For a long time, there wasn’t really a market for “high-end” knives. Today the savvy knife user doesn’t think twice about spending $150-$250 on a good folding knife. Even ten years ago that was not the case—or, rather, the knife knut community had yet to reach the critical mass it has today, that made knife makers realize that there is indeed a voracious market for knives of superlative, cutting edge materials and quality.
Once that market opened up, the middle dropped out: today there are basically two price brackets for knives: the sub-$40 and the over $100. This is a shame, because some of the most innovative and exciting knives ever were part of the $50-$100 range; here are a few you may recognize:
- Benchmade Griptilian Series
- Kershaw Leek
- Kershaw Blur
- CRKT M16 series
- Spyderco Delica and Endura
Those are all big names, even today, and there’s a reason they’re still around, but one design on that list has been around significantly longer than the others, and some would argue it has done more to enrich knife design and knife culture than almost any other design in the last 30 years; that knife is the Spyderco Delica. It is one of the world’s most popular pocket knives, and for good reason.
The newest iteration of this watershed blade is the Delica 4, and while it is part of a rich design heritage, there are many ways in which I think it is due for another update. It is a good pocket knife, but no longer a great one.
Below, compare the Spyderco Delica 4 to a few other comparable knives:
$ = $1 – $30 | $$ = $31 – $60 | $$$ = $61 and above
Spyderco Delica 4: Quick History
Spyderco had been making knives for almost ten years before the original Delica released alongside its bigger brother the Endura. These knives more or less established the archetype for the “modern folding knife:” FRN scales, one-handed deployment, and a pocket clip are all things we expect now, but in 1990 they were revolutionary; most knives were still made out of steel, or even (like the Buck 110) brass and stabilized wood or bone; and a thumb stud, let alone a Spyder Hole, which was still a novelty.
The original Delica had a wider handle and a pocket clip made out of FRN, the same polymer as the handle; this was common on many early Spyderco models. It was also made with GIN-1 steel. The second generation had AUS-6 steel, and a steel pocket clip; the third made that clip reversible and radically changed the overall shape of the knife.
Finally, in 2006, the Delica 4 released, with steel liners underneath its FRN scales, VG-10 steel, and a new blade shape. Later, a second version was released with a full flat grind to enhance its slicing capabilities, probably in large part due to community feedback led by Nutnfancy, a famous Youtube gear reviewer. Here’s an excellent website with photos of all the Delica models. I’ll be discussing the initial, saber ground Delica 4 below, but almost all criticism is applicable to the FFG version as well.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling pocket knives currently for sale on Amazon:
This is the area in which I feel the Delica 4 most cries out for a change. All four generations of the Delica and the Endura suffer from what could be called “faux ergonomics;” that is, they have scalloping or grooves along a portion of the handle that tell your hand where your fingers should be, instead of allowing you to decide for yourself. A student of design would call this “poor affordance.”
Not only do those grooves align with only some folks’ fingers, they make any grip other than a saber grip (with your thumb on the ramp at the back of the blade) uncomfortable, and they generate hotspots almost instantly.
If you look at newer designs by Spyderco, like the Caly 3, you get the sensation that they realized those scallops and grooves were not the way to go. The Dragonfly 2 is a smaller knife, but more comfortable to hold than the Delica 4. It also features a forward choil, like the Paramilitary 2, which allows for much more control over your cuts.
This is very important in an EDC knife (which the Delica is clearly designed to be), because you aren’t making dramatic chops or slices, but trying to cleanly cut through a box, or a package or something like that. Holding the handle the way it tells you to puts your grip way behind the edge, making it hard to guide it through material accurately.
There is a place where the blade ends but the tang is exposed that just screams to be ground into a finger choil. Perhaps Spyderco was learning as they went along (as certainly their customers were), but the fact remains that the handle is the most dated aspect of the Delica 4.
The Delica 4 has a modified sheepsfoot blade. It has the rounded-over tip characteristic of that style, but, by giving the blade some forward belly, Spyderco not only increased slicing performance, but raised that tip far enough up that it can still pierce if need be. It won’t pierce with the thoughtless ease of something like the Dragonfly 2, but it is a lot sturdier. You can wrench on this blade without much fear. This is clearly designed to be a working knife, something that you can use to saw through cardboard or plastic packaging with ease.
