Cutting through the hype about knives
By Ralph Mroz
Reprinted with permission from Police & Security News
This is the golden age of knives. Every police officer seems to carry one (we think they should), and the cop magazines a full of ads for them — something we didn’t see twenty years ago. There are hundreds of knives targeted at public safety professionals from dozens of companies, each loudly proclaiming that it’s "ideal" for you in the constabulary profession. Each touts its "new, perfect" steel, its "high-strength" construction, its "high-tech" materials, and exceptional
It can be so confusing.
So what’s the real skinny? What kind of knife does a police officer really need? How much should you pay? How do you cut through the hype and decide which knife is right for you?
It’s really not that hard because as we first said, this is the golden age of knives. There are so many excellent knives being made now for short prices that by keeping a few things in mind, you’ll have a choice of literally dozens of first-rate knives to choose from in your price range. If you’re impatient, here’s the bottom line: pick any knife that’s comfortable in your hand, has a simple blade shape from 2.75 to 4 inches in length, comes from a major manufacturer, and costs no less than $45 (in gereral.)
Fixed-blade or folder?
In terms of a fixed-blade vs. a folder, a folder is what you should have clipped to your pocket, on your belt, or clipped to your vest. Fixed-blade knives are useful for raids and SWAT, but for patrol and regular plain-clothes assignments, stick with the folder—it’s the knife you can always have with you.
Police use a folding knife for a wide variety of unpredictable tasks, from opening donut boxes to collecting evidence to searching containers to self-defense. This the key to understanding the kind of knife blade they are best served by. Form follows function and a simple blade shape is best suited to a wide variety of tasks. Conversely, a strange or specialized blade shape is restricted to the few tasks that it can do well. For general utility work—which is what police do with a knife—you want a drop point, spear point, modified clip point or a slightly clip-pointed blade shape. Companies like to come up with strange, macho, “Rambo” or exotic-looking blade shapes and promote them as “tactical” and thus ideal for police work. Just the opposite is true. If you’ve served time in the military in a hot zone, you know that utility function comes from simplicity. Ditto for us on the civilian LE side. Stick with simple blade shapes.
Folding knives vary from tiny little pen knives with thin, maybe one-inch blades, to monsters with 6 or more inches of blade sandwiched between the handle. Now, pen knives can handle a surprising number of LE tasks, and carrying one is a good idea—they hardly take up any room after all. Conversely, folders with five- and six-inch blades can usually be (surprisingly) comfortably worn in a front jeans pocket if we are in plain clothes, but they are certainly less comfortable and less versatile in terms of the jobs we usually need to do than a smaller folder (although some emergency jobs benefit by their extra length.)
In uniform, with the whole Batman belt thing going on and all the other stuff we have to carry in our cargo pockets, etc., such a folder is definitely too long. I’ll save you the trouble of experimenting: the right blade length for us is between 2.75-inches and 4-inches. Since the knife closed is usually about one inch longer than the cutting edge, this translates into a closed folder of about four to five inches—which is perfectly comfortable to carry all day long and is right in the “sweet spot” of ideal length for the tasks we need to do.
Serrated or plan edge?
Serrations help to cut fibrous materials like webbing, rope, some cardboard, and so on. To have them or not is a religious debate, with “purists” thinking them sacrilegious, and others thinking them essential. While we prefer plain edges on our pure self-defense knives, we’re agnostic otherwise. We personally like our police knives with half-serrated edges, which is a politician’s answer, to be sure.
Manual opening or automatic?
The advertising people in the industry and any number of armchair warriors would have you believe that automatic knives (switchblades) are the only real man’s knife (sorry, gals!), and that you just gotta cop one if you want to be a real professional, the envy of your squad, and just an all-round sexy guy. We disagree.
While the federal ban on autos is just foolish (they were originally designed and sold as housewife’s knives, so that the women of the early 20th century didn’t break a nail while opening their kitchen knives) and most likely racist (the law was passed in response to the rise of ethnic gangs), auto knives do have a legitimate place in situations where only one hand is likely to be available to open them, with parachuting the classic example. But for most people most of the time, they are just ordinary knives with more moving parts to break that are much more expensive than the same knife without the opening spring. Most folding knives today already open with one hand anyway, so the extra expense, agency approval, and potential legal hassle off-duty is just unnecessary.
