The world of everyday carry is an extremely vast one, laden with everything from wallets to multi-tools (and just about any other pocket-sized gear you can imagine). The world of folding knives, while somewhat narrower in scope, is similarly overwhelming in depth, containing — and I say this without exaggeration — thousands upon thousands of available models, and that's to say nothing of the blades that have gone out of production over the years.
The point is: with so many great knife models flooding the market, it is exceedingly difficult for any single one to really stand out against the pack. But that's part of what makes Benchmade's Bugout such an impressive, unique, time-tested cutting tool. Not only did it makes waves pretty quickly after its first release in 2017 (Benchmade didn't make a big to-do, but it took off anyhow), but it's since become a staple of the industry — spoken about with reverence amongst hobbyists and professionals alike — and has shown no signs of fading away anytime soon. Today, I'm going to look at the brief history of this knife, its cultural impact on the everyday carry and outdoor worlds and my own hands-on experience with a base model Benchmade Bugout to clarify what all the fuss is about.
A Brief History of Benchmade
If you consider yourself a part of the everyday carry world and you've never heard of the Benchmade brand, I suspect that you've been living under a rock since the late '80s. Founded back in 1987 by would-be visionary Les deAsis, folding knives are imbued into the brand's DNA. That's because Benchmade got its start manufacturing handmade custom balisongs, a type of folding cutting tool (often used to perform knife-flipping tricks) known colloquially as butterfly knives. However, Benchmade's core tenets — a dedication to quality, availability and customer satisfaction — are what would really set the brand apart.
Expanding rapidly over the course of the next few decades, Benchmade further set itself apart by solidifying working relationships with some of the premier custom knife makers of the time, including huge names like Mel Pardue and Warren Osborne (the 940 Osborne is a lauded staple of the brand's catalog to this day). Benchmade was also no stranger to innovation, developing its ground-breaking AXIS locking mechanism (courtesy of the work of Bill McHenry and Jason Williams) and producing a range of world-famous knives across a variety of categories.
Today, it's practically impossible to have a discussion about EDC, outdoor and/or tactical knives without at least mentioning Benchmade. And while it has a huge array of outstanding knives — many of which are amongst the best ever made, like the Griptilian family — the Bugout has marked a brave new chapter in the brand's history, one that looks very bright indeed.
So What Makes the Bugout so Special, Anyway?
As mentioned, Benchmade's Bugout was first released in 2017. And while Benchmade itself didn't make much of a to-do about it, the knife quickly caught the eye of the knife and everyday carry communities. It's even won several awards over the years, including Best Manual Folder of 2017 from KnifeNews and the Mini version was amongst Popular Mechanics' best outdoor gear of 2020. However, pinning down what, exactly, makes this knife so alluring and culturally impactful, especially over several years, is a difficult task. While I'm not so arrogant as to say I've figured it out, I do have some ideas as to how this knife became such a dominant model in the world of EDC.
To put it bluntly, Benchmade doesn't make cheap knives. And while that bodes well for their overall quality — both in regards to materials and construction — it also means the brand's blades come with a fairly high barrier to entry: pricing. The Bugout, while certainly not a bargain-bin blade, is offered at one of the lowest price points in all of Benchmade's catalog, clocking in at $160 for the base model. While that might seem high, that still nets customers a knife with a high-end CPM-S30V steel blade, Grivory handle scales and the brand's rock-solid AXIS lock (amongst a slew of other features).
With some pricey limited releases, the number of available knives is always pretty small. However, with the Benchmade Bugout slotting in toward the bottom of the brand's affordability ladder, it was also easy to manufacture in large quantities. As such, the Bugout has almost always been widely and readily available. Furthermore, there are multiple versions — standard and mini editions, numerous different handle and blade materials, etc. — which give a bit of variety to the options on the market (and allow those that want rarer, pricier versions to have them). Lastly, the Bugout can be customized via Benchmade's site at any time, granting even more access to the model (and more unique, individual possibilities).
One thing that many fans have noted is that the Bugout feels like a knife that wants to be used. Not only do its price and materials make it approachable, but they also make it more of a workhorse than a showpiece (although it is plenty nice to look at). The base model blade material — CPM-S30V steel — is on the higher end, but certainly not delicate. A similar statement could be made about the handle. And, to top it all off, the knife is remarkably thin, measuring up at just 0.42 inches thick and 4.22 inches in length with a 3.24-inch blade, making it incredibly portable and easy to hold in use.
All of the above is to say that Benchmade has cornered a niche in the everyday carry market that clearly hadn't been properly filled. And the staying power of the Bugout further proves just how significant this knife has become to cutting tool culture. If after five years on the market, people are still talking about the Bugout, it should be abundantly clear to those not in the know just how significant this release has truly been. And that momentum doesn't appear to be lessening much, either.
