This has been a long, long time coming. I wanted to do this shootout around October of 2012, and I purchased a commonly recommended budget blade, the Ka Bar Mini Dozier, for this purpose. But after I received the CRKT Drifter I realized that the Dozier, while a good little blade, didn't really stack up to what the Drifter had to offer. In the end, these shootouts make little sense unless all of the products score within a few points of each other. With that figured out I moved on to the Byrd Meadowlark, the Delica sized knife from the Spyderco budget brand. Both those knives retail for around $18, so I decided that whatever the third entry in the Shootout would be, it had to be under $20. After some searching I found the Kershaw Chill. It was significantly different from the other two knives, but was roughly the same size and price. That was the final competitor and the shootout could start to take shape.
There are a lot of knives that come in under $20. A lot. But many of them are small knives, like the Gerber LST. I have owned and LST and actually gave it away in a trade as a special bonus. It was a good knife, but it was too small, lacked a pocket clip, and took two hands to open. In my mind it was not sufficiently functional to be an EDC knife. It might be the perfect blade for ultralight backpacking (weighing roughly half what the Baladeo does, with a substantially better lock), but for everyday use, it wasn't up to snuff. Then there are the horde of Chinese brand knives. Note I did not say "Chinese made" knives because every single knife in this shootout is Chinese made. The difference between these knives and the Bees and Elans of the world is that these knives come from reputable companies and if something goes wrong you know who to contact. That, in my mind, is worth the extra two to eight dollars you will spend upgrading from a Bee or an Elan to one of these knives.
Here are the three competitors:
The Drifter G10 (Score: 18 out of 20):
The Meadowlark Lightweight (Score: 16 out of 20):
The Kershaw Chill (Score: 16 out of 20):
Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find all three knives, and all
proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:
The Drifters came from CRKT and the other two blades came from Blade HQ. I will be reviewing the G10 version of the Drifter because I think it is the better version and since they are the same price, it would be the one I would buy.
The rules of the shootout are simple: I will use all of the same
categories as the normal scoring system, but the products will be
ranked, using a weighted rank system (like the baseball MVP voting; this
prevents mere inclusion from being a huge bonus). The best product in a
given category will get 5 points, the next best 3, and the worst 1.
After that I will tally the points and then divide the points by the
average price of the product. The product that is the best value (most
points per dollar) will be the winner. There will be no ties. If there
is a tie, some how, in the value calculations, I will break the type based
on my own opinion of which product is better.
The design of the Drifter is solid. Nothing flashy, nothing unconventional, but no glaring weaknesses either.
The Chill is simply too long and narrow to be a great slicer. The Meadowlark is, frankly, the McDowells to Spyderco's McDonalds (or the Big Mic to the Big Mac, whichever you prefer). Everything about it is slightly worse than a real Spyderco. It seems to me that Spyderco spent too much time making sure there was a difference between the Meadowlark and the Delica and not enough time focusing on whether the Meadowlark is a good knife on its own. This is a case of one clearly inferior choice, as both the Drifter and the Chill are good to very good and the Meadowlark is yawn inducing or just a genericized version of "your favorite knife."
Fit and Finish
None of these blades had bad fit and finish. Honestly I was a bit surprised by this. The Ka Bar Mini Dozier was just wobbly all over. It didn't work well at anything closely resembling a heavy duty task. But here all were pretty darn close. Two things makes the Meadowlark fall to the back of the pack: the uneven nature of the blade itself, seen best in the "that's good enough" finish to the ricasso:
Second, there is the really annoying and totally unnecessary ridge around the handle of the blade. I am not sure what it is for or even what it is meant to do, but it surely is annoying when using the knife.
I need to be candid here: none of these knives are completely perfect. Choosing the best fit and finish on a $20 blade is very much like picking the smartest Kardashian sister--someone has to win by default. There is a hint of blade play, side to side, in both the Chill and the Drifter, but nothing that is worrisome and really, when you are at the $20 or less price range, there are things that just cannot be avoided. A little slop in the product is part of what you have to accept. If this bothers you your going to have to increase your budget. There is no way to get around it. That said, the Drifter was a smidgeon better. With a good amount of tinkering you can get the pivot flicking smooth and still have a reasonably solid blade. The same cannot be said with the Chill. It is not the pivot, which is fine, but the thin blade stock over a longer run.
What the Meadowlark lacks in looks and fit and finish it easily makes up for in grip. Both the Drifter and the Chill are significantly behind the Meadowlark and there is also significant spacing between the Drifter and the Chill as this Chill is pretty much grip free, by comparison. None of the knives are bad, at all, but the Meadowlark is the clear winner here. The handle's texture helps, as does the thumb ramp created by the hump and the jimping. The choil is also a big bonus. The Meadowlark is one grippy knife.
Again there is some significant spacing here. The Chill is really slim and discrete, making it an excellent pocket passenger. The Drifter is a bit wider and heavier, making it not exactly perfect, and the Meadowlark, for all its grippiness is just too wide, the Spyderco problem on steroids.
This is a no brainer--both the Meadowlark and the Chill have 8Cr13MoV steel. The Drifter has the slightly but consistently superior 8Cr14MoV. I did like the finish on the Chill's steel better than the uneven satin finish on the Meadowlark, so that is why it bests the Byrd blade here. See more on this issue below in the conclusion section.
Again this is an imperfect choice. The Drifter is closest to perfect as it has a nice conventional blade shape.
