Friday, April 22, 2016

The Best Folding Knives--Redoing the Top 5 Folding Knives

Its been a while since I have redone the Top 5 list.  In that time I have come to realize that a numerical ranking is not capturing exactly what I want to say.  It's not like you go down the list and say, "Boy do I want knife #4."  You come to the Top 5 looking for a specific recommendation--a knife to fill a role.  And so I have decided to change the list from my five favorite knives to a list "Best Of..."  a la my favorite review site (other than the Wirecutter.  The categories are work in progress.  If you aren't thrilled or you think something is missing, make a suggestion.  All gear is production gear.  Handmade knives are world unto themselves and I think a lot of the reasons people buy those knives has less to do with what they do and more to do with how they look.

Without further ado, the Best Folding Knives:

Best EDC: Spyderco Dragonfly 2 in ZDP-189


There are a quartet of steels on Dragonflies that are, from various perspectives, among the best available steels available.  The Super Blue is amazing, stays sharp forever and sharpens like a dream, but tarnishes quickly.  Then there is the HAP40 version.  That steel, a high end tool steel, is ultra hard AND ultra tough.  Then there is the almost completely rust proof H1. Despite all these choices, I still like the high end, high tech ZDP-189--ultra hard, super sharp.  Take your pick. Given the task, it is unlikely you will be disappointed by any of these steels.  But the magic of the Dragonfly goes beyond steel--it is amazing in the hand and in the pocket--doing a bit of everything and doing it incredibly well.  At just over 1 ounce and home to a four finger grip (if you don't have bear paws), there is no knife I like better than the Dragonfly 2.  And if you won't or can't pony up for one of the top shelf steels, you can opt for the VG-10 model.  It still has the great ergos of the other knives, just at a bit lower price point. 

Best Big EDC: Spyderco Paramilitary 2 in S110V or the Benchmade 940-1

Some people don't like small knives.  It might be because they have bear paws, because they have bigger cutting chores, or because they are compensating.  Whatever the reason, if you want a folder that carries like a small to mid-sized piece, but cuts like something much bigger, the Spyderco Paramiltary 2 is for you.  Like the Dragonfly you can find it in a range of steels, especially if you are willing to hunt on the forums or the less-visited places on the Internet.  Given all of the steels it was made in, my favorite is probably the current high end version made in S110V.  It's an awesome steel on an awesome knife.  The compression lock is quite good too.  Paramilitary 2 fun fact--the Kershaw Cryo in stainless steel weighs more than the Paramilitary 2 and has a blade length that is almost an inch shorter.


The 940-1 is probably a better EDC as it is lighter still.  The steel and lock are a draw with the PM2 in S110V.   Its not as good at flexing into a hard use role as the PM2 thanks to is slender, less grippy handle, so I'd probably choose the PM2 if I wanted the flexibility.  My big problem with the 940-1 is the Benchmade tax.  The knife is about $270 and is slowly falling out of stock.  I can't see why it is that much more money than the PM2 (and no, carbon fiber isn't worth $70).  I also like the very thin grind on the PM2 better than the chunky grind on the 940-1, but if you are picking between these knives its like picking between Kate Upton and Abigail Rachtford.

Best Production Flipper: Kizer Gemini


I have reviewed a lot of flippers.  Lots.  And this one is the best.  The flipping action is insane, right up there with the Tilt (thanks Elliott) and the ZT454, which are, to this day, the high watermarks for production flippers.  This thing crushes all of the "normal" ZTs, which have a weird lockbar pressure issue.  The design is clean and very functional.  The only thing about the knife that isn't super awesome is the clip, which is merely very good.  

Best High End Folder: Chris Reeve Mnandi or Triple Aught Design Dauntless


If you have ever considered buying a Mnandi, just do it.  It works its way into the "Want" center in your brain like that thing from Star Trek 2 and it never, ever leaves.  This is a glorious tool, one of the finest knife designs ever and one of the most beautiful production blades of all time.  It is classy enough for a suit and yet it is knife enough for real cutting tasks.  You will not be disappointed, even with the change in the nail nick.  Oh and as a woodworker, I really appreciate the inlays.  They are all gorgeous. 

If you are an F-150 kind of guy, the Mnandi might be a touch too genteel for you.  If so, the Dauntless is hard to beat.


Its a bit big for EDC, but in your King Ranch pick up you won't notice.  The beefy size belies a simple fact--this is a very finely made knife with great materials, great design choices, and a whole lot of style.  

Best Knife in Places with Legal Restrictions: Spyderco Roadie


In a world where knife laws are all over the place and going in opposite directions at the same time, it is impossible to know what you can and can't carry from afar.  Go ask local law enforcement.  If they say the knife can't have a lock and it can't open with one hand, the Roadie is an awesome choice.  In fact, if you want a super small knife, its a great choice.  If you like the idea of a traditional pocket knife in terms of its size and pocketability, but you want modern materials, this is a great choice.  In reality, the Roadie is great regardless of your legal restrictions.  

