Monday, October 20, 2014

Buck Mini Spitfire Review by Ben Schwartz

In the knife world, amongst the ten or so major manufacturers, there seems to be a division between those companies that are making history, and those that are living in it. In the first group I would put companies like Spyderco, Kai/Kershaw, CRKT: these manufacturers, if not constantly, then at least fairly often, release products that show they pay attention to the wants and needs of their customer base, as well as to the overall trends of the knife-using community. Innovations like the Spyderhole, definitive, big-name collaboration efforts like the Leek or the Cryo, the irresistible affordability and functionality of the Drifter: these are efforts of the present that are going to be remembered by, and inform, the future.

Then there are companies like Case, that are working out of traditions they established or helped to establish many years ago. They may venture into trendier territory from time to time, but by and large they are defined by an image that was set before what we now call the knife community came into focus.

There’s nothing wrong with a respect for tradition. There isn’t even anything inherently wrong in an adherence to it; to speak to my example above, I have always been infatuated with Case knives, and plan on buying another Peanut just as surely as I anticipate picking up another titanium framelock flipper. But, just as terminal avant-gardism can be dangerous, so too can a blind reliance on what has already been done.

And so we come to Buck Knives, whose fame rests mainly on the Buck 110, a landmark design, something that both contributed to the evolution of folding knives, and continues to be a valid product today. Indeed, the Buck 110 was so influential that the company’s name has become a metonym for ‘pocket knife.’ While Buck isn’t as rigorously traditional as Case, I feel that they fall into the same camp, and, more problematically, into the smaller subset of companies whose devotion to the past obscures their understanding of the present.

Buck’s Mini Spitfire is an attempt at a modern folder that, plot spoiler, falls really flat. While it isn’t execrable in the way that, say, a Gerber knife might be, the impression it leaves, after having carried and used it for several weeks, is one of utter mediocrity. The design doesn’t cohere, the fit and finish is bad, and the price is wrong. This is a knife that wouldn’t have been interesting a decade ago, but in the modern scene, this Golden Age we live in, quite frankly has no place.

Here is the product page. The Mini Spitfire comes in a variety of colors, and also has a larger variant, the Spitfire, with a 3.25 inch blade. Here is a written review with some really nice photography. Here is a video review. The Mini Spitfire can be had for $28.50, and can be found at Blade HQ, along with an amazing selection of other knives probably more deserving of your money, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample (purchased with Tony's money):
 
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Twitter Review Summary: A muddled riff on modern EDC, with decent steel and bland-to-terrible everything else.

Design: 1

The design of the Mini Spitfire is pretty spartan, without anything particularly adventurous or noteworthy about it.

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There’s nothing offensive about it either, but again, we are in a Golden Age of gear, with some of the most exciting designs, to my mind, appearing in the product class to which the Buck Mini Spitfire ostensibly belongs; and while it’s not fair to dock something a point for not being adventurous, so many other products have designs that are so far ahead of the Mini Spitfire that they have essentially moved the benchmark, and what once may have been considered to work well, when set against these new standards, may need to be reevaluated. In short, everything about the Mini Spitfire’s design could have been made better, from the opening hole to the clip.

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The ratios are not terrible: blade:weight is 1.3, and blade:handle is .73. Respectable enough, but, like the rest of the design, nothing to get excited about.

Fit and Finish: 0

Lots of issues here.

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First off, all the screws holding the knife together are a little off center from the places milled out to hold them. As far as I can tell this doesn’t affect the performance, but it is indicative of larger issues. The lockbar and the blade tang don’t meet up evenly, and the lockbar doesn’t sit flush against the scales; if you hold the knife up against a light, you can actually see the space between them. This loose construction results in a ton of bladeplay, the most I’ve seen in any knife I own. When it’s open, you can actually almost rotate the blade in a circle against the lockbar. This doesn’t affect performance during everyday cutting tasks like envelopes and tape, but, as Tony pointed out in his video overview, over time the wear on the knife will accumulate and make these issues even worse, to the point that it could be unsafe to use—and, while I wouldn’t say the Mini Spitfire is a fit and finish catastrophe in the Gerberian sense of the word, I would not feel comfortable using this knife to do anything more demanding than cutting cardboard, and even that’s pushing it.

