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Categories of knives.
To try and categorize knives these days is nearly impossible.  I have tried to break knife designs into eight broad categories but I could probably double or triple the categories and there would still be knives that still fall outside of any describe category.  With that said, I think these broad categories will cover about 99% of the knives you come across.

Traditional folders (slip-joint. lockback, automatic, etc.)
The traditional pattern knives can probably be traced back to the first simple folding knife.  As time progressed, people would modify their knife to fit the task at hand.  So in many ways, the traditional folding knives were all some type of work knife designed for a specific person.  Of course the purpose could be as varied as cutting rope, carving wood, neutering cattle, or self defense.

As time moved on, knives were fitted with multiple blades and then springs were added to keep the blades in place.  Later locking springs were added to stop blades from easily folding. Through trial and error the knives morphed into many different styles and so knife makers started assign names or model numbers to the different types of knives. And before you knew it a whole industry of knife makers started making a variety of knives to meet a variety of needs and as the knives fulfilled the task quite well, the patterns standardized and the traditional pattern folding knife was born.  In reality there are dozens if not hundreds of different style blades placed into dozens, if not hundreds of different style handles and so in the end there are literally countless combinations of knife styles that make up the “so called” traditional pattern knives.

Among knife collectors, traditional pattern are probably the most collected of any type of knife. And among the traditional pattern knives collected, the   most popular pattern is probably the trapper, a large frame two blade jack knife.

Traditional knives are most often collected by older Americans and there is a distinct bias toward American made knives.  With that said, some of the traditional patterns were first developed in Britain and Europe and original knives made in Britain and Europe (especially Germany) are quite popular among collectors of vintage knives.

Traditional knives made in China can be well made but will suffer from the “Buy American” bias.  This same bias was felt by knives once made in Japan. It is questionable if the bias will pass.  Most collectors of Chinese made knives assume that if the quality is there, the value of the knife will eventually be appreciated.
In some cases traditional collectors will normally settle on type of handle material or specific pattern and collect these particular knives. As mentioned, trappers are currently the number one collected traditional pattern. Thus most companies will release more trappers in larger variety than other traditional patterns. Some patterns such as sailing knives and small pattern knives are not made as frequently and are harder to collect.

Among the Traditional patterns are also Multi Tool knives. These knives normally contain cutting blades as well as tools such screwdrivers, can-openers, wrenches, scissors, corkscrews, etc.   Among the most popular are Boy Scout knives and Swiss Army knives.
Brand Collecting.

I would say brand is very common among traditional collectors.  Among the American brands, the knives made by W. R. Case & Sons are probably the most collected traditional patterns in the USA if not the entire world.  If you plan on collecting by brand, Investigate the brand and if you are satisfied with the product they offer, buy it. Of course, even within brands, some knives will vary in quality. For instance, a company renowned for its fixed blade knives may make less than quality folding knives and vice-versa. 

So it is just as vital to learn what the company prides itself on and the reputation among its various patterns.  You may also consider where certain knives are made within the brand.  Some companies are known for only making knives in one location whereas other companies have knives made at several locations and then put their brand on all the products. This may lead to problems with quality control.  Always investigate a company’s warranty and return policy. A good brand will have a clear cut, easy to understand warranty and a no hassle return policy.  Many custom knife makers even offer 100% money-back guarantees.

Traditional fixed blades (Work knives, Bowies, hunters, skinners)
Traditional fixed blades can be traced back to the Stone Age. Regardless of what style the knife is, it is a blade with a tang protruding into a handle.  These can be anything from a paring knife used for an apple to machetes.  Also any type of work knife that does not fold is considered a traditional fixed blade.  Most people, however, think of traditional fixed blades as those used in hunting, camping, fishing, or other outdoors endeavors.  Traditional fixed blades also include the numerous daggers and small knives carried for personal protection and often concealed while being carried.  Machetes and other bush-craft knives should also be considered traditional fixed blades

Traditional combat and fighting knives
Collectors of military knives want knives that were actually used in a war were issued by a branch of the military service.  Among these are:

  • issued knives (knives made under a military contract for a branch of the military service).
  • Knives made by soldiers  or for soldiers during wartime in a theater of operation (theater)
  • Knives marketed to soldiers and bought through private purchase and used in combat.

In the US, most collectors of military knives collect material used in World War II.  Probably close behind that is material from the Vietnam Conflict.  But for the most part if the knife was used by the military in a war  or some other military operation it will have greater appeal --as long as the use can be authenicated. If it was just around at the time but there is no proof of actual use, its value will be less. Thus the dating of military knives becomes critical.

