When a new knife comes out, one of the first things people want to know is: does it have washers or bearings? Both have their advantages (and disadvantages), but there’s no doubt that ball bearings are the de-facto favorite these days. But do they really make a difference?
Many gravitate toward ball bearings thinking they’ll get crisp, clean deployment action every time. And as long as the detent is properly set, they’re usually right. Bearings offer a frictionless feel like nothing else. Plus, you’ll find them on high-end custom knives more often than not.
However, that doesn’t mean they are the end all be all. Washers—phosphor bronze, Teflon, or otherwise—have been used in knives for decades for good reason. They do better than bearings when used in wet, sandy, or dusty environments. Washers are tried and tested and their simple, somewhat self-sealing construction naturally keeps debris from seizing them up. Pair them with a solid detent and the benefits far outweigh their only drawback: speed.
Well, if it’s speed you’re after, why not let a spring do all the work? For knives where the detents can’t always be hand-tuned per knife, assisted opening mechanisms—Ken Onion’s SpeedSafe system, for example—are a great choice. Once the blade is deployed a fraction of the way, the mechanism takes over, opening the blade with authority each and every time. It’s dependable, easy to use, and nearly fool-proof, making it an ideal choice for a tactical knife. You can rest assured that your knife will deploy when you need it, plus they’re a mighty fun way to kill some time.
Knife pivot bearings on white background: ball bearings, teflon washers, and phosphor bronze washers
That brings us back to the question at hand: do bearings really make a difference? Yes, I think they do. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you need a work knife or a tactical/combat folder, then no, you should go with washers; maybe even throw in assisted-opening for good measure! Washers are more dependable all around, often more economical, and they work just as well if you’re not the kind of knife-obsessed guy who writes (or reads!) an article about pivot bearings.
Ball bearings are like extra cheese on your favorite pizza, or that cherry on top of a perfect sundae: not strictly necessary, just extra-special. In terms of folding knives, bearings give your knife that little something that makes you reach for it as you go out the door.
Let’s be honest: bearings help make a knife into a better fidget toy, and that’s okay. It’s okay to derive joy from the way your knife operates. Sure, you may have to run compressed air through the pivot when it gets jammed with pocket lint, or squeeze some pivot grease in there if that doesn’t work, but the attachment to a new knife comes not just from using it, it comes from tinkering with and maintaining it over the years.
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