Another issue with automatics is that most of them open with a push-button. These buttons have two problems. Counter-intuitively, they can be difficult to activate under stress—you’ll just have to take my word for it or try it yourself. Second, they can inadvertently “fire” when in your pocket if you brush up against something in just the right way. This can be painful and bloody, and it’s always embarrassing. (Benchmade and Camillus make models that operate with a different—and better—mechanism, and they are they way to go if you just have to have a switchblade.) Stick with a normal—and far less expensive—hole, stud or disc operated opening knife. Which you choose is up to your personal preference.
Manufactured vs. Custom vs. Branded
There are thousands of custom knife makers out there today, many of them making absolutely jaw-dropping, gorgeous pieces. Their knives start at hundreds of dollars and go up—way up—from there. But custom makers have the same steels and other raw materials to work with that the large-scale manufacturers do. So what can you get when you spend a couple weeks pay on a custom knife that you can’t get with a good manufactured knife? You get a true custom design—a one-of-a-kind or a one-of-a-few. You get exotic materials for the scales or handle if you want, and you can get Damascus steel—an “art” form of steel that’s folded over and over on itself, much like a pizza crust is folded and stretched over and over.
You may get an extra measure of fit and finish, but that’s questionable. Modern knives from the majors are CNC machined to tolerances that NASA can live with. The fit of these manufactured knives can be extraordinary. A lone maker, working in his or her shop, may be able to duplicate that level of fit, but it’s difficult to exceed it. Of course, a custom maker can always add an extra measure of polish or cosmetic finish to the materials, but that’s not functional. Bottom line here: custom knives are for their “art” value, their collectible value, or for someone who is a serious knife geek and can truly appreciate the intangibles of the piece.
Manufactured knives from the major manufacturers are of extremely high quality these days. A $60 folder today far exceeds—in materials and construction—anything that your grandfather could even envision. Go with a manufactured knife, as a rule. (As the best of both worlds, many manufacturers are now collaborating with custom makers to mass produce their designs, with some very nice knives as a result.)
Now there are two kinds of manufactured knives. These that are sold under the manufacturer’s name (Cold Steel, Spyderco, Columbia River Knife & Tool, Benchmade, Gerber, Buck, Kershaw, Camillus, KA-BAR, Emerson…the list is extensive) and those that are manufactured by who-knows-who and branded by a company that clearly does not make their own knives. Harley-Davidson does not make knives. Most gun manufacturers don’t make knives. Ditto with ammunition manufacturers. These companies license their brand name to a knife manufacturer who then distributes and sells them, and these licensees have to add a little cost to each knife to cover the brand fee. So brand licensed knives are, just on the economics of the situation, always going to be a little more expensive for the same quality of knife than you could get without the brand name attached. Moreover, branded knives are often (although not always) targeted at a non-knife market that buys them for their brand association rather than for the knife’s inherent quality. Bottom line here: some branded knives are actually quite good—I carry a Smith & Wesson Rescue Tool on my duty belt—and some are not. Be careful.
Folding knives consist of a blade and a handle into which they fold. That handle can be made of a metal body alone, materials such as fiberglass or plastic alone, or fiberglass or plastic scales with metal liners. The liner method is more expensive, and can, but doesn’t always mean a better or stronger knife. All three methods can give you a very good knife for our purposes.
The knife body itself can be held together by rivets or Torx screws. Rivets are obviously less expensive for the manufacturer, and generally mean a knife of lesser—but not necessarily unacceptable—quality over a knife with screw construction. (Most folders with screw construction use Torx-head screws, because the Torx head provides more torque than a Phillips or slot screw head would on the tiny screws used in folding knives. You will want to go to your local hardware store and invest in a set of Torx driver if you are really into knives—they aren’t very expensive.) Either method is OK, with screw construction preferable.
The pivot pin of a folder is usually adjustable, but a rivit is sometimes used for the pivot pin rather than a screw to make a less expensive knife. Such knives can be of acceptable quality or not, but they are clearly not opening-tension adjustable the way screws are. Usually there is a Teflon of brass washer on the pivot pin between the blade and each side of the handle. More expensive knives may use a bushing system, and all of these mechanisms are quite acceptable.
