Here are the basic rules and assumptions for this series of commentaries. Here is the previous entry, the $25 and under Recommendations.
At the $50 max level you are still dealing with gear that I would consider compromised in some way. Usually you get many, if not all, of the features for more expensive stuff, but the tool is suffering from a lack of fit and finish and/or suboptimal materials. That said, this is a vastly more competitive market niche than it was five or even ten years ago. The advent of Chinese manufacturing has allowed American firms to make things more cheaply overseas. It has also forced American firms to be more price conscious with products made here. Buck Knives, for example, has done an excellent job of returning manufacturing to America while keeping prices competitive with their Chinese competition. If you don't want to join 'em, beat 'em, I suppose. Given these two trends, the $50 max recommendations are much more robust than those in the meager $25 and under category.
Any mention of a budget knife in this price range without referencing the Spyderco value line, which began with the Spyderco Tenacious, would be woefully lacking. That said, I am not the biggest fan of the Tenacious. The Tenacious is a bland, but very functional knife. What it lacks in performance it makes up for in its price. You could certainly do far worse than the Tenacious, though, for me, the Persistence hits just the right size. The Persistence can be had for about $27. At 2 3/4 inches it is just about right for an EDC blade.
For all the lack of design chops displayed by the Spyderco value line, the Buck Vantage has them in spades. This is, quite simply, one of the best designed knives I have seen in a long time. Here is my review of the Vantage. The Vantage, in both iterations, is a cheap, well designed, classically shaped EDC blade. The problem is that the fit and finish on the knife are notoriously poor. Maybe things have gotten better over the year or two they have been in production things have gotten better. If they have, then this is a good to decent blade. It would still held back by the 420 HC steel which is, slightly sturdier than a butter knife's edge. But it either size is a good cheap knife choice.
Kershaw has a ton of choices for around $25. They have a dozen or so nondescript nail nick open knives with crappy steel and multiple handle colors. They also have a fancy looking gentleman's folder, the Crown II, with, holy shit, micarta handle scales. That seems like a very nice touch on such a cheap knife. The OD-2, which I reviewed here and liked, is also available for under $20. The Chill, which is a bit bigger than the other knives mentioned here is also well under $25. It has a lot of nice features: a superbly clean design, G10 handles, a flipper opening, and a classic blade shape. RJ Martin hit a triple with the Chill, missing on all but the steel, because like most Kershaw knives under $30, it has crappy steel. The Volt II is also available for around this price and is a big blade. It is nowhere near as cool as the Volt I, but that knife cost more than $200. Still, a beefy blade at this price is interesting.
Many of the knives in the Byrd line fall into the same category as the Kershaw knives in this price range--bland with crappy steel. I like them better than the Kershaw knives, but if I am going to go with a Spyderco knife, I'd prefer the original hole rather than the comet opener. And they are all the same price, so why not go with the Tenacious/value line?
Nothing in Benchmade's normal line comes close to the $25 range, the Mini Griptilian is being sold online for around $80 (why on earth this is an $80 knife when the Delica and the Skyline are available for under $50 I have no idea). The HK line has a few knives approaching the $25 price range. One of interest is the Mini Pika, a Delica rip off if I have ever seen one, but a decent blade for the price. It uses slightly upgraded steel, a Chinese steel, 9CR13CoMoV, which looks to have more Chromium in it, make the knife more stain resistant and more Carbon in it to make it a bit harder. Not a bad little knife for $25. It gives you a four way clip, a hole opener (shamelessly pillaged from Spyderco's intellectual property), a lock back, and a very decent blade shape, with both a good amount of belly and tip reinforcement. This is a blade that is definitely in the running, because at this price point you cannot get many of the features this knife has and it has better steel than the Spyderco value line.
Boker makes so many knives there is no way to survey them all. They make a knife that looks like a hand grenade, in case your a moron, and want to carry both an ugly and a functionless pocket knife. They also make a few really well regarded knives, most of which were designed by Chad Los Banos. The Subcom, or Biscuit (its nickname because of the shape), is tremendously popular, even giving rise to high end mods, like this gorgeous example. There are bunch of variants and they all retail for around $25-$30. The Hyper, a slightly bigger knife, is a bit more, but also a nice looking blade.
Then there is the Ka Bar Dozier and Mini Dozier that I mentioned in the previous recommendation commentary. There are three primary designs, the traditional 3 inch model, the 3 inch thumb hole model, and the Mini Dozier. They all can be had for less than MSRP, the Mini available for as low as $15, and they all have sterling reputations. Most importantly they all have a good, as opposed to below average, steel--AUS8 A. Not bad for a knife under $20.
Cold Steel recently released the Mini Tuff Lite, but it has just gone on sale, so there is little feedback on the blade. Still it looks good on paper.
At this price range we now get Swiss Army Knives and multitools. I will admit right off the bat that I am a multitool snob and do not have any interest whatsoever at non-Leatherman multitools. Leatherman is the company that invented the category. They are the ones that innovate in it. And well Gerber stuff is junk.
In particular, the Swiss Army Knife offers an amazing amount of utility for the price. The quality, fit and finish, and features are hard to beat. I especially like the models with the alox handle scales. They offer a minimalist appearance, high durability, thinness, and color. None stand out to me, but I can see the appeal. Instead, the traditionally scaled Rambler has a nice size and combination of tools for the right price.
In terms of multitools, the Leatherman PS4 seems to be close to the perfect package. The combination of a good, tiny knife blade, a pair of precise pliers, and scissors makes it a great tool. The Leatherman Style seems nice, but it lacks the pliers the PS4 has.
Recommendation: Leatherman PS4
Average Street Price: $22.50 (Amazon)
The choices of lights are much less complex. There are really only few additionally lights over those covered in the $25 recommendation. Sometimes the Quark MiNi goes on sale and combined with the CPF8 code you can get them for around $28, but that is cheating. Really it is two different ITP lights, the AAA and the CR123a. I don't like their reputation or, more importantly, the inability to tailstand, so I'll skip them. The real competition is between the Fenix E01 from the last recommendation and the Maratac AAA. I know that the Maratac is a badge swap of the ITP, but here the swap makes a difference because the Maratac can tailstand. I like the AA version better and it too is on sale regularly, but that violates the rules again. Still, a three mode twisty with good high and runtime with tailstand and clip is hard to beat. There are tons of variants, including a copper version, but they are more.
Recommendation: County Comm Maratac AAA
Average Street Price: $23.95 (County Comm)
Honorable Mention: I know that the rules say I wanted to have the two tools of roughly equal price, but the Ka Bar Mini Dozier is a great value for $15. If you do that you have the ability to get a 4sevens Mini Quark CR123a. It is $4 over the price limit but squeaks in with the CPF8 code.
There are some really surprising buys and having done this survey I have learned that while there are compromises required by the price range, but not as many as I would have suspected before I sat down and laid everything out. I really like the Maratac, enough to buy it for my Mom for Mother's Day and she liked. I own the PS4 and it is just an amazing tool. When I work out how to do a review in accordance with the 20 point scale, I'll post it, but multitools are devilishly hard to categorize as a group because they are so different from each other.
NOTE: Benchmade, in their line up shuffle/price jacking has changed the Mini Pika from a small, cheap, offshore knife to an small, EXPENSIVE, offshore knife. They added stupid stuff like a completely unnecessary titanium backspacer and G10 on the handles (which is nice but unnecessary). It is also $60 more than the previous Red Class version, which was the one mentioned above for $25. You can still find them out there, but BE CAREFUL.