Friday, April 18, 2014

Spyderco Smallfly Review

Audacity is one hallmark of a good designer.  They must possess a sense of confidence in their abilities that makes it possible for them to alter and modify existing, historical, and in many cases, successful designs.  Sal Glesser and the folks at Spyderco are nothing if not audacious.  Their hole opener fundamentally altered the knife design landscape for the better.  The Spyderco Smallfly, and its big brother the Spyderfly, are even more radical departures from the traditional form.  The point of this review is to figure out if those departures are, like the Spyder hole, good for the design.

Until two months ago I had very little experience with balisongs.  Since then I have had something like a crash course.  I have two--a very traditional inexpensive M-tech and the Smallfly.  I have a friend that has practiced Filipino martial arts for more than 30 years and he was kind enough to tutor me in the ways of the balisong.  And then I practiced.  I practiced whenever I could have one hand free--talking on the phone, doing menial data entry, and the like.  Packing lunches late at night was often a good time to swing the balisong around.  My two months don't make me an expert, but at this point I have reviewed enough knives to know what works.  

Here is the Spyderco Source page, there is no product page on Spyderco's site anymore.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review.  Here is the review sample (purchased from Merrimack Knife and Tool):

The review sample will be given away.  Because of the strict legal controls placed on the sale and distribution of balisongs, this contest is LOCAL only.  The first person to drive to Merrimack Knife and Tool on 101A in Nashua, NH (directions here) with a copy of this review, wins the Smallfly.  I wish I could open this up to other folks, but the laws regarding balisongs are so restrictive that doing so invite trouble.  

Twitter Review Summary: The Spyder-fied balisong works well and is very good for beginners

Design: 2

While the core of the knife is all balisong, the touches make it clearly a Spyderco.  Going from the BaliYo pen (which I happened to buy on a lark around Christmas--terrible pen, fun toy) to the Smallfly was not that difficult to do at all.  Going from this knife to a "real" balisong or from the BaliYo to a real balisong is an enormous leap.  I am not sure that is a good thing or a bad thing.  The knife is clearly well thought out and well designed.  I am not a balison buff so telling you how balisong it is is something I can't do, but I can tell you it works as a balisong and it is quite a good little knife.

The normal ratios are bit silly on balisongs.  The design makes the blade:handle always look odd.  Here it is .66, which is pretty atrocious for a normal folder.  The blade:weight is much better at .98.  Here is the knife next to the Zippo:


Fit and Finish: 2

I have experienced widely differing levels of fit and finish on Spyderco's USA made blades.  My Paramilitary 2 review sample was downright rough.  This was not a unique or rare occurrence.  My Manix2 LW was, however, superb.  Here the Smallfly is more like the Manix2 LW.  The pivots are especially nice and the handle scales, though hard to photograph, look great:


Thanks to phosphor bronze washers, the pivots, while tight, let the knife roll with grace and ease during flipping.  They are truly great pivots.  The handles are nicely chamfered and that gives the knife a completed appearance and makes rolling the handles, a crucial move in many balisong tricks, relatively easy to do.  

Grip: 2

The grip on this knife is really quite strong, much stronger than normal, traditional balisongs.  Gone are the slick handles that make tricks easy and in their place are grippier handles.  This is the first sign that this knife is not primarily a trick machine, but instead an actual user knife. 


There is jimping on the handle and the G10 is grippy without being offensive.  The gentle scallops along the handle do well to hold your hand in place and help minimize pinching, something that happens often when you are a beginner doing tricks on a traditional balisong.

Carry: 1

There is no way around it--this knife is mediocre in the pocket.  A traditional balisong is slim and graceful.  This thing is wide and clumsy.  Second, the offset pocket clip makes the knife tend to roll when carried, much like a clipped multitool does.  Its not my favorite set up, but its not awful. 

Steel: 2

154CM is one of my favorite mid priced steels and a steel that has gotten better the more I have experience with it.  In this knife, it is positively awesome.  The grind really does take full advantage of the steel's properties and the result is a great cutter.  This is the second sign that this is designed to be a real knife and not a sideshow.

Blade Shape: 1

Wow, that's a crazy recurve: 


Sharpening this knife might be more difficult than sharpening the Zulu or even the ZT0350, my least favorite knife to grind.  The blade shape is just not helpful.  It doesn't do anything really, and if balance was a concern, they should have opted for a simple spearpoint.  As I get older and more experienced with knives I have come to not even like the LOOK of a recurve.  Perhaps now I just see it as a sharpening chore instead of a cool, aggressive design.  

Grind: 2

Spyderco knows how to do grinds.  They aren't as perfect as SOG's but they are very effective.  The key, one I don't understand how others have missed, is the very wide cutting bevel.  I am not a fan of spearpoint blade shapes, as they tend to make the main bevel very steep, but here, in this knife, its not much a bother.  Your very unlike to do a ton of rope cutting or other tasks where material will bunch, given the lack of a lock and the balisong form.  

