The Best Brands for Tactical Knives

Some Knife Companies are Better for Emergencies than Others

Most companies try their hand at tactical knives these days, but for some brands it’s more like an afterthought in an attempt to attract or appease the troves of spindly “self-defense” enthusiasts.

When you search for “tactical” knives, you need to be careful that you don’t end up with something that was only designed to latch onto a demographic with a vaguely military aesthetic and a spear point. There are a lot of knives out there that look tactical because they’re over-built with camo scales slapped on, but once you get them in a situation where you need to cut rope in a hurry they turn out to be loose pry bars.

Meanwhile there are plenty of knife companies out there that put a lot of thought into their tactical designs, making a tool that is genuinely useful in a variety of emergency situations not exclusive to just “fighting”.

We’ve written before about what to look for in a tactical knife so I won’t dig into it too much again here. Basically you want tough, comfortable and grippy, with quick deployment, to say nothing of knowing what “tactical” situation you’re preparing for in the first place.

These are a few of the companies that tend to use reliable materials in that vein. Here are our top picks.

Buck

Pros: Great reputation, American made and well priced.
Cons: They do not have a large selection of tactical knives

Buck is not really known for their tactical knives. They built a reputation on great hunting and EDC pocket knives. However, they have been introducing a few tactical knives over the course of the last few years that are worth consideration if you are shopping for a tactical knife.

Buck Ground Combat Knife (GCK)

The Buck Ground Combat Knife with micarta handle scales on a white background.

Specifications

Overall Length:10.5″
Blade Length:5.5″
Blade Steel:5160
Blade Style:Spear point
Handle Length:5.0″
Handle Material:G-10 or Micarta (depending on color)
Grind:Flat
Build:Full tang fixed blade
Sheath:Polypropylene and nylon
Price Range;$100 – 120

The Buck GCK has been extremely popular in the short time it has been available. This is no surprise considering that it is an excellent tactical knife with decent survival knife capabilities. Buck Knives consulted with special forces personnel when designing and testing this knife, and it shows.

The Buck Ground Combat knife on a military backpack.

We were so impressed with the GCK here at Nothing But Knives after purchasing and testing one a year ago that we immediately ordered a second one. The GCK’s handles are grippy and ergonomic and the 5160 steel blade offers a decent compromise between edge retention and ease of sharpening. There is not denying this knife’s violent credentials, but it handled bushcraft and survival tasks fairly well in our tests.

Check out the full review of it for more words and cooler pictures.

Buck 119 Special Pro

The Buck 119 Special Pro on a white background.

Specifications

Overall Length:10.25″
Blade Length:5.75″
Blade Steel:S35VN
Blade Style:Clip poit
Handle Length:4.5″
Handle Material:Micarta
Grind:Hollow
Build:Full tang fixed blade
Sheath:Leather
Price Range;$189 – 199
The Buck 119 Special Pro with a Micarta handle and S35VN steel blade on the mossy bark of a tree outdoors.

The original Buck 119 was introduced over sixty years ago, and it has been a very popular with hunters and the military since it’s inception. Recently Buck decided to modernize the 119 by upgrading the steel to S35VN and the handle material to Micarta.

The end result is a great knife with an established tactical design that now has better edge retention and a more durable handle. We have been testing out the new improved Buck 119 for a while now, and we are pretty happy with the new version in spite of the higher price.

Cold Steel

Pros: Grippy handles and tough builds
Cons: Knives are often poorly balanced and overbuilt

They’ve made themselves famous for making super tough knives and making super dumb videos about them. As much as I enjoy making fun of the company, I also begrudgingly respect a lot of their knives. They use some of the best handle materials for tactical knives that I see on a regular basis. Often their steel is tough too, but Cold Steel stands out as having the most consistently grippy handles, especially for larger knives, than any other knife company.

