Best Barlow: 4 Of The Sharpest Factory Offerings

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Four of the latest factory barlows that are sharp in more ways than one.

What Are The Top Barlows:

Probably no pocketknife pattern has as rich of an American history as the barlow. It is perhaps one of the most well-known patterns even among non-knife people, because their fathers or grandfathers carried and used one.

What exactly is a barlow? It’s a simple pocketknife comprised of either one or two blades, a lengthened steel bolster, and a teardrop-shaped handle, usually of bone. There’s nothing fancy about the barlow. It was and still is a workhorse knife that gets the job done.

If you trace the barlow’s U.S. lineage, it goes back at least as far as John Rus sell, an American entrepreneur who established Green River Works in 1834 in Greenfield, Massachusetts. One of the knives his company was famous for is the barlow. Green River Works manufactured barlows in mass quantities, and even today vintage Green River Works barlows are highly sought after by collectors. The bolsters are distinctly marked with an “R” pierced horizontally by an arrow.

The Lionsteel CK01 and Böker Barlow Expedition have half stops (page 28), meaning the blades pause midway through the blade rotation cycle. Half stops allow safer closing of the blade and provide good tactile reference of where the blade is even if you can’t see it when opening or closing the knife.
The Lionsteel CK01 and Böker Barlow Expedition have half stops (page 28), meaning the blades pause
midway through the blade rotation cycle. Half stops allow safer closing of the blade and provide good tactile
reference of where the blade is even if you can’t see it when opening or closing the knife.

Aside from manufacturing excellence, the barlow was immortalized with appearances in literature (Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers); in music (bluegrass legend Doc Watson); and even Abraham Lincoln was said to have recounted a story from his past that included a barlow. Few patterns have as rich a history. Even in today’s knife market where aerospace-grade materials and advanced blade steels rule the day, slip joints remain popular, including the bar low. They simply are great working tools stripped down to the bare essentials.

BÖker Dalichow

“Traditional patterns like the camp knife or barlow have been a part of our product line from the very beginning onward, and they always will be,” says Carsten Felix-Dalichow, CEO of BÖker Germany. “In the last couple years, those patterns enjoyed a renaissance in the international knife markets.” Dalichow adds that both modern interpretations and classic versions sell well—including the BÖker Barlow Expedition (manufacturer’s suggested retail price [MSRP]: $199.95).

Böker’s Barlow Expedition is a smaller barlow that rides in the pocket easily and is ready for general tasks like cutting a length of twine.
Böker’s Barlow Expedition is a smaller barlow that rides in the pocket easily and is ready for general tasks like cutting a length of twine.

The 2.5-inch clip point blade is 440C stainless, which at one time was aboutthe best knife steel money could buy. It remains a great blade material even by today’s standards. It exhibits superb edge retention and enhanced corrosion resistance, and is fairly easy to resharpen. The blade opens via a long-pull nail nick. The action is nice and stiff. The extended-length bolster is brass, and the scales are green canvas Micarta®, the left one inlaid with the BÖker Tree logo shield. Brass liners complete the overall color combination, which looks marvelous. The blade is bead blasted, not satin finished, which rounds out the subdued appearance.

Size-wise, the Expedition is pretty much average for barlows. It’s a great balance of utility and pocket-friendliness. The thin profile carries well and is not heavy at all. The Micarta is lightweight, weather/impact resistant and an excellent choice for any working folder. I did note during heavy cutting when a tighter grip is required that the thin handle left me wanting a handle thicker and perhaps longer as well. However, for large or extensive-use cutting tasks, select a knife with a more appropriate handle size.

“The response of the international knife markets on this new product line of modern traditionals is tremendous,” Dalichow says, and BÖker will continue to develop new iterations of classic favorites using both up-to-date materials and modern knifemaking techniques. “The trend will be long term. We at BÖker are happy to be a part of it.”

Kershaw Culpepper

The Kershaw Culpepper ushers the barlow into the modern-day knife market in contemporary materials and economy pricing. “Opening mechanisms, blade steels, handle designs—a lot has changed since the peak in popularity of barlows,” says Dominic Aiello, marketing manager at KAI-USA, manufacturer of Kershaw and Zero Tolerance knives. “I don’t believe that barlow-style knives will see the popularity they once had. However, they are still enjoyed by many users, and we want to provide them with a quality, affordable option.”

The Kershaw Culpepper has a 3.25-inch clip-point blade suitable for larger and tougher cutting tasks. The 7Cr17MoV stainless steel provides good edge holding abilities. The long, large handle offers a good grip.
The Kershaw Culpepper has a 3.25-inch clip-point blade suitable for larger and tougher cutting tasks. The 7Cr17MoV stainless steel provides good edge holding abilities. The long, large handle offers a good grip.

The 3.25-inch clip point blade is 7Cr17MoV stainless steel for increased strength, toughness, and wear resistance. The Culpepper is a larger modern barlow suited to heavier cutting tasks. The blade spine boasts gimping for a non-slip rest and extra control when cutting, a feature often found on tactical folders. The satin-finished blade has long-pull nail nicks milled into each side. This offers ease of opening with either hand, but also the convenience of using a pinch grip to pull the blade open as opposed to digging your fingernail into the nail nick and pulling up as you would with a traditional slip joint.

