Like last year I am going to break down how the industry is doing overall and then get into specific notable knives. This isn’t a Top Ten, but more a survey of good knives that do something particularly well.
State of the Industry 2019
2018 was the best year for knives since I started the site. Time and again I would get a new review sample and struggle to explain how it was better than knives before it because those knives were so good. The Massdrop Gent, the SOG Terminus XR, and the Buck 110 Slim Pro were all so surprising and so good I had a hard time finding new superlatives. The fact is the folder market has never been better—better steels and better designs than ever before. That is a great thing.
The knife market has also seen an explosion is OEM work and small brands. This is undoubtedly a good thing—giving makers the ability to get stuff out to more people and giving people access to more interesting and unique niche designs. The deal with Reate that Brian Nadeau used to produce the Micro Typhoon or the one that gave rise to Monterey Bay Knives are all good things. I would love to see this continue.
If anything is worrying in the market it is three trends—first, the pursuit of ever higher end stuff, second the sameness of offerings, and third the pace at which new models are being introduced.
Rockstead makes a $3,000 production knife. The average Reate is more than a Sebenza. And Spyderco, long the bastion of high value, saw an across the board price increase. Part of this is an appreciation for high end materials—production knives with MokuTi aren’t uncommon anymore. Part of this is also the impact of steel tariffs. But mostly this is a case of a hot market attracting higher prices. Its the logic of capitalism writ small.
After the abandonment of value, the second concern I have is the reliance on the same basic design—the titanium framelock flipper (TFF). Suppose you could magically delete the TFF, what would the line up of most knife companies look like? ZT would be wiped out, Kershaw would take a hit, CRKT would take a hit, Reate, WE, and Kizer would basically have nothing to sell. Only Spyderco, Benchmade, and Cold Steel are not heavily reliant on the TFF design. Its not like that could ever happen but there are two creeping possibilities that make this a problem. First, and most probable, what happens if (when) tastes change? Of course companies will follow those tastes, but it is very difficult to say how some of the more dependent companies will pivot (see what I did there?). Second, and this is a lurking concern with all knives, what happens if someone gets inspired, uses a TFF in a crime, and there is a local, state, or national outcry? Or, more likely, what if some bureaucrat gets creative and interprets a law differently and TFFs are now switchblades (note: assisted knives were so branded prior to AKTI’s bias towards closure legislative fix in 2009)? Prior to NYC’s loony interpretation of their gravity knife law, I am fairly certain no one in the knife world thought of the Mini Grip as a gravity knife. By relying too heavily on one design, the knife industry makes it possible for something crazy like this to happen.
These two concerns are ones that have kept up every year for a while now. The market seems to be able to bear a ton of bling and TFFs. But what is most concerning and what has me thinking that we are possibly post-peak is the sheer number of new models being released, especially from companies like WE and Kizer. It seems like WE releases a new knife every two days. And the knives aren’t that different from each other. More concerning than just volume is the lack of iteration. Knives are old tools. The likelihood that someone is going to come up with something radically new or different is pretty slim. So greatness in knives is usually achieved through iteration. Here I am thinking of things like the Benchmade 555-1. This is a knife that has slowly changed over time in to one of the best blades available. But with WE stuff like the very solid Civivi Backlash is gone almost before it is released. At some point I am expecting them to just skip the actual knife and release promo pics and a discontinuation announcement at the same time. Maybe the market can withstand this. Maybe the market can withstand an absolute wallet barrage of $250 knives being released once a week from ten different companies or brands. Maybe.
Although the overall state of the knife union is very, very strong, dark clouds loom. 2018 was a banner year and 2019 is on pace to match it in terms of quality releases, but 2019 is one of the more concerning years since I have started this site. I hope it is not true, but flooded markets do not usually portend long term health.
