If you’ve heard of the company Skilcraft, it’s probably for two reasons. First, it’s the manufacturer of the U.S. Government Pen, a low-cost, professional-looking ballpoint that also happens to be very reliable. And second, it’s held in high regard by the National Industries for the Blind for employing scores of blind workers in their manufacturing facilities. Skilcraft is a good company, and so I was interested in trying another of the their well-known pens, the stealthy-looking B3 Aviator multi-pen.
As the pen’s name makes obvious, the B3 Aviator is marketed towards pilots. It meets the FAA’s “FOD” requirements, and it has a matte black finish to prevent glare. The multi-pen has three components: a 1.0mm black ballpoint, a 1.0mm red ballpoint, and a 0.5mm mechanical pencil. The midpoint of the barrel twists in either direction to eject and retract the three tips in turn, and the end-cap also screws off to reveal an eraser.
Oddly, the design and function of the B3 Aviator is pretty much identical to the Zebra Surari Sharbo 1000. So, it probably goes without saying that the problems I had with the Sharbo are the same problems I have with the Aviator. In particular, there’s no indication on the barrel for which tip is selected (you have to closely examine the tip to know if you’re about to write with black ink/red ink/pencil), and the cap that covers the eraser is a small piece that’s begging to be lost. For some reason, I also had some trouble getting the Aviator’s pencil lead to eject without breaking.
But, unlike the Sharbo, the Aviator feels a lot more substantial and durable – for about $18, you don’t feel like you’re getting ripped off. But that’s all that this pen really has going for it. The refills are fine, and it generally works okay. However, I still wouldn’t recommend this multi-pen – the design just isn’t very good.
The Skilcraft U.S. Government pen, like the Fisher Space Pen or the Parker 51, is a classic pen with a storied history. Created decades ago by the National Industries for the Blind, this pen was made to comply with a 16-page government document that mandates the specifications for ballpoint pens to be used by federal employees. For example, in order to comply with these specs, these pens must perform between -40°F up to 160°F. The ink cartridges have to write for at least 5,000 feet, and they can averaging no more than 15 ink blobs per 1,000 feet of writing. The average ballpoint wouldn’t be up to the task.
At it’s core, however, the Skilcraft U.S. Government pen is a basic, retractable ballpoint pen, albeit one that has a professional, yet frugal quality to it. In my experience, it writes reliably with little smearing. It’s a light pen, though it still feels fairly durable, and the retracting mechanism provides a satisfyingly chunky ‘click.’ The clip is on the tight side, and it’s neither the smoothest nor is it the fanciest ballpoints around.
But, overall, I like it. Maybe the main reason I like it so much is that it’s so easy to imagine a cupful of these ballpoints atop an FBI agent’s desk. So, if I had to order pens in bulk for the government (or even for an office or a restaurant), I’d probably go with these by Skilcraft. It’s a retractable ballpoint that works well and looks nice.
If you’re interested in more history about the Skilcraft U.S. Goverment pen, The Washington Post has this good article. Apparently, Skilcraft used to produce 21 million of these pens per year (about 30 years ago).
Here’s a review from No Pen Intended. It points out that this pen, mainly due to its smaller-than-average size, wouldn’t be great for marathon note-taking sessions. If find this to be true of most ballpoints, as they are not as smooth as gel or rollerball pens.
There’s a lot more info about Skilcraft and this pen on the Tiger Pens blog. Apparently the length of this pen equals 150 nautical miles on a Navy map. I’m sure that comes in useful from time to time.