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The Complete Guide to Common EDC Knife Locks

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Your pocket knife’s primary safety feature is its lock — learn how the most common types function (and much more) here.

a group of knives

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Knife locks are an EDC enthusiast’s best friend. After all, it’s these devices that are primarily responsible for keeping the user safe while operating their folding/pocket knife — paired with a couple of less tangible factors, like knowledge and healthy fear, of course. While knowing what knife locks are and how they function is not, perhaps, a completely essential part of knife ownership, it’s definitely knowledge we think every EDC knife owner should have.

There are other benefits to being familiar with common knife locking mechanisms, too, apart from helping you better understand and use the knives you may already own. For instance, it can help you narrow down what kind of knives you like and trust, and even help you have more reasonable expectations from a given knife. Whether you’re a first-time pocket knife buyer or a long-standing EDC collector, these are the most common knife lock types you should know.

Non-Locking Knife Types

Not all folding knives have locks. In fact, if you look at the span of human history, knives that lock have really only been around a short time — compared to, say, this Roman “Swiss Army Knife” (here’s another look at a similar example) — having existed only for the last few decades. And there are many knives still produced today that don’t have “locking” mechanisms, including most of the actual Swiss Army Knives made by Victorinox. Here are the common non-locking knife types you may come across, as well as examples of each.

Free Swinging

There aren’t many knives available today that have a free-swinging format, apart from one specific category: balisongs (or butterfly knives). What sets these knives apart is that they have no locking mechanism or any kind of stopper of which to speak. Instead, they’re little more than a blade and a handle (or handles) connected on a central axis (or pivot). This means the blade can swing freely back and forth — stopped only by impact, usually either with the handle or the hand holding it. This makes them quite dangerous, but it’s also what makes flipping a balisong (colloquially known as doing “tricks”) so exciting and alluring.

Kershaw Lucha

Widely considered one of the best balisongs for experts and beginners alike, Kershaw’s 10.25-inch Lucha butterfly knife features a Sandvik 14C28N clip point blade, stainless steel handles and KVT ball bearings for smooth operation.

Friction Folder

Technically speaking, friction folders are also usually free-swinging. However, they differ in one very specific manner: when open, they have a method by which friction can be exerted on the blade to keep it extended out of the handle. Typically, this is managed by an extended tang (or handle or lever) that juts out past the end of the blade’s spine (or its back). When opened, this handle or lever can be gripped by the user, along with the handle, using the pressure of the user’s grip to keep the knife from closing. When released, the blade will once again swing freely.

Nagao Higonokami

With its historical connections to Japan’s most famous warriors, the samurai, the Nagao Higonokami is one of our favorite heirloom knives you can still buy today. While it comes in many forms (ranging from the budget-friendly to the opulent), this particular version (a more high-end offering) comes with a White Steel reverse tanto blade and black-finished brass handle. We also spotted this knife recently in a couple of episodes of Apple TV+’s Godzilla show.

Slipjoint (or Slip Joint)

Most closely associated with classic pocket knives — like Swiss Army Knives and the kind of knives your grandfather might have handed down — friction folders are probably the best example of the gray area between locking and non-locking knives. They don’t swing freely, but they also don’t require unlocking in order to close. Instead, these knives have internal spring mechanisms that exert pressure on the blade, usually in both open and closed positions, helping keep the knife blade in these positions to make them more difficult to push/pull.

a hand holding a knife
Slipjoints don’t “lock,” but the spring pressure on the blade will help it stay deployed.
Sean Tirman

The James Brand Ellis Slim

What’s probably most impressive about The James Brand’s Ellis Slim is that it is about the same thickness as a pack of gum. Pair that with its Sandvik 12C27 steel blade (which comes in both straight-edge and partially serrated versions), G10 handle scales and a pry bar on the end, and it’s easy to see what makes this slipjoint knife special.

