Finding The Perfect Pocket Knife
Here’s what to look for and how to buy one.
If you rarely use a knife, then multitool with a blade may work for you. But, the blades in them tend to be made from cheap steel, the way they fold out of the handle makes it hard to take advantage of the blade’s full length, accessing the knife is typically a slow, two-handed job and the handle probably won’t provide either a secure purchase or comfortable, variable grip. Those reasons are why carrying a separate, quality pocket knife in addition to a small multi tool makes sense.
My personal setup is this keychain toolkit in addition to a pocket knife. Most days, that knife is a Spyderco Paramilitary 2. Together, that load out fits in my right jeans pocket comfortably, giving me both the ability to effect quick repairs to virtually anything, and also to quickly deploy a strong, ergonomically ideal knife in just a couple seconds. As we discussed over the weekend, that ability could save a life.
Well, in your pocket, duh. But, think about which pocket and how you want it to ride. If you opt for a Swiss Army knife, it won’t have a clip. That means you’ll need a deep, secure pocket to carry it in or, better yet, a cargo pocket or dedicated slot in an organizer pouch. Most blade-only pocket knives come with a clip. But where is that clip on the knife? Do you want it to ride tip up or tip down? Left or right hand opening? And, how deep does that clip allow the knife to ride in your pocket?
The best pocket clips live on SOG knives. They allow the entire handle of the knife to disappear in your pocket — the top of the clip protrudes from the base of the handle — while pinching your pants tightly to ensure you won’t lose the knife.
Spyderco gives you the option to reposition its clips to the top or bottom of the handles, on either side. But, its clips leave a half inch or so of the handle and folded blade protruding above your pocket. Not only is that arrangement less secure, but it shouts to everyone around you, “Hey, I’ve got a knife!”
Some knives also come with carabiner clips integrated into the handles or other methods of attaching the knife to a pocket or whatever. Or, you can do what I’ve done to my Spyderco and remove the crappy clip altogether in favor of a square-braid paracord lanyard.If you’re buying a knife to carry, then being able to carry it conveniently, securely and discreetly is the single most important feature.
Want a tiny little knife that’ll fit in your coin pocket, but which is still made from a quality steel, has a strong lock and comfortable handle? I love my little SOG Access Card 2.0. At $50, it’s not super cheap, but it’s made with a better steel than most other knives in the company’s lineup.
This will sound counterintuitive to the uninitiated, but locking blades (that typically come with big, scary-looking knives) are actually designed to be safer than their non-locking cousins (think Swiss Army Knife). Locking the blade open strongly and securely prevents it from being forced back onto your hands and fingers under hard use. The benefits of your knife’s blade not closing on your soft, fleshy parts should be obvious.
If you plan to use your knife for big jobs, then you’ll want one that locks open. If you just want a little blade for occasional cheese slicing, then a non-locking design should be adequate.
The hinge and locking mechanism is where knife makers try to differentiate themselves from one another. No folding knife will ever be as strong as a fixed blade, but different locking mechanisms can be stronger or easier to use than others. Every major knife manufacturer has its own, patented locking mechanism and claims its is best. Whether it be a frame lock, compression lock, arc lock, axis lock or whatever, it’s reasonably safe to assume that anything made by a quality manufacturer like SOG, Spyderco, Benchmade, Cold Steel et al will get the job done, but pay particular attention to lock mechanisms when reading knife reviews or handling them in a store.
Size Matters: A longer blade will be able to do more and do it quicker. But, local regulations may limit blade length. For example, Chicago limits blades to just 2.5 inches.Cops will often use a visible knife as a excuse to stop and search you or, if they stop you for other reasons, as justification to detain or arrest you. It’s your responsibility to avoid giving them a reason to do so.
Blade Styles: No, knives aren’t just sharp, pointy things. There’s many different ways a blade can be constructed that will effect their slicing performance, strength and what they can do. Let’s look at some common blade styles and talk about how they differ.
Clip Point: A good all-rounder. The upswept edge is good for slicing and the narrow, strong point is good for penetrating.
Drop Point: To my mind, the most versatile option available. The upswept edge makes slicing easy and the point is strong for piercing. Unlike clip points, these blade usually have flat or high grinds, which are better for cutting performance.
Tanto Point: The strong, reinforced tip is designed for penetration at the expense of cutting performance and practicality. But hey, it looks like a Samurai sword!!!1!
Spear Point: Designed for penetration, but retains the drop point’s “belly” for decent slicing performance.
Trailing Point: A skinning knife with a weak tip.
Hawkbill: These days, you’ll most often see these on Karambit-style fighting knives, but they used to be used for cutting cordage and harvesting plants. Avoid unless you’re a police officer or someone who actually needs a dedicated knife only for last-ditch defense.
