Inexpensive Knives: A Buying Guide
By Gary Zinn
Cold Steel Canadian Belt Knife. Image courtesy of coldsteel.com
There are inexpensive knives and there are cheap (junk) knives. The latter are not worth the few dollars they cost, but the former can be useful as utility tools, budget hunting or work knives. I call these beater knives, because one can abuse, break, or lose them without suffering the anxiety or regret of doing the same to an expensive knife.
I am not endorsing using any knife in a manner that is likely to seriously damage or break it. After all, using a knife incorrectly is liable to be dangerous to the user or an innocent bystander. Rather, I am acknowledging that stuff happens, so that occasionally one may inadvertently damage a knife. My personal pitfall is losing knives, for I have done that far more often than I have seriously damaged one.
My purpose here is to share some thoughts on types and price ranges of inexpensive knives that might be worth owning. These observations are based on many years of experience using knives of all types and several brands. Some of these have proven better than others and it is these that I will mention specifically. The price ranges within which specific knives fit were verified by retail prices shown on one or more major knife marketing websites as of March, 2016.
Fixed blade knives under $20
The only knives priced under $20 that are worth having are fixed blade knives. These are mass produced, mostly with synthetic handles injection molded over half or three-quarter tangs. Specific Cold Steel and Morakniv models are patent examples of the type. I can say from experience that these are excellent utility knives.
Cold Steel markets four models of utility knives that retail under $20. These are the Canadian Belt Knife, Finn Bear, Roach Belly and Pendleton Lite Hunter. All have German 4116 stainless steel blades with molded polypropylene handles and come with pouch type nylon belt sheaths. I would classify these as medium duty knives. The blade lengths range from 3-5/8 to 4-1/2 inches, with blade thicknesses of 2.5 mm (3.0mm for the Pendleton model). All are made in Taiwan.
These knives have been around for a while and I have owned and used all of them, except the Roach Belly. It may sound odd, but the Canadian Belt Knife (pictured above) is my first choice for a utility kitchen knife. I often carry the Pendleton when hunting small game or visiting a fishing pond.
Morakniv makes a bewildering array of inexpensive utility knives. Models of these Swedish made knives include the Companion (formerly called Clipper), Craftline, Classic, Basic, Robust and Pro. There are only minor differences among these models, mainly in handle styles. They typically feature either stainless or carbon steel blades about four inches long and molded synthetic handles. Most have the classic Scandinavian blade profile and bevel grind. In general, these Mora models have blades that I would judge to be somewhat stronger that the blades on the Cold Steel knives listed above.
My least favorite feature of these knives is the semi-rigid molded plastic sheath. It is functional, but I just do not like it.
I currently own a Clipper model with a four inch stainless steel blade. I mainly use this as a gardening and rough carpentry tool, which means it gets dirty and gritty. I rinse it off after use and touch up the edge whenever needed. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Certainly there are other fixed blade knives on the market for under $20, but I do not pay them much mind. I have had good experiences with the Cold Steel and Morakniv knives mentioned, so I do not need to look elsewhere for a true beater knife. All of the knives I have mentioned sell at somewhere in the teens of dollars; do not expect to get a useful knife of any type or brand for $9.95.
Fixed blade knives, $20 to $40
This category starts with more Morakniv utility knifes and then switches to three USA-made lines of budget hunting knives. The Mora Outdoor 2000 and Bushcraft model knives are built with blades a step-up in strength from the Mora knives listed above. The Outdoor 2000 has a 4.3-inch blade, while the Bushcraft is available with 4.0 and 4.3-inch blades. The Outdoor 2000 uses Sandvik stainless steel, while the Bushcraft may be had with either stainless or carbon steel. Both models have molded Zytel handles. These are heavy duty knives.
The Buck Omni Hunter qualifies as a budget priced hunting knife. This model is available with 3-1/4 or 4.0 inch blades of 420HC stainless steel, with molded Zytel handles. Each knife comes with a nylon belt sheath.
