The Roman army issued its soldiers a dagger called a pugio, and they used it to stab anyone who annoyed them, which was a lot of people. The pugio, however, was distinctly unhandy for anything but puncturing Parthians or carving Carthaginians, so the Romans carried folding knives, lots of which have turned up in excavated legionary camps.
Folders were probably an old idea when the legions marched. Although not as strong or easy to clean as fixed blades, knives with joints are safer to carry and take up less space. I’ve never seen a real working cowboy, for example, carry a fixed-blade knife. When your half-wit horse throws you, you’ll want a folder.
These days, a folder is also less likely to cause you legal problems. In some places, carrying any knife with a blade longer than 4 inches will get you taken away for questioning, and carrying a fixed blade will get you thrown in jail.
This article is about the best folders. But best doesn’t mean finest in this case. The finest folding knives run from $1,000 to $3,000. That’s out of reach for most of us. So what follows are four of the most useful, most effective, and best designed.
1. Opinel No. 09 Carbon Steel Folding Knife
Made in France since 1890, the Opinel is simplicity itself. It has only five parts. The handle is beechwood and has no liner. The blades are either carbon steel or stainless and can be locked open or closed by an ingenious rotating stainless-steel collar called a Virobloc.
The No. 08 model is considered the classic Opinel. The No. 09 is a little bigger and is my favorite. These are idiosyncratic knives. The handles can shrink or swell, and the blade will loosen or tighten. Or the Virobloc may balk. Because of this, and because they are cult knives, there is all sorts of information on the internet about modifying them. You can buy some models with oversize, unfinished handles that you can customize to your heart’s content. They’re available in cherry, olive, boxwood, and walnut. Merveilleux!
People are very fond of Opinels, and the company sells 4.5 million every year. This may have something to do with the price, which is under $20 for the No. 09. If you take care of them, and don’t ask them to do things they’re not designed for, they will last just about forever. $18; opinel-usa.com
2. Buck Model 110 Folding Hunter Knife
To put the popularity of this folder in proper perspective, allow me to quote knife expert Bernard Levine: “The Model 110 was the design that would make [Al Buck’s] company world famous and the trade name Buck Knife just as familiar [and as often misused] as Kleenex and Xerox.”
The Model 110 debuted in 1963. It was big, heavy, and very strong. It featured a brass frame, a Macassar ebony handle, and a stainless sabre blade. The 110 was too big and too weighty to carry in your pocket, so Buck sold a cheesy black-leather sheath with the knife, and soon you began to see those sheaths on hips everywhere you looked. Carpenters and truck drivers loved the 110 as much as hunters did.
There are some 15 million Model 110s out there, and despite my own prejudice against using a folder (because they are hard to clean) to dress game, probably as many deer have been gutted with the 110 as anything since we gave up on flint. The Buck 110 has had four revisions in its life, mostly to make it lighter and slimmer. There is even an automatic version. Starts at $82; buckknives.com
3. Victorinox Swiss Champ
Victorinox makes an enormous number of knives in more configurations that I can keep track of. They turn out 45,000 knives a day. I’ve handled I don’t know how many over the years, and I have yet to see a single flaw in any of them. Possibly the most useful of their knives, all things considered, is the original four-blade, metal-handled model they first made for the Swiss army more than a century ago.
But for a knife that I would not go hunting without, the Swiss Champ gets my vote. This triumph of the cutler’s art has 19 tools and 31 functions. I don’t carry mine every day, but I have never left it at home when I packed my duffel bag. Its tools are not the best available, but they will do, and in over 40-some-odd years, I’ve used every one of them except the fish scaler. The Swiss Champ will solve more problems for you than two accountants, five lawyers, and a psychiatrist. It comes in about a half dozen finishes and configurations, including one with 82 functions and a digital clock. Whatever you need done outdoors, the Champ can probably help you do it. Starts at $80; victorinox.com
4. DiamondBlade Summit Folder
This is about the best large folder I know of that an ordinary human can afford. It’s what I carry every day and take to Africa. The 3.375-inch drop-point blade is made of D2 steel and is tempered by DiamondBlade’s Friction Forging process. This produces a very hard edge and a softer spine, which makes for a knife that you rarely need to sharpen, yet it is almost impossible to break. Should you worry about such a hard edge if you are sharpening-impaired? No. I’ve never had to give one anything sterner than a few swipes on a Crock Stick to get the razor edge back.
The Summit’s handle is nice and big, which gives you leverage, and it is made of carbon fiber, which is impervious to everything and weighs next to nothing. The hinge on the locking back is massive; it can take 110 pounds of pressure without failing.
Some years ago, I lent my Summit to an African skinner to work on a baboon. It took him a couple of minutes to get used to it (the knife, not the baboon), and when he did, a slow smile of delight spread over his face. I have had exactly the same reaction. $349; diamondbladeknives.com