What makes a folding knife tactical? Only the marketing department of the knife maker knows for sure. There are hundreds of models because different people shopping for a tactical knife have different concepts in mind. The use you have in mind dictates what features you will prefer, because form follows function. Here are my suggestions on what features match up with a few common uses for tactical folders.
The Kid’s Big Scary Knife
Every pre-teen should have a big scary knife when he or she is ready. It’s part of teaching them that some things they own are not toys, and how to responsibly interact with things that are potentially dangerous. A parent can’t prevent a child from handling all of the dangerous things in the world and then suddenly expect them to respect an automobile when they get their driver’s license, for example. It may never be used for much more than prominent display in the child’s bedroom, to impress other kids whose parents don’t dare trust their 10-year old with a sharp implement. It will teach the kid how to handle a folding knife without cutting themselves. It will be used for prying and whittling and removing toys from their packaging, and even chopping up cardboard box bad guys in the basement–while properly supervised of course. Its also a great way for the kid to learn how to sharpen knives after it inevitably gets worn down. The Big Scary Knife can be super cheap because it is likely to get either little use at all, or severe abuse before getting lost. If it has the name of a famous gunmaker on it, it brings the kid measurably closer to the coveted status of firearm ownership, as if to say “prove to us that you respect your Smith & Wesson knife, and one day you may be trusted with a Smith & Wesson .22 LR rifle.” It can read something silly like “Extreme Ops” on the side—kids love that stuff and won’t think too critically about what makes an “Op” so “Extreme” when the knife costs just $15.
The First Responder’s Knife
The first responder’s knife is a do-it-all work knife, part of their kit that they use at work every day. First responders look for value above all. They don’t mind spending more money to get a better product. However, any knife they own is going to get severely abused and potentially lost (or put in the evidence locker while a case is pending). Value is the name of the game. First responders don’t really care what a folding knife looks like or what the name on the side says. They do care if it’s too bulky or too heavy. They do care if the blade snaps while they are trying to pry a window open as a car fills up with cold water. This knife should have the ability to break automobile glass easily and instantly slice through seat belts. It needs aggressive serrations to saw through rope or even cable quickly in situations where time is life. It needs to be made of excellent steel that holds its edge very well, because this knife is going to see a lot more abuse than care. It needs to be very rust resistant. Police may want to be cautious about the name printed on the side of the knife—if your department is being sued for wrongful use of force and your knife plainly says Black Ops Recon Commando on the side, you may have some awkward explaining to do for the jury.
The Knife Fighter’s Knife
Law-abiding civilians often cannot carry a firearm for personal defense. Whether it’s the state of residency or somewhere you want to travel where “weapons” are prohibited such as a hospital or sporting event arena, carrying a pistol is sometimes not an option. What can you do? In many jurisdictions, an ordinary folding knife is exempt from definition as a “weapon”, so concealing one on your person violates no laws. Each jurisdiction is different, but a “no switchblades or butterfly knives” rule and a limit on the length of the folding knife’s blade is pretty standard. For most of us, its easy to find some pretty wicked folding knives with short blades that are not considered a weapon under your state’s laws. A good defensive knife should be useable whether you are grasping it with the blade facing upwards from your thumb or downwards from the heel of your hand. There is debate over whether a fighting knife should have serrations or not. Serrations are said to cause more traumatic injury to an assailant and be more effective in slashing movements. On the other hand, serrations may catch on bone or thick clothing, making you lose possesion of the knife when you need it most. The knife fighter may wish to make his knife as scary looking as possible, to maximize deterrent and hopefully prevent an ugly fight before it starts. Knife fighting is a very nasty thing but in “weapons prohibited” areas it may be the only alternative to fighting empty-handed or using an improvised weapon found at the scene.
Strictly speaking, tactical is a military term dealing with the deployment and movement of troops to win a war. Corporal Samuel Toloza of El Salvador’s Cuscatlan Battalion famously fended off several Iraqi insurgents with an ordinary pocketknife in 2004. On that day, his cheap pocketknife was more tactical than any CRKT or Benchmade knife I’ll ever own! Toloza’s pocketknife had no fancy features, it was simply the only tool remaining when he proved that Iraqi terrorists are no match for a pissed off Salvadoran. At the end of the day, tactical is a situation and a knife is a tool. Pick the tool that fits your situation best, and the words will take care of themselves.