A tactical knife can be any knife that serves multiple purposes in a survival situation. Generally, tactical knives and multi-tools are not the same thing.
Tactical knives are made with materials that will stand up to conditions in the field. The handles are either plastic composites or entirely metal. Special finishes and coatings are used on many tactical knives.
Do you want specific features?
Do you like the idea of a tactical knife with a firestarter and a compass or storage space in the handle? What about a tactical knife with a glass breaker or seat-belt cutter?
All of these features may sound good, but it’s likely that you can only have a few of them. Also, remember that there is a downside to some of these features. For example, a hollow handle on a knife for storage space means that your knife doesn’t have a full tang, so it’s considerably more likely to be prone to the blade separating from the handle or bending when a lot of force is applied.
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Steel Types and Blade Materials
If you’re new to the world of blades, it may be confusing when a description lists the type of steel the knife is made of. There are many strong steel types out there, but some are better for certain situations. Here’s a brief overview of steel types.
Stainless steel is great for corrosive environments. Salt water or even just consistent humidity are good reasons for choosing a stainless steel blade. Stainless steel keeps a sharp edge but is harder to sharpen when needed. Stainless steel blades require a diamond sharpener to get a good edge. Stainless steel is also more brittle than carbon steel, so it doesn’t endure impacts as easily.
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Carbon steel requires more maintenance than stainless. It will rust if not well oiled before storage. A carbon steel blade can be used in corrosive environments, but you must be vigilant about protecting it from salt and moisture. Cleaning and oiling at the end of the day is the best way to avoid rust and pitting. Carbon steel is very easy to sharpen. You can get a very keen edge with carbon. It’s less brittle than stainless, so it can absorb impacts better without warping or damage.
There are many types of high-carbon stainless steel out there. High-carbon stainless is a good middle ground for those who want a corrosion-resistant knife that is easy to sharpen and not too brittle. Many tactical knives are made of high-carbon stainless. Keep in mind that the addition of any carbon increases the risk of rust or corrosion. High-carbon stainless is highly resistant to rust but not as much as regular old stainless steel.
Many tactical knives have colored coatings. In my experience, these coatings tend to wear off with use. They provide some protection against rust and pitting while they last, but don’t expect them to stand the test of time. Knife handles made this way tend to lose their coating fairly fast.
A ceramic knife can be sharpened to about the highest level of sharpness you can get. The disadvantage of ceramic knives is that they are very brittle. You can’t use them for tasks that require any torquing or twisting. These blades will chip if pushed too hard. Some people like them for certain tasks, but for an everyday carry all-around tactical knife, they aren’t the best.
Plastic Polymers and Fiberglass
Plastic polymer-based or fiberglass knives are popular because they don’t show up on metal detectors, making it possible to wear them concealed where weapons aren’t allowed. This is technically illegal of course, but there’s little question why these types of knives are so popular. They are typically only used for self-defense because metal is a superior and more durable choice for other tactical and bushcraft needs.
Bowie Tactical Knives
This is a classic tactical knife at a great price. The Ka-Bar Marine fighter is still made in the USA. The leather sheath is made in Mexico. The Marine Fighter also holds its value, unlike some of the lower-cost brands and those made overseas.
This is a full size bowie knife with an overall length of 11.875” and a full 7” blade. The full tang blade is constructed from 1095 Cro-Van steel that’s epoxy coated.
Typically, this knife costs less than $85, making it a real bargain for a high-quality fixed-blade tactical knife.
If you’re looking for a bowie-style tactical knife that’s more compact than average, the SOG Seal Strike is worth looking at. The 4.9” blade is plenty for most tasks. When we butcher on the farm, I use a smaller bowie that works quite well.
The handle is made of glass-reinforced nylon and stainless steel for strength and durability.
The full tang blade is AUS-8 stainless steel. I’m really impressed by the weight of this bowie. At 5.6 ounces it feels like you’re carrying nothing at all. Even with the extra weight of the sheath, this knife won’t weigh you down out on the trail.
When purchasing this knife, you can choose between two sheath types. There’s a big price difference that’s not worth it in my opinion. Just be sure to check out the two options, so you don’t pay too much.
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This tactical knife is made in the USA at Gerber’s Oregon factory. I say that upfront because Gerber has received some bad press over the years for their inexpensive foreign-made knives. You need to know that Gerber makes knives at various price points, and the higher-end ones are usually made in the USA.
The StrongArm is a good example of a bowie-style tactical fixed-blade knife that’s designed to meld flawlessly with the rest of your gear thanks to the included MOLLE compatible sheath.
The blade is full tang and made entirely of 420 high-carbon stainless steel with a ceramic coating. You can choose between a serrated or smooth blade. The rubberized diamond texture on the grip and blade guard ensures a good ergonomic grip in any conditions.
The 4.8” blade is long enough to take on tough tasks without being so long that you’re weighed down or its too cumbersome to use. Total weight including sheath is just 14.1 ounces.
This is an excellent knife for camping and the trail. The Becker is made in Olean, New York. Designed by Ethan Becker, this full tang knife is made to stand up to heavy use. The blade is a full 5.25” while the overall length is 10.5”. The blade and overall lengths are balanced, so the Becker has an amazing feel when held.
