Monday, March 2, 2015

Knife Review: Spartan Harsey Difensa: First Impressions

Since my other reviews have had pictures of folding knives with guns, I thought that for my first review of a fixed blade knife I would picture it with a folding gun.  My great-grandfather's .22LR-20Ga. over under.


Even more than my other knives, this knife purchase for me was an extravagance.  The Spartan Harsey knives are a pretty expensive line of knives (the Difensa starts at $425), but I have wanted one for a few years now.  It was actually meeting William Harsey at an archaeological excavation he visited that got me serious about knives again.  And it was this knife, the Spartan Harsey Difensa, that he showed me a prototype of that really captured my imagination.  So when I got paid for my first piece of professional writing, I decided to treat myself.

This is actually the second Spartan Harsey that I have purchased, but this is the first one that I have purchased that I have actually gotten to hold.  The other Spartan knife was a Harsey Model II that is currently residing in the Middle East with the soldier I purchased it for.

This knife was designed for a Canadian special operations force.  The name Difensa comes from the battle of Monte la Difensa in WWII.  This battle was the first combat in the Italian theater for the First Special Service Force, a combined Canada and US elite commando unit.  During the battle of Monte la Difensa the FSSF suffered 77% casualties, but they accomplished their seemingly impossible goal.  Following WWII the FSSF was disbanded, but the Canadian Special Operations Forces trace their lineage to the FSSF, and the Green Berets trace their roots to the FSSF and OSS.

The Spartan Harsey Difensa was designed to be a knife that would serve well in the Canadian forests, as well as in combat.  It's a heck of a knife.

Let's start with the specs:

Specifications (from Spartan Blades Website):
Knife Name:  Spartan Harsey Difensa
Designer:  William Harsey
Overall Length: 11 5/8"
Blade Length: 6 1/4"
Blade Thickness: 3/16"
Blade Steel: CPM S35VN
Blade Hardness: 59-60 HRC
Blade Style: Spear Point - Flat ground main bevel with tapered top edge.
Coating: SpartaCoat - PVD - Tungsten DLC (Black) or ZrN (Flat Dark Earth)
Handle Material: 3D Contoured CE Canvas Micarta® Black or Green
Weight: 0.710 LBS

This is a substantial knife, but not actually as heavy as one might assume.  Despite having a full tang construction, and being ground out of a beefy 3/16" blade stock, the knife still comes in under 3/4 of a pound.

The handle on this knife is made of contoured canvas micarta.  This gives the handle an organic and warm feel in the hand.  One thing that I have found when holding this type of textured micata is that it feels almost soft in the the hand, even though it is actually a very hard and durable material.  Micarta is made by layering organic materials like canvas, linen, or paper with resin and compressing them.  G10 is a similar material, but with fiberglass as the layered material.  The advantage of a canvas micarta, aside from appearance, is that with a rough finish of the type used on this handle, the very outer portions of the canvas can actually absorb a little moisture which means that the handle actually becomes grippier when wet, even though the dimensions and shape of the micarta remain stable.  It is a very subtle feature, but an example of the way that Harsey designs his knives.

The blade coating on my knife is the Flat Dark Earth, which is made of Zirconium Nitride (ZrN).  Zirconium Nitride is a very tough and hard coating material with a Vickers Hardness of 2800.  For comparison steel is apparently generally in the 55-180 Vickers range, while diamond is 10,000.  So the coating is a very durable coating.  It is also an attractive coating with a coloration similar to elemental gold and a subtle sheen.  ZrN also has a respectable friction coefficient of 0.5, which is about on par with raw dry steel.  However, lubricated steel has a coefficient of 0.16, which translates to a noticeable difference in ease of slicing when chopping vegetables since the ZrN coating doesn't behave the same as wet steel.  For comparison teflon has a friction coefficient of 0.04 and rubber has a friction coefficient of 1-2.

The steel itself is the very fancy supersteel CPM S35VN.  This is a very tough, hard wearing, corrosion resistant, stainless steel that is able to take and hold a very keen edge.  It is a particle steel, which as I have written before is made with science magic.  The fantastic performance has something to do with carbides... I think.  I'm no metallurgist.

