Well, everyone and their dog know that Leatherman makes multi-tools, but a few years ago the company decided to take their tool-making expertise and move in to making knives. Their first product lineup was... interesting, with multiple blade steels, fixed knives, guthook hunting knives and low-end folders, and in this second go around, they've simplified things considerably.
I'll be looking at one of their "Expanse" lineup today, the E33L.
The Expanse lineup is signified by two things.
1. This series uses 154CM blade steel, which is a premium American-made cutlery steel. It has significant edge-holding capabilities, toughness and superior corrosion resistance, but can be difficult to sharpen.
2. All of Leatherman's current knives are based on FRN (glass-filled nylon) handles, but the Expanse series adds half-length stainless steel scales as well.
3.94 in | 10 cm (closed)
2.6 in | 6.6 cm (blade length)
3 oz | 85.31 g
From the website, of course, but they do jive with the knife. It's nice when a company actually gets these right (looking at you, CRKT, Kershaw). The blade is a good size for EDC usage and camping, but is a little short for tactical or pure utility use - you can always upgrade to the E55 series, which have 3.1 inch blades, if you desire. It is a heavy knife, though. Compared to the Crater series, the E33L adds .6 ounces for those steel scales on the back of the knife, which is a significant weight difference.
Alright, lets get to some specifics:Design
Blade: The blade is a drop-point design, with an 85% flat grind and a relief grind at the top. There's adequate belly for slicing tasks, and the tip is sharp enough for piercing type work. I originally thought the relief grind at the top of the blade was kind of strange, but it does reduce weight while still allowing for reasonable tip strenght by bringing a spine down lower on the knife (and Leatherman expects you to thrash these things).
Being a flat grind the blade is an excellent slicer and dicer, and the shape allows for piercing cuts. While not quite as utilitarian as a clip point blade, it's perfectly usable for a wide range of tasks - the blade shape is nearly identical to the highly-regarded SOG Aegis, just with an 85% flat grind, instead of a full flat grind. In this case you trade some slicing performance for tip strength.
The top of the blade lacks a thumb ramp, but has a row of very effective jimping - pushing down on the blade does provide significant purchase for the thumb.
The thumbstud is nothing special, and lacks any kind of terracing or features to enhance grip. It is effective though in that it's very tall and stands out from the handle when closed. It's press fitted and non-reversible.
Blade Opener: This particular knife as Leatherman's "Blade Launcher" system on it. It's not an assisted opening system, or a flipper, but a tabbed, rotating thumbdisk. It's quite low profile, and actuating the blade launcher is easy to do with either the left or right hand. When open, the launcher tab rotates in to the handle.
Handle: Handle is a full FRN handle (fibre-reinforced nylon), with steel scales placed on the back of the knife. It's really slippery in use, but there is some reasonable finger moulding on the bottom on the knife to help grip. It's not the best handle in the world, but certainly not the worst either. I personally think the stainless steel scales are kinda useless, as they add weight and looks, but almost nothing to the utility of the knife.
The knife is a liner-type lock, and is generally solid. Leatherman did something very smart in only having a liner on the side of the knife that has the lock situated in it - this helps keep the weight down but still allows for some decent handle strength.
The handles also contains the rotating, locking carabiner/bottle opener. The bottle opener still has that annoying wiggle when open, but is solid enough to clip to a belt or vest loop for quick access. The little tab on the carabiner also makes a pretty decent mini-prybar as well - I've opened paint cans with it.
Clip: Solid, deep carrying, but WIDE. Really wide. Not a major issue, though. The pressure point of the clip rather helpfully comes down just on the stainless steel scales, which makes it that the clip won't shred your pocket.
Fit and Finish: Not great. One of the biggest complaints about Leatherman's original series of knives was that they had severe, severe blade centering issues when closed, to the point that the blade actually rubbed against the carabiner. Instead of having better fit pivots (like they should have!) Leatherman just put a small FRN nub on the inside of the handles that guides the blade down. Effective, but once that wears away, what happens? Lazy design guys, sorry.
