This post will introduce you to the world of machined bolt-action pens, first explaining why I care about them, then describing my desires and biases, and finally giving overviews of a heck of a lot of pens.
If you like, you can skip to the pens.
For a long time, I’ve had an interest in pens as tools. I suppose the interest started when picking pens at back-to-school time, and I found Uni-ball pens, which were noticeably better to write with. (You can’t use fruit-scented stacking-point pencils for everything in school…)
Uni-ball really nailed the rollerball. They had consistent quality and smooth writing. I used these pens a lot over the years, starting with the classics like the Micro and the Vision, later the Vision Elite extra bold 1.0mm, and then for over 15 years, the UM-151 gel, which is still a great choice.
I currently prefer the Pentel EnerGel after trying a lot of pens and finding it to be the smoothest writing and most consistent; I don’t want to scribble to start ink flowing. I find it more consistent than a Pilot G2, and slightly smoother than the Uni UM-151. It comes in plenty of colors and is very affordable.
Honorable mentions include the Pilot Precise V5, which feels like a slightly smoother Uni-ball Vision, and the Zebra Sarasa Dry for lefties.
To the side is an image of some of the pens I’ve tried – generally, the best of the bunch, with the rest donated or tossed.
One other pen was particularly special to me, and relevant to the rest of this post. In high school, I saved up for a rOtring for taking notes, and I loved it. I think it was a rOtring 600 ballpoint, but I no longer have it, and I can’t remember exactly. It felt like someone really cared when making it, which made it stand out from disposable plastic pens. I have a hard time resisting well-made (but obtainable) versions of daily-use items.
Fountain pens are tempting because of their potential for a pleasant and soft writing experience, but there are too many downsides for me. I don’t want ink on anything but paper, I want to carry the pen easily without worry, I want to write with the pen at any rotation, I want to fidget with it… and, honestly, I don’t want the temptations of endless ink and nib choices.
I prefer retractable to capped pens because they’re easier to use quickly, and you can fiddle with the clicker, at least if no one else is nearby to hear it. Bolt-action pens seem to have even better fidgeting potential than retractables because the required movement is slightly more complex, but it can still be completed almost instantly.
But there’s another reason…
(Disclaimer: not an expert.)
Lately I’ve become interested in machining, thanks to YouTube algorithms. I’ve long been interested in electronics repair, which led to electronics repair videos, and then to the general repair videos that seem so popular on YouTube right now. (If you want to check it out, I currently subscribe to Forgotten Shine Restoration, LADB Restoration, Lost & Restored, my mechanics and my mechanics insights, Odd Tinkering, Old Things Never Die, Rescue & Restore, and Stuff Made Here.) Different video creators have different repair setups, and some have full machine shops where they can create replacement parts with a lathe or mill.
One channel in particular that I’ve enjoyed is Inheritance Machining. The creator, Brandon, inherited his grandfather’s machine shop and is documenting the process of restoring it and using it for cool projects. I’ve enjoyed his videos more than others because he gets into the details of the tools and process without leaving behind the total newbies like me who don’t have experience with the tools and terminology. I recommend checking it out if you have any interest in tools or precision processes in general. (I actually discovered his videos before seeing that he has one where he makes a bolt-action pen.)
Then the interests came together. The bolt mechanisms in bolt-action pens are amenable to machining, and the rest of a pen is as well – the cylinders of a barrel, tip, and cap are all perfect for a lathe. If you’re adding the complication of a bolt, it’s going to cost a lot more than a Bic, so why not nicely machine the whole thing? (There are bolt-action pens with wooden barrels, like Elder Pens and Carolina Turning, but they’re not for me.) Many machinists have dabbled in creating pens, and there are communities around them where makers are fairly involved. The bigger names are stocked at JetPens with various metals and mechanisms.
The EDC (every-day carry) community loves machined goods for their durability, so of course this goes beyond pens. For example, I have a machined safety razor that’s very nice to use. (gasp it’s been over 17 years since that post…) It’s quite a rabbit hole.
