Budget Modern Folding Knives
By Gary Zinn
CIVIVI Wyvern knife, with D2 blade and FRN handle.
Illustration courtesy of Knife Center.
It is no secret that modern style folding knives are a very big part of the current knife market, and have been for some time. The type of knives in question feature single blades, with a blade lock of some sort, and often are designed for one-handed opening, usually via thumb studs, a thumb hole, or a flipper spur. Some also have an assist mechanism to power the blade open once the user starts the process, and most have a pocket clip that mounts onto the handle at one or more locations.
of the type described range in price from a few dollars to hundreds
of dollars. The high end knives sport top notch blade and handle
materials, sophisticated designs, and brand or model names associated
with renowned knife designers. The cheapest specimens are just that
— cheap. Generally, you get what you pay for.
After many years of watching the market and buying and using a number of modern style knives, I have reached some practical conclusions. The major message of this article that anyone who wants a serviceable knife, without bells and whistles galore, can get a product that suits for roughly $40 to $60 in the current competitive market. Understand that such a knife will not sport a “super steel” blade and luxury handle materials. The blade will not necessarily spring open when you breathe on it, nor will the locking mechanism remind one of a bank vault door. However, if one wants a knife to use on an everyday basis without worrying about blemishing or dinging it, then a well chosen budget priced knife will fill the bill nicely.
I used the filters available on the Knife Center website to generate data that illustrates what is available to buyers within the indicated price range. When I did this — in January, 2020 — Knife Center listed about 3700 “folding modern pocket knives” in stock. Nearly 800 of these were priced at $40 to $60, with models and variants bearing nearly two dozen well recognized brand names.
Blades and handles
Perhaps the key consideration in choosing a budget knife is its blade steel. The $40 - $60 knives listed by Knife Center come with a variety of steels, totaling about three dozen. However, the one clearly leading the pack is D2 tool steel. Nearly 300 of the knives listed use D2, which means that this steel is featured on over one-third of the knives in question. No other blade steel comes close to D2 in usage in these budget category knives.
Handle materials used in these knives is a simpler story. The majority have thermoplastic handle scales (e.g., fiber reinforced nylon), usually over stainless steel liners. G10 is used on a significant number of these knives, and some have metal handles, usually anodized aluminum. Such handle materials are not exciting, perhaps, but are proven to be durable and serviceable.
Where they are made
Where these knives are made merits discussion. Over 60 percent of the roughly 800 knives in question come from China (ROC). In the distant past, Chinese made knives peddled in the U.S. market were mostly junk and there are still enough of these inferior products on the market to waste the money of uninformed buyers. I admit to having bought a few of these duds before I wised up and I may still have some of them languishing somewhere around my house or shop.
However, current Chinese modern style folders selling in the $40 - $60 price range are usually decent products and honest values. In fact, I am confident in recommending the budget priced knives made by four Chinese firms; these are Artisan Cutlery, Bestech Knives, CIVIVI, and Steel Will Knives. I have two key reasons for calling attention to these firms.
Artisan, Bestech, and Steel Will all make knives for the upscale
production knife market (selling for street prices up to about $300,
depending on model and variant), while CIVIVI is a subsidiary of the
We Knife Co., which also competes in the upscale production knife
market. These firms have earned reputations for making good upscale
products, and it would be counterproductive for them to market junk
knives bearing their brand names. It behooves the companies to make
budget knives that do not sully their reputation.
Second, these four firms all use D2 steel heavily in their budget knife models. The four firms just mentioned make some 260 models and variants of knives, with D2 blades, that sell in the $40 - $60 price slot. (Artisan Cutlery leads the pack, using D2 on over 100 of their models and variants.) D2 performs as well as any steel normally used in budget knives, and arguably is better overall than most. Heavy use of D2 reinforces the idea that these four Chinese firms are making many of the better knives available in the price range.
Another Chinese firm that merits mention is Real Steel, which offers a nice selection of budget priced knives made with Sandvik 14C28N blades. A search of the Knife Center website found 25 of these in the $40-$60 price range. I reviewed a T101 Special Edition https://www.chuckhawks.com/real_steel_T101.html Real Steel knife and found it quite satisfactory.
are also some notable made in the U.S.A. knives that fit into the
budget knife category, as defined. Here are the knives that quickly
come to mind when I think about solid, domestic made locking folders
that sell for $40 to $60. (Some of these are not designed for
is no better place to begin than with the Buck Model 110 Folding
Hunter (the knife that started the locking folder avalanche) and
Model 112 Ranger. Besides the originals, Buck Knives has recently
introduced both upscale and economy variants of these classic models.
folding Gerber Gator has been one of my favorite all-purpose knives
for a long time, and has more recently been joined by a model called
the Edict. The Kershaw Ken Onion Leek became a classic almost as
soon as it was introduced, while the Model 1776 Link is a knife that
I like a lot. The Bear OPS Swipe and Rancor knives fit into this
market category. Someone who likes a traditional locking folder may
find that the Case Tribal Lock, Mini Copperlock, or Russlock suits
Additional notes on blade steels
Personally, I am enthused that D2 steel is used in a significant number of these budget knives. I have had considerable experience with D2 in recent years and I like it a lot. In particular, I find that D2 will take a very sharp edge and hold it very well during use. Three often quoted criticisms of D2 are that it is not a stainless steel, it is prone to edge chipping, and it is hard to sharpen. I believe these knocks on D2 to be overblown.
D2 is an alloy containing 1.5% carbon and 12% chromium, among other elements. The carbon content is quite high, and carbon is what makes steel susceptible to rust. Meanwhile, the chromium content of D2 is a percentage point below what is considered necessary to classify a steel alloy as “stainless.” Accordingly, D2 is often referred to as being “semi-stainless,” i.e., not highly susceptible to rusting. I take no chances with my D2 knives, treating them with the same rust prevention measures as I do simple carbon steels, such as 1095: I clean them of any corrosive or moisture holding gunk after use, dry them thoroughly, and apply a very light wipe of mineral oil to the blade if the knife is going into storage. I have had absolutely no problems with rusting; my D2 knives do not even show signs of wanting to develop a patina.
I have never had one of my D2 blades edge chip, but I do not normally use my knives in ways that would invite edge damage. (The rough work is what machetes or heavy bladed knives with 1095 steel are for.) I can only speculate that D2 got the chipping rap because of some blades that were improperly tempered — probably over tempered, Spec sheets indicate that D2 can be tempered to as high as Rc 61 or 62. Personally, I pretty much avoid knives that are quoted as being tempered above Rc 60. My experience is that blades tempered only a point or two above Rc 60 become noticeably difficult to sharpen well, and are more likely to edge chip than the same steel tempered to Rc 60 or a bit below. This is not a scientific observation, just an impression based on long experience with a lot of knives.
If you get a D2 knife really dull and then try to work the primary bevel on conventional bench stones, it will be hard to sharpen. This is because D2 is more wear resistant than most common steels, which largely explains why it holds an edge well but has a reputation of being hard to sharpen. The solution is simple: touch-up the edge before it gets seriously dull, using a ceramic rod sharpener. By doing this, you are working only the narrow edge (secondary) bevel and not having to grind on the wider primary bevel. D2 responds well to ceramic sharpeners set at the proper angle of attack, and will readily take an edge as keen as any other steel in its price class. To get that last little bit of edge quality, hone the knife on a butchers steel or treated leather strop after getting it to the desired level of acuity on the ceramic rods.
If you must grind the primary bevel on a D2 blade, use a diamond plate or ceramic bench stone. D2 grinds on these much more readily than it does on conventional bench stones. D2 is not that hard to sharpen if you go about it right.
I know that I have given a lot of attention to D2 steel, but please do not infer that I am all in on D2, to the exclusion of other steels that are suitable for use in budget modern folders. I wrote what I did about D2 because I believe it is somewhat misunderstood and unfairly maligned.
That said, I will mention a few others of the three dozen steels that are used in these budget knives, according to my filtered search on the Knife Center website. The most notable of these include (in no particular order) 420HC and Case Tru-Sharp (a proprietary variant of 420HC), Sandvik 12C27 and 14C28N, 440C, and AUS-8. These steels all have a proven record of satisfactory service in budget priced knives. I have used and maintained a number of knives with each of these steels, and can live comfortably with any of them.
There is another group of steels relevant to this discussion, the 7Cr, 8Cr, and 9Cr series Chinese steels. These are widely used in knives made in China, both for Chinese brand products and American and European brands. My experience with these steels is much more limited than with the steels mentioned above; currently I have a Kershaw Natrix knife with 8Cr13MoV and a Steel Will Druid (fixed blade) with 9Cr18MoV steel. I have had some Chinese knives with 7Cr series steel, but I was disappointed with those and have discarded or mislaid them. I do not recommend knives that have 7Cr series blades.
I have read multiple opinions that 8Cr13MoV and 8Cr14MoV are closely comparable with AUS-8. I have or have had several knives with AUS-8, and have always found it quite satisfactory. After getting my Kershaw Natrix, I did some side-by-side test cuts with it and a SOG Trident with an AUS-8 blade. This was a limited comparison, but I agree that the Natrix with 8Cr13MoV cut very much like the Trident with AUS-8. I am good with that.
to 9Cr18MoV, I evaluated the factory edge on the Steel Will Druid
with this steel to be Extremely Sharp (ES), my highest qualitative
evaluation of blade acuity. I subjected this knife to a strenuous
cutting test, amounting to cutting 40 lineal feet of double ply
corrugated cardboard. This dulled the edge considerably, to the
point that the blade was still cutting effectively, but with
discernibly more effort on my part.
Then I sharpened the blade on my ceramic rod sharpener, a dozen strokes on each side with medium grit rods and the same number of strokes with fine grit rods. That simple touching-up, plus a few strokes on a butchers steel, restored the edge to ES condition. I was impressed with both the durability of the edge and how easy it was to restore it after some dulling. Based on this experience, I would not hesitate to buy another knife with 9Cr18MoV steel.
If a Chris Reeve Large Sebenza 31 with CPM-S35VN blade and titanium handle with Macassar Ebony inlays is your dream knife, then pony up about $600 and go for it. I will bet, though, that the knife will be a display diva (an impressive one, for sure) that you will never carry and use as a working knife.
Conversely, if you want a no-nonsense, working EDC knife, you can almost surely find something that suits your needs and preferences among the several hundred budget modern folding knives that have been the focus of this article. Happy shopping!
Note: Various G&S Online editors and contributors have reviewed a wide selection of budget priced locking folder knives. See the Knife Reviews (Folding) section of the Cutlery page to see if we have reviewed a knife that interests you.
Copyright 2020 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.