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A knife is a tool, and like any other tool, it must be engineered from the outset to handle a specific set of tasks. Some knives are big, heavy, and overbuilt in order to withstand the rigors of hard outdoor use. Other knives are made of exotic materials and designed to be both functional and elegant, like a finely-crafted watch. There are small blades for opening packages, large blades designed for combat, and blades with blunt tips made for use in rescue situations.
One knife category we feel doesn't get as much attention as it deserves is that of the lightweight knife. Knives in this category have a variety of useful applications. Steel is heavy, so a lightweight knife will go a long way to reduce the load in your pack — as the saying goes, ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain. Like a scalpel, a light blade also offers increased precision and maneuverability. And if you're heading out for a run or some other fast-paced physical activity, you don't want a heavy blade bouncing against your leg with each step.
As a general rule, people tend to associate the term lightweight with three others: small, fragile, and expensive. Admittedly, this is often the case — just put the word ultralight in front of any piece of gear you're looking to buy, then watch as prices increase and durability decreases. However, with the proper forethought and application of materials, this doesn't have to be the case.
Earlier this year, Benchmade set out to develop a folding knife that would remain as light as possible without substantially impacting durability or cost. The easy way to do this would be to simply make a very small knife, but that would limit its functionality, so Benchmade aimed for a much more practical 3+-inch blade. The end result of this challenging task was the new Benchmade Bugout.
The Bugout, also known as the 535, combines a slim steel blade with a tough polymer handle and Benchmade's signature AXIS lock mechanism. Every part of this formula was adjusted with lightness in mind, and examining the knife closely shows this attention to detail.
First and foremost, the blade had to be addressed. Benchmade's design team knew that using an exotic steel would lose some weight but also drive up the price. Instead, they stuck with the company's new mainstay, CPM S30V. The Bugout's satin-finished drop-point blade is 3.24 inches long, barely shorter than the company's popular Griptilian line, so that's not the source of the weight savings either.
Taking a look at the spine reveals the secret — it has been shaved down to just 0.09 inches thick (2.29mm). The blue anodized aluminum thumb studs are also shorter than other Benchmade knives, and match the width of the slim handle (more on that below). The blade is finished off with a high primary grind line and prominent swedge, further reducing its weight by removing more steel.
Moving to the pivot of the knife, anyone familiar with Benchmade will recognize the AXIS lock. In case you're unfamiliar, this sliding steel lock bar is held in place with a pair of tension springs. Pulling back on the bar allows the knife to swing open or shut freely with a flick of the wrist. A stop pin at the corner of the handle prevents vertical blade movement when the knife is open.
One feature that's unique to the Benchmade Bugout is its lock housing. Like all AXIS-lock knives, the handle contains two metal plates that hold together the lock bar, springs, pivot washers, and stop pin. Other Benchmade knives integrate this lock housing into metal liners which run the entire length of the handle, providing a rigid structure and mounting points for handle scales. But the Bugout is different — it has no full-length metal liners.
The metal structure in the Bugout's handle runs from the stop pin and pivot point to a pair of screws near the mid-point of the handle. The remainder of the handle is constructed from Grivory, a type of fiberglass-reinforced nylon that is touted as a “metal replacement” polymer due to its extreme toughness.
Though this material is already light, Benchmade used as little as possible to construct the knife. Pockets were machined out from all along the inside of the handle, and a large lanyard hole was cut into the end. Overall thickness of the handle is just 0.42 inches.
Benchmade chose a distinctive shade of bright blue for the polymer material. Its color nicely matches the blue anodized aluminum thumb studs, as well as the two anodized standoffs that hold together the rear of the handle. The rest of the knife's hardware is black, including the pressed-in metal threads for the reversible pocket clip.
Speaking of the pocket clip, it too is unique to the Bugout. This deep-carry clip has been slotted and shortened to 1.6 inches in an effort to minimize its weight. Benchmade was serious when they said they took every opportunity to reduce the weight of this knife.
The end result is a folding knife that's 7.46 inches long but weighs an incredible 1.85 ounces. Most other folding knives this size weigh two or three times that much. For its size, the Bugout is easily one of the lightest folders on the market, and its $135 price makes it one of the least expensive Benchmade models available today.
We first got our hands on a sample of the Bugout at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market show in July. The name certainly caught our attention, and its lightweight design was appealing, so we eventually requested a sample to test out in the real world.
After a few months of using the Bugout regularly, we can say it's a solid little knife for EDC. The AXIS lock really lends itself to quick one-handed use — you can easily flick it open and flick it shut without placing a finger in the path of the blade. In that regard, it performs just as you'd expect a Benchmade folder to perform, and we consider that a good thing.
This knife is also incredibly light, almost to the point of feeling like a trainer or toy. You may end up forgetting it's clipped to your pocket, even if you're wearing light running shorts, and it's easy to manipulate for precise cuts. We can't imagine it getting much lighter than this, unless Benchmade skeletonized the entire handle to an uncomfortable degree.
The Bugout has held up well to normal use in an urban environment. It's great for cutting tape, zip ties, cordage, fruit, plastic packaging, and the like. The S30V has good edge retention, and despite being thin, showed no signs of chipping or deformation. Lockup is solid with little to no play.
That said, this clearly isn't the sort of knife you'd want to use for high-impact tasks like batoning wood, chopping through bone, or prying open a metal can. There are plenty of other knives better-suited for those tasks.
We appreciate the deep-carry clip which tucks the knife discreetly into your pocket — despite its short length, it feels quite secure. The lanyard hole is also a nice touch.
Unfortunately, if you don't like blue, you're out of luck for now. At the time of publication, the Bugout is only available in this blue color, though buyers can customize the knife with a plain or serrated edge and additional lasermarking on the blade.
While Bugout is a cool name for a knife, we're not entirely sure it's fitting for this particular design. It's appropriate in that it's not heavy enough to slow you down as you run for the hills — we get that. But when we think of a bugout knife, we think of something extremely rugged and durable that's ready for months of continuous abuse away from civilized society. Ironically, this Bugout seems more fitting for every-day carry than for long-term bugout.
Nomenclature nitpicks notwithstanding, the Benchmade Bugout is a seriously impressive featherweight knife, and one we wouldn't hesitate to carry regularly.
For more information on the Benchmade Bugout, go to Benchmade.com.