December 31, 2021
By David M. Fortier, Senior Field Editor
‘You get what you pay for’ is an old adage which usually holds true. However, with a bit of research, hard work and luck you can occasionally come across a surprisingly good deal. In this case I undertook a quest to find a quality working knife at an affordable price. How affordable? Less than $35 was my goal, under $10 was preferred. Not on my list was tacti-cool fighting knives, cheap Chinese junk or big limb-whackers. Rather, I was looking for a compact practical tool for the normal cutting chores which crop up in daily life. I wanted a simple working knife at an affordable blue-collar price. However just because I was being frugal didn’t mean I didn’t want a little class. So it had to be something which would also invoke pride in ownership. Tall order? Yes, but as luck would have it I found not one but three. Better still these very different designs are all classics from respected European manufacturers with excellent reputations.
Opinel Carbon Knife No. 8
The first piece purchased during my quest was an Opinel No. 8. Opinel is not just a knife but rather a classic icon of France. This brand of simple wooden-handled folding pocket knives has been in production since 1890 in the town of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. It was originally designed as a ‘peasant’s knife’ by Joseph Opinel in 1890 and proved so popular it became a line of 12 different sized models numbered 1-12. It is estimated that as many as 20 million had been produced by 1940. In 1955 the design was updated with their unique ‘Virobloc’ or safety twist-lock mechanism invented by Marcel Opinel. Today the company is still run by the Opinel family and sells approximately 15 million knives annually.
The No. 8 I selected is their most popular model simply due to its convenient size. Open, the knife is 7 5/8 inches long with a blade length of 3 ¼ inches. Closed, it measures just 4 3/8 inches and fits neatly in a pocket. It sports an attractive varnished beech wood handle and a fairly thin X90 carbon steel blade. Weight is just 1.6 ounces. Construction is very simple and consists of a blade, wooden handle, stainless steel metal clamping band, stainless pivot pin or axle and a stainless steel Virobloc locking collar. The carbon steel blade is a drop point design and arrived fairly sharp. Keep in mind, this is not a stainless steel blade and if not properly looked after it will rust. If you desire a stainless blade Opinel does offer them. However I am happy with a carbon steel blade as they not only take a sharp edge but they retain it well. Many cheap stainless steel blades are torture to re-sharpen.
The Opinel is designed to be opened using two hands. Once the blade is extended the round locking collar is rotated counter-clockwise to lock the blade in place. The locking system is very robust. The beach handle is comfortable in the hand and the knife performed well on mundane chores. To see how strong the locking system was I split some wood with it baton style, without issue. The blade holds an edge well and is not difficult to make scary sharp. Negatives? It takes two-hands to open and the blade will rust if not looked after. Price? $15.00 www.Bladeconnection.com For more information 860-739-0780 www.opinel-usa.com
The second knife I purchased was a Mercator K55K. This classic pocket-knife has been produced in Germany since about 1867. Originally produced by Hy. Kauffmann, it’s now manufactured by Otto-Messer’s Mercator division. Why has the K55K been around for 145 years? Rather simple really, it’s that dang good. It is a simple design which is both very practical yet blessed with handsome good looks. The K55K was popular as an ‘Every Day Carry’ knife long before the phrase was even coined. It remains in production to this day because it performs its job as well now as it did 145 years ago.
This model was designed by Heinrich Kaufmann who also founded the original company. The name ‘Mercator’ is Latin for ‘trader’ which is the English meaning of Kaufmann. The model name K55K also carries a meaning with it. The first ‘K’ stands for the founder’s last name. 55 was the original street number of the company while the second backwards ‘K’ stood for ‘Katz’ (cat). The engraved leaping cat and black color earned it the nickname ‘Black Cat’. While the design is simple it is very different than the French Opinel and very German in its form. The handle consists of a folded piece of stamped steel, painted black and engraved with its distinctive logo. Components are assembled onto the steel handle and riveted in place. Dimensions are 7 7/8 inches open with a 3.5 inch long blade. Closed it measures 4 3/8 inches and weighs just 2.6 ounces. The spear-point blade is manufactured from XC75 carbon steel (stainless is an option). It features a simple but reliable locking system in the form of a spring-loaded lever on the spine. When the blade is opened this locks solidly (with a nice Old World ‘snap’) into a cut-out at the base of the blade. The locking lever must be firmly depressed to fold the blade. Rather than a pocket-clip this design is from a previous age when a lanyard loop was de rigueur.
While I really like the Opinel, the K55K is Steve McQueen. It is the perfect blend of simplicity, utility and classic good looks. The basic spear-point blade isn’t sexy, but it provides yeoman’s service on daily chores. It arrived slightly sharper than the Opinel and has retained its edge well. One feature of this design is its overall thinness; it’s not a ¼ inch thick. This allows it to be easily tucked away unnoticed until needed. Legend has it that this model was popular among delinquents as it was so thin it was often missed during a police pat-down. I was afraid the locking lever might be easy to accidentally depress but such is not the case. Plus, despite the lack of a stud I found the blade easy to open with one hand. Negatives? The metal handle is a bit slick and cold in the winter plus the carbon steel blade must be maintained. Price? Just $31.49 from Knife Country USA, 800-342-9118, www.knifecountryusa.com. It is my favorite of the three.
Mora Utility Knife
I switched gears a bit for my third pick. Since I already had two folders I decided to spend the rest of my money on a fixed blade design. When it comes to high quality yet inexpensive fixed-blade knives one name stands out from the crowd, Mora. Mora is actually a town in Dalarna, Sweden famous for its cutlery now offered by Mora of Sweden. The line consists of simple yet robust working knives similar to Finnish Puukkos. Due to their rugged construction, easy maintainability, versatility and inexpensive price they have become very popular with the Bushcraft community. Several highly respected bushcraft teachers, including Ray Mears and Cody Lundin, recommend them.
Mora Knives offers two basic styles, the ‘classic’ models and the newer synthetic-handled models. I chose from the latter group and purchased a Mora Utility Knife. This model features a tough red synthetic handle with a pronounced guard and has an overall length of 8.2 inches. Jutting from the front is a 3 ¾ inch long UHB-20C carbon steel blade with broad shallow bevels. The blade design is well suited for menial cutting chores, cleaning game or preparing food. Out of the box the Mora had the sharpest blade of the three and the edge easily shaved hair. The design is also very easy to re-sharpen. The knife comes with a black synthetic sheath which it locks securely into. Weight is just 2.3 ounces with sheath 3.4 ounces without.
Like the other two this is a great working knife at a great price. Putting it to work I was very impressed by the Mora Utility Knife. The handle is comfortable in the hand, the guard provides a bit of peace of mind and the blade cuts wonderfully. The sheath carries the knife securely but provides easy access. My only complaint is the belt loop on the sheath is a bit small at just 1 ¾ inches. Keep in mind, like the other three the carbon steel blade will rust and discolor if not looked after. Price? Just $9.99 through Amazon.
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About the Author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.