(Again: not an expert, and there are many ways to judge materials.)
The most commonly used metals for machined pens are titanium, stainless steel, brass, and copper.
Titanium is usually the most expensive, but it’s strong and durable in all the ways that count for products like this, and it’s relatively lightweight. Stainless steel is cheaper, and also strong, but weighs almost twice as much as titanium. Brass and copper are easier to machine, and so may be cheaper, but they’re not quite as strong or scratch-resistant. Brass and copper are good if you want the pen to develop an "antique" patina over time.
Special mentions: a few are made of aluminum but I’d only recommend it if you need the cheapest and lightest pen. A few are made of zirconium, which usually cost $250 or more; it’s similar to titanium in the relevant properties, but heavier – nearly as heavy as stainless steel.
Any of these metals can be stonewashed, brushed, or polished for different appearances, and steel and titanium pens are often available with coatings that can change appearance and improve durability. PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) coatings can improve wear and corrosion resistance, and can be colored or transparent. DLC (Diamond-like Carbon… you wouldn’t download a coating) coatings are a particular type of PVD coating that greatly improve wear resistance, and (I believe) are always dark grey or black. A final option with a few makers is cerakote, a coating made of a ceramic compound, which is also great for wear and corrosion resistance, and comes in a number of colors.
Finally, for a premium, some makers offer Damascus steel, or other laminated alloys that look like Damascus, like zircuti and Timascus. This is just cosmetic, but if you like the appearance, it can be a great personalization.
With colored coatings and Damascus-like materials, often just a subset of a pen’s parts will be changed, like the clip or bolt, for contrast. And to keep the cost down – full Damascus pens can be well over $500!
Personally, I focused on titanium, because I want a pen that’s heavier than the typical plastic body but not so heavy that it tires out my hand. I don’t care for the look of aged brass or copper for this type of tool. I tend to prefer black pens, so a DLC coating would be great, but brushed or stonewashed finishes are great, too.
Desires, Biases, and Limitations
I want to write more (this isn’t just an obsession with tools…) so my research focused on products that will fit my favorite refills, will be fun and comfortable for me to use, and will look nice. Obviously, that’s all subjective. There are definitely paths I stopped researching because I knew they wouldn’t meet my needs. For example, the wood-barreled pen I mentioned earlier, and overly gimmicky or tactical pens – I don’t care for their look, and don’t want or need their specific benefits.
I also won’t go over every variant available, limited editions, or one-off creations, nor will I necessarily mention all material options or sizes. Some pens come in different sizes for the major types of refills – common sizes are "large" for euro-style refills, like the Pilot G2, "medium" for Parker-style refills, like the Uni Jetstream, and "small" for D1 refills, common for wallet-size pens. Not all refills fit exactly into one of those categories, so you have to be careful – either the maker should confirm your favorite will fit, or reviews should confirm it.
For example, my favorite EnerGel refill is about the same as a G2, but slightly longer and slimmer, so it might need trimming and might rattle at the tip in some pens. You can trim down some long refills to fit shorter pens, or add shims for short refills to fit longer pens, and sometimes you can wrap tape around slim refills to fit wider openings… if you want to deal with all that. One pen that’s particularly impressive in this area is the BIGiDESIGN, which seamlessly adjusts to fit medium and large refills – no wiggle.
Finally, keep in mind that these makers add new pen models and variants all the time. Seriously, you can expect a new one from someone every week or two. If you want something like these, but can’t find it, just wait a bit – or ask them!
I’m right-handed. The bolts on most pens are to the right of the clip. If you’re left-handed, that might mean your thumb rubs on the clip when you activate the bolt. Some makers offer left-handed versions, with the bolt on the left side of the clip. Some (like BIGiDESIGN) even offer clips you can move to the opposite side with only a screwdriver. (That seems smart to me, because they design it once, and only have to manufacture one model.)
Another minor factor that relates to your handedness is the direction of bolt activation. Assume you have a pen with the bolt to the right of the clip. Some bolts you push down and left to activate, a "J" shape.
