Here are the basic rules and assumptions for this series of commentaries. Here is the previous entry, the $25 and under Recommendations. Here is the $50 Max Recommendations.
This is the first price range where I can recommend things without reservations. You can now find tools, knives, and lights that will stand the test of time, that have all of the features you want, and have good build quality. In many ways, this price range is the sweet spot--it is the place where market forces have conspired to give you the most bang for your buck. Honestly, in many cases spending more is necessitated only by 1) your preferences; or 2) specific tasks. The gear available at this price range would suit a non-enthusiast for their life, if they take care of it.
The other thing about gear in this price range is that there is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many choices that a survey is just not possible. Instead, I going to highlight things that I like or that have a good reputation. Otherwise, this would take FOREVER. In particular, the number of flashlights available for around $50 is just staggering, especially compared to five or six years ago. A decade ago all you had was a Mag light, a plastic Energizer flashlight (which was designed to consume batteries so you had to buy more, probably why they were cheap or even free with a battery purchase), and Surefires at the other end of the price spectrum. Now there are a bevy of lights, perhaps hundreds of options.
Each of the major knife companies have one or two really good knives in this price range. There are quite a few out there from smaller companies that are good too.
We are finally at the point where you can get a decent knife from Cold Steel. I dislike some of their designs, seemingly appropriate for Conan and no one else, but they do make good blades. One small point--they have the worst serrations known to man, but a HUGE margin, thin as needle tips and just as durable. AVOID them at all costs. Their Voyager line was redone recently with a new handle pattern and the Tri Ad lock, which has gotten good reviews. The Mini Lawman has a nice blade shape and again carries the Tri-Ad lock, plus it comes in under the price limit. Both blades are made of AUS 8 steel which is not as good as you can get in this price range. If you really whump on your blades, then maybe the lock makes up for the steel, but in my mind I really would prefer better steel at this price level.
CRKT has started to produce really decent blades. They lured Ken Onion over to their design stable. The Shenanigan was awarded the best value knife from the Blade Show in 2011. Clean design, nice handle, but, unfortunately AUS 8 steel. This is the problem with most of the CRKT line--chintzy steel. The M-16/M-21 line is also plagued by ugly handle scales which seem to be designed solely to attract pocket gunk. The M-16 also has a silly and unnecessarily complex grind. The KISS is a little engineering/design marvel with tons of variations. Again, though, the steel is an issue. Here it is 420J which most manufacturers avoid for anything other than a clip or liners. It is just too soft to be a good blade steel. For a higher performing steel in the CRKT line you have to wait for the next price range.
Benchmade has a lot of options in their "off label" brands. The only one, other than the previously mentioned Mini Pika, that looks interesting is the Levitator, a knife that was shunted to the Harley Davidson line so that Benchmade could claim with great gusto that ALL Benchmade knives are made in the US. It is a great little design. As is the Aphid, another small knife, this time out of the Benchmade line. Again, steel holds these knives back, as the Aphid carries 440C and the Levitator AUS 8. At this price point, I'd opt for the Mini Pika over either of these knives.
Kershaw has the first serious contender here--the Skyline, a beloved blade. Nutnfacy raved about it. As it many others. Its appeal, I think, comes down to a few things: 1) it is a nice size, weight, and shape; 2) it is a smooth, unassisted flipper; and 3) its price. We don't have a recipe yet for the new Kershaw exclusive steel, Sandvik's 14C28N, (though it seems to be available for custom makers too). Reports are that it holds up well. Here is a good thread on the steel with a Kershaw employee chiming in. Initial reviews seem excellent (check out the pics in that thread, the tester OBLITERATED the blade). It also happens to be the most widely available of any of the knives in this commentary as it is a staple of the Wal-Mart hunting section across the country (both my local Wal-Mart and a Wal-Mart in Ohio that I went to by chance last week carry it). All of this at $34.95 at Wal-Mart. The Kershaw Skyline looks like the blade to beat. There are a ton of other Kershaw options in this price range--the Chive, Scallion, and Leek, but all come with inferior steel. Also I am not a huge fan of the design for these knives. See here for the Scallion review. The NRG and the Blur (which is a Top 10 Amazon best selling knife, BTW) both look nice with the NRG being out of production, but abundantly present on the internet, and the Blur being a mainstay. The Blur is bigger and clunkier in my opinion, but carries the 14C28N steel. The NGR uses the last gen steel 13C26, but has a smaller size and much cleaner look. Still, both are beaten out by the superior design of the Skyline.
SOG finally enters the discussion with two knives that caught my eye: the SOG Flash series in its myriad variations and the Twitch. Both run AUS8 steel, which, for this price range, is a little under the average. Both are also at the very top of the price range. I dislike the design of the Flash I, as I stated before, but I can see its virtues. The Twitch's messy clip and weird finger guard leave me cold.
AG Russell makes a ton of traditional style knives in this price range, but like Case knives, I am just not thrilled with the idea of a two handed opening knife without a lock or a clip. AG Russell's FeatherLite is a really intriguing option for those that want a big blade and low weight. The price is right too. Its lack of a clip kills the knife for me, but if your a neck lanyard type, it can be carried that way.
