Good Knives for Under $100
By Gary Zinn
Kershaw Link assisted flipper knife. Image courtesy of Knife Center.
There are many expensive knives on the market today, so it would be easy to conclude that one must pay a lot to get a knife that will provide satisfaction, however that may be measured. I believe this is not necessarily so, for there are still many reasonably priced knives that can give good service, whether that be for everyday small cutting (EDC) tasks, field dressing, skinning and processing a big game animal, or anything else.
I thought it would be interesting to identify some popular brands and models of knives that can be bought for $100 or less. I was able to group such knives by general use categories, including Beater (hard use) knives, EDC knives, Hunting knives and Slip Joint pocket knives. I was also able to define some price ranges within the general $100 limit.
Understand that the makes and models of knives I mention are merely indicative of a larger population of products that fit into each use and price category. I mostly concentrated on the more popular brand names and stuck largely with models with which I have direct familiarity and experience. Please do not take it personally if I do not mention your favorite brand or model of knife. Without exception, the knife brands and models I mention first in each category below are ones that I currently own and use.
The prices I quote for various knives are approximate retail prices, based on September, 2018 information on items cataloged on the Blade HQ and Knife Center marketing websites. Generally, these market prices are discounted from the MSRPs of the knives in question. Prices will vary somewhat from vendor to vendor and will change over time.
Beater knives (under $25)
By "beater knife" I mean an inexpensive fixed blade knife that can be used for rough work in the shop, garden, camp, or on the job site. Blade length in the 3-1/2 inch to 4 inch range is about right for utility use. Blades may be any of the common stainless or carbon steels. Handles on these mass produced knives typically are thermoplastic molded onto hidden tangs. These knives are for abusive use to which one would not want to subject an expensive knife.
My first choice for a beater knife is a Morakniv Companion, or Basic, model. Blade options are within the parameters mentioned above and these knives have very good handles, generously sized and ergonomically shaped. The handle material and surface texture facilitate maintaining a secure grip when one is working with wet or slippery hands. Prices of the several specific models of the Companion and Basic knives range between $8 and $25.
I also own and use the Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter and Canadian Belt Knife. These and the Finn Bear, Roach Belly and Finn Hawk are mainly distinguished from one another by having different blade patterns. All have well-shaped molded polypropylene handles. Prices range from $13 to $23.
I do not believe in folding beater knives. I could not find any folding knives selling for under $25 that have the handle and blade lock strength to withstand the rough service to which a beater knife might be subjected.
Basic EDC knives (under $30)
The acronym EDC has come to signify modern style, single blade, folding knives. Most include some sort of one-hand blade opening feature, a lock to hold the blade open and a pocket clip. What I am calling basic EDC knifes have these features, generally without additional bells and whistles.
Common stainless steel blades, molded thermoplastic handles, thumb studs (or a thumb hole or flipper) to facilitate one-handed opening and a simple back or liner lock would cover the usual features of these knives. Blade lengths are typically no more than about 3 to 3-1/2 inches, so these are compact, light weight knives that carry easily when dropped into or clipped to a pants pocket. Light to medium duty utility work is the forte of these knives.
I have the relatively new Buck Rival series knives at the top of my basic EDC list. These are simple, functional tools, available in four sizes from 1-7/8 to 3-5/8 inch blade lengths. I carry the Buck Rival I, with a 2-3/4 inch 420HC stainless blade, thumb studs and back lock. It is a nifty general purpose pocket knife. Prices of the Rival series knives range from $17 to $24.
Kershaw offers many models and variants of EDC knives that sell for $30 or less. My favorite is the Oso Sweet, which is unusually feature packed for a $24 EDC knife. The Oso Sweet sports a 3 inch blade in a GFN handle, with a flipper spur and spring assist to ease one hand opening, plus a liner lock to hold the blade open.
Another simple EDC knife I have gotten good service from is the KA-BAR Dozier Folding Hunter. This one has a 3 inch blade, Zytel handle, thumb studs and a back lock, for $20.