The only drawback here is the unnecessary recurve. It looks cool, as almost all recurves do, but they are all--uniformly--a pain to sharpen. The recurve here is not crazy, so I am not too worried about. The Chill's blade shape is a problem for a different reason. As I mentioned in my review, it is just too long and too narrow to be worth the effort. The slim profile really does impact cutting performance making this a surprisingly weak slicer, especially given the blade stock. The Meadowlark's blade shape is not so bad for cutting, but the hump, which is even larger than a hump on a Spyderco, is exceptionally wide making this knife a pocket choker. It can slice though, even with the crude and uneven grind, so it comes out ahead of the Chill.
Here we have distinct clumping again. The Drifter and the Chill have pretty darn good grinds, especially for a knife of this price, but the Meadowlark, well...take a peek:
The grind is just messy. The grind lines, which I usually find pretty cool when pronounced, are uneven and swirly. The cutting bevel is wide, which is good, and somewhat wavy, which is not. This is a clear example of saving money through an inferior grind. It is funny though, it doesn't really impact cutting. It will make the knife harder to resharpen and less likely to hold an edge, but with its toothy, rough grind, the Meadowlark sliced well at the beginning of my testing. Not so much as time (and grind) wore on.
RJ Martin-designed flipper:
In all seriousness, the flipper here, as I mentioned in the Chill review, is outstanding. The thumb studs on the Drifter are also very good, which, along with both knives' silky pivot, makes them both a joy to unfurl. The slow lockback on the Meadowlark coupled with the pinchy thumb hole means that it finishes last. The Chill just ran away with this one, though because, again, RJ Martin-designed flipper.
Okay, if you are going to shamelessly pilfer Spyderco's design, one place to definitely not screw around to make things look different is in the clip. The classic Spyderco spoon-style clip is really quite good. It is probably the benchmark for excellent. If you are better than the Spyderco spoon clip, you are in rarified air. Here the Chill's simple clip is nice, but loses out because of a lack of mounting options. It is a shame to have a wonderfully ambidextrous flipper and pair with a lefty hating pocket clip. The Drifter's clip is awfully wide. It doesn't have any mounting options. And it is just a bit snaggy in the pocket. None of the clips are terrible, but some are better than others.
Two liner locks and a lockback. Exotic company this is not. Lockbacks are slow. They almost always come with some kind of blade play (including here). But they are cheap and easy to make. Liner locks are the other cheap way to make a lock. Both are good liner locks, but the Chill's was slightly easier to disengage.
Prices at BladeHQ as of 4/7/13:
Points per dollar:
Drifter: 1.81 points for every dollar you spend
Meadowlark: 95 points for every dollar you spend
Chill: 1.53 points for every dollar you spend
This was one of the closest of the Shootouts thus far and for good reason--the Drifter and the Chill are both excellent knives and have the same price. The Meadowlark is no where in the ballpark, but all three are very good values for the money. There is no slouch here, just better choices. To use baseball scout lingo--all three knives have a high floor.
In the end, the difference comes down to, no kidding, the steel and the blade shape. It is the 8Cr14MoV that put the Drifter ahead of the Chill's 8Cr13MoV. As weird as that is, it does match up with reality. My cutting tests the 14 steel does just a smidgen better than the 13. If it was once or one blade, I would chalk it up to weird variation, but I have now used three blades with 14 steel in my cut tests (the McGinnis Tuition, the SS Drifter and the G10 Drifter) and they all held a better edge than the Chill at each stage in the tests. At some point there is a enough experience to say that the experience is significant and demonstrative of something. With three knives and hundreds of cuts in multiple mediums, I think I am there. 14 is better than 13 and that is the difference in this Shootout. The blade shape is likewise better on the Drifter. The shorter wider blade gives you a more gradual approach to the cutting bevel allowing for better slicing.
Wait...one...second, you might be saying. It was only a few points. Yep. Six points. But at this low a price, each point, each design decision and production choice makes a difference. Six points is important when you have so little money to spend. But again, this confirms my experience. The Drifter is a very good knife. Not for the price, but in general. CRKT has done a remarkable job with a pittance of cash for a budget. The Chill is very good, very, very good, but not quite the same. It is been a long time coming, this Shootout, but after months of testing and using these blades I feel confident in the conclusion above. There is no doubt in my mind:
The CRKT Drifter is the KING OF THE BUDGET BLADES.
What about the...
I have reviewed quite a few knives that could have been in this Shootout, including the Kershaw OD-2 and the Cold Steel Mini Tuff Lite. Both are a bit smaller than the smallest knife in this shootout, so they didn't exactly fit, but they are all good budget options. I guess I'd look at it this way--if I had no hard tasks to do, the OD-2 would be a good competitor to the Drifter. If I had hard tasks to do, the Mini Tuff Lite would be a good competitor to the Drifter (I tested the Mini Tuff Lite last year doing yardwork including cutting open bags of fertilizer and mulch some in fabric sacks). But the Drifter, even amongst this competition would still be in the running and probably a little ahead. It is not as svelte as the OD-2 but it can handle a lot more tasks. It is not as roughed as the Mini Tuff Lite, but it is a much better slicer (the ricasso on the Mini Tuff Lite was a huge problem).
With these knives thrown in, and using them for general EDC only, the rank would probably be something like this:
4. Mini Tuff Lite
It is just a guess, but that seems about right.