Buck has a few entries in this price range but again its the Vantage and the Vantage Force (a more tactical version of the regular Vantage) that attract my attention. If the fit and finish issues are under control, the Small Vantage Pro, with its awesome design and S30V blade could be an all-time great knife. If anyone knows if the finish issues have been dealt with, please leave a comment. And holy shit, the little booger is only $49.95.
Spyderco has three knives in this range that I really like: the Delica, the Dragonfly, and the Cricket. There are bunch of knives in this range made by Spyderco, some with the super cool H1 steel, but these three are really gems. The Delica has two important variations in this price range--the normal grind and the full flat grind. Generally full flat grinds are better slicers, easier to clean and maintain, and less likely to balk up during cuts. They are a bit thinner though, making them less durable. I love the design of the Delica, and the FFG version seems even better. The VG10 steel is a great cheaper steel with excellent all around performance, probably the weakest in edge retention, but even there it is nice. The Dragonfly (that is a review of the Dragonfly I), especially with the upgrades, is probably my favorite knife to carry, even with a Sebenza in my arsenal. The VG-10 version is in this range and the H1 is as well. The H1 steel can't do a FFG for some reason, but the knife's ergos and size are perfect for utility EDC. The Cricket is probably best viewed as a specialized, gentleman's blade. It is really good at cutting with its wicked tip, and it is thin, thin, thin. I'd never buy one over the Dragonfly, but a lot of people like them as a slightly dressy, urban knife. One last note, the Ladybug is an okay blade, but it seems just plainly inferior in shape to the Dragonfly.
The SAKs at this price range tend to be bulky and I don't really think the additional tools make a difference. I also think that the Juice series, without a pocket clip, just fall short of utility carry, even though they get rave reviews. The Skeletool, however, is a worldbeater. It is, in my mind, the most refined, most elegant, and best all around multitool on the market. The seven tools are very well executed and the weight is just right. I love the blade shape and even the steel, mine an older version of the CX, 154CM is good (this version proved much more rust resistant than the Benchmade formulation). It is the same basic size and weight as the Juice, but with a better design and a pocket clip.
This is by far the closest competition thus far. The Skyline is a great knife. The Skeletool is probably the EDC item I use the most. But if I could only have one knife for the rest of my life in this price range, I think it would be the Delica 4 FFG.
Recommendation: Spyderco Delica 4 FFG
Price: $52.23 (yourcornerstore.com)
The number of options here are crazy. Every company out there makes a light in this price range except for the junk makers and Surefire. Five companies really stand out: JetBeam, Nitecore, Fenix, 4sevens, and Lumapower.
JetBeam makes dozens of lights, but it is the BC line that holds a lot of appeal for me. The BC10 hits a sweet spot in terms of price, size and output. It is a single cell 123A light with a simplified UI. It has a scorching 270 lumen high and a good 30 lumen low. I'd like a third moonlight mode low, but this is a $40 light. The UI involves clicking and twisting. Here is a review (where the hell is the product page? It is not on the first six pages of google searches).
Nitecore makes some sweet lights. The EX11 is a great buy, with its well designed UI and its clicky-style Piston Drive. It is a little too expensive for this price range, unless you are compromising on the price of the knife, but it is just too good not to mention, now that it compatible with a McGizmo clip.
Fenix makes a bevy of choices all of which are good. I dislike the UI, so I am going to skip them all. I am not going to actually recommend a single light because their UI is just weird. Similarly, the UI on the well-regarded Zebralights is just too clunky. Why would you make TWO sets of low-med-hi outputs? Dumb. Great design, but bad UI sinks a lot of lights.
Now we get to the real competition for the BC10, the MiNi 123, the Preon, and the Quark 123 all from 4sevens. I don't like the Quark's UI for the same reason I dislike the Fenix's UI--a click and twist for six different output modes is just too much fiddling around. The BC10's click/twist is for two modes and I still dislike it. But MiNi 123 is AWESOME. It has a nice UI, a good, well-selected output (low-med-high), uses a nice battery, and is a great size. For $40 you are hard pressed to beat it. But if you can from the 4sevens line, it is the Preon Package, reviewed here. For $50 you can't get more options than this. GREAT light.
But then there is the Incendio from Lumapower. It is a weird, small company, but this is THE light in the price range. They have tinkered with the design for about three years now and the end result is one hell of a light. It has a preattached clip (but it is still easily removable), a great UI, a great clicky, a great output, and a great price. It runs on both primaries and rechargeables. It does just about everything and does it all for $49.95.
This is not much of a contest in the light category as the Incendio offers SO MUCH for so little. The Preon is a good second choice and a great choice for lithium battery haters. But nothing even comes close to the Incendio, really.
Recommendation: Lumapower Incendio V3+ or V3 Upgrade (which was just released this week, July 4 2011)
Price: $49.95 (Battery Junction)
Honorable Mention #1: Skyline and EX11. By saving a few bucks with a cheaper (though great) knife, you can afford the better built EX11. I'd still opt for the Incendio, but the EX11 has some unique features that some people require in a light. For them, this is a great package for under $100.
Honorable Mention #2: Dragonfly II and Preon Package. If you want a smaller carry, this is the way to go. Both are GREAT, GREAT, GREAT options and together they works really, really well. See: