New: "Special Ops" Backpack From KILLSPENCER

After quite a bit of back-and-forth, since my Japan-based credit card and Killspencer’s card processing software were working together as well as oil and water, I finally got my Special Ops backpack the other day. Killspencer’s founder Spencer Nikosey was fantastic while working through the card issues, and he soon reported that the bag had been made and was being shipped, after about two weeks’ lead time.

Killspencer Special Ops Backpack 2011I wanted to buy a backpack not a brief, because I cycle to the station and back, and so welcome the stability, however I did not want to look like I was going to mount an assault on Everest (Dude, don’t forget your crampons, and you got the pick-axe?), and, I wanted to get one that was sufficiently business-like that I would not be embarrassed to take it to a meeting. I wanted the pack to be a little lighter than what I was using, a Crumpler Sinking Barge backpack for a laptop and a medium size DSLR, but I wanted it to be more compact, because the ol’ Barge is Bulbous. Really, really bulbous. I find myself making sheepish excuses for the Crumpler’s girth - say, can I move this meeting table so I can fit my bag in the room? Uh, no.

Since I just need my 15” Macbook Pro, accessories, phone, wallet, and since I mostly carry the somewhat-compact Ricoh GXR camera, I thought there must be a smaller, slimmer, more compact backpack available somewhere. So, tenacious researcher that I am (er, anal retentive?), for a couple of months I researched. I looked at a lot of bags in person and on line, including all the usual suspects like Brenthaven, Tumi, Schlesinger, Samsonite, Tom Bihn, Spire, various hand-made bags and some Japanese brands like Manhattan Passage and Porter.

I own or have owned the following:

  • Crumpler - I have the Sinking Barge DSLR-and-laptop backpack, but it really sticks out, off your back, and is fairly heavy to accommodate the DSLR padding. I like it though, basically.

  • Tumi - expensive, given that the strap grommets ripped out after less than a year of use, and a pain to get any warranty assistance.

  • Brenthaven - amazing warranty support, high quality, but the backpack for holding the MBP (granted, 17”) is pretty massive, so that was a no. It weighs even more than my Crumpler. I use and like a lighter-weight Brenthaven brief, but a brief is pretty unstable on a bike.

  • Schlesinger - kind of a non-starter in Japan, especially if you have to send things back and forth to the US, what with the duty for leather being something like 50%. I had one of their leather briefs before, and liked it, but it did not give very good protection to a laptop.

  • Samsonite - went to the shop near Tokyo station, and did not really like the backpacks they had there. Love my Samsonite suitcases, though.

  • Manhattan Passage - they make a large number of bags with an insane number of pockets and variations, but the so-called “three way” models, which are briefs with hide-a-way straps, did not impress for whatever reason. I own and like one of their small shoulder bags, which is just right for a novel, a phone, a wallet, pens and so on.

  • Porter - this is a Japanese brand; they make some nice bags, but, they are expensive for what you get. I wavered between one of their backpacks and the Killspencer, but I am glad I chose the way I did. The Killspencer pack is really well made, and it makes the Porter I was looking at seem positively flimsy.

After a lot of looking, I kept going back to the KILLSPENCER line. I really like the concept of military fabric being repurposed to create bags, and there really are not that many bags that properly hold a MBP 15” but are also compact, I found.

Well: good things are worth the wait, and this item was well worth it.

Special Ops Right out of the Box

First impressions over two days of use were these:

  • It is Made in the USA. That is important to me, so long as the quality is top-class. I live here in Japan, and indeed do buy Japanese, but more and more the world seems to be about cheap goods, so you see a lot of stuff made everywhere but Japan and the US. I am happy to pay more for quality.

  • The attention to detail, right down to the embossed Civil War style logo on the wrapping paper, is exemplary. No loose threads. No weird seams. Just solid consistency and quality.

  • The black twill fabric is waxed, which lends a nice tactile and slightly-sticky feel to the bag and its optional Accessory Case. It even smells good.

  • The bag feels really solid, especially when it is loaded. It somehow stands on its own, as well, which is something I wanted but gave up on, so, a bonus. There is a handle at the top, with a removable leather handle encircling it. The handle cover has pull-the-dot snaps, and can be removed and therefore probably replaced. It feels good in the hand while carrying, even when the bag is loaded down. Generally speaking, the backpack is lighter than something similar in leather would be.

  • The Riri “Aquazip” zippers seem waterproof, and I imagine when combined with the waxy finish, will be a winning combination against Japan’s rainy season.

  • The shoulder straps look a bit slim compared to the usual massive ones you see on other packs, but they are well balanced with the bag, are actually comfortable in use, and their metal buckles are well-designed, with a simple-yet-ingenious locking rocker mechanism. This bag has none of the ubiquitous nylon buckles you see so commonly.

  • The approach to space seems to be: “you decide what to do with it”. It does not have a plethora of pockets. Rather, the main compartment is just a large compartment with a couple side pockets for a pen and maybe a business or credit card holder. There is an outside pocket for a wallet and so on. The laptop pocket is next to your back, and fits the 15” MBP snugly and perfectly. You can get an external “Accessory Case” pouch, suitable for an iPod or phone, or probably a pack of cigarettes if that’s your vice.

  • Branding is subtle, with a good-looking black KILLSPENCER leather logo label at the bottom of the back pad, and a white-on-black fabric label on the inner side of the accessory pouch.

  • There are three horizontally-oriented “Alice Clip Attachment Point” webbing straps for attaching accessories to, along each side. Today, I found out I can stuff an umbrella down the side inside these webbing straps. It was a very simple matter to attach the accessory pouch as well; just open the sliding “Alice” connector clips, position them so they clip over the webbing strap, and then slide the locking pin into place. Nice and simple.

  • The bag comes with a wall-mount “hub” system. You screw this into your wall, and then you can hang the ‘pack by its grommet, which is mounted in stiff leather right between the tops of the straps.

A Couple Small Things

There were a couple small challenges I am working through:

  • The main compartment is fairly large vertically, so you need some way of organizing the space. A folio or some kind of binder might make sense if you have a lot of business papers like I do, because there are no accordion pockets like in a briefcase. I am using a Moleskine folio and a ThinkTank Photo cable management bag to keep things from flopping around inside. Something custom from KILLSPENCER would be very nice, but the Utility Pouch is just a tad too small for papers. Something like the unfortunately-too-large-for-the-special-ops Freudian Slip from Tom Bihn, would be perfect.

  • I wonder how to take care of the black twill fabric. Can I wash it? Do I need to NikWax it?

  • It would be nice if there were a key ring inside the ‘pack, to clip the fancy keychain accessory to. Not much I can do about that but maybe in a future version…

I do get the irony of a decidedly non-military desk-jockey like me being attracted to this bag, steeped as it is in military terminology and history. But in the end, what I like about the KILLSPENCER approach is, the respect he has for both the modern “road warriors” who might buy this bag, and the real warriors in our military.

Well, that is about it. I am really impressed with the bag, and like it a lot! Please see the photoset here.

Hope this review helps someone.

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—by Rick Cogley