Story and Photos by Joshua Swanagon
Like many others, I have been using Leatherman multi-tools for many years. My personal favorite was always the Wave – until recently, that is.
At SHOT Show 2019, Leatherman started the year by introducing their new FREE line of multitools, that changed the way we look at multi-tools forever. With the introduction of magnetic closures and single-handed access to the many included tools, the FREE line of multi-tools answered the call for a more user-friendly tool set.
As a part of the FREE line, the K4 is perfect for those that are looking for a dedicated knife but would like the convenience of a small selection of common tools in their pocket. Utilizing the same magnetic based retention for the included implements, the FREE K4 will only get better with use.
But, how does it perform as a stand-alone knife? And as a designated multi-tool?
Recently Leatherman has been undergoing some overall changes to their branding, and the FREE series highlights the new aesthetics beautifully – with clean lines and modern design cues.
I will admit that I was taken aback by the size of the FREE K4 when I first got one in my hands. At almost an inch thick, this is a lot of knife in the pocket. But when you are fitting four additional tools, and added magnetic retention, you have to accept some level of give and take.
With that said, although it took up some additional room in the mouth of my pocket, I was able to carry it – along with keys and a small North American Arms pocket .22Mag pistol – without any issues. However, I think for something this thick, I would consider one of Leatherman’s sheaths. They have some really nice ones at reasonable prices.
The 3.3-inch 420HC stainless steel blade features a hollow ground Wharncliffe profile (perfect for utility work) with an elongated thumb hole, for single handed opening. Although the edge was very sharp right out of the box, I couldn’t help but notice the very rough grind on the primary bevel. I felt it looked a little unfinished in that area but did not affect the edge or performance in any way.
I did appreciate that Leatherman took the extra time to knock down the edges of the spine; allowing for more comfortable use while extending the thumb along the spine for additional pressure on tougher jobs.
The blade lockup is managed via Leatherman’s implement lock. One of the nice things about the lockup on all of the FREE series multi-tools, is that every tool/blade utilizes the same locking mechanism – which is a departure from their previous lines, which utilized many different locking mechanisms for the different implements.
Upon inspection of the implement lock – while in lockup – you can see that it doesn’t have as much of a positive engagement as a liner lock, or other locking mechanisms, might. However, it holds the blade safely in place while open, and – much like a friction folder – any knife will stay open during use, simply from opposing pressure. But, for the sake of a complete report, I did a spine whack test and the implement lock held the blade firmly in place.
The handle of the FREE K4 is constructed of aluminum, which helps to keep the weight down. On each side of the FREE K4 is some subtle patterning, giving it a little additional retention in the hand; but not so much that it is abrasive.
The removable pocket clip allows for either left- or right-hand, tip up, carry – or is completely removable for sheath carry. At the butt end of the handle is a lanyard hole just large enough for a single strand paracord lanyard.
The tools stow neatly into the spine of the handle and are easily opened with one hand – via the thumb hook on each tool – and snap audibly into place via the implement lock. As listed by Leatherman, there are 8 tools housed on four accessible implements – Spring-action Scissors, Pry Tool, Package Opener, Awl, Bottle Opener, Phillips Screwdriver, Medium Screwdriver and Extra-small Screwdriver – all constructed of 420HC stainless steel.
Any tool by Leatherman just begs to be used, and the FREE K4 was no different.
Seeing that the included tools have remained unchanged from the tools provided in past Leatherman multi-tools, I didn’t do any specific testing on them – other than the scissors – aside from just normal every-day use.
My first point of order was to reduce a double ply, corrugated cardboard box into a pile of carboard scraps. The keen edge of the K4 slid easily through the cardboard with no snags or tears; each cut was very clean and smooth.
I followed this test by seeing how well the scissors would fare against thick cardboard like this. Although I was able to cut the cardboard cleanly – demonstrating an ability to cut something this robust – I wouldn’t recommend it for extended use of this kind. It took some work.
Wanting to give the scissors a fair shake I took it down a notch and cut up some heavy-duty leather I have laying around (.0955 inch thick). The scissors cut the leather into a small pile without any issues. Every cut was clean and provided very little resistance.
Next, I pulled out some .5-inch, triple strand, twisted twine and was able to press the edge of the blade straight through the entire diameter of the twine. I performed this test on each section of the edge and every part of the blade cut cleanly and easily.
I then took a commercial grade, Plenum Rated, zip tie (800n/175lbf/79.3KGF) and cut it in half with the blade. Following this, I took the two pieces and stacked them and performed another cut, using the chest lever grip. The K4 was very comfortable in the chest lever grip and easily slid right through both pieces of the heavy-duty nylon zip ties.
In another attempt to push the limits of the scissors, I took one of the remaining pieces of zip tie and cut it into a few smaller pieces. It took just a little bit of work but was able to cut the zip tie cleanly and remain tight and sharp.
Moving on, I pulled out an old mountain bike tire, removed the bead and cut a large chunk out of it. Then, using the chest lever grip, I folded the tire over and cut it in half. I then stacked those two pieces and cut them in half. And finally, folded it one more time (to make it 4 layers) and cut the entire stack one more time. The K4 slid right through the tire without any drag.
Finally, I utilized the K4 to take apart a decommissioned stereo component and tested the scissors by cutting two ribbon cables – which provided no resistance or damage to the scissors. I then finished by using a rubber mallet to baton the blade through the power cable multiple times. It not only cut easily through the cord, but on a few occasions, penetrated the wood cutting board below. Upon completion of all of my testing I inspected the edge and found no deformations, rolling, or dulling of any kind.
After all of the testing, the blade on the FREE K4 was able to still slice through a page from a phone book multiple times, cleanly and slowly. The heat treat on the blade of the K4 was done very well.
Having been a longtime user and fan of Leatherman, I was pretty excited when introduced to the FREE line. They had the same feel of a well-used, broke in Leatherman – yet remained tight when closed, like a brand new one.
The FREE K4 is a well thought out and executed addition to the FREE line. Although its size might seem a little overwhelming at first, the function more than makes up for the additional girth in the pocket. While it is similar in size to a full Leatherman multi-tool, the dedicated knife adds a level of functionality that I feel outperforms the blades that are secondary on a more extensive multi-tool.
If you have ever used your knife as a screwdriver or have ever wished that you could get just a little more functionality from your pocketknife, the FREE K4 is perfect for you. Although it is not the type of knife that you will forget is in your pocket while stowed, it is the type of knife that you will have in your hands often enough that you wouldn’t be able to forget it anyway.
The Leatherman FREE line is changing the game and the FREE K4 is a perfect example of the exciting new direction Leatherman has been taking.
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Blade Material: 420HC Stainless SteelBlade Length: 3.3 inchesOverall Length: 7.9375 inchesBlade Thickness: 0.13 inchOverall Thickness: .72 inchWeight: 5.5 ouncesHandle Material: AluminumMSRP: $89.95
01 – 420HC Knife02 – Spring-action Scissors03 – Pry Tool04 – Package Opener05 – Awl06 – Bottle Opener07 – Phillips Screwdriver08 – Medium Screwdriver09 – Extra-small Screwdriver
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Joshua Swanagon has studied survival in both urban and wilderness environments in Colorado and Michigan for most of his life, while also adding experience in harsher terrains abroad. He utilizes his experience and years of diverse martial arts and combatives training and real world application as a self-defense/combatives instructor, published freelance writer and Field Editor for various magazines in the fields of knives, survival, self-defense and tactical subject matters. Joshua also brings with him his years of experience as Editor of, and Subject Matter Expert for Knives Illustrated Magazine.
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