Where to Buy Knives, Part 1
By Gary Zinn
In my youth, the main retail sources of cutlery were hardware stores, plus the Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck mail order catalogs. Every small town hardware store sold pocket knives, hunting knives, kitchen knives and butcher cutlery. I bought my first quality knife, a Boker Stockman, from a hardware store display case. Later, I got my first fixed blade hunting knife via a mail order catalog.
However, that was over half a century ago and the retail knife market is much different now. The local hardware stores are mostly gone, buried under the big box stores. This has severely restricted the ability to shop for quality knives in a hands-on fashion. Knives are a minor product line for the big box chain stores. Accordingly, they mostly have limited offerings and the store staff almost universally know nothing about knives.
This applies to the broad line department stores, building supplies chains and many of the "sporting goods" chain franchises. (Who mostly specialize in clothing, for goodness sake! -Editor) Mostly, the knives they sell are junk or semi-junk and they do not care.
Today, the best bet for hands-on shopping for sporting knives is locally owned sporting goods stores that are large and viable enough to offer a range of hunting, fishing and other outdoor gear. There is such a store a thirty minute drive from me that stocks the only good variety of sporting knives in my area. If one has a Bass Pro Shops or Cabela's store within convenient driving distance, so much the better.
Meanwhile, the mail order catalog businesses of my youth have morphed into online marketing sites. The good news for knife fanciers is that a number of these specialize in knives and related products. My major purpose in this article is to share what I know about some of the leading players in the internet knife marketing business.
I set out to make a top ten list of internet knife vendors. My initial list contained a few more than that, but I was able to pare it down to ten, based on breadth and quality of product lines, along with how well the website search and sort features work. The top four on the list are loosely rank ordered, based on my personal experience doing business with them. These are:
KnivesShipFree is not the most comprehensive internet knife marketer. Rather, it is one of the more selective, in the sense that it offers an interesting blend of the better production knives, plus some impressive semi-custom and custom products.
The site lists about forty brand names. These start with selected models from familiar production makers, such as Buck, Benchmade, Kershaw/Zero Tolerance and Queen/Schatt&Morgan. In the semi-custom and custom categories, a few of the brands featured are Bark River, Brous Blades, Lionsteel and Three Sisters Forge.
Knife styles offered include traditional slip joint folder and fixed blade knives, modern tactical and bushcrafter types (both fixed and folding). There are also a few brands of quality kitchen/chef cutlery.
I have several reasons for putting KnivesShipFree at the top of my preference list. First, they have a strong position in well made, traditional style knives, which is my first love. Second, the knives they sell are mid to upscale, with no junk knives cluttering up the scene. Some of the knives are pricey, but all sell at reasonable discounts from stated MSRPs, so even the upscale brands and models are good values. That they do, indeed, ship free in the U.S., via regular ground delivery, also sweetens the price point.
The KnivesShipFree website is so easy to use that I do not need to discuss it. However, there is one feature that bears mention. The knives on the website are shown via actual photos, taken by the company photographer. When individual knives have uniquely patterned handles, each piece is usually listed and pictured separately. This is a great feature for the shopper. For instance, I recently bought a Tidioute pocket knife with dyed camel bone handle scales. There were over two dozen of these listed and pictured, so I was able to browse them and select the one that most appealed to me.
Order fulfillment and communication are outstanding. When one places an order, there is an immediate online confirmation that the order has been received, followed promptly (usually within minutes) by an e-mail that it has been posted for filling. Another e-mail will be sent when the order is shipped; often this is as soon as two to three hours.
I have been doing business with this company for several years and have found their customer service to be first rate. Here are two examples. A while back, I was writing a review of a knife I had bought from KnivesShipFree and I wanted to use their image of the knife in the article. I wrote an e-mail request and got back a courteous, affirmative reply the next day.
More recently, I had a specific question about a knife I wanted to order, so I called. A real person answered the phone (believe it or not) and immediately connected me with someone who was able to answer my technical question within thirty seconds. It does not get any better than that.
Finally, I want to mention the KnivesShipFree weekly e-mail newsletter. (You can sign up on the website to receive it.) I get a lot of promotional e-mails from internet marketers and I immediately delete most of them, unread. However, I actually look forward to these newsletters. Proprietor Derrick Bohn writes or vets all of these and he normally sends only one per week. He keeps them short, informative and personal. Most are announcements of one or two new products just received, but he also passes along significant news about his business or the industry.
