The Pilot Explorer is one of those pens that we've probably all seen if we were of writing age through the 80s and 90s. From what I remember, it was an easy pen to find in the day. Any big box retailer that sold pens probably had the Explorer on the shelf, and probably also sold it in boxes of a dozen if that's the kind of thing they were into.
But today, alas, the Explorer is a dying breed. These pens are seriously difficult to come by. Unless you have a personal stash, know someone with a personal stash, or come across some at an auction or random store, you're pretty much out of luck. From what I've seen, there aren't any retailers that knowingly stock this pen.
That being said, why does it matter? Why should a discontinued pen be something we talk about? Well, it's a unique, quirky design for a pen, but it's also one heck of a writer. Yes, there are many, many pens that can out-perform, out-class, and appeal to larger groups, but this is acknowledging something that was a great product that vanished for unknown reasons. We're reliving the glory days, man! "I lived through the Explorer era — you know, before they were famous and celebrated." If that's you, you know exactly what we're talking about.
More importantly, this is one of those pens that excelled over the standard offerings in the retail stores at the time. This is pre-Signo 207, and I'm pretty sure pre-Pilot Precise days, so you can imagine what else you had to choose from at the stores. That's right — Bics and PaperMates. Ick.
Anyway, by today's standards, this pen doesn't win any awards, but it's still a well-performing pen that can keep up with the best of the retail offerings out there today.
Look and feel
This is probably the category that will polarize the most people. Two things: it has a grip style built into the body, so if you use a "non-standard" grip, it might be uncomfortable or unusable for you. Second, it has a unique look that people either love or dislike. I kind of lean toward the dislike fence, but view it more as an ugly duckling. This bad boy paved the way for other well-functioning but better looking pens.
The pen is fairly light, which makes it comfortable to use. Lucky for me, I use a fairly standard grip when writing, so this feels right at home. One thing I've noticed with this pen and refill is that you have to use a light touch when writing. If you start pressing down at all, it will dig into the page and get scratchy really quickly.
The knock has a really nice click sound when you click it down or release it with the integrated clip. For being a pretty cheap pen in the day, it's built really well. I don't know if they're refillable, but I'd feel pretty safe guessing that they're not. I'm sure some people could figure out a way to refill them, but it's not easy. I mean, Pilot put the pen together at some point, so it's only logical that you could take it apart without destroying it.
Like I said before, and like you can see in the pictures, this pen has a suggested grip for writing. If you use that grip, then that's great. If you don't, well...let's hope you can work around it. Just like Lamy, the Pilot Explorer is pretty opinionated on the grip topic. Once you get past that, you realize that this pen writes really well. The ink flow is great, but not too wet, and the lines are dark yet crisp. On different papers, I haven't noticed much (if any) feathering or show through.
The blue in this pen is extremely dark for a stock blue. It looks more like a blue-black to my eyes. The writing experience with this pen reminds me of using a Pilot Precise V5, which is a very good thing.
The Pilot Explorer is a fine pen. It writes really well, and it feels good in my hand. If I could buy these off the shelf today, they'd be high in my list of "best pens you can buy from big box retailers." Instead, it's now a treasure item that people stumble upon in random places, which has its own merits and rewards.
Growing up, it wasn't uncommon to find these pens lying around in a parking lot, at the bottom of a locker, or attached to a clipboard that someone gave you to fill out insurance paperwork at an office. It was ubiquitous. And then, for some unknown reason, Pilot decided enough was enough. It was an unwise decision, and one I hope they rectify at some point in the future. Great pen, great refill.