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It's A New Era For The Once-Maligned Automatic Knife

Manufacturers SOG and Gerber are no strangers to automatics, as witnessed by the
slick duo shown here in the SOG Spec Elite Auto (left) and the Kershaw Launch 6 (right).

State laws against automatic or “push button” knives are falling like dominos across the nation and cutlery manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon. Automatic knives never went away, but until recently they were limited to law enforcement or military personnel and paperwork was required to obtain one legally. A handful of stalwart companies manufactured them throughout decades of a public ban, but many stayed away.

A big breakthrough was achieved in “fast opening” knives in 1996 when Kershaw Knives introduced custom knifemaker Ken Onion’s Speed Safe Assisted Opening system. Within years most of the major manufacturers offered them. These folders, however, required either a thumb stud or flipper to open while laws against button, slide and lever-operated automatics remained in effect. Laws restricting those latter “switchblade” opening systems are now being rescinded. There are two major styles of automatic knives — side opening and out-the-front (OTF). So let’s give you a tour of many newer offerings here.

As autos go, they don’t get much more dapper than the Benchmade Phaeton. This is the Dark Earth model
— about 8”of CPM-S30V stainless steel and anodized aluminum.

Sidewinders Rock!

The majority of automatics being produced today open from the side like a typical folder. The two major means of propulsion are a coil spring located around the blade pivot or a leaf spring on the back spine of the handle. Designed effectively, both offer plenty of juice. The blade can be activated in any number of ways — push button, sliding tab, or rocking lever.

If you’re new to automatics, the sidewinder may offer you more. For starters, they behave like the folding knives you’ve been using all your life. They have most of the characteristics of a standard folder from blade stops to frame construction — and if you’ve been carrying a spring-assisted folder you’ll simply find the method of opening a bit easier. Consequently, these knives can be used for a myriad of purposes such as everyday utility, self-defense, even outdoor survival.

The SIG Sauer EX-A01 Automatic is one such versatile folder. Designed by custom knifemaker Allen Elishewitz and sold under license by Hogue Knives, the SIG EX-A01 is based on the manufacturer’s EX-A04 model, so you can go either route. At 8″ overall, this is a full-size push-button auto-folder with a 3.5″ 154CM stainless steel upswept semi-skinner blade that will do the job in both field and urban environments. You can also get Hogue grips in myriad G-Mascus G10 patterns, as well as basic black, for $289.

Fans of the Buck 110 Folding Hunter and smaller 112 Ranger can now have their pick of an automatic version. Buck Knives now offers their classic 110 in a single-action auto with very little in cosmetic changes save for a push button on the front Dymondwood scale. A coil spring does the honor of releasing the standard 3.75″ 420HC stainless clip point blade in a flash, and the lockback on the rear base deploys the blade as normal. The rest is the same ol’ 8.6″ deer-skinning Buck 110 you’ve come to love.

Hogue Knives has jumped into autos in a big way with the SIG SAUER-licensed EX-A01
side opener (left) and Hogue Out The Front model (right).

The Gerber Propel Downrange Auto sports a wicked 3.5" stonewashed
S30V stainless steel tanto blade.

Adams International Knifeworks (AIK) offers an automatic version of the Buck 112 Ranger DA as a double action that opens either auto or manually. Unlike the Buck Knives 110 Auto, the AIK 112 Ranger DA uses a leaf spring on the rear spine to kick out the blade — and it does so with gusto. The blade is activated by a brass push button on the front scale and the standard lockback does the blade deployment chores. Both of these knives come with a Buck leather belt sheath. Buck 110 Auto: $200; AIK 112 Ranger DA: $150.

Take a trip even farther back in time with the Schatt & Morgan Mountain Man Express. The backspring blade-kick mechanism is based on a Union Cutlery design from the 1920s, modified to fit the company’s Mountain Man Trapper pattern. To activate the blade, the 4.25" handle has a leaf bar with a tab release of the back booster. The Mountain Man sports a 3.5" 1095 carbon-steel clip point blade, nickel silver bolsters, brass liners, and a host of scale options available starting at $269.99.

