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little red sak: swiss army knives

It’s both fitting and hilarious that when they remade MacGyver, they chose the Swiss Army Knife as its signature motif. Apparently the remake is utter garbage, but it says volumes that they thought it was the symbol that fully encapsulated such a famous franchise.

Still, it’s been going for 4 seasons with a 5th on the way, so having done zero research I can only assume Victorinox are heavily involved and cannot believe their luck. Imagine being a Swiss company, and having CBS make an American TV show, at essentially no cost to you, where the logo is your your product. This is how conspiracy theories start!

Perhaps more interesting is how completely appropriate it feels. Irrespective of Victorinox’s effective monopoly, a ‘swiss army knife’ is more a kind than a type; a category rather than an instance. It has become a byword and metaphor for multifunctionality and improvisation. And it doesn’t just convey a sense of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. To describe something as ‘a swiss army knife for [x]’ is to say that it does it well. It’s a metaphor for quality as well as versatility.

This is not to say that Victorinox is some kind of unicorn company. Rather, they are more of a narwhal: improbable, but real and explicable. They have been gradually iterating on their core product for almost 140 years, and with that combination of initial design success and longevity has come scale and recognition and their attendant benefits. Simply put, nobody else makes swiss army knives because nobody else could. Victorinox have a monopoly on the brand, the distribution network, and sell so many that they can leverage economies of scale in a way no other knife or multitool producer can. The end result is a century+ of tried and tested production and design, at a price that is simply unbeatable – the knock-offs aren’t much cheaper, but they are much worse.

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The other result is that after almost 140 years, Victorinox have an outrageous selection of models, again made possible by economies of scale and design over time. They sell a lot of all of these lines, and they probably all serve some kind of need. But if you want something to carry around every day, removing loose threads and helping injured children, I think you can narrow it down to a few options:

– 3 layer, Climber or Super Tinker
– 2 layer, Compact
– 1 layer, Bantam Alox

I consider anything more than 3 layers as too big to have in your front pants pocket every day. And if you’re going to carry a 2-3 layer model, it really ought to have scissors. Just my opinion, YMMV, but this is objectively True and Correct.

If you’re looking at the scroll bar on the right and thinking “weeping jesus on the cross, how long is this”, here’s the short version: if money is at a premium, buy the Climber/S.Tinker (hehe stinker lol). If space is at a premium but money is less of a concern, buy the Compact. If both are at a premium and you like shiny things but don’t care about scissors, buy the Bantam Alox. My detailed thoughts and opinions are below.

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The Super Tinker was, I think, my very first SAK. I’m not 100% sure, because it was given to me when I was a child and memory is famously unreliable. But I am almost certain it had a scissors and a philips driver in the ‘corkscrew’ slot, along with the two blades and the bottle and can openers. When it came to putting my own money on the table, I opted for the Climber, which gives you the corkscrew instead of the philips head – we’ll get to that later.

The key takeaway with both of these is that at 3 layers, they’re the thinnest SAKs you can get with a scissors and two blades. The benefit of having the second, smaller blade is that you can treat it as the ‘beater’, using it to open boxes, packaging, and anything that’s gunky or dulling. This lets you keep the main blade for food or precision tasks. Adhesive from box tape and packaging has a nasty habit of getting all over knives, and it’s a pain to get off. Simpler just to ignore it and use the other blade for your apple. Likewise, over time cardboard etc will take the edge off – it’s nice to have a blade that is reliably sharp for your more civilised moments. Of course, if you like to carry a dedicated knife or a pliers-based tool as well, you already have a second blade, in which case, a thinner SAK might be better. But if you’re only going to keep one tool on you, I think the second blade is worth the third layer. The other benefit is that the second blade is much smaller, so it’s even less likely to draw comment.