Budget EDC knives ($30 to $50)
There are a multitude of EDC knives on the market in this price range. Designs of these are generally more sophisticated than those of basic EDC knives, with things like steel handle liners, opening assist mechanisms (sometimes) and more options in blade locks. Blade steels are sometimes a step up from those available on basic knifes. Here are a few that illustrate the possible choices.
My go-to knife of this type is the Kershaw Link. The basic version of this well-designed knife carries a 3-1/4 inch, drop point, 420HC stainless blade in a 4-3/8 inch GFN handle with steel liners. Blade opening is via a flipper spur and SpeedSafe assist technology, while the deployed blade is secured by a liner lock.
I like this knife for the blade profile, deployment system and the ample sized, ergonomic handle. In addition, it has a functional pocket clip that does not cause a hot spot in my palm. The Link, as described, sells for $39, with aluminum handled models about $6 more.
Kershaw has several other models that sell in this price range, such as the Cyro, Clash and Scallion. Spyderco makes a bevy of good budget EDC knives, including the Ladybug, Persistence and Tenacious. Notable CRKT budget EDC knives include the M4 and Ripple. The Flash II is a nifty SOG offering. The Ontario RAT I and RAT II are tough-as-nails budget EDC knives.
I could go on, but I believe you get the idea. There should be a budget priced EDC knife that will suit almost any set of needs and preferences.
EDC knives ($50 to $100)
Compared with budget EDC knives, knives in this price category generally have some combination, but not necessarily all, of the following value added features: better handle and/or blade material, washers or bearings and possibly assist mechanisms to smooth opening action, blade profile options and/or blade coatings not usually available on budget priced knives.
More bells and whistles justify a higher price for these products. There are even more makes and models of EDC knives in this price range than in the budget knife category. Here are just enough examples to scratch the surface.
The SOG Trident was, as I recall, one of the early assisted opening designs with a sophisticated blade lock mechanism. Only a few of the first generation designs are still going strong. I bought a Trident nearly two decades ago and it still serves me well. The Trident variant I have is still on the market, with its 3-3/4 inch AUS-8 clip point blade, 4-3/4 inch FRN handle, thumb studs, S.A.T. opening technology and an Arc Lock. The current market price is $68.
This first generation Trident design is available in a handful of variants with different blade profiles and/or blade coatings. There is a downsized Trident Mini and a redesigned Trident Elite. The Trident line has thrived and expanded over time.
Knife makers that offer a lot of EDC knives in this price range include Spyderco, with the Resilience, Dragonfly 2, Centofante 3, Manix 2, Delica 4, Endura and Native models. Kershaw notably has the Blur, Blackout, Knockout, Chive, Leek and Scallion models that fit in this price range Other notable makes and models that fit here include the Benchmade Mini-Griptilian, the Buck Vantage and the CRKT Homefront.
Basic and budget hunting knives (under $50)
Believe it or not, one can get a competent hunting knife for under $50. Even some under $25 beater knives can be used for the purpose and between $25 and $50 there are viable options in both fixed blade and folding models. Get one of these with a blade made of decent steel, a blade length of 4 inches (plus or minus) and a thermoplastic handle molded over a hidden tang (fixed blade), or a plastic handle molded to house a folding blade with a blade lock and the next deer you field dress, skin and process will not know the difference from a fancy knife costing $200 or more.
My first recommendation in a budget hunting knife is the original Gerber Gator. I like the Gator, because it has a generously sized, ergonomically shaped handle; one of the best available on production hunting knives at any price. There are two folding original Gators and one fixed blade model.
The folders both have 3-3/4 inch blades in 5 inch GFN handles with a softer rubber-like over-mold. One model has a clip blade of 420HC steel, the other a drop point blade of 154CM. The fixed blade knife features a 4 inch drop point blade of 420HC and a 4-3/4 inch handle of the same design and materials as the folders. All come with ballistic nylon belt sheaths. Prices range from $32 to $42.
