Disclosure: Images that appear in this article were taken from one of three sources: vkbcontrollers.com website/store marketing materials, an Imgur album that rrohde (maintainer of vkbcontrollers.com) released when he received his first copy of the final product or from photos I have taken for this article. Also, I am neither a great, good or okay photographer . The hardware being reviewed was purchased by the author for personal use during a pre-order period from vkbcontrollers.com in March 2017 (and received in June 2017) for $460 US (~$640 CDN).
I have been using my Thrustmaster Warthog for … Wow! Seven years??? It has been my go-to flight stick and throttle combo for virtual flying since October 2010 when it replaced my CH Products setup, itself a collection of controllers that had been working well for … lets just forget about how old I am, shall we? Ahem.
Over the past few years I have been recognizing some stiction issues in the base of the Warthog joystick. I had been holding out for Thrustmaster to announce a new updated combo but after their 18 April 2016 event, I was not confident that anything was on the horizon for some time. Browsing the DCS forums and the Hoggit sub-reddit I happened upon an announcement of VKB opening another North America online store. I had seen their products from time to time on various flight sim sites and was familiar, albeit from afar, with the various Gladiator, Fat King Cobra and Mamba versions. Along with that discovery was the announcement of a new combat flight stick (technically a new design for the base that VKB will use for upcoming flight sticks): the Gunfighter and Gunfighter Pro.
VKB has been in operation since 2003 with the release of their first product: a set of high-end rudder pedals using magnetoresistive (MaRS) sensors. Those pedals were well received by the community, leading to the development of new devices like the Cobra K5 – with more buttons and dials that I think I have ever seen crammed onto the stick base! (A nice history of some of the VKB designs can be found on the VKB Europe site here: https://flightsimcontrols.com/2012/11/history-of-vkb/1)
Lets get down to brass tacks … or in this case a well-engineered flight stick base that earns the title of ‘pro-sumer product’. Rest assured, I am not trying to be pretentious but Gunfighter requires the customer dismantle the base to properly configure it for initial use, something that is beyond what I would consider a general consumer product. I pre-ordered my combo set (Gunfigher Pro + Knuppelgriff KG12 replica stick – known as the “Gunfighter Vintage Edition”) in early March 2017 as a birthday present for myself and received the unit in middle June and have been using it ever since – $359.00 US (+ $40 for the Thrustmaster conversion kit) + shipping and handling ended up costing me $640 in Canadian dollars .
Knuppelgriff KG12 – The Stick
The Gunfighter Pro set (as seen above) currently comes bundled with the Knuppelgriff KG12 replica flight stick, used in the BF-109 series of fighters. The stick has 12 buttons – one 4-way hat switch to the left of the centre mounted weapon release button, one fold-able trigger plus a pinky ‘shift’ button. It is made of plastic, though the quality is very good and solid with a metal fold-able trigger which is able to flip-up and cover the weapon release button (providing safeties for both).
I did take the KG12 for a short spin and it behaved as expected. It felt generally good to handle. The plastic is of a type that feels on-par or better that all of the plastic options available today (Saitek, Logitech, CH Products, etc). The buttons provide good tactile feedback and are well positioned, though if you have smaller hands the pinky ‘shift’ button may be a challenge to depress and use as a shift function while fighting in those hostile virtual skies.
In short, this is the part I liked least, though through no fault in design or implementation; I am used to the level of button complexity that extends beyond the stick design of most World War II aircraft. If I was flying a WWII aircraft regularly, in IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover or the more modern IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad/Moscow, this would be an excellent choice for me to use … and actually it still is in DCS if you are willing to swap the stick depending on what you plan on flying.
This is not intended to be read as negative against the Gunfighter but if you see it as such, spoiler alert, there is a Modern Combat Grip (MCG) being designed that will be available in place of the Gunfighter KG12 – available for pre-order in it’s own bundle, known as the “Gunfighter Modern Combat Edition”, on October 1, 2017. More on this below.
Lets move on.
The Gunfighter – The Base
This is the part I was most interested in. This part comes in two ‘editions’: the Gunfighter and the Gunfighter Pro. The difference being that the Pro has the smaller base plate, the stick extension and is meant for center-mounting the device between your legs (giggity).