Some you push down and right, an "L" shape.
If you’re right-handed, you probably have more mobility moving your thumb to the left than the right when in that position. Activating a bolt requires more movement than deactivating (retracting) it, so you want the direction of activation to be easiest – a "J" shape. And yet it seems that most bolt-action pens, including the most popular, do the reverse – an "L" shape. (Reverse all these directions if you’re left-handed.) I have to assume there’s a reason for this convention, but I don’t know it!
I’ll try to give links directly to the pen makers, and separately to the pens on Amazon (if available) which will be affiliate links.
Here are overviews of most of the pens I found, subject to the limitations above. They’re not reviews – I don’t own these pens, I just did a bunch of research and wanted to share my impressions.
They’re ordered by price. When there are multiple models, I chose the price of a prominent model, or one that particularly appealed to me.
- Smootherpro ($16 – Amazon) – This seems like a good option if you’re not sure you’d like this type of pen and don’t want to invest much – it’s the cheapest by a fair margin. The body has a swirling pattern that should provide some grip. They have a lot of other models, most of which are… kitschy? but this one looks almost normal and fits "Pentel" size refills, meaning EnerGel. Reviews seem to indicate that the can feel a bit gritty and the spring is too tight, but some modification could help. It’s one of a very few made from aluminum, which means it’s lighter and weaker than the other options. Scanning reviews of their other models makes me believe the quality is not consistent.
- KeySmart Tactiv ($57 – Home, Amazon) – The pictures and reviews make me believe this isn’t very well machined. An Amazon reviewer included pictures of the modifications they needed to make to smooth out the bolt action, namely cutting a chamfer into the edges of the slot. They claim it’s made of six different metals or alloys; why? That said, I love that the bolt handle is the pen clip – it seems like a convenience and a bonus to fidgetability to have just one part, with nothing else in the way, if it moved smoothly. (Spoiler: a pen in the top five does this better.) I believe it only (natively) takes Fisher Space Pen or Rite-in-the-Rain refills, which I’d only recommend if you have to ‘rite in the rain.
- Refyne EP1 / EP1L ($59 – Home, Amazon) – This one seems like a good value, and has a good reputation. I like that the bolt is in a right-handed orientation, and the slot is shaped like a checkmark, so you can move your thumb in one direction, rather than needing a curving motion. The checkmark shape seems to be growing in popularity, and I understand why. There are two models, the EP1, which is Parker-sized, and the EP1L, which is Pilot G2, and doesn’t take EnerGel without trimming, so it’s not ideal for me. My other concern is the clip, which seems awfully wide to me, and seems to be a complaint of some reviewers – it’s removable, but the top cap holding it place is barely threaded, so it can pop off.
- Karas Bolt V2 ($70 – Home) – This one’s been around a while, but for me it’s a nonstarter because the bolt isn’t the actuating mechanism. You press a top clicker like any retractable pen, just with a slight twisting motion – the bolt is basically there for decoration. I’ve watched people try to activate it and have the clicker just go straight back up. It looks like it used to be available in titanium, but now is mainly aluminum, with $20 brass upgrade, or $40 copper; I don’t love the look of any of them, to be honest. There’s also no apparent grip on the body. I feel like this one has been surpassed.
- Ridge ($70 – Home, Amazon) – Reviews are generally positive, but people had concerns about build quality. Some had the color of their pen fade within a month. It has several strikes against it, for me: There’s a titanium model, but I find its "burnt rainbow" coloring quite unattractive. The rest are aluminum, gold (yuck), or carbon fiber, which aren’t interesting to me. It only takes Parker-style refills. I think the branding they put on the side is huge and obnoxious. It looks like the grip, bolt, and clip are nice, so I hope they try again.
- Bastion ($71 – Home, Amazon) – This is a weird one. First, the bolt is on the wrong side unless you’re selling it as left-handed, which they’re not. Reviewers complain about their thumb sliding on the clip. Second, they want you to buy their refills. They’re approximately Parker size, but only approximately, and not all Parker-size refills fit. That feels scammy to me, like cheap razors and expensive blades, but with an expensive razor, too. I’m not looking for Parker-size refills, in any case.