Cold Steel Black Bear Bowie

This practical machete can be used for work or self defense.
Overall Length:17.75″
Blade Length:12.0″
Blade Steel:1055
Blade Style:Clip point
Handle Length:5.75″
Handle Material:Polypropylene
Grind:Scandi
Build:Hidden tang fixed blade
Sheath:Cor-Ex
Price Range;$25 – 30

It’s hard to keep a straight face when recommending this… “knife”. It’s not a practical option in any situation that doesn’t involve you hiking into the deep wilderness. It’s unwieldy, the edge is a little slipshod, and it’s tough to deploy quickly. It’s a tool of force, though. Essentially a baseball bat with an edge, and while I wouldn’t care to have it for most kinds of rescue situations, I feel irrationally safer with it on my side when I’m hiking.

The Cold Steel Bowie Machete has a good handle for chopping but not much else.

If you want to know how it did with us swinging it around in the woods, check out the full review.

Cold Steel SRK

This large tactical knife from cold steel is tough enough to double as a bushcraft knife.
Overall Length:10.75″
Blade Length:6.0″
Blade Steel:SK-5, CPM-3V, or San Mai
Blade Style:Clip point
Handle Length:4.75″
Handle Material:Kray-Ex polymer
Grind:Flat
Build:Fixed blade
Sheath:Polymer
Price Range:$40 – 45

There are a lot of tactical options with Cold Steel, and I’m not prepared to argue the SRK is the “best Cold Steel tactical knife”. I’d recommend it because it’s free of gimmicks. Cold Steel excels at making very tough materials, but sometimes they get too excited with their tactical stuff and make them into weird ineffectual shapes. This is a big tough blade with a strong clip point with a million applications outside of just self defense.

Cold Steel Mini Tac

Overall Length:6.75″
Blade Length:3.75″
Blade Steel:AUS-8A
Blade Style:Tanto
Handle Length:3.0″
Handle Material:Polymer
Grind:Flat
Build:Full tang fixed blade
Sheath:Kydex
Price Range:$20 – 25

This is a quick design with a tough build. This is one of the better executions of a tanto blade I’ve seen (although they have a bowie Mini Tac as well). As a neck knife, the Mini Tac offers quick deployment and fairly good ergonomics. Once you have your grip set on it, there’s a slim chance of any kind of slipping, but the aggressiveness of that finger groove can get in the way a little bit when your slapping at it around your chest.

Check out our full Mini Tac review here

Gerber

Pros: Well designed sheaths, cost-effective
Cons: Cheaper materials

Gerber has put some effort into military designs, and even though some of their manufacturing can be mediocre, they clearly understand what kinds of knives a certain group of people want and use. Some of their more aggressive designs are more gimmick than purpose, but overall they’re a highly cost-effective source for tough knives, helped quite a bit by having a half-decent 420 steel to slap on everything. What’s far more important is that Gerber puts more thought into the sheaths and how we carry knives.

Gerber StrongArm

The Gerber Strongarm exemplifies their military aesthetic to the extreme
Overall Length:9.75″
Blade Length:4.875″
Blade Steel:420HC
Blade Style:Drop point
Handle Length:5.0″
Handle Material:Rubber
Grind:Flat
Build:Full tang fixed blade
Sheath:MOLLE compatible polymer
Price Range;$70 – 90
The Gerber StrongArm fixed blade tactical knife on cinderblocks in front of a black background.

The Gerber StrongArm exemplifies their military aesthetic to the extreme. The look isn’t just marketing, though. The Strongarm is a genuinely good tactical knife (insofar as you would call it tactical over a survival knife). A good slab of 420 steel on a rubber handle and a versatile sheath will take you a long way in a lot of situations.

Ghostrike

The Gerber Ghostrike is small and versatile.
Overall Length:6.75″
Blade Length:3.12″
Blade Steel:420HC
Blade Style:Drop point
Handle Length:3.63″
Handle Material:Stainless steel w/ rubber grip
Grind:Flat
Build:Skeletonized
Sheath:Modular GFN
Price Range;$45 – 60

I can never say enough that I don’t like this knife, but I have to accept the potential of it. The quick version of this thing is that it does nothing well, but could do everything. The appeal is in how many ways you can carry it, so really what I’m recommending is the Ghostrike’s sheath. But the knife can get you there when you’re in distress.