As you can imagine, most of these knives have been replicated.  Many have even been reissued or remade to exacting standards, with the same grades of steel and other material being used in its manufacturing. Regardless of the quality and how good the copy is, it is still a replica. 

An example would be Ontario’s M3 Trench knife, which is fairly close copy of the Camillus M3 Trench knife.  Some of the Camillus knives were used in WWII Many were used post WWII.   The Ontario knife is every bit as good as the Camillus but it is not being marketed to soldiers serving in Afghanistan.   While some soldiers may actually carry it into combat in Afghanistan, it is doubtful the knife will ever be associated with that war. The Ontario version is a copy of the 1943 trench knife and does not remain in government inventory.  This doesn’t demean the quality of the build; it is only a comment on its potential to become more valuable. Afgahnistan is not the war this particular knife is associated with. The M3 is a knife assoicated with WWII therefore, the best that can be said for an M3 used in Afganistan is that the design of the knife has stood the test of time and can still get the job done.

At the same time, such knives as the Air Force Survival Knife and the Marine Corp Fighting Knife, remain in government inventory and are sold on base through the Class II stores and post-exchange.  Many would consider these knives genuine military issue knife, even though most soldiers will need to purchase the knife form his/her own funds. This is especially true of the The Marine Corp fighting knife which has remained a item of interest to collector since its inception. Many knife collectors are capable of dating the various production runs to specific wars and military operations. If these knife see service in Afghanistan, they will be considered a veteran of that conflict. The liklihood of the Marine Corp Fighting Knife being a sought after collectors item in years to come is much higher than that of Afghan era M3 trench knife.

Theater Knives
Theater Knives do not refer to prop knives from plays but knives made or modified in the Theater of War for use by combatants. For the most part, this normally refers to knives made during WWII. Theater knives played a vital role during the war due the lack of knives being supplied to soldiers. In the early part of the war, not every soldier was issued a knife or bayonet and they had to do with whatever they could get. In many cases, this meant having a loved one mail them an old hunting knife. This led to numerous knife makers such a John Ek and Hoyt Buck making small batches of knives either under government contract or on the the side to meet the demands of soldiers in the field. However, it also meant that many soldiers who had access to the right tools also started making knives in the field for personal use or for their fellow soldiers. Many of these knives were converted from bayonets, old files, automotive springs, or any other suitable steel that could ground, shaped and sharpened. Handle material came from all sources imaginable including the Plexiglas canopies of airplanes and old boots. The quality and style of theater knives vary dramatically and in many cases it is hard to verify that the knife is not just homemade junk, however when a genuine theater knife is verified, it can be as valued as some of the rarest fighting knives of the war.

In short there is plenty of gray area that makes up this category of knives as there is with most knife patterns.

Modern folders (Tactical, SAR)
The tactical folder is without a doubt the fast growing category of knives in America and probably worldwide.  The design of the knives is normally very austere, with function driving form.  Most tactical models are a single blade knife designed so that blade employment can be done with one hand operation. The knives normally lack back springs and are deployed using bearings.  They are normally held in the closed position by friction or simple locking mechanisms. The blades are normally held in place by the use of liner, frame or back-lock.  The scales on tactical knives tend to be made of modern composite materials; such as fiber reinforced thermoplastics, or high grade light weight metals. A common feature on almost all tactical knives is a belt or pocket clip.

The SAR or Search & Rescue is a subset of the tactical knife which usually includes features that would be helpful in emergency situations such as vehicular entrapments, or water rescues. The most common feature is normally a integrated glass breaker in the pommel of the knife.  Another common feature is a seatbelt or line cutter integrated into the handle. 

Tactical folders and SAR knives were designed to be used by members of the military, police, fire and rescue and survivalists and remain very popular within those circles.

Some things to look out for when collecting Tacticals:

  • Because of their popularity, you can expect to see tons of cheaply made tactical knives that look very similar to quality made models.  Be very wary of any brand you are not familiar with and, be very watchful of where the knife is made!  While there are many quality brand names being produced overseas there are also plenty of poor quality knives being produced in the same regios that also carry a brand name In short know you brand names
  • Many companies like to give their tactical knives military sounding names, almost trying to make it sound like this knife is used by the Green Berets or Navy Seals. Don’t fall for it.  Also don’t fall for such selling features as “Aircraft Aluminum” or “Titanium dusted”.  Another tactic is to give blade etches for a branch of service.  Such things may look nice but do not improve the quality of the knife nor does it means the knife is actually used by that branch of service or law enforcement agency. 
  • Be very careful when purchasing a “speed assisted” opening knives. It may be illegal to own where you live and cheap ones do not have safety locks.  Speed assisted openers use a torque spring to open the blade. In inexpensive models, this spring puts a lot of pressure on the knife blade and will lead to blade play after a few opening.  You will need a small wrench to tighten the spring and make the knife usable again.
  • Many tactical knives have partially serrated blades.  Serrated blades, while handy, require special sharpening skills.  High end knives will normally allow you to send it back to the manufacturer for professional sharpening. Cheap ones will just get dull and useless rather quickly and even if you know how to sharpen it, it will be a waste of your time.
  • If the tactical knife has a retail value of $22 but is on sale for $5, it is really only worth $5. This is a common way to sell poor quality knives, especially hot ticket items such as Tactical/SAR knives.

Modern fixed blades (Composites, new steels, etc)
The modern fixed blades are those that take a new look at the old traditional knife patterns and often incorporate new materials in their construction.  The new knives also explore different blade grinds and shapes to increase the usefulness of a single blade.  The knives also incorporate new features that were found lacking in older knives such as a gut hooks, partially serrated blades, saw backs, and other features.  While these features occasionally occurred on older traditional knives, they have become more common place today.  A popular choice among the modern hunter is the use of the drop point blade and other modified blade profiles designed to make them work more efficiently in a variety of tasks.  Probably the most common feature however has to be the use of new materials for blade grips and sheaths which make the knives more resilient when used outdoors.  You will normally see Kydex or nylon used in sheaths instead of leather.  You will also see more stainless steel used in blades.  Materials such as fiber reinforced nylons and thermoplastics are used for handles instead of the more traditional, stag or bone or wood. Almost every traditional fixed blade knife has a modern day equivalent.  

Modern combat knives. (Combat, self defense, SAR, easy opening)
The fastest growing market among the modern combat knife is the survival knife. The idea is to make a one knife that can accomplish every conceivable task Today’s modern combat fixed blades are also driven by this market.  Most tend to be full tang knives with slab sided screwed on handles or skeleton frames suitable for cord wrapping.  Just as the modern fixed blades are based on early traditional knives, the modern combat knives can easily be traced by to earlier combat knives.  Some of the modern knives are clearly designed self defense, close quarter combat, or survival needs while others are designed for multi-use roles.  While they are made for and are widely used by military or law enforcement personnel few are actually made under government contract.

Knives that combine traditional and modern features.  These can be factory builds or custom knives.  This doesn’t include traditional pattern knives with made with new steel types or handle material.  The traditional knife would need to take on some of the more modern design concepts or a modern style knife would use traditional patterns in their concept.  Basically if you’re not sure if the knife is a traditional pattern or an modern design, it is probably a hybrid.

Exotic (Fanatasy, Art, Movie, Faux primitives, etc)
The last area is what I call exotics. The exotics include movie reproduction, fantasy blades, faux primitives (such as medieval swords and daggers), folk art, etc.

Buying exotic knives is risky business if you’re in it for a profit.  The only ones apt to go up in value are those that are first production runs, one of a kind small batch designs, were actually used in a movie, or really fall into the custom made category.   In most cases, these will need letters of authenticity to prove their worth.  Other exotics will probably not go up much in value, especially if they are made of low quality materials or are mass produced and readily available.  This goes for fancy swords, reproduction bowie knives and just about any other exotic knife.

Folk and Art knives are knives with painted scenery or sculpted handles and sheaths.  They may look nice but if they were mass produced, their value will most likely not go up and runs a strong potential of actually going down in value.  The ones created by well known artists are going to be expensive and are normally considered collectible.

By all means, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from buying an exotic knife.  Many just look really cool and make a nice conversation piece. My point is that you make sure of the knife’s real value before buying it.  Make sure the materials used to make the knife are as advertised. Ask questions.  So many items, especially those sold online are made of low quality material, fake wood, imitation stones, low quality steel, etc. They are in fact such poor quality that they aren’t even worthy of the title “knife” Don’t buy any exotic, movie, or folk knife under the assumption that it will be a great future investment. Buy it because you like it, and because it is a fair deal at the time of purchase.

The best of the exotics are first run custom made knives sold in limited runs using high quality materials. These will normally retain their value and may come up in value over time.   An anniversary issue or second run exotic knife will probably not go up in value.  If you feel like buying it understand that it will just be a reminder of that first run exotic that you missed out on.

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