The Ultimate Holiday Gift Guide For Military And Aviation Aficionados
Anything on this list is sure to result in Top Gun high-fives on Christmas morning!
The 2021 holiday season is upon us, and it potentially offers something closer to “normal” than 2020’s. But with global supply chains tangled up, there’s no telling what gift-buying is going to look like once the Black Friday feeding frenzy begins. And there’s no word yet from Washington on the FAA special permissions for the jolly fat man in the red suit to fly his annual route — and if he doesn’t get his cholesterol down, he might also need a special issuance for his medical certificate. In other words, choosing — and getting ahold of — the right gift could be more of a challenge even than in 2020.
We don’t want you to have to resort to carefully wrapped rolls of toilet paper again (though I admit to being grateful for them last year), which is why we’ve brought back the TWZ holiday gift guide!
This year, we are doing it a little differently. We’ve brought in experts, polled our own staff, and even solicited suggestions from you, the readers. Thanks for all the input! 200-plus messages and counting!
Our suggestions below range from simple and inexpensive to the more complex and spendy, so you should be able to satisfy the needs of any military, aviation, or history aficionado in your life, and then some. In fact, there are products in here we just really love — no prerequisite to have nerded-out to F-16 loadouts in your spare time to enjoy them.
Whatever your needs, our aim is to help you find something that will please at least some of the people on your list — and maybe help someone special find something special for you, whatever your price range. We’ve included handy links wherever possible. It behooves me to note that some of the links could generate a small commission for the company, but the only people who will receive anything personally for recommending the items listed below are the readers whose suggestions we have included. They will get a gift code good for TWZ gear from our merch store. The rest are all products we have direct hands-on experience with.
So, this gift guide is truly from the heart!
Now, let's begin.
The TWZ Merch Store
Speaking of holiday loot, TWZ hats, shirts, and hoodies are now available! Better yet, starting today, you get 20% off all items through Monday, Nov. 29. No code is needed — the discount will be applied to your cart!
When airshow season rolls around again, make sure to pose in front of a cool aircraft for a selfie with your TWZ gear on, then post it in our comments section. If selfies are not your style, you can always take a victory sip from a TWZ coffee mug after posting the perfect gif in response to someone else’s comment, or slap a sticker on your laptop case, so people know who they are dealing with when you start typing. Both these items are ideally priced for stocking stuffers and office gift exchanges.
Now over to Tyler for his picks.
A tale of two (okay, four) knives
I am way too much of a city slicker to carry around a full-sized pocket knife daily, yet at the same time, I find that it is nice to have the option to carry some sort of blade. Like anything else, I find myself gravitating toward the lightest possible options available, while realizing that one knife (or five!) simply won’t do it all.
So no, I wouldn’t call myself a knife expert, but I find the industry fascinating. It’s fun seeing what’s new and how different manufacturers are innovating in a space that dates back to pretty much the beginning of civilization.
This year, these are the two knives I would absolutely give my top recommendation to, but for very different reasons. In fact, they represent two totally different ways to go about doing something very similar — give their owner about a three-inch blade for whatever may arise.
SOG Ultra XR
When it comes to everyday carry, minimal weight is everything to me. I really mean it. I am willing to pay more for any significant reduction in weight and bulk. And since I don’t like carrying a normal-sized folder, because it is just more in my pockets and too much knife for my needs, I have found a solution that gives me everything I want while absolutely vanishing in my pocket. This is not a lightweight knife — I consider it the lightweight knife, with only a couple of competitors that come close.
The SOG Ultra XR is about as high-speed, low-drag as it can possibly get. This innovative knife weighs in at just over one ounce, yet it sports nearly a three-inch S35VN steel blade. It has no metal liners. Instead, its extremely tough carbon fiber grips work double duty. It also features the XR locking system found on many of SOG’s larger knives, so no skimping where it really matters. Basically, this thing — an amalgam of steel, carbon fiber, and titanium — has absolutely no weight where it doesn’t have to.
Another thing I like is that it doesn’t have studs, and it closes tightly, so it won’t accidentally open if you go ruffling around in your pockets. This is a huge plus for the very-not-a-ninja me, but some really like the ease of one-handed opening that studs provide. If I really need to open it with one hand I can with relative ease, so it’s not like that’s totally out of the question.
