I was first introduced to the Zebra F series in the form of a blue pen and pencil set while I was in high school. While I liked the set I was not fond of the thinness of either device. However that did not stop me from buying 2 more black pens and a replacement pen and pencil set, in of all colors light turquoise-green, when I lost the pencil to the blue set and later the pen as well. It is interesting to note that the turquoise-green set was made in Japan while the current Zebra line is made in Indonesia. The little Zebras were always my "go-to" pens whenever I needed a ballpoint for any reason. Then they sort of fell by the wayside when I was introduced to good gel pens! But lately I've rediscovered the F-301 and it's bigger brothers, the F-402 and the F-701.
All three pens incorporate stainless steel in some amount in their construction. The F-301 the least and the F-701 the most with the F-402 somewhere in between. The only thing that keeps the F-701 from being completely stainless, at least on the outside, is a black plastic ring that keeps the pocket clip in place. This is a little odd because the F-402 has an identical ring but it's made from stainless steel! To me both pens would have looked better had the stainless ring been on the F-701 and the black plastic ring on the F-402. But then no one consulted me on the designs! The 2 pens closest in appearance of the three are the F402 and the F701. While they may look similar they are entirely 2 different pens. And both differ considerably from their elder brother the F-301.
Some stats: The F-301 is approximately 8.5 mm in diameter and approximately 131.4 mm long. The F-402 is approximately 9.7 mm in diameter and approximately 133.1 mm long. The F-701 is approximately 9.7 mm in diameter and approximately 133.7 mm long. Unfortunately I could not find a reliable weight for the pens, not even on the Zebra web site and I do not have a gram scale. I can say that the lightest pen is the F-301, and the heaviest is the F-701 with the F-402 a close second to the F-701. The F-301 sports a plastic grip while the F-402 a rubber one. They both are removable. The metal grip on the F-701 is an integral part of the pen. The texture on the F-301 is a square cut pattern while that of the F-701 is a diamond cut pattern. There is no texture on the rubber grip on the F-402. The F-701 features a quiet "soft clicking mechanism" while the mechanism of the F-402 is a bit louder and has a hollow or metallic sound. The Mechanism of the F-301 has a solid "click".
All 3 pens take the Standard F-Refill yet the only one to come with it is the F-301. A slimmer plastic refill came in both the F-402 and F-701. It has the same 0.7 mm ball stainless steel tip thus the line it makes is the same as the F-Refill and the feel of the refill when writing is the same. Refills come in both black and blue. Black is the standard refill for the F-402 and F-701 while the F-301 has an accent color to match the refill ink color, so the pens come in both black and blue.
The pens all disassemble/assemble in different ways. The F-301 has a stainless steel tip with internal threads. The removable grip has external threads at both ends. The threads are slightly different so the grip can not be turned around. The weakness here is that you have metal nut on a hollow plastic bolt. If the tip or grip is over torqued guess which one loses!
The better design is the external threads of the F-402's tip. But here you have a metal bolt and a plastic nut! But because the threads of the nut are internal and deeper there is a far lesser chance of stripping the threads. The same design is used on the F-701 only here you have a metal bolt and a metal nut! A much better execution of the design!
As mentioned above the F-Refill is known for being a smooth writer. Traditionally ballpoint pens are considered the least smooth of all the pens. It has the thickest ink and to get a smooth writing ballpoint the ball has to be fairly large. This is why "medium*" ballpoint refills abound and "fine*" and "extra fine*" refills do not, though available for some pens. Normally a refill to write as fine as the F-Refill the ball would have to be smaller. But the smaller the ball the harder it seems to me to write with and it gets scratcher! The thick ink of the ballpoint just doesn't like the finer tips. But I think that the ink has a lot to do with the Zebras smooth writing. It appears to my eyes that the ink is a tad thinner than normal ballpoint pen ink. This would allow for the use of larger ball in the tip. The Zebra F-Refill writes as fine as A Pentel R.S.V.P Fine, but does so with less effort and a smoother feel because it has a slightly larger ball in the tip and I'm guessing slightly thinner ink as well.
Of all three pens I prefer the F-701 for a few reasons. One, it's almost all metal and is metal where it counts, in the grip. The grip is finely knurled in a diamond pattern, very much like a drafting pencil. It offers the user a nice griping surface even if slightly damp or moist. It's the heaviest of all 3 pens. I like the heft of it and the feel of it in my hand. It's also larger in diameter than the F-301 thus fits my griping style a lot better. Aside from the tip being removable the barrel is of one piece. It is also the longest of the 3 pens but the one with the worst balance point! It's top heavy and likes to rock back into the web of the hand. It's not a real problem for me and for someone with largr hands it probably won't be noticeable. All-in-all a very nice pen.
My second choice is the F-402. I'm not as fond of this pen as I am the F-701 mainly because of the rubber grip although it does have a better balance to it, just a skosh top heavy, almost neutral. The rubber grip is firm, not squishy, I dislike a squishy rubber grip! It is also a thicker pen than the F-301 being the same diameter as the F-701 and just a tad shorter.
Lastly, and least of all, the F-301. It's just a tad to thin for my taste although the plastic grip is quite serviceable. The balance of the F-301 is comparable to that of the F-402. I also dislike the fact that the plastic grip screws into 2 metal parts of the pen, the body and the tip. The plastic is thinest here and when it breaks the pen is useless.
Last words: Over all I'd give the F-Series pens a 4 out of 5 rating. None of the pen bodies are perfect but the F-Refill is very nice. I like the way it feels and the thin sub 0.7 mm line it makes. Once again my "go-to" ballpoint pen is a Zebra!
* Medium = 0.7 mm, Fine = 0.5 mm, Extra Fine = 0.38 mm. With many manufacturers medium =0.9 mm, fine = 0.7 mm, extra fine = 0.5 mm and ultra fine = 0.38 mm.
Update: 5/3/09. This is exactly what I was writing about! Although this did not happen due to over tightening, it fell off the kitchen counter, it does illustrate the fact that in a tug of war between metal and plastic, metal wins!
I was able to super glue it back together but from now on that will be the weakest part of the entire pen.
Also I'd like to point out something that for some reason never crossed my mind before. If you'll take a look at the three refills you'll notice that 2 are plastic and one is metal and plastic. Well after further examination I discovered that the metal casing is just a shell! The plastic refills fit inside it! It is easily removed and fitted to a new plastic refill! So why supply the more expensive pens with refills that are just the plastic insert? I have no clue unless it's to save on weight. The plastic refill with spring weighs in at 1.4 grams. The metal clad refill with spring weighs in at 3.0 grams! The metal shell weighs as much as the refill alone! But can you really tell the difference of 1.5 grams? Let me know what you think!