Occasionally, Derrick will feature a special offering or closeout item in a newsletter. Last November, for instance, he announced a closeout on Zero Tolerance Shifter knives. ZT had discontinued this model and Derrick decided to liquidate his stock. I got a $175 MSRP knife for $70. My teenaged grandson was blown away when I gave him that knife for Christmas. A year earlier, Derrick ran a special on a pair of Shun chef knives, half off. My daughter got those for Christmas.
Knife Center (www.knifecenter.com)
Knife Center offers a much broader product line than KnivesShipFree. They list over two dozen popular brands of production knives, plus many more brands of production, semi-custom and custom knives.
A website that covers dozens of brand names and thousands of individual knives needs a good search and sort system. The Knife Center site qualifies. Major search and sort filters include brand, folding or fixed blades, price range, country of origin and production, semi-custom or custom knife categories. Combinations of these and a few more sort criteria can be chosen.
The Knife Center search engine is so versatile and efficient that I use it as a tool when I am doing research on types, brands and models of knives. Once I have isolated a specific knife of interest, the information provided includes detailed specifications of size, weight, materials and other features, plus good images of the product.
I have ordered the occasional knife from this firm over a period of several years and have no complaints about order fulfillment. They are not quite as quick about filling orders as is KnivesShipFree, but next day shipping confirmation has been the norm.
I also have a good impression of the Knife Center customer service department. A couple of years ago, I ordered a fixed blade knife that came with a rather obvious cosmetic flaw in the handle. I called Knife Center and explained this to the customer service manager. She immediately said that she would e-mail me a return shipping label and they would send the knife back to the factory with a request to drop ship a replacement to me. Done and done. I have had e-mail or phone conversations with the customer service staff on a couple of other occasions and have always found them knowledgeable, courteous and accommodating.
A.G. Russell Knives (www.agrussell.com)
A.G. Russell has been in the business so long that the rumor that King Arthur bought Excalibur from him has credence. Seriously, Mr. Russell can trace his career in the knife industry from the hardware store and mail order catalog days to the present. I am not sure whether he was one of the pioneers of marketing cutlery via the internet, but I would not doubt it, because no one stays in a business that long by being slow to embrace fundamental marketing changes.
In terms of brand offerings, A.G. Russell is much closer to KnivesShipFree than to Knife Center. The site lists some forty production brands and about twenty custom level brands (called "handmade" on the website). The production brands include many of the most familiar maker names, plus three house brands bearing A.G. Russell, War Eagle Blades and Roper tang stamps.
The lower priced A.G. Russell brand knives, along with the War Eagle Blades and Roper brands, are made in China. Normally, I recommend avoiding low priced knives made outside the first world, but I am willing to give these brands the benefit of the doubt. I do not believe that Mr. Russell would risk compromising his good name by peddling junk knives.
The custom level listings include such well known names as Dozier, Wayne Hendrix, Morseth and Randall. There are also a handful of custom level knives with the A.G. Russell tang stamp. Some of the custom knives are in stock, but others will be special factory orders through A.G. Russell and may take some months for delivery.
The Russell website is much like that of KnivesShipFree, i.e., logically organized and easy to use. I have ordered knives from the firm intermittently over a span of many years and have never had any problems with order fulfillment or customer service.
The website has a tab that accesses weekly specials. In addition, nicely done catalogs (glossy paper, good images) are distributed four or five times per year and there are typically some specials listed in these. Catalog requests can be made on the website and anyone who orders merchandise will automatically be placed on the mailing list.
A.G. Russell has another marketing venture, called The Cutting Edge (www.cuttingedge.com). Mr. Russell explains that:
"The Cutting Edge provides a unique service to knife owners who decide to sell knives they own or knife buyers looking for that special knife that is extremely popular or hard to find. We provide a place to sell or purchase the highest end handmade knives from either collectors or knife makers. We are able to offer antique knives with a good knowledge of their history and value from years of experience. We also provide a marketplace for factory knives, old and recently made, with starting retail price of $75.00 or more."
Smoky Mountain Knife Works (www.smkw.com)
Smoky Mountain Knife Works basically sells anything with a blade and a handle. The only caveat to this statement is that they are not strongly positioned in semi-custom and custom knives, compared with the previous three sites. Nevertheless, the roughly 150 brand names of knives and related merchandise that they list on their website is a Guinness world record contender.
