Last Updated on
Are you looking to buy the best tactical knife available? our in-depth guide has been written to answer all your questions and provide our top recommendations.
As buyers we are presented with so many types of tactical knives on the market, it’s understandably difficult to make an informed choice about the best option. In order to make your buying decision easier, it’s best to consider the following questions.
How much do you want to spend? Do you want a fixed blade or folding knife? What do you want to use the knife for?
If you’ve bought knives in the past, then you might prefer to buy something for a specific brand or manufacturer. You might also want to buy something which is a particular color or looks a particular way. Other buyers prefer to make their buying decisions on the knives specs, blade material, length or the type of handle. These are all legitimate wants, there is no right or wrong way to buy a knife, as long as you’re happy with your purchase and that you feel you’re getting a knife that best meets your requirements, then that’s all that really matters.
What is a Tactical Knife?
When we began reviewing and researching tactical knives, we quickly came to the conclusion that the definition of ‘tactical knife’ was quite open to interpretation amongst knife manufacturers. Some so-called ‘tactical knives’ were little more than gimmicks, while another manufacturers ‘survival knife’ would make an ideal tactical knife. To help us better make recommendations, we’ve created some criteria that will help us define what a tactical knife is and isn’t. These aren’t hard and fast rules, more things to bear in minds when choosing your next tac knife.
What’s the Difference Between a Tactical Knife and a Regular Knife?
It’s not at all surprising that most people can’t tell the difference between a pocket knife and a tac knife. The actual differences can be rather subtle and not at all obvious. The main differentiator is the purpose. If the knife has been designed and built to meet a specific need then it can probably be classed as a tactical knife. Special forces, SWAT, EMTs and Police Officers may carry knives that have been made to meet a need, these will be classed as tactical knives. In fact, these professionals may, in fact, carry more than one knife to meet more than one requirements.
The founder of Spyderco has been quoted as saying “a tactical knife is any knife you have with you when you need a knife”. I think this is a fair definition, with one caveat, as long as the knife performs the job what you want it to do. If you’re required to cut some canvas away and the blade snaps on the first attempt, then this is failed tactical knife, it’s not done its job.
A tactical knife may also feature one or more of the following traits:
- Grippy synthetic handles
- Non-reflective blade
- Made for quick access
- Designed for hard use
- Practicality over Aesthetics
Full or Partial Tang?
In knife terms, the ‘tang’ refers to the sections of the blade that extends into the handle of the knife. There is more than one type of knife tang, with the various types offering certain advantages or disadvantages. The best is arguably the Full tang, which means the tang extends down the full length of the knife. Half tang and its variations normally extend about halfway into the hande or less. These are weaker than full tang are normally present on cheaper knives. If you can, only consider full tang knives as the extra length equates directly into a safer, stronger and more reliable knife. However, tangs do not apply to folding knives.
Get a Grip
Knife handles can be made from a variety of materials, both man-made and naturally occurring, including horn, bone, wood, rubber, and leather. For a tactical knife, we would always suggest opting for synthetic materials, as these will generally offer the best grip and toughness you’d expect from a tactical knife. Other materials may look nicer, but when it comes down to hard use they might not be up to the job.
Types of Tactical Knives
We can quite roughly divide knives into two categories, fixed blade, and folding knives.
Foldings knives are as the title suggests, knives that fold and can include pocket knives as well as numerous other types of folders. The folding knife market is heavily saturated with many manufacturers and vendors providing a myriad of options. The most common types are multi-bladed, double-bladed, single-blades and Swiss Army style. These can range in size from something the size of your fingertip all the way to something that would only fit in a bag. Most folding knives are made with portability in mind, either designed to fit comfortably in a pocket or a tactical pouch.
Fixed blade knives are as suggested by the name, fixed, unable to fold or reduce in size. They are generally stronger, more durable and thicker than any folder. You can, of course, use a folding knife to butcher a bear, but the right tool for the job is a fixed knife. Common examples of fixed blade knives are camping and hunting knives, survival knives, skinning knives and gut-hook knives. The biggest disadvantage of a fixed blade knife is portability, they are seldom convenient enough to take with you everywhere, and remember the best knife is the knife you have with you.