The Gerber Propel Downrange Auto, with its wicked 3.5" stonewashed S30V stainless steel tanto blade, will whet your appetite for modern tactical fare. The Propel’s 5" G10 handle has a push button blade release with the added addition of a slide safety to keep things nice and tidy in your pocket. A 3-position pocket clip offers welcome carry options. It’s available with Tan, OD Green, and Black handle options at $159.95.

The legendary Buck 110 Auto Folding Hunter (left) and its little brother AIK 112
Ranger DA Auto (right) are now available in auto-opening versions.

Shatt & Morgan’s Mountain Man Express, shown here in Desert Ironwood scales,
is a modified version of a Union Cutlery auto-folder design from the 1920s.

Both SOG Knives and Kershaw Knives have been coming on strong in the automatic genre in recent years and are upping their game with the new resurgence. SOG’s Spec Elite Auto is 7.80" of neo-retro coolness. Flouting a sleek 3.5" AUS-8 stainless steel clip point blade and a slick 4.3" “dagger-esque” black anodized aluminum frame, the Spec Elite Auto is a button release design that aims to please — and offers a safety to boot. The 8.7" all-black Kershaw Launch 6 has all the angles and curves of a stealth fighter. The 3.5" blade is a smooth drop-point of black DLC coated CPM154 stainless steel with a black handle to match its black anodized aluminum frame. The Launch 6 has a recessed button to prevent accidental launching. Both have pocket clips for pocket carry. SOG Spec Elite Auto: $160; Kershaw Launch 6: $169.99.

Conquest Tactical’s Fury out-the-front is a handful with its lengthy 5.25" black
anodized handle and 3.75" 154CM stainless steel stonewashed blade.

Front-Load Fighters!

Out-the-front automatics are typically designed for self-defense. While they can handle light utility, their blades are slimmer and designed for penetration and quick slicing. Indeed, many are double-ground dagger and Japanese tanto-style blades. OTF autos release the blade using a compressed ladder style spring similar to a handgun magazine and ramped push tabs on the top or side of the frame are the most common ways to deploy and retract the blade. You will also see the term “Double Action” (DA) used for OTF autos, but the meaning is different from sidewinders. A Double Action on an out-the-front auto simply means the slide release both employs the blade by sliding it forward and retracts it by sliding it back. Most modern OTFs have this feature.

Benchmade Knives has been making automatics since the early 1990s, and more recently OTFs. The Phaeton model is one of their latest releases, and its appearance exudes all the style of its name. At an overall length of 8.08″, 4.63″ of the total in a slim, futuristic anodized aluminum handle (available in Black or Dark Earth), the Phaeton is perfectly sized for everyday carry. Its stealthy black-coated 3.75″ CPM-S30V stainless clip point blade employs and deploys via a slide release on the handle’s rear spine, and a clip on the backside makes for easy pocket carry all for $350.

Hogue also offers OTFs and their Out The Front model features an attractive bamboo shaped handle with a sliding blade release which, in double action fashion, also retracts the blade back into the handle. Overall length of the Out The Front is 8.5″ and the machined aluminum honeycomb-textured frame houses its 3.5″ CPM-154 stainless steel blade (drop point or tanto). Handle color options include a variety of matte finishes including black, gray, tan and OD green for $349.95.

Simply started, the Conquest Tactical Fury — 8.75” fully extended — is a beast. The Fury’s 5.25″ black anodized machined aluminum handle is more than ample, and it sports a glass breaker on the base. The stonewashed 3.75″ 154CM stainless steel blade is a hybrid tanto/clip point design, hellbent on penetration. The handle has a grippy overlapping elliptical pattern and on the backside you’ll find a beefy pocket clip. A ballistic nylon sheath is also included for $249.95.

Choices abound in the world of automatics, but choose wisely. Your first consideration should be whether you need a multi-purpose knife or one for self-defense. Like any knife, it’s always best to handle it before purchasing to get an idea of its size, tactile feel, and functions. This can best be done at retail stores (many firearms retailers carry knives) or gun and knife shows. Finally, be sure to check the local and state laws in your area. While autos are becoming more common everywhere, it pays to be safe.

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