The Gunfighter base contains the MaRS axis sensors (magnetoresistive sensors), a set of gimbals, bearings, springs and force-adjustable dry clutches that provide rotation and restriction around the X and Y axes. The gimbals are curved, giving good feedback on how far they have been displaced from centre through increasing resistance, acting like a physical curve with increasing resistance the further you get from centre. Coupled with the springs (or pairs of springs) attached to each gimbal this leads to some interesting configuration options if you want to tinker. The set comes with a few gimbals of various curve configurations, including one specially intended to strengthen the pitch axis if you put the heavier Warthog stick on in place of the KG12 (more later) in the Gunfighter base with the stick extension. For that you have to pull apart the base, carefully remove the springs (which are obviously under tension), and swap either the cams, springs, or both. And there are a good selection of these in the package.
The gimbals also have a centre dent – though to call it that, to some extent, is misleading. The bottom of the cam curves, coupled with the size of the bearings, allow the feeling of a centre dent without having a ridge ground into the metal. Passing through the centre dent area is smooth and you almost miss it being there except that you have gone from releasing pressure in one direction to adding pressure in another. There is a little resistance required to move the stick out of centre but not enough to make fine adjustment difficult. You can feel that the stick is in the centre but it does not ‘pop out’ of centre when you apply force, instead it feels quite smooth. Releasing the stick does result in a fairly rapid return to centre with a little oscillation. There is, as mentioned above, a nylon based ‘force-adjustable dry clutch’. From rrohde’s post in the ED forums:
These ‘clutches’ allow the user to change the friction of the stick’s movement along its way of travel. This lets the user overcome a spring-loaded stick’s tendency to return back to center – which might be especially useful during helicopter flight (or wherever else desired). With the right amount of friction configured, the stick will stay put where the user wants it to stay – even off-center!
With this innovative new feature, the Gunfighter series of controllers will enhance the realistic overall feeling of VKB sticks even further – the Gunfighter’s stick movement feels “heavier”, and the added friction prevents oscillations when letting go of the stick.
To remove the stick from the base you need the Allen/Hex key that comes in the package to loosen a screw to remove the insert. It would take about the same amount of time to swap a stick on the Gunfighter base using this configuration as it would on the Thrustmaster Warthog (given that you were able to find the Allen Key from the clutter on your desk before you started). I feel, however, that the Gunfighter design is sturdier and has less chance of potential failure from over/under tightening.
One additional characteristic of the VKB Gunfighter system is the ability, through the purchase of a kit, to adapt the Thrustmaster Warthog stick to fit on the VKB Gunfighter base. If you have a Thrustmaster Warthog stick and you are willing to separate the stick from it’s base (easy) and open it up to augment the internal electronics and replace the hardware connector with a VKB designed adapter (hard – but not as hard as it might seem), this provides an alternative configuration option to the KG12 – at least until the Modern Combat Grip (see below) becomes available.
Putting the Gunfighter to Work
As I mentioned above, my Warthog has long satisfied my flight sim requirements. Although it is an expensive piece of hardware, repeated use has begun to show its age and the limitations in its design. At some point in the future it will likely be replaced with a new model (as we now know, based on the F-18) but I do not expect that the model to be greatly improved – in layout, yes, but in implementation the builders are limited to the price that the market they are targeting is willing to accept. I will be happy to be proven wrong.
VKB, on the other hand, is pushing to capture a piece of the premium market. The expectations of customers in this market segment means that not only can they afford to choose a design that has higher tolerances and design goals but that they are required to. Few are going to spend those premium dollars, euros or rubles on a product that does not meet their design expectations or push beyond the boundaries of the competing products. For some this means premium design, parts and fit-and-finish while for others this means additional functionality. The VKB Gunfighter base is in the former design-and-parts category offering a gimbal mechanism that is well-engineered and well implemented.
So, yes. It is expensive.
My main flight sim at the moment is DCS. I did have to take time to remap all of the old stick configurations from the Warthog to the VKB device but after a little work all of the assignments and relevant axes transitioned to the Gunfighter. After a few months of flying with this configuration I never want to go back.
I have flown almost all of the aircraft I own in DCS with the Gunfighter base and in every case it provided a better flight experience. Helicopters: the UH-1H, Mi-8 and the Gazelle all felt fabulous and in all cases I felt that I had enough detail in control to match or exceed what the Warthog provided. For World War II and Korean era aircraft the same was true with the added feature of physical feedback provided by the cams/springs when I started pulling too hard, something that surprised me as it helped me understand the energy impact I was imparting on the virtual aircraft. The same goes for the more modern jets – the physical resistance that the cams/springs provided was both useful and educational.
