For everyday carry made-in-America knives that won’t break the bank, check out these top picks
by Dexter Ewing; photos by Marty Stanfield, Marty Stanfield Photography
Tactical knives continue their strong trend in the EDC world and show no sign of slowing down. New designs, new materials, and new lock mechanisms still define the upper end of the market. Higher-priced USA-made tactical folders live in the $250 to $399 range. Unfortunately, not everyone has the means to afford such pieces. In this article, we will spotlight a few of the tactical folders that we consider to be the best “bang for the buck” made-in-the-USA folders.
First, let’s define what we mean by this. For the purpose of this article, we set a street price (not MSRP) of no more than $150. We did some research on several websites belonging to top internet-based knife retailers and came up with these knives. Generally, when you think of bang for the buck tactical folders, you think of those that are made in Taiwan or China, as they cover the lower end of the spectrum. Not everyone wants offshore-made knives, and that is understandable. Be willing to pay just a little more to get USA-made knives that are loaded with features, but at the same time won’t break the bank.
Bear & Son Cutlery’s Bear Ops line is their tactical knife group consisting of both fixed blades and folders. Their Rancor IV series has some technically advanced folders at modest pricing. For this review, we acquired their Rancor IV model MC-550-AIBK-B manual opening folder. Featuring a blade length of 3 ¼ inches, this folder sits at the cusp of large folder territory. Its hollow-ground Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel blade has plenty of bite and muscle to cut the big jobs down to size while the upgraded 14C28N steel offers enhanced edge holding over lower grades of stainless that are on the market.
Dual thumb studs permit easy opening with either hand. The handle has an ergonomic shape with its integrated front and rear guards to prevent unwanted hand movement. The handle material is aluminum alloy for high strength and light weight. The handle has chamfers and contouring that make it not only comfortable in your hand for extended use but also for pocket carry. A steel pocket clip is mounted to carry the knife in the tip up configuration.
This knife has two added features that increase usefulness as well as ease of operation. There is a glass breaker point on the end of the handle, which allows you to easily shatter side windows of automobiles in the event you need to escape in a wreck or assist in a rescue. And there is the Slide Lock blade locking mechanism. This type of lock is ambidextrous and strong. A hardened steel bar is under constant spring tension from both sides. This moves the lock bar in place once the blade is fully open, preventing the blade from closing. No blade play whatsoever. To close the blade, pull back on the exposed ends of the lock bar and the blade will glide shut.
The blade is mounted on caged bearings, which help in the ultra-smooth radial action. The Slide Lock is safe and easy to get used to. Your fingers are never put into the path of the closing blade, further increasing user safety. Just pull back on both sides and the blade falls shut on its own. Easy!
I found the Rancor IV to be a good performer for the price. It’s easy to deploy, use, close, and put back into the pocket, where it rides comfortably. This being a tactical knife, the entire knife has a black coating for low profile. The blade and hardware seem to be black oxide but Bear & Son’s website doesn’t state what it really is. Street price for the Rancor IV is around $75, with MSRP being $114.99.
The Case Marilla flipper frame lock ushers in a new era for this historic knife company. Deeply rooted in traditional slip joints and fixed blades, W.R. Case & Sons has “gotten with the times” and produced a one-hand-opening/closing frame lock folder with flipper opening.
Named for a spring that is popular with locals in Case’s hometown of Bradford, PA, the Marilla features a host of goodies that tech savvy knife buyers look for, like a high performance S35VN stainless blade, flipper opening with bearings in the pivot, sturdy frame lock construction, and a pocket clip for ease of carry.
Starting with the blade, the modified drop point measures 3.4 inches in length and has a tumbled (stonewash) finish that hides any scratches as well as seals any micro pores in the steel to prevent rust from forming. A convenient flipper tab offers easy and fast one-hand opening and acts as a finger guard to choke up against for controlled cutting.
There’s also a run of traction notches machined onto the blade spine, which provides a secure spot to rest your thumb or index finger for more pressure and control over the cut. I found the notches to be good but would like to see them deeper and feel a bit more aggressive to the touch.
The handle is machined from lightweight and strong aluminum alloy. There is a coarse-textured G-10 inlay that sits a bit higher than the surface of the aluminum handle to enhance grip traction. On the lock side, there is a stainless-steel wear block bolted to the end of the lock bar, which makes direct contact with the blade tang for an ultra-secure and wear-resistant lockup. This wear block also has an integrated lock stop on it to prevent the lock bar from being pushed too far in the opposite direction, ruining the lockup quality by removing the tension.
The ergonomic shape of the handle promotes comfort and safety, allowing the user’s hand to wrap ergonomically around it. The handle is really comfortable and I didn’t find any hot spots. The edges of the aluminum are chamfered and rounded off.
Due to the slim form factor of the Marilla, it rides in the pocket very nicely. In fact, it almost disappears! At 3.6 ounces, this folder is lightweight for its size, thanks to use of the aluminum handles. A deep carry pocket clip allows you to tote this knife low in the pocket, concealed from prying eyes. The clip can be switched to the opposite side of the handle to accommodate left-handed users. Tip up carry is the only configuration offered for this knife.