I’ve always been of the opinion that you get what you pay for, meaning if you want a serious piece of kit, you’ll need to pay a little bit more for the privilege. There are a ton of cheap $5 knives available to buy online, and they can be a bit of cheap fun, but if you intend to use your tactical knife in any practical way, I would suggest spending at least a little more in order to get something that’s not going to fail on you. We have attempted to cover every budget in our recommended knife range, with some dirt cheap options that are reasonably competent, but if your budget stretches to $40 or more, then the quality of knife you’ll receive is much better and you’ll end up with something that will last years or decades of use.
Along with build quality, ergonomics is one of the features of a knife that needs to be well thought out and seamlessly implemented. You need a knife which feels comfortable in the hand even when put under stress or during a long session of use. The knife should feel natural in the hand and no sharp edges or pinching should be felt when the knife is in yes. You ought to feel confident in its use, with no concerns or worries about losing your grip. Experienced designers and manufacturers will ensure a knife meets and exceed these criteria. When you receive your knife, make sure it fits snuggly in your hand and it’s not too small or too large, if it feels uncomfortable and just doesn’t feel right, return it and choose another model.
A big knife does not necessarily mean it’s a better knife. A knife choice should be driven by the purpose you intend to use it for, remember the best knife is the one you have with you when you need it. A machete might be a great choice if you need to hack your way through a Bolivian jungle, but it’s going to useless if you don’t have it with you due to its size. That’s not to say that big knives don’t serve a purpose, they certainly do, but a tactical knife doesn’t need to be big, it needs to be portable and something you can carry with you everywhere you go.
On a tactical knife, there are two areas of interest when it comes to materials used, these are the blade and the handle, Blades can be made from a massive selection of steels, and it’s incredibly difficult to say one particular type is the best. Each type generally offers various advantages and disadvantages, so it becomes a task of picking the steel that best suits your needs. Steel is largely made up of two main components, iron, and carbon, in addition, other elements can be added to change the properties of the resulting steel. Most blade steels contain additional elements such as phosphorus, silicon, manganese or sulfur, this creates an alloy that might make the resulting blade harder, more resistant to corrosion or better at taking an edge. Any decent manufacturer will use quality proven alloys in the construction of the blade, just be wary of knife offerings from China or Pakistan, they might not be made to the standards we expect in the west.
You’ll frequently come across the following materials in knife blades:
Carbon Steel will generally have a carbon content between 0.5% through to 0.95%, the higher the carbon content, the harder the resulting blade will be. However, they can be brittle and they can rust if not cared for correctly.
Stainless steel is available in a huge range of grades, some are better suited to pots and pans rather than knives, be sure to verify the hardness of the stainless steel prior to making a purchase. Just because the steel is resistant to corrosion, it doesn’t mean it won’t rust and it doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for you.
Titanium will usually come alloyed with carbon. It can be great when used to coat another metal type, for example, steel, but it’s often too flexible for a knife to be made purely of titanium. The exception would be if you needed a flexible knife, for example for filleting.
Damascus steel is often nothing more than a marketing gimmick and is rarely found in its true form. It’s often confused with folded steel, which it does share some similarities. I would recommend avoiding anything marked as Damascus steel unless you’re looking for something that’s nice to look at and will only be used as a display piece.
Knife handles can come in a huge range of materials, including Steel, Aluminium, plastic, wood, bone, G-10 and rubber. The perfect handle is comfortable, natural feeling and provides exceptional grip under adverse conditions. Give some thought to the environment you’ll be using the knife in before deciding on a purchase. Wood and bone might look nice and make a great gift, but if they’re subjected to oil, sweat or intense heat, they are likely to crack, break wear loose. From a tactical point of view, I would suggest sticking with synthetic materials.
Steel, G10, Titanium and Aluminium all make good choices. Any handle that feels natural, suits your grip and handshape is going to make a good choice.
Below we’ve listed some of the popular handle options available.
If you’re considering a wooden handle, then hardwood is really the only viable option. I will admit that I love the combination of wood and metal, however, from a tactical point of view, I would suggest another option.
Similar to wood, Horn is another popular option for certain types of knives. Again, aesthetically they look great and would be a great choice for a skinning or hunting knife, but I would choose something else for my tactical tools.
