Meet the Hero 616

Back in January, I wrote a few words about fountain pens, which may or may not be unexpected on a blog that sometimes occasionally very rarely discusses computers and technology and so on.

My basic recommendation back then was that the filling system a pen uses should be a major selection criteria for the would-be pen purchaser, not a distant afterthought. And because I like to be contentious, I recommended self-filling fountain pens with squeeze fillers as – quite aside from being, possibly, the pinnacle of user-friendly pen construction – the ideal “first pen” for those new to the bewildering world of, um, fountain pens.

Two pens I specifically recommended were the Wing Sung model 233, and the Hero model 616. Today, let’s take a look at the latter…

It’s – arguably – not the prettiest writing instrument ever made. But before you go hating on its utilitarian looks too much, know that it’s, to a very large extent, a copy of the Parker 21, little brother (or sister?) to the famously iconic Parker 51. You say “bland and boring”, I say “streamlined 1950s moderne“.

Capped, it’s about 133mm long; the widest part of the body is about 11mm. It has an integral squeeze filler, holds a respectable amount of ink for its size, comes in one color (black), and has a genuinely fine nib, which lays down a line comparable to that of a, you know, fine-pointed ballpoint pen. I could haul out a scale or use Google, but can’t really be bothered; just take my word for it when I say that this is a lightweight pen. This is to be expected, given that there are, I think, eight metal parts in the whole pen, four of which make up the cap and one of which is the nib; everything else is plastic of one sort or another.

So, enough about the boring construction bits; how does the stupid thing actually write?

Pretty good, truth be told. To be fair, it’s really no different than any other fine-point, hooded-nib pen, which by design are not prime candidates to do intricate and expressive things (flex, shading) to your handwriting. This is not a pen for pretentious twats who want to impress you with the overpowering artistry of the (their!) written word, but a pen for people who just want to, um, write.

I have a Waterman Phileas, a couple of Pelikans, a Rotring, a couple of 1930’s Sheaffer Balances, a Sheaffer Snorkel, several Esterbrooks, a Wality from India, sundry other inexpensive pens from China, some Reform and Senator piston-filling pens from (then-West) Germany; a plethora of pens, really. I’m spoiled for choice, honestly.

The $5 Hero 616 is the pen I use the most. Period, full stop. It’s the pen I wrote parts of my first novel with. The pen I’ve taken (literally) hundreds of pages of notes at work with. The pen I write grocery lists with, the pen I sign cheques with… you get the idea. It’s not my favorite pen, by any means – that’s either the Snorkel, or one of the German piston-fillers – but it’s without question the one I use the most. It is, in fact, one I’ve been using, continuously, for a bit over two years now. Without cleaning, I might add.

And that brings me to why I love this pen so much. In the English-speaking parts of the world, today, most people who use fountain pens are “collectors” or “hobbyists”, who – by and large – tend to be extraordinarily OCD about their pens, lavishing them with more attention and care than they do, probably, their spouses. (This is not an exaggeration, sadly.) Pen and ink manufacturers have, to a great extent, decided that if people are going to be cleaning their pens once or twice a week anyway, then there’s no harm in making pens and inks which require frequent flushing and cleaning and adjustment to function.

That’s not how it used to be. Back before there were “limited edition” pens by the boatload, and back when “precious resin” was stil “plastic”, people’s pens were… tools. You picked it up, you wrote with it; when it ran out of ink, you put some more in, and then wrote some more. Pamper your pen? What are you, some kind of fairy? Go read old 1940s-1940s handbooks for secretaries, and there will inevitably be a (very short!) section on fountain pens, which all basically amount to “refill your boss’ pens every morning”. No mention is made of flushing with de-ionized water, or any of the other things that the twenty-first century “pen fancier” pretty much takes for granted.

The Hero 616 I have has gone through about half a three-ounce bottle of ink in two years without being – or needing to be – cleaned. That shouldn’t be exceptional, but it kind of is, sadly. That it can do so is not terribly surprising – the pen is a moderately close copy of the Parker 21, after all, one of the great working-man’s pens of the 1950s, and is made in a country – China – where everyday domestic fountain pen usage is still widespread. It’s a very popular pen, understandably. It might actually be the most-produced fountain pen in the world, believe it or not, and it’s actually popular enough that several companies in China produce fakes. Yes, really.

If you want a fountain pen that not only “just works”, but should “just work” for months or even years on end without unnecessary attention, the Hero 616 is at minimum a serious contender. And for five to ten U.S. dollars, it’s really hard to go wrong. (Just be warned – apparently the real 616s only come in solid, fairly conservative, colors. The pastel ones and “carbon fiber” ones on eBay, usually sold in ten-packs, are inferior fakes.) You don’t have to use the 616 forever – if the aesthetics really bother you that much, you can certainly move on to something more visually appealing later. But as an introduction to fountain pens, the boring old Hero 616 is, for my money, without doubt superior to the scores of troublesome and unreliable, but very very pretty, pen-shaped objects made in China for the export market, which often need fiddling with and adjustment just to make them produce marks on paper.

And, you know, even after you’ve succumbed to the inevitable peer pressure and blown big bucks on a shiny new Pelikan pen… you might just find yourself reaching for that boring old Hero, the quiet and unassuming workhorse of the written word.

Published in: Geekiness, General | on November 4th, 2010| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 3/7/2011 at 5:08 pm Wayne Danewood Said:

    Having owned various Fountain pens since I was a kid in the 60’s including Platignum, Shaeffer, Parker, Waterman and Lamy and Over the last 6 years I have used a Parker Sonnet as my favourite pen.
    After seeing a very low auction on E-bay for I a ‘pack’ of Hero 616’s, I bid and won them for my kids to show them what pens looked like when I was a kid.
    My 3 kids have used Parker fountain pens for 3, 5 and 7 years respectively. So I was quite suprised when my Youngest who is 11 pronounced that it was easier to write with and nicer than his parker 45 he usualy uses for school. Although very light and cheaply made they feel confortable in the hand, write well and meet the approval of the younger generation – what more can we ask for ?

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