Straight-Back: An all-purpose knife that’s good for chopping, slicing and cutting.
Sheep’s Foot: The blunt point makes these a great option for rescue blades (you won’t stab someone as you cut their seatbelt or clothes off) or for dive knifes. They’re also great for cutting and whittling and insanely easy to sharpen.
Wharncliffe: Like the similar Sheep’s Foot, these are great for cutting tasks and easy to sharpen. A good option if you want to carve wood.
Needle Point: A dagger. Not good for anything but impressing other mall ninjas.
Pen Knife: This blade shape was traditionally used to sharpen quills, hence the name. A good all-rounder, but nothing special. What you’ll find on Swiss Army knives.
Spey-Point: Designed to spey animals (seriously), this shape is now found on folding knives sold to hunters and is great for skinning.
On top of that, blades come with different types of grinds. In general, a flat grind is the best all rounder and chisel grinds are cheap garbage (or used on very slim blades), You’ll find hollow or convex grinds on high-end, custom or semi-custom knives and taper grinds are typically found on cheaper blades.
How It Opens: You should be able to use your knife one-handed, so its opening method/mechanism matters. On a Swiss Army knife, you have to hook your fingernail into the detent while holding the handle with the other hand. Most other knives have thumb studs or holes that allow you to flick the blade open with your thumb while holding the handle in the same hand. Make sure the stud is on the correct side if you’re left-handed. Protruding studs can be annoying though, getting caught on pocket linings, earphone cords and similar. I prefer the ambidextrous holes used by Spyderco, which are just a more elegant solution.
Some knives also include “assisted” or spring opening mechanism. Where tradtitional, push-button “switchblade” knives are banned in many places and just a needlessly complex and therefore failure-prone design, assisted openers require you to initiate the blade opening movement, then step in and spring it open once you’re about a third of the way along. That may sound tacticool, but any time you’re adding springs to an opening mechanism, you’re adding a major point of potential failure and needlessly complicating a design in a totally unnecessary fashion.
A plain ol’ locking blade with manual opening is just as fast, just as easy to use and much less likely to break.
Features: Because it’s a crowded market, knife makers are packing all sorts of features into pocket knives in an effort to achieve differentiation. Most features are bullshit, but a glass breaker can be a nice thing to have (never try to break a car window with a knife point, you’ll cut your hands) and building a slot into the handle so you can cut cordage without opening the blade isn’t going to hurt anyone. Avoid bottle openers or box wrenches or anything else that may weaken a blade or complicate a knife while adding a point of failure.
Types Of Steel: Most pocketknives these days are made with stainless steel. While we recommend strong, easily-sharpened carbon steel for survival knives, stainless makes pocketknives a little less maintenance intensive.
There’s numerous alloys used in blades. VG10 is a great option that’s easily sharpened, but holds an edge well. S30V holds its edge a little better, at the expense of a little more sharpening effort. SOG’s AUS 8 isn’t great at either. Knife nerds can argue about alloys for days on end, if you’re not one, just look for a knife with a named alloy and a description from the manufacturer of its attributes. Or put it in Google. Don’t pay more than $30 for any knife that doesn’t list its steel alloy (looking at you here, Gerber and your crappy mystery steel) and avoid anything that’s listed as “surgical grade” or similar. That’s just a meaningless marketing claim used to pass off cheap blades as something they’re not.
Plain or Serrated Edge? Plain edges are easily sharpened and, so long as they’re sharp, will cut anything you ask them to. Serrated edges are designed to easily cut cordage and manmade materials. They can be handy on a dive knife, but are otherwise just a pain in the ass; once they dull, you’ll have to have them sharpened by a professional.
Blade Play And Liner Materials: Open a knife and try and wiggle its blade side-to-side. Can you feel it moving in its handle? If so, don’t buy it, that’s a weak knife that’ll break on you. A blade should be held securely between two slabs of metal called “liners” that make up most if not all of the recess the blade folds into, adding strength to the handle, too. Some modern designs ditch these liners for space age materials like Zytel, which is supposedly harder than steel. Maybe I’m a luddite, but I trust steel over marketing claims. This is another reason to avoid assisted opening knives, which necessitate blade play in order to work. Again, that builds in an additional point of potential failure.
Handle Materials: Like steel types, there’s an insane variety of materials used for handles. In general, look for something that’ll provide good grip. Rather than smooth plastic, look for a textured material that’s comfortable in the hand like G10, Zytel or even wood. Slippery aluminum, titanium, bone or steel handles are less ideal.
The Total Package: You want a knife that’s convenient, strong and which will hold an edge. Start there and add features or fancy specs as your budget allows or you desire.