ABS is a common choice at the lower end of the market, it’s incredibly hard wearing, tough and cheap to produce. If exposed to direct sunlight for too long it can become brittle. It’s also not particularly grippy, especially when wet. Choose something else if you can.
Bone is commonly available as a handle material, it can be quite grippy due to its rough nature, it can be dyed to almost any colour you can think off. For a tac knife, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Paracord for a handle presents an interesting option. it can serve the dual purpose of providing a good grip and can additionally provide a length of paracord to be used in case of an emergency. It’s potentially a good choice.
Metals such as titanium, steel or aluminium are very popular for tac knives. It’s hard wearing and can provide an excellent grip if treated correctly, I would recommend.
G10 is probably the best choice for a tac knife. It’s very grippy in all conditions, whether wet, dry or cold, it’s additionally very comfortable to hold and use. Definitely recommended.
At their most basic level, knives are simple designs consisting of a sharp edge and sharp point, that’s all their is to them. As designs became more complicated over the years, the shape and style of the blade began to take on distinct names. These designs were primarily made with a specific purpose in mind, allowing for increased specialisation for the knife in question. If you need to poke something, then theirs a blade design to match, if you need to pry, then theirs another matching design. Many designs exist today, but the two most commonly found are drop point and clip point.
Tac knives are available in a variety of blade styles, from Tanto point to spear tip and everything in between, they all specialise in fulfilling a specific need. The blade edge can be plain, serrated or a combination of the two, half serrated half straight. My own personal preference is a thick blade with a drop point and half serrated edge, this means to knife can be used for a variety of purposes and I won’t feel like I’m carrying around something flimsy. This is, of course, a personal preference, so feel free to pick something that better suits your requirements.
The Types of Blade Tips
On your search for a tac knife, you might come across any of the following blade tips:
A straight-backed blade is perhaps the most common type you’ll come across. Its telltale design includes a flat back and it will normally boast a curved edge. The flat back is often an advantage, allowing the user to exert extra pressure with their other hand. It’s a great option for most knives.
A clip-point blade looks like a normal point that’s been clipped at the back, creating a thinner and pointier tip. It’s ideal for precision cutting or when additional control is needed. The legendary Bowie Knife is an excellent example of a clip-point blade. Clip-points can either be straight or concave.
A trailing-point is easy to spot, featuring a back that curves up which improves the slicing capability. The curve is sometimes called the ‘belly’ and a knife featuring a large belly are especially well suited for skinning. As the blade curves, the blade is often lighter and more manoeuvrable. You’ll often find this style in fillet knives.
A drop point blade is in some respects similar to a clip point, but while a clip point features a concave back, the drop point is convex. This design is not as good at piercing things, but overall it’s a stronger design. Many modern knives feature a drop point as it’s versatile and useful in most applications.
A spear-point blade is common in daggers and other piercing weapons. It features a symmetrical design with a thicker spine running down the centre. These can either be sharpened on one side or on both.
A needle-point blade is somewhat similar to a spear-point, but it’ll taper far more to create a much sharper point. The blade is often very sharp but not very strong. It’s commonly used in daggers.
The needle-point is also symmetrical but tapers much more sharply and therefore is not particularly strong but can be used effectively to pierce or penetrate. Stabbing is the needle-point blade’s strong point and you tend to see this blade mostly on daggers intended for close range combat just like the spear-point.
A tanto tip is shaped like a chisel and took its inspiration from Japanese swords, the advantage of this type of blade is the increased strength. It’s a great option for a tactical knife.
Knife Steel Differences
There are tens if not hundreds of different types of steel available, and not all of them are good for knives. Going through every type of steel is a bit beyond this article, but we can generalise the common types found in knives and give you a rough idea of what to expect.
Stainless steel is probably the most common type of steel used in knives today, it’s durable, resistant to corrosion and can make a decent blade. Within the stainless steel category, there are several grades, many of which create terrible knives, while others are great for knives. Make sure you get a stainless steel that’s good for practical purposes and is not best suited for a kettle.
Carbon steel is a great choice for knife blades, they are strong, hard wearing, can take an edge really well and can last a lifetime. The downside is that they are prone to corrosion if not cared for carefully. Carbon steel blades need to be stored with a thin layer of oil or other protective substance to avoid rusting.