Disclaimer: The rules on carrying knives can be murky. Make sure to check your state/county regulations on carrying knives. For instance, New York City administrative code has an under-4 inch blade length limit and requires knives to be carried completely concealed. Know the law before you buy.
Let’s face it—if we think about things that set us apart from the animal kingdom, it’s usually making a fire, the wheel, and the making of weapons. You could say our very human identity depends on those three things. We’re going to focus the last thing on that list today. The making of weapons—knives—in particular. In this article A to Z American will be running through some of the best American-made knife brands, and some of their best offerings in various categories.
These proud USA knife-makers are carrying on a tradition of making sharp edged tools that goes back nearly 2.5 million years.
Naturally we’ve come a long way since the first person discovered how to craft sharp edges with stone. We’ve also made some significant improvements on design since the famed Hallstatt knife, which dates back to ~500-600 BC. While the designs we’ll be considering today are updated and expertly forged, machined, and honed with precise modern technology, it’s still astonishing to look at something so old and remember that we’re a part of history and history is a part of us. Keep in mind this beautiful piece, a folding knife that’s probably over 2500 years old:
The Halstatt Knife (CO Olde Towne Cutlery)
Now, on to the knives of the present.
In this piece it will be important to define some things, both in order to help our readers when they’re shopping for goods, and so you know what we’re talking about when we use certain terms.
|Everyday Carry (EDC)||Just like it sounds, this is a knife that is meant and designed to be carried every day. This generally entails that it is small (between a 2 and 4 inch blade) and foldable (not necessarily, but generally). Basically just a comfortable, good, sturdy knife for daily needs.|
|Folding Knife||A class of knives in which the blade, or multiple blades, can be folded inside the handle.|
|Fixed Blade||Fixed blade knives have blades that are fixed in place, and cannot be folded down. They are sometimes referred to as sheath knives. Generally these knives will be stronger than folding knives, due to the lack of any moving parts.|
|Assisted Open||An assisted-opening knife is a type of folding knife which uses an internal mechanism to assist in the opening of the blade. Can include: Thumb stud, flipper, nail nick, thumb hole, button, thumb slide, butterfly, and hidden release (For an overview of these opening styles follow this link|
|Stainless Steel||A common iron alloy used in knives, which are extremely resistant to rusting and corrosion. They must contain approximately 11% chromium.|
|High Carbon||Commonly known as “carbon tool steel” it typically has a carbon range between 0.61% and 1.50%. High carbon steel is very difficult to cut, bend and weld. Once heat treated it becomes extremely hard and brittle. These knives stay sharper for much longer but are also more susceptible to corrosion.|
|“Surgical Steel”||A marketing misnomer. Avoid these products as they are made of inferior steel. Stick to steel with numbered names like S30V, or VG10. For a more in depth look at what the standard alloy numbering (SAE) naming paradigm refers to follow this link.|
|Blade Shape||The term blade shape refers to what the blade looks like from the top down lying on its side. There are many different blade styles, an overview can be found here.|
|Blade Grind||The grind of a blade refers to what the edge of the blade looks like from the top down, so what the “cutting part” of a traditional blade looks like in detail. An overview can be found here.|
|Rockwell Hardness||HRc refers to the Rockwell scale of hardness. It is a scale used by metallurgists to define how hard a piece of steel is: the higher the number the harder the steel. Generally a survival knife you are going to put through extreme rugged, near-abuse would have a HRc of 55-58.|
|Locking Mechanism||These are all the mechanisms that keep your folding knife from opening freely. There are many different types; frame lock, button lock, ring lock, lever lock, axis lock, compression lock, liner lock, slip joint. In general the best locking mechanism is the simplest one, less moving parts means less opportunity for breakage. An overview can be found here.|
One of the most important things that you can do if you want to support US bladesmiths, is to learn about their production facilities, but also using US engineered steel is hugely important. So do some research here, we know the numbers and letters can get confusing but a fairly comprehensive list can be found here.
