We have all seen reviews and advertisements for custom knives that cost from a few hundred to a thousand dollars or more. In most cases, these examples of the knifesmiths’ art are well worth their price tags. They are made by hand, use the best materials and require many steps from start to finish. But a good quality knife doesn’t have to be expensive. In this article, we showcase 10 knives (five fixed blades and five folders) that have proven popular with the knife-carrying public; and they are all under $100. They are simpler in design and don’t use the best materials, but they do come with the features most of us require, and the steel does its job.
Budget-Friendly Fixed Blades
A good fixed-blade knife with the right set of characteristics will do a wide variety of chores well. From chopping wood for fire or shelter to dressing out game for dinner and even defending yourself if the situation arises, it should have the following characteristics:
A blade that is 4 to 6 inches long
A sturdy sheath made of leather, plastic or Kydex
A flat spine for use as a ferro rod striker and for batoning wood
A full tang that runs the length of the handle for strength and balance
A blade design that is easy to sharpen
The following fixed blades have all or most of these features at a price point that won’t empty your wallet or make you give up those weekend beers with your buddies.
With an overall length of 10.75 inches and a 6-inch SK-5 steel blade, the SRK is one of my favorite fixed blades. It comes very sharp from the factory and, at 8.5 ounces, it has the weight to work well for chopping small branches and batoning larger pieces of wood. The synthetic Kray-Ex handle stays in the hand without slipping, and the handle’s ergonomics work well with the hand for long-term use. A popular knife with military and tactical law enforcement personnel, the SRK is the standard-issue knife of the Navy SEALS for their BUDS training, proving its worth time and time again in the most demanding environments.
“A good fixed-blade knife with the right set of characteristics will do a wide variety of chores well.”
This knife’s big brother, the full-sized KA-BAR combat knife, rode on my web gear during my entire time as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, and I used it every day while in the field. This shorter version will provide the same level of service. Its shorter length actually makes it a little easier to use in tighter spaces. The full-tang 1095 Cro-Van steel blade is 5.5 inches long and 0.165 inch thick. The handle is made of synthetic Kraton G material that absorbs shock when using the knife for hard work, and it helps keep it from slipping in your hand.
With similar lines as the Tom Brown Tracker knife, the Buck n Bear Tactical Bushcraft Tracker is a solid backcountry tool whose design incorporates features from different single-purpose knives into one multi-purpose fixed-blade tool. You can chop branches, make kindling, scrape animal hides, carve and do other fine tasks, cut notches and score bone and metal, and baton wood into smaller pieces for the fire. The 440C stainless steel blade is 5 inches long and has a full tang that extends all the way through the maple burl handle. Its overall length is 9.75 inches. The provided sheath is made of leather and has pockets for small items such as a sharpening stone or steel.
The StrongArm is a next-generation version of Gerber’s venerable LMF design. The 4.8-inch blade is made with 420HC steel and is offered in fine and partially serrated versions. The HC steel has a ceramic coating that protects it from corrosion, and the blade takes—and holds—a very sharp, long-lasting edge. The glass-filled nylon handle has a comfortable overmolded rubber surface with a debossed diamond pattern texture to help with retention, even when your hands are wet or slimy. The StrongArm’s overall length is 9.8 inches, with a spike pommel that can be used as a glass-breaker or as a defensive impact weapon. Possibly the most interesting and innovative feature of the StrongArm is its sheath, which is user customizable and allows two-way carry on a belt, as a drop-leg and on MOLLE platforms. Black and coyote brown handle/sheath color options are available.
SOG made its name by designing and manufacturing full-sized combat- and field-ready knives. At 9 inches long overall, the Seal Pup is the little brother to the full-sized Seal Team knife and retains its useful features in a smaller package. The Seal Pup has a 4.75-inch, powder-coated, AUS-8 stainless steel clip-point blade with a partially serrated cutting edge. The handle is made of glass-reinforced nylon (GRN) with a grippy checkered surface to help keep it in place in all environments. It has a flat spine, so you can use it with a ferro rod to spark a fire or baton to split and chop. The Seal Pup’s sheath allows you to mount the knife securely in a variety of locations.
Where to Get a Good Deal
All the knives covered here have a retail price of under $100; the prices came from the manufacturer’s websites. Fortunately, there are many websites that offer knives at less than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), so you can get them for even less than they are quoted in the article. Or, you can upgrade some of these products with a different blade steel, a longer blade, additional features or a better sheath.
Here are a few of those sites. A search of the Web will find more, but these have great selections, good prices and solid reputations:
Folding knives should complement the fixed blade you carry, rather than try to replace it. The folders chosen for this article range from small pocket knives with multiple special blades to folders with stout blades that can do fine and rugged work.
Regardless of its purpose, it should have the following characteristics:
A blade that is 2 to 4 inches long
Comfortable handle design and scales for comfort during long periods of use
An effective locking mechanism to keep the blade from closing on your hand
Easy to open with one hand
A simple blade design that is easy to sharpen
The right mix of blades and tools to accomplish your anticipated needs
The following five folders have most or all these features and are under $100.
Folding Knife Locking Mechanisms
There are many ways to lock the folding blade in place so that it won’t close on your fingers when you use it in a rough manner. The three most popular are the liner lock, bolt lock and lockback. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)
Top: The lockback design employs a pivoting lever mounted on the top edge of the handle. It holds the blade in position until you depress the end of the lever farthest from the blade to release it. This is the design used on most Buck Knives folding knives and is considered a safe way to lock and release the blade of a folding knife.