I heard the criticisms from last year’s pick, the FRN Chaparral—notably the uncomfortable lockback—and I have returned to a previous choice. The 555-1 Mini Grip is just a flawless knife now that the Butterfly has increased its tolerances on the Axis Lock. My 555-1 is a few years old now and still functions perfectly with great steel, a great handle, and a wonderful in-pocket feel. The knife really packs the blade length into a comparatively tiny handle, making the Mini Grip carry like a much, much smaller knife. The 20CV steel is still a favorite and the thumbhole is great. There are very few knives, if any, that are more expensive than this knife and still a rational and justifiable purchase. This is as good a knife as any human needs.
This knife is an elite slicer, virtually impervious to water, thin in the pocket, excellent in the hand, and big enough to handle any reasonable task you for which you would use a folder. This is a great knife and probably the best all around choice should you be caught on a desert island or in a favorite Internet Knife Community thought experiment. It is very good at everything and bad a nothing. I still like a slightly smaller knife for EDC, but if I could only keep one knife this would be it.
Lurking: Spyderco Native 5 in LC200N (purchase link): See above with better carry and slightly less capability.
Best Blink and You Missed It Knife: CRKT Pilar in S35VN (bwahahaha…its unavailable)
With CRKT’s strong pivot towards the higher end part of the market, XOC as Exhibit 1, the Pilar is still their most popular knife and this version, which runs S35VN, is the best. Unfortunately, it was here today and gone five minutes later and so finding one isn’t exactly easy. But of all the chase production knives out there this is probably my favorite, one of the more reasonable priced ones, and a damn fine knife. This blade is 100% worth tracking down.
Lurking: River’s Edge Green and Bronze Sprint Spyderco Para3: Perhaps the coolest blade ever made by Spyderco, this is a glorious and ultra-rare knife. Thanks Thomas for the tip.
Best Knife for Fidget Fingers Fred: Massdrop x Ferrum Forge Gent
WE Knives has great fit and finish on their blades. They usually use excellent materials. But the designs are, well, bland. Its as if there is a design by numbers system they use and then they just choose different numbers to put new knives together. “Let’s see, I want a number 2 blade, a number 16 handle, and a number 4 clip.” The computer then goes through an puts it together, regardless of what the final product looks like. The end result is a disjointed feel, a knife that is nice, but completely lacking in cohesion. Every once in a while WE stumbles across a combination that works, but it is rare. They do, however, do a great job on collabs, and this double collab is one of the very best knives on the market. It is not as good a flipper as the Brian Nadeau, Sharp by Design knives are, but those things are relatively hard to find and quite expensive. For less than a 1/3 the money you can get the Gent. I also like the fact that the Gent doesn’t have a massive flipper tab (“pocket pecker” according to Nick) and that the edge of the knife is not so close to the spine. There is nothing on the Gent that is just terrible. Even the spindly pocket clip serves a purpose “hiding” the knife as a pen instead of being a screaming signal that the thing in your pocket is a KNIFE!
Lurking: Rick Hinderer XM-18 3”: It flips well. Hinderers didn’t do that before. Yay!
Best Gentleman’s Knife: Old Nail Nick Chris Reeve Mnandi
The old nail nick Mnandi is one of the best knives out there. It matches the style of the new Mnandis (albeit with a simpler clip) with a one handed opening method that is both clever and subtle. Had they been released in the opposite order, folks would have been thrilled with the old nail nick Mnandi as a huge upgrade on the one for sale now. Ironically, that’s not how it happened and the result is that the new Mnandi is jus straight up inferior to the old one. Now that CRK has a true slipjoint in the Impinda my hope is that they will return to the old nail nick, but given CRK’s history that seems unlikely. Its a shame because there are very few knives better than the old nail nick Mnandi and nothing quite as perfect for a Gentleman’s Knife.
Lurking: Klotzli ACC-1 in CF: Hey its a superior design that is still actually available.
