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Spyderco Tactical Blades

Spyderco is the original police knife. The company started the whole pocket clip-carry, tactical folder thing in the mid-1980s with its C07 Police Model. This same knife with a stainless handle is still available today. The blade alloy has been upgraded from 440 stainless to VG-10. But the blade is still the same Spyderco Round Hole opening, 4-inch blade that has been around for 20 years. And it is still available in plain edge, partially serrated and fully serrated.

Back when the auto pistol was replacing the revolver in police work, Spyderco revolutionized the folding knife. Before Spyderco, the “tactical folder” was a true “pocket knife,” carried in the pocket along with car keys, pocket change, cigarette lighter and everything else. Spyderco was the first pocket clip-carried production knife.

The Spyderco was also the first knife most cops saw with a locking blade. Today, knife enthusiasts like to debate the merits of liner lock versus frame lock versus back lock versus tang lock. But before Spyderco, most “pocket knives” in the police experience did NOT lock at all. That’s right…go to the ER for about a dozen stitches.

The Spyderco was also the first time most cops saw a blade with serrations. In police circles today, there is little debate. The tactical folder should be partially serrated. A plain edge cuts some materials better than a serrated edge, and a serrated edge cuts other materials better than a plain edge. Spyderco popularized serrations.

Of course, before the Spyderco Round Hole, using a nail nick opened the blade on all folding knives. It is now hard to find a hard-use knife with such an opening device. We have thumb studs, thumb discs and thumb slots. It all started with the Spyder Hole, which answered two questions important to police. How do you open the knife with gloves on? How do you open the knife with one hand?

Of course, almost 20 years later, the tactical folder market is now crowded with many excellent knives. However, Spyderco has remained on the leading edge by quickly adopting custom knife materials into its production knives. The company had aluminum handles in the late-1980s, titanium handles in the early-1900s, and carbon fiber in the late-1990s.

Spyderco just as quickly adopted once-exotic blade materials, taking them from the custom blacksmith’s forge into low-cost, production use. The company quickly advanced from 440C, the best stainless commonly available a generation ago, to hybrid stainless steels like VG-10 to exotic steels that didn’t exist just a few years ago. Today, that means production use of ZDP-189 in the full-size Endura!

Endura and Delica

In 1990, Spyderco introduced its now-famous 3.8-inch Endura and 2.9-inch Delica. These two nylon handle, back lock, tactical folders would be clipped in so many uniform pants that the Spyderco became America’s police knife. Spyderco introduced its fourth-generation version of the Endura and Delica in 2006.

In terms of both lock strength and lock reliability, the back lock design is superior to the liner lock design. These two Spyderco tactical folders use a back lock design. The back lock knife will withstand much more blade closure force (both impact and steady) than a liner lock knife.

The back lock knife is also much less likely to become accidentally unlocked during the force of using a knife the way that the police use a tactical folder. A liner lock knife can come unlocked during common twisting motions. That is why some liner lock knives come with a manual lock like the Lake-Walker designs.

However, this secondary lock also has disadvantages, which were voiced during our Field Test: Tactical Folders in the Nov-Dec 2007 issue of Tactical Response


While the back lock design is stronger and less likely to unlock than the liner lock, some back lock knives can come unlocked by extreme grip pressure. This is especially true when the lock release is well back on the handle, where the fleshy part of the palm exerts maximum pressure. Custom knife-maker David Boye solved that. By machining a slight relief, or cut out, or “dent” in the back of the lock release with the same radius as the relief in the handle, palm pressure is NOT exerted on the lock release.

The standard tests on lock integrity include spine impacts, torques and white knuckling. These had no effect on the Endura4 back lock. We tried to unlock these Endura4 knives with grip pressure, both bare handed and with a gloved hand, and simply could not do it. Part of the reason is that the lock release ends up in the center of the palm. The other part of the reason, of course, is that the David Boye Dent prevents pressure from being exerted on the release.

Wearing Kevlar®-lined gloves, we then turned the knife around so finger pressure would exert force directly on the lock release. No amount of solid, wrap-around grip would unlock the knife. The only way to unlock the back lock knife with the David Boye Dent is to exert individual thumb or finger pressure directly downward on the release. The knife is easy to unlock if you want to close the blade. We found it impossible to unlock by accident.

Four-Way Pocket Clip

The company that invented the pocket clip, CLIPITS, also popularized the four-way clip. The Endura4 and Delica4 have become famous for their right-hand or left-hand carry. Right-handed officers typically carry the tactical folder in their left pocket, i.e., opposite of their duty gun. In the left pocket, it is immediately accessible to fend off a gun grab. The Endura4 and Delica4 have four different pocket clip mounting locations. The clip is held in place by three TORX-drive screws. For that matter, the fiberglass-reinforced nylon handles are held in place by five TORX-drive screws.

The Endura4 and Delica4 use fiberglass-reinforced nylon handles. These are light and chemically resistant. The handles are also heavily textured for a fairly good grip under slippery conditions. The handle contour has just the slightest index and middle finger relief. This contour does not really add to the overall grip. The top of the handles, between the lock release and the blade, also has the slightest amount of jimping that helps a little.

