Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kershaw Crown Review by RD

What should you expect from a budget folding knife?

First, define price range. Tony set the line at under $20 in his Budget Blade Shootout a couple years ago, and I think that’s still right.

It is a challenging category. Mind you, the next tier up – what I call “affordable” knives, $20 to $40 street – includes quite a bit of good stuff: Ontario RATs; Cold Steel Tuff Lites; some nice Kershaws [Strobe], some Case traditionals; Buck's Vantage Select. Many enthusiasts keep a toe dipped in those waters. While I cherish my Mnandi and Chaparral, I primary-EDC affordable folders maybe a fourth of the time.

But the true budget tier remains tough sledding. Inflation has eroded options: former staples like the Byrd knives, the Kershaw Chill, and the CRKT Drifter now usually miss the under-$20 cutoff. You can’t afford an Alox Cadet, either. This category is populated by the various “gunmaker” branded knives, Opinels, bottom-barrel Gerbers, Schrade, Coast, etc. (I am ignoring Chinese brands like San Ren Mu, Enlan, etc., because they don’t show up on US store shelves and I don’t know them. YMMV.)

Still, carefully selected budget folders have an appeal. They make good stash knives for the glove box or trunk. They provide disposable, no-tears beaters for nasty work. Sometimes a cheap knife can just catch your eye with aesthetics. I sometimes go Twix-bars-at-the-checkout and make total impulse buys of knives in this range – which is a very salient economic fact for knife companies. (The Browning Prisms make adorable stocking stuffers for $13 at your local big box outdoor. Too bad about the 440A steel.) Lastly, there’s an intellectual interest in watching how makers cope with the stern design challenges of a tiny budget. Most home cooks with time and sound techniques can make a memorable dinner for four given a $200 grocery budget. The real bragging rights come when you can do it with a $20 bill.

Kershaw has long been the most committed of the well regarded folding knife marques to offering real options in the budget price tier. This is the first of a pair of reviews in which I’ll explore the tradeoffs possible in this category by taking a look at two Kershaw budget folders.

First up is the recently discontinued Kershaw Crown. This is a clean-lined, Chinese made EDC folder with stainless steel bolsters and micarta handle scales. The designers evidently sought to deliver a visually attractive “gent’s knife” with a sizable blade and good cutting performance, while staying well under the $20 street price limit. On the whole they succeeded impressively.

There is no longer an official KAI USA page for the Crown. Here is the Blade HQ product page. Here is the concise (no, really) Nutnfancy review. Here [Kershaw Crown – Test – from YT user “Tactical”] is a profane but enjoyable review from a dude who carried a Crown for most of a year as a high-use beater. This knife had a large presence at big box stores and was sold at eye-catching discounts; Blade HQ closed out their Crowns this year for $11.99. There was a shorter-lived mini version, the Crown II, which had a 2 7/8” blade and weighed 0.7 oz less than the Crown I. I’ve never tried one, but it looks nice. There was also a special Wal-Mart version (3160BWMX) with a stonewashed clip and blue micarta scales; it came with some subtler differences such as a thinner locking liner and a shallower grind.

The Crown was discontinued in 2014, making this review an “In Case You Missed It.” There must have been a lot of stock out there because the knife is still readily obtainable on Amazon, eBay, and the like. My review Crown is the full sized, black micarta boxed version (3160). I got it from Amazon for $14.99 shipped.

Crown establishing shot lock side

Twitter Review Summary: Dignity through simplicity. Ditching the clip reveals a handsome sub-$20 EDC slicer.

Design: 2

The Crown is visually simple but harmonious. The slight arc of the handle carries over into the shallow drop of the blade’s spine and counterpoints the sweep of its belly. The gently rounded micarta scales lend a visually interesting two-tone effect, while also saving weight over an all-metal construction. The Crown has a 3.25” blade and weighs 3.8 oz, yielding a pedestrian but acceptable blade:weight ratio of 0.86. It has a 4.5” handle, for a B:H of 0.72, also not terrible.

