Although the term “tactical knife” is used to describe a wide range of knife types these days, the term actually refers to knives that are specifically designed for self defense & military utility. The term “tactical knives” also covers modern day “combat knives.”
A combat knife is often designed to serve several different purposes. Combat knives are generally purely utilitarian and they tend to have a very rugged appearance. Tactical knives can have either a fixed blade or a folding blade based on the designated purpose.
While a soldier may be issued a fixed-blade combat knife, he might also choose to carry a folding tactical knife as well. On the other hand, due to varying knife laws governing the type of knife a civilian is legally allowed to carry, most civilians tend to prefer folding tactical knives over fixed-blade tactical knives.
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The first step in choosing a Tactical Knife is to decide whether you prefer a fixed blade knife or a folding knife and then, to decide what length of blade you prefer as well as what type of blade design you like.
Then, other factors that you need to consider are the type of steel the blade is made from, the design of the knife’s handle and, other materials from which it is made.
- 1 Tactical Knife Buyer’s Guide
- 2 Our Top 6 Tactical Fixed Blade Knives
- 3 Our Top 6 Tactical Folding Knives:
- 4 Wrap Up & Decision Points:
Tactical Knife Buyer’s Guide
When choosing a tactical knife, just like any other knife, there are a number of things you need to consider. You’ll first need to decide whether you prefer a fixed-blade knife or a folding knife and then choose what you want from the blade design, blade length, blade steel, handle design and, the handle materials.
Let’s look at the five most important factors in a little bit more detail to help narrow down the options and ensure you have asked the right questions before purchasing a tactical knife.
1. Fixed Blade vs. Folding Knives
In most tactical circumstances, you should have both a fixed blade and folding tactical knife.
The first step to choosing a tactical knife is to decide whether you prefer a fixed blade knife or a folding knife since each type has both advantages and disadvantages.
Fixed Blade Knives: Fixed-blade knives have tangs that enable a bladesmith to affix either guards or bolsters to them to prevent the user’s hand from accidentally sliding forward onto the blade and parry potential strikes during self-defense situations.
Because a fixed-blade knife’s tang extends into the knife’s handle, a fixed-blade knife is inherently stronger than a folding knife.
But, at the same time, a fixed-blade knife can be more cumbersome to carry and difficult to conceal.
Folding Knives: Folding tactical knives are the opposite. They allow the user to fold them in half, often using a self-assisted opening mechanism.
Folding knifes are good for any type of tactical utility that isn’t self defense related. Because folding tactical knives lack extended tangs, they are not as strong as a fixed-blade knife.
However, because most folding tactical knives are small enough to easily fit in a trouser pocket, they are significantly more convenient to carry and far easier to conceal than a fixed-blade tactical knife.
Because knife carry laws vary so widely from state to state, it is a wise idea to consult the American Knife & Tool Institute web site to find out what types of knives are legal for carry in your state before choosing between a fixed-blade and a folding tactical knife.
2. Blade Length
Blade length matters depending on your circumstances.
Another factor to be considered when choosing a tactical knife is the length of the blade. There are several reasons why this aspect of tactical knife design is important.
The longer a tactical knife’s blade is, the more reach it will have and the greater the distance at which the user can utilize it in self defense. But on the opposite side, the longer a tactical knife’s blade is, the heavier the entire knife will be.
This means it will be slower to use and harder to manage in close quarters. Longer blades are also significantly more difficult to conceal.
On the other hand, tactical knives with shorter blades require you to be in close quarters to utilize it effectively for self-defense. Tactical knives with shorter blades are also lighter than their counterparts with longer blades which makes them faster to use and easier to conceal.
Typically speaking, fixed blade tactical knives will have longer blades and folding tactical knives will have shorter blades. Longer blades are generally more well regarded for self defense as where folding knives are more well known for basic mission ready tactical tasks
3. Blade Steel
The type of steel used for the blade always matters in knife manufacturing.
Yet another factor to be considered when choosing a tactical knife is the type of steel from which the blade is constructed.
For instance, all blade steels fall into one of two categories consisting of high carbon plain tool steels and stainless steels and each type of blade steel has both advantages and disadvantages.
The two most important determining factors when choosing a tactical knife blade steel are its strength and its toughness.
However, because these two terms can be somewhat confusing, the strength of a blade steel is a measure of its ability to bend without breaking and then return to its original shape.
The toughness of a blade steel is a measure of its ability to withstand chipping and cracking. While strong blade steels are able to withstand extreme lateral forces, they are often not particularly tough, while tougher blade steels are able to withstand edge rolling and edge chipping, they are often not particularly strong.
You’ll also want to factor in the abrasion resistance of the steel, which is a measure of its ability to hold an edge and which is directly related to its Rockwell Hardness. This means that sometimes you will see tactical knife blades listed with a Rockwell Hardness rating which is designated as a number followed by the letters HRC (ex. 58-59 HRC).