Right, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to some great All-American companies. We have selected the companies that make a quintessential version of a given type of knife, and will outline a bit about the company itself, as well as the product we have selected. The knife market is huge and has a lot of options. So, we have narrowed things down significantly by restricting it to American-sourced and manufactured knives, but there are still plenty of options even with those restrictions.
To make our selections we took into account:
- Relative Price Point
- Company History
NOTE: As always the prices on this list may be a bit inflated due to American labor costs, and, due to many of these products using stainless steel that is engineered and forged in the USA, these knives are no exception.
Best Fixed Blade Knife:
Benchmade Bushcrafter Family – $250.00
Well wouldn’t you know it, we had to go with a big hitter right off the bat. The benchmade Bushcrafter is an iconic knife from an iconic knife maker. This is a CPM-S30V steel blade that’s 4.4 inches long. The steel was engineered and forged in the USA by Crucible Industries. It’s 7.72 ounces, and 9.15 inches long over the entire length. It also comes with a leather sheath. This is a perfect knife for just about any outdoor/survival application.
Benchmade is a company that has been making quality knives in the USA since 1979. Founded as Bali-Song, in California by Roberta and Les de Asis, the company is now headquartered in Oregon City, Oregon. Benchmade has become one of the most highly regarded major knife makers in the world. They specialize in hunting knives, personal carry, and tactical knives for military personnel and police. They also have a customize your knife tool on their website. This company has won numerous awards, and has aligned itself with legendary knife-maker Chris Reeve (more on him later) and Crucible Industries in designing and engineering the stainless steel they use in their blades. This is about as made in the USA as it gets for a big recognizable company. They never cut corners, and do things the right way to produce an exceptional American product that’s designed and manufactured from the ground up.
Best Fold-Out Knife:
Spyderco Para Military 2 – $216.00
The Spyderco Para Military 2 G-10 is a remake of a previous version of the the Para Military. This version boasts a G10 grip (thermoset plastic laminate), which is a favorite of knife enthusiasts, due to its dimensional stability and wet- or-dry traction. This model is built in Golden, Colorado, and utilizes CPM S30V steel from Crucible Industries (another type of steel that Chris Reeve helped engineer) This knife has a big following and they will be releasing the Para Military 3 soon which will feature CPM S45VN which Spyderco sees as “Stainless steel specifically created to transcend its predecessors.” You can read more about it at their website.
For now the Spyderco Para Military 2 will have to keep us satisfied, and we think with all the premium features in an attractive package, it does that and more.
Spyderco has made a big investment in a state-of-the-art facility in Golden, Colorado. They are seen as pioneers in many now-common folding knife features, so we thought they were a lock for this category in terms of company history. Founded by Sal Glesser in Golden in 1978, Spyderco has been innovating and operating as an important USA manufacturer for over 40 years.
Best Assisted-Open Knife:
Zero Tolerance 0350 – $156.00 (Marked down from $195.00)
The Zero Tolerance 0350 is one of the first knives Zero Tolerance made. It’s still one of their most popular, offering a very impressive snap open mechanism (their Speedsafe assisted opening mechanism) that has an exceptional feel in your hand when it snaps into life. This knife opens fast, and smooth with minimal effort, which is incredibly important in many circumstances. The steel is S30V and the grip is G10 so you know you are getting a knife that is meticulously engineered with the best components and some exceptionally versatile steel.
So…Here’s the thing. Zero Tolerance and Kershaw are under the same corporate umbrella these days, that umbrella being KAI. So I thought I would take this opportunity to sneak in another of A to Z’s favorites in this category:
Kershaw Ken Onion Blur – 54.99
This knife is a legend in its own right, the only reason I didn’t put it first is because they use 14C28N Sandvik steel which comes from Sweden. However all other components on the knives are American-made and the line of knives was designed by legendary American knife maker Ken Onion who was one of the youngest ever inductees into the Blade Magazine Hall of Fame. He invented the Speedsafe mechanism that assists the opening of the blur and the ZT 0350 above.