When it comes to which of the two you should get, it’s really a question of preference. Some people swear by the philips driver on the tinker, but I always found it a pain in practice because it’s at a right-angle to the body. On the other hand, the corkscrew gives you the chance to do what every SAK owner secretly dreams of – save the impromptu party and uncork the wine. Putting my struggles with addiction to one side, this is every bit as satisfying as you might think. It’s just the ultimate in being hilariously, dorkily ready. People will still laugh at you a bit, but mostly with you, because it’s great and fun and completely benign. It’s almost a cosmic joke, the epitome of niche-use Swiss Army Knife tools coming good. A bit like those movies where the seemingly-useless character’s arc is resolved when their unique ability saves the day.

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On to the Compact. In short, you lose the second blade, the awl, and the bottle and can openers are combined into the ‘abomination’ that is the combo tool. Honestly it’s completely fine, slightly worse as a can opener, slightly better as a bottle opener, better as a screwdriver, same for light prying, more than adequate at all of them. There’s just something vaguely heretical about an SAK without the classic can opener. But the upside is that it’s a full layer thinner, accordingly lighter, and comes with a bunch of extra little tools by virtue of what are known as the ‘Plus’ scales. You get a pin, an eyeglass screwdriver seated in the corkscrew, and a tiny ballpoint pen. The pen would be little more than a gimmick (it’s basically a glorified ink cartridge), except that by combining it with the most infamous of all SAK gimmicks, you can actually turn it into a useable pen. This is probably my favourite thing about the Compact: it rescues the parcel hook. For starters, they add a meagre but functional nail file to the back of it, which is already a great addition. But you can also seat the pen in the space for the hook, and then close it to hold the pen in place. It works pretty well:

I know it’s vaguely ridiculous, but I love this – it might be the most SAK thing ever. The Compact is also the thinnest SAK you can get with full scissors. And man, those scissors. It might sound a bit much to the uninitiated, but the Victorinox SAK scissors are one of the best tools ever made. I find them better than the great majority of full-size scissors, which is frankly ridiculous considering their size.

In my opinion, millimetre for millimetre, the Compact is the best SAK going. And for those of a utilitarian persuasion, who might see a second blade as superfluous but still want to maximise their volume:functionality ratio, this is your tool.

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Last, and by almost every metric least, we have the Bantam Alox. This is your bare essentials baby. The alox line basically trades the tweasers, toothpick etc, and gains thinner, swankier, and more durable aluminium scales. Yes, your SAK will be shiny and chrome. In the vortex that is EDC gear obsession (and hey, you’re in it now), the Bantam is often overshadowed by the Cadet. However, for my money the Bantam is the better tool. You lose the finger nail file/cleaner, which will be a genuine loss for some people, but by swapping it out for the combo tool they shave a whole layer off the knife. The way I see it, the main reason to opt for the alox SAKs in the first place is the slimmer profile, and I think that’s intended seeing as none of the alox models have more than 3 layers. In that respect, the Cadet is a full third thicker and approaching twice the weight, just to add a nail file. I also like that the Bantam doesn’t have a lanyard ring. That will probably split(ring hehe) opinions, but I just find them protruding and annoying. YMMV.

The real appeal of the Bantam Alox lies in its dimensions: it barely exists. It’s thin enough to put in your wallet or 5th pocket, and in a larger pocket it just disappears. Yet you’re still getting a knife, pry-tool/can/bottle-opener, makeshift screwdrivers and… a wire stripper? Why not I suppose. Anyway, it’s just kind of magical how much utility you get out of this vanishingly thin tool. Personally I find scissors just too handy to pass, and the tweasers and toothpick see more use than I care to describe. But for someone who wants something simple, effortless and elegant, the Bantum Alox is a great pick, especially as it’s the cheapest on this list.

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If you were to ask me which one I would recommend to someone who was uncertain, it would be the Climber. It’s a very affordable, simple design, with all the basics. You just can’t go wrong with it. The latent ascetic in me loves the purity of the Bantam, but my favourite (and the one I carry) is the Compact. It just suits me perfectly, but bear in mind I usually have a second blade/tool in my bag somewhere. Plus it’s a little more expensive, although it won’t exactly break the bank.

The Swiss Army Knife is a design classic. If you have healthy hands, there is a place for them in your life. If you’ve never owned one, you don’t know what you’re missing.

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