Hands-On with the Benchmade 535 Bugout
For this hands-on test, I got ahold of the Benchmade 535 Bugout base model. While there are numerous upgrades, both in regards to the handle and blade, it's this most approachable, affordable and available version I wanted to try out, integrating it into my EDC for several weeks and utilizing the knife to the best of its ability.
Upon taking it out of its box, I first noticed just how thin and lightweight the 535 Bugout actually is. Numbers-wise, it measures up at just 0.42 inches at its widest point and 7.46 inches in length (4.22 inches when closed). What that means in practice is that the knife is incredibly slim, especially for a knife with a locking mechanism. However, it also feels sturdy, has a good texture to it (it does feel a touch plasticky, but not cheap or breakable), and it fits well in the hand for an EDC knife.
As mentioned, the moderately high-end S30V steel blade is not so high-end that I'm afraid to use it. It's durable and strong without having too much added thickness and comes razor-sharp out of the box. The Grivory handle also feels sturdy, although it does give off the initial impression of cheapness — not because it is, but rather because I've been conditioned to think of plastic as cheap. After handling it for a time, however, I can confidently say it is sturdy as hell and can take a beating.
It needs to be said that Benchmade offers some of the best construction quality of any knives on the market, folding or otherwise. In the case of the Bugout, this is on full display. While I know, intellectually, that this knife is made up of a dozen-or-so individual pieces, it's so well constructed that it feels like a unified thing. There's no play in the blade, the hardware, the pocket clip or anything else. The construction is simply superb.
Size & Shape
For everyday carry purposes, I'm not sure I've ever come across a knife with such perfect proportions — for both my hands and my pockets. The jaw-dropping thinness of this locking knife makes it easy to slip into my pocket even when I'm loaded down with other EDC gear (e.g. my wallet, phone, pen, etc.), yet the 7.46-inch overall length puts this knife squarely in the full-sized category. The handle is also ergonomic and feels good to hold, has enough curvature and texture to it that I feel like I can get a solid grip when using it (even through more difficult cutting tasks, like fruit rinds, thicker cardboard and/or bits of wood) and it's neither too short nor too long. I admit that those with notably smaller or larger hands than mine may not feel the same, but the size and shape are perfect for me.
This is where the Bugout really shines. Combine its begging-to-be-used materials with its ideal size and shape and I've come to discover that I'm using this knife for every task I can, within reason. The blade holds an edge well, the handle has remained sturdy and grippy and the lock has yet to fail me. My one gripe, if I had to pick one, is that I can't quite close the knife one-handed. Opening it is no problem – even if you're a lefty (yes, it's ambidextrous) — and it's remarkably smooth. However, to close the knife, one must release the lock with one hand and use the other (or another surface) to close it. It is possible to do it one-handed with a bit of effort, but it's awkward and potentially dangerous. To be fair, this is also what I came up with while specifically looking for problems — meaning it has been little if any issue at all.
I love Benchmade's Bugout from tip to tail. It's a pleasure to use and I have perhaps no real complaints about it at all, at least from a material and functionality standpoint. I do think the price point is a touch high, but you're also getting the Benchmade name and all it carries with it. I will say that I don't reach for this knife as much as, say, my WESN Allman, but that's less an issue of function and construction and more an issue of style — I just like the urban, minimalist styling of the Allman a touch more than the Bugout. However, this knife has become a part of my EDC rotation now and I don't see that changing anytime in the future.
Other Alternatives Available
While we touched on it briefly, I did want to make note that the base model is hardly the only available version of the Benchmade Bugout. Along with that, there are also options for upgraded handle materials — carbon fiber and machined aluminum — and blade upgrades — the satin-finished carbon fiber option comes with an S90V upgrade, there's a black-finished S30V option with carbon fiber handles and the machined aluminum comes with a Cerakote blade.
Furthermore, there's also a mini version available (6.5 inches to the full-sized's 7.46) and there are numerous different available handle colorways. Lastly, there's a healthy custom community offering custom scales (like those found on Blade HQ) you can swap out, should you see fit to do so.
The Reigning Champ of EDC Knives
From a top-down perspective, the Benchmade 535 Bugout is a brilliant example of everything falling neatly into place — the perfect storm of a release, so to speak. It benefitted from the time-tested, highly-lauded Benchmade name, to be sure, but it also filled a niche in the knife world — namely, a moderately high-end folder with outstanding materials and a tremendous amount of utility along with practicality and portability. Pair that with its alternative options, widespread availability (and approachability), and long-lastingness, and you've got yourself what some might call the best all-around everyday carry knife available right now. It's not flashy and it's not particularly rare, but it is incredibly useful and will reliably get every job done whenever you turn to it. And that's all we could ask for in an EDC knife.