- Honeybadger Arsenal V3 ($75 – Home) – This is tempting because it’s so customizable. You pick the body metal, body finish, bolt metal, bolt handle metal, bolt handle shape, grip pattern, and whether you want a clip. Wow! I like the wave grip, which I haven’t seen elsewhere. I turned away from this because the V3 titanium isn’t quite available yet, and I wasn’t sure whether an EnerGel refill would need modifications.
- Tactile Turn ($99 – Home) – This is another classic with a good reputation. It looks simple and well-made, and there are three sizes depending on the type of refill you want, but an EnerGel refill requires trimming. Their name, "Tactile Turn", gives a hint as to their unique feature – a tactile grip that’s been machined into the surface. It’s consistent across the whole body, and small enough that you can’t see it in a small picture or from a distance. Many like it, but for me, this is a disqualifier. I hate the "zip" feeling of surfaces with tiny ridges running across my skin, so I just wouldn’t be comfortable using it or fidgeting with it. That’s just me, though; by all measures, this is a nice pen. I do wish the Damascus bolt came with it, though, instead of being an extra $20.
- Fellhoelter TiBolt ($150 – Home) – These have a reputation of having great build quality, and they do look sturdy. The standard model has nice grip rings, but I kind of like the dot pattern ($210) that I used for the image here. I moved away from this because of the price, because I don’t like the branding on the pen, and because there’s so little information about the differences between the many models he’s sold on his site. If you want special engraving on a beast of a pen, consider this one.
- BilletSpin CamPen ($150 – Home) – This is a cool design, and some would argue it’s not a bolt-action pen. Instead of a bolt handle that you move vertically that directly translates to moving the pen refill downward, this has a handle that you move horizontally that rotates a cam that moves the refill downward. From videos, it seems satisfying to play with. However, the cam can’t cause the same amount of motion as a bolt, so with some refills, the refill might not extend as far as you’d like out of the tip. That would bug me because I don’t want to have to write too vertically. That said, there are left-handed models, and models without grip rings; they all take Parker-sized refills. You can buy their $40 adapter for G2 refills, and perhaps fit an EnerGel refill with some trimming. There was a Reddit-specific model built for EnerGel refills, but it cost $215, and I personally dislike the design. (The creator is active on Reddit, taking feedback!)
- Brad Gruss ($200 – Home) – These seem to be made well, but I’ve been checking his shop for a few weeks and haven’t seen any available. He seems active on Reddit, so it’s possible that his priority is custom orders. The pens he’s sold recently are short and chunky, meant for easy pocket carry, and they take the shorter Parker refills. The bodies have milled-flat faces that should make it easy to grip. Reviews seem good, if you want something custom and have the budget.
- Modern Fuel ($200 – Home) – If you don’t want a clip or a grip, this pen is beautiful, and looks like it could be one of the best machined. It’s perfectly smooth down the barrel – just the bolt. There’s a clicker at the top, like a retractable pen, though I doubt you could use it to extend the pen tip without twisting it awkwardly. It does look nice, though. And their Poseidon special edition, though $300, is the best-looking pen of this whole roundup. Finally, it’s adjustable to different (non-mini) refill sizes, from Space Pen up to G2. Sadly, I can’t justify the price, and I need a clip and a good grip. Check it out if you don’t, and you want to splurge.
Top Five (for me)
Here are the best of the best, for me.
5. Ti2 BoltLiner ($89 – Home) This pen has a good reputation, and it comes in three lengths for different refill types. I particularly like the grip section – it’s a bit of a crazy design, but it’s in just the right place, surely provides traction, and the rest of the pen is sleek in contrast. I decided against it because the diameter is only 9.5mm, which is pretty slim. My standard EnerGel RT is 11mm, and ideally I’d like something a little thicker than that.
