Small Is Beautiful, Isn't It? So Why
Has the Little Huntsman Compass
Grown So BIG?
By Tamia Nelson
March 6, 2012
I've been collecting compasses since the day I discovered one in the bottom of a Cracker Jack box. That was quite a while ago — before I first set foot in kindergarten, to be exact. So you probably won't be surprised to learn that I now own no fewer than six compasses. You'd think this would be enough for anyone, wouldn't you? But human wants are insatiable, as economists are fond of reminding us. And I recently decided to add just one more compass to my collection. That's when I hit a roadblock.
Here's how it happened. A little while back I turned out the contents of my ditty bag. If you read In the Same Boat regularly you'll know this already, because I wrote about it. One of the items I showcased in that earlier article was my Silva Huntsman compass. It's not my principal compass — a Silva Ranger fills that billet — but it's an excellent backup, and it's so small and light that I'm never tempted to leave it behind. It's no Cracker Jack toy, however. The little Huntsman is a serious instrument, accurate, rugged, and versatile. I've often recommended it to others in the past. No more, though.
But I'm getting ahead of my story. Not long after I finished the ditty bag column, I decided I wanted a compass I could tuck under the transparent map window in the handlebar bag on the bicycle I use for "amphibious" treks. (Spring is coming, after all. It pays to plan ahead.) And the Huntsman would fit the bill perfectly. Still, I didn't want to "borrow" the Huntsman I normally keep in my ditty bag for the job. Someday I might forget to return it, and that would likely be the day I needed it. Luckily, there was a simple solution to this problem: I just had to get a second Huntsman.
Would it be as simple as that, though? After all, my Huntsman is more than 20 years old. I wondered if I'd find the same model for sale today. (The pace of product development has now become so frenetic that any item of gear that's been on the market for much longer than six months may already have disappeared without a trace.) Imagine my delight, then, when I found a picture of my Huntsman at an online retailer's website. The description jibed, too. It looked as if the little compass had escaped the iron jaws of planned obsolescence. Needless to say, I lost no time in placing my order.
My joy was short‑lived, however. When the package containing my new Huntsman arrived, it wasn't what I'd expected. The Huntsman compass in the box didn't look anything like the one in my ditty bag. And it didn't look anything like the picture on the retailer's website, either. But it was labeled "Huntsman." The name had been retained, even if the new Huntsman bore little resemblance to the old. Was I disappointed? You bet. I was even moved to coin the phrase "zombie product" to describe the phenomenon, and I vented my spleen about the whole business on my own website.
That said, the retailer's customer service representative promptly refunded my money, though she wouldn't allow me to return the unwanted compass, even though the blister pack was still intact. It seems that the Huntsman contains hazardous materials. It was now too hot to handle. This hadn't stopped the retailer from shipping it to me, obviously, but I've learned not to question corporate logic. And I certainly wasn't the loser in the transaction, was I? I kept both my cash and the new compass. I'd rather have gotten what I ordered, but I certainly had no cause to complain.
Is there a lesson to be learned from all this? I think there is. In fact, it's summed up in a hoary Latin tag:
As in "buyer beware." If you're buying something sight unseen, and if what you're being sold seems too good to be true — a 20‑year‑old product that's survived completely unscathed by "improvements" is almost certainly in this class — it pays to ask a few pointed questions before you take your credit card out of your wallet. Is the description up to date? Does the picture match the product? And can you return it if it doesn't? Of course, in an ideal world this sort of nit‑picking wouldn't be necessary. But ours is not an ideal world, and when many online merchants maintain catalogs listing hundreds of thousands of items, some mistakes are all but inevitable. Better safe than sorry.
Now let's take a closer look at the new Huntsman. If you'd like to know what differentiates it from my old tried‑and‑true companion, this picture will give you a pretty good idea:
That's the new Huntsman on the left. And the most striking difference is obvious: It's larger than the old model. Since one of the original Huntsman's selling points was its diminutive size, this is not exactly good news, is it? But there are more changes to be seen under the hood:
The original Huntsman wasn't intended for precision map‑and‑compass work or competitive orienteering. It was best suited to rough‑and‑ready, on‑the‑move navigation. It even sported a safety pin on the hinge, so you could pin it to your jacket if you wanted to. But it could also be used as a sighting compass. And the relatively coarse 5° graduations proved no handicap in practice, whatever their appearance suggested. (Five degrees is pretty close to the limit of accuracy for any hand‑held compass, in fact.) In other words, the little Huntsman did the job it was designed to do, and a bit more besides. Its replacement, on the other hand, occupies a dubious middle ground between its older namesake and a top‑of‑the‑line orienteering compass like my Silva Ranger. Why "dubious"? Simple. It embodies neither the compactness of the original Huntsman nor the adjustable declination scale and transparent baseplate of the Ranger. Don't misunderstand me. The new Huntsman isn't a bad compass. It's just not the compass I need.
