This year’s Blade Show, like all those before, featured a broad swath of knife exhibitors from high-end custom makers to manufacturers and materials suppliers. If you attended, however, the first things you noticed probably wasn’t bars of nickel silver and slabs of Elkhorn. It was probably balisongs (butterfly knives.)
In addition to the second annual competition to be named as Grand Master of balisong flipping, it was hard to make it to the Blade Show floor without encountering people constantly flipping balisongs, almost like a fidget spinner that can cut you.
One of the more interesting balisong makers I saw at Blade Show was Squid Industries, who actually does not sell a knife at all, only balisong trainers. Conventional wisdom used to say that you tape the blade on a balisong to reduce the likelihood of cutting yourself while trying to learn how to manipulate the knife. While that’s certainly easier than learning the hard way, it’s still not as safe as having a dedicated trainer. Ranging from the white PVC Squiddy at $42 to aluminum-handled models up to $150, trainers also have the option of a 304 stainless “blade” or one made from heat-treated 400-series stainless that’s less likely to bend when dropped, as inevitably happens. They also have a unique “tooth” at the base of what would normally be the cutting edge, located where it will hit the user’s hand if the trainer is opened incorrectly, providing a corrective warning without a trip for some stitches if you mess up with a live blade.
When it comes to live balisongs, most of us are familiar with the classic T-shaped latch that’s used to keep the knife closed or open and also to indicate which direction the cutting edge is pointed. Mil-Tac, however, displayed several of its balis that use a pair of magnets in the butt end of each handle to keep the knife closed. Well-known for its machined G10 pistol grips, Mil-Tac’s bali is a stouter piece than most butterfly-style knives, which means it may take a bit to get used to the different handle profile and weight, as well as the magnet system. The magnets, however, are adjustable for the amount of tension required to open the handles, and can even be rotated so the handles repel one another.
Interestingly, while German maker Böker doesn’t have a live balisong in their catalog, they did introduce three new trainers this year — one an all-metal one, another with G10 handles in red (the universal color for training knives) and a cheeky spoon balisong, which makes a nice addition to the bali bottle opener they already made. Of course, trainers are nothing new to Böker; they’ve made training pairs of the Applegate-Fairbairn dagger for many years.
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Neither trainers nor balisongs, though, are the big story with Böker. While collaborations between manufacturers and custom knifemakers are now commonplace, few are met with the resounding success that has greeted the Kwaiken, the result of its partnership with maker Lucas Burnley. Pronounced kw-y-ken, it’s patterned after a traditional Japanese design that’s less known than the tanto and more like the Scottish sgian dubh. Tremendously popular — it’s one of Böker’s top sellers — it’s a clean, straightforward design with deceptively simple lines.
This year marked the introduction of an automatic that shares all the beautiful minimalism of the manually operated folder, including the tromp l’oeil effect that makes the flat spine of the blade look curved.
While it’s not uncommon for some makers to offer knives actually manufactured by others without announcing who the real maker is, Böker proudly announced the Kwaiken auto is manufactured in partnership with ProTech knives. With a CNC-machined aluminum handle and blade of 154-CM, the Kwaiken auto weighs in at 3.4 ounces and is completely made in the US.
Family-owned and in business for nearly a decade, ProTech uses advanced manufacturing methods such as wire EDM and laser cutting to produce a broad line of modern automatics, most designed around the single-pushbutton principle first popularized by the Black Knife automatic.
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Nor was the Kwaiken the only auto I saw. No doubt in part due to the changes in some state laws that banned automatic knives, autos of all kinds seem to be more popular than ever. The real movement, though, seems to be in out-the-fronts. For those of us who came of age a generation ago, the only out-the-front automatics we saw were usually the floppy-bladed NATO knife. Not so; Benchmade’s Infidel well and truly started a revolution, without the fronts now available from Schrade, Hogue, ProTech and many others. I saw them everywhere I turned, ranging from relatively inexpensive production models to four-figure custom ones with exquisite grinds lines and one custom maker offering out-the-fronts patterned after the classic side-opening Italian stiletto. I’m still scratching my head a bit at that last one.
