Don’t think you need to save five paychecks to kit yourself out. If done right, you can do it on the cheap. None of these recommendations will cost more than $40, and I will try to find stuff significantly lower than that.
Fixed blades can be tricky. The knives are pretty simple; generally speaking they are a slab of steel and some kind of plastic or resin handle. But top-end production fixed blades can get really expensive, really quickly. When shopping for budget fixed blades my advice is simple: spend your money on a good handle. In the budget tier, pretty much everything has some issue–steel, crappy sheath, coatings, something. So if you have only a few bucks but still want to get something you can use, it’s the handle that counts.
CRKT Mossback Hunter (full review)
Dollar for dollar, you’d be hard pressed to find a better knife than the CRKT Mossback Hunter. It’s right at the upper limit of what I would consider a budget blade, around $40, but the entire package is pretty great. First, you get a classic design by truly gifted maker (Tom Krein). This is a drop point hunter, something made famous by Bob Loveless, but it’s also a Krein DPH, with its curved bulbous handle. There is also a scattering of jimping in unusual-but-useful places. Finally, the knife has a good grind and blade thickness ideal for general purpose tasks. As an added bonus it has that ineffable quality that make it just look right. Loveless called it visual tension.
The sheath is a molded-insert nylon number, a tube sheath that is merely okay. The SK-5 steel is a good beater steel but it’s not corrosion resistant and needs a coating. The coating, in my use, has held up well, but a coating is never a plus; it’s the knife steel equivalent of crutches, a way to make up for a weakness or flaw.
I found that SK-5 was very good at taking hits and not too bad at holding an edge. It’s not as good as something like 1095, but it is certainly good enough.
In the hand, this is one of the better knives I have held and used. It’s just so simple and so good that its few flaws are easily overlooked.
Schrade SCH36 (full review)
Okay, this is a chopper. But the Schrade SCH36 is a budget chopper and one with a blade probably too short to chop big stuff, but if you want the durability of a wood-cleaving monster and you don’t want to drop bank, this is my favorite. The SCH36 is part of Schrade’s new push, one where they are really focusing on listening the community. They have knives designed by YouTubers, features that are all the rage on forums, and all of this is found on products that are one-third the cost of competitors.
The SCH36 is a direct shot across Ka-Bar’s bow. It has a similar look, feel, and purpose to many of the Becker/Ka-Bar collabs. It even runs Ethan Becker’s steel of choice: 1095. And all of this goodness rings up for $26 and change. There are even some toss-in accessories that are decent: a field sharpener and a fire-starter flint and striker. The sheath is a nylon sock with molded insert and is as good as it sounds (which is not very).
I am not sold on the coarse jimping across the top of the knife’s spine, and I think the handle is a bit overwrought compared to the elegance and simplicity of the Becker handle. But still, you are getting 70-80% of the performance for 33% the price. My one major reservation is that this knife, unlike the Ka-Bars, is made overseas. I am more than willing to pay a premium for USA-Made stuff, but those products rarely fit in a budget.
Mora Companion (full review)
Let’s be clear–the Morakniv Companion will not be your final fixed blade purchase. It’s not exactly disposable, but at around $20, it’s not going to last a lifetime. Still, it will arrive sharp and very capable. The tube-style sheath is actually pretty good, with rattle-free retention. The real thing I like about the Mora is the handle. More than anything else, the handle makes the knife (as is often the case with fixed blades).
I also appreciate that the blade stock is not insanely thick; it’s stout but not beefy. The Mora is a scandi grind, which means it has no secondary grind for the cutting bevel. I’d prefer a convex grind, but I don’t think you’ll find one at this price point. Given that, I feel like the scandi grind is a good place to start. If you have stones or a strop it’s dead simple to keep sharp.
The steel on all of the Moras in this price range is meh. It’s okay in terms of edge retention, corrosion resistance, and toughness. If you are coming from the world of M390, it’s a stark contrast. If you are coming from the world of “mystery meat” steels on $7 Wal-Mart knives, it’s something of an eye-opener.
Folders can’t do what fixed blades can, but you don’t need to spend a ton on a fixed blade. If you just want something to beat up, try one of the knives above. And if you pick the Mora be sure to watch carefully. You just might grow a hipster beard or fill your closet with selvedge denim by accident.