’s patented Sub-Frame Lock, which is a hybrid between a liner lock and a true frame lock, with part of the handle obscuring the lock arm. Of course, a stainless lockbar insert eliminates wear and resulting lock-stick. Even the lockbar cutout is intricate on the 0850 – with no fewer than seven angle changes before the terminus. The blade shape is also pretty wild: ostensibly a sheepsfoot blade, the spine features a concave portion forward of the thumb stud for pressing down on with your thumb, and a dramatic swedge. It’s made from high-end CPM-20CV steel and features stonewashed flats and satin-finished grinds. A sculpted titanium pocket clip is the only downside: long on looks, short on function – a shame considering the stout build, polished fit and finish, and rather light 4.3 ounce weight with the relatively long blade. The 0850 may be the coolest thing ZT has cranked out in a while – hopefully it sticks around!
Poor Les George. He’s done so much for ZT and what do they do? They cancel the exceptional 0900 and the ultra-beefy 0909. That’s OK though, we still have the 0920: a masterfully designed big folding knife. The 0920 is based on Les’ “Harpy” custom pattern, but made with more reasonable materials and an attainable price point in mind. Not to say that ZT cheaped out: the 0920 has all the hallmarks of a modern high-end flipper. Supersteel? CPM-20CV from Crucible, check. Flipper? Of course. Bearing pivot? Absolutely! Lockbar insert? But of course!
The real draw of the 0920 is the handle. It’s a simple shape executed beautifully, with a single finger divot and a long sweeping arc behind that. The handles are rounded from spine to belly, and a series of small perpendicular grooves is cut all the way down the handle for grip. Adding a bit of flair to the grey titanium handles are bronze anodized standoffs and a bronze anodized bent titanium pocket clip. The blade is a pronounced clip-point shape with a high flat grind, and a concave swedge to give you extra leverage on the blade with your thumb. We’ll miss the diminutive 0900, but the 0920 offers a sleek, organic looking option for someone that wants a high-end large blade. A lovely example of knife design.
The 0900 recently went out of production and the remaining examples are available online at a pretty steep discount, so my advice is to grab one while you can. The 0900 is the smallest knife that Zero Tolerance has made to date, but it’s no shrinking violet – while the blade only measures 2.75” long it’s cut from beefy 0.16” blade stock and it’s got a super-high flat grind with a strong tip thanks to the dramatic clip point profile. Construction is full Titanium with a rough stonewash finish, and like almost all of ZT’s lineup the 0900 flips on KVT caged ball bearings. It’s not particularly light at 4.30 ounces, but it’s overbuilt in the classic ZT tradition and it’s also a legal carry in areas with oppressive laws such as Chicago – something no other Zero Tolerance can claim. ZT made two limited-run 0900’s during production, the 0900GLD and the 0900BLU which – not surprisingly – feature gold and blue anodized handles. A deep carry pocket clip tapped for left and right hand tip up carry helps to bury the chunky Les George designed knife in your pocket. Get one before it’s too late!
Last on our list is the 0392, which is a different kind of collaboration for ZT. Normally, in the production industry a “collaboration” means that one person designs the knife and a larger company produces it. With the 0392, ZT introduced the concept of “factory customs” – small batch knives made with a combination of large parts from the manufacturer and hardware from the designer. In the case of the 0392, the hardware was custom made by Hinderer – the body screws, pivot screw, clip, filler tab, and tube spacers are made by Hinderer while the handles, blade, and ball bearing pivot come from KAI.
The 0392 was the first such knife done and hopefully won’t be the last. It was based on Hinderer’s Eklipse design. A huge array of 0392’s have been produced, the first being a plain titanium handle with blue anodized hardware and a stonewashed clip point blade in CTS-204p steel. They’ve also used M390 on several models depending on availability. They’ve made 0392’s with clip point, bowie, and wharncliffe blades in a variety of colors and hardware types as well, all in small runs that have sold out almost instantly. If you were looking for a Hinderer Eklipse but wanted better flipping action, an 0392 is worth seeking out, but they are hard to come by!