Best Ultralight: Al Mar Hawk Ultralight


Sure AUS8 is less than AUSome (had to), but there is no knife that has better performance ratios than the Hawk.  It is a superbly crafted blade with incredible fit and finish.  Very few knives, even ones made in Idaho, come close to matching the fit and finish on an Al Mar.  Toss in the splendid micarta handles and you have a recipe for success.  You can find lighter knives, but they come at an extreme cost--most are no better than a naked utility blade--they are floppy and easy to break.  Here you get a real knife, one that can do real knife tasks (not batonning Cold Steel fanboy), and one that you can carry on a daily basis even if you aren't hiking the Appalachian Trail with a handleless toothbrush.  

Best Budget Folder: CRKT Drifter in G10


Many have come and gone.  Many have challenged the King.  But like Sobhuza II, the Drifter is was and probably always will be King of the Budget Blades.  This is my favorite CRKT and one of the best knives out there under $30.  As I stated in the review, they really cranked on this one--pinching pennies in all the right places.  The end result is a sweet blade you will have no problem using and carrying.  

Best Traditional Folder: Canal Street Cutlery Boy's Knife in Gold G10


I am not a huge fan of multiblade knives, unless they are Swiss Army Knives.  Traditional pocket knives with multiple blades tend to be heavy and so I like traditionals with a single blade.  In the four or so years I have been really looking, this is the best, edging out the Indian River Jack (which is still a great knife and has better steel...the fit and finish can be spotty though).  Here Canal Street, RIP, really paid attention to the details and made a superb folder, one with fit and finish that rivals a custom.  The fact you can still find them in stock for under $100 is crazy.  Go buy one now.  I like all of the wood handles, but the G10 in Gold, exclusive to AG Russell, is a real eyecatcher.  

Best Folder to Replace Your Kitchen Knife: Perceval La Francaise


Perceval is a French brand that has made ZERO inroads into the US.  Its sad because they make some extraordinary cutlery and the La Francaise, their simplest model, is one of the best folders out there.  This thing cuts better than any folder I have ever used.  Much better.  Much, much better.  Its like comparing a chainsaw to deli slicer.  You can bend around bone, shave the skin off a grape, and still cut open a package with ease.  Its a long blade so you can easily halve an apple.  And its good in the pocket too.  Me love this grind.  

Best Knife at Big Box: Kershaw Skyline


The Skyline is the secret handshake of knife knuts--a great blade that is hidden right in front of you.  You can buy the Skyline at almost any Wal-Mart.  The flipping action is very good.  The weight is excellent.  The clip is simple and effective.  And the steel, 14C28N, is one of my favorites--the best budget steel on the market.  Even with a trio of price increases over the last 5 or 6 years, this is still an amazing starter knife and one of the best you can find in person regardless of where you live.  

There you have it--the Best Folding Knives 


  1. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that you make sweet sweet love to your Dragonfly 2 every night. Solid list Tony. I was definitely surprised to see the Canal Street Cutlery Boys Knife topping out the IRJ.

  2. I like this format. It's definitely more useful this way, just like Wirecutter as you intended. They could just about copy and paste this article if they wanted to give out knife advice.

    Also as a SpyderHolic, it makes me happy seeing that not only is Spyderco the only company with multiple entries, it has three.

  3. I echo everything Patrick said, plus I learned who Abigail Rachtford is, so that'll keep me busy on the Internet for a while. May I suggest you add a category for best fixed-blade EDC?

  4. If only Al Mar would upgrade their steel. :(

    1. So true.

      Al Mar actually does some runs of their "Heavy Duty" Eagle in ZDP-189 ... unfortunately they do not feature the outstanding FFG blade geometry found on Tony's Hawk and most of the other AUS-8 Ultralights. Instead, the HD Eagle uses Al Mar's "Talon" blade that features a big swedge and a low saber grind. Many people report it arrives very obtuse, requiring reprofiling. Sounds like a waste of ZDP's slicy awesomeness.

      I want a Falcon Ultralight in ZDP-189 with the non-Talon, FFG blade geometry. Would be pricey, though; maybe $175?

  5. A knife (un couteau) is masculine, at least in the French language. So it's the Perceval LE FRANCAIS.

  6. Great revamp. Should be very useful to newbies and others.

    Rather than take issue with any of your picks, I'll throw in a couple of additional categories and what I'd recommend.

    Best Big Budget Folder: Ontario RAT-1. This classic design has zero marketing bullet points; it's the knife equivalent of the employee who comes in quietly, does the job well each day with no hoopla, and leaves on time. It's a thumbstud opener, unassisted AUS-8 knife with non-G10 handles and a spoon clip. But everything works well and feels natural. Thanks to Taiwanese manufacture, you get benchmark fit and finish for a sub-$30 knife. Ontario also delivers a great edge grind. The RAT-1 has a sizable (3.6") blade without looking too scary, is solid (5 oz) without being bloated. A thin design makes for better pocket carry than you'd guess. After all these years, the full sized RAT-1 remains solid and comfortable enough to kick $120 knives out of my pocket.