Pulling the Gerber Ghostrike from it's sheath.

For a little more on exactly what the hell that means, read our full review.

Ka-Bar

Pros: Tough quality, practical designs
Cons: Designs tend to look the same

The list of good Ka-Bar tactical knives could get really long. Designing military knives is what made them a household name, and they’ve stayed pretty true to the mindset that created that first USMC Bowie. Since then they’ve picked up the Becker Knife & Tool brand and made a lot of spectacular fixed-blade knives designed for (and often by) people working dangerous jobs in the field.

A lot of their designs are very practical and stripped down. Sometimes they make a knife that’s maybe too big or unbalanced for its own good, but on the whole, Ka-Bar and Becker are probably the most reliable mainstream brands to go to for tactical knives.

Ka-Bar TDI

This was designed specifically as a back-up blade that’s easy to pack and conceal.
Overall Length:5.625″
Blade Length:2.31″
Blade Steel:AUS-8A
Blade Style:Drop point (styles vary though)
Handle Length:3.32″
Handle Material:Zytel
Grind:Hollow
Build:Fixed blade
Sheath:Polymer
Price Range;$30 – 40
The Ka-Bar TDI compact tactical knife on a cinderblocks in front of a black background.
The Ka-Bar TDI is popular with law enforcement.

This was designed specifically as a back-up blade that’s easy to pack and conceal, and fast to deploy. Thanks to its size and the simplicity of the sheath, there are a lot of different ways to carry it, though I’ve heard the preferred method is inside the pants waistband. It’s also one of those neat models that’s really people and easy to adapt, so Ka-Bar has probably made about a dozen different variations of the TDI with different lengths, blade styles, and materials.

Ka-Bar Becker BK7

This knife was designed by Ethan Becker who’s a pretty avid outdoorsman and martial artist.
Overall Length:12.75″
Blade Length:7.0″
Blade Steel:1095 Cro-Van
Blade Style:Clip point
Handle Length:5.75″
Handle Material:Zytel
Grind:Flat
Build:Fixed blade
Sheath:Nylon
Price Range;$100

The obvious recommendation would be any of the variations of the USMC Bowie, of which Ka-Bar makes about thirty different kinds, but that would be like recommending Saving Private Ryan for someone looking for a good WWII movie: if you’re looking, you already know about it.

The stuff they make under the Becker flag tends to be more survival/adventure oriented than combat specific, but they’re mostly designed by Ethan Becker who’s a pretty avid outdoorsman and martial artist. They make these knives to be fairly versatile in mostly wilderness and deployed military settings, including an insanely tough 1095CroVan steel and MOLLE compatible sheaths.

Kershaw

Pros: Fast deployment, good manufacturing
Cons: No fixed-blade tactical options

Kershaw’s predilection to folders makes their legitimate tactical options few and far between, but the good ones they do make are not only tough and useful, but very cost-effective. And, no surprise, all of the good tactical designs under the Kershaw brand have Emerson’s name in front of them. While the actual tactical application might not be on par with something like the Gerber StrongArm, Kershaw’s manufacturing is pretty seamless, especially for a budget brand.

Kershaw Emerson CQC 7

All of the good tactical designs under the Kershaw brand have Emerson’s name in front of them. This knife is no exception.
Overall Length:7.75″
Blade Length:3.25″
Blade Steel:8Cr13MoV
Blade Style:Tanto
Handle Length:4.5″
Handle Material:G-10
Grind:Hollow
Build:Frame-lock folder
Carry System:Tip-up clip
Price Range;$30 – 50

All the CQC designs are essentially the same outside of size, so it would be odd to recommend one over the other. The important thing is that these were all designed for fast deployment. Once they’re out you’re still holding a folding knife, and that’s not ideal in most “tactical” situations, but often speed is one of the most important factors.

Off-Grid Knives

Pros: Great durability, versatile designs, good prices
Cons: off-Grid’s fixed blades are not great tactical options, but they are great bushcraft options.

We our big fans of Off-Grid here at Nothing But Knives. They are primarily a hard use, camping and bushcraft style knife company, but lately they have come out with some excellent tactical designs as well. One of the design characteristics that set Off-Grid knives apart are their large easy to grip ergonomic handles. They are even easy to grip firmly even when wet which makes them a good choice for emergency situations.

Another great thing about Off-Grid is that the blade designs of several models are a good option for both tactical or practical situations. They are a good choice for work knives that may need to double as a tactical tool if things get crazy.

Off-Grid Enforcer XL

The Off-Grid Enforcer XL tactical knife in the open position of the hood of a rusty tractor hood.
Overall Length:9.2″
Blade Length:4″
Blade Steel:D2
Blade Style:Clip Point/Reverse Tanto
Handle Length:5.2″
Handle Material:G-10
Grind:Flat
Lock:Liner
Pocket Clip:Ambidextrous
Price Range;$89

The Enforcer XL has some pretty impressive specs considering it’s current sub $100 price point. The 4mm thick D2 steel blade can take a beating and it slices like a dream. In fact we often find ourselves reaching for the Enforcer XL when we need a folding knife for outdoor food prep. However, it’s larger size, included glass breaker and mean looking reverse tanto blade let you know this knife was designed handle tougher tasks than food prep.

Off-Grid Caiman

The Off-Grid Caiman is a unique folder with a Bowie style blade. It is shown here on a Granite rock in a mountain creek.
Overall Length:7.6″
Blade Length:3.5″
Blade Steel:D2
Blade Style:Clip Point
Handle Length:4.1″
Handle Material:G-10
Grind:Flat
Lock:Liner
Pocket Clip:Ambidextrous
Price Range;$79

The Off-Grid Caiman is a fun little Bowie style folder that makes a pretty good option for a tactical knife. The lectical benefits of a Bowie style blade have been time tested, so we were happy to see Off-Grid a the Caiman to it’s lineup.

we spend several weeks testing out the Caiman, and we were impressed with it’s toughness, smooth opening blade and super grippy handle. We are hoping to see a fixed blade version of this in Off-Grid’s future, but for now the Caiman is an excellent tactical and hard use pocket knife.

Check out our in-depth review of the Off-Grid Caiman if you want to learn more about this knife.

SOG

Pros: Tough designs overall, clear and practical function
Cons: High price tag, or rough build quality in lower price ranges

On the whole, SOG tries too hard for me to actually trust the bulk of their tactical knives. But none of the other major knife companies try so often as them to make tactical stuff, so statistically speaking they have to have a few good designs right?

When that happens with SOG, it’s usually because they’ve brought in some military mind who has an idea based on problem’s he’s had in the field. So their good tactical knives are very purposefully built with clear emergency situations in mind during the whole design phase.

SOG’s fixed blade tactical knives made them famous, but they have some great folding knives that are good self defense options such as: the Vision XR, the Pentagon or the Aegis AT.

Seal Pup Elite

Really it’s the Aus-8 steel that draws me to the Seal Pup, because I’m really not that fond of the design.
Overall Length:9.5″
Blade Length:4.85″
Blade Steel:AUS-8
Blade Style:Clip point
Handle Length:4.65″
Handle Material:GFN
Grind:Hollow
Build:Hidden tang fixed blade
Sheath:MOLLE-compatible Nylon or Kydex
Price Range;$65 – 90

Really it’s the Aus-8 steel that draws me to the Seal Pup, because I’m really not that fond of the design. I mean, it’s cool and all, it just looks like it’s trying too hard. But the knife itself is tough and sharp, and the sheath has been through a lot of trial and error design to make it easy to carry and use.