The Marilla is a joy to use. It is a pleasant surprise from Case—a company not usually known for frame lock flippers, but that is going to change with this model. With four handle colors offered—black, red, blue, and OD green—there is one that you are sure to like. The Case Marilla has an MSRP of $164.99 and a street price of around $135. There is a lot going for this knife at this price, making it, perhaps, the sleeper of this bunch.
Kershaw Knives’ Launch series offers American-made automatic opening knives at comfortable pricing but without sacrificing materials or design originality. This series has proven to be successful for the company. In 2020, Kershaw unveiled the Launch 13, an everyday tactical carry knife that features a bold design and a slender form factor.
Starting with the blade, the 3 ½-inch Wharncliffe blade is machined from premium CPM154 stainless steel, which is of the particle metallurgy technology that yields a very wear-resistant steel. The blade sports a two-tone finish with the flats and spine of the blade coated with black Cerakote. The grinds are satin finished.
The handle design is eye catching with it’s numerous facets and chamfers. It’s a bold, forward-looking handle design that is centered around user comfort and safety. The overall shape melts into your hand and makes the knife feel as if it’s an extension of your body.
T6-6061 aluminum alloy is used for its light weight and strength. It is given a black hard-anodized finish for long-wearing beauty. A deep carry pocket clip is affixed to carry the knife in the tip up configuration deep in the pocket. Additionally, there is an integrated lanyard hole for those who like to tie lanyards to their folders.
The Launch 13 is definitely futuristic-looking, right down to its customized triangular shaped and gem-cut pivot screw. At the same time, it’s a highly functional automatic opening folder. The ergonomic handle shape and the notched thumb rest on the blade spine help to lock your grip onto the knife. Wharncliffe blades are useful because of their strictly linear cutting edge. Pull cuts are easy and there is enough blade tip present to facilitate easy scoring of various materials. The blade is angled to the handle when the knife is open for ease of use. You can slice with the knife without having your hand contact the counter or table surface.
Wharncliffe blades also do fairly well in self-defense. They look utilitarian but can be deadly in the right hands. The Launch 13 can slice exceptionally well, with the blade’s flat grinds that thin the edge out nicely without being delicate. Opening action is quick and authoritative, and lockup is ultra-secure. The knife goes through all sorts of medium like a laser. Thick cardboard, rubber hose, and webbing are some of the materials it sliced with ease.
The CPM154 steel definitely holds an edge and provides plenty of horsepower and toughness. The angle of the blade relative to the handle is a bit more cocked than other knives and this allows you to use more of the blade’s edge to cut, rather than just the tip. You will find this angle allows for greater control and safety as well. Overall, the Launch 13 offers futuristic styling, superior ergonomics, and the convenience of push-button automatic opening. MSRP for the Kershaw Launch 13 is $204.99, with a street price of around $129.
Gerber‘s Empower automatic opening folder is a robust tactical knife that is made with premium materials and has the looks as well as the muscle to get your big cutting jobs done. The Gerber brand name is well known in the outdoors world and in the tactical world, with a healthy line of tactical knives to suit any budget and taste.
The Empower sits at the upper end of their tactical knife line. Sporting a 3-¼ inch blade made of premium CPM S30V stainless steel, the spear point shape lends itself well to most cutting tasks. There is a full-length swedge at the top of the blade to give it a more aggressive appearance, and there is a black DLC coating to further protect against corrosion and to facilitate maintenance.
The handle of the Empower is made of aluminum alloy and has an ultra-durable Type III hard anodized coating to give color to the handle as well as to protect the surface against scuffs and scratches, so the knife will still look good after heavy use.
The blade is released by the push button on the handle. Unlike most automatics, the Empower’s push button sits proud of the handle surface to give a good purchase, especially when wearing gloves. This can be detrimental, though, by making the knife vulnerable to accidental opening. Gerber, therefore, included a sliding safety switch which locks the button to prevent it from being pushed. Pulling back on the switch will reveal a red dot underneath. Seeing red means you are ready for action! Be sure to slide the switch forward after closing the blade to prevent accidental opening in the pocket.
There is a steel pocket clip which mounts to the end of the handle to carry the knife in the tip up configuration. There isn’t any other setting available—only right hand carry and tip up only.
As a nice visual and functional touch, the Empower comes with two choices of inlays, which enhance aesthetics and provide additional hand traction. This static-like pattern looks cool and it’s different. They also have a gradient dot pattern.
The Empower makes a great working folder. The handle is machined nicely and there are no hot spots. I like the large finger groove, which helps to seat your hand on the handle, and the pivot end flares a bit to serve as an integral guard. The handle offers a solid grip, and the blade open quickly once you depress the button. The S30V blade steel is legendary for edge-holding power, and you can understand why a lot of knife companies use this steel for their higher end knives.
All the knives featured here represent what we consider to be the best values within the USA-made tactical knife arena. No doubt there are more, so use these as a baseline and keep an eye out for them.