I've compared it to the Silva Ranger, which is all well and good if you know what the Ranger looks like. If not, however, the Ranger is the leftmost compass in each picture below:
The Ranger lives up to its businesslike appearance. It's a no‑holds‑barred professional compass. As I've already mentioned, it boasts an adjustable declination scale and a transparent, graduated baseplate. This makes transferring bearings from map to field (and vice versa) both easy and accurate. The model shown in the photo also has a clinometer, a real boon when you're interested in vertical angles. And I've used my Ranger to conduct preliminary surveys of archeological sites, as well as to determine the strike and dip of geological faults. Suffice it to say, then, that the new Huntsman is not a substitute for the Ranger. It does have a declination scale (see the photo below), but since you can't adjust the offset, I don't know why Silva bothered.
There's more to be seen when you turn the new Huntsman over, too. Or rather, there's less. Check it out for yourself:
My old Huntsman incorporated a "sun watch" on the reverse — a feature carried over from an even older aluminum model. The new Huntsman does not, though the molded grooves visible in the photo could be used in its stead. (If you already knew the secret of the sun watch, that is.) This isn't really much of a loss, however, since the sun watch was never more than an approximate timekeeper. Still, it was better than nothing for the timeless traveler in the northern mid‑latitudes, at least when the sun shone. And it was always a great conversation starter during lunches on the river. But paddlers will have to find something else to talk about in future. The sun watch is no more.
There are other problems with the new Huntsman, too, and these are more annoying than the loss of the sun watch. The graduated capsule doesn't rotate smoothly. Instead, it advances by fits and starts. I think the maker's intention was to have tactile detents at the cardinal and intercardinal points — this may be the purpose of those molded grooves, I suppose — but if so, that intent wasn't realized in practice; the stops come at the wrong places. And then there's the hinge…
It isn't a true hinge at all, just a plastic extrusion. It does allow you to open the compass flat on a map, however — something my old Huntsman can't manage — but the two halves spring together as soon as you let go, effectively negating even this small advantage.
And as I've already noted, the old Huntsman's hinge incorporated a handy pin:
I haven't often needed to use it, but pinning the Huntsman to your jacket or pack strap does make general orientation easy when you're on the move on cloudy days, even on the water. (You'd better not be carrying an iPod in your breast pocket or a knife on your PFD, though. When it comes to magnetic fields, compass needles don't discriminate.)
The bottom line? While the new Huntsman isn't a bad compass — the needle points where it should, after all — I'm afraid it's destined to gather dust in a drawer for as long as I own it, a lasting reminder that …
Things Aren't Always What They Seem …
And that a lot can change behind the facade of a familiar name. Of course, the cautionary tale of the Silva Huntsman is just one example among many. But it's still a story without a happy ending, and it leaves me no closer to my original goal: purchasing a small, sturdy compass that I can slip into the map sleeve on a bicycle handlebar bag before heading off down the road, folding boat in tow. My criteria are simple. I need a compass that is …
- Compact enough to tuck into a small space,
- Easy to read under way,
- Rugged enough to withstand the assaults of rutted trails and summer hailstorms,
- Accurate enough to keep me headed in the right direction, whether on the road or on the water, and …
- Cheap enough so I won't have to skip meals to buy it.
A mirror would be a nice touch, too, if only to help me locate any blackflies who've blundered into my eyes on the portage trail. In short, I want something like my old Huntsman. It has everything I need. Which is why it's too bad that only the name survives.
To borrow a line from the canny, if conscienceless, Francis Urquhart, "Nothing lasts forever." And tried‑and‑true products vanish from the marketplace every day. Sometimes the replacements are better than the originals. But all too often they're not. They're just different. My search for a small, inexpensive compass began on a promising note, but it ended in disappointment, leaving me to wonder why, if small really is beautiful, the little Huntsman has now grown so large.
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