I love fountain pens. Like, I really, really love them. But sometimes, I want to throw something in my pocket or bag that doesn't require decent paper or ink. A pen with which I can jot a quick note or pass off to a friend to write down a phone number or sign a document. In those instances, I grab a rollerball pen. Preferably one with a gel insert.
Let's get this out of the way right up front... I don't do ballpoint refills.
So, when reaching for a ballpoint pen that's sort of no-frills, the Retro 51 Tornado kinda comes to mind. I just stumbled on these recently but have been using one almost everyday for the last couple of weeks, I guess.
Retro 51 makes a ton of different pens, but I think they're most well-known for their Tornado line. Small, tapered metal (brass?) pens with some handsome knurling on the twist mechanism and a few chrome accents. And really, really fun colors. These things come in really brilliant, glossy colors and on top of it, they've got tons of special editions in everything from copper and grooved metal to bamboo and vintage surfboard wood (not really vintage surfboard wood, but it looks like a vintage surfboard and that's pretty cool in my book). They have pens named after presidents and generals and scientists and the list goes on.
When I first took my 'Nado out of the box (a rather handsome cardboard tube with a foam insert printed with vintage graphics that take me back to the days of my grandmother's prime), I was surprised at how small it was. And how cool the "Ice Blue" finish was. Super cool. The finish is impeccable. Smooth, bright and glossy. The pen operates on a twist mechanism versus a traditional nock (clicky mechanism) and the twist is smooth and firm with perfect resistance and just a tiny 'bump' right at the end of the deployment. Nice! To top it off, the knob has some rather handsome knurling, a Retro 51 Tornado engraving around the circumference and a colored disk inset at the end of the pen to tie it all in with the body. Lots of attention to detail here and it really makes for a nice presentation.
Mine came fitted with a Retro 51 re-branded Schmidt 8127 Rollerball Refill. Not my favorite refill, but it wrote smoothly, albeit with some skipping here and there, and put down a dark black line. It's a 0.7mm refill, which is much too broad for me so I ordered some Schmidt 8126 refills which are 0.6mm and have yet to arrive at the time of this review. It doesn't sound like a huge difference, but from what I can tell, it's different enough as to be worth the upgrade (downgrade?). In the meantime, though, I snagged some Avant 0.5mm Blue Gel Refills* from my local Staples. They were 50 cents for a pack of two (yes, 50 cents) and they're actually quite nice. The blue is nice and dark and the 0.5mm line is consistent with no skipping or dragging.
*Note: The Avant refills don't fit the Retro 51 without a little hacking. I measured them against the Schmidt refill included with the pen and cut them down. The spring provided with the Tornado was too narrow so I salvaged some springs from other pen bodies I had laying around (I hardly ever use disposable pens, but will buy them to get the refills from them and salvage things like the springs and end caps and what not). The springs from the Uniball Jetstream RT worked nicely as they were a little wider than the R51 spring, but narrow enough as to work inside the nose cone of the pen.
With the Avant refill in-place, I'm a happy camper. Almost... All of this good has to come with some bad, right? I mean, no pen is perfect. My biggest issue with the Tornado, and one that sometimes keeps me from reaching for this pen over others in my collection, is the lack of any real grip. Yes, the shiny, polished, lacquered body is beautiful to look at, but not all that beautiful to hold. Some would argue that the lack of a defined grip section makes the pen work for people of all grip styles, but I find myself constantly adjusting and fiddling with my grip to try and get it just right. And because of the small size of the pen, I find myself gripping it close to the tip, where the pen gets rather narrow, in an effort to balance it properly. Add to the fact that the pen is rather slick, and it's not terribly comfortable for long writing sessions.
Is it a deal breaker? Not for my uses and definitely not at the ~$20 price point. For quick notes, jotting down a grocery list, signing checks, taking a quick phone note or for other menial daily tasks, the Retro 51 Tornado is a perfect pocket or desk companion. I'd reach for others in the event that I'd like to write a long letter to a pen pal, but the Retro 51 has a niche in my collection and I'll keep them handy for just those occasions (and I'm enamored with the colors so I'll be adding more most likely).
Thanks for reading,