The CPM S35VN really does not need the blade coating for performance reasons or corrosion protection, the coating is put on the blade to reduce the reflectiveness of the blade.  This knife is designed for tactical use by Canadian Special Forces after all.

A note on the sheath:  I chose to get the MOLLE nylon sheath, rather than the Kydex sheath that is offered.  My reasons for this are that I like the look of the nylon sheath, that is what the version that Bill showed me was in, and I do not plan to be in situations where a fraction of a second difference in how fast I can pull out the knife would make a difference.  But most importantly for my choice was that I like the more traditional sheath appearance of the nylon sheath.  For the Model II that I purchased for that soldier who is currently in a warm place, I chose the Kydex sheath.  Just in case.


In previous reviews I have made lists of pros and cons.  I have decided to try a different format going forward, I will see how I like it.  I'll go over different aspects of the knife and give my opinion.  In order to avoid stepping on any other knife reviewers toes out there I won't be giving numerical scores (there is a knife reviewer, Everyday Commentary, that uses set categories and numerical values, and makes very excellent knife reviews.  I am trying to find a way to make good knife reviews without ripping him off, but his reviews are really nice.  You can read them here.  I think his reviews are some of the best I've read).

I also want to be clear that I am evaluating this knife differently than I would be evaluating a $30 knife.  This is a $400+ knife, and I am evaluating it as such.  It is by far the most expensive knife I have purchased, so I am quite picky as I review it.


I feel that CPM S35VN is an excellent steel, and a good fit for a knife in this price range.  I'd say that the steel is an unequivocal positive.

Blade Coating:

The ZrN is good looking.  It's tough.  If it gets any apparent marks on it you can just spray it down with WD40 and they'll come right off.  But I'm not really that crazy about it honestly.

I'd be lying if I said that the cool factor of the coating wasn't a big part of what first attracted me to the knife, however now that I have it I feel ambivalent.  I find that the coating is actually difficult to keep clean looking.  The coating has a texture, and that texture makes everything seem to show up on the blade.  I don't know if this will change over the years or not.  Plus, as I discussed earlier I feel like the increased drag of the coating makes the knife less useful for food prep tasks, but it is not really designed to be a kitchen knife.

I can't say that the coating is bad, I just don't find it to be a positive for me, other than the cool factor.  It is very pretty and cool looking, especially in person  (Maybe some day I'll have the juice to get my hands on a Harsey Tactical Trout which is similarly shaped but has an uncoated blade).


The blade size is a little large for some tasks.  It is probably about an inch longer than would be ideal for most fixed blade purposes that I would typically subject a hunting knife to.  That said, since I don't buy knives that are going to just sit in the safe, I have started carrying this when I am clearing brush and working in the woods.  What I have found is that the little bit of extra size really actually does make a very perceptible difference when doing things like chopping through small branches.  This is a knife made for heavy use, and it handles the heavy tasks very well indeed.  So while I might want a knife that was going to be for just hunting purposes to be a little smaller (like say the Spartan Harsey Hunter, which I seriously considered buying since it is smaller and hand ground by Bill Harsey, but it is almost $100 more, and I had fallen in love with the Difensa first), but for the use that I have actually been able to put this knife to so far, the extra size has been a bonus.

The blade shape is quite lovely.  The tip comes to a point that is a little more acute than I feel the photos truly capture, which is consistent with the original intended purpose of the knife, but the blade shape remains a good, broadly useful design.  The dropped point brings the point to a very controllable location for fine work.  The blade provides ample belly for slicing tasks.  And the large choil allows the user to choke up on the blade.

The blade geometry is a high flat grind, which is well suited to general and rough use.  The stock that the blade is ground from is a beefy 3/16 inch stock, so the blade gets thicker faster than a blade from thinner stock would, this could also contribute to the less easy kitchen cutting I mentioned previously (also the finger guard gets in the way on a counter, really, it just isn't a kitchen knife, and it is not designed to be).  This is one of the inevitable trade-offs that one encounters when getting a heavy duty knife.  A big beefy tactical utility blade with a full tang is not going to be the same shape as a kitchen knife and neither will perform the same for different tasks.  Different knives have different uses that they are best suited to, and I feel like the Difensa does an admirable job of balancing different needs.