Two things lead me to rank SMKW below the other three sites. One, they clutter up their product line with way too many junk knives. Two, their website needs to be upgraded.
Just for kicks, I searched "folding knives" on the website and got over 7000 returns. Then, I set the low to high price sort filter, which revealed that the first 1700 knives (24 percent) of the total were priced at $10 or less. That is a lot of junk! One can work around that to find the real knives, but I would think better of SMKW if they were more discriminating about how many low end knives they carry.
The SMKW website is behind the curve regarding search and sort features. One can begin by searching by type of knife, brand, or price range. Once one of these is selected, additional sort filters are severely limited. This means that searches on this site typically return hundreds of knives. Additional secondary filters, if available, might pare down the returns to a couple dozen or so of the knives one is really looking for. Compared with the Knife Center site, the SMKW site is sorely lacking in search and sort capability.
As with A.G. Russell, I have been dealing with SMKW intermittently for many years, generally with no problems with order fulfillment. Customer service is adequate, although a bit impersonal. If you call them, you will start out in a telephone tree or with a "next available representative" message.
I can summarize my evaluation of SMKW with the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is the wide range of production knives they offer. The bad is their obsolete website and the ugly is the junk that pads their product line.
The remaining six vendors are listed in alphabetical order, because I have little personal experience that would help me differentiate among them. Rather, I will share my basic impressions of these businesses based on study of their websites.
Blade HQ (www.bladehq.com)
Blade HQ is a good place to shop for tactical and other modern style knives. They do not carry many traditionally styled pocket and hunting knives. Other than this difference in product orientation, this site closely compares with Knife Center. Like Knife Center, Blade HQ carries a wide range of production, semi-custom and custom knives and has a very well organized website. The website features multiple search and sort filters that can be used separately, or in combination. Product specifications are complete, detailed and the images of knives are very good.
The Blade Shop (www.thebladeshop.com)
The Blade Shop offers mainly assisted opening and traditional folding knives, plus a good selection of fixed blades, spread over about a dozen and a half major brands. Knife specifications are adequate, if not totally detailed, and images are good. Search and sort filters are adequate for a site that does not try to vend every make and model of knife ever made.
Discount Cutlery (www.discountcutlery.net)
Discount Cutlery carries a very wide range of products, from traditional pocket knives to the latest tactical styles. They cover the knife waterfront almost as well as SMKW, except that Discount Cutlery does not carry many low end (junk) knives, which is a good thing. In addition, like SMKW, the Discount Cutlery website has less than ideal search and sort options and flexibility. Product specifications are sketchy and images are small.
Knife Country USA (www.knifecountryusa.com)
Knife Country USA is strong in low to moderate priced linerlock, fixed blade and pocket knives. In round numbers, they list 4300 linerlock, 6100 fixed blade and 4000 pocket knives. Most of these are priced under $50, including some 3200 linerlocks, about 2900 fixed blades and over 2700 pocket knives. Search and sort filters on this website are adequate, but knife specifications are sparse and the images are not great.
Knife Depot (www.knife-depot.com)
Knife Depot is strong in production knives, with selected offerings in all the major brand names. (Ignore the handful of junk knife brands they carry.) They carry some semi-custom brands and models. Search and sort filters on the site are good. Product specifications are very complete and detailed, with very good images provided.
Knives Plus (www.knivesplus.com)
Knives Plus features name brand production knives. The site is best searched by brand name, then by knife type or model name within brands. More sophisticated search and sort filters are lacking. Knife images are good, but specifications are sketchy.
Things not covered
I have purposely not gotten into several product categories in this article. These include kitchen cutlery, machetes, sharpening tools and sheaths and pouches. Most of the sites I have listed have some or all of these, but I wanted to focus on pocket and belt knives in this article.
I have not highlighted websites that feature special edition or dealer exclusive knives, or those that serve as primary dealers for small volume or speciality knife makers. Finally, I confined attention to websites that market only knives and closely related products. I did not discuss internet vendors who sell cutlery along with other major categories of outdoor sporting equipment (e.g., Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's, etc.) I will delve into these subjects in Part 2.
It has never been better for someone who is looking to buy cutlery. The internet knife market has many reputable participants who, among them, offer any type, brand and quality of knives that one can imagine. Further, all but the most exclusive of these products can be bought at very reasonable prices, due to the competitive nature of the business. Buyers, enjoy the ride!
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.