That being said, the blade, at 2.56”, while perfect for everyday tasks, is not the greatest food prep knife available, nor would it be much use as a camp knife, because the short cutting length would preclude a lot of the tasks that camp knives are called upon to do; in my experience even the full flat ground models do not stack up to any flavor of the Endura 4 which, with its 3.48” blade, feels much more at home in those “mid-sized” knife tasks. But that isn’t so much a complaint as an observation, and the fact remains that the blade of the Delica 4 is more than adequate.
The standard Delica 4 comes in VG-10 steel. This is a tried-and-true Japanese blend, found in many knives around the $50-$60 dollar price point. VG-10’s most desirable characteristic is its rust resistance; while no stainless steel is truly stainless, you can treat VG-10 pretty poorly and still see little to no rust. I also find that while it scratches fairly easily, it is hard to actually dent or gouge.
Unfortunately, like most things about the Delica, VG-10 comes with a huge caveat: it does not stay sharp for very long, and it is not particularly amenable when you take it to the stones. This is a particularly unsavory blend of characteristics in a steel that you intend to use every day, because it will not maintain either a razor edge, nor a utility edge as long as something like, say, 154CM, a steel on many affordable knives from other manufacturers like Benchmade; and when you consider that Cold Steel has refitted all their mid-range models with CTS-XHP for 2015, you can’t help but think that Spyderco simply needs to up its game.
It is only fair to point out that the Delica 4, like most of Spyderco’s flagship knives, can be found in a variety of other steels, including such rarities as ZDP-189 or Super Blue, both very exotic, very hard steels from Japan that outperform VG-10 in every area except rust resistance. If you like the Delica but want better steel, Spyderco has options out there for you, although with those options you are getting close to the Paramilitary 2 or Manix 2 in price, and those are both superior, albeit larger, blades than the Delica 4.
The stainless steel spoon clip that Spyderco uses fairly often works just as well here as it does on the Paramilitary 2. It is no-nonsense, low profile, and not prone to catching on things like car doors and door jambs. The Dragonfly 2 has a deep-carry wire clip, which buries more of the knife in your pocket, but it’s very fragile; I’ve broken two wire clips in less than a year, and a not a single spoon clip, ever.
Spydercos are famously wide in the pocket (to accommodate the Spyder Hole), and the Delica is no exception, but it still passes the “pocket test:” when you reach into your pocket for your keys, you won’t scrape your hand against your Delica 4. The Endura 4, though not as bad as, say, the Manix 2, is a monster comparatively, and it is for this reason that I find the Delica 4 superior as an everyday carry option.
It seems that most of this review has been positing that the Delica 4 is an outdated knife; it’s funny, then, that the most conspicuously old-fashioned element of the blade, its lock, passes with flying colors.
Lockbacks were first popularized by the Buck 110 Folding Hunter, although they have been around much longer than that. And despite the advent of all sorts of impressive locks, like the Benchmade Axis Lock, or the Reeve Integral Lock (more commonly called the frame lock), or even Spyderco’s own Compression Lock–the lockback. And when executed well, as it is here, it has yet to be surpassed (though others have certainly tried and arguably have came fairly close).
What I like most about lockbacks is that they need so little maintenance. A frame lock can deform and cause blade play; a liner lock can travel over too far, or not enough, or not meet the tang correctly after you beat on it; a lockback just works, and works essentially forever. It is no wonder that the Tri-Ad Lock, Cold Steel’s proprietary lock and arguably the strongest folding blade lock in existence, is essentially a variation on the lockback.
There is always going to be a little up and down play, it’s true, and the lock will flex in a powerful downward cut, but these shouldn’t be deal-breakers for the years and years of reliability and safety you’ll get from the Delica 4’s lock.
There are many innovations in knife making today that are marked improvements over what has come before, but there has yet to be a lock fundamentally any better than the lockback.
The Delica is perhaps the definitive knife of the 90s; no other knife has shaped how people think about their knives as much as it has. If, as Dostoevsky said, all Russian literature came out of Gogol’s “Overcoat,” then the modern, mid-priced knife, and by extension the high-end knife market that it gave rise to, came out of the mind of Sal Glesser in Golden, Colorado.
That being said, there is a difference between being historically significant and being timeless. Nobody would prefer a tube TV from the 80s when there are so many affordable flat-screens available; and when you compare the Delica to something like the Benchmade Griptilian, or even Spyderco’s own Paramilitary 2, two knives that have learned from, and improved upon, the groundwork that the Delica line laid down, it frankly isn’t even close.
It needs an update: simpler ergos and better steel would make this into a totally new knife. Until then, it will have to suffice to say that the Delica, once great, is now just simply okay.
Rating: *** out of *****
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