Our top picks for tactical knife brands

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 companies that tend to use reliable materials in that vein. Here are our top picks.

Browning

  • Pros: Balanced knives
  • Cons: Inconsistent manufacturing, makes a lot of other stupid knives

Browning is mostly a budget company where knives are concerned. They pump out a lot of China-made designs in the interest of casting a large net for knife enthusiasts. That kind of practice has led to regrettable things like the “Zombie Apocalypse” knife, but it also lands a few well-priced gems, if you’re brave enough to search them out. They generally use cheaper materials in their knives, but that’s not exactly a bad thing in this context. 8Cr13MoV steel and G-10 can get you a long ways in extreme conditions if you’re prepared to just hone everything up later.

Recommendations

Battle Bowie

The Browning Battle Bowie is a well priced and practical tactical knife.

 

Easily the most surprising fixed blade I’ve picked up. From the outside it appears to have all the trappings of a marketing ploy, but actually handling this knife is a whole different story. It’s well balanced and takes a terrifyingly sharp edge. Wearing the thing can feel pretty award, but the kydex sheath does a good job of handling the knife’s size while still keeping the handle accessible.

The Battle Bowie from Browning surprised us with it's great handling and nice balance.

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

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Wihongi Signature Kukri

This large tactical knife is durable and it has a comfortable handle.

Different designer and style, but in the end it’s the same result as the Battle Bowie. This is a well-balanced and well-priced blade (considering the amount of material) with all the look of something that’s trying to trick a twelve year old boy into adding some wall art to his room, but in the hand turns out to be a fun and functional tool.

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Cold Steel

  • Pros: Grippy handles
  • 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.

Recommendations

Cold Steel Black Bear Bowie

This practical machete can be used for work or self defense.

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.

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Cold Steel SRK

This large tactical knife from cold steel is tough enough to double as a bushcraft knife.

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.

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.

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Recommendations

Gerber Strongarm

The Gerber Strongarm exemplifies their military aesthetic to the extreme

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.

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Ghostrike

The Gerber Ghostrike is small and versatile.

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.

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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.

Recommendations

Ka-Bar TDI

This was designed specifically as a back-up blade that’s easy to pack and conceal.

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.

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Ka-Bar Becker BK7

This knife was designed by Ethan Becker who’s a pretty avid outdoorsman and martial artist.

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.

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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.

Recommendations

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.

All the CQC designs are essentially the same outside of size, so it would be odd to recommend one of 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.

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Morakniv

  • Pros: Great durability, versatile designs, good prices
  • Cons: Slow deployment, technically not tactical

Technically every Mora is a hunting/survival knife, but I’ll be damned if you wouldn’t find any of their designs handy in a tactical situation. If we’re talking about comfort and toughness, very few companies beat Morakaniv. The same goes for steel durability and especially for pricing. The only thing a Mora can’t do as well as or better than any other company is design  sheath for quick deployment. There’s really no good way to carry a Mora that gives you a blade in hand in a split second using the stock sheaths from the company. That’s just not what they have in mind. But the knives are small and light enough to get creative if you want to make it into a boot knife or keep it inside your waistband.

Recommendations

Morakniv Basic 511

The 511 is one of the only Moras with a significant handguard, which is why I recommend it as tactical.

The 511 is one of the only Moras with a significant handguard, which is why I recommend it as tactical. But all their designs are pretty much the same. Whatever you can do with the Basic you can probably do with the Companion. What I like about this design in general, though, is how nonthreatening it is for a fixed blade. Carry it everywhere; use it for everything.

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SOG

  • Pros: Tough designs overall, clear and practical function
  • Cons: High price tag

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.

Recommendations

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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?

Recommendations

Spyderco Military

The Spyderco Military is tough and light.

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.

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Jumpmaster 2

This knife was designed for paratroopers.

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.

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