Choose Your Blade Lock
And You’re Ready To Roll.
Folding knives have been around since the days of Celts and Romans, but they weren’t always the choice for hard use. If you ever had a traditional slip-joint blade inadvertently jump the spring and take a bite out of your knuckle, chances are you already know why.
Sometime around the early- to mid-1800’s, when folding knives were beginning to achieve a high degree of sophistication, the tinkering with locking mechanisms began to take root. Some folding dirks from the era were fitted with a tabbed lock on the spine, which would be the precursor to the lock-back we know today. Later, in the early 1900’s, the original locking liner was invented and, for the most part, used on the screwdriver function of multi-blade electrician knives. But it would be half a century later until a locking knife came along to capture the hearts and minds of cutlery lovers. That knife was the Buck 110.
The Buck 110 lockback was the first locking folder to be widely accepted by
the buying public. Shown here is the original in brass and wood handles,
and the more modern version in green paper composite grips.
Cold Steel is one of several top manufacturers who still pay unabashed homage to the lockback.
Shown here is their exotic Talwar model with the lock detent located mid-handle.
The liner lock and frame lock are the same conceptually, but differ in basic design.
From Spyderco comes the Perrin PPT liner lock (top) and the Southard frame lock (bottom).
The lockback is the natural evolution of the ubiquitous slip-joint folder, which uses a rocker arm on the backside pushing against a torsion spring in the liners. This arm pivots and has a tab on the topside, which fits inside a corresponding shaped notch located on the tang, or base of the blade just below the pivot. Once the two interlock, the blade can only be unlocked by pushing the rocker arm into a detent in the handle, which in turn compresses the spring. This forces the tab out of its locked position in the tang, allowing the blade to be folded. One of the key benefits of the lock-back is you can actually see the blade release. This is a key advantage over the liner lock (see next mechanism) which has the release hidden in the handle.
The Buck 110, now celebrating its 50th year, was the first widely accepted locking folder because it was sturdily built and easy to operate. The knife was enthusiastically embraced by hunters, the first folding knife to achieve such an honor, and Buck still produces the knife at a clip of approximately a million units per year. The lockback’s endurance as a viable design can be witnessed by the fact other highly reputable cutlery companies such as Spyderco and Cold Steel continue to use the mechanism on their modern designs. The 110 also holds the reputation as being the most copied knife design in history. I did a cursory survey of imitations of the folder several years back and counted 36 companies who offered imitations of the folder so close in styling they could only be considered knock-offs! A variation of the lockback has the spring release detent located halfway up the rear spine and is alternately referred to as a midlock.
Like the lockback, the original liner lock was borne out of the slip joint folder. The concept is simple. A liner “leaf” inside the frame is bent at an angle designed to cant inward once the blade is fully engaged. This causes the leaf to block the tang, keeping the blade locked against the rear stop. To disengage the blade the leaf is bent back against the frame wall, allowing the tang to fold inward.
Back in the early 1980’s a brilliant custom knifemaker by the name of Michael Walker took the locking liner idea and thoroughly modernized it. His design is the most widely used lock on folders today. He did away with the external release tab and hid it within the frame, ditched the backspring and replaced it with a blade stop, and added an internal ball bearing detent on the blade tang to keep the blade closed inside the handle.
Walker’s liner lock largely went unnoticed until the early 1990’s when the first Gulf War hit. This was the dawn of the modern day tactical folder, and the custom knifemakers who got in on the ground floor embraced the liner lock as the lock du jour. Today, over 20 years later, the tactical folder is still the hottest segment of the cutlery market and the overwhelming majority are of liner lock design.
The liner lock mechanism has several advantages. Although it requires precision, it is a relatively simple design and hard to defeat. Because the lock is hidden there are no external parts to snag the pocket or sheath when being accessed. And when used with a pocket clip the liner lock makes for an excellent semi-concealed, easy-to-access carry.
In the mid-1980s’ some custom knifemakers began to take note of Walker’s liner lock. One such artisan was South African Chris Reeve. A master machinist by trade, Reeve had been making knives on the side. In 1987, a client sent him a Walker liner lock, requesting he make one for him. Reeve didn’t like the thinness of the liner lock design so he acquired some 3/16-inch titanium and made a prototype of what is now the modern day frame lock. This design has the locking leaf machined out of the back frame, resulting in a much beefier mechanism. Reeve named his knife the Sebenza, the Zulu word for “work.” In 1989 the knifemaker moved his family to Boise, Idaho, and within a short few years his Sebenza was one of the hottest knives on the market.