The Buck PakLite knife family also merits mention. These are one-piece "skeleton knives" made of 420HC steel. The several patterns of PakLites can be had either plain, with black, or with an orange "traction coat" finish that covers the skeleton handle and unground portion of the blade. Each knife comes with a nylon sheath. The smaller pieces in the PakLite series actually retail for slightly less than $20, but I am lumping them all into the $20 to $40 price class for convenience.
There are three models of Case Ridgeback budget hunting knives. These include a 3-5/8 inch blade caper, Ridgeback Drop Point Hunter and Ridgeback 533 trailing point skinner. The latter pair have four inch blades. All feature proprietary 420HC stainless steel blades and come with nylon belt sheaths. These are no-nonsense field knives.
Single blade locking folders, $25 to $45
This type of knife has become ubiquitous, so here I can only scratch the surface of the brands and models offered. I will restrict my listing to four brands and a few selected models. These are chosen to indicate what one may reasonably expect to get in a useful knife in this price range. I set the bottom of the range at $25, because any knife of the type that normally sells for less is likely junk.
Most modern locking folder designs are what I call easy opening, with a thumb stud, thumb hole, or flipper used to facilitate one-handed opening. Some designs are totally manual, while others have a spring assist mechanism to aid opening. Liner locks are the most common locking mechanism on the easy opening designs. Important exceptions to these generalities will be noted.
Kershaw makes a wide range of easy opening single blade knives, so I can mention only a few without turning this into a Kershaw survey article. The Kershaw Link is a functional, value priced knife with a 3-1/4 inch blade of 420HC steel in either a drop point or tanto style. The blade deploys via a spring assisted flipper and has a solid liner lock. The comfortably shaped handle has glass-filled nylon panels over stainless steel liners (aluminum handled models are $10 more). I have tested the Link thoroughly and I carry it a lot.
Knife designer Ken Onion worked with Kershaw for a number of years and he created several of their mainstay models. Although too small to be practical outdoors and hunting knives, I want to mention two Onion designs that fit in the present price range. The Chive (2-inch blade) and Scallion (2-1/4 inch blade) are practically perfect small pocket knives. I have given these to my granddaughter and several nephews and nieces for their first "real" knife.
The Link, Chive, and Scallion are made in the USA, but the majority of Kershaw knives are imported. I am comfortable with most of those because of the Kershaw reputation and warranty. Two Chinese made models that I have owned and found adequate are the Oso Sweet (3.1-inch blade) and the Cyro series (2-3/4 or 3-1/4 inch blades).
I consider the Gerber Gator to be one of the best, moderate priced, folding hunting knives ever made. I have had one for many years and I have field dressed several deer with it and the accompanying gut hook tool. (Gerber no longer offers a gut hook tool, unfortunately. Buck Knives still offers these in their PakLite series.)
The Gerber Gator is strong, a fact that I have proven by doing some abusive work with it, including scoring and trimming a few acres of drywall. The knife took this abuse and is still as good as ever.
The standard Gator has a 3.75-inch clip point blade made of 420HC steel. The handle is glass-filled nylon with a Gator Grip over-mold, and is secure and comfortable in the hand. This USA made knife comes with a nylon belt sheath. The downsized Gatormate model has a 3-inch blade. Both models are two-handed opening (pinch the blade to rotate open) and have back locks.
Buck returns to the fray with two more made in the USA models. First, there are three and four inch folding versions of their Omni Hunter design. These knives have thumb studs to assist opening, with back locks. The blade and handle materials are the same as I listed for the fixed blade Omni Hunter. A nylon sheath is included.
The Buck Spitfire is a general purpose pocket knife. It comes with either 2-3/4 or 3-1/4 inch blades of 420HC steel, a thumb hole opening assist and a back lock. The handle is anodized aluminum with three color choices. The flat profile and pocket clip make for easy pocket carry.
