What to look for in a tactical knife

What Makes a Good Tactical Knife?

Whether you want a tactical knife because it makes you feel safer, or a you want a  robust EDC, or even just because you like the way it looks, it’s important to understand the components that make a tactical knife tactical. Renowned knife designer Ernest Emerson made a sound point in an interview with The Daily Caller that you can’t really know what makes it “tactical” until you understand the context it’s going to be used in. Undercover police, SWAT teams, survivalists, hunters, or everyday city-walking Joes require different things to fit their body shapes and lives. It’s not always appropriate or practical to carry a fixed blade Ka Bar around with you, but maybe a smaller folding tactical knife just isn’t big or strong enough to handle your job. Clearly this takes some thought, so here are some of the details you should consider for choosing the tactical knife that fits your needs.

Handle Materials

Ka-Bar K1 Tactical Knife


Ka-Bar K1 Tactical Knife

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The primary thing to worry about here is the longevity of the materials and whether they can really survive through impact. Most knife handles are made out of wood, metal, or G10, and occasionally something with a leather wrap. The exception is the specialty stuff like bone, which doesn’t give you a very solid grip and can splinter if you’re too rough on it. Obviously if you’re looking for hardness, metal is the way to go, although G10 can take a hit just fine and has the benefit of being lighter. Wood handles are not an ideal pick for tactical as it can absorb oils and become slippery, but there are exceptions if the wood has been properly treated and well worn.

Blade Materials

The Spyderco Nirvana Folding Knife is a great tactical option for a pocket knife.


Spyderco Nirvana Folding Knife

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The harder a steel is, the better it will hold an edge, but the more difficult it will be to sharpen. Tool steels will hold an edge like a grudge, but they’ll be pretty heavy. Almost all ESEE knives are made out of plain 1095 carbon steel because they’re made for deep jungle survival and usually need to be sharpened in the field, but they need to be carefully maintained to avoid rusting. The other common option is stainless steel, which is basically carbon steel with some chromium added to prevent rust and staining. You’ll usually see 440C stainless steel in your knife, or a grade very close to that, because it looks good and doesn’t require a whole lot of maintenance compared to most metals.

Emerson recommends any of the high quality stainless steel knives. If you aren’t a practiced blacksmith with an eye for steel, probably the best way to determine quality is price. There’s no way around it. No five dollar knife is going to last through harsh use. If you want good steel, you better expect to hit at least the twenty dollar mark in most cases.

If you would like to know more about the various steels used for knife blades check out Knife Guide: A List of Steels and What They Are



Gerber Tactical


Gerber Tactical

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A tactical knife just won’t be worth anything if you don’t feel comfortable using it. Most higher end companies are pretty careful about this. Your nicer Bucks and Ka Bars are pretty much guaranteed to feel good in the hand. The thing to look out for is strange handle designs. Some designers like to get creative and make funny shapes either to experiment with handling or just to make a knife look cool. That’s fine for the adventurous knife collectors, but when you’re looking for a functional tactical knife, just keep it simple and you should be fine.


Where will you be carrying this? Because if it’s in city limits in a state where open carry isn’t allowed, you’ll be looking for a reasonably sized pocket knife. Three inches should be just fine.

What will you be using it for? Tactical doesn’t just mean fighting. It can mean smashing windows to get in or out of a wrecked car. It could be slashing away branches or a rope that got tangled around your leg while rock climbing. It’s about handling emergencies. If you need to cut through a jungle, which is more in the realm of survival knives, you’ll need a pretty long blade, maybe as much as 5 or 6 inches. But for most situations you’ll almost never need anything over a 4 inch blade.

Lock Mechanisms

There are as many locking mechanisms for knives as there are manufacturers. They all seem to like having their own unique style, but at least they’re always concerned with making sure that style works. So the AXIS lock from  Benchmade, the Arc lock from SOG, and the Tri-Ad from Cold Steel should keep your fingers safe under stress. On a more universal note, however, the two locks you probably want to look for are either liner locks or frame locks. And you should definitely avoid lockbacks and slip joints as these are not designed to hold up against high pressure.