With all that is currently going on, people are looking for information. Several people have either sent me questions, or forwarded other peoples questions about choosing a knife for different purposes; survival, defense, general-purpose, etc… At the suggestion of Toby, I decided to write an article addressing these questions.
Let me preface this with a few statements.
First, this is not going to touch on legal matters. Everything is illegal somewhere, and I fully believe that we need to be responsible for both knowing the law, and deciding on whether we obey it or not.
Second, I have worked in the knife industry for a long time, so my biases and some terminology will make its way in here. If anything needs cleared up or answered, please feel free to email me, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.
And third, I will not be making many specific recommendations on knives. The ones I use will be as an example of the type of knife I am talking about. Once again, if you have a question about a specific knife type or brand, I am more than happy to answer it through email.
Now, when you start thinking about buying a knife, there are a few questions you should ask yourself, in order to make your decision process easier.
How much do you want to spend?
With some exceptions, knives truly are a ‘you get what you pay for’ purchase. Especially for a folding knife, the cheaper you go the more likely the knife is to fail, especially when you really need it. I don’t think anybody needs to buy a $500 knife for day-to-day use, but conversely, anything under $35-$40 is usually a bad choice.
Why do you want the knife?
Any knife can be used for almost any reason, but most knives are designed for specific jobs. They excel in that job, while only being passable at others. A knife designed as a pure fighting knife doesn’t do very well as a work knife. A classic example is from WWII: the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger was great as a killing knife but would break while using it as a field knife.
On the other hand, a razor knife for opening a box is not that great for defending your life. Figure out what you want to use the knife for, and then start looking at examples for that use. Most knife company websites and many retailers websites will list the purpose of a particular design, and you can also ask someone at your local cutlery store.
Do you want a folding knife or a fixed blade?
Here is where one of my biases comes into play. I prefer small fixed blades for just about everything. I like the fact that they are strong, there is no lock to fail, and with the advancements made in sheath materials and craftsmanship, they are easier to carry than ever before. The two most common sheath materials are Kydex, which is a thermoplastic that friction locks the blade into place, yet still provides an easy draw when needed, or leather, which is a long time sheath material that just about everyone is familiar with. Of the two, my preference is Kydex, as it suits my needs and way of carrying.
But not everyone has a job, mode of dress, or life where a fixed blade works, therefore, we need to look at folding knives. On folding knives, one thing should be looked at before anything else, lock type and strength. The different lock types, in the order I recommend them at the store due to strength and reliability are as follows;
- Axis lock/ball lock: the Axis lock is a patented lock for the Benchmade Knife Co, while the ball lock is from Spyderco. Since the patents have expired on both, we are seeing other companies use them. They operate on the same principle as each other, either a bar(Axis) or a ball bearing(ball lock) is lodged in the tang of the knife upon opening, thus blocking its ability to close. It also helps bleed off some of the force coming into the lock better than most other lock types. This is my most highly recommended lock.
- Frame lock: known by a few different names such as mono-lock. It is usually done with a titanium handle, and the lock side is cut so a part of it will spring inwards to lock open the blade. The good thing about this lock is, the harder you hold the knife, the more the lock is held against the tang of the knife. It requires total failure of the entire handle for the lock to collapse.
- Compression Lock: This is an exclusive lock type from Spyderco. It is essentially a liner lock engaged from the top of the handle instead of the bottom, as is how a liner lock usually works. This makes the lock stronger and better able to deal with incoming force on the tang-lock interface in a much safer and efficient manner than a liner lock.
- Liner lock: inside most folding knives under the handle material you can see are liners. They are made of varying materials, but usually brass, steel, or titanium are the most common. A liner lock is where one of these liners are cut, just as with the frame lock I mentioned above, and springs inward to lodge against the tang of the blade. The reason I don’t recommend them as strongly as a frame lock is that they are thinner, wear much more quickly, thus leading to lock failure, and they are easier to disengage accidentally during use, which is known as a ‘really bad thing’.
- Lock back or Rock lock: This is the lock most are used to, as it is the oldest lock in use. If you’ve seen a Buck 110 or Spyderco Endura, this is the lock on them. A bar is installed at the top of the handle with a straight spring that pushes it downward. When the knife is open, the front, notched end of this bar falls into a cutout in the blade tang, thus locking it open under the pressure from the bar spring. It is a good lock, my only concern with them depends on their placement on the handle. If it is in the wrong location, it is really easy to disengage the knife, risking your fingers.
What blade shape should you get?