What really matters are the sharp jimping on the blade and the huge raised section over the Spyder Hole. This serrated spine cusp forms an ideal thumb rest. At the extreme, this rise also fits the webbing of the hand, or the edge of the palm, when using different grip methods.

And does that two-step serration look familiar? A repeated pattern of one large and two small serrations is called a Spyder Edge. The company that popularized serrations showed everyone else how to make them.

New Endura and Delica Variations

Spyderco has a couple new variations of its Endura4 and Delica4 worth a close look. The “gold standard” among tactical folders remains available with black nylon handles. New is the foliage green version, which uses a shade shifting green-gray handle. This is a match for the green background of the Army’s digital camo. For 2008, the Endura4 and Delica4 are also available with G-10 fiberglass-reinforced epoxy handles. G-10 is the most temperature-, chemical-, warp- and wear-resistant handle material available. This G-10 handle is tinted foliage green, and about 1 ounce is added to the overall weight.

Also new are versions of these basic knives using the Wave opening device, developed by Ernie Emerson of Emerson Knives. The Endura Wave and Delica Wave have a protruding hook near the Spyder Hole on the blade’s spine. This hook catches the edge of the pants pocket when the folder is drawn out, back and down. Strictly a manual opening blade, the blade is actually opened and locked one handed faster than any auto or assisted blade. (I carried a Wave-opened Emerson Commander for years.) These Wave-opened Spyderco knives are available only with a plain (non-serrated) edge.

Training Knives

The Endura4 and Delica4 are both available in trainer versions. The Trainer has red handles and a rounded blade edge, rounded blade tip and skeletonized blade, which equals the weight of the live blade. These knives are designed to teach one-hand opening skills without the Band-aids associated with a live edge. This is an especially important option for police use during handgun retention drills. The knives can be opened at full speed and employed at full force with no risk of injury.

The Trainer uses exactly the same handles with pocket clip options in exactly the same locations. The back lock uses the same David Boye Dent. The Spyder Hole opening device is the same. You can tell a company is serious about the police market, and realistic knife training, if it makes a Trainer in the model that the cops carry. New for 2008, a Trainer is available for each of the Wave-opened folders.

VG-10 is 154CM

The Endura4 series and Delica4 series, with just one exception, use VG-10 blade steel. More than 20 different stainless steel alloys are used in today’s knives. What is VG-10? V-series Gold 10, made by Takefu Specialty Steel, is so close to ATS-34 (Hitachi) and 154CM (Crucible) that the differences just won’t matter to patrol or tactical officers.

According to Spyderco, VG-10 has slightly better corrosion resistance than 154CM and ATS-34. VG-10 may also have slightly better edge retention. Again, these subtle differences between the alloys just won’t show up in police work. It is pretty hard to sort one blade alloy from another. In the big picture, for police use, VG-10 is far superior to 440C, for example, and the same as 154CM, and that’s a good thing.

What is ZDP-189?

So, VG-10 in the Endura4 and Delica4 is comparable to 154CM. The other blade steel available in the Endura4 series and Delica4 series is in a class all by itself—and at the head of that class. The C10-GRE Endura4 and the C11-GRE Delica4 use ZDP-189 blade steel. ZDP-189 is the Ferrari of blade steels, and it is available in a knife that cops can afford.

ZDP-189 is a powder metallurgy stainless steel made by Hitachi Metals. This is a blade steel of extremes. The first extreme involves carbon. Carbon is what turns iron into steel. Common knife alloys like 440C, 154CM and S30V have carbon contents between 1% and 1.5%. ZDP-189 has 3% carbon. Carbon adds hardness, edge retention and tensile strength. Too much hardness used to lead to brittleness, which is why most steels stop at 1% carbon. ZDP-189 changes all that.

The other extreme involves chromium. Chromium is what turns steel into stainless steel. Common knife alloys have 14% to 17% chromium. ZDP-189 has 20% chromium, which again is an amount virtually unheard of among blade steels. In addition to corrosion resistance, chromium adds hardness and most important, toughness. ZDP-189 has trace amount of molybdenum and tungsten to hold everything together. Yes, this is the best knife steel ever.

Ultimate Blade Steel

Typically, any steel with this much carbon will be brittle and easy to chip. ZDP-189 is as tough as 154CM in this regard. ZDP-189 has a very high hardness of 66-67 HRC, which is extremely rare for a stainless steel. Typically, stainless steel with this much chromium will sharpen to a razor edge but will also dull rapidly. ZDP-189 does not have this trade-off in durability versus sharpness.

ZDP-189 has as much of an advantage in wear resistance (edge retention) over ATS-34 and 154CM as these identical alloys have over 440C stainless. ZDP-189 is not just slightly superior to ATS-34 (154CM), it is far superior. In tests using the ZDP-189 Delica versus the VG-10 Delica against cardboard, the ZDP-189 blade had significantly better edge retention. The ZDP-189 blades also significantly outlasted S30V blades in a similar test.

In round numbers, ZDP-189 can do 10 times what 154CM and ATS-34 can do. The title of “ultimate blade steel” is a moving target. That title has passed from 440C to 154CM to S30V and now to ZDP-189.

