In recent years, the knife market has exploded at a rate that it has never seen before, with new companies, designs and materials popping up. For many, it has gotten too confusing to keep up with and can be intimidating at first glance.
This list is meant to be for those people who are just getting into knives and want something budget friendly but high quality that will last many years.
Ontario Rat 1 & 2
There is a good reason the Rat 1 & 2 are easily the best known Ontario Knife Company knives. Both of these knives are very similar except in size. If you prefer or need a larger knife, the Rat 1 is going to be your choice and if you prefer a smaller one, the Rat 2 is yours. Besides that, these knives are identical.
Ontario Rat 1 Via KnifeCenter
These knives come in at under 40 dollars in most places, but will be a little harder to find in a retail store. Popular knife websites like BladeHQ and KnifeCenter will often have a stock.
Other than the price, what makes these knives so great? For starters, the fit and finish on these knives is superb. It runs on washers for minimal maintenance (for differences between washers and bearings see our previous article on the topic) and is as smooth as any enthusiast can expect from a sub 40 dollar knife.
The Rat models were one of the first budget knives to adopt D2 as an option. While some models still exist in the moderate AUS-8, the extra few dollars for D2 will go a long way.
D2 is a semi stainless tool steel with excellent edge retention and toughness making this knife perfect for just about any task. It is not as stainless as many other steels on this list, but that is a solvable weakness with Scotch-Brite or steel wool.
On the aesthetic front, the Rats are available in tons of configurations of handle color, material and texture along with different blade finishes, if you can dream it, it probably exists.
CIVIVI and other Chinese manufacturers have recently taken the knife world by storm. While Chinese made used to be synonymous with bad quality, a few large companies have broken into the space with near perfect machining, attention to detail and materials. CIVIVI is the budget brand of one of the largest manufacturers, WE Knives.
Many of the models CIVIVI makes are very similar in all ways except shape and size. I have found that the Baklash is the perfect size and shape for many people, but you can always expect an amazing knife when buying a CIVIVI.
The first thing you will notice when you have a CIVIVI in your hands is the action. The knife flies open like a rocket with minimal effort, thanks to the near perfect tolerances CIVIVI is able to achieve with their top of the line machining. The attention to detail at every step of the process is as good, if not better, than some custom knives.
The Baklash features 9Cr18MoV steel and G-10 scales. 9Cr18MoV is an upgraded version of 440B, a slightly outdated but highly corrosion resistant stainless steel with added molybdenum for better hardenability.
The CIVIVI Baklash comes in at just under 50 dollars on many popular knife websites (see above), and at that price is an absolute steal.
While most of the better budget knives are in the tactical realm, Buck has managed to stay competitive with modern brands with their traditional styles. For the guys who prefer backlocks or traditional designs, you can’t do much better under 50 dollars than the classic Buck 110.
The 110 is the most popular buck design, for good reason. It is a back locking folder with brass bolsters and rosewood scales. It features a hollow ground 420HC blade. 420 is a moderate, if outdated, steel with solid corrosion resistance and easy shapenability.
The 110 has been a stable of the traditional knife world since its inception in 1964 as one of the first locking folding knives to be created. The Buck Knives 110 have and always will be USA made in Post Falls, Idaho.
Buck knives are easy to find in many outdoor retail stores and don't require any specialty knife website to find them. Stores like Bass Pro Shops, Cabella’s and even Walmart have been known to carry Buck Knives. They come with a leather sheath with a belt loop attached so your 110 can always be at your side.
Kershaw CQC Series
Kershaw Knives has been a giant in the knife world for a long time, and for good reason. Kershaw is a branch of Kai Industries who also owns Zero Tolerance and Shun Knives. Because of this, Kershaw has access to high end machinery used to make much more expensive knives. This allows Kershaw to make quality knives at a price that almost everyone can afford.
The CQC (Close Quarters Combat) Series is a budget friendly line of tactical knives designed by legend Ernie Emerson. The CQC-6k (pictured below) is a crowd favorite in the CQC line.
Kershaw Emerson CQC-6K Via Kia.com
The first thing to notice about Emerson’s unique design is the patented Wave Opening Mechanism, which allows the user to open the knife as it is leaving the pocket. The CQC series is the cheapest way to get one of these patented mechanisms as the next best option is on the Zero Tolerance 0620 (a discontinued knife with an MSRP of 250 dollars).
The CQC-6 is a tough knife without any whistles and bells. It sports a titanium frame with G-10 scales and a frame lock. While the knife runs on washers, it is surprisingly smooth to open with the thumb disk.
The hollow ground blade features 8Cr13MoV, a steel often compared to AUS-8. AUS-8 is a steel that trades corrosion resistance for edge retention and toughness completing this knifes ‘ready-for-anything’ ensemble.
Kershaw knives are not as widely available as Buck or other traditional brands but many retail stores will carry some models. BladeHQ has a large collection of CQC Series knives along with other Kershaws.
I can hear the faint screams of Spyderco enthusiasts as they get farther into this article without seeing their favorite brand, not to fear all of you, a Spyderco will make it on the list.
When doing research for this article, I was surprised to find that Spyderco had fewer budget options than I thought. One knife that squeaks in at barley under 50 is the Spyderco Tenacious. This knife is one of Spyderco’s few examples of a flipper with a detent ball.
Spyderco Tenacious via KnifeCenter
Spyderco knives are always USA made and have been a staple of the knife world since their inception in 1978. The Tenacious is a slight deviation from their normal manual opening backlock like the Endura or Delica with a liner lock and detent ball.
The knife can be opened manually with the Spydiehole or flicked open in many different ways. While the action is not comparable to a CIVIVI, it still holds up and offers lots of other benefits.
The Tenacious features Spyderco’s classic leaf shaped blade with 8Cr13MoV (see above for a description) and, of course, a Spydiehole. The scales come in a variety of G-10 colors and the frame is skeletonized steel, which is also the material for the liner.
As with many Spyderco knives, the Tenacious is available at many outdoor stores along with almost every knife retailer and can be found in a number of configurations.
To close out this list with something both more traditional and smaller, the Case Knives Peanut is a great choice. This Copperhead style jack-knife is a great choice for anyone who likes a smaller knife to slip into their pocket and doesn’t like more modern tactical designs.
This is from the Working line of Case knives and is on the cheaper side of many knives on this list, being solidly sub $40 in most places. Even with this, Case still manages to be made in the USA and uses solid materials.
The knife features composite scales with two blades, one a pen knife style and the other a clip point. Both of these blades are made with Tru-Sharp, a known alias for 420HC (described above).
Case knives can be found at many places where knives are sold, but as they are slightly out of fashion recently, an online retailer will be your best bet to get your hands on this knife.