Another complaint is that the FRN on the top of the blade had very, very sharp edges to it, to the degree that it actually cut my fingers when using the Blade Launcher. This was easily remedied by about two minutes with a file, but it shouldn't come from the factory like this.
Another issue - the Blade Launcher needs more grip. There is some knurling at the very front of the grip, but it needs more to be really effect, especially when used with wet or gloved hands. This was fixed with a bit of silicon grip tape - the knife now opens very reliably.
Last complaint - the edge sucked. It was AWFUL out of package, to the point that I could rub my thumb along the blade and not worry about cutting myself. It took some time and effort, but I was able to get a very nice edge out of the steel, though (154CM is NOT easy to sharpen).
None of these fit and finish issues are in and of themselves deal-breakers, but taken together they are problematic. In Use:
Opening: With the Blade Launcher? REALLY fast. Unlike early iterations of the Blade Launcher system, the E33L doesn't require a wrist flick to open, which is very nice. If you're the type of person who likes consistency in opening their knives, opening from the thumbstud is easy enough as well, and doesn't require a wrist flick either. It's not quite as fast, though. The blade rides on phosphor bronze bushings, and either opening type is smooth and quite well balanced.
Lockup: Solid. No movement side to side, no movement up or down. The pivot is adjustable with a T8 Torx bit if there's any play in the future, but my copy didn't require it at all.
Cutting Performance: Excellent. The high flat-ground blade is a favourite of many for it's shearing capabilities, and the the edge that 154CM is able to take (and keep) makes the knife a joy to use. There's adequate belly for slicing and the low grind angle makes push cutting quite nice. The one caveat is that in the shorter blade length of the E33L, draw cuts are a little more difficult (but easily remedied by going to a larger version). The 154CM steel can be honed to a very fine edge.
Grip: Not great. The hand is moulded for finger grip, but the combination of Stainless steel scales and mostly untextured FRN makes for a somewhat slippery knife. Good enough for EDC usage, though.
Philosophy of Use (helpfully nicked from Nutnfancy): Leatherman markets this knife as a camping or fishing knife, which is utterly, totally wrong. This is DEFINITELY not the knife I'd want in either situation, for a number of reasons. First, it's way too complicated. Too many moving parts and pieces to grab and hold dirt, mud, muck, blood or whatever else should your drop the knife or get it wet. Second, way too heavy. For a 2.6 inch blade length, the E33L weighs 3 ounces. When you're camping and hiking you're generally really, really watching your weight, and that's just way too heavy for essentially a single-function knife. Third, the grip retention sucks. It's hard to hold on to with wet or dirty hands, and there's no lanyard hole for secondary retention when using around water.
So what is it good for? This is a great EDC knife. Weight is less an issue in this role, as are the grip problems, while the edge retention of the 154CM steel becomes much more useful. Secondarily, I think the knife would be pretty good for emergency tactical. While on the short side, it has great penetration capability, a fast and highly reliable opening system, and the steel scales on the back could make it in to an effect kuboton. The molded finger guard and effective jimping would also prevent your fingers from sliding on to the blade during a thrust cut.
Other: Of all the things I've said, the only issue that kinda bugs me day to day with the knife? Doesn't really have a good opening snap. Yeah, I'm being picky.
Price: Taking a quick look online, the E33L and E33XL (the half-serrated version) can be found for anywhere from $20-$30, which I think is a pretty darn good deal for the knife. For that price, you get a US made knife, premium blade steel, and Leatherman's excellent 25 year warranty.
While I have some issues with the knife (mostly in the fit and finish department), I think it represents great value for the money, as well as a good evolutionary step in Leatherman's knife lineup. Just about all the issues that were present in the first lineup (blade play, slow opening, blade centering) were improved upon if not completely fixed, and the knife itself is solid. It currently resides in my rotation as a companion to my Wave for heavier usage, and that's probably where it will stay for the time being.