The lower the numbers, the softer the blade steels are. Higher number indicate harder blade steels. Knife blades with a Rockwell Hardness of 52 to 54 HRC represent the low end of the scale whereas, knife blades with a Rockwell Hardness of 58 to 62 HRC represent the high end of the scale.
High carbon plain tool steels are generally stronger and tougher (see our guide here to the best steels for knives) than stainless blade steels and they are significantly easier to sharpen due to the lack of chromium carbides in the steel.
Unfortunately they do not hold an edge as well as stainless blade steels do and, they require significantly more care to keep them corrosion free.
Stainless blade steels are generally not as strong or as tough as high carbon plain tool steels and, they are often significantly more difficult to sharpen. They also require far less care to keep them corrosion free.
4. Handle Design
Handle design is important for ergonomics.
When choosing a tactical knife, it is very important to chose a knife with an ergonomic handle design that is sized to fit your hand and which is comfortable when holding the blade either up or down depending on what you feel is easiest to grip.
Some knife users prefer to hold the knife blade up in self defense situations while others prefer to have the knife blade pointed down in order to parry incoming strikes.
Overall, handle design can be a personal preference with regards to ergonomics, so it’s important to remember that when you are field testing different types of knives.
5. Handle Material
Handle Material is extremely important for grip.
Lastly, when choosing a tactical knife, the type of material that the handle is made from should be part of your decision point.
Knife handle materials can all be divided into two categories consisting of natural handle materials such as stag antler, exotic hardwoods and, synthetic handle materials such Kirinite, Delrin, Micarta and, G10.
While most natural handle materials are chosen because they are aesthetically pleasing, most synthetic handle materials are chosen because they are tough.
But, there are exceptions to this rule such the material Kirinite which is a synthetic handle material that is both decorative and tough.
In addition, as a general rule, while most natural handle materials are chosen because they are pretty, the vast majority of them will absorb moisture, making them prone to eventually decompose. Most synthetic handle materials are chosen because they are tough and are impervious to the absorption of moisture as well as to chipping and cracking.
There is also the issue of the texture that is added to the handle material. For instance, smooth handles are far more prone to twist or slip in the user’s hand when wet and thus, most tactical knives have some sort of texture added to the surface of their handles to provide a more positive grip.
Our Top 6 Tactical Fixed Blade Knives
As mentioned, tactical fixed blade knives are best used for self defense situations. Folding knives are better used for mission-ready tactical purposes, or if you just really want a folding knife that looks “tactical” to impress your buddies.
Fixed blade knives serve a different purpose, though. They are not your standard survival knives (like these beauties over here) as they are used more for self defense. So, they should be considered more as part of an overall “package” and not a stand alone knife that “does it all.”
Below there are our favorite 6 tactical fixed blade knives on the market in 2020 for military ready purposes.
1. US Army KA-BAR
One of the most iconic Combat Knives in existence, the KA-BAR U.S. Army knife is a fixed-blade tactical knife that features an overall length of 11 7/8″ with a Clip Point blade design measuring 7″ in length. It has a Saber Grind and is made from non-stainless, 1095 Cro-Van, high carbon, Plain Tool Steel with a Rockwell Hardness of 56-58 HRC.
This knife also features dual steel quillions with a Rat Tail Tang and a beautiful, 5 1/4 inch, stacked leather handle combined with a steel pommel cap. The blade, quillion and, pommel cap are all coated with a black, powdered metal, coating.
In addition, the knife includes a heavy duty leather sheath which is made to stand up to any type of mission ready tactical abuse you can throw at it. The Army KA-Bar is one of our favorites and one of the most popular tactical knives on the market. It’s used by many members of the US Military and is a reliable option for anyone looking for a tactical knife.
2. SOG Pentagon
An excellent example of more moderately sized fixed-blade tactical knife, the SOG Pentagon features an overall length of 9 3/4″ with a Spear Point blade design measuring 5″ in length with a Double Bevel Grind made from AUS-8 stainless steel with a Rockwell Hardness of 57-58 HRC.
This knife also features a stainless steel bolster with a Hidden Tang and a highly ergonomic, 4 3/4 inch, Krayton Rubber handle with deep checkering for very positive grip. In addition, the knife includes a black, ballistic nylon, sheath.
Designed by McHenry and Williams, the Benchmade Infidel is an out-the-front, automatic opening, tactical knife that features a closed length of 5″ inches with a 3 7/8” Spear Point blade made from semi-stainless D2 steel with a Double Bevel Grind and a Rockwell Hardness of 60-62 HRC.