One additional metric that I think bears noting concerns Air-to-Air refueling – a procedure that requires fine control and gives way to Pilot Induced Oscillation (PIO) if you do not stay on top of it. This has been my nemesis and a source of much, much, much cursing, swearing and name calling. There are members of our casual multiplayer crew who are good at this and traditionally I have been bopping and weaving my way behind a tanker in an awkward, at times hilarious, dance. I never was able to practice much without getting frustrated and quitting; secretly I always wondered if it was the hardware and not me. I am going to give some credit to the VKB Gunfighter here as the smoothness of the gimbals/cams has made me into a somewhat adequate tanker (at least until you throw in wind and nighttime). I feel (an obvious, biased opinion) that the stiction issues I was having with the Warthog were preventing me from the ‘pleasures’ of Air-to-Air refueling. Obviously, I can in no way measure this. My Warthog already went through the modification procedure and I can’t see me doing that a couple more times without something going wrong.
With regard to the software, I can find few complaints. I am not one to take advantage of the complexity available in the Thrustmaster T.A.R.G.E.T. software, preferring to keep it simple and let the sim take care of things for me. I am not adventurous in implementing my HOTAS software configuration. The VKB software is relatively straight forward, allowing you to update the firmware (which I did do) and tinker with some settings ( which I left well enough alone). With DCS, I feel that the software is good enough to get you up and operating with little involvement, given that DCS takes care of most of this for you. Others, who might use older sims like Falcon 4, might find this level of software-based configuration lacking. If you have questions please let me know and I will take some time to explore this area to see if I can address your concerns. For me, it is functional and unobtrusive.
The Future – The Modern Combat Grip
First it should be noted that VKB has produced a new revision (Rev B) of the Gunfighter. The revision is a modification of the base design for any purchase made on or after 1 October 2017. This revision moves the pins from the base into the stick, and the contact points in the stick out to the base. If you look closely at the next picture you will see the three little pins sticking out of the metal coupler on the base – in Rev B these pins sit inside the metal housing/coupler on the stick. In the picture below that you can see the three contact points that sit in the housing/coupler on the stick.
VKB has promised to support both revisions going forward.
The bigger news is the impending release of the Modern Combat Grip (MCG). This grip is modeled after the one that is found in the Sukhoi Su-57 (aka: PAK-FA) and it is … complex. It has more buttons and axes that I think I have ever seen on a stick. The MCG will be available for the original and Rev B models of the Gunfighter and a legacy 5-pin version for the Vintage Mambo and Gladiator Pro Mk.I – showing that VKB is serious about trying it’s best to support older base hardware.
The MCG will also be available in 3 versions: a Thrustmaster base-compatible version, a MCG version and an MCG Pro version. Each of these versions has slightly different button/axis combinations, each giving a slightly different flavour of functionality. The MCG (and MCG Pro) will also be available in bundles with the Gunfighter and Gunfighter Pro.
In addition to these MCG configuration options, VKB is working on a left-handed version and an adaptor that would sit between the MCG stick and base to add a twist, or rotation, axis to the MCG and MCG Pro versions (but not the Thrustmaster compatible MCG as the Thrustmaster base does not allow the axis to function). These features are targeted at the space-sim community but left-handers would be able to take advantage of this love.
Pre-orders have been announced for 1 October 2017. There is a good chance that I will be doing my best to get one, if my F5 key and wallet can keep it together .
All in all, I am happy with my purchase of the VKB Gunfighter Pro and Knuppelgriff KG12 replica flight stick. Granted, the KG12 will likely sit on my shelf with my retired CH Products and Saitek devices but it will also sit there with my Warthog base. Given the upcoming bundles with the Modern Combat Grip I would have no hesitation in recommending the VKB devices as alternatives/upgrades to the Thrustmaster Warthog or for anyone looking to invest in a flight setup that will sustain them for some time.
- Well designed and implemented gimbal/cam system in the Gunfighter gives a smooth operating feel;
- An excellent selection of configuration items: spring tensions/combinations and cam curves;
- Well implemented stick extension (Pro version) for centre mounting;
- Allows re-use of the Thrustmaster Warthog grip with the adaptor kit;
- Expensive – and when you order from Canada you get an additional customs/duty tax (nothing that VKB can do but it does add to the end cost for me – and I’m important right? Right?);
- The Knuppelgriff KG12 replica flight stick is okay but I think that the MCG would be preferable;
- Maybe a little too ‘pro-sumer’ for some users – requiring them to disassemble and reassemble the base until they get a configuration of springs and cams that they are happy;
If you are in the market for a premium flight stick, or are annoyed with the stiction issues showing up in the current generation Warthog, I would strongly recommend the VKP Gunfighter. After the 1st of October, a combo with the Modern Combat Grip would be my choice.
I have not had the opportunity to use the Virpil VPC Mongoos T-50 product, so I can not in fairness comment on the differences or comparisons between the two products, but I would recommend reading @Trolls’ review.