THE MULTI-TOOL SHOOTOUT
A Comparative Test of the Best Multi-tools for Police Applications
By Allan Garcia
I think it's safe to assume that the multi-tool has taken its place as a "must have" for every police officer's daily kit. And so it goes that Tim Leatherman's wonderful little invention (devised back in 1975) has found itself, in some shape or form, on most police officers' daily "packing list." Being one of those officers who have carried a multi-tool for the better portion of my 15 year career, I set out to find if there was one out there that had what it took to be the best overall for law enforcement, especially in the areas of patrol and SWAT.
SOG Specialty Knives & Tools, Inc. provided me with two tools for the test. The first tool was their model S44 Pocket PowerPlier®. This model is constructed of stainless steel and features SOG's patented compound leverage system. SOG claims that the compound leverage system allows for twice the wire cutting and plier gripping strength with minimal hand pressure. The PowerPlier has six components which include a needle nose plier head; a half serrated blade; small/medium/large screwdrivers; a Phillips™ screwdriver; a three-sided file; a can/bottle opener; rulers; and a lanyard loop. The second SOG model provided was their innovative SwitchPlier®. With the introduction of the SwitchPlier, SOG lays claim to the first automatic opening multi-tool on the market. The tool is actuated with the push of a small button located on the side of it, similar to that of an auto-opening tactical folder. When actuated, the plier portion of the tool, which is spring-loaded, opens to a set of functioning pliers. The tool contains five separate components which feature a knife blade; a bottle opener/small screwdriver; a can opener/medium screwdriver; and a three-sided file/large screwdriver. Its overall construction is of stainless steel and aircraft aluminum. This tool is no joke and held its own with the rest of the tested tools right to the end. The S44 was shipped with a leather belt sheath and the SwitchPlier was sent with a nylon belt sheath with a clip-on style belt attachment.
The Leatherman Tool Company provided me with their Wave® and Super Tool® 200 models. The Wave and Super Tool 200 are both constructed of high-grade stainless steel. The Wave tool features 19 separate tool functions, ranging from two knife blades (serrated and clip point) to five screwdrivers. The tool features access to four liner locking blades without opening the tool and rounded handles which make hard squeezing of the tool very manageable and pain-free. The Super Tool 200 offers heavy-duty capabilities in Leatherman's biggest and strongest tool. The Super Tool 200 features 18 separate tool functions and also has rounded handles to provide comfort and manageability when squeezing the pliers. It features a locking mechanism which allows individual locking of each tool. The mechanism is very sturdy and I could not defeat it as I could with others. Both tools were sent to me with high quality black nylon belt sheaths with VELCRO® closures. What Tim Leatherman invented 28 years ago has evolved into high-grade, well designed tools made for tough use.
I was lucky enough to receive a Kershaw Knives Model A100C multi-tool. Kershaw certainly did their homework when designing this tool and their efforts proved to be exceptional. The locking vise grip style jaws of the pliers make this tool second to none for complete one-handed/hands-free operation. The design of the tool allows you to open the liner locking, half serrated knife blade without unfolding the multi-tool, and it also has six tools with ten functions to round it out. The A100C is constructed of 420 stainless steel and came to me with a black nylon belt sheath with a VELCRO closure.
Victorinox®/Swiss Army® Brands, Inc. sent me their swisstool™ RS model. One look at the layout and sturdy construction of this tool makes it readily apparent it isn't some weak attempt by the makers of your old Boy Scout knife to enter the multi-tool market. Swiss Army constructed their tool out of stainless steel and added 11 individually locking tools, boasting 23 different features, to create a very high quality, extremely durable multi-tool comparable to anything on the market today. It should be noted that the swisstool RS was the only multi-tool sent to me with a device built into it (seat belt cutting blade) which appears to be specifically designed for law enforcement or other EMS professions. The RS came to me in a high quality black nylon belt sheath with a VELCRO closure.
Gerber Legendary Blades® provided me with one of their Multi-Plier 600 Series Needlenose (Model 7550) multi-tools. The tool came finished in a nonreflective black coating and was complete with two knife blades (sheepsfoot serrated and nonserrated drop point); pliers with wire cutters; small, medium and large flat head screwdrivers; can and bottle openers; a file; a ruler; and a foldout lanyard ring. The tool features Gerber's one-handed opening, wherein the plier head slides in and out of the tool body with a flick of the wrist. The feature is actuated using only gravity and a flicking motion with the arm.