What you end up with is a huge amount of utility that actually feels more substantial in the hand than it really is, all without any weight or bulk penalty. In fact, you will forget you are even carrying. And, let’s be honest, you are not going to take on a couple of dozen mercenaries in Nakatomi Plaza with your pocket knife. For almost all metropolitan applications, this thing is plenty strong enough.
The downside is this featherweight package does not come cheap, at around $125 delivered, and it is not made in the USA, which is unfortunate. Still, it really is the best package of its kind I have found. For those who want the lightest and thinnest possible option with a decent-sized blade, this is it.
That being said, I would also look at the Benchmade Mini Bugout, which is slightly heavier and bulkier. My Benchmade Nakamura Axis 484-1 is an incredible knife, but it is in a different class than we are talking about here in terms of weight, although it is still pretty light. Made in Oregon City, Oregon, all of Benchmade’s stuff is really high quality and generally fantastic. The Mini Bugout costs about the same as the Ultra XR at about $120. Like everything in life, you get what you pay for.
Another runner-up would be the Spyderco Dragonfly 2, which weighs about the same as the SOG Ultra XR, but has a smaller blade and uses a back lock, which I am not really a fan of for this kind of knife. Still, the price — just around half the cost of the alternatives mentioned above — is really attractive.
Bottom line: You can’t go wrong with any of these for an ultra-light EDC folder. But for the absolute lightest and thinnest, while packing a nearly three-inch-long blade, the SOG Ultra XR wins the day. It’s available in gray or gold coating.
Buck’s Custom Shop 112 Ranger
Moving on from the leading-edge technology for EDC cutlery, I want to talk about an absolute classic and one hell of a gift for a loved one or for yourself. It’s something you will only have to buy once because it will long outlive its owner — a Buck 112 Ranger from the company’s Custom Shop.
I just thought it would be fun to have a nice Buck knife, so I learned a bit about what they had to offer, beyond what I already knew about their iconic brand. I quickly realized that they offer fully customizable options on some of their banner products — namely, the Buck 110 and its smaller cousin, the Buck 112. Options include blade point and material type, polish, handle material, grip material, finger grooves or no finger grooves, and so on. Then there are the engraving options, which are a must for an heirloom product like this. Another perk of going this route is that the knife is hand-fitted by one of the company’s master knifemakers.
What was most stunning about the entire process was just how easy it was to configure my dream Buck Knife and — dare I say it — how comparatively inexpensive it was.
The standard Buck 112 Ranger runs about $60. With that, you get the classic wood-and-brass handle and absolute tank-like build quality, with its fat back-locking mechanism. That is an incredible value. While most people probably just want the original, and that is perfectly fine, for around double the price, you can get the Buck 112 your way, just as you dreamed it.
This is exactly what I did. I like a bit of flash, so I went with the blue wood inlay with a polished nickel handle and rivets, a polished blade, as well as some engraving. I also chose the tan leather sheath.
What showed up a few weeks later far exceeded my expectations. The knife is absolutely beautiful. The fit and finish could not be any better. This is quite a feat, considering this knife cost less than many production folding knives. It came with info from the person who assembled it, and it felt like an occasion when I opened the box.
I really don’t know what else to say. Buck Knives hit it out of the damn park with the Custom Shop online configuration tool, and they did so at a bafflingly affordable price. It’s not cheap, but it puts the option within reach of pretty much everyone, considering this is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase backed by a company that stands behind their products religiously.
And man, does it look incredible. Not in a “I can’t ever use this” kind of way, but more in a “I can’t wait to bang this thing around and give it some character” kind of way.
So, do yourself a favor, buy a classic Buck folder for someone you care about or treat yourself. Everyone needs a good knife to do basic tasks around the house, at the very least. Why not enjoy an icon while doing it?
The basic Buck 112 Ranger you can’t go wrong with.
The Custom Shop option is a step up for those who want to have it their way.
Final thought: It is funny that the Buck 112 and the Ultra XR both deliver roughly a three-inch blade in a folding knife format but do it totally differently. The Ultra XR is as light and thin as can be, while the 112 Range is massively over-engineered and weighs about five times that of the Ultra XR.
With this in mind, maybe it's best to have the best of both worlds — by buying both!
