Do Aggressive Razors Give a Closer Shave?

Posted: October 9, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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There is a significant amount of commentary available online in regards to the amount of aggression that is most useful in a razor. One of the confounding elements of these discussions is the fact that, to some degree, the aggressive nature of a razor is subjective and ill-defined. What does it mean to be aggressive? Is it the blade angle? The blade gap? The amount of blade interaction with the skin? Is it the amount of hair that it removes with each pass? It could be any, all, or some of these qualities.

For the purpose of this particular inquiry, I’ll run with this definition: An aggressive razor has significant “blade feel” on the face, and will create irritation or cuts without good prep and good technique. An aggressive razor is not for the ham-handed nor the beginner. An aggressive razor will not suffer foolish behavior. There are efficient razors that are not aggressive. These tools remove beard growth while being fairly safe and easy to use. I would call the Feather AS-D2 one of these. It removes hair with the least amount of drama or possible injury. There are also aggressive razors that are not terribly efficient. This, of course, is the least optimal scenario. An example of this would be a straight razor that was not sufficiently honed to cut cleanly. If you end up with a lot of irritation without getting the stubble under control, that’s not a good deal.

In most cases, however, the well-respected aggressive razors are also efficient cutters. A few examples of agressive razors that I have in my stable include the Merkur 39C, the Gillette “Old Type” open comb, and the Gillette Adjustables when turned up above “5”. I use and enjoy all of these razors. Each one has its own set of qualities, which I’ll lay out the good and bad for each one, to illustrate the tradeoffs you might expect.

The Gillette Old (Military model) is a small and fairly light razor. It’s open comb design give a lot of blade exposure and it biases the blade significantly within the housing of the top cap. It is an interesting razor, in that the peril is not in the later passes, but the first. When performing the first pass, the old Gillette requires care and patience, as it really digs in. I have never hurt myself with this razor, but it makes it clear that it won’t protect you from yourself. Once through the first pass, however, it tends to be comfortable and far less dangerous in sensation than a lot of razors. It gives a superb shave, but I keep it as a “once in a while” razor, as it requires more attention. It’s also in great condition for a nearly-century-old razor, and I don’t want to put too much mileage on it. Does it shave closer than my milder razors? Hmm. Yes, by just a little. The difference is probably only important to a shave snob. Would it be better if you wanted to do a cursory shave, just to be socially acceptable? Nope. It is efficent, but much more challenging to use, defeating the purpose of a quick shave.

The Merkur 39C “Sledgehammer” is essentially the opposite of everything I said about the Gillette. It’s a really big razor, a very heavy piece. It’s new-production, rather than an ancient veteran. It’s a slant head, rather than an open comb. Of all my razors, the 39C yields one of the most comfortable first passes. It doesn’t care if the blade you loaded is super sharp. That hardly appears to matter with the geometry of the slant. It doesn’t care how much stubble there is. It’ll plow through whatever you’ve got. It is really efficient, so if you’re not fussy about ultimate closeness, it’ll get you from “three day bender” to “fit for work” in one or two passes. It’s the boss if you can’t stand going against the grain in the classic three pass shave, but want a good shave. Very efficient. Comfortable and safe, except…if you want to go for full-tilt closeness, it’s very easy to nick yourself in the against the grain or across the grain passes, or to overshave, because the very thing that makes it so effective also makes it capable of peeling away too much skin. Can you safely do a full three pass without hurting yourself? Yes. Probably. But you have to have your skin toughened up a little, and you have to have good prep and good technique. Does it give a better ultimate shave, if you’re willing to take the risk. Ah, here’s the rub. It really doesn’t. I can get just as close with a much milder razor. With less danger.

A note: it’s perfectly possible to irritate yourself or cut yourself with a mild razor. This is especially true if you have to take a lot of passes to get it done. In that case, you can easily fall prey to putting pressure on the razor to get it to cut better, or to simply overshaving and irritating your skin. On with the show.

Gillette Adjustables (as well as adjustable razors from Merkur, or instance) can allow you to dial in as much “bite” as you wish. Gillettes have settings from one to nine. I’ve tried everything from three up on a few different models. What I’ve found is this: with a sharp blade, I get my best and most comfortable shaves on three (except on the late-model Black Beauty, where five is the number). With a blade that isn’t very sharp, turning the dial up by a few notches will give you a better experience. If you’re dealing with a great deal of stubble, turning up the dial for the first pass will allow the razor to better tackle the longer hair, but I’ve found that, for me, the benefit of the higher numbers diminishes after the first pass. Of course, others have found different conclusions. The Gillette Adjustables provide a great opportunity to study the effect of aggression changes during a shave, all other things being equal. Do they become more efficient when turned up? Yes, especially on the first pass. You can absolutely elect to do a less critical shave routine with a higher number and get good results. In my experience, though, there are no razors, regardless of how aggressive and efficient they may be, that can shave as close in two passes as a milder razor does in three.

For me, I’d rather have that extra closeness of the third pass, and a milder razor can allow me to take that pass with a better chance of comfort. I have a thick beard, but it isn’t super coarse. I wouldn’t say that I have hopelessly sensitive skin, but I do have some sensitive areas, especially on my neck. I night shave, predominantly, so I don’t need to rush things. All my findings are based upon these elements. As with anything else, if your shaving situation is different, you might come to a whole different conclusion.

In terms of the view from my house, though, the answer to the big question in this article is – NO. More aggressive razors don’t really cut closer. They often cut FASTER, but things tend to even out over a full three pass shave. If a razor is so mild that it’s just gliding over a lot of hair and not cutting it at all, it either needs a much sharper blade, or is not suitable to the task at hand. Says me. For what it’s worth.

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