Deployment Method: 2

In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the wielding of a balisong is just short of a form of ballet.  They can be deployed fast and gracefully.  Watching my friend open and close a balisong I quickly realized why they are so feared.  Nothing, not even a switchblade, matches the intimidation factor of a properly brandished balisong.  The fact that you can also deploy them discretely is a testament to the greatness of the form itself.

Here, the deployment is as good as most folding knives, even good flippers, but it is just a bit less amazing than the normal balisong (which is essentially a deployment method with a knife built around it).  The holes, shown below, can be used for deployment:


That does not, however, make up for the fact that the blocky handles drop this down a notch in terms of balisong deployments.  This isn't the Benchmade 42 (widely regarded as one of the best production balisongs made, and now out of production).  Great for a regular knife and decent for a balisong.

Retention Method: 2

I really like the wire clip, especially this iteration of it--the high tension version. It is secure, discrete, and doesn't interfere with grip (unlike the over the top squared off version). 

Lock/Blade Safety: 0

Look, you have to understand going in that balisongs are more difficult and dangerous to deploy than other knives.  That's just a fact.  You can learn to make that danger less, but there is no question that opening a balisong takes much more hand-eye coordination than a flipper does, for example.  So that is an issue inherent to the form.  I am not willing to dock the knife a point for that, but if you are thinking about a balisong, consider this a disclaimer. 

The thing that I strongly dislike about the Smallfly is the fact that you cannot lock the blade open.  This is an issue particular to this design.  This latch locks the knife closed:


Nothing, but your hand, prevents the knife from closing in the open position.  This means that you can't readily put the knife down during a cutting task.  The smooth pivots are great for flipping, but will move around on you if you are doing intermittent tasks.  Not good.  Furthermore, there is no good reason why the knife has to work this way.  Many untraditional balisong designs allow the latch to swing around to lock the knife in both the open and closed position.  This is really a glaring oversight in an otherwise thoughful revision of the traditional form.

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

As a knife the Smallfly is very interesting.  It is a good blade and more of a user than many balisongs out there.  In the end the changes Sal et. al. made make this knife a better user, a better cutter than most balisongs, but the omission of a locking open mechanism seems like a pretty boneheaded move.  If that problem is fixed, this knife would be about as good a user knife as the balisong form allows.

I can't do the flipping and high speed twirls that many balisong fans can do, so I am not going to pretend to evaluate that aspect of the knife.  I'd imagine there is probably some "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" going on here, but that is just a guess.  Its that kind of thinking however, that a truly great designer acknowledges and then promptly ignores.  The holes as the base of the handle do make simple, BaliYo style tricks easy, offering you another layer of tricks that a normal balisong doesn't have, but I am not sure if that matters all that much.

This is a good, unique balisong. It is a capable user.  I am not sure if the Spyderco touches are improvements to the traditional form, but they do work.  The one omission is a pretty big one, though.    


  1. Great review!

    How do we win the give away/?

    1. Fourth full paragraph: Go to Merrimack Knife and Tool in Nashua New Hampshire with a copy of this review. First one there wins.

  2. The SmallFly was based on the larger sized SpyderFly. The reason there was and is no locking mechanism for the knife in the open position was to make it more legal. It was a moot point since it was and is still considered a one handed opener and switchblade whether it locked open or not. This is from the point of view of the law enforcement agencies. It is still considered a balisong butterfly knife and it is still illegal in most places in North America.

    1. Yes, as the post mentions, this design is based on the SpyderFly.

      As for the second point--the legal issues with a lock. I can find no legal authority for your claim. Do you have a statute or case? I'd love the source.

    2. Sincerely sorry if I did not make myself clear. Unfortunately law is not even close to one of my strong points. The buzz I got on the justification of the SpyderFly, SmallFly, and SzaboFly design without a latch was info from BladeForums. Apparently that is what put those Spyderco knives in a gray area. It was rumor and non verifiable information nothing more. Whether the balisong butterfly is latched or latchless my understanding is law enforcement agencies do not look too kindly on anybody that owns or carries one. Even if a knife looks like one it arouses suspicion.

      Basically if it can be deployed as a one hander it is in a gray area and possibly subject to confiscation. Which puts any folding knife in that gray area, too. The Cold Steel Paradox is exempt because it cannot be deployed one handed even though it looks like a balisong butterfly. Of course, blade length is another matter and it could be considered a concealed folding knife which is, again, subject to confiscation. Knife laws are weirder than firearms laws.

      I will admit I have lived in both California and Canada. So my interpretation of how the knife is carried and used in North America is quite muddled and confused. Perhaps somebody more erudite and articulate than I could chime in and clarify the issue even more,

  3. Hi Mr. S!
    Love your podcast, was wondering if the knife had been claimed, as I plan on making a trip down this weekend (poor college student problems).

    Good to see a fellow NH'er that's so popular in the EDC community!

  4. The Smallfly was claimed on Monday.

  5. Thanks for the heads up, I look forward to more balisong reviews (budget or high end).
    Keep up the great work!