What to Look for When Buying a Folding Duty Knife

Our resident knife expert gives you some tips on how to judge duty steel.

Scott Smith Bio Headshot

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?

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.

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.

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?

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 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.

About the Author
Scott Smith Bio Headshot
Retired Army MP
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