This knife isn’t a featherweight, but it would have been a pig with all-metal handles. Fitting micarta into the tiny budget was one of two design choices that make the Crown work. Everything fits together to suggest a graceful light utility knife, which is what is delivered.

Fit & Finish: 2

The Crown’s good looks carry over into its smooth, rounded stainless bolsters with well-fitted transitions. Edges are lightly chamfered throughout and the scales and bolsters level with the liners. The only complaints are a bit of side-to-side blade play (and centering drift) as the pivot loosens up with use, and a tiny gap between one of the micarta scales and the stainless bolster.

Blade Shape: 2

The Crown’s simple, elegant blade shape is the other stroke that makes the design. It’s a long-legged drop point with an acute tip and a mild swedge.

Crown establishing shot clip side

It proved thoroughly functional for trimming steaks

Crown with trimmed steaks

and other food prep, light wood work, and utility cutting on man-made materials. I liked the 3.25” blade length a lot. I used to think it was silly to make a knife over 3” (which excludes some customers due to legal limitations) unless you were willing to jump up to 3.5” or 4”, but my attitude has changed. The extra little bit of blade actually helps for both coarse cutting strokes and fine work. This blade length falls in the same sweet spot as many paring knives. I grabbed the Crown in the kitchen for lots of little jobs, and when EDCing it along with a larger knife (the Manifold) I defaulted to the Crown for most work.

Steel: 1

My tentative impression is that the Chinese 8Cr13MoV blade steel on this Crown might be run relatively hard, which isn’t a bad thing. The cutting edge is ground thin, and it does tend to get micro-chippy after some work on abrasive materials. However, three minutes or less on the Sharpmaker will put it back in business with a precise, push-cutting edge. (For that matter, the worn edge has its uses. It’s like tiny serrations, hell on cardboard.)

The Crown needs a fair amount of touching up if you like to stay at high sharpness. That said, its 8Cr13MoV is a predictable and functional steel. Not to foreshadow the next review too much, but this is a significant advantage the Crown holds over the Manifold, which uses a 3Cr13 blade steel.

Grind: 2

The Crown is slicey. Its very high hollow grind, culminating in a symmetrical, acute edge, gives it good aggression in ordinary cutting, and it aces the Apple Test. It’s a pleasure to use and a snap to resharpen. The blade features a sharp, precise point too, at the end of a well executed light swedge.

Lock: 2

Liner locks are commonplace on budget blades, and Kershaw tends to execute them well. The Crown has a traditional liner lock with a small but useful run of jimping on the lock bar (actually, it is the only grip texturing on the entire knife). The lock is stable, engages at about 50%, and is easy to disengage. Apart from the moderate lateral blade play that develops with use, there’s nothing to object to.

Grip: 1

This is a close call. Once you get the Crown deployed and in use, its subtly curved and palm-filling handles make for a very pleasant experience, especially after the pocket clip is removed. This is a good knife in the hand, showing how an intelligent shape can make up for an absence of jimping or other tactile grip. However, the smooth sides do sometimes interfere a bit with retrieving the knife from the pocket, especially if you carry it clipless. You may also occasionally need to regrip the knife to get leverage to flick the thumbstuds open.

If you choose to keep on the pocket clip, it improves grip security by about as much as it reduced comfort, so the score stays 1 point.

Carry: 1

The smooth, hitchless handle design pays dividends here. The (clipless) Crown makes a snag free, hand-friendly pocket passenger. The only downside is that it is a bit long and heavy for a drop-in-the-pocket knife.

Deployment Method: 2

Sweet and simple. Two well placed, lightly knurled thumbstuds, plus a proper detent and a smooth pivot give this $15 knife one of the more satisfying coin-flip deployments I’ve tried. It slow-rolls just as well. You get a surprising amount of “fidget factor” for a non-flipper knife.

It’s a small thing, but even the pivot hardware is emblematic of the Crown’s mission to bring a knife knut sensibility to a cheap blade. As you can see in the photo, mixes a phosphor bronze washer on one side with a nylon washer on the other, neatly symbolizing one foot in each world.