The Buck Omni Hunter comes in folding and fixed blade variants and in two sizes. The 10PT fixed blade and folding models have 3-1/4 inch and 3 inch blades, respectively. The 10PT folder, with its wide blade and substantial curve between belly and tip, would make a great dedicated skinning knife. The 12PT knives, folders and fixed blades, have 4 inch blades. All feature 420HC steel, molded thermoplastic handles and ballistic nylon sheaths. Prices range from $32 to $47.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the classic Buck Model 110 Folding Hunter, the design that is the progenitor of modern folding hunting knives. The basic Model 110, with a 420HC stainless blade, brass bolsters and Dymondwood handle scales, sells for about $40.
If you want a budget hunting knife with a longer blade, consider the Case Lightweight Hunter fixed blade series. There are a handful of options among 5 inch and 6 inch blade knives, with Case Tru-Sharp stainless steel blades, well-sized and shaped thermoplastic handles and ballistic nylon sheaths. Prices range between $44 and $50.
Hunting knives ($50 to $100)
Hunting knives in this price range are not as numerous as EDC knives, but there are still many good options. The majority of $50 to $100 hunting knives have fixed blades, with enough locking folders to make things interesting. In addition, EDC knives with an appropriate blade profile and size are also suitable for hunting use, even if they are not designated hunting knives.
In my opinion, the relatively new Buck Open Season knives are feature and value leaders in this price range. The Open Season Avid series knives, with 420HC steel blades and thermoplastic handle covers, include six variants.
The most versatile of these is the Model 536 Skinner. This fixed blade model has a full-bellied 3-5/8 inch drop point blade, which makes it a good all purpose big game hunting knife. Besides the excellent blade profile, this knife, in common with the entire Open Season series, has a very ergonomic handle shape and size. All Open Season Avid series knives come with top quality ballistic cloth sheaths.
Buck also offers the Open Season Model 556 Folding Skinner, with a 3-1/4 inch blade of the same profile as the Model 536. Prices run $65 and $70, respectively, for the fixed blade and folding models. For those who want upscale materials, the Open Season Pro series knives offer CPM-S35VN blades, Micarta handles and leather sheaths at about twice the price of comparable models in the Avid series.
New from Buck is an upscale version of its iconic Model 110 Folding Hunter knife. The Model 110 Pro sports a CPM-S30V blade, G10 handle scales and comes with a leather sheath. Discount retail price is right at the $100 mark.
The Gerber Gator Premium knives also feature S30V steel, in both fixed blade and folder models. The Gator Premium handles retain the ergonomic shape and size of the original Gator handles, with some cosmetic tweaks. The fixed blade Gator Premium has a 4 inch blade, the folding blade is 3.6 inches long. Both models come with leather sheaths, for $80 (folder) and $95 (fixed blade).
Other fixed blade knives that merit mention include the Cold Steel Pendleton Hunter, Master Hunter and a handful of Knives of Alaska models that feature D2 steel. Steel Will has several variants of its Druid hunting knife design in the $50 - $100 price range. Do not overlook the Buck Vanguard, a very stylish and efficient hunting knife design.
If one wants a traditional style hunting knife, the Case Leather Hunter series and the classic first generation Buck fixed blade hunters are still going strong. Besides the Buck and Gerber folding knives already mentioned, others worth considering include the CRKT Homefront Hunter and the Real Steel Bushcraft folder.
There are even a couple of options in exchange blade knives in the price range. These are the Buck Selector 2.0 and Case XX-Changer.
I have not exhausted the brands and models of hunting knives that fall within the $50 - $100 price range. The ones mentioned here are those with which I have first hand familiarity, or which intrigue me with their apparent potential to be good hunters.
Slip joint pocket knives (under $100)
Traditional style slip joint knives may be quaint, but they are still as useful as ever. While EDC type knives have proliferated, in terms of brand names, models and variants offered, the market for traditional folders has been winnowed down to a handful of significant players who make knives of similar patterns and feature similar materials. Currently, only Bear & Son, Case and Great Eastern Cutlery are significant U.S.A. manufacturers of traditional folding knives.
Queen Cutlery closed for "reorganization" in January, 2018. Nearly a year has passed with no indication that the firm will reopen, so they are out of play.
I do not include Utica Cutlery and Buck Knives in this discussion, because they offer only a small number of slip joint knife models. The Utica knives are American made, while the current Buck offerings are all imported.
International makers of traditional pocket knives have also dwindled. Frankly, I trust the materials and workmanship of only two brand names, Boker and Hen & Rooster, when it comes to imported slip joint knives. Even in these brands, I look for those models and variants that are labeled "Made in Germany."
As for traditional style folders made in Red China (the PRC) and various obscure locales, I ignore them and urge others to do likewise. Whether sold under a historically known American brand name, a brand name previously unknown to the knife world, or (sometimes) no brand name at all, slip joint folders that sell for about $25 or less are almost always junk.
The same goes, of course, for the bottom end of the fixed blade and EDC-type knife markets. With very few exceptions, products that sell for only a few dollars should not be taken seriously.
There are many well made, traditional style, slip joint folder knives that can be bought for $100, or somewhat less, from any of the five reputable manufacturers I mentioned above. Common features of knives made by these firms include stainless steel blades, brass liners and center cuts, nickel silver bolsters and either brass or nickel silver pins. Cattle bone (usually dyed and jigged) is the most common material used for scales, while antler (usually called stag), wood and hard thermoplastic handles get a good amount of play.
I have never tried to count the number of factory patterns (i.e., frame sizes and shapes) used to make traditional pocket knives. An indicator is Case claims to have over seventy patterns in its design manual. However, it is clear that the most popular patterns, historically and currently, are the 3-blade stockman, 2-blade trapper and 2 or 1 blade knives made on some variant of the simple sleeve board "jack knife" pattern.
The closed lengths of knives made on these and other patterns can range from about 2-1/2 to 5 inches. The most common sizes range from the popular 2-7/8 inch Peanut (a sleeve board pattern variant) to various patterns with closed lengths in the 3-1/2 to 3-3/4 inch range. Stockman and trapper patterns in this size class are especially popular and useful.
Given these generalities, here are the knives that I keep in a tray on my dresser, ready to drop into a pocket at any time. For small, handy, pocket "dress" knifes, I have a 2-blade Case Mini Copperhead (3-1/8 inch closed length) and a three inch, 2-blade Buck Companion (an older made-in-USA model). Larger pocket knives for use working in the shop, yard, or for trips to the shooting range or fishing pond, include a Case Medium Stockman (3-5/8 inches closed length), Case Mini Trapper (3-1/2 inches) and GEC Northfield Improved Trapper (3-7/8 inches). This by no means exhausts my inventory of slip joint knives, but these are the ones I carry and use the most.
Slip joint knives are not just for random odd jobs. At a young age, my father taught me to clean squirrels and rabbits with his trapper knife and I still favor medium sized trapper or stockman knives for cleaning small game. I like these, because the rounded spey blades are great for skinning, while the clip blades make short work of gutting and cutting up pieces for the frying pan.
Recently, I tumbled to what I believe is the perfect small game knife, the Case Saddlehorn. This is a 3-1/2 inch closed length knife with clip and skinner blades, the latter blade is an improvement over my beloved spey pattern blades for skinning small animals.
Large slip joint knives may be used as big game hunting knives, but I do not recommend it. Locking folders are safer for this purpose, or for any application where reverse pressure might be inadvertently applied to the blade spine.
A note about blade steel is in order. Great Eastern Cutlery knives feature 1095 carbon steel almost exclusively, while the other four major makers mainly use some variant of 420 or 440 stainless steel.
The majority of traditional slip joint knives offered by Bear and Son, Boker, Case and Hen & Rooster sell at street price somewhat below $100. GEC Tidioute brand knives generally sell for just under $100, while those with the Northfield tang stamp are more likely to be priced somewhat above the $100 benchmark.
I count eighteen specific knives mentioned in this article that have been reviewed by Guns and Shooting Online. The information about the knives mentioned herein was necessarily cursory. I did not embed direct links to these reviews, so as not to overwork my editor.
However, these and reviews of many other knives may be accessed via the Guns and Shooting Online Cutlery page. Anyone shopping for a knife of any of the types I have mentioned should consult the available Guns and Shooting Online reviews for additional information to help guide buying decisions.
Copyright 2018 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.