Common Knife Lock Types

If you search for “folding knife” or “pocket knife” on Google — or really any online retailer that sells knives — you’re probably going to get a ton of results. Most of those results will also probably be equipped with one of the following knife locks. These are the most common, non-proprietary locking mechanisms currently available — and they are available in abundance, largely because they work (to varying degrees, sure, but they work all the same). While no one company owns these designs, there have been some impactful designers responsible for creating them, and all of them have some measure of historical significance.

Back

Originally popularized by Buck Knives back in the 1960s — specifically, with the release of the now-legendary Buck 110 Hunter — the back lock is one of the most time-tested locking mechanisms in the EDC and outdoor worlds. However, there’s evidence to suggest that this style of lock dates back to 15th-century Spain. Functionally, it utilizes a “rocker” bar that stretches the back of the knife handle (in line with the blade of the spine) and a spring that exerts pressure on the rocker bar to lock it — and, transitively, the blade — in place. These knives also typically have a depression in the handle where the rocker bar is exposed; here, a user would push down on the rocker to unlock the blade and, thus, close the blade back into the handle.

Buck Knives 110 Folding Hunter

Originally introduced in the 1960s, the Buck Knives 110 Folding Hunter changed pocket knives as we know it — largely thanks to its incredibly sturdy back lock. This 420HC-steel knife, with its stabilized wood and brass handle, has become an icon and has changed very little from its introduction to today. And here’s the real kicker: it doesn’t need to change; it’s already practically perfect.

Liner

In 1980, a man by the name of Michael Walker — no big deal, just one of the most significant knife designers of all time — patented something called the Walker Linerlock. It was a design that used a spring-loaded liner within the handle of a pocket knife to “pop” or “slip” into place below a deployed blade to stop the blade from closing (without manually moving the liner from below the blade). And thus, the liner lock was born. While there’s some controversy surrounding this design (Walker appears to own a trademark for the word “linerlock,” but not the technology itself), this type of lock is practically ubiquitous in the knife world nowadays and there’s no shortage of designs, both new and old, that utilize it.

Gerber Fastball

Made in the USA and sized perfectly for everyday carry, Gerber’s Fastball is a sleek slicer boasting an S30V blade, flipper deployment, aluminum handle and more. For discreet carry that won’t let you down, this is one of the more reliable and compact knives the brand makes.

Frame

Pioneered by knifemaking legend Chris Reeve, the Frame lock (originally known as the Reeve Integral Lock) can be thought of as the bigger, beefier, stronger brother of the liner lock. The chief difference? A frame lock is integrated into the handle, offering a thicker piece of material — which integrates into the handle itself, rather than simply being an additional liner — to keep the blade in place. These types of locks are renowned for their sheer strength and are a big-time favorite among collectors of all walks.

CRKT Pilar IV

The most recent version of our favorite overall pocket knife — the CRKT Pilar III — the Pilar IV shares almost all of its features in common with its younger sibling, except for the shape of the blade (this one gets a clip point, whereas the III had a spear point blade). It still has the same reliable D2 blade steel, IKBS ball-bearing system, G10 and stainless steel handle, etc. Get one for yourself and see what all the hype is about.

Button

From a user-friendliness standpoint, the button lock is one of the simplest concepts (and it’s relatively safe compared to, say, liner and frame locks, in which the user must put their fingers in the way of the blade’s swinging path to unlock it). Open the knife and a button housed in the handle pops out — signifying that the internal locking mechanism is sprung, blocking the knife blade from moving from its deployed position. Depress the button, and the blade releases and can be slipped back into the handle. This type of lock is also typically very lightweight, secure and fairly simple from an operational standpoint, too, making them another quite popular option (especially for higher-end knives).

The James Brand Wells

We recently reviewed The James Brand’s Wells EDC knife and found it to be an exceptional, albeit overbuilt knife. The styling is as sleek as they come — doing away with just about all extraneous details in favor of an ultra-minimalist design — and the materials (including its MagnaCut blade) are all top-notch. It’s a little overkill for an EDC knife, but if you’ve got the scratch and the desire, it’s a home run.