There are four main types of locking mechanisms on folding knives. When well made, they are all reliable and good choices. Lock-back mechanisms, the oldest of the bunch, have a spring in the spine of the handle with a tenon at the front that engages a mortise on the back of the opened tang of the blade, locking it in place. This is a very secure lock, and the only thing you have to watch for is that the lock does not inadvertently release when you take a very strong grip on the knife—test any you plan to buy. Liner locks have one of the metal handle liners split lengthwise so that one of the splits jumps behind the tang of the knife as it reaches the fully opened position.
For this lock to be secure, tight machining tolerances are necessary. Test any you plan to buy by whacking the spine of the opened blade on a hard surface like wood to see if the lock fails. (Obviously, do this is a way that your fingers won’t get cut if the blade flies shut.) Another thing to check is that the lock doesn’t fail when—again—you take a super hard, twisting grip on the opened knife. Sometimes the flesh of your palm can inadvertently release the lock. If the knife has an all-metal handle with no scales, and one side of the handle is split to make this same type of lock, it’s called a frame lock. What we call tang locks use a spring-loaded piston in the handle that engages a notch on the rear of the opened blade tang. These are very secure locks that can’t be inadvertently released, and we prefer them although we are happy with all of these types of knife locks if they are well made. Lock strength is an area of promotional competition. Clearly the lock on a knife has to be strong enough not to fail when the knife is used normally, but all folding knives are weaker side-to-side than they are lock-wise, and it’s these lateral motions that will usually break your knife if it breaks.
This is where a lot of the confusion and hype, and the genuine quality of a knife can come from. Manufacturers are constantly searching for a better steel, with the result that while some perform better than others, almost all of the knives from the major manufacturers these days use very good steel—certainly steel that’s far superior to anything that grandpa could have dreamed of.
All steel is iron with carbon added. So-called “stainless” steel also has chromium added, but with a few expensive exceptions, “stainless” steel isn’t—rather it’s stain resistant and it will eventually rust—just much more slowly than non-“stainless” steels. You may have heard the term “carbon” steel used to indicate steel that’s not “stainless”, but that’s just jargon—all steel of any type starts out as iron with carbon added. Other elements such as vanadium, cobalt, copper, manganese, nickel, phosphorus, sulphur, tungsten, and many others can be added to get just the right “recipe” for the “perfect” knife steel.
Knife steels ideally have high levels of edge retention (they don’t go dull fast), toughness (the ability to withstand chipping), stain resistance, and edge-taking (they re-sharpen easily.) However, these desirable characteristics have to be traded off with one another, and different steels to that in different ways. For example, edge retention implies hardness which can leads to brittleness and difficulty re-sharpening.
Inexpensive steels like AUS 6 and 440A are at the low end of modern “stainless” knife steels, but they are perfectly serviceable if you don’t expect them to hold an edge too long. There are dozens of other steels in current use in mainstream manufactured knives, and you will see their names bantered around as if they possessed magic qualities. ATS-34 was the darling of the industry a few years ago but never fulfilled its performance promise. 440C and AUS 8 are mid-level steels today, and steels like S30V, 154CM, BG-42 and others are today’s hot high-end “stainless” steels, and they are very good steels, indeed. In the non-“stainless” category are low-end steels like 1095 and high-end steels like D2, among many others. Some people like the performance of “carbon” steels over “stainless” steels. We like them both, and aren’t too concerned about rust since we maintain our knives. If you don’t, go with a “stainless” steel blade.
A new to the market (but not to the world) type of knife steels are the Crucible Particle Metallurgy (CPM) steels. Regular steel is formed by melting all of it’s metallic components in a big vat, pouring the fluid stew into ingots, and letting the ingots cool. These ingots are then later forged or rolled into bars. As these steels cool, the steel takes on a granular character of some average grain size, and the alloying elements segregate into particular grains called carbides. CPM steels, by contrast, are formed by molten steel being forced through a nozzle to create very uniform droplets of steel which solidify in to a fine powder, which is then formed into bars of steel under high pressure. CPM steels thus have a very fine granular structure and very fine carbides, meaning that they are more uniform, can take a finer edge, and take a smoother edge (see the sharpening section below.) CPM steels are high-end steels.
