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What to Look for When Buying a Folding Duty Knife

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

Fit and Finish
As we have covered, there are a myriad of materials that go into making today’s folding knives. What separates those inexpensive ones from the high dollar ones? What makes a two hundred dollar knife better than a forty five dollar knife? Often, it’s workmanship.

The high-quality steel in this knife from Columbia River Knife and Tool stands up to sharpening with a Lansky diamond stone, extending the life of the product.

Just like in a luxury car, the quality of a knife shows in its fit and finish. Some of this quality is readily apparent. For example, you can feel how smoothly the blade opens, and how securely it locks.

What you won’t notice or see is that the lock of the more expensive knife is a bit heavier, or the locking groove for the lock is a touch more precise to ensure the lock doesn’t move when under stress. This is a big deal, as it keeps the blade from closing when it is under hard use.

The better manufacturers of folding knives also address how well the blade fits into the liner and frame. Less expensive knives use a large pressure fit rivet as the pivot point. Over time, the blade will flop around on this rivet and the blade will start to wobble, which means the blade will not be locking securely when it is open. High-quality knives use a screw to allow the owner to tighten the blade fit as the knife breaks in.

The clip of a folding knife is another feature that will reveal its quality. I have had several less expensive knife clips break or even pull out of the grip. These have failed just from carrying the knife to the store or around the house, not from hard use.

Many cheaper knives also have clips with sharp edges that will tear up the pockets of your pants or the strap of your vest. The knives I use regularly have clips with radiused edges or use stainless-steel wire to prevent premature wearing of the pockets.

Paying the Price
Since most agencies don’t issue knives, you are likely paying for this tool with your equipment allowance or with out-of-pocket funds. So, the question is, how much do you want to pay?

Emerson's P-SARK assisted opener is popular with many officers because its "Wave" hook speedily opens the knife as it's drawn from a pocket.

Let’s just dismiss the flea market specials and start the discussion in the $20 to $50 range. Here you will find many of the original pocket knives, Case, Buck, Schrade, as well as certain models of Gerber, Spyderco, Columbia River Knife & Tool (CRKT), and Benchmade. All are good knives and capable of handling most tasks. If you are prone to losing knives you’d be well served by these blades.

Knives in the $50 to $150 price range use the best steel and have new lock technology, be it Benchmade’s Axis or Spyderco’s ball bearing lock. They make excellent duty knives. In this price range, you will start to see G10, micarta, and titanium used in the grips or frames of these knives.

You can get some excellent duty knives from Spyderco, Kershaw, CRKT, Benchmade, Blackhawk, and other companies in this price range. Custom knife makers such as Emerson even make production knives in this price range.

If you’re willing to pay $150 or more, then you can own the knife equivalent of a Cadillac. In this price range, you will find custom knives from Emerson, Chris Reeves, Strider, and noted knife makers. You will also find high-end production knives from Al Mar, Benchmade, Mission Knife and Tool, and Masters of Defense.

The decision of what knife works for you is pretty subjective. My primary advice is that when you look for a duty knife, consider what you need it to do, then start shopping. There are a lot of great duty knives out there for almost any budget.

Scott Smith is a disabled veteran who served as an active-duty Army MP and in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard as a security policeman.

Automatic and Assisted-Opening Knives
Way back in the 1950s, Congress believed that the nation was beset by switchblade-wielding punks, so they outlawed automatic knives.

The Benchmade Model 5000 Pardue Auto Axis features the company's patented Axis locking system.

The law still stands. American civilians can’t legally buy or own “switchblades.” However, this prohibition against automatic knives has two major exceptions, military and sworn law enforcement personnel.

Understand, that’s what the federal law says. State laws can vary on this issue. And the agency you work for may also decide that automatic knives are not to be carried by its officers. So check it out before you buy.

Today, the “switchblade” law is pretty silly when you think about it. Contemporary folding knives use an oval, a stud, or some other device to allow you to open the knife easily with one hand. And users who practice with these knives can deploy their blades almost as quickly as any automatic.

Still, automatic knives have made a major resurgence in the last few years. The reason is simple: There are now some really good automatic knives. The “switchblade” that you see in old movies was cheaply made and could be dangerous to the operator. Today’s automatic knives open with the flick of a switch that’s the only thing they have in common with ’50’s switchblades. These knives are of the highest quality and can handle whatever you dish out.

If you want a knife that opens fast but is legal for all civilians, consider an assisted-opening model. These require you to manually open the blade, but then a spring assist kicks the blade open and locks it in place.

Remember to check with your agency before carrying any knife on duty. Just because it’s legal for a cop to buy an automatic knife, that doesn’t mean that it complies with your agency’s policy.

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