Grip: 1

The stainless steel scales are given a brushed finish, and are neither real grippy nor incredibly slick. If that were the only thing worth considering here I’d probably give the knife a 2, because I like the “just right” size of the handle, but there is a certain sharpness to the inner sides of the scales that create hotspots after a while using it, and, additionally, there’s just something about the flatness of the scales, combined with the thinness of the knife, that makes your hand ball up awkwardly around them when you’re using it.

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For light tasks neither one of these things are going to be a problem, but, taken together, and (again) given that there are so many knives out there for the same price or less that do it better, I don’t think I can give it any higher than a 1 here.

Carry: 2

No complaints. The slickness and thinness of the scales, while detrimental in other ways, makes for a well-behaved passenger in the pocket. As Nabokov said, you can always depend on a stainless steel-handled knife for a smooth carry.

Steel: 2

A pleasant surprise. Buck prides itself on the heat treat of its steel, a proprietary process developed by Paul Bos, and the 420 HC the Mini Spitfire runs here is an excellent performer for the money. This particular knife isn’t a great cutter, but that’s because of its grind, which I’ll get to below; in a direct comparison I did against the AUS-8 of my mostly-forgotten SOG Flash I, the Mini Spitfire held its own. And while I wouldn’t consider AUS-8 difficult to sharpen, I found the 420 HC to be easier still, more akin to 8Cr13MoV, and equally capable as that Chinese steel of taking a positively sinister edge. I’m not through hating on this knife yet, but before I get back to that I want to make sure that I give credit where credit’s due. And, for what it’s worth (not much, in my opinion), the blade was razor sharp when I got it.

Blade Shape: 2

The Mini Spitfire’s drop point blade is fine. What we have here is a classic and likeable blade shape...

Grind: 0

...that’s totally wasted by an inept grind. Yep, it’s pretty much a hatefest from here on out.
While the steel acquitted itself admirably, I did notice, as I performed my cutting tests, that something was off: the knife seemed to be tracking through material in an odd manner. I don’t own, nor have I used, hundreds of knives, but I’ve used enough to notice when something as fundamental as the feel of the cut is off. The point at which the primary bevel begins is not done sharply enough, and so the hollow grind, instead of ending abruptly at that bevel like it should, in a sense continues past it, like a really sloppily done full flat grind. It’s odd. More to the point, it makes the knife a poor cutter. The secondary bevel was done well enough, certainly well within the tolerances for the price bracket we’re in, but that primary bevel is a real showstopper.

Deployment Method: 0

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Buck’s opening, uh, ellipse, is ugly. But ugly can still be functional, and while the Mini Spitfire is "openable," there are two huge problems. One, it’s uncomfortable. My thumb naturally goes for the end of the hole that’s nearest the tip, which just feels off. If I open it from the inner corner, it’s too cramped. Opening it from the middle seems to be the way to go, but it never felt “right” to me; I was having to think too much about aiming my thumb when all I wanted to do was open the damn knife. Two, more often than I could reasonably write off, my thumb, as I was opening and closing the Mini Spitfire, perhaps because of the amount of force required to open this not-so-smooth-opening knife, slid out of the opening ellipse. This is particularly problematic when you’re closing the knife, as the direction your thumb is moving sends it off toward the cutting edge. Again, I’m not trying to accuse Buck of making a product that is patently unsafe, but there is no doubt that they have fundamentally flubbed the concept of a one-handed opener.

Retention Method: 0

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The Mini Spitfire’s clip will indeed keep the knife in your pocket. But it’s ugly, in large part due to an unnecessary hump at the top, ostensibly to allow it to slide easily over the seam of your pants, and unless you’re wearing pants that are as thick as a sheet of ceiling insulation, I can’t really see it being useful. It’s a paint-scraper, and because the hump does nothing useful, it didn’t need to be.

Lock: 1

Man, I want to give this lock a 0. Personally, when it comes to bladeplay, I grade using a pass/fail system: I’ll tolerate a modicum even in an expensive knife, but if there is one iota more than what I deem reasonable, I’m out. And here, even given that this is a lockback, where a little bladeplay comes with the territory, this is way too much. ...But I’m still going to give the Mini Spitfire a 1, for the simple fact that, in normal, light use, I can’t see it failing. As I said earlier, there’s every chance that all the slop in the knife will eventually make its lockup a riskier proposition, but that’s not something I have the time to figure out, nor is it something I’ve found in the forums. So one point with a big caveat.

