Ever since The James Brand introduced their keychain folder, the Elko, we’ve been smitten. With great proportions, excellent design and undeniable utility, it’s no wonder that it’s found a fast home with Gear Patrol staffers. But like so many great products, the Elko is a re-interpretation of a classic: the keychain Swiss Army Knife by Victorinox.
Victorinox’s keychain Swiss Army Knife, or SAK for short, has remained largely unchanged for decades and is widely available online for less than $20. It is easily the heretofore-unrivaled king of keychain knives.
But despite all of the original SAK’s provenance, we began to wonder if it lived up to modern EDC use. This led us to ask, how would the iconic SAK perform when pitted against the Elko? And, as it retails for roughly three times the price, does the Elko deliver three times the oomph?
After consulting with our in-house knife aficionados and surveying 25 staffers, we settled on three simple everyday tasks that would test the strength, toughness and utility of the two knives; opening a box, tightening a screw and opening a bottle top. The knife with the highest marks would leave the ring the new keychain king.
Opening a Box
The strength of a blade, its resistance to corrosion and ability to hold an edge are important properties to consider when buying, but these aspects are more relevant when purchasing specialty knives that need to perform a specific task in a specific environment. A keychain knife is called upon to perform all sorts of quick cutting tasks in a wide array of settings. The most common use for our blades? Opening boxes of gear. As it turns out, it’s an excellent test for a simple folding knife.
The SAK’s one-millimeter thick and five-millimeter wide drop-point blade, though elegant, lacked the mass required to slash through thick tape and plastic packaging, especially when dulled. And being a little over 3.5 centimeters from point to base, the blade flexed and bent worryingly when faced with heftier jobs. But we did find that when freshly sharpened, the SAK made short work of packing tape and sliced cleanly through most boxes.
The Elko’s squat blade — 4.4 centimeters long, 10 millimeters wide and two millimeters thick — gave it a surprising heft that powered through where the SAK waffled. The Elko’s centimeter-long thumb nick passes through the blade making for easy ambidextrous opening by both left and right hand-dominant users.
Neither knife offers a locking blade, but the Elko’s slip joint has two noticeable friction points whereas the SAK has only one. More than a third of the surveyed Gear Patrol staff members reported being cut or otherwise injured by a knife folding while in use. Though we didn’t test for injury-producing results for obvious reasons, it’s very likely that the multiple friction points of the Elko could be enough to avert a trip to the ER.
Score: Elko 1, SAK 0.
Tightening a Screw
Many knife owners have broken the point off a blade by using it for a task it wasn’t designed to perform. Apart from using the blade tip to pry — a surefire way to clip your knife blade — the next most common use case that results in blunted blades is tightening a screw. Both the SAK and the Elko have addressed blade misuse by supplying an additional tool for torquing.
In the case of the SAK, the tool is an edgeless four-centimeter long implement that tapers abruptly to a 2.5 millimeter bit. But while the slender tool rides conveniently alongside the main blade and is good for smaller screws in either flathead or Phillips configuration, its length and six-millimeter width make it extremely flexible. Even on the most mundane screws, we observed the implement twisting uncomfortably in hand and a lack sufficient leverage. It worked well for smaller jobs, but the size of the bit precluded it from the smallest tasks such as tightening the temple screws a pair of eyeglasses.
The James Brand eschewed a blade-like implement altogether, opting instead for a trapezoidal tail (The James Brand calls it a “prybar”) that tapers from 15 millimeters to six millimeters over its roughly eight-millimeter length. The result is a stout bit offering ample leverage. The secret to the tail’s strength is that it doubles as the liner and runs the length of the six-millimeter handle scales, anchored by the body screws in three locations. The pry bar is substantially wider and thicker than the SAK’s, and it excelled at indelicate tasks like tightening the screw on a camera base plate, the lug on a fishing reel and an engine hose clamp. For us, the Elko was a better fit for our day-to-day use.
Score: Elko 2, SAK 0.
Opening a Bottle:
Opening a bottle is a pretty straightforward task for a purpose-built tool. But when your keychain knife doesn’t have that tool, you have to get inventive. Sure, you could have a bottle opener on your keychain, or use any number of creative ways to pop that top, but ideally, your EDC blade should be ready to rise to the challenge. The key is a practical solution that won’t have you snapping a blade or fiddling around for several minutes.
Neither the SAK nor the Elko offers openers in their arsenal, but we tested them anyway. The Elko’s trapezoidal tail made short work of a bottle top, again owing to its heft, ample bite, and integration into the knife body. However, that tail also doubles as the keyring, and we found it tricky to use the prybar while attached to a set of keys. Strung on a lanyard, or The James Brand’s toggle, the Ulu, the tail was much easier to use for bottle duty.
The SAK’s only answer to a bottle cap is the aforementioned flat-tipped implement. But similar to its performance as a driver, the implement flexed and bowed worryingly. Extensive force saw it even bend slightly. Multiple attempts and multiple misses had us reaching for the Elko. It should be noted that Victorinox produces other keychain-specific models that include a bottle opener. For that, we had to give the SAK a half a point.
Score: Elko 3, SAK 0.5.
There is no ignoring the iconic nature of the Swiss Army Knife. For many of us, the red plastic scales and Swiss shield conjure childhood memories of siblings, parents and even grandparents. For others, a Swiss Army Knife was their first foray into knife ownership. For well over a hundred years their design has defined what a reliable folding knife should be. For this too, the SAK should be honored.
The Elko, rather than being a complete departure from the SAK’s footprint feels like a modern re-interpretation of its essence. With nearly identical dimensions, it’s clear that the Elko is The James Brand’s hat tip to greatness.
Score: Elko 3, SAK 1.5.
We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the SAK’s ability to pack other tools into such a small silhouette. Opposite the blade/implement duo rests a pair of scissors which sport sharp 17-millimeter blades, pert spring action, and impressively small set (“set” refers to the space between the scissor blades when closed). The handful we purchased online for testing even had factory lubrication at the pinch. Precise and sharp enough for nipping a stray thread, fishing line, clothing tag or even a fingernail, the SAK’s scissors are a lovely creature comfort. For the addition of a nail file in the side of the driver implement, and the tweezers and plastic toothpick that stow ingeniously in the scales, the SAK deserves significant praise, and a point for ingenuity.
Score: Elko 3, SAK 2.5.
Within the confines of our three-task challenge, the Elko’s overall build quality, blade design and ‘prybar’ led to a close-but-crucial overall win against the Swiss Army Knife, validating its price and more importantly, validating its position as keychain king.
However, the Swiss Army Knife offered an air of utility and elegance, carrying its own special cachet unrivaled by most knife companies. The bottom line? Both knives deserve serious consideration for your everyday carry, but if you want a burly no-nonsense tool that will get the job done, reach for the Elko.