Some ZDP-189 blades are laminates with a ZDP-189 core sandwiched between a 420 stainless steel exterior. Spyderco has been working with ZDP-189 since its sprint run with the material in 2005. It also used a laminate of ZDP-189 and 420 stainless on its early knives. Today, however, Spyderco uses solid ZDP-189 in the blades with this steel.

For its part, ZDP-189 is miserable to work with! It takes twice as long for knife-makers to grind and they get half the wheel life. “ZDP is very hard and not possible to stamp in forming a blade. Solid ZDP must be cut with laser, which raises the cost of forming,” said Sal Glesser, president of Spyderco. So it’s not just the higher price of the steel but also the difficulty in blade making that adds to the higher price of ZDP-189 knives.

Spyderco for Patrol Use

How does the Endura4 rate overall for police work? (Forget for a moment that Spyderco invented the police tactical folder.) First, the blade. The VG-10 material, similar to 154CM, will do anything we need it to do in policing, and the ZDP-189 is currently the world’s best production knife steel. Next, the lock. The back lock with David Boye Dent is stronger than a liner lock and virtually impossible to unlock by accident. The Spyder Hole makes it easy to open, and lock, with one hand.

Next, the handle. Frankly, the Endura handles could be much more aggressively textured, and the handle profile could include more pronounced finger grooves. The jimped spine cusp made an excellent thumb rest. Next, the carry. All tactical folders should have four-way pocket clips like the Endura4 and Delica4. Even the full-size Endura4 is light in the pocket (3.6 ounces) and thin in profile (7/16 inches).

The Spyderco was the first tactical folder to be widely carried by patrol officers. With such low prices, reliable and functional locks, and state-of-the-art blade steels, the Endura4 remains one of the best choices in the crowded tactical folder market. The Endura4 with ZDP-189 has an MSRP of $130. Compare this to the same Endura4 knife with a VG-10 blade at $85. That is a lot of knife for $130, especially compared to the competition in the same price range that uses AUS-8 or 440C blades on their knives.

Spyderco Fixed Blades

One-third of SWAT operators carry a fixed blade. While Spyderco is most famous for its patrol-oriented folders, it has a line of fixed blades designed by the likes of Bill Moran, the founder of the American Bladesmith Society, and Fred Perrin, a former French Army commando.

We opted to review the line of big fixed blades designed by Jerry Hossom—the Dayhiker, Forester, Forager and Woodlander. These Spyderco fixed blades come in blade lengths of 4.8 inches, 6.1 inches, 7.5 inches and 9.1 inches, respectively. Our 7.5-inch Forager test knife had a 0.19-inch-thick blade and weighed a hefty 14.7 ounces. A sharpened wrecking bar, the initial feel and heft made us want to go out and cut, chop, hack or pry something. And we did.

These task-specific knives have full-bellied cutting edges, upswept tips and rounded spines. Of course, the blade blank extends the full length under the handles. The blades have a handguard behind the cutting edge, a finger choil and deep jimping on the thumb ramp. A single hold in the ricasso allows lashing, or doubles as a wrist lanyard when used with the lanyard hole in the handle. We would have preferred a bit of exposed pommel.

The handle profile is what really caught our attention. The Dayhiker, Forester, Forager and Woodlander all have a deep index finger groove, a deep little finger groove and a pronounced palm swell. This hand-fitting contour is the very essence of a solid grip needed for SWAT operations. These fixed blades use green Micarta handles, which is linen impregnated with epoxy. While the smooth Micarta handles don’t provide much of a textured grip, the handle contour and the thumb ramp jimping more than make up for it.

Cobalt Stainless Steel

These big knives are made in Italy, which explains their N690 blade steel. This is a European-made upgrade to 440C stainless steel. N690 is also called Austrian Cobalt Steel and Cobalt Stainless Steel. Compared to 440C, N690 has about the same amount of carbon (1%), chromium (17%) and molybdenum (1%). However, it also has 1% vanadium and 1% cobalt. Vanadium controls the grain structure during heat-treat, allowing a harder edge from a high carbon stainless steel with less brittleness. Cobalt is hard, and it adds edge retention to the blade alloy.

N690 has been well received by European military forces where it has gained a good reputation for cutting performance and edge retention. Some Benchmade and Remington-Maniago knives also use N690. The 440C stainless is good enough to be the classic knife alloy, but N690 is an improvement for hard use.

These Spyderco blades come with a Kydex® sheath, which has a five-position Tek-Lock® clip. This removable locking device positions the knife to draw vertically, inverted, cross-draw, horizontally or in the small of the back. The fixed blades are held in place by friction and clamp pressure from the Kydex.

These broad-bladed knives have an MSRP between $270 and $400. That is a bit more expensive than you might expect from Spyderco, but the knives are big, broad and tough. On a rural SWAT team, or any team likely to get involved in a woodland search or surveillance, at least one operator with the hasty assault team or sniper element should have a big fixed blade like this. Some tasks the team faces cannot be done even by a Spyderco folder.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2008

Rating : 8.9

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