Overall Score: 9 out of 20

If you showed someone a picture of the SS Dragonfly, once, and then had them describe it to somebody else using only, say, five sentences, who then had to design a knife from that description, I think it might end up looking something like the Mini Spitfire. It looks like a modern knife taken back a couple steps in its design. I got a G-10 Cryo during the period in which I was testing the Mini Spitfire, and the differences between them were almost surreal: I mean, we’re talking orders of magnitude here: the fit and finish, the features, the utility. And, they are virtually the same price. The Drifter is less money and is still miles ahead of this thing.

It’s not so much that the Mini Spitfire is unusable, although it gets pretty damn close, so much as that, with all the equally cheap or cheaper options out there outclassing it in every way, there’s just no reason to own it.

Oh, Mini Spitfire.

Buck has been an integral part in the development of the modern folding knife as we know it. I think they still have something to offer us, but the Mini Spitfire is clearly not it.

EDITOR'S TAKE: 

Boy did I hate this knife.  I had intended on reviewing this knife myself but I hated it so much that I feel like I couldn't do a good, unbiased job, so I asked Ben to help out and he ably pitched in.  Foruntately, he and I see eye to eye, or at least both agree it is a crappy knife.

The reality is I hated it more than Ben did.  I would take off an additional point in design because, well, this is one ugly messy knife.  I'd also drop a point off the 420HC steel.  It is a good, but it is not a peer of M4, M390, CTS-XHP, or ZDP-189--the other 2 point steels.  I'd also drop a point in grip, as this is just a wildly unhelpful design.  Its slick, the jimping stinks, and the shape is not anything like ideal.

In my original draft of this review I wrote that this knife was so bad that it wasn't shit, but a knife that shit shits out.  Its pretty awful.  The 9 out of 20 is fair, but I'd feel more comfortable giving it a score of 6 out of 20.  This is just a terrible, out of touch knife, a crude parody of modern EDC folders.

Editor's Overall Score: 6 out of 20.

5 comments:

  1. The scales are anodized aluminum, not stainless steel. It's not a great knife and I'll take a Dragonfly 2 over it any day.

    Buck makes better but I've used a lot of knives that we similarly priced that are much worse. For the price, if you like Buck (and I do), get a Vantage Select Small at 2/3 of the street price of the Mini Spitfire.

    QFT: "The slickness and thinness of the scales, while detrimental in other ways, makes for a well-behaved passenger in the pocket. As Nabokov said, you can always depend on a stainless steel-handled knife for a smooth carry."

    "The stainless steel scales are given a brushed finish, and are neither real grippy nor incredibly slick."

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  2. Hard-hitting stuff. Thanks, Ben & Tony.

    Buck can't quite find its identity - they are awkwardly caught between modern and traditional; they are awkwardly caught between being a cheapo big box brand a la Gerber or (in part) Kershaw and being a "Made in USA" quality brand like Benchmade or GEC. So instead they produce sketchily-fit & finished, cheapo big box knives that are Made in the USA! Eesh.

    You know what knid of knives Buck should be making? Check out the CRKT M4. That is a *beautiful* design, a perfect visual melding of old school and new school.

    Buck should make a knife like that, simple manual thumbstud opener, make it in the USA, trash-can the loathsome and gimmicky CRKT "FireSafe" faux-assistance non-opening mechanism, use a good working Buck steel like 13C26 w/ Bos heat treat, or I'd even take their 420HC. It's certainly not a 2/2 steel (sorry Ben) but it is perfectly fine and has some nice properties.

    Then _finish the knife properly_ and sell it for $75-$80. I would EDC the hell out of that.

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  3. Dang, this almost became the new lowest rated product! But I guess the Artifact is too good(horrid) to ever be truly unseated.

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  4. I almost always enjoy your commentary on knives, lights etc. Probably because you have a good sense of balance and a wealth of background knowledge on the products you review. That said, I don't see that here. When you get the material used for the scales so wrong ( there is a hell of a difference between SS and anodized Aluminum) you really call into question all the other aspects of the review. Oh, and no I don't own a Mini Spitfire and I am not a Buck fan in general. I guess I was disappointed you would publish a review like this as it's just not up to your usual standards . While one suspect review (IMHO anyway) does not negate all the other good work credibility is a hard thing to reclaim if you lose it .

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