    Best Crossover EDC/Tactical Knife (sub-$100): Cold Steel Large Voyager or Spyderco Endura 4 Wave

    Both of these guys are up for a catch-all of utility tasks, and are also specifically recommended as defensive tools by edged weapon instructors (of which I certainly am not one). They have such contrasting strengths that it's impossible to call one the best in the abstract. Most users will strongly prefer one or the other but it is going to be individual. The Voyager has a superior slicing grind, grip ergonomics, fit & finish (Taiwan again) and stronger construction, including (wait for it) lock strength. The Endura 4 Wave has faster deployment, takes up a lot less pocket real estate, and is a bit less weaponized looking, though I would still probably stick with the slipjoint for dividing PB&Js at the first grade picnic. In blade steel I give Cold Steel's BD-1 the nod over Spyderco's long in the tooth VG-10.

    1. (Category should probably be "Budget Big Folder" instead.)

  7. Tony, has the updated Mnandi gotten any carry time in your pocket? By all accounts the new nail nick and detent make it a 2-handed opener unless you're willing to start performing some strange dexterous finger gymnastics.

    1. I was re-reading this, and I wanted to comment on this because I've had a chance to handle that one myself. I've found that the Mnandi, and also some knives with a stronger detent that you want to open slowly (my Nirvana's detent is such that it's hard to open it slowly with control with just my thumb; it pops right to halfway open), can be opened very easily one-handed.
      hold the knife like you're going to open it with your thumb, but take your middle finger and put it on the other side of the blade and use it with your thumb to pinch the blade past the detent (your ring finger and pinkie are braced on the handle). Then you can continue the opening motion with just the thumb. This works really well for me with the Mnandi. I sometimes open my Techno that way without needing to use the SpyderHole because of the thick stock. It sounds more complicated than it is in practice. With a little practice you get more control over when the detent releases and your thumb just continues the motion out without thinking.

    2. This may help explain better than words:

  8. The Al Mar is a sweet little knife for sure, but I wouldn't say it has better F&F than the Idaho knives. Mine certainly doesn't, even though it is pretty darn good. Still, I can pick out several flaws in terms of F&F with my particular sample including off-center blade and a number of inconsistencies in the finish of the micarta. While it's great little knife, it's no CRK equal.

  9. Thank you for the mention, Tony. I can't argue with anything on your list. All top shelf stuff.


  10. Love the article, but...

    If you want a top 5 that will be useful for a while, shouldn't you avoid already out of production knives? The yellow boy's knife is already sold out at ag Russell and I suspect the other variants will be gone soon too.

  11. This is great! I'm curious where you'd rank the Gayle Bradley 2.

  12. Sorry but multi blade traditional are superior to their single blade counterparts

    1. Tony says "I am not a huge fan of multiblade knives, unless they are Swiss Army Knives. Traditional pocket knives with multiple blades tend to be heavy and so I like traditionals with a single blade. "
      This is a clear statement of preference and qualifies how and why he picked the knife he did. Clearly, you disagree, but why? Consider that because he didn't specify otherwise for the traditionals, we're talking about general-use EDC knives. Therefore, what benefit does an extra blade give you if the single blade is a great one and you don't need another one for some specific purpose? Tony prefers the weight savings to the redundant blade, and that makes sense, but I'm interested to hear a different viewpoint. Do you have any objective reasons for your opinion?

    2. My favorite traditionals are the 2-blade patterns, especially jacks.

      Multiple blades lets you dedicate one to food prep and others to dirty work. The disadvantage is that the extra blade(s) protrude when not in use and can interfere with the user's grip. This ruins the Stockman for me. I also dislike the aesthetics of congress patterns. (Alox Cadet excepted.) I prefer each blade to have its own pair of liners.

      Trappers are good but tend to have too much blade protrusion.

      2-bladed jacks are where it's at. The second blade is usually small and tucks away neatly. It gets the dirty work. I use it kind of like the "package opener" doohickeys currently popular on MTs.

    3. Multi blade knives just give you more options. Having a shorter blade to go along with a bigger one makes detail carving a lot easier. And if one of the blades gets too dull you've got a backup. Also something like a stockman gives you different tips all in hte same package.

    4. I know that the craftsmanship needed to made a multiblade traditional is greater, but for me, I just like the look of a single bladed traditional. If I want a multiblade tool its hard to pass up a Swiss Army Knife.

  13. This is why the Alox Electrician is my go to EDC when I am in NYC or anywhere a modern folder with one-handed opening and a lock would cause odd looks. I dedicate the short wharnnie blade to cutting anything dirty and save the main blade for cutting fruit, cheese, etc.

  14. Your choice of the PM2 surprised me considering your statement in the Manix 2 lightweight review: "This is it. This is my new favorite large blade. The finish is better than the PM2, the weight is better, and the price is quite nice. If you are in the market for a larger folder, this is a no brainer." What made you turn back to the PM2?