Six of the Best Budget Blades: A Deep Dive
Tony Sculimbrene 12.25.17
Rising tides do lift all boats, or at least they do in the knife world. As we are treated to ever-crazier blades at the top end of the production world, knives at the bottom have gotten better as well–a trickle-down effect (talk about mixed political metaphors–rising boats and trickle down).
We have something like the Reate K-1 with MokuTi inlays coming in at $850. There is any number knives that have crossed the Sebenza Barrier; the Spyderco Nirvana, the Benchmade Anthem, the Prometheus Badger. The Steelcraft knives are great. Hogue is doing nice things. Liong Mah’s knives, which are made with Reate’s skills, are amazing. WE Knives has come out of nowhere and made killer stuff. And then, earlier this year, Rockstead stole back the crown that Lionsteel borrowed for a few years with its 3D printed titanium handled blade–most expensive production knife with the release of the Nehan, a $2,000+ production knife.
The bottom of the market has also undergone a renaissance. LA Police Gear released its first house brand knife, the TBFKS35VN, and caused something of a minor sensation. But Leatherman also released a very good EDC-friendly knife at the bottom of the price range. The time of Elan and Bee dominating the sub-$30 market is over. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are real and good knives that can be had for prices that reset expectations. Here are some very good sub-$30 knives.
The New Hotness
LA Police Gear TBKF: $35
It’s hard not to include this knife on the list, despite the conceit, because, well, it is the blade the reignited this portion of the market. For $35 you get an amazing value; S35VN steel, bearing pivot, sculpted G10 handles, a good flipper, and an excellent deep carry, over-the-top pocket clip.
I am not thrilled about the protruding lock bar or the weight — this is a clunker of a knife at well over 5 ounces — but if you want a blade to beat on with stellar steel, this is it.
Ruike P801: $29.95
The Ruike P801 is the knife aficionados will prefer over the TBFK–it has better fit and finish, better flipping action, and better design chops. The one big tradeoff is the “reduction” to 14C28N steel. That saves you 1/7th the cost of the knife. It also makes the blade less chippy in my experience. I was surprised at all of the nice touches: the pivot collar, the well-shaped flipper tab, and the nice clip. The thinness of the blade is also a winner.
A weird gushy detent is all I can complain about here–that and the steel (as opposed to titanium) handles. Because the knife is so thin, steel doesn’t really kill the knife in terms of weight, but it is an issue to consider. I like this knife a lot.
Leatherman KB: $18.95
To see a knife from an American company at this price range is great. To see one from Leatherman, with their amazing warranty, design skill, and heritage is even better. This is a slim knife, an ideal EDC blade. The blade shape is especially good. The bottle opener is a freebie, something that fortunately stays out of the way and adds a smidge of utility.
The Old Guard
CRKT G10 Drifter: $25.06
The Wirecutter/Sweethome recently did a thorough and comprehensive review of knives and, with a little nudge from a few people, chose the Drifter as the best knife for most people. I have a hard time disagreeing with that. The methodology was good, the knives chosen to test were the right ones, and the knife reviewers they consulted were impeccable.
I have long thought this knife was the King of the Budget Blades, having made that bold statement after a shootout comparing a few other knives. Until 2017, this knife was head-and-shoulders above the competition. This year, with the three knives above, we finally have a real race. The poor steel here makes a difference, especially when 14C28N and S35VN can be had for a just a few bucks more. But the greatness of this knife lies in its design and size. I’d still probably choose a Drifter over anything else on this list for that very reason.
Ka Bar Mini Dozier: $18.01
This is an old classic from the forums–recommended over and over again for years when a newb shows up and asks the inevitable question: “I want a good, cheap first knife. What should I get?” The reason is threefold: 1) the delicious Dozier utility-first design; 2) the above-par-for-the-price AUS-8 steel; and 3) the uber-cheap price. There are two sizes, but the Mini, for me, is perfect for EDC.
I can’t think of a better-sized blade in that regard, it’s right in there with my favorite knife (the Spyderco Dragonfly). The steel advantage is not as great as it used to be given the New Guard knives above, but it is still a good little blade.
Ontario RAT II: $27.03
Even to this day, having handled knives that cost many thousands of dollars, I can tell you this simple blade still has some of the best deployment action I have ever seen. That alone is worth the price of admission, given how low it is. I am not so convinced that either this knife or its big brother are all that good of a knife given the weird handle design and just how far away your hand is from the cutting edge, but lots of people like it. There is also a step-up D2 edition, but it is more expensive.
The current crop of budget blades is the best it has been in a long time. Feel okay about ignoring the ultra-cheap stuff on Amazon and Alibaba. There is just too much good stuff out there to bother with those knives. Also keep an eye open for two steels, both of which are great for the money–Carpenter’s BD-1 and Buck’s 420HC. Both have proven to punch well above their weight and have found their way on to a host of budget blades recently.