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My Search for the Ideal OTF
by John Oppliger
Like many boys who grew up through the 1970s and 80s, watching movies inspired within me a fascination with automatic knives. So, several years ago when I was fortunate to have a fund of liquid cash, I decided to pursue the lifelong dream of my perfect auto knife. Living in Florida seemed to give me a distinct advantage and disadvantage. Unlike many states that grant only a concealed firearm carry license, Florida’s concealed carry license covers any and all types of weapons: firearms, automatic knives, swords, flails, barbed-wire wrapped baseball bats. So after acquiring my CCL, I knew that I could purchase and carry an auto knife despite not being employed in active military, law enforcement, or emergency rescue. However, locations and opportunities to handle a variety of auto knives are quite limited. The local gun stores carry very small selections of knives and even few automatic knives. Very few high end name brand auto knives tend to appear at local gun shows. And I have only one devoted knife shop within a 100 mile radius. I purchased a Piranha Bodyguard online and was immediately pleased with it. So, for better or worse, I began my quest for my personal ideal out-the-front auto knife (OTF).
I’d decided that my ideal OTF was under 4 ounces with a 3+ inch blade and durable, high quality materials & production that would serve well as both an EDC and, if necessary, a survival and self-defense tool. I quickly discovered that my ideal OTF didn’t exist. So I expanded my criteria to a slightly heavier OTF. And largely lacking the opportunity to actually examine a variety of OTF knives in person, I began buying knives, hoping that each one would the “the one.”
Around 2013 I was still a novice to high-end knives and balked at the cost of a custom build. The Sandshark and Harkins Triton were already out of production legends and prohibitively expensive, so I did what seemingly most people do. I purchased a double-edged Microtech Ultratech, specifically the “tactical” model with black pocket clip and screws. While the production quality was outstanding, the thin width of the black blade looked small in my eyes, and seemed even less intimidating from a distance of six feet. I thought to myself, “If I ever have to draw my auto knife in self-defense, hopefully it’s visually intimidating enough that I won’t need to actually use it.” Furthermore, I found the firing button especially stiff. If an auto knife requires an extra half-second to deploy, then it’s no different than a spring-assisted manual knife.
I upgraded to a double-edged Microtech Combat Troodon. Once again, the build quality was impressive. This time, the deployment button required significantly less pressure than the Ultratech. Furthermore, the same length but added width of the blade made the knife much more visually threatening. The blade to handle length ratio skewed a bit more than I’d ideally like, ultimately making the weight and size of the knife a bit unwieldy in my pocket. I’m not a proponent of pocket clips.
Happy with the Piranha Bodyguard switchblade, I opted for the Piranha Excalibur. The dimensions of the handle make it particularly comfortable in the hand, and its build quality appears flawless. However, to my disappointment, I encountered two aggravating flaws. My particular model made a faintly audible rattling sound when it was shaken. I’ve read discussions online suggesting that some models of the Excalibur suffer from rattle while others don’t. It did have a bit of blade play, more than the Microtech OTFs, but not enough to annoy me. The deal killer for me was the frequency of it failing to fully retract. Over a week or two of playing with the knife, it never failed to deploy, but the blade would oddly come off its track upon retraction frustratingly frequently. I found the width and polish of the double-edged blade attractive, and the blade to handle ratio was excellent, but at 3-inches, I found myself longing for a slightly longer blade.
Since I was still experimenting, I chose to go the cheaper route and try out a Benchmade Mini Infidel rather than go with the full-sized model. Doing so may have been my first mistake. I’ve been consistently impressed by the quality of Benchmade’s manual knives; however, I was shocked by the degree of blade play prominent in the Mini Infidel. Side to side wasn’t bad, but up and down movement remains the most I’ve ever encountered in any OTF. The firing button was smooth like the Excalibur, requiring less effort than either the MT Ultratech or Combat Troodon, but the blade deployment simply felt a bit slow and “light.” The Mini Infidel’s blade deployment lacked the hard, fast “smack” of the other OTF’s I’d handled. Furthermore, while the handle appears to be distinctly contoured, I found that it didn’t sit in my hand nearly as ergonomically as I thought it would. And once again, the 3-inch blade length left me wanting more reach.
The Protech Dark Angel came very close to satisfying my desire, if not for two points. I purchased the “Desert Sand” model and immediately felt the handle almost uncomfortably textured in the hand. However, after about six months of carry and use, the handle had worn down to a pleasant smoothness. The 3.7 inch blade length and width seemed ideal to me as a defensive tool. The fact that the Dark Angel is a single-action knife meant greater reliability. The blade had no “track” to slip off of during deployment or retraction. Furthermore, because it was a single-action, it had spring compression throughout the entire deployment rather than just a launching spring which double-action OTFs use. Rather quickly, I discovered that the more forceful blade deployment had its own double edge. The blade fired so hard that perhaps once out of every half dozen times deploying the blade, either because the blade slammed into the top of the handle hard enough to bounce back or because I somehow kept undue pressure on the firing button, the blade wouldn’t lock into open position, so that when thrusting, instead of piercing, the blade would retract back into the handle. I don’t know if all examples of the Dark Angel exhibit this characteristic, if mine just needs a thorough cleaning, or if mine is an odd exception. I like the knife a lot, but the relative frequency of it not locking open makes it unreliable as a self-defense weapon. Furthermore, the Dark Angel had a side retraction bar, meaning that one cannot launch the blade while having a firm grip completely encircling the handle. While this may be the same grip used with side-opening knives, part of the advantage of an OTF should be the ability to completely grip the handle in a fist.