4. Smooth Precision V2.2 / TiScribe ($120 – Home) – This used to be known as the Urban Survival Gear TiScribe, and was quite popular by that name. They said they rebranded because of a bad reputation, even if the pen was popular, which threw me for a bit of a loop during research. I love that the clip is the bolt, and reviews say it’s very pleasant to use. It has Euro-style and Parker size options, and a professional style. The grip rings look pretty shallow, so I’m not sure how it would hold. This was tempting, but it’s more expensive than the competition (and another $110 for a Damascus-style clip!) and requires trimming EnerGel refills.
3. V-Bolt ($97 – Home) – What a gorgeous pen. This is the best-looking non-limited-edition, in my eyes. I love what they did with the shaped grooves on the body, and the Damascus clip and bolt are striking (for an extra $70… sigh). The body is slightly slim for my tastes, at 10.9mm, and it only takes Parker-style refills, so not my favorites. There’s a bigger problem, though: they do "drop" style availability, where you have to sign up for their list, wait for messaging, and then rush to their site at the exact right moment and hope to have the privilege of giving them money. I find it insulting, and I think this is a solved problem anyway – make a waiting list, ship in order.
2. BIGiDESIGN ($100 – Home, Amazon) – This was at the top of my list for most of my research period. Its major benefit is adjustability, which they’ve accomplished in ways no other maker has. First, the grip section of the body is actually a separate piece, so it can slide up and down the main body when you twist to adjust it. (There are two O-rings inside to keep it in place.) This means the length of the cavity inside can change, so it can fit a lot of different lengths of refills. They’ve tested with over 120 refills! This type of adjustment is like the Modern Fuel, but with a simpler mechanism. The impressive addition, though, is an automatically adjusting collet (collar/sleeve) at the tip of the pen that holds the tip of the refill in place. No wiggle! No other pen I’ve seen has this. Furthermore, you can change whether the clip is on the left or right side of the bolt with a simple screw, making this suitable for left-handed writers as well.
I also like that the grip section is a little bigger, for comfort, without the whole pen having to be bigger and heavier. And it comes with a free titanium Damascus bolt if you want a little flair. My only hesitation was the price; I think it’s a fair price for that level of engineering, but it was still hard for me to justify personally. As you may be able to tell, though, I love testing different refills, so if I ever want another bolt-action pen, this could be it.
1. The Right Choice Painting Company ($35 – Home) – This seems like the best bang for the buck. $35 for titanium? Only the clip is stainless steel. You can add $5 for a black cerakote clip, though they were out of stock when I ordered. Reviews made me believe the build quality is very good, in line with $100 pens. It even holds an EnerGel refill without trimming. I think I initially discounted them because of the company name, and later discounted them because of their website, but I came to believe they’re just underrated, and I ordered one!
Update: It does not, in fact, fit EnerGel without trimming. See my full review!
I don’t think it’s terribly useful to rank or rate every pen because the qualifications are so subjective, so as above, these are sorted by price. I’ll include notes and stars (★) in appropriate columns to represent pens that do something particularly well.
"Adjustability" means how well it adapts to different refills – either a single pen taking many sizes, or the maker selling multiple sizes. A name of "BAP" means it’s just called a bolt-action pen without a specific model name or number.
|The Right Choice Painting Company||BAP||$35||Two sizes||Home|
|KeySmart||Tactiv||$57||Clip is bolt||Home, Amazon|
|Refyne||EP1, EP1L||$59||Two sizes||Home, Amazon|
|Karas||Bolt V2||$70||Two sizes||"Fake" bolt||Home|
|Ti2 Design||BoltLiner||$89||Three sizes||Home|
|Tactile Turn||BAP||$99||Three sizes||Home|
|Smooth Precision Pens||V2.2||$120||Two sizes||Clip is bolt||Home|
|BilletSpin||CamPen||$150||$40 G2 adapter||Cam, not bolt||Home|
|Brad Gruss Designs||BAP||$200||Custom only?||Home|
|Modern Fuel||BAP||$200||★||No clip||Home|