Kai/Kershaw Inc. was started in Portland, Oregon in 1974 by Pete Kershaw. Manufacturing was first done in Japan but was moved to Oregon in 1997. That manufacturing site in Wilsonville, was expanded into a larger production site in 2003. They have collaborated with Ken Onion and Ernest Emerson, along with many others, and have been putting out quality American-made and designed products for many years. While they partner with Japanese company Kai inc. the Kai/Kershaw USA has been a valuable community partner in Oregon for over 20 years.
Best Hunting Knife:
DiamondBlade Summit – $325.00
The DiamondBlade Black Micarta is a very special knife. It boasts one of the highest Rockwell Hardness scores of any knife on this list at 65-68. This thing is designed for abuse and lots of it. That means whether you’re skinning, or breaking animals down, this thing is in it for the long haul. DiamondBlade uses a process called Friction Forging, with American D2 Steel. So they’re basically using a “welding” process that’s used for Nuclear Submarines. To make a long story short, and very dumbed down, this is basically the process they use to weld the parts of a submarine hull together so it can withstand all of the intense pressure that it encounters under the sea. They’re heat treating the D2 blanks they get with astronomical amounts of heat and pressure just like a…you got it…Diamond.
It’s like we always say here at A to Z—if it’s good enough to protect a nuclear reactor, it’s good enough to skin a buck.
DiamondBlade was started by Charles Allen and Hobie Smith in 2003 and this is a collaboration between Utah Based MegaDiamond a company involved in making ultra-hard materials for the oil industry and Knives of Alaska, which manufactures high quality outdoorsmen’s knives. The rest is, as they say, history.
Best Filet Knife
Buck Knives 035 Abyss Fillet Knife – $50.00 (marked down from $65.00)
This filet knife has a beautiful deep blue Kryptek camo pattern and utilizes 420HC American Steel that is heat treated in a process pioneered by Paul Bos. That means superior edge retention and superior corrosion resistance as well as excellent wear resistance all at a great price. This blade is hardened to a Rockwell hardness of Rc 58.
Buck knives was started by Hoyt Buck in 1902. He made a name for himself providing knives from worn out file blades for WWII. Buck Knives really came into their own after the war when Hoyt started HH Buck and Son in San Diego, relocating from the Pacific Northwest. They really revolutionized the knife industry with the Model 110 Folding Hunter Knife in 1964. Buck has continued to innovate in the intervening 56 years and are still putting out beloved products to this day.
Best Small/Limited Production Knives
We’ll be up-front. Here at A to Z we couldn’t get our hands on these special knives we’re about to showcase (especially from Randall). Even the consumer knives are basically made to order and ship in 4-8 weeks. But we figured we’d give you something to drool over. We believe these independent makers, who use All-American steel and Manufacturing, really represent what it means to purvey American-made products in a quintessentially important way. We picked a couple beautiful, highly rated products from each company to showcase. So without further ado:
The Crow Scout Blade from Half-Face Blades is a beautiful 10 inch fixed-blade knife made with S35-VN American steel, with an acid etched and stone washed finish. We thought the texturing on the ironwood grip was pitch-perfect. The S35-VN steel provides great strength, edge retention, and wear resistance.
Half-Face blades was founded by Andrew Arrabito, a retired navy seal. These knives are built to be functional in whatever situation a person might find themselves in. The attention to detail in these blades is something that Mr. Arrabito prides himself in. These are beautifully crafted pieces of American ingenuity from start to finish, if you have 400 bucks to spend on a knife this one will take about 4 weeks to get to your door.
The WK Knight Jaeger is an 8-inch knife made with 80CrV2 American Steel with a no-glare black oxide Finish. We think these knives are very beautiful, but we were taken with this response (From user DWinkler) on a knife forum regarding the response that Dan Winkler himself made to a customer receiving a possibly defective knife. We thought that to see a customer getting that kind of response from the knifemaker himself, who then offered, no questions asked, to send a new knife for the customer to test at no charge speaks to the atmosphere at these small knife makers shops. That is an atmosphere of quality, integrity and, dare I say, down home American values.