If you like green micarta, which apparently everyone does, then this is a good choice. If you like knives with a bit of history, this is a good choice. And if you like Buck’s Secret Sauce S30V, which Pete’s testing has shown to be superior to regular S30V, then this is a good choice. All of that is icing on the cake for me, because this knife has a blade:weight ratio that is, for its size, almost unprecedented. Skipping liners of any sort the Slim Pro gives you a 3.75 inch blade in a package that weighs a paltry 2.80 ounces. It is also, as the name tells you, slim. Only the travesty of a clip holds this knife back from perfection territory (and to be fair, the clip is very effective, it just looks like a drum stick). I am not normally a fan of big knives, but when they carry like this, they are hard to keep out of the pocket. Just for purposes of comparison, the Buck 110 Slim Pro’s b:w is 1.34. The runner up, the PM2, is .92. Only weirdo ultralight backpacking knives (which feel like they will collapse at any minute) and the expensive and less advanced Al Mar Ultralight Eagle best the Slim Pro 110 (and the Eagle is close). The Buck S30V and lower price make this is a stirling example of the form.
Best Knife to Have When Deiter Rams Asks You What You Are Carrying: The James Brand Chapter Knife, Gen 2
If you think to yourself “Self, we need a knife that shows people we not only carry about self-sufficiency, but also the design heritage of Bauhaus and their focus on elemental forms as the basis of good design” then the Chapter Knife is the knife you need. The original was a gee whiz design innovation, but this knife has a lot of fixes that make it just a damn good cutter, regardless of your love for the work of Joseph Itten or not. The tuning on the new bearing pivot and detent is sublime as this is a knife that rockets out of the handle with almost telekenetic speed. Be prepared though knife fundamentalists—this is tip down only. BTW, tip up v tip down is the knife world equivalent of things like microniches and sub-subgenres in techno music—to the outside world the differences are impossible to see, but to enthusiasts confusing one form with the other is just short of blasphemy.
Lurking: Monterey Bay Knives EZC: For those people in the Royal Tip Up Constabulary, or some other niche faction in the knife world that requires good design AND Tip Up carry, here you go.
Best Knife to Carry to Show you are Memeber of the Knife Intelligensia: Triple Aught Design Hinderer Compact Dauntless with Tri-Way pivot
Yes, the old standard has been replaced, in large part because the steel on the TAD Hinder Compact Dauntless is better. But the form is also more pleasing in the hand. Adding to the whiff of knife snobbery here is the exceedingly long break in time for some knives. Andrew from 555 Gear has just finally broken in his knife. Are we becoming audiophiles where we suffer through poor performance for a long time for putatively nice stuff? Do knives really break in or are the knives breaking us in to their quirks and idiosyncracies? Finish on the TAD Compact Dauntlesses has been spotty, but if you snag a good one, this is a knife that true knife knuts will appreciate and maybe even fawn over. Its gloriously clean and stylish in that minimalist, I-spent-$200-on-pair-of-pants-designed-to-get-dirty way.
Lurking: Knife Art Exclusive Small Sebenza 21 Insingo Blade in CF: Still one of the best things that is covered by the Platonic idea of “knife,” it might be time for CRK to upgrade steel. After all, S35VN can be found everywhere and you can’t have a knife appreciated by the knife snobs with hoi poloi steel.
Best Bang for Your Buck: TRM Neutron
This is not a budget knife, after all it costs $159 and up, but it is an extraordinary value. It is one of the slimmest, “sliceyist” blades I have ever carry with a liquid pivot, a simple yet excellent pocket clip, a good blade shape, and a feather-like prescence in the pocket. The fact that RJ Martin helps sharpen the knives is pretty incredible. I simply can’t state this enough—the Neutron is exceedingly great and the more you carry it the greater appreciation you have for it. Having recently switched jobs and set up my own law office, I carried the Neutron for two weeks of opening packages and doing grunt work and it worked supremely well. I love this knife and given the overall inflation in the knife world these days a $159 knife that runs 20CV is an incredible deal.
Lurking: Cold Steel Mini Pendelton Hunter (purchase link): If you need an EDC fixed blade, this is an excellent choice. It also works great as a kid’s first fixed blade. Cold Steel fixies are all excellent values, even the ridiculous ones.