Crown pivot and washers

Retention Method: 0

Okay, the budget ran out here. The Crown’s clip is basically a bent, stamped piece of stainless. It’s awkward looking, especially on a knife defined by long, shallow curves. It’s uncomfortable when the knife is gripped, and the protruding blob at the end is notably prone to snag on doors and cars. I have to use the Wal-Mart blue version to show you the pocket clip, because I hated the one on my review Crown so much that I immediately removed it.

The task was complicated by the very poor quality of the Torx screws, which seemed to be Loctited in place. One screw immediately stripped threads and wouldn’t budge. I had to snap the clip in half and remove the fragments before I could wrench the screw out (thanks, Leatherman Charge). Once that was done I happily discovered the Crown’s true destiny as a clipless pocket knife.

The clip does a tolerable job of retaining the knife in the pocket, so for some folks this will be a 1, but the other flaws are so pronounced that I am going to deduct both points. (There’s also a nice lanyard hole with a flush stainless standoff. If you are into lanyards, again this is a 1.)

Total Score: 15 out of 20

Fifteen points for $15 equals a cheap knife to be proud of. The Crown delivers a good sized, well ground blade with decent steel by dint of an intelligently shaped handle that obviates the need to pay for jimping or other machined texturing. The micarta scales add class while keeping the weight to manageable levels. Despite some resultant imperfections (did I mention I was slightly dissatisfied with the clip?), this is a very good set of tradeoffs for the consumer who wants to actually use his or her knives.

A couple years back, when it was the subject of frequent big-box sales, the Crown was often described as “the best $10 knife you can buy.” Today I’d say that it’s still hard to get this much knife from a US brand for under $20 – a price point that the Crown meets with room to spare. If it had a decent clip it would be a potent match for the CRKT Drifter. (Even now, while the Drifter is a great utilitarian design, the Crown has more personality, and I would rather carry it.)

For now, the Crown is still all over eBay for around a Hamilton. Unless you avoid Chinese products on principle or are a rarefied luxe collector on the Jim Skelton plane, there’s little reason not to snag one for a beater, gift or loaner.


  1. I very much like the addition of new writers. I love your work Tony and generally agree with you, but I like hearing the voices of people you appreciate and trust.

  2. After seeing R.D.'s comments on my site and yours over the years, it is great to read a review by him. This was practical and thoughtful - just what I would expect. I had some issues with my own Crown, but for $15 I agree that there is a lot to like with it. Great job.

    1. Thanks very much, Dan. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do it.

      Let me say that working on this and the (hopefully forthcoming soon) Kershaw Manifold review has taught me that writing the sort of cogent, long-form knife reviews that you and Tony are known for is more difficult and harder work than it looks to us consumers of the enjoyably readable results. Much respect.

  3. Great review. I'm glad to see the Crown series getting some attention: it has been on my "Impulse Buy" list for a couple of years now, and this review bumped it up a few spots.

    Personally I'd go for the smaller one, not only because I prefer smaller knives (although I do agree with you re: the 3.25" blade size; it feels different enough from a 3" or under and 3.5" and up to justify its existence), but because I really like the blue micarta.

    1. Ben, I kinda want a Crown II too. Those dimensions seem tailor made for the clipless, nestled-next-to-the-wallet treatment.

      Its production must have been a lot smaller than the Crown I. The II is unavailable on Amazon and scarce on eBay. It has even appreciated in price a bit.

      There were Wal-Mart blue versions of both the Crown I and II. The bigger one remains easy to find online. Interestingly, if you watch Nutnfancy's review, it looks like his blue Crown I has a locking liner of the same thickness as my black boxed one. Whereas my own blue WM model has a thinner lock liner -- thin enough that it bugs me a little. I wonder if the specs for the WM proprietary version changed over time.

      That said, the blue Crown has been entirely stable so far in light use. My wife sometimes grabs it as a food prep knife.

      I noticed one thing ambiguous in the review: the moderate blade play that crops up in the review Crown, is fixable play. You just re-tighten the pivot.

    2. Correction, I don't think there was a blue Crown II, just the larger one.

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  4. I love Tacticals reviews. He's hilarious.