My testing criterion was broken down into five fields:
1. Cutting test involving heavy rappel style rope and other materials;
2. Ease of operation and overall comfort and layout of the tool;
3. Squeeze test to determine if the tool itself will start to cut your hands, etc. when heavy pressure is applied to an object to hold, turn or tighten;
4. Real-world suitability of the multi-tools attached instruments including metal cutting blades, files, screwdrivers, etc. and their attached locking mechanisms; and
5. I think one-handed operation is paramount in tactical police work; therefore, there was a test to determine if the individual instruments on the tool could be deployed with the support (non-gun) side hand only.
Wow! is all I have to say for level of sharpness which all supplied multi-tools displayed. All of the blades sliced through 7/16" BlueWater kernmantle Assaultline™ with relative ease; even doubling up the line was not a problem for any of the knife blades provided. 7/16" military rappel rope also fell prey to the same results. Every tool tested had at least a partially serrated knife blade which made them all very good cutters – especially for rope and cord.
I must add that the inclusion of separate serrated blades provided in the Leatherman, Gerber and swisstool multi-tools (the seat belt cutting blade in the swisstool is a curved serrated blade) made even easier work of cutting the rope. I "attacked" numerous other cutting mediums to include "550" parachute cord, cardboard boxes, and an old BDU top and sweatshirt to simulate having to cut away clothing for emergency first aid with no problems from any of the supplied blades. Leatherman and Gerber's sheepsfoot serrated blades and the swisstool belt cutter would be excellent as expedient, safe clothing removers in the case of an injury. Kershaw's single, half serrated blade, however, took top billing for overall (hair shaving) sharpness. It's not surprising that one of the knife-making companies provided me with the sharpest knife blade.
Ease of Operation/Overall Comfort and Layout/Clumping
The Leatherman tools provided the best layout and ease of operation. The Wave provides four blades on the outside of the "plier arms," giving the user the option of deploying two types of knife blades – a file or a saw – without going through the evolution of opening the tool into a plier configuration. Swisstool deserves huge kudos in this category as they have apparently solved a long-standing multi-tool affliction. The best term I've heard to describe this affliction is "clumping." Clumping is the phenomenon when you attempt to fold out a single implement from your multi-tool and it is followed or attached to all of the other implements which are housed in that arm of the tool, making the user to have to separate the tool needed and then fold back all of the other tools. Swisstool has incorporated a separate mechanism into every implement/blade on their tool so that when you fold out the one needed, it is the only one which comes out – outstanding thinking and a big plus in this field. All the other tools provided still showed some signs of "the clump" when actuating the implements in the arms of the multi-tool. The SOG offerings were very well made and smooth to operate. The S44 is a smallish tool by today's standard, but is well put together and very smooth and easy to operate. The compound leverage feature did not hinder the operation of the tool at all. The SOG SwitchPlier, with its automatic opening feature, is a true joy with which to work. Kershaw's vise grip style tool proved to be a bit of a palm pincher if I wasn't paying attention to what I was doing. It lacks the rounded edges of the swisstool or the Leatherman. However, Kershaw did position its liner locking, half serrated blade on the outside of the tool to be deployed separate of the plier mechanism. The Kershaw is quite long and narrow by multi-tool standards and does not feature a retractable plier head. This could prove troublesome for the officer who intends to wear it on a duty belt. I had some trouble operating the Gerber Series 600. Getting the plier head to extend out of the body usually took two or three "flicks" of the wrist. The screwdrivers and other tools were a bit on the small side and difficult to fold out. I am wondering if a slight friction was created by the matte black finish/coating which was applied to the tool, making the mechanisms "hang up" a little bit more than usual.
Squeeze Test/Hand Discomfort
I decided to incorporate this test for obvious reasons. These tools were being evaluated for use by police officers in the patrol and SWAT environments. They could, and would, be called upon to handle such tasks as an exigent mend to equipment; an emergency firearms field repair and malfunction clearance; shutting off rusted or damaged valves or control devices; and the list goes on and on. If the user of the tool incurs pain or discomfort from the tool, thereby negating full force on the tool before being able to solve the problem at hand, then the problem will remain.
Gripping several mediums, both with bare and gloved hands, I found that the larger, wider tools providing rounded edges were the most successful in this test. Leatherman's Super Tool 200, the swisstool RS and the Kershaw tool surpassed all others. Even when hand turning half inch lag bolts into 2 x 4s, these three tools were outstanding. I rigged an 85 pound dumbbell to 550 cord with a carabiner on the end and was able to pick it up and hold it off the ground, gripping the carabiner with the plier portion of each of the tools. The hold time was abbreviated with the SOG S44 only because it caused quite of bit of discomfort due to its thinner, nonrounded construction. However, the S44's compound leverage feature made easy work of multiplying the compression at the plier head, making gripping of the "biner" a snap. All the tools held their own, while the Kershaw A100C with its vise grip style design had the leg up negating any constant squeezing to maintain a grip while holding or turning.
I know that the intended use of these tools is more of the compact, expedient, pocket tool and it was not designed to be the be-all and end-all tool designed to replace every hand and power tool known to man. However, cops are cops. Knowing this, I believe that members of this profession will push the envelope with the uses, and abuses, of the multi-tool just like we do with every other piece of equipment we carry.
As all of the tools provided were equipped with a "wire cutter" portion on their plier faces, I started here. All of the tools easily cut through all gauges of smaller wire up to and including wire hangers, chicken wire fencing, snow fence wire, etc. While cutting a piece of rusty wire fencing, I experienced a complete failure in the SOG SwitchPlier tool. The spring which actuated the auto-opening mechanism failed and the tool essentially was useless after that. I mailed it back to the company and, in two weeks, had a brand-new tool to finish the test.
I bumped the test up to include a very small padlock like the one you would use on your luggage or a portion of chain-link fence. I know, I know, it said "wire" cutter, not "bolt cutter," but, thinking as a cop might think, I decided to attack it anyway with the different tools. I was left with the same findings with each tool – stick to cutting wire.
Screwdrivers, screwdrivers, and more screwdrivers – they all worked well. The Leatherman Wave and swisstool had offset drivers allowing for a more positive feel on the tool as one would loosen or tighten something. All seven tools have Phillips head drivers. All of the tools had some type of integral locking device on the blades, except for the SOG S44. I was able to defeat the locking mechanism on the swisstool RS and Kershaw's liner lock by hitting the back of the blades on a solid surface. Kershaw's problem laid in the fact that I could not get the liner lock to fully engage by opening the blade solely with my thumb on the thumb stud. Vigorously flicking the blade open using wrist action secured the liner lock enough so that it could not be defeated. Overall, all seven tools felt, and worked, well. While it never failed during testing, the Gerber does have part of the locking mechanism made of plastic and that made me a little nervous.
Putting the tool into operation while having a weapon or flashlight in your "strong hand" could be very important and lifesaving for a patrol or SWAT officer. Hands down, SOG took this portion of the test with the auto-opening SwitchPlier. The S44 SOG was also very easily put into operation (offhanded) with a simple flip of the wrist. The Kershaw, with its locking plier mechanism, and the Gerber offering, with its ability to present the pliers by simply applying a little force and gravity, were next for obvious reasons. The swisstool and the Leatherman Wave and Super Tool 200 were, due to their design, harder than the previous four to open and get functioning with just the support hand. I could get them all into operation, but it took a fair amount of manipulation using the front of my thigh, etc. to get them into the plier's open position.
My conclusion is that all seven of these multi-tools are high quality and functional. The SwitchPlier is definitely made for "lighter" applications than what a SWAT operator may face. Due to their smaller size, the two SOG offerings and the Leatherman Wave would be best suited for mounting on a duty belt and being part of a uniformed officer's daily patrol gear. The Leatherman Super Tool 200, the swisstool RS, and the Kershaw A100C would be excellent for SWAT/special operations as they are more robust specialized tools designed for hard use. The Gerber offering has me worried with its incorporation of plastic parts in the locking mechanism and the use of semi-exposed springs in the opening/locking mechanism of the plier portion of the tool.
I was left pleasantly surprised at the offerings from the companies which had to play "catch-up" with Leatherman, especially the swisstool, SOG, and the Kershaw. There is definitely a place in law enforcement for multi-tools and my hope is that these companies will continue to improve on their products to better suit police needs in the future.
About the Author: Allan Garcia has been a police officer since 1988. Prior to that, he served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. He has been assigned to both his department and regionalized SWAT teams since 1991. Officer Garcia is a state and local level law enforcement firearms instructor, as well as a field training officer. Officer Garcia has extensive field experience in both patrol and tactical operations and is a graduate of dozens of firearms and tactical schools to include offerings from Blackwater Training and Tony Blauer. He is a member of the NTOA and IALEFI. Officer Garcia enjoys reader comments and can be reached via E-mail at AJG3663@cox.net.