Pens and Pencils | Reviews and Data

What Is A Ballpoint Pen?

Bic Cristal
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When discussing pens on Unsharpen.com we use some terms so often that we assume everyone knows the meaning. But these meanings aren’t always clear and sometimes our definition will vary from that found on other sites.

With that in mind, what is a ballpoint pen?

First of all, if you missed our deep-dive in to the history of the ballpoint and its invention, check out that article. It explains all the details of the origins of the ballpoint as well as the many variations it went through before coming into its modern form.

Definition Of A Ballpoint Pen

Today, we understand a ballpoint pen to be a writing instrument with two key characteristics:

  1. Oil-based ink
  2. A writing tip that holds a spinning ball used to distribute the ink

That’s it! As you can guess, this is a pretty open set of guidelines so a lot of pens are called “ballpoints” that aren’t what we’d classically consider to be a ballpoint pen.

A very standard ballpoint pen would be the Bic Cristal but Uni-ball also calls their Jetstream line ballpoints. The two types of pens feel quite different, but they both use an oil-based link so they fall into the larger category of ballpoints.

Pros Of Ballpoint Pens

Ballpoint pens are known to be extremely versatile pens — the most versatile of all pen types in fact. They will write on nearly any surface, from glossy paper, to wood, to leather, to slick receipt paper.

Ballpoint pens last a very long time, because only a little of the ink is needed to make a legible mark. There is no water in the ink so basically you just have a small amount of very concentrated ink (you’ll know this if your ballpoint ever broke and you got the ink on your hands). This ink goes a very long way, up to 8000 meters with pens like the Epoca P.

Rollerball and gel pens have a lot of water in the ink which helps it go on smoothly, but the water evaporates so you get less dye/pigment per unit of ink… which mean less bang for your buck.

The concentrated ink means ballpoint pens can appear in all sort of shapes and sizes, since the ink reservoir can be quite small. This is one reason why pens like the Lamy Pico use ballpoint ink.

Lastly, ballpoint ink can be pressurized, which makes the pen even better at writing under adverse conditions — in the rain, upside down, underwater, etc. This is why the Fisher Space Pen AG7, the original astronaut pen was a ballpoint not, say, a fountain pen.

Ballpoint vs. Rollerball Comparison

Cons Of Ballpoint Pens

The oil in the ink causes it to essentially stick to things and sit on top of it, which is why ballpoint pens are prone to smearing, especially as they get wider.

Ballpoint pens also need wide writing tips because the viscous ink doesn’t spread on the paper. This means a 1.0 mm ballpoint will usually write with a 0.8 mm actual width, where a 1.0 mm rollerball will usually write with 1.2 mm line.

Ballpoints also also known for being less smooth than gel and rollerball pens. This is the case because the combination of the thick ink and wide tip mean a lot of friction. This makes the pen seem like it’s moving slowly on the paper, with a lot of friction. Some people like this, many do not. The main downside of the friction is that it can lead to premature hand fatigue, which is bad for long periods of writing.

Hybrid vs. Ballpoint Pens

If you have heard the term “hybrid” pen then you might be confused as the category is not well defined. Hybrid pens have an oil-based ink, making them part of the ballpoint family, but they use newer formulas then the ballpoint inks of yesterday. The formulas can included additives that act as lubricants or that improve the color density.

This means hybrid inks, or “modern ballpoints” as we refer to them in many of our videos, are much smoother than older ballpoints, less prone to smearing, less likely to dry out in their refill, and have richer colors.

Interested in ballpoint? Read out list of the best ballpoint pens.


What is an “oily” pen?

An “oily” is a term that you will sometimes see in machine-translated text about a Japanese ballpoint pen. The use of oil-based ink gets translated into the term “oily” so you will sometimes see pens like the Uni Jetstream sold with this descriptor. It’s similar to how a mechanical pencil is often translated into a “sharp.”