Honorable Mentions: 777, 0888, 0999
This list focused mainly on models that can be (somewhat) easily obtained – if I were to use a car metaphor, these knives are the Porsche 911’s and Acura NSX’s of the production knife world – examples of flawless engineering within reach of mere mortals. If that’s true, then we can’t forget about some of ZT’s ultra-limited production models that are more along the lines of a Porsche 918, McLaren P1, or Koenigsegg Agera.
These are all short-run knives designed mostly in collaboration with big-name designers, usually released once a year (at Blade or SHOT show) for the purpose of showing the world just what kind of manufacturing prowess KAI is capable of. Many of them have won awards, and most of them trade hands for more money than a used car. They’re impossible to get and hard to afford, but they’re worthy of admiration.
There’s the 0999, which was launched at Blade Show in 2015. It’s just absolutely wild. The blade is a composite with a CTS-204p cutting edge and a spine from CPM-D2, with a carbon fiber insert on the blade. It uses an integral handle machined from a single piece of titanium, with KVT bearings and a flipper for deployment. The backspacer extends forward as a “bridge” and also forms the blade stop in the open position. These knives all went for huge money almost immediately.
As mentioned earlier in the article, the 0450 and 0452 were based on the 0454 from 2013, which used a subframe lock with an intricate cutout like the 0850, and a triple layered composite blade that sandwiched a layer of Sandvic 14c28n in between a cutting edge and a spine made of CPM-D2. A 3D-machined carbon fiber handle and a sculpted titanium pocket clip put this wild knife over the top.
The 0888 (BladeHQ) and 0777 were also short-run models that trade for huge sums of money now. The 0888 was awarded the Overall Knife of the Year award from Blade Magazine back in 2012, and it’s packed with technology that’s still impressive today. The blade was a 3.75” spear point composite with a CPM-S110V cutting edge and 14C28N spine on the 0888 and the 0888MAX used Maxamet steel – at least for the beginning of its production run before KAI gave up on this “megasteel” and switched to M390. The details are subtle but impressive: a very fine arrow shaped grain pattern on its titanium handles, a sculpted titanium pocket clip that is ambidextrous and fits into a groove on either side of the handle, secured by a single hidden screw.
The 0777 actually still lives on in high-end production form as the 0770CF, which missed inclusion on this list due to it using an assisted-opener action. It’s famous for being the basis of a certain legal kerfuffle we are not going to get into here with another knife maker. The knife itself is a stunner: the blade uses Devin Thomas Damascus for the spine and Vanax 35 for the cutting edge, an extremely uncommon high-end powdered stainless steel from Bohler Uddeholm. 3D machined carbon fiber handles cover a 3D-machined titanium subframe lock, with a bolt in lockbar insert. Sure, the Natrix is hardly an equal to the wild 0777, but at least they’re only $35 on BladeHQ.
Finally, the 0427 and the 0606 are both over-the-top stunning collaboration knives that bring some interesting new technology to the table. The alien-looking 0427 is a Sinkevich collaboration, and the big line item here is KAI’s “TDS” or Tuned Detent System. This places the detent ball on a steel plate on the inside of the non-locking handle slab rather than on the lock bar itself, enabling fine-tuning of the detent without creating additional friction from the lock bar pressing on the detent as the knife opens. Of course, it also features a ball-bearing pivot, a composite CTS-XHP/CPM-154 blade, and a myriad of other fine details and anodized parts. The 0606CF is an RJ Martin collaboration (our review here), and has a number of visually interesting elements: a two tone gold and blue anodizing job on the handles is an eye-catcher, as is the two-tone satin/DLC blade in CTS-204p. The real party trick is the hollow pivot: the 0606CF uses a sealed cartridge bearing that you can see through the middle of. Why? Why not!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of the best knives that Zero Tolerance has to offer. Disagree with us? Did we skip your favorite? Get in touch and let us know!