When thinking about buying a knife, a lot of people spend time thinking or talking about the blade shape. Blade shape can be important for specific jobs you want to do with the knife. Butcher knives have thin blades. Utility knives usually have thicker blades.
Then there are point configurations, clip point (Bowie), drop point, tanto, reverse tanto, sheepsfoot, wharncliffe, and on and on… This is mostly personal preference, although, like I said, if you have a specific task, ask more specific questions to help you make the right choice.
What kind of handle do you want?
Instead of paying a lot of attention to blade shapes, I encourage people to think about the handle. The handle is your interface with the knife. It needs to be comfortable, secure, provide a good grip, have no hot spots, and one of my preferences, offer some protection from riding up onto the blade during use.
Unfortunately, the only way to figure out which handle works best for you is by playing with and holding a bunch of knives. This is why most knife people have a lot more knives than you think we need. We’re always looking for that more comfortable, more secure handle.
Those are the basics of choosing a knife.
This is the basic checklist I use when helping customers at my store, and when I am choosing or designing a new knife. As I mentioned above, if you have any questions, please feel free to email me, and I will do what I can to assist you.
Terry Trahan has been a long term martial artist and teacher of personal protection, as well as an author for numerous publications. His experiences from being a gang member, enforcer, protection specialist, and bouncer have given his teachings a strong bent towards the practical. Fighting his way out of extreme poverty and some unsavory environs also gives him insight into survival and everyday life not often commented on. He can be contacted at terry.trahan at gmail.com
And so we all become sufferers of analysis paralyses.
True, however I recommend Emerson or Benchmade knives…A little pricey,but well worth it…Met Ernie Emerson and his Daughter Meghan 12 yrs ago….U wont met nicer people. Still have the CQB wave Emerson knife…1000 and ! uses…..
Using those questions and that criteria, I would end up with “None of the above”. My own preference is for a simple 2-blade pocket knife in the “canoe” pattern. It stays tucked away in my pocket at all times and is there when I need it. It is very comfortable to carry and it just plain looks good in a very classic manner. I don’t spend my days wandering the woods, nor do I pretend to, so a fixed blade on my belt would be very out of place and in the way. The simple non-locking pocket knife that every boy growing up in The South carried in his pocket suits my needs perfectly.
I’m guilty often of buying my knives like my fishing lures. It was shiny new and cool and I fell for it lol.
That being said it has gotten somewhat better as I ask myself questions and know more about what I’m looking for in one.
Matt, a wise old man once told me , “fishing lures are designed to catch Fishermen not fish.”
I’d say something to rebut but I’ve got a hook in one finger and I cut my other finger with my new knife I wasn’t sure how to operate lol ????
Y’all stay safe
A knife is a tool, like any other tool. You need to chose the right one for the intended use.
However like with a screwdriver, many straight bladed ones will do the same job, but there are different sized blades and handle lengths and different handle grips.
So don”t overly stress about getting the “perfect” knife, most will do the common jobs you need them for.
Now if we are talking survival, especially in a SHTF scenario. then everything changes.
Then, If I need a knife for defense: I would go for a USMC fighting knife or something similar, with a good folder as a backup or for where you need a smaller knife, which is most of your utility or common uses.
The knife you like, is the one you will carry and use, so find what you like and carry it.
My preferences closely follow the authors, fixed over folding, and so on. I EDC a fixed blade KaBar TDI and a small Gerber multi-touch in my pocket (folded up it’s no bigger than a Zippo). Carrying in town is different from field and forest. Most States have a blade length limit for personal carry, so check your State and City ordinances/statutes before you buy. This is one item I suggest buying in person and not online if you’re not familiar with knives. For myself, if it says “China” on the blade, I avoid it out of principle. Chinese manufacturers often use slave/prison labor and I’ve an aversion to that, so I avoid Chinese goods as much as possible. Steel grade/quality is also a concern with Chinese made blades.
In the end, you’ll probably end up with more than one knife, and that’s OK. Knives you’ve replaced with something better still make great barter/trade items when SHTF. I’ve a wee tin box with 40 or more pocket and fixed blade knives and multi-tools set aside for just that purpose.
The categories of knife acquirers that occur to me are
1. Daily user
2. Occasional specialty user
3. Commemorative collector and preserver
4. Dreamer and collector
In the daily user category, my everyday carry everywhere (except under TSA or courthouse LEO scrutiny) is a 2-1/4“ Swiss army Classic knife that opens letters, trims and cleans my nails, opens food packets and boxes of all kinds, cuts duct tape, etc. A close cousin is the same-sized Swiss army Signature Lite which replaces the toothpick and tweezers with a ball point pen and a thumb-press switch LED light. (I know of a surgeon who keeps his Signature Lite on a chain around his neck for sudden lights out emergencies — I just keep one handy for lighting up door locks at night for my key.)