Steel has to be heat-treated after it’s shaped, and a proper heat treatment is essential to good performance. Many el-cheapo knives you find on the market not only use el-cheapo steel, but that steel is most likely not properly heat-treated, if it’s heat-treated at all.
Steel has to be hardened, too. Hardness is measured on the Rockwell scale, and utility knifes such as we use will usually have a “Rc” measurement of 58 to 62 for “stainless” steels and a little less for non-“stainless” steels.) Harder than that and the knife is all but impossible to sharpen. Softer than that and it won’t hold an edge long.
We tell you all this stuff about steels so you’ll have some understanding of the terms you hear bantered about. But the bottom line is that any and all of the steels used by the major manufacturers these days will be quite serviceable, with differential quality being generally related to price. Depending on how you use your knife and how attuned to it you are, you may not notice any real differences in knife steel if you sharpen your knife regularly.
Finally, other exotic materials such as ceramics, titanium, or cast metals can be used for knife blades, but they are specialty items, and normally should be avoided for general purpose LE work.
Forged vs. stock removal
Forged steel is steel that starts out as a blob and is beat (with a hammer) into the shape desired, including knives. This is a very expensive process and is usually done only by custom knife makers who believe it gives the blade magical properties (which you can believe if you want to.) Stock removal is the process of cutting and grinding knives from bars of steel, and this is how all reasonably priced manufactured knives are made.
Comfort and fit
The most important thing about a knife—assuming we are talking about a quality knife—is the way it fits your hand. When choosing among good quality knives, use this criteria first. My personal favorite knife from every manufacturer is one of their less expensive ones. Yes, they make better knives—and I can actually appreciate the difference—but the ones I prefer fit my hand better and are more comfortable to carry than the more expensive knives that they offer.
The handles of folding knives either have scales over the frame or not. If they don’t, you usually have a smooth metal handle, which can get slippery. Many high-quality knives have all metal handles, but we don’t like them. Scales are usually made of Zytel, a molded thermoplastic, or G-10, a fiberglass laminate. When textured to provide an antidote to slipperiness, both make excellent knife handles. Other materials are sometimes used for scales, and so long as they provide a secure grip and comfort, they are fine.
Some blades are polished bright, some have a satin finish, and some have black coatings of various types. The finish on your blade is a purely cosmetic issue, unless you are trying to exercise reflected light discipline (which is futile in uniform with all the shiny stuff we carry and wear, but potentially an issue with SWAT.)
Yes, you get what you pay for—as with anything else, and as with anything else, once you pass a certain point, the relationship between the extra price and true functionality diminishes. Also like anything else, if you are look carefully you can find some real bargains. Most manufacturer’s highly serviceable knives begin at about $45. The one notable exception and the one easy to find bargain is Spyderco’s Byrd line of folders, which uses low cost manufacturing methods and quite good but inexpensive steels to produce folders for as little as $25 (list price.)
We have saved perhaps the most important item for last. You wouldn’t buy a gun and not buy a cleaning kit and learn how to use it (OK, you might have done this but you shouldn’t.) Any knife will go dull, and have to be re-sharpened repeatedly. Sharpening a knife is easy with the right tool. All you have to do is hold the right angle (about 20 degrees) and stroke the knife over the hone several times (usually about 10 to 30 times.) Most people manage to screw this up by a) not holding the right angle, b) using a hone of the wrong grit, or c) being impatient. Re-sharpening a knife should only take a couple minutes. But the key to re-sharpening is to not let the knife get too dull to begin with! If the knife gets really dull, then you are not so much re-sharpening the edge as re-grinding it, which is a much more difficult and time-consuming task.
There are four main ways to sharpen a knife. You can use a stone, and the stone should be as long as the blade is. The best stones are the combination India/Crystolon stones from Norton, and the one to buy for all of your needs is the IC11. This number is 11-inches long, not very expensive, and has the right grits to put a general purpose edge on your LE utility knife. Many custom makers use this stone. It needs to be lubricated with a thin oil as you use it (WD-40 is ideal.)