Middle: The bolt lock uses a spring-loaded bolt or pin that pushes on the blade when it is in position, keeping it from rotating out of its locked position. To release the blade, the bolt is slid rearward to allow the blade to rotate into the handle.
Bottom: The liner lock uses a bent spring-like section of the steel handle liner that wedges itself behind the blade when the knife is open. (This is the same premise used on frame lock knives. These models don’t have a handle scale covering the side of the handle that the lock is on.) This keeps the blade from rotating back into the handle during use. To release the blade, push the locking spring to the side until it clears the back of the blade, allowing the blade to rotate into the handle. This construction allows one-handed deployment and closure of the blade and is one of the most popular lock methods in use today.
The Picatinny Tool is a very purpose-built folder. It was designed in concert with Crimson Trace Corporation for those members of the AR shooting community who use lasers and optics on their firearms. It has a partially serrated 2.75-inch, high carbon steel main blade and ambidextrous thumb studs for one-handed opening. The blade is held in place with a liner lock. In addition to the main blade, the Picatinny Tool sports a set of two removable Allen wrenches for adjusting optics and a hex bit driver with flat head, Phillips, torx and hex bits. A foldout blade designed for scraping carbon from surfaces also includes an 8mm wrench. A foldout pin with a rounded head completes the toolset and is used to clear jams and push on locking pins.
The US-Assist is one of Gerber’s newer knives and employs its innovative B.O.S.S. Tech ball bearing system that provides very smooth assisted-opening deployment. Designed with the features you look for in an everyday carry (EDC) pocket knife, it has a single, 3-inch 420 HC steel blade that locks in place with Gerber’s cross bolt safety. Gerber offers both fine-edge and partially serrated-edge blade options. The handle has glass-filled nylon (GFN) scales for durability and a two-position pocket clip made of heavy wire that is easy to clip on and off your clothing. The blade has an ambidextrous thumb stud for easy assisted opening. The US-ASSIST 420HC’s overall length is 7.2 inches.
“Folding knives should complement the fixed blade you carry, rather than try to replace it.”
3. Kershaw’s Leek
Many people consider the Kershaw Leek the ideal EDC knife. Its slim, stainless steel handle has a clean design and houses a razor-sharp 3-inch blade. The blade is held in place when open by a super-secure frame lock, and a Tip-Lock slider locks the blade closed when it’s folded in your pocket. The Leek’s 14C28N blade is a modified drop point, and it’s offered in plain and partially serrated versions. Opened to its 7-inch overall length, the Leek is a good slicing knife, and its slim tip gives it piercing capability and the ability to do detailed work. Like other Ken Onion designs, the Leek features the SpeedSafe ambidextrous assisted-opening system: Just pull back on the flipper, and the Leek’s blade is ready to go to work. The pocket clip can be mounted in two positions.
The RAT 1A BP is the folder counterpart to Ontario’s fixed-blade RAT 3. It has OKC’s patent-pending Tactical Assisted Opening (T.A.O.) thumb stud for easy one-handed opening. The knife’s design is both aggressive and practical, and its 8.5-inch overall length makes it a good choice for both everyday chores and emergency situations. The 3.5-inch AUS-8 stainless steel blade has a smooth-cutting blade shape that will handle most tasks you throw at it. The textured G10 scales surround a frame that includes a liner lock to keep the blade secure when in the open position and a lock release to keep the knife from opening accidentally. A four-position pocket clip rounds out this well-designed pocket folder.
This article started out with a very specific, purpose-built folder so it seems fitting to finish up our list of affordable folders with a full-featured general-purpose folder. The Ranger Grip 57 has 13 tools packed between its signature red synthetic scales with black rubber grip inserts. Tools include: toothpick and tweezers, can opener, two screwdrivers, large blade, bottle opener and wire stripper, wood saw, reamer/punch/awl, gutting blade, corkscrew and key ring. The main blade has a thumb hole large enough to use with or without gloves on. A liner lock keeps it and other blades secured when they are open. The Ranger Grip 57 measures 5 inches closed.
We’ve just looked at five great fixed blades and five great folders, each of which costs under $100—proving you can find a suitable knife for your needs without going broke in the process. And, in most cases, you’ll be able to find these models for less than their MSRPs.
Remember that reputable brands are concerned with providing good quality and a favorable customer experience, regardless of the price point of their products. Their lower-priced products won’t have all the features or the same quality materials as their high-end stuff, but you’ll still get a serviceable tool.
A good fixed-blade knife with the right set of characteristics will do a wide variety of chores well.
Folding knives should complement the fixed blade you carry, rather than try to replace it.
“… reputable brands are concerned with providing good quality and a favorable customer experience, regardless of the price point of their products.”
Zero in on the design that fits your needs and preferences. Then, hit the knifemakers’ websites to see what they offer. Most sites allow you to see customer comments, so be sure to read through them to get an idea of other users’ experiences with the product. Don’t rely on how many stars a product has, because ratings are often affected by comments written by folks who have no experience with the knife. After scanning the good and the bad comments, you ought to have a decent idea of the product’s compatibility with your needs.
If you’re interested in learning more about the anatomy of knives, the author recommends visiting a site not mentioned in the story, because the products don’t meet the $100 price cap. Custom knifemaker Jay Fisher designs his own pieces and builds them by hand. His website is an excellent resource for learning about knife construction.
You can also browse around and start a wish list for when you have some extra cash burning a hole in your pocket.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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