Also, this knife features Benchmade’s out-the-front automatic opening mechanism with a sculpted handle made entirely from 6061-T6 Aluminum with a right hand only, tip down only, stainless steel pocket clip. Overall the SOG Pentagon is a solid pick – just like their other tactical gear line which includes military style tactical tomahawks.
3. Gerber Silver Trident
Designed in part by Chief Jim Watson, an original plank holder of SEAL Team 2, this fixed blade knife is nothing but tactical. Just glancing at it, you know it is meant for serious business.
The Silver Trident features a double edged clip point blade that is partially serrated on both top and bottom. The heat treated blade is made of 154CM steel and shows a Rockwell Hardness of 59-61. This means the knife is very tough and can be sharpened to a razor edge.
The blade is finished in a black coating that reduces visibility in low light conditions and helps prevent corrosion. The handle is made of DuPont Hytrel, which is a high quality polymer that comes in various forms. The center of the handle is extremely hard, while the surface is soft and textured so the user can maintain a sure grip in all conditions. In short this knife performs and looks good while doing it.
4. Cold Steel Trail Master
The Cold Steel Trail Master is a fixed-blade Bowie Knife that features an overall length of 14 1/2″ with a Clip Point blade design measuring 9 1/2″ in length. Also, this knife is constructed from your choice of either (non-stainless) O1 high carbon Plain Tool Steel or laminated San Mai III steel with a Flat Grind and an unknown Rockwell Hardness.
In addition, it features a quillion made from a single brass oval along with Hidden Tang construction and a 5/1/8 inch, deeply checkered, “Kray-Ex” (Kraton) handle and includes an extremely well designed “Secure-Ex” (Kydex) sheath. Overall, the trail master is another high quality production from Cold Steel, who is a knife manufacturer that is synonymous with quality knives.
5. Cold Steel Recon Tanto
The Cold Steel Recon Tanto is a fixed blade tactical knife that features an overall length of 11 3/4″ with a American Tanto Point blade design measuring 7″ in length with a flat Saber Grind. It also features a black Tuff-Ex (Diamond Like Carbon), coating made from VG-1 stainless steel with an unknown Rockwell Hardness (probably 58-61 HRC).
Also, this knife features a single integral quillion adjacent to the cutting edge combined with a Hidden Tang which is covered by a very ergonomic handle design with deeply checkered Kray-Ex (Krayton) rubber for a very positive grip even when wet. In addition, the knife includes a heavy duty Secure-Ex (Kydex) sheath.
While nylon or other synthetic fabric sheaths are typically fine, a Kydex sheath is an excellent choice as it will allow the knife to “snap” into place and stay there until it’s determined the knife is in need. Cold steel makes a number of great products (including machetes) and the Recon line is no exception to their arsenal.
6. Gerber StrongArm
Here’s what might be the best all purpose tactical knife in this price range. The Gerber StrongArm features a full-tang partially serrated 420HC steel blade coated in black ceramic for superior corrosion resistance and low-profile use. But the best part about this knife, beside the razor sharp blade straight out of the box and tank-like construction, it’s the sheet’s Molle compatibility.
The StrongArm is compatible with Molle tactical backpacks, belts, and whatnots. It can also be attached horizontally or vertically to a regular tactical belt or leg strap harness. It is one of the most “tactical” looking knives on our list.
The handle has an anti-slip rubberized diamond texture, which guarantees a firm grip even in some of the most extreme situations. And the icing on the cake is that this gem is proudly made in the good ol’ USA at the company’s Portland, Oregon factory.
Our Top 6 Tactical Folding Knives:
Below you’ll find our favorite tactical folders that will operate very well in any tactical situation. Assuming you don’t need a fixed blade and are good with a pocket carry tactical foldable, below are 6 of our favorites that you can’t go wrong with.
We will jump in and look at each knife in detail by examining blade design, handle material, length, and product features.
1. Benchmade Griptillian
The Benchmade Griptillian is an assisted opening folding tactical knife that features a closed length of 4 5/8″ inches with a 3 5/8” Drop Point blade made from 154CM stainless steel with a Saber Grind and a Rockwell Hardness of 59-61 HRC.
Also, the blade of this knife is available either with or without serrations and it is available with either a satin finish or a black, epoxy powder coated, finish. In addition, this knife features Benchmade’s axis assisted opening mechanism w/thumb stud and a Liner Lock locking mechanism with 420J2 stainless steel liners.
It also features a glass filled nylon handle with a right hand only, tip down only, stainless steel pocket clip. Benchmade knives are synonomous with quality, and we are huge fans of their knives. In fact, the Benchmade 940 McHenry is one of our favorite standard EDC pocket knives on the market today.