The handle is black G-10, a lightweight, strong synthetic associated with tactical and outdoor knives. It’s a stable material and resistant to fluids, impact, and weathering. The finish is polished, giving an ultra-smooth look and feel. The black and silver appearance is timeless and never gets old. In my opinion, the 4.15-inch closed length pushes the limit of how big a pocketknife should be to carry comfortably in the bottom of a pocket. When you carry it, you’ll know it’s there. The trade-off is the extra blade length to tackle tough, tradesman-like cutting jobs. My only complaint lies with the back spring. Ideally, I would like to have a stiff spring action and a half stop (page 28). The half stop provides great tactile reference as to where the blade is during opening and closing. If not a half stop, then a stiff er spring would suffice.

The Culpepper’s spring tension needs to be increased. I found that if the blade hangs up on what you’re cutting, and you lift up a bit on the handle trying to free it, sometimes the blade will close slightly. Normally you apply downward pressure, so during most use this isn’t an issue. Otherwise, it seems to make a great work knife for tasks unsuitable for a higher-end slip joint. And, in case you lose the Culpepper, the price is such that you can procure another one easily due to the low MSRP ($39.99). One of three traditional slip joints Kershaw offers, the new barlow is made in China.

Bear and Son’s 2281R Rosewood

Bear and Son’s 2281R Rosewood Barlow is the only two-blade of the test bunch, sporting a small pen pattern (21∕16 inch es) in addition to the larger clip point (2.75 inches). The pen gives the option of a shorter blade for smaller cutting tasks or to get into tighter areas. It is also good for scraping, thus saving the main blade’s edge for traditional cutting jobs. Ground from 440A stainless steel, both feature matching long-pull nail nicks for ease of opening. Nice satin finishes round out the overall look and hide scratches.

Trimming string is one of the general utility tasks performed by working knives like the Bear & Son 2281R Rosewood Barlow.
Trimming string is one of the general utility tasks performed by working knives like the Bear & Son 2281R Rosewood Barlow.

The handle features nickel silver bolsters paired with rosewood scales, adding a touch of class. Some prefer the look and feel of a wood handle as opposed to bone or a synthetic. Moreover, rosewood has a reddish-brown hue some find quite attractive, kind of like finely crafted upscale furniture. Granted, the two-blade barlow has a wider handle but the trade-off is the extra width makes the knife easier to grip and bear down on to apply pressure to the cut. The knife’s pocket presence is more noticeable due to the added weight and width, though no more noticeable than some other popular multi-blade slip joints.

The 2281R Barlow balances value with function in a good ol’ USA-made pocketknife. It adapts well to a variety of tasks, from wire stripping to cutting cardboard. It might not be as fancy in appearance as some of the others in this article, but it works well. The blades are easy to resharpen as well. MSRP: $53.75.

Lionsteel CK01

Offering four different blade shapes, the Lionsteel CK01 series is about as high end as you can get for a production barlow. Built from Bohler M390 super steel, titanium liners, and bolsters, and a variety of higher-end natural and synthetic handle materials, the CK01 barlows are show stoppers.

The M390 blade of the Lionsteel CK01 Don model was super sharp right out of the box. It provided plenty of bite for tough tasks such as cutting thick rubber hose.
The M390 blade of the Lionsteel CK01 Don model was super sharp right out of the box. It provided plenty of bite for tough tasks such as cutting thick rubber hose.

The Don model has a 2⅞ -inch sheeps-foot blade. The 3.75-inch closed length makes the knife large enough to tackle tough cuts while small enough to be carried comfortably in a pocket. The light brown Micarta® scales are handsome.

The bead-blasted titanium bolsters sport a subdued appearance. Torx-screw construction and a half stop augment the mix—and so do the crowned liners and titanium handle spacer. The knife’s overall slightly rounded/not flat appearance lends an interesting visual appeal. I really dig the crowning—any manufacturer who does this on its knives definitely pays special attention to detail.

The sheepsfoot blade is less common in barlows but is a highly effective pattern for a variety of cutting and slicing chores. The straight-line edge severs cardboard, tape, and plastic sheeting quickly. It also strips electrical wire easily. The pattern is rather easy to resharpen due to the straight-line edge—that is, there is no blade belly with which to hassle. Since the sheepsfoot lacks a defined blade point, there is enough tip left for effective scoring. The Don’s sheepsfoot incorporates a couple of visual features that stand out. First is the long pull on each side of the blade for easy ambidextrous opening. A swedge on the blade spine is a refreshing look. The knife slices like a dream and the M390 steel really holds an edge well. MSRP: $122, plus shipping, and is available exclusively through CollectorKnives (collectorknives.net).

This about as high end as you can get for a production slip joint, integrating titanium, a high-end super steel, and a lightweight, high-tech handle material. For an additional $9.95, you can order the optional leather slip sheath available in multiple color options

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