The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades
When it comes to quality products that can last for years and years of daily abuse while functioning and looking incredible doing it, I cannot recommend Persol sunglasses enough.
Simply put, I have never had a pair of shades that are better built or have lasted as long — both structurally and by simply not getting lost. Yes, my friends, I have beat all the odds and am happy to say I have had the same pair of PO2747s for 17 years!
Whether you are taking in an airshow, flying to the airshow, or just going for a weekend drive, these are the shades you have been looking for.
My Persols have been all over the place with me. I have dropped them. Sat on them. Banged them into things. Flung them off my face. They have survived inside my pocket and center console for years and years. A British WAH-64 Apache once showered them with pebbles even! But what’s most remarkable is that they look and fit exactly like they did when I first tried them on nearly two decades ago! Their polarized crystal lenses in particular look brand new, which is an almost supernatural thing.
Unless you are just not down with their awesome classic looks or their weight — these are not super light plastic Oakleys — there are no better sunglasses to buy. I have gone on to also put the PO3048S into my rotation, which are a bit lighter and are not polarized like the Po2747s, but they are equally as awesome and would probably be a bit more to most people’s liking style-wise.
Persol also offers some cool patterns and colors, but the brown tortoiseshell is darker than it appears in the photos and really looks great. You cannot go wrong with the classic black either.
These are not cheap sunglasses. They are all handmade in Italy, but what you get for the money is in a class by itself. As long as you are not one to easily lose your shades, they are a must-have. My absolute highest recommendation.
Skunk Works Celebration
James Goodall has another large-format book out and wow, it’s an accomplishment. 75 Years Of The Lockheed Skunk Works takes you through the entire history of the legendary “bleeding-edge” aerospace design group. Every major project is discussed with an incredible selection of images and details.
This is really a great piece for anyone’s coffee table or aerospace book collection. It really lays out the Skunk Works’ stunning accomplishments that have spanned the better part of a century brilliantly. It isn’t cheap, but it is a real keepsake book that comes with a wow factor.
This is a home run gift for any aerospace or military aficionado.
Time And Space
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to have a lot of fun enhancing your watch collection. Case in point: Xeric’s Trappist-1 NASA Edition.
I came across this awesome timepiece offering from a space website’s little blog about the Kickstarter campaign that was underway for it. Theme watches are really tough to do well — oftentimes, they end up looking really cheesy. But not in this case. The design is really striking, and not in a “I went to Kennedy Space Center and I got this cheap gift shop watch to prove it” kind of way.
I ordered the ISS Edition, as it has a great retro aerospace look while also being totally different than anything else, but it was a hard choice to make. Once I got it, I was really surprised by the quality. I paid something like $235 for it as part of the Kickstarter campaign.
In fact, it gets a lot of great attention. People generally love spaceflight, so when they learn it is a NASA-branded watch, they want to know where they can get one. This especially happens in dim places, because the star field and 'orbiting' hands really light up bright.
The brass tax: This is an awesome gift any space or aviation enthusiast would absolutely love, and it’s something truly different.
They come in so many color configurations, but the movement is the key price difference. Automatic (self-winding) or quartz (battery-powered) are your choices. I went for the quartz, and I have had no issues at all.
But yeah, this thing would deliver a huge smile when the wrapping paper gets ripped away. The fact that this isn’t just some generic branded afterthought from a department store makes it so much more special. It is truly a conversation piece as well as a nice quality timepiece.
Now back over to Brian to lineup the rest of our picks!
Spicing Things Up
What kind of hot sauces you like or don’t can create bitter divisions among the closest of friends. Just navigating what’s out there today can be akin to trying to follow developments in a capsaicin arms race, as people try to breed the hottest peppers.
Though only a small company, Crum’s and its line of Damn Good Sauces offer a single stop for whatever level of heat your palette might be looking for, from the Grim sauce made with Carolina Reapers to the extremely mild-but-flavorful Cool Cucumber Jalapeno. Our Executive Editor Joe Trevithick is a personal fan of the Hot Ta Molly sauce, which is more of a flavor enhancer, being so mild you can absolutely drench your favorite foods in it.
Oh, and you might notice that the artwork on the bottles of Crum’s sauces all features peppers with Green Berets, and that’s entirely on purpose. Owner Chris Crum is a veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces, and the company makes a donation to the Green Beret Foundation every time you buy some Damn Good Sauce.