2. Gerber Covert w/F.A.S.T.
The Gerber Covert is an assisted opening folding tactical knife based on an improved version (Applegate-Fairbairn) of the famous British Sykes-Fairbairn fixed-blade dagger that was issued to British soldiers during World War II. It bears both U.S. Army Colonel Rex Applegate’s and, British Royal Marine Lieutenant William Fairbairn’s signatures.
The Gerber Covert features a closed length of 5″ with a Spear Point blade design measuring 3 3/4″ in length with a Double Bevel Grind and a black, titanium coated, finish made from an unknown stainless steel with an unknown Rockwell Hardness.
This knife features a very ergonomic handle design with textured, G10, handle scales combined with Gerber’s F.A.S.T. assisted opening mechanism and a Piston Lock locking mechanism and includes a right hand only, tip down only, steel, pocket clip.
3. Benchmade Model 531
Designed by Joe Pardue to be a more rugged version of the Model 530, the Benchmade Model 531 is a manual opening folding tactical knife that features a closed length of 4 3/16″ inches with a 3 1/4” Drop Point blade made from 154CM stainless steel.
It has a deep Saber Grind and a Rockwell Hardness of 58-61 HRC. In addition, this knife features Benchmade’s proprietary Axis Lock locking mechanism with 420J2 stainless steel liners and black, contoured, G10 handle scales with an ambidextrous, tip up only, stainless steel pocket clip.
As with other Benchmade knives, it’s almost impossible to find a better quality knife manufacturer for folding knives. You should expect to pay a little more price wise though, as the steel that benchmade uses can get quite costly. The machine work on their knives is second to none.
4. Cold Steel Hold Out II
Designed to be an easily concealed folding tactical knife, the Cold Steel Holdout II has an exceptionally thin profile and a purpose specific design. It features closed length of 5″ with a Spear Point blade design measuring 4″ in length with a Fat Grind made from CTS-XHP stainless steel with an unknown Rockwell Hardness.
It also features a very ergonomic, 5 inch, handle design combined with a manual opening mechanism and a Lockback locking mechanism with black, textured, G10 handle scales and an ambidextrous, tip up only, stainless steel, pocket clip. Cold Steel has a number of high quality knives and the Hold Out II is one of our favorites for any tactical utility situation.
5. Spyderco Yojimbo 2
The Yojimbo 2 is a tactical folder designed by highly regarded knife fighting expert Michael Janich. Prior Janich designs include the BeWharned and the original Yojimbo. With this folder, Janich incorporated all of the best features of the original plus added a few refinements.
It uses the highly effective Wharncliffe blade, which is widely regarded for its ability to slice and cut by transferring all of the energy all the way to the tip. The blade has a straight edge, hollow ground blade made of S30V steel. The knife handle uses aggressively textured G10, which is a very durable polymer resin.
With G10, the knife is not likely to slip from the user’s hand even when wet from sweat and blood. As with several of Janich’s designs, the Yojimbo 2 is designed to be used with a thumb forward position. This gives the user a very strong grip and maximum cutting power. The Yojimbo 2 has been in high demand by people who know fine knives ever since it was introduced.
6. Cold Steel Recon 1
Our list would not be complete without our LEOs and service members’ classic tactical folder: the Cold Steel Recon 1. This one is a tactical workhorse suited for nearly any situation. The manufacturer touts it as being “tough as a tank and sharp as a scalpel” and, so far, it has not disappointed.
It comes razor sharp out of the box and holds an edge superbly for a long time as many happy users can confirm. The blade action is decent for a tactical knife of this size and there’s no annoying wiggle to it, but don’t expect lightning-fast action just straight out of the pocket as you would with those smaller EDC flippers.
The handle is (a bit too) abrasive yet comfortable, and the knife is so light that you’ll barely notice that it is there. It is a heavy-duty knife that has been field tested time and time again and is worth every single penny.
Wrap Up & Decision Points:
As you can see, when choosing tactical knife, there many different brand names and numerous different blade designs, blade steels, handle designs, handle materials as well as numerous different price points to choose from. In addition, they each differ from classic folding knives in that rather than being designed to be carried in a belt pouch, they instead feature pocket clips that enable them to be accessed and deployed quickly.
It should be noted that many U.S. state’s laws prevent civilians from carrying any knife that the powers that be deem to be inappropriate for everyday use. Therefore, in order to combat such unfair knife laws, an organization has come into existence that is called Knife Rights which bills itself as the NRA of knives.
If you state has laws that prevent you from owning or carrying an automatic opening knife, an assisted opening knife, a Balisong Knife, a Bowie Knife or, any other type of knife or, has laws that restrict blade length to a given size, then you should consider joining Knife Rights since they do work diligently to reverse unfair knife laws.
My articles appear in Marketing Edge Magazine, on Gizmogrind, and with various Medium publications. But one thing hasn’t changed in all of my life: no matter where I was or what I was doing. I’ve always loved to be outdoors.
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