Blades and Knives

What Makes a Folding Knife Tactical?

Sales of tactical folding knives have swelled in the past few years. Hundreds of different models are being offered and it’s rare to see a major knife manufacturer that doesn’t offer some sort of knife in this category. But what makes a folding knife “tactical,” and are they popular for a good reason or is this just a dumb fad?

Tactical knives certainly don’t look like your grandpa’s folding knives. His pocketknives featured thin blades that are extremely sharp, and usually included more than one folding blade contained in the handle. That handle was traditionally made of wood, or sometimes ivory or animal horn. The tactical folding knives are different, with a single thick blade sometimes featuring aggressive serrations, and grips made to fit the hand rather than look pretty. These knives look scary on purpose, reflecting the huge “tactical” trend that has defined the past decade and continues to grow.  But aggressive looks—blackened blades and grips made of plastic, zytel, or simply more raw metal—don’t make a knife “tactical.”  Some of the most aggressive, scariest looking knife designs aren’t tactical at all, falling instead under “fantasy” knives.  If the intended purpose is to slay dragons or protect the Klingon Empire, its not a tactical knife at all.

All Tactical Folders Have a Blade Lock

One feature all tactical folding knives have is a blade lock to hold the blade firmly in place until the user operates a lever or button to allow the blade to fold closed. The lock is a must because the tactical folder is intended for harsh tasks, where the user’s hand will be wrapped completely around the handle and gripping tightly, and where the blade may be pushed in different directions. A knife that unexpectedly collapses back onto the fingers holding is definitely an unsuccessful design!  The most popular lock type is the liner lock.  When folded inside the handle, the blade is surrounded on each side by a metal “liner.” As the blade reaches its open position, one of the liners acts like a leaf spring and jumps into the space in the middle of the handle, holding the blade open until the user pushes it back into place, allowing the blade to fold. The liner lock is simple to incorporate into a knife design with minimal cost, but it has been criticized as lacking in strength. This reputation isn’t helped by the fact that many of the cheapest knives use poorly executed liner locks, giving the design a bad name when they fail. Some tactical knives dispose of the liners entirely and use only a lightweight, skeletonized “frame lock” performing the same function. High quality knife makers often incorporate more sophisticated locking designs such as Benchmade’s AXIS lock. The AXIS lock uses a spring loaded button passing all the way through the frame, fitting into a notch cut in the back of the blade, locking it into place with great strength. The design of the lock is largely personal preference; the quality of the parts creating the locking system separates the contenders from the pretenders.

Tactical Folders Usually are Partially Serrated

Tactical folders often incorporate serrations into their blades. These little teeth aggressively saw through hard to cut materials. Serrations can add a lot of versatility to a knife—if half the blade is serrated then tough tasks which would abuse or dull the straight edge can be tackled by the serrated section of knife, saving the rest of the blade and getting the job done quickly. The disadvantage to serrations is that they dull relatively quickly and take special tools and a lot of time to sharpen. Blades without serrations are usually intended for “fine” slicing work, and blades that are totally serrated all the way down are usually intended for heavy, coarse use where no finesse is required.

Blade Shapes of Tactical Folders Must be Efficient

Tactical folders feature a wide variety of blade shapes. To describe all the tantos, drop points, bowie styles, clip points, and hawksbills would take a whole separate blog post (and maybe I will write one sometime), but regardless of the exact shape, the blade shapes are all intended to be used as competent self defense weapons. This is what separates a serious tactical folder from a traditional pocketknife or a fantasy knife. Personally, my first rule of knife fighting is to bring a gun, but there are many places where concealed carry of firearms is still very restricted. Yet folding knives with blades of ordinary length are often specifically exempted in state law definitions as not being “weapons” at all. Tactical folders are carried easily without scabbards, using clips that hold them at the ready in a pants pocket, and they are unobtrusive and lightweight. It’s easy to forget that you have one with you until it is needed. But once employed as a fighting knife, all the features of the tactical folder come together to benefit the user—the thick blade, the blade lock, the aggressive blade shapes and the ergonomic non-slip grips all combine to maximize efficiency. A high quality tactical knife is a better fighting knife than a plain pocket knife, easier to carry everyday than a decorative fantasy knife, and practical enough to be used for all the mundane chores that it will be asked to do in the course of ordinary life.

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Comments (11)

  1. See, that’s how I feel – I don’t see much of a difference – functionally – between a hunting knife and a “tactical” knife. Is it just me?

  2. Great posts!Lots of useful info. tactical folding knife certainly has its place in tactical knife…but somehow I still prefer the big fixed blade tactical knife 🙂

  3. Having done quite a bit of this type of training I came to the conclusion that the Tactical Folder is not the best bet to defend your life. Under intense psychogenic stress the first place affected as the neural surge and adrenal dump prepare the organism for the life and death battle, is the fingers. With a folder you’ll be trying to dig the weapon out….with the fingers. You’ll be trying to flick open the blade….with the fingers. Finally you’ll be trying to then shift to a more secure grip….with the fingers.

  4. As a country boy, boy scout, hunter, outdoorsman, and Marine I have come to respect the usefulness and necessity of knifes of all shapes, sizes, and styles. Tactical knifes in my experience are not folding knifes that can easily be carried in a pocket or purse. I always have a knife on me where it is legal to carry the knife. I prefer a light weight folding knife with a blade between 2-3 1/2″, has a locking mechanism, belt clip, good quality steel, and a sharp cutting edge to carry in my pocket. “Tactical” knifes are knifes that are to be used and employed in tactical environments and not a pocket knife. To anyone who wants to buy these “tactical” folding knifes should remember that unless you are trained and proficient in the use of a tactical fighting knife a basic pocket knife will serve you better. I am trained and have trained Marines in the art of knife fighting and I have found that any sharp fixed blade or locking blade knife with a thick backbone will accomplish the task at hand. The standard combat tactical knife to be compared to is the Marine K-bar. This knife is designed for “tactical” situations and to aid the Marine in surviving in a combat environment. So lets redefine “tactical” as a knife that is intended for self defense and combat operations and can perform multiple task in a combat “tactical” situation as well. And remember a 2″ pocket knife in the hands of a trained person is more deadly and practical than a 4″ locking blade hawk bill “tactical” in the hands of an untrained person.

  5. I don’t think I would ever trust a folder as a “tactical” knife. Of course if presented with a life or death situation where my only method of self defense is a knife, the better option may simply be to run. That’s why I carry a Kahr CM9.

  6. Great explanation of the difference between a regular folding knife and a tactical knife, and how marketers are using “tactical” to make their knives more appealing. I personally prefer Benchmade knives over any other brand of tactical knife. Do you have any preference?

  7. Interesting read. I was just at the Eastman gun-show over the weekend and noticed that there were a lot of “butterfly knives” being sold on tables next to tactical knives. I’m going to throw those in the “scary but not tactical” category. I do like that knife with the tanto blade though, I think I may have to pick one up!

    Great read.

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