One Man's Personal Air Force
If you’ve never read W.W. Martin’s So I Bought An Air Force, now is as good a time as any. The book is an absolutely unique autobiographical tale of the author’s very real efforts to purchase a variety of World War II-era aircraft, including P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts, from the government of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza during the 1960s.
At the time, Somoza was looking to bring the Nicaraguan Air Force into the jet age and was therefore trying to offload its older aircraft, many of which were, at best, barely flyable. Martin, then a down-on-his-luck 34-year-old Chicagoan, decided to buy these aircraft and bring them back to the United States to resell them as warbirds on the civilian market.
Needless to say, doing so was no easy task. Martin expected the entire endeavor to take six months, but it ultimately kept him occupied for two years. His book offers a very colorful first-hand account of how he made it all happen.
A Good Read From Thomas
This is Thomas’ top book recommendation for the year and, although this Vietnam War novel has been around a while, it’s well worth revisiting — or picking up for the first time, if it had passed you by. We came back to it this year for our piece on Operation Wandering Soul, the U.S. military’s broadcasting of eerie sounds into the jungle to conjure up the ghosts of local folklore and freak out the enemy.
These battlefield spirits become something like the soundtrack to The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. The protagonist, Kien, helps to recover the remains of fallen soldiers once the Americans have departed the country. In the process, he reflects on the brutality of the conflict and the horrors left in its wake, horrors inflicted both on Vietnam and a generation of its people.
Author Bao Ninh draws from his own experiences as a teenage soldier, and it’s clear why the book became a firm favorite among veterans in Vietnam and the United States alike. With its unflinching realism — drunkenness, depression, psychological damage — departing from the traditional narrative, the book also bothered the regime in Hanoi. You may have caught Ninh interviewed for Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War TV series, but he apparently never published a novel again.
That’s a shame, for sure, but if you’re only going to write one novel, then The Sorrow of War is one hell of a way to go about it.
Contributor Chris “Ox” Harmer is a former U.S. Navy SH/MH-60 Seahawk pilot who somehow managed to spend most of his lengthy career in flying jobs. So when he speaks about aviation, we listen.
The “whiz wheel” E6B flight computer is a compact slide rule that does a lot more than tell you how to calculate a crab angle (though it does that, too). As a purely analog device, it takes some learning for today’s digital natives, but it requires no batteries, and it will not fail just because somebody is spoofing GPS or you forgot to charge it. Learning to master a slide rule isn’t half as difficult as you might think, and it’s amazing what you’ll learn about flying if you take the time to do so.
But, if you really can’t handle the analog tool’s demands that you show your work, digital versions exist, too, like this one from Sporty’s.
So much for the mathematical aspect of flying. No matter what the software guys want you to believe, flying an airplane is a visceral and emotional experience. It affects your soul. And few authors capture that as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Chris recommends Night Flight, and I have to enthusiastically agree. The 1931 book is a semi-autobiographical novel about the author’s time flying mailplanes in South America in the 1920s. Even translated from the French, you can’t help but be moved by Saint-Exupéry’s writing.
Ernest K. Gann’s Fate Is the Hunter is Gann’s autobiography of his flying career, which spanned many of the same years as Saint-Exupéry’s. (Avoid the movie, though — the producers paid Gann for the title, but wrote a very different story.) Gann tells of his flying career, begun in biplanes on Long Island, ending as a bush pilot in Alaska. It's littered with unbelievable — but true! — adventures along the way, in the early days of passenger and mail service and including time as an air transport service pilot in World War II. The stories of comrades lost and sometimes found will affect you as profoundly (if perhaps less poetically) as Night Flight.
Finally, if you’re looking for just a little something for your aviation-obsessed gift recipient, you should consider one of these bottle openers suggested by CODdude — many designs are available. The SR-71 even comes in Titanium! Also, they are totally customizable with engraving and so on.
Commenter SilentH recommended this beauty — the KA-BAR pizza cutter. If the U.S. Marine Corps trusts KA-BAR for combat knives, you can definitely trust it to handle a delicious cheesy flatbread. And let’s take a moment to thank KA-BAR for what I can only assume is the world’s first tactical spork.
