photo by Maxim Potkin
How do you know which knife is right for you?
Tactical Knives magazine first began as a quarterly periodical back in 1995, published by (now defunct) Harris Publications. I wrote for Tactical Knives magazine for 16 years. During that time, between the knives which went across my desk and the ones I otherwise got to handle or play with, I must have worked with, to a greater or lesser degree, over 1,000 knives from all of the good manufacturers and many custom makers. (Of course, I didn’t extensively carry or test that many knives – that distinction would probably go to TK’s very knowledgeable editor, Steve Dick.) Between this wide exposure to knives; a modest background in the Filipino knife arts; decades of hiking; a genuine lifetime love of knives; the writer’s ability to meet with, and tap the minds of, actual experts; and a reasonably realism focused thought process, I have come to some opinions about them, some of which are strong.
Spoiler alert: Knives are primitive, simple weapons. Don’t get all confused about their “special” qualities.
- Knives are simple things. They cut and poke. They do not ward off evil spirits, nor impart knowledge or skill to their owners. They are just tools. No one gets all excited about a hammer, nor should they about a knife – not that I don’t have some real favorites.
- The steel is not very important. Yes, a great high-end steel is a joy to cut with and it will hold an edge longer than a low-end knife steel, but all knife steels these days (from the major manufacturers) are way, way better than anything that Grandpa could have wished for and he and his peers settled a continent with much lesser knives and steels. Professionals who use knives all day long, day in and day out, use pretty generic steels.
- Edge geometry is the main determinant of performance. Almost – almost – without exception, the best cutting knives which I’ve used had full flat grinds (a single grind from edge to spine) or nearly full. Scandi ground puukkos, even with half grinds, usually did well, too. Hollow grinds often sliced well, but, as you’d expect, at the price of edge retention and the ability to take a beating.
- Knives can be too hard. Too hard means really hard to sharpen and maybe brittle. There’s a sweet spot of compromise between edge retention and ease of sharpening.
- Sharpness is not the full story. How thin an edge you put on a knife is one half of the story, but how “toothy” or micro-serrated the edge is is important, too. The ability of different steels to take a particular edge with a particular tooth was the most important aspect of any steel to me. A sharp edge with no tooth will slice paper well, but not a fibrous material like rope (it will simply glide over rope).
- The simpler the blade shape, the more versatile the knife. With very few exceptions, unless you want a knife for a single, specific, unusual task, you want a straight handle and a simple blade with the point in line with it. Weird, exotic, macho, comic book looking blades are for pubescent teenagers. That said, some unusual knives do, in fact, have real application to very specific tasks.
- Almost all simple blade shapes are good at getting the job done.
- Double-edged knives are (pun fully intended) a double-edged sword. These things are purely defensive (or offensive) weapons and in the contact/distance chaotic turmoil which is a fight, particularly a knife involved fight, I have enough to worry about without having to keep track of an extra edge. Sooner or later, I always manage to “cut” myself in realistic simulations with a double-edged trainer.
- The grip (handle) is the human interface to this simple tool and is usually far more important than the blade in front of it. Handles are the failing of many an otherwise acceptable knife and most unusual handles are ergonomic failures, meant for comic books, not the real world.
- The best easy to do overall test for a general-purpose utility knife is cutting cardboard which is a surprisingly abrasive material. You simply can’t give every prospective knife a yearlong field test before making a decision about buying or carrying it.
- Most knives come with lousy sheaths. If you carry a fixed blade knife, you’ll want to invest in an aftermarket sheath. After all, you don’t get a good holster, if you get one at all, when you buy an off-duty gun.
- Many so-called “defensive,” “fighting” or “tactical” knives are all looks and no function. For just one example of a typical shortcoming (there are way too many others), see if you can stab one, full strength, into a hard object like an old tire or a piece of plywood without your hand sliding onto the edge and getting deeply cut. (Don’t try this full force right off the bat, obviously.)
- The best overall design for a general-purpose utility knife is the puukko, but it has no guard or choil, so it assumes that you are somewhat competent around sharp things. (I do admit the validity of a few other opinions on this subject.)
- Finally, if you have a knife, know how to sharpen it! It’s just astonishing how few knife owners do.
Ralph Mroz was a police officer (part-time) in Massachusetts for 20 years, seven of which he was assigned to his county’s drug task force. He has taught at a number of national, regional and international law enforcement conferences. Ralph now has three new books available on Amazon: Street Focused Handgun Training (Volumes 1, 2 and 3), as well as two newly republished books: Defensive Shooting for Real-Life Encounters, and Tactical Defensive Training for Real-Life Encounters, which are also available on Amazon.