Finally, there is the Cold Steel Pocket Bushman. This is a heavy duty utility knife (roughly equivalent to the Mora Bushcraft) that folds. With all steel construction and a very simple sliding bar lock, this knife is almost as rugged as a Humvee. Briefly, the 4-1/2 inch clip point blade is Carpenter CTS BD1 stainless steel, 3.5mm thick at the spine. (The knife I reviewed in 2013 had a blade of 4116 steel, so this is an upgrade.) The handle, lock bar and oversized blade pivot are 420 stainless steel. The only part of the knife that might fatigue or break under less that grotesque abuse is the spring the lock bar works against.
It takes two hands to open and close the blade (see the review for details and other information about the knife). This is my heaviest duty conventional knife, so anything that I cannot handle with my Pocket Bushman is a candidate for machete work.
Two brand names, Spyderco and CRKT, may seem oddly absent from this section. Both are major brands that have knives that are priced in the category. I am not discussing Spyderco for the simple (if inexplicable) reason that I have never owned or gotten familiar with Spyderco knives. I know the Spyderco brand has a very good reputation and I am not questioning this; I just prefer to comment from direct experience.
(Several G&S Online staff members have considerable experience with Spyderco knives and have found them to be excellent. Granted, many Spyderco knives retail for more than $45. See the reviews on the Cutlery page of Guns and Shooting Online. -Editor.)
CRKT (Columbia River Knife and Tool) knives are a totally different matter. I have had several of their locking folder and fixed blade knives, and I have not been impressed. CRKT has launched some innovative designs, but their knives generally do not excel in materials, workmanship, or performance. This is especially true of their lower-priced models. The value priced (Zytel handled) CRKT M16 series knives are okay, but otherwise I do not recommend the lower priced CRKT knives.
Traditional style folding knives, $30 to $50
The focus here is mainly on slip joint folder patterns. The classic Buck Model 110 Folding Hunter and its offspring, plus some of its clones, are also available in this price range. The knives mentioned below are practical and affordable working tools. The bottom of the range is set at $30, because any knife of these types that normally sells for less is approaching junk status.
Two firms, Case and Bear & Son, dominate the value priced traditional folder market niche, with knives made right here in the USA. It is no accident that the knife patterns are mostly the Stockman and Trapper, in various sizes. These two patterns are the most capable and versatile patterns ever designed for working pocket knives.
The Case offerings mostly come with synthetic handles. Synthetic handle scales include smooth yellow, rough black and jigged brown or blue. One series, the Caliber, has molded Zytel handles. In addition, there are a few knives for less than $50 with smooth or jigged bone handles. Almost all have stainless steel blades.
Bear & Son makes similar size and pattern knives with rosewood, American walnut, red stag bone, G10, Delrin and desert ironwood handle scales. The knives hafted with American walnut and red stag bone have carbon steel blades, the others have stainless steel blades.
The locking folders based on the Buck Model 110 Folding Hunter are all available for under $50. This includes, besides the Model 110, the 112 Ranger Hunter, 500 Duke, 501 Squire, 503 Prince, 505 Knight and 55 Folding Hunter. These standard models all have stained Dymondwood handle scales.
If one wants this type of knife, in this price range, but prefers natural or tough synthetic handle scales, the Bear & Son Midsize Lockback Folder (3-3/4 inch closed, with 2-5/8 inch blade) is available in six models, two each with wood, bone and G10 handles.
What about machetes?
I have already discussing value priced Machetes in a feature article on those tools. The bottom line is that one can get a serviceable light or medium duty machete for somewhere between $20 and $50. See the article for more information on selecting and pricing machetes.
Naturally, knife makers and marketers would like us to buy their more expensive products and owning such knives can be gratifying. However, it makes no sense to spend $100 or more for a knife that will get knocked around in a tool box, dropped in the mud, or otherwise treated roughly. Serviceable utility, hunting and pocket knives that can be had without draining the bank account are the way to go for dirty work.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.