I added the pizza wheel to my personal wishlist, but it also got me thinking. What’s the point of a pizza cutter if you don’t have pizza to cut? Okay, fine, you can also cut pastry dough, pie crusts, and other such things, but work with me! Half of all Americans seemed to take up some form of bread-making during quarantine, and at least half of them also tried their hands at pizza. My personal favorite style (something I started working on in 2019) is Detroit Style pizza.
To make the absolute best Detroit Pizza, you’ll need the best tools and ingredients. And Lloyd Pans makes the best pans for it — that’s one of my pizzas in one of Lloyd’s pans. And before you go all “No unitaskers!” on me Alton Brown-style, the 10-inch by 14-inch pan also makes great lasagna (the noodles fit better than in a standard 9-inch by 13-inch pan) and amazingly crispy-on-the-outside Yorkshire pudding. Lloyd Pans, made in the USA, offers a range of other great products beyond pizza, too.
If you want authentic taste for Detroit Style pizza, make sure to use Wisconsin Brick Cheese. I order mine from Shisler’s Cheese House in Ohio. Don’t worry about the “weight might vary” warning — they cut your cheese to order.
And, yes, I am aware I said “cut your cheese.” Grow up.
It’s rich, buttery, and melts perfectly into that super dark, super crispy, but surprisingly not-burned crust of cheese that is the hallmark of great Detroit pizza. (I like Kenji’s recipe, by the way.)
Finally, if you’re making or eating pizza, you need a drink. You don’t want your beer or soda bottle to warm up before you’re finished. Commenter Tommygun1918 recommends this tactical koozie to help your drink “stay frosty.”
Additional Readers’ Suggestions
Readers had a few more thoughts in addition to those listed above.
For a good place to stash the stocking stuffers, reader Truthworldwide recommends you may as well start with a “tactical” stocking.
Edub52 is a fan of watches, and we know a lot of you are, too. His budget is bigger than mine, but maybe not yours! He writes:
Navigation relies on accurate timekeeping, as does such "trivial" matters as target deconfliction (which is why I'm never earlier or later that +/- 2.5 minutes to anything). Bremont and Martin-Baker have partnered to offer aviators who use one of Martin-Baker's products (and live to tell about it) a timepiece like no other — the Bremont MBI. [If you’re not a member of the Martin-Baker tie club, but you have the cash,] you can get a commercially-available version of the Bremont MBI — the Bremont MBII pilot's watch.
For a somewhat more affordable military watch, there's the Hamilton Field Watch and its 75-year history with the U.S. military.
Then there's the watch I was issued during nav school — the Casio G-SHOCK. Remarkably, my G-SHOCK is still running on its original battery after 30 years!
Reader 1127fctwosw thinks FixIt Sticks might be just the thing for your bicycling and firearms enthusiasts — and, we are just guessing here, maybe even cross-country skiing, for that special biathlete in your life.
Finally, if you are among the many people whose offices could use a little more undersea warfare decoration, then Graeme Rymill has got you covered, with this incredible little resin diorama depicting a submarine exploding.
Time of Giving
The past two years have been stranger than most. A couple of readers asked that our gift guide take a moment to encourage you to think not only of those you normally buy presents for, but also those in real need — an outstanding suggestion. Doubtless, you have local groups and organizations you know and support, but we’d like to suggest two (one of which came from readers). Both organizations receive 4 out of 4 stars from Charity Navigator.
In our comments, RCMS and Vipes suggested the Fisher House Foundation, which supports a network of 91 facilities that house veterans and their families while a loved one is receiving treatment at hospitals and VA medical centers.
And we hope you’ll consider supporting the Gary Sinise Foundation. The founder and namesake, actor Gary Sinise, memorably played Lt. Dan, the commanding officer of Forrest Gump, in the Academy Award-winning 1994 film of the same name. In 2009, Sinise’s “Lt. Dan Band” played a benefit concert to raise money for a severely wounded veteran, and, according to the organization’s website, the foundation that supports veterans and families of the wounded and fallen was born not long after. Fast forward to today, and it has done more good than we can quantify.
You’ll be helping a lot of worthy people.
And with that, our 2021 Holiday Gift Guide comes to a close. We wish you and yours a safe, healthy, and joyous season and all the best for 2022.
Contact the compiler: Brian@thedrive.com.