Slide

Slide locks are very similar, at least from a user standpoint, to button locks — operating on largely the same principle, except they have a slider that slides back and forth instead of a button that the user presses down. When the blade of a slide lock knife deploys, a spring-loaded (or tensioned) piece of metal slips into place below the tang of the blade, stopping it from being able to swing back into the handle. With a push of the slide, this tensioned piece is released and the blade can, once again, swing back into the handle.

Benchmade Bugout

The spiritual successor to the brand’s fan-favorite Griptilian, Benchmade’s Bugout is one of the slimmest, most lightweight pocket knives on the market today. Yet, despite how slight it feels weight-wise, it’s a substantially tough folder, boasting a CPM S30V steel blade, textured CF-Elite handle scales and the brand’s legendary Axis slide lock.

Lever

A third iteration of the button and slide lock types, the primary difference for this style of lock is that it uses a lever — as opposed to a button or slider — to move the tensioned bar out of place beneath a given knife’s tang, thus releasing the blade. There’s also another important distinction — one that might explain why this type of lock isn’t seen more often: this style is most typically found on switchblade knives, like the Italian stiletto, which are largely illegal in the US (especially among more liberal states).

Mikov Predator

A Czech-made automatic knife, the Mikov Predator features a 420 steel dagger-style blade, a black polymer handle and, of course, a sturdy lever lock. It’s worth noting, however, that it’s not the lock that makes this knife illegal in large parts of the USA — rather, it’s the fact that it’s an automatic knife (a knife that requires very little effort to deploy and is often [perhaps wrongfully] associated with criminal elements).

Proprietary Knife Lock Types

Many brands, especially in recent years, have turned to their favorite designers—both in-house and external—to develop proprietary styles of knife locks, meaning they’re owned by the specific brands and, barring licensing, cannot be used by any other brands. While this section won’t cover all those available, there are a few that stand out as significant, ubiquitous and storied enough in the knife world to warrant inclusion here. It’s also worth noting that many of these locks are evolutions of the other lock types listed above, and have been noted as such, where applicable.

Benchmade Axis

Technically, we already introduced this lock in the previous section (see “slide lock”). However, it’s such a lauded design that we thought it bears repeating here. That goes double when you consider that the brand’s proprietary Axis locking mechanism is also present in one of its best knife designs of all time, the Osborne 945 (named after the late Warren Osborne, the knife’s designer) and the more EDC-friendly mini version of that knife (seen above). This knife (and the locking mechanism itself) are often compared to (and considered to be among) the best EDC knives and designs of all time.

Cold Steel Tri-Ad

Invented by Andrew Demko and used exclusively by Demko and Cold Steel, the Tri-Ad lock is like a stronger, more complicated version of the back lock. From a user standpoint, it operates very similarly, with a depression in the handle that allows the user to depress the locking mechanism and free the blade — however, the overall design is even stronger and more dependable than a standard back lock. This type of lock can be found in the AD-10 and AD-15 Cold Steel knives, two of the brand’s best available.

Opinel Virobloc

Opinel’s Virobloc is present on most of Opinel’s knives, including the lauded No. 08 (seen above). And while it’s an ingenious locking mechanism, it’s also remarkably simple. Essentially, the Virobloc is a rotating ring with a cutout in it. To lock the knife blade in place — either open or closed — you simply rotate the ring so that the cutout does not line up with the motion of the blade. To unlock it, you just line up the cutout with the path of the blade. Yes, it’s really as simple as that.

Spyderco Compression

a hand holding a knife
Though remarkably simple in concept, Spyderco’s Compression lock is one of the most impressive EDC knife locks around.
Sean Tirman

Largely considered to be one of the best, strongest knife locks available on the market today, it’s the compression lock that has largely helped Spyderco’s PM2 (or Para Military 2) become among the most lauded of EDC knives ever to hit the market. Functionally, this lock is kind of like a combination of a liner lock and a back lock or a “reverse” liner lock (which is definitely an oversimplification, albeit a largely helpful one when it comes to understanding the concept). If you want a lock that’s practically fail-proof in normal use, this is probably your best bet.

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