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What to Look for When Buying a Folding Duty Knife

April 01, 2006  |  by Scott Smith - Also by this author

Is a $200 duty knife really that much better than a $10 flea market special pocket knife? The answer to that question depends on what you plan to do with the knife. If you buy a flea market special, for the most part you get a piece of steel with an edge that folds into the handle. Chances are you won’t know who made the knife, what type of steel is used for the blade, or what materials are used in the handle. And that may be OK. If all you are looking for is a knife to open an envelope or peel the occasional apple, a cheap pocket knife might serve your needs.

But if you’re looking for a duty tool that might be used on rescues, cutting open boxes of gear, slicing the banding on ammunition crates, or in extreme circumstances as a weapon, then you need a better quality product than a flea market knockoff.

Brand Names Count
That doesn’t mean you need to break the bank for a custom knife. But you do need a good knife from a quality manufacturer.

There are many good reasons for purchasing a knife manufactured or branded by a well-known company. First and foremost these companies stake their reputation on manufacturing and selling quality products. That means their quality control standards are pretty high. Second, the branded manufacturers produce products specific to your needs whether you need a dive knife, a kitchen knife, or the ever popular clip-it knife.

Another great reason to buy a name-brand knife is that the major players all stand behind their products. Their customer service reps can aid you with such information as the correct angle at which to resharpen your knife and the proper maintenance techniques. They can also repair your knife should it be in need of a new blade, grip panel, etc. You’d be amazed how much these companies will do for those who use their knives in service of the country.

The Cutting Edge
The most important element of a great knife is a great blade. OK, so what makes a great blade?

Duty knives come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors, and quality. As with any of these attributes, the type of serration you choose should depend not just on aesthetics, but on what you need your knife to accomplish.

Blades are works of art, designs that flow and curve, all rendered in gleaming steel. So the first element of a great blade is a great design. The second is great steel.

What makes a great blade design is really in the eye of the user. Some people like serrations, some don’t. Some people like really exaggerated curves, some don’t. Some people like tanto blades, some like drop point blades. It’s really a matter of preference and what you need the knife to do.

Steel quality, on the other hand, is actually quantifiable. The industry has established its own nomenclature for steel quality, and you will see the terms bandied around in any discussion of blade quality, including the “Blades and Tools” column that I write for Police. Terms such as AUS8, ATS34, 154CM, H1, 440C, H690, S30V, VG10, and the various CPM levels designate corrosion resistance, density, strength, and hardness of the metal. The main thing to remember is that good quality steel yields blades that are durable and easily sharpened with any good whet stone or sharpening system.

Locking Mechanisms
When choosing a folding knife for police duty, always take into consideration the way the blade locks open. Common designs of blade locks range from the lock back made famous on the Buck 110, to the liner lock (frame lock) used on most pocket clip-style knives, to the patented Axis lock from Benchmade or the ball bearing lock from Spyderco.

Lock back knives have been around for many years. The lock is tough and durable and can be found on many traditional hunting knives. The drawback to the lock back design is that the user generally has to use both hands to deploy or close the blade.

Liner lock and frame lock knives operate nearly identically. The liner lock is a spring tension liner that locks into place when the knife is opened. This liner is secured to the interior of the frame by screws. The frame lock operates in the same fashion as a liner lock except it is part of the frame or grip of the knife. Both styles of lock are easily operated with one hand, whether you are opening or closing the knife.

Axis locks and ball bearing locks use a spring tensioned bar or ball bearing to lock the knife open. These two systems slide into a groove in the rear of the blade and are tensioned by a spring. These systems are both incredibly strong because they lock across the entire blade and the frame and liner of the knife.

Grip Materials
The last thing to consider when purchasing a knife is the grip construction. Popular materials used in folding knives include aluminum alloy, titanium, G10 (a fiberglass resin compound), Zytel (a fiberglass-filled nylon compound), carbon fiber, Kevlar, and micarta (resin-soaked layers of linen). All of these materials are durable and lightweight, making them ideal for knives. However, some composite grip materials such as Zytel are prone to degradation from constant exposure to solvents, including gasoline.

Most handle materials don’t really add a lot of value or expense to the production of the knife. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. Aluminum alloys and titanium are expensive, and titanium handles will really raise the price of a knife because titanium is difficult to work with.

Grip design can be very basic or really exotic. The bottom line concern about the grip of a duty knife is whether it will stay in your hand, even in harsh conditions involving slippery fluids.

You can’t test the grip very well in the store, but you can eyeball it and handle it. Check the grip to see that it affords a good purchase. Many less expensive knives look like they have aggressive checkering or stippling but, in reality, their grips are very slippery. Some inexpensive knives checker for looks only, not function.

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