Anyone who has spent any time at all perusing the Equipped To Survive site knows that we don't think a non-locking folding knife is even worth consideration--just too damn dangerous. That isn't to say that the commonly available locking mechanisms aren't without fault. They all have their drawbacks, some more serious than others.
The most common locks are the lockback, available in a variety of configurations, and the liner lock, once rare, now becoming common on even less expensive knives. Readers are likely quite familiar with both styles. The quality of these locks runs the gamut, from poor to excellent, but the majority all exhibit some common failings, to one degree or another. In no particular order they include strength, actually lack thereof, reliability problems, possibility of inadvertent release, and potentially injurious action even when used properly.
Now comes a new lock design that appears to address all these concerns, the "Axis Lock," developed and patented by custom knifemakers Bill McHenry and Jason Williams. McHenery and Williams spent four years developing the lock and getting it patented. Benchmade Knife Co. bought the rights and the first knife using the new lock, their Model 710, has just gone into production.
We received a prototype of the new knife and for the past few months have been putting it through its paces. While the knife itself has a lot to recommend it, and we'll get to that later, our primary interest is in the locking mechanism, which Benchmade has tagged with the moniker "Axis Lock." Les deAsis, Benchamde President, noted that they called it that because he believes "the tactical knife concept is going to spin around this mechanism."
The first time I saw the Axis Lock in action I was awestruck. It's a real, honest to God, forehead slapping experience--it is so simple your immediate reaction is, "Geeze, why didn't I think of that?" Most of those whom I have handed the knife to the first time say exactly those words! Its advantages are so innately obvious, all you can do is shake your head in wonder.
So, what is the cause of all this commotion? Boiled down to its basics, the lock is comprised of a spring-loaded bar which rides in a fore and aft slot cut out of both liners/side plates, traversing completely across the slot the blade folds in to and out of. It engages a ramped notch cut into the tang portion of the knife blade when it is opened. The knife tang is thus wedged solidly between a stop bar and this Axis Lock bar.
Suffice to say it's a lot easier to show than describe. In fact, we've delayed publishing this evaluation until a Benchmade engineer could provide us with the cutaway drawings you see in this article, so it would be clear how the lock works. (Clicking on the cut-aways will take you to a higher resolution image.) The animated GIFs clearly show how the Axis Lock bar moves to engage the ramp on the tang of the blade.
Let's review some of the advantages the Axis Lock delivers, in no particular order. Operationally, the lock can be, and is in this example, completely ambidextrous since the locking bar extends through both side plates. While the lockback is also ambidextrous, the liner lock is not, and with few exceptions, southpaws have been left out in the cold when it comes to liner lock knives (Benchmade being itself a notable exception, but only in this last year).
The lock can be naturally and easily operated, it is obvious even to those not mechanically inclined. Many people, faced with either a lockback or linerlock for the first time, simply don't get it, as hard as that may be for many of us who are into these tools to believe. Every person I showed the knife to immediately figured out how to work it.
When releasing the lock to close the blade, you don't have to put your precious fingers in harm's way and the natural inclination is not to do so, making the Axis Lock safer to use. It is possible to close some lockbacks without placing a finger or two across the slot while releasing the lock and closing the blade, but the most natural action is to do so. With a traditional liner lock, it is virtually impossible not to place the thumb across that opening to release the lock, the exception being some few knives with an ingenious exterior operating mechanism that hasn't really caught on for a variety of reasons. I know many who have seriously cut themselves while closing these knives. Not as many as have cut themselves with non-locking knives, but it is a definite risk.
The bane of folding knives is strength compared to a fixed blade. For the convenience that a folder offers, you give up a measure of strength. Strength is a somewhat nebulous term, covering a host of areas, but for purposes of this discussion we are concerned with the blades ability to withstand vertical loads without closing or failing, as well as side loads without failing. Resistance to vertical loads is limited by a number of factors and boils down to the proverbial weak link. At some point any folder will fail, the only question is where. Will it be at the pivot for the blade, or the point at which the blade and the lock interface, at the blade stop, or will the lock mechanism itself fail first?
In lockbacks, the most common failure is the small pivot pin which secures the locking mechanism, or the tab of the lock or notched tang of the blade. With Liner locks the failure modes tend to be more complicated, but it is most often the blade pivot that fails first on better quality knives, but lesser quality knives with thin stainless liner locks often fail when the lock itself is compressed beyond its capabilities and crumples--or slips, another failure mode for linerlocks. Still, there are some very strong knives made with both these mechanisms.
The Axis Lock addresses the strength question by ensuring that the lock itself will not likely be the weak link. Benchmade says that in testing the lock supported loads in excess of 200 lbs. without damage. That makes sense when you realize that the locking bar is supported at both ends and the sideplates themselves will both have to give way in the metal over the slot in order for the lock to fail completely. Provided there is adequate meat there, that bar isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Lock reliability involves how likely the lock will lock under various conditions and whether it might inadvertently open. Lockbacks tend to be somewhat less sensitive to dirt and fluid contamination than linerlocks, but both are susceptible. In a lockback, a bigger danger is that accumulations of lint and dirt in the locking tang can prevent the lock from fully engaging. Linerlocks rely upon very tight tolerances and an interference fit. Liquids seem to be their biggest problem, from a contamination standpoint, but dirt can also cause problems, especially over time as things wear and tolerances loosen up. However, the linerlock's most frequent failure mode seems to be failure to engage fully simply due to the user's failure to open the blade with enough force. In many designs, slow opening doesn't allow the lock to engage the tang with full effect and it more easily slips as a result.