In the occasional specialty user type, if you sometimes butcher animals, clean fish or expect to defend yourself from thugs (using something like the US Marine’s K-bar knife), those needs suggest different types and designs of knives. If you’re a first responder, your needs for cutting will be different than somebody out in the wilderness.
In the commemorative type I’ve saved knives from multiple ancestors as well as ones I used long ago for purposes long gone. I once used my father’s farmer corn knife to chop down feed for his cattle. It’s about the same size as the ancient Roman soldier’s gladius sword, but with a square tip — not for stabbing. My grandfather’s two-bladed folder is another commemorative, etc.
In the collector and/or dreamer type might be included a Nepalese Gurkha style kukri knife (with a drop-away blade design). The British army issues a modern version to some of their army units. Mine from Pakistan has a saw blade designed into the spine so it becomes very practical for camping in rough country with thick underbrush although I think my camping days are past.
As always, choosing the right tool for the right job works best. Just like trying to read any articles on TheOrganicPrepper that were email linked to my Gmail account. If I used that link directly, disgusting Google continues to block and blank out the entire left hand half of any of Daisy’s articles. I have to copy the link instead and plug it into Firefox (out of reach of Google’s grubby fingers) and use that to pull up Daisy’s articles to read them in their complete glory.
Knives are just like browsers and email accounts — you have to pick the right tool for the right job.
The one thing most knife producers ignore is the sheath.
No kidding, I have a number of very nice knives. And they have crap sheaths.
Some of the KA-Bar Becker knives have good to excellent blades and sheaths.
That is what I look at.
I own a farm. The Becker Machax is a great knife with a great sheath.
The Ontario knife company SPAX is a great camp ax, with a great sheath. Is it “tactical?” Nope. But it gets the job done and has a great sheath.
I feel to many knife makers go for the tacti-cool aspect and ignore the sheath.
In my last training session we covered combat knives vs others. One of the main points I brought up was sheaths. The ability to get it out one handed while under duress and physical attack is too important to overlook but it also has to have the proper amount of retention.
I also feel the same about my others because I’ve been hooked, in the hand, by a trotline in a fast flowing river when I was by myself and had a “dead” deer stand up and try and gore me before and when it goes wrong you’ve got to be able to self recover.
Kydex is a great option and can breath new life into an old blade. I had Greyman Solutions holster maker outta Mustang Oklahoma make me one for my old Buck General a while back.
Don’t spend any more than you’re willing to toss into the wind. You can lose your knife in a heartbeat. The more your invest, the more you’ll be disappointed when it vanishes.
One thing to consider for a folding knife, can you open the knife with one hand? No, I’m not talking about a switch-blade, those are illegal in most places. Does it have a lug on the blade that can be pushed open with a thumb or similar to be used?
I wouldn’t consider a non-locking folding knife, not after I had a Swiss army knife accidentally fold on my finger, cutting it to the bone. I keep my blades sharp. Fortunately it cut the side of my finger, not a tendon, but that has scared me from ever considering a non-locking folding knife again.
But I didn’t realize that there were that many options for locks. Thanks. I’ll have to look into that more.
For camp or survival, a good machete and a Mora Stainless Companion make a great combination.
The machete will handle nearly any chopping or brush clearing you may need, and it is also great for defense(if necessary). A 3.75″ stainless Mora Companion is a classic and reliable bushcraft knife for any camp/cooking duty.
Best of all, they are both quite inexpensive.
It is extremely difficult to find just one knife to do it all. These are 2 great choices that won’t break the budget.
Knives, like any piece of engineering, are designed to be a functional tool. If it’s EDC, choose something that’s useful for more than one thing – I’ve had a Leatherman Charge in my pocket for years now but as the UK police have decided to crack down on locking blades, it’s in my bag.
As I couldn’t get a model of knife that wasn’t quite ‘right’ and spent a fortune on different blades (thanks Heinnie!) I made my own that’s within the law.
Sub 3″ non-locking folder, one hand opening, Leatherman tool bit compatible. It lives in my pocket.
Great read! I was planning to buy a knife very soon. At least I know what to ask myself first before I choose one. Any recommendations on where I could get the best variety of knives?