Today the frame lock, or “Integral Lock” as Reeve prefers to call it, is arguably considered the strongest locking mechanism available. One key reason the Sebenza caught on so quickly is it’s built like a tank. Once a bevy of noted custom knifemakers jumped on board with the mechanism, it became elite and before long the factory manufacturers joined the party. Frame locks are not as common as liner locks because they are more difficult to make. Typically the rear frame is made of titanium, which also adds to the cost, but slimmer versions have been produced using stainless steel. A host of other materials can be found on the front frame, including G-10 composite and carbon fiber. Reeve offers his Sebenza in large and small models and, though he’s added a host of other models to his line, the knife is still his hottest seller. Serious users and collectors alike line up for them as fast as Reeve can make them.
The frame lock can be used in a wide variety of design styles. At top is Chris Reeve’s
original Sebenza; at bottom CRKT’s Ken Onion-designed Swindle model.
Twenty-five years ago Chris Reeve put the frame lock on the map and hasn’t
let up since. This is his third generation top-selling Sebenza.
Blade-locking mechanisms come in all shapes and forms. Hogue’s EX-04 (top) uses the
button lock with an additional slide safety, Buck’s 110 (middle) the tried and true lockback,
and Spyderco’s Southard model (bottom) uses the frame lock.
Bar The Door!
The bar lock is a simple mechanism offering astounding strength and is ambidextrous to boot. In this locking system, a round spring-loaded lock pin sits transversely across the width of the handle with enough protruding from each side to serve as a stud. The lock pin rides in a channel and when the blade is fully employed, slips into a detent in the tang, locking the blade against a rigid stop pin on the back. To release the blade, the pin is pulled downward against the spring, typically using the thumb and index finger. This allows the pin to fall out of the tang detent, which, in turn releases the blade.
Two major knife manufacturers have great success using this locking mechanism. Benchmade Knives’ version, the AXIS Lock, has found its way on many of the company’s folding knives and shows no sign of waning. The AXIS Lock’s pin rides in a straight groove and has been used on both manual and automatic models. Likewise, SOG Knives’ Arc Lock has been incorporated into many of their folders and differs slightly in that it rides in a curved or “arced” channel. Many an argument has taken place among folding knife aficionados over which is stronger, the bar lock or the frame lock, but both are rock solid. The bar lock does, however, have the advantage of being ambidextrous, and is therefore a crowd pleaser among Southpaws.
The-up-and coming lock in the folder universe is the button lock. Originally used on automatic knives, this simple locking system started raising eyebrows when upscale cutlery manufacturer William Henry adopted a manual version of the mechanism on their knives approximately 15 years ago. From an eye-appeal standpoint, the button lock is as clean as a whistle, and between the frames, the mechanism takes up little space.
The button lock system looks similar to a piston. When a spring-loaded button is depressed it pushes a drum-like sleeve away from the tang, allowing the blade to open and close. The tang works like a cam, capturing the sleeve in a detent, which holds the blade in the open position. The button is simply depressed again, clearing the tang and allowing the blade to be disengaged. More and more custom knifemakers are adopting the button lock and recently several mainstream manufacturers have incorporated it into their factory fare.
We’ve chosen the five most successful locking mechanisms to highlight here, but there are hosts of others out there for your inspection. It should be noted all of these designs have benefitted from the modern tactical revolution in other ways. All have either been converted or designed as 1-hand openers, either through thumb studs or flippers or both, and some have been further modified as assisted openers with street-legal spring mechanisms. Some manufacturers (as is the case with the Hogue EX-04) have fitted their folders with additional safeties. When purchasing a knife, always try to handle the merchandise before pulling the trigger. Just as it’s important to pick a handle and blade style fitting your taste and needs, so it is with the lock you choose to be at the ready when you need it.
By Pat Covert
The button lock is a clean design and easy to operate in both manual and
automatic mode. Two such are the Hogue EX-04 manual model (top) and the SOG
Spec Elite II Auto (above, bottom knife). Benchmade’s highly popular
Griptilian model, shown below, features the company’s patented AXIS
Lock—one of the few ambidextrous lock designs available. The AXIS Lock
is simple in design and Southpaw friendly (inset). The release button
is the accessible on both sides and the pocket clip can be mounted on
either side of the handle.
The linerlock (left) has its locking leaf located inside the handle while
the frame-lock (right) uses the entire back frame slab to do the work.
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