The blade is 1095 Cro-Van steel. The handle is Grivory and features a substantial blade guard, a feature I always look for in a knife I plan to use a lot, especially in remote locations.
The Becker comes with a hard-shell nylon sheath. The knife locks into place once in the sheath. To withdraw the knife, you press a spot on the back of the sheath. This is a nice touch that helps avoid not just a lost knife but accidents out in the bush.
Okay, so some of you want a really big bowie knife. For you, there’s this gigantic offering from Ontario Knife. This bowie is a full 15” long, and 10” of that is blade. Despite the $55 price tag, this bowie is made in the United States!
The blade is 1095 Carbon Steel coated for corrosion resistance. This knife will hold an edge well, and it’s a great choice for those who want a large bowie for bushcraft, survival, or camping.
The handle is grooved, so it offers a firm grip even in wet conditions.
Of course, this knife is a lot heavier to carry than a smaller blade, so that’s something to consider.
Folding Tactical Knives
This quality folder from Cold Steel features a partially serrated tanto blade of CPM-S35VN steel. This steel is known for being highly corrosion resistant, tough, and keeping a fine edge. The G-10 handle ensures a firm grip. A standout features of this folder is the TrAd Lock system made famous by knifemaker Andrew Demko.
The pocket clip keeps your knife secure in your pocket when carrying throughout the day.
At under $40, this tactical folder from Smith & Wesson is a great deal on a quality everyday carry knife. The overall length is 8.6” including the 3.6” blade. I like that the blade is wide and sturdy with a tanto tip and is partially serrates towards the handle. At 7.6 ounces, the knife weighs enough to feel sturdy in your hand, but it’s not so heavy that you feel weighted down carrying it every day. The blade is made of 4034 black oxide high-carbon stainless steel, while the handle is aluminum with a rubber inlay for a sure grip.
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It’s not a tactical knife article without a few CRKT knives. I’m a big fan of CRKT because there are some CRKT knives at our house that have been in constant use for nearly 20 years and are still going strong. The M-16 is a classic. I’ve given this knife as a gift over the years because I know it will stand the test of time.
The M-16 is designed by Kit Carson and widely used by those living in the great outdoors. The Carson flipper doubles as a blade guard when not being used to quickly open the M-16. If you want a fast to open knife but don’t want the legal repercussions of a switchblade or fully assisted knife, the M-16 is a great choice.
The Swagger features an easy to sharpen high-carbon stainless steel drop-point blade. The Swagger is designed for one-handed opening with the built-in assist. The partially serrated blade is 3.25” long and coated with black titanium nitride for corrosion resistance.
The grip is textured G-10 reinforced fiberglass. The built-in clip secures this sturdy everyday carry knife in your pocket. The Swagger is not one of the US-made Gerbers, but it’s a high-quality knife with many satisfied users.
Benchmade is now a very well-known manufacturer for US-made high-quality tactical folders. The Barrage 583 features the popular tanto blade. The handle and blade are 100% stainless steel. The Barrage features the AXIS assist system for smooth and easy one-handed opening.
A reversible pocket clip is included, allowing ambidextrous carry.
The 3.6” blade is on the long side for a folding knife but that can be a good thing.
Benchmade knives cost more than most of the competition, but they offer a no questions asked lifetime guarantee. You can even send it in for an occasional servicing and just pay the shipping cost.
Check your local knife laws.
Some areas have laws regarding how long a knife blade you can legally carry. It is up to you to check the rules in your area.
Folding tactical knives are more popular for daily carry because they can be easily clipped in a pocket. Fixed-blade tactical knives are typically used for camping, bushcraft, combat, and survival situations. Many people buy at least one of each, so they have a range of blades for various situations. If you have to choose just one, get a folder first.
If you want a knife that requires little maintenance, stainless steel or high-carbon stainless steel will serve you well. Carbon steel knives require attention to avoid rust and pitting. Those living near salt water should stick to stainless steel knives. Stainless is harder to sharpen, so be sure to buy a good set of diamond sharpening stones or rods so you can maintain a good edge.
Although some knife companies have stood the test of time, many have changed where their products are manufactured and, in some cases, the materials that are used. Globalism and growing demand for some products have led some companies to outsource at least some of their production to other countries. That's why there's a big price difference between some of the knives offered by companies like Gerber and Cold Steel. You shouldn’t assume that the quality is worse. Instead, read some reviews from trusted sources and make an informed purchasing decision.
Everyone should have at least one good folding and one good fixed-blade tactical knife in their preps. The folding tactical knife can double as your everyday carry knife, while the larger fixed-blade knife is a great addition when hiking or camping. These are knives that you’ll actually use not put away as collectibles or have just to know that you have them.
Tactical knives come in a wide range of prices and quality. For most people, it’s best to buy in the middle of the price range. I have to say that sometimes, a really inexpensive knife turns out to be pretty high quality or at least lasts a long time, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending that to anyone who may have to depend on their knife for survival and defense.