I discovered that the Protech Dark Angel was nearly identical to the long out of production SWAT Centurion manufactured in 2000 by Advanced Technologies of Arizona. The large Centurion offered the same advantages of the Dark Angel while changing the side retraction bar to a Microtech Halo style bottom charging bar. I was largely pleased with the Centurion and routinely carried and used it for months. Despite being an older knife from a defunct manufacturer, the build quality was at least on par with Protech and Benchmade’s knives, and the reliability was actually superior to the Proetch Dark Angel. However, with a 5.75 closed length, the Centurion was literally as big as a Microtech Halo V, making it particularly unwieldy in my pocket.
I liked the large Centurion enough that I thought the same knife in a slightly smaller size would be ideal. So I tracked down the smaller Centurion II (or perhaps the small version is the Centurion I and the large model is the Centurion II). Regrettably, when I finally got it in hand, its three inch blade, the same length as the Mini Infidel, was again smaller than I preferred.
Next I acquired a vintage Microtech Halo III. Bigger than an Ultratech yet not as large or bulky as a Combat Troodon, I finally thought I’d come as close as possible to my ideal OTF. But I was slightly disappointed that the knife was only available with a tanto point. Although the blade profile was nice looking, one of the biggest advantages of the OTF design is the ability to practically utilize a double-edge blade profile. I also found myself hesitant to actually carry the knife because vintage Vero Beach era Microtech knives are such highly prized collectables. Since I couldn’t convince myself to regularly carry it and treat it like an “ordinary” EDC, I eventually sold it.
But the “Halo” bug had bitten me, so I invested in a Microtech Halo V with a tanto blade. But this was a purchase specifically as a “home defense” knife rather than an EDC. My first Halo V was birth dated May 2014. I did find myself slightly crestfallen that the 2014 production run no longer textured the firing button. While certainly a very nice knife, the 2014 Halo V did intangibly feel a bit more like a “production” knife than a semi-custom knife. A year later I decided that I wanted to supplement my collection with a red-handled drop point blade Halo V. Literally hours after I took it out of its box, upon firing it, I heard an odd “springing” noise and discovered that the blade refused to retract. I mailed it back to Microtech and waited three months for it to be returned. Literally the exact same day the knife came back to me in the mail, the exact same malfunction occurred again. I contacted Microtech again, sent the knife back again. This time MT “rush” returned the knife to me. Over roughly the past year and a half, it hasn’t acted up again, and on the bright side, this twice-factory-serviced Halo V is now the hardest firing OTF I’ve ever handled.
I discovered the existence of the A.R.S. Gen III single-action OTF and managed to purchase one from a licensed dealer. On the positive side, the build quality was exceptional. The build tolerances on the A.R.S. OTF were perhaps the best and tightest I’ve ever seen from any OTF knife. The extended blade exhibited practically no blade play. For better or worse, the tolerances are so tight that after about a year, deploying the blade had actually partially rubbed off the laser printed logo on the blade! I discovered from owning and handling an A.R.S. Gen III that it’s an outstanding practical OTF but not really a tactical knife. The blade deployment is the slowest of any OTF I’ve handled. The blade dimensions are also thinner than I anticipated, coming in between the size of an Ultratech and Halo III blade.
Since I’d tried a selection of high end OTFs yet still not found exactly what I wanted, I decided to go the opposite route and try something “cheap.” I purchased an Italian AKC Minion Concord. Practically speaking, it’s a $50 letter opener, not a hard use EDC that I’d want to rely on in an emergency.
Knowing that the Microtech Troodon was smaller than I wanted, and wanting something that would be comfortable in my pocket, I finally opted for a drop-point Microtech Executive Scarab. Finally I seemed to have gotten closest to my ideal. The 4.5 inch handle is exactly the right size for my hand. The 3.5 inch blade is both long and wide enough to be both practically useful and visually intimidating, and the 4.4 ounce weight actually feels lighter in the pocket than it is, although it never “disappears” the way a sub-three ounce EDC knife does.
In July 2015 I learned of a limited release of the Microtech Executive Scarab with a non-symetrical double-edge blade. I contacted a central Florida knife shop called “Gear Barrel” and negotiated a mutually agreeable price via phone. To my surprise, the dealer informed me that Microtech had manufactured only about 35 of this particular variety of knife, which explains why I’d had so much difficulty finding one. But at last, I’d finally found an OTF as close to my ideal criteria as I think exists. I’ve been carrying this Scarab nearly daily for the past two years.