The Axis Lock appears to provide far less opportunity for less than full engagement. Its design, a ramp with a round bar lock riding up it, is inherently less susceptible to any wear problems since it is self-correcting. Any wear that might occur will simply result in the lock engaging the tang more fully. It is also pretty much self-cleaning and slow opening doesn't seem to make any difference in how tightly it locks. It can only slip if both springs failed at the same time, an unlikely event. The two "omega" springs are somewhat redundant and even should one fail, there is adequate tension to engage the lock with just one.
One potential problem with the linerlock is that many are designed so such that under some circumstances it might be possible to inadvertently disengage the lock while gripping the knife tightly. The Axis Lock design makes it far less likely for that to happen, but not impossible. As with a linerlock, careful design can work around this, but with less adverse effect on ease of closing than the linerlock.
As noted, the first production knife with the Axis Lock is Benchmade's Model 710 and it is just becoming available at retail outlets in December. For a utility cum tactical folder, this knife has a lot going for it, besides the ultra-cool Axis Lock. Operating it for the first time only made matters worse, it is without a doubt the smoothest opening non-auto knife I've ever experienced. Hopefully, Benchmade will be able to maintain this slick feel as they move into production. (We'll report on that when we have a production knife in hand)
The knife is 4.9 inches (12.45 cm) overall length closed, 8.8 inches (22.35 cm) overall when open. Weight is 4.5 oz. (127 grams) which is reasonable, if not ultra-light. The half inch (12.7 mm) thick handle fills the hand nicely, without being bulky; the graceful curves mating nicely with the hand's. The bottom fore-end is curved down and has serrations cut into the liner, serving as a guard, and is effective at preventing your hand from slipping onto the blade. There is no true finger index, beloved by many, but it suffices quite nicely for most utilitarian uses.
The top of the handle flares up ever-so-slightly, also with serrations in the liners providing excellent purchase for your thumb, without being too aggressive. Purely personal preference, but I'd just as soon there was less of a ramp and that it flowed cleanly onto the spine of the blade. This makes doing fine work easier. Simply adding some ridges to the back end of the spine to create a non-slip surface for thumb purchase would pretty much alleviate that concern for the most part--even as designed it isn't all that awkward to hold in this manner. The butt end slopes down in a steep curve and gives good purchase against the palm when pushing, again, without digging in aggressively.
The ATS-34 blade is available only with a hollow-ground plain edge, either stain finish ($160 list) or with Benchmade's proprietary BT2 black coating ($170 list). The blade is a hair under four inches long (3.9 inches - 9.9 cm), 0.114 inches (2.89 mm) thick, with a very effective shape, one of my favorites, almost a drop point, but with a slight reverse curve sharp edge. A false edge extends approximately half-way along the top of the blade. This provides plenty of meat at the point for strength while allowing good penetrating ability. The knife points naturally. The pivot pin is adjustable with a T-15 Torx driver.
The production version differs slightly from the prototype shown here. They have moved the ambidextrous thumb studs rearward so that it has a smaller arc, eliminating any significant hand movement while opening due to having to stretch the thumb a wee bit too much. The thumb studs themselves fall easily to hand and the concentric rings machined into them, matched on the Axis Lock, create a non-slip stud that's comfortable to use.
The original design had scales constructed of bead-blasted anodized aluminum. However, Benchmade's market research showed that the vast majority of dealers preferred G-10 composite handles, so only a very few hundred aluminum handled 710s were produced. A knife collector's wet dream, no doubt. The liners are 410 stainless steel. A reversable stainless steel pocket clip is affixed to the butt end of the knife for point up carry, which I prefer. Installing the clip on the fore end would have required a special clip or left the end sticking quite a bit out of the pocket. The Axis Lock in this design includes a depression for the lock bar to engage when closed, which prevent the point from readily opening in your pocket, without unduly affecting ease of opening. The clip is held in place with three small Torx-head machine screws and in conjunction with the Axis Lock, makes this knife completely ambidextrous. A generous sized lanyard hole (3/16 inch) is also incorporated into the butt end.
The Model 710 functions as good as it looks and feels, that old form and function thing, which is about as nice a compliment as you can make about any knife. Ergonomically, this folder just plain works, the Axis Lock is but frosting on the cake. If I had my druthers, for general survival use, I'd prefer a slightly beefed-up blade without the false edge, but there's not much else to fault.
Les de Asis was being coy about Benchmade's future plans for the Axis lock, though he seemed confident it will eventually see wide use in their product line. I'd be very surprised if Mel Pardue and Allen Elishewitz, Benchmade's most prolific contributing designers, weren't both hard at work on something featuring the Axis Lock. Heck, I'd bet money Benchmade will have something new with an Axis Lock at SHOT Show in February.
There have been a number of innovative new blade locks introduced over the past few years, but none have so impressed me as has the Axis Lock. I think Benchmade has themselves a winner.
For more information on folding knives for survival use, check out "Folding Sharps".
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