Buck Knife: Tuning Up an American Icon

The Buck knife company is celebrating the 50th anniversary of their Buck Folding Hunter knife, Model 110. This knife was a revolutionary design: a folder with a strong lockback, which provides hunters with much the same capability as traditional fixed-blade knives, but in a more compact design. Fifteen million Buck Folding Hunters have been made, and it has inspired many imitators.

My Buck 110 knife polished up and looking like (almost) new.

My Buck 110 knife polished up and looking like (almost) new.

Bo Duke using his trusty Buck knife to escape his captors!

Bo Duke using his trusty Buck knife to escape his captors!

The Making of an Icon

Growing up, I dreamed of carrying a Buck knife! I’d seen those darn Duke boys with Bucks on their belts in every episode, using them to get out of many jams (check out the close-up of Bo Duke using his Buck to cut through some ropes the bad guys used to tie him up). In those days—the late 70s and early 80s—when I went to the range at the Archery Center, I saw the older guys shooting or standing around drinking coffee and sharing hunting stories, usually with that classic Buck knife sheath on their belt. At Camporees, the veteran Scoutmasters who’d spent decades camping would be there with their red wool jac-shirts, well-oiled leather work boots, and Buck knives on their belts. If these iconic woodsmen carried the Buck Folding Hunter, it must be the best, right?

I still use my Buck knife 110 today. Nearly 30 years old, and it locks up smoothly and solidly with no looseness in the blade. I wish my joints were aging as well.

I still use my Buck knife 110 today. Nearly 30 years old, and it locks up smoothly and solidly with no looseness in the blade. I wish my joints were aging as well.

Materializing a Dream

I finally bought my Buck 110 in 1987, spending about $20 at Farm & Fleet. Then, as now, this Buck 110 is an incredibly impressive knife. It has handsome wood scales, large brass bolsters, and a sharp clip point blade made of 425M steel (as my Alaskan buddies would say, that blade is "old man sharp!"). Although Buck doesn't use an exotic super steel on these knives, their advanced heat-treating process turns what some may consider mid-range steel into a great blade.

Today, the blade is made of 420HC steel and is famous for its edge holding (and difficulty in sharpening the hard blade!)--it's a great slicer. Ergonomically, it is excellent, and, It's still made here in the U.S. of A. The Folding Hunter can be bought with a nylon or leather sheath, both are functional, but to me carrying this classic in a nylon sheath would be like drinking a good bourbon out of a plastic cup. Unlike most modern folders, the Buck easily and comfortably fills your hand and can be used for an extended period of time without developing cramps or hot spots. The fine point also allows for precision trimming and cutting, although it’s been known to snap off under heavy pressure. This knife excels at its intended use—field dressing large mammals. It can easily handle many other cutting jobs, but as I've picked up more knives over the years, I now usually pass over my Buck when packing for the trail or heading out for the day.

The Buck Knife Dream vs. Reality

The Making of a Buck Folding Hunter Knife.

Growing up, I imagined the Buck knife could and would do anything I needed on the trail. In reality, my Buck has taken about the same role as a collector's classic car: it's still beautiful and an incredible performer, but for everyday use or time in the woods, I often take a different blade.

As much as I love and would recommend the Buck, admittedly, there are a few minor drawbacks to the Buck 110:

Compared to Modern "Tactical" Folders

  • It feels like a brickalbeit, an awesome, solidly-built steel, wood, and brass brick—and for that reason, it's not a knife you’d want to take on a high-mileage, lightweight backpacking trip. (Although, I recall a backpacking trip in the Monongahela National Forest in WV years ago when I frantically grabbed for my Buck 110 after a huge bear went crashing through the dense brush right under my nose!)
  • The Buck 110 lacks the easy one-handed opening systems found on many of today's knives; however, with a bit of practice you can do a one-handed gravity drop opening (as Bo Duke is demonstrating above—watch your fingers and toes!).
  • The man-sized Buck 110 doesn’t carry very well in your pocket and lacks the side clip featured on many modern knives, which leaves the classic Duke boys belt sheath carry as your best option.

Compared to Full-sized Fixed-blade Knives

  • Heavy and solid as the Buck 110 is, you wouldn’t really want to pound on it the way bushcrafters do with their thick-bladed, full-tang knives. The lock, the finer tip, and the concave edge, while strong and functional, aren’t designed for being hammered through large chunks of wood. Back in 1964, savvy woodsmen used things like saws and axes to produce firewood, not their knives.
I always really liked the Buck 110. It was one of the few high-quality knives available at the PX back when I was teaching at the SERE school, and I really like the way it feels in my hand, the way it looks, and how well it cuts. The blade shape is excellent for skinning rabbits and preparing game.
— Byron Kerns, former Air Force SERE instructor, Marine veteran, and survival school owner
Check out the difference a little polish made on this Buck 110 knife. The bottom brass is yet to be polished, but the top brass is like new with only a couple of minutes of polishing time.

Check out the difference a little polish made on this Buck 110 knife. The bottom brass is yet to be polished, but the top brass is like new with only a couple of minutes of polishing time.

The Buck is Still an Icon

Even though the Buck 110 isn't the all-purpose knife my childhood self thought it could be, I'll never get rid of it. In fact, when I pull on my Filson wool plaid, and pick up my pump .30-06 and head for the deer woods this Fall, the Buck will be on my belt.

Hearing about the 50th anniversary of the Buck Folding Hunter, I pulled mine out and clean it up a bit. The brass had become pretty tarnished over time, but a few minutes of rubbing with a polishing compound had it shining bright.

I checked the edge, and it was sharp, but I thought it could use a bit more pop. Several quick strokes on ceramic rods, followed by stropping on a thick leather belt, and my old 110 was slicing paper with ease. Not too long after I first bought the Buck, I stupidly chipped the edge while opening some packaging (there was an industrial-sized metal staple in cardboard packaging, so I slid the blade underneath and gave it a twist to pry it loose—not a good decision). I was pretty bummed about the nick, and I worked around it for years, until I recently learned how to make sandpaper-sharpening boards. Using one of these boards, I was able to work out the nick, and I also smoothed away the secondary bevel, leaving a flat edge. This is a very sharp edge, but also quite thin. I may reprofile to a convexed edge for more strength at some point.

Obligatory knife-nut feather stick photo. Making fine curls for tinder with dry inner wood is a key skill for fire starting in wet weather, and my Buck knife comes through like a pro.

Obligatory knife-nut feather stick photo. Making fine curls for tinder with dry inner wood is a key skill for fire starting in wet weather, and my Buck knife comes through like a pro.

One stroke to get through this nasty, gritty, old synthetic rope.

One stroke to get through this nasty, gritty, old synthetic rope.

The Buck is a fine slicer, and is able to handle camp kitchen tasks, as well as the rough stuff.

The Buck is a fine slicer, and is able to handle camp kitchen tasks, as well as the rough stuff.

Here's to Another 50 Years!

Coincidentally, 1964 was also the year a few other iconic pieces of lust-inducing American metal were released: the Ford Mustang, the Pontiac GTO, and yes, the Dukes of Hazzard's backroad rippin', creek-jumpin' General Lee, the Dodge Charger (although theirs was a '69 Hemi Orange, 440 Magnum Charger)!  Man, I always wanted one of these classic muscle cars (still do)! The roar of their huge V-8s offers the same testosterone dump as the sound of the Buck's gorgeous blade sharply snapping open. Unfortunately, you can’t buy a new, off-the-line 1964 spec 389 Tri-Power GTO; but, for $40, you can buy yourself an iconic, made in America, classic Buck Folding Hunter