You can use a rig. Rigs have their hones arranged so that it’s easy for you to get the right angle. The original and still a favorite is Spyderco’s Triangle Sharpmaker. Just follow the directions and it’s foolproof.
You can use a hand hone—essentially a large file. Recommended here are Diamond Machining technology’s DuoFold hones. Pick up an Extra Coarse (black) / Coarse (blue) flat DuoFold and a Fine (red) conical file. These are ideal for field use, since they are so light and small. Read the instructions—even you guys, and despite the fact that we’re cops!
Finally, you can use an electric sharpener. Chef’s Choice makes several models that are not too expensive, and I use them to sharpen everything from my pen knives to machetes.
Yes, you can spend as much on a sharpener as on a good knife, but what’s the alternative? You gotta re-sharpen your knife sometime and somehow. Besides, any good sharpener will be used by your grandchildren—they are a one-time investment.
You must understand the difference between edge sharpness and edge smoothness. It is conceivable to have a very sharp edge that’s rough (that is, micro-serrated.) The edge’s sharpness depends on the angle to which it’s honed. The edge’s smoothness depends on the grit that’s used to sharpen it and the kind of steel the blade is made of. Edge smoothness also depends on the size of the carbides and granular structure of the steel (large carbides will always yield a rougher edge than small ones, hence CPM steels can generally be ground smoother than other steels.) You will always want to get your knife sharp, but how smooth or rough you want it depends on what you want to cut. A very smooth edge—no matter how sharp—will have trouble slicing fibrous materials like rope, although it will shave hair from your arm and slice little ribbons of free-hanging paper easily. All of the sharpening systems above will deliver a sharp edge with a working general-purpose level of smoothness, and all have the ability to get the edge even smoother if you want.
Like we said at the beginning: pick any knife that’s comfortable in your hand, has a simple blade shape from 2.75 to 4 inches in length, comes from a major manufacturer, and costs no less than $45 (unless you find a genuine bargain.) You can spend more, but once you get past $120 or so, you are usually buying prestige or very subtle performance increases. As cops, we don’t have the demands on our knives that the military does, and we’d like to not cry if we lose ours. I have my pick of knives. I have manufacturers knives here in the $250 range, and custom knives costing several times more. The two utility folders I almost always carry, though, are very simple affairs, costing less than $100.
Ralph Mroz is the Training Director for the Police Officers Safety Association (www.pposai.org) which provides free full-length video training programs to any LE officer. He is a police officer in Western Massachusetts currently assigned to a county drug task force. He has been fascinated with knives ever since he was a little boy, and managed to get in trouble with one when just barely into grammar school. When he got involved in the martial arts, he naturally gravitated to the knife aspects of them. He was an avid observer of the custom knife naissance in the early 70s, but as a cash-strapped college student he just couldn’t bring himself to shuck out $50 for a knife that’s now worth many thousands, giving him an early clue about his investment acumen. Through a clever combination of dumb luck and being at the right place at the right time, he started writing for Tactical Knives, the largest circulation knife magazine in the world, at its birth in 1994. His new-found status there elevated him from an unknown crackpot to a crackpot with an audience, and thus enabled him to pick the brains of almost any knife expert he cared to call or visit, and provided him with access to the magazine’s astonishingly knowledgeable editor, Steven Dick. In the early days there, he wrote what he believes to be the first article in a major magazine that defined the characteristics of a good police folding and fixed-blade knife. Probably over a thousand different knives have crossed his desk or gone through his hands since then, and he’s formed some opinions he’d call iconoclastic if it weren’t for the fact that they’re shared by so many people that he respects in the field.
Benchmade Knife Co.
300 Beavercreek Road
Oregon City, OR 97045
660 S. Lochsa Street
Post Falls, ID 83854-5200
825 Southwood Road
Avondale, PA 19311
3036-A Seaborg Avenue
Ventura, CA 93003
Columbia River Knife & Tool
9720 SW Hillman Ct.
Wilsonville, OR 97070
Diamond Machining Technology
85 Hayes Memorial Drive
Marlboro, MA 01752
Emerson Knives, Inc.
P.O. Box 4180
Torrance, CA 90510-4180
Search the net for Norton stones. They are usually available from woodworking outlets.
820 Spyderco Way
Golden, CO 80403