This year at Blade Show, it was also hard to miss the emphasis on knives as defensive weapons. In addition to the various advocacy organizations seeking expanded rights to carry knives, there were other exhibitors offering self-defense training and well-known trainer Michael Janich taught an advanced seminar in his Martial Blade Concepts curriculum prior to the start of the show. I saw several knives that bore unmistakable lines of designs such as the ginunting that are often found in the Filipino martial arts on which most modern knife defense systems are built.
Along those lines, I was introduced to the Exo-Tools line of practical knife accessories from 5×5 Combat Solutions. Designed to be installed in either a Spyderco Delica, Endura or Matriarch, the Exo-Tool replaces the factory back spacer with a metal module (either aluminum or 440 stainless) with an additional tool. These include a rescue hook with built-in glass breaker, a flat blade screwdriver that can also be used for light prying, a marlinspike or a modified clip for deep-pocket carry.
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Of course, Spyderco itself exhibited at Blade, and among its mid-year introductions was the Tropen. Designed by Argentinean knifemaker Javier Vogt, who was in attendance at the show, the Tropen’s flat-ground S30V blade features three different mechanisms by which it can be opened one-handed. In addition to Spyderco’s trademark hole, it features a flipper and a stylized Emerson Wave feature. For those unfamiliar with this ingenious design, it’s a short hook on the top of the blade that points forward towards the tip of the blade, which is carried tip-up. As the knife is pulled out of the pocket, the hook catches on the packet and rotates the blade into the open position. Hard on your pants, but it works. The blade is held open with Spyderco’s patented compression lock mechanism, one of the strongest I know of.
Nor was Spyderco the only maker to feature multiple openings; Krudo Knives showed the Revolute, which is designed to be opened about five different ways, including a flipper and Krudo’s proprietary thumb wedge. Nobody has ever accused a Krudo knife of being underbuilt, and the Revolute is certainly no exception with a deep hollow grind in its stout 3/16″ thick blade. Handles are either titanium or a raised diamond plate design.
In the second exhibit hall that was added this year, I stumbled across Brennan Knives. In 2010, Patrick Brennan, who hails from Kilkenny, Ireland, had a major accident and as part of his rehabilitation took up bladesmithing. The knives that I handled were classic fixed blades with excellent workmanship and felt particularly good in the hand. While I can’t say for sure that he’s the only bladesmith in Ireland, he did travel to the US to learn the craft, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of his work.
One of the last things that caught my eye was the Impinda from Chris Reeve Knives. Winning Blade’s American made knife of the year, the Impinda is a deceptively simple slip joint folder with slim, elegant titanium scales and a blade made of S35VN. The defining feature is its unique blade/spring interface that maintains pressure on every point of contact on the blade throughout opening and closing so that it opens smoothly and closes without the usual “snap” of most folders as the blade nears the closed position. Destined to save some fingers, the design is innovative enough to be patent-pending, quite an accomplishment for a design as tried and true as the slip joint. The knife was designed by Bill Harsey, who also designed the Reeve Green Beret knife, as well as the Böker Applegate 5.5 and 4.5, updated versions of the classic Applegate-Fairbairn dagger.
Al Mar Knives
From an insider’s perspective, however, the biggest news of the show was the sale of Al Mar Knives. Longtime industry stalwart Gary Fadden, who has been with Al Mar since 1996, most recently as both president and owner, has handed over the reins to Precision Tool Products, a major manufacturer of high-end tools the brand names of which you would recognize. Fadden, whose early memorable splash in the cutlery world was his introduction for Beretta of its Airweight folders that were named tactical folder of the year in 1994 shortly after their introduction, will remain for the foreseeable future as Chairman Emeritus. He told us that he is excited about the future as the new owners of Al Mar (along with his significant guidance) carry the company forward on the solid foundational work done by both Al Mar and himself. I look forward to reporting on the new products — of which several are said to be in the works — after next year’s Blade.
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