Sure a Benchmark would undoubtedly send you a replacement knife if you brought it up with their customer service department. But for a maker on this scale to respond to this critique on a message board? Well we think that kind of integrity speaks for itself. Founder Daniel Winkler has been providing Team specific knives and axes to some of America’s most elite fighting forces since 2004 out of their facility in Boone, North Carolina.
With shouts for being one of the most iconic knives of all time, being made famous by Allied combat troops in World War II and many theatres since. This knife is copied all over the world but Bo Randall was the first guy to do it and he’s gone on to become probably the most famous bladesmith of all time. His famous line is that he started selling knives in 1937 and now, 83 years later, he’s still behind.
Be warned: When ordering your knife, there is an ominous red disclaimer that reads “Randall Made Knives has an extended delivery time.” So, it will undoubtedly take some time to get your original Randall Made knife. But according to nearly 100 years of excellence you won’t regret it.
Best Tactical Folding Knife:
Hinderer Knives XM-18 series – $425-695.00
The XM-18 is known as one of the toughest tactical folding knives in the world. Utilizing super hard CPM-S35VM American Steel and a G10 grip. This knife series sets itself apart with an all-in-house approach; from machining all titanium components in-house, to an exacting degree. This is a beast of a tactical knife in a convenient package.
Rick Hinderer began making knives in the mid 1980’s making art knives in a turkey coop. He’s come a long way from those humble beginnings and is now one of the industry’s most respected tactical knife-makers. And has even lent his design prowess to companies like Kershaw and Zero Tolerance. He definitely made his name with the XM-18 and has gone on to be a very important bladesmith in the industry.
Best Everyday Carry (EDC) Knife
We’ll start by saying that an everyday carry is going to be different for most people. So you really have to tailor it to your own life. Maybe you’re a wilderness guide and you need a sturdy fixed blade knife that’s super overbuilt and can chop down 20 trees without sharpening it. Maybe you want the Benchmade Skeletonized Adamas fixed blade. That’s probably not going to be everybody’s go to, every day knife though.
We went with a knife we felt ticked a lot of boxes for lots of people in a lot of imagined scenarios. We picked a knife that was sleek, durable, holds a reasonable edge but isn’t too hard to sharpen on your own; and has features that are useful for a wide variety of situations one might find themselves in in a wide variety of environments. Here’s our choice…drum roll please:
Well…it’s a few. I went with an expensive, top of the line model:
The Spyderco Southard Folder – $425.95
This blade is an assisted open blade with using Spyderco’s Carson flipper. This makes it easy to open with one hand, and the G-10 handle is going to last forever. The CTS204P American steel retains its edge but is easy enough to sharpen. This is one of the highest graded steels we have on the list. We think that’s the perfect kind of thing to put in your EDC knife. This is low profile but super sturdy and one of the best and most durable builds Spyderco has in a folding knife.
Best Budget Knife Option:
Gerber Gator Premium – Clip Point Folder – $105.00
This is one of Gerber’s top selling knives, and it’s held that place for 25 years. This is a reincarnation of the original but offers some upgraded, premium materials. A super grippy Gator grip is perfect for all weather conditions and will hold up to years of abuse, and the S30V American steel has great edge retention and wear resistance. At 105 dollars this knife just felt like a steal, and would be a great EDC for just about anyone. Gerber manufactures the Gator, and many of their other products in their Portland, Oregon facility, and have been doing so for over 70 years.
That concludes our list.
As is usually the case these companies all have other great offerings. We did our best to select excellent offerings from all of them, but if they’re not your style you can be sure their other products will be excellent as well. The things to watch out for are the types of steel being used. Every company on this list manufactures extensively in the US, on the product page you should look out for the badge that says “Made in the USA”, as opposed to “imported”. Almost all of the companies we outlined were absolutely transparent about the type of steel used, and most had tools to filter by types of steel used in the blades in the searching process. A quick search on the internet can give you a better understanding of what you’re actually getting in those blades.
Stay Sharp America!