When it comes to the handle I have to both praise it, and voice a very specific to me complaint.  First the good.  This handle is very comfortable in the hand.  The texture of the handle feels nice to touch.  The handle is large enough to comfortably accommodate larger hands.  The handle is also designed to work with people wearing gloves (Canada, Eh?), which is very nice for me since I do usually wear gloves when working in the bush.

Also, as a very specific aside on the handle, the full tang of the handle sits flush with the handle scales.  This is in contrast to the Chris Reeve Harsey knives that feature tangs that sit a little proud of the scales.  I find that feature slightly uncomfortable for ungloved use, but it was designed to make it easier to orient the knife in the hand while wearing gloves.  I am grateful that the Difensa does not share that design feature.

So what's the complaint?  Well it has to do with an old injury I suffered.  Some years back I fell off of a roof, broke a bunch of bones and suffered various other collateral injuries.  Specifically, when it comes to using knives, I shattered my right ring finger metacarpal, and broke the right ring finger itself in four places.  This injury isn't particularly noticeable unless I point out that I have no knuckle on that finger, and it waggles.  It is excruciatingly painful to this day for me to grip hard with the right ring finger, so I have adjusted by using the right pinky for grip more than most people.  If you ever notice in my reviews that I pay a lot of attention to whether or not a folding knife allows for a four finger grip, that is why.  For me a three finger is a two finger grip.  That also means that I tend to want a little extra room to position my pinky on a handle, especially on a fixed blade.  The design of the Difensa handle is ergonomically lovely, but it crowds my pinky just a little.  Oddly, this isn't noticeable when I'm wearing gloves, but when I am using the knife bare handed it sometimes bugs me a little.

So that is a hyper specific complaint based on the ways that I adjust my grip on knives.  Take it for what it's worth.

Fit and Finish:

Here is were the judging is most affected by the price tag, as I said earlier, this is a $400+ knife and is judged as such.  My current gold standard for fit and finish is the Fantoni HB 02, which had zero defects I could identify.  The Difensa did not quite match that.

First off, the primary bevel does not appear to be completely symmetrical to me. This is a little surprising to me since my other complaint is that it looks to me like there are some faintly visible CNC milling marks on the primary bevels.  I know that most of their knives are not hand ground, but I would expect computer precision on the primary bevels if the grinding is being done by a CNC machine.

So those are my fit and finish complaints, otherwise this knife is just gorgeous.  Also you may want to bear in mind that these complaints I mentioned are so subtle that I actually could not capture them with my cameras.  The fit and finish is excellent, but I cannot call it flawless like the Fantoni.


This is a special knife.  When I was first introduced to this knife a few years ago it was so impressive that it played a big role in rekindling my interest in knives, which had been fairly dormant for a number of years.  When I decided that I was going to use my first check for archaeological writing on something for myself I immediately knew it was going to be this knife.  I had held this knife up as a "someday" aspiration, and it was pretty great to make "someday" into "now."

Now that I have this knife that I had built up into an aspiration in my possession, I am pretty darned happy with it.  I think that is a strong recommendation.  It takes a lot of knife to live up to the expectations and anticipation that I invested in this knife.

If you are looking for a solidly constructed knife for rough use in a variety of environments and purposes that is also aesthetically pleasing, this knife is a good choice.


And now the rest of the pictures.  These were taken with a new lens that is better for low light, but I am still getting the hang of it, and the lens cannot zoom.

You can see a little of the wear on the handle from use in the Oregon woods.  This is not a bad thing in my mind, this is just the start of the handle gaining the character I expect it to gain from use.

The Spartan logo and blade steel.

Harsey Difensa

The knife with the MOLLE sheath

A better angle on the knife

The blade has a very Harsey profile, but the tip is a little more needle-like than  even the Fantoni or Applegate-Fairbairn

A view of the texturing of the canvas micarta handle scales

A generous and comfortable handle

A view of the jimping on the thumb ramp.  The large size of the jimping provides for use with a gloved hand.

Just a shot I liked

A view to show the symmetrical balance of the knife, as well as the overall geometry of blade and handle

A lovely shape

Fixed blade and folding gun

One last shot


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