SOG Bowie 2.0

The updated version of the war-tested Sog Bowie is a pretty good knife, but for the price it better be.
Overall Length:11.0″
Blade Length:6.4″
Blade Steel:AUS-8
Blade Style:Clilp point
Handle Length:5.4″
Handle Material:Leather
Grind:Hollow
Build:Full tang fixed blade
Sheath:Leatehr
Price Range;$150

The updated version of the war-tested SOG Bowie is a pretty damn good knife, but for the price it better be. I think their intention was more survival than tactical, but the strong clip point and generous hand guards give it plenty of expanded uses. That’s one of the perks of staying pretty true to the Bowie knife form.

Spyderco

Pros: High-grade materials and manufacturing, purpose-built
Cons: Very high price tag, often hard but not tough

Spyderco likes to be weird, and for the most part that doesn’t lend itself to good tactical design, but when they hit the target they hit it right in the center. They do have a Bowie that I was tempted to add here, but it’s expensive to the point of becoming a show piece. No doubt it works great as a tactical survival, but who wants to do anything dirty with a $400 blade?

Spyderco Military

The Spyderco Military is tough and light.
Overall Length:9.5″
Blade Length:4.0″
Blade Steel:CPM-S30V
Blade Style:Clip point
Handle Length:5.5″
Handle Material:G-10
Grind:Flat
Build:Liner-lock folder
Carry System:Tip-up clip
Price Range;$190 – 200

Supposedly built with military deployment in mind, the Spyderco Military (note: not the Paramilitary) is light and tough and sharp without most of the fantastical whims Spydero designers often indulge in. It’s built for emergencies, but not necessarily fighting emergencies.

It’s contoured to keep the knife from slipping along the hand in aggressive motions, and the long blade and fine edge make it a pretty scary thing to be faced with so it’s definitely nice to have in a pinch. It just shouldn’t be your first choice seeing as it’s a liner lock and using a pretty hard steel. It will stand up to a long bout of extreme weather, though, and the edge isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Jumpmaster 2

This knife was designed for paratroopers.
Overall Length:9.33″
Blade Length:4.49″
Blade Steel:H11
Blade Style:Drop point
Handle Length:4.84″
Handle Material:FRN
Grind:Flat w/ full serration
Build:Hidden tang fixed blade
Sheath:Polymer
Price Range;$175

This knife was designed for paratroopers, so it’s meant to be carried light and easy mostly for cutting rope. As such, it’s more of a search and rescue knife than anything, but as it’s heavily skeletonized and has the rarely-seen H1 steel it’s pure bred for surviving extreme elements for long periods of time. I actually thought it was meant to be a diving knife when I first saw it, but I don’t think the original intent of the design changes its usefulness in the setting.

Spyderco Ronin 2

The Ronin's belt clip makes it easy to move the knife from fronthorizontal carry to scout carry pictured here..
Overall Length:7.875″
Blade Length:4.125″
Blade Steel:CTS-BD1
Blade Style:Wharncliffe
Handle Length:3.75″
Handle Material:G-10
Grind:Hollow
Build:Full tang fixed blade
Sheath:Boltaron
Price Range;$100 – 110

This is one of Michael Janich’s many tactical designs for Spyderco. He’s partial to the Wharncliffe blade because he believes it cuts better at speed and provides or more comfortable posture for the hand that results in more precise striking. Which is to say, this is very much a combat-oriented design.

I won’t claim to know much about that CTS-BD1 steel. Apparently it’s melted in a vacuum and is supposed to be highly corrosion resistant. That paired with the full-tang build and slabs of G-10 make this a pretty sturdy knife.


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Andrew has been a commercial writer for about a decade. He escaped from a life of writing mundane product descriptions by running away to the woods and teaching himself how to bake and chop stuff up in the kitchen. He has a background in landscaping, Filipino martial arts, and drinking whiskey.

2 thoughts on “The Best Brands for Tactical Knives”

    • Knives like the Microtech Ultratech and the Protech Dark Angel seem to the be the current gold standard. Both those companies make pretty good automatics in general. I’ve also heard a lot of good things about the Benchmade Infidel.
      I’ve never really been into autos, though, so I haven’t handled many personally.

      Reply

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