Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Miscellany: Battle of the EDC Pens - Fisher Bullet Space Pen vs. Zebra F-301 Compact

I've written about my adventures in minimalist blogging before, but since then I've found out that an ordinary drug-store-issue pocket notepad and ballpoint pen can only go so far in portable blogging duty. They're light and cheap enough, sure, but neither article ranks high in terms of durability.

So, finding myself in the market for a new "every day carry" pen, I immediately gravitated toward the geekiest option - the Fisher Bullet Space Pen:

Yeah, the Space Pen. You've probably heard about it - carried by NASA astronauts into orbit, stocked at places like science museums and planetariums, and even featured on an episode of "Seinfeld."

I managed to unearth one, but when review time came, I stopped. Sometimes the best way to review a famous item like the Space Pen is by comparing it to other items on the market, with less fame but perhaps more practical value. Enter the Zebra F-301 Compact, a small ballpoint that has a similar design and intended function. In this review the two pens will go head-to-head in a no-holds-barred cage match to determine which is best for "every day carry" (EDC).

Out of the Box

Fisher Bullet

The Fisher Bullet typically comes packed in a plastic, heat-sealed pack with a gift case (I suppose only a few people would actually go out and buy themselves a Space Pen - someone gave me mine). When you finally get it in hand, it's surprisingly heavy; there's no plastic anywhere. Below, you can get a look at the special pressurized ink cartridge and the various pieces of the pen.

The F-301

The F-301 Compact is available at many stores (including big office supply chains); it typically comes in a two-pack that shows the pen both capped and uncapped. While the writing end of the pen and the cap are made of steel, the actual barrel is plastic. Here's all the component parts:

Form Factor

Both pens are approximately the same length. The pen caps of both pens can be attached to the back of the barrel to simulate writing with a normal size pen. I find that the Fisher Bullet feels more solid when extended like this - the fit of the barrel and pen cap is precise and tight, whereas the F-301 Compact's cap sits loosely on the barrel. Both pens have ridges along their circumference in order to provide traction for your fingers.

This is purely subjective, but the smooth lines of the Bullet look better and feel better than the F-301. In terms of absolute size, the ends of the Bullet are more rounded and thus slightly smaller around than the F-301. Both pens are small enough to be carried in the pocket easily. The F-301 Compact comes with both a deep pocket clip and an eye loop for a lanyard or keychain; the Bullet is less convenient since there are separate versions with pocket clips and D-rings that you'll have to acquire - the base model has no means of attachment.

Writing Performance

The Fisher Space Pen cartridge is pretty unique. Check out this documentary featurette:

Impressive, no? Now, there are other pressurized cartridges available nowadays, but Fisher's been doing it longer and better than most of the others. In a side-by-side writing comparison, the Fisher's toothpaste-like ink actually writes more smoothly than the F-301's ink, at least for me. Neither, of course, compares with a good fountain pen, but they're both serviceable writers.

But here's the bigger question - could the F-301 keep up with the vaunted Space Pen in a series of hard-use performance tests? After all, an EDC pen might be called upon in places far from home, where pens are scarce. It could be that you won't have a perfect, flat, dry, 72 degree Fahrenheit surface to write on.

As a control, here's the Bullet and the F-301 on normal paper in just such an idealized environment:

Not too bad. The F-301 by default has a finer width ball, which means a thinner line but a little more "scratchiness." Now, here's how they fare on wet paper (say, if your restaurant check gets wet from the condensation rings of your drink and you have to sign it):

Not too bad. Both write okay on the thoroughly soaked paper, with the Fisher coming in first by a nose. Either would work in damp conditions. What about a paper with grease or oil on it? Here's both pens writing on a WD-40 soaked paper:

No contest. The Fisher is a bit hard to read, but the F-301 can't even form words on a surface this unforgiving. Does the Fisher Space Pen have any weakness? Maybe you're stuck in a car in the dead of winter in northern Minnesota...

That's right, in my cold weather simulation (an hour in the freezer), the Bullet actually writes worse than the F-301, at least at first. Part of this is because the Bullet has all-metal construction that loses heat rapidly in a cold environment - the ink got colder in the Bullet faster. I wonder what the results would be if both pens were frozen solid for a few hours, but I don't have that kind of time.

Finally, the infamous upside-down writing test:

Again, easy pickings for the Bullet. It was designed to write upside-down, after all. The F-301 manages a few words, like most ballpoints, but eventually runs out of steam.

Price & Value

Here's where the Fisher Bullet stumbles. The F-301 Compact is about $2.50 per pen, while the Bullet is about $20 per pen. Now, it's not like the $20 isn't buying you more pen (the Bullet is made in the U.S., the F-301 is made in Indonesia), but it's still a pretty stark difference. Kick in the fact that refills are harder to find for the Bullet (and are more expensive when you do find them) and you have a clear win for the F-301.


For those on a budget, I'd go with the F-301 Compact. It offers 95% of the performance of the Fisher Bullet at a fraction of the cost.

If you're feeling spendy, though, the Bullet offers great looks and outstanding performance. As an aside, Paul Fisher, the founder of the company and the inventor of the Bullet, was a fascinating man. The description of his life sounds like something from an Ayn Rand novel: plucky libertarian inventor battles the government. How can you not buy a pen from this guy's company?


At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Kind Person.

Thank you for your writeup of the Zebra F-301 pen.

The Zebra F-301 is the highlight of my day. When I pick one up it makes me happy to hold such a fine piece of engineering. Recently I had to replace my keyboard because it was on the fritz and acting very intermittently and preventing me from getting my work done. All in all the entire day had a sour taste. When I arrived at my local office supply store I bought a pack of Zebra F-301 pens -- black my favourite. Instantly the black fog of the day lifted and I was back to my usual sunny self.

It is inexpensive enough that I can have multiple pens floating around my house but the construction is simply outstanding for an inexpensive pen.

I only wish that Zebra would sell these in a personalized format as I would very much like to have my initials engraved in these pens.

I'm planning to be cremated, otherwise I would be buried with a F-301. Perhaps I will give them away at my funeral service or find some other way of sharing the great joy in my life with my loved ones.



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