If you are new to the world of pocket knives, and are just beginning to look around and figure out what you like, you will soon learn what we knife enthusiasts already know: that we live in a golden age of cutlery. There are so many companies putting out so much quality stuff right now that not only are we spoiled for choice, but indeed it can be downright overwhelming even to an experienced knife guy to decide what to buy, and why.
Yes, it is a world as intimidating as it is exciting, and so I’m writing this article for both the experienced user and the neophyte who is looking to buy a pocket knife.
Below, please use our interactive guide to compare and contrast some of the most popular pocket knives on the market:
$ = $1 – $30 | $$ = $31 – $60 | $$$ = $61 and above
|Benchmade Mini Griptillian||154CM stainless steel||3” blade||$$$||4.8/5|
|Cold Steel Code 4||Carpenters CTS XHP Alloy||8 1/2” overall||$$$||4.7/5|
|Victorinox Cadet||Stainless Steel||2.48” blade||$||4.9/5|
|Spyderco Delica 4||VG-10||7.125”||$$||4.7/5|
|Spyderco ParaMilitary 2||CPM S30V||3.4” blade||$$$||4.8/5|
|Spyderco Tenacious||8Cr13MoV stainless steel||3 3/8” blade||$$||4.7/5|
|Kershaw Skyline||Sandvik 14C28N||3.1” blade||$$||4.7/5|
We should get the obvious out of the way first: there is no “best” pocket knife. There is no knife that will do everything perfectly. Different knives are made for different purposes. That being said, I’ve come up with what I think are the five major categories of pocket knives, and chosen the best knife for each; those categories are:
- Every day carry (EDC)
Now, before we dive into the meat of our article, please take a quick look at the table below. The table is interactive, and you can compare some of the more popular knives on the market today against one another based on size, average customer reviews, price and more:
Breaking Down the Best Pocket Knives
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling pocket knives currently for sale on Amazon:
And now, below, we’ll talk about what we should expect from a knife fulfilling that role, and then discuss what I think is the best knife for the job. Let’s get started.
“Tactical” is the term we apply to a knife that is carried with the intention of being used as a self-defense tool.
Now, as the inimitable Nutnfancy rightly points out, any knife can be used in a tactical role, if the situation calls for it; similarly, a tactical knife can be used for utility tasks should that be required; but when we’re looking for a tactical knife, we’re looking for characteristics geared towards self-defense: you want a longer blade than you would for an EDC knife (preferably somewhere in the 3.25”-4” range), an ergonomic handle, and convenient carry. Because it is something that isn’t going to be used all day, every day, the edge retention of the steel is a secondary concern (although of course we don’t want junk, either), and while we’re looking for portability we should also expect something a little weightier than your average EDC knife.
Tactical knives are very popular right now, and as a category it is easily the most saturated (the endless “Zombie Killer” nonsense at your local Wal-Mart). I would nominate a blade called the Code 4, from Cold Steel, as an ideal tactical knife.
The Code 4 fulfills our requirements quite nicely: it sports a 3.5” blade, in one of three shapes (clip point, spear, or tanto), weighs a reasonable 4.1 oz., and has a simple, effective handle design. Too many tactical knives go overboard with finger grooves and aggressive texturing, when the truth is that a simple handle with a pronounced guard and a streamlined shape that allows for multiple grips is what we really should be looking for.
I said that steel choice in a tactical knife is a secondary concern, but the Code 4 also excels in this category. The 2015 models are made from CTS-XHP, a steel that is often advertised as a more stain-resistant version of D2, itself a great semi-stainless steel with a high hardness capable of taking a very fine edge. What this means for a user is that the knife will hold an edge for a long time, and, when it needs to be sharpened, can be brought to a clean, hard, and very sharp edge.
What seals the deal is the price. Cold Steel has always offered its customers a lot of blade for their money, but they really stepped up with this newer offering: the Code 4, which would be competitive at $120, can be had for less than $80. If you’re in the market for a tactical knife, it should be at the top of your list.
Every Day Carry (EDC)
In direct contrast to the aggressive tactical school of design there is the utility-oriented every day carry, or EDC, category. This is a type of knife with its own, always-growing community; the Every Day Carry Forums, or EDCF, is indicative of this.
Your EDC knife is something that, well, you have with you every day, all the time, for the times when having a sharp edge is useful: opening letters and packages, cutting loose threads, whittling, etc. This is something that is going to see a lot of use, and so our priorities change a little bit: a long blade isn’t necessary, so many of the most popular EDC knives are at or under 3”. Steel choice is very important: we want a steel that can hold an edge for a long time. A knife that you have to sharpen every other day is something you’re eventually going to stop carrying. We also want something that is lightweight. Finally, because it will be pressed into a variety of uses, an ergonomic handle with multiple viable grips is key.
For many people, the definitive EDC knife is the Spyderco Delica 4, a fine knife to be sure. In my opinion, however, the Benchmade Mini Griptilian, specifically the 555HG model, is a better choice.
The base model Delica 4 comes in VG-10, a highly rust-resistant steel, but one that does not hold an edge for a long time, and is also finicky when taken to the stones for a sharpening. The 555HG comes in 154CM, a more balanced steel. While it doesn’t keep a razor edge for long, it will retain a utility edge for months under moderate use, and is a cinch to sharpen.
The handles of both the Delica 4 and the 555HG are made from an impact-resistant polymer. Where the 555HG has the Delica 4 beat is in the ergos: the Delica, though it has a longer handle, also has some scalloping that tell you how to hold it, instead of allowing for multiple grips. The 555HG has a plain, circular handle that is comfortable and convenient.
In its original incarnation, the 556, the Mini Grip sported thumb studs, a deployment method in all ways inferior to the thoughtless ease of Spyderco’s trademarked (if unfortunately named) Spyder Hole. The 555HG is actually a variant of the Mini Grip with a similar deployment method, which is why I prefer the 555HG over the standard configuration. The addition of an opening hole turned a great knife into an all-time classic, and for $90 you’ll have a knife that will serve you well for the rest of your life.
The worlds of knives and of multitools are closely intertwined; indeed, BladeForums, arguably the leading gathering place for knife lovers of all stripes, has a dedicated sub-forum for fans of the multitool. They come in two basic varieties: the pliers-based multitool (think Leatherman), which generally features more tools, one of which is a blade, and knife-based multitools (your Victorinox and Wenger Swiss Army Knives), which are primarily a pocket knife with some additional tools. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but the knife-based multitool is, as the name implies, a knife first and foremost, and so is more germane to our conversation today.
We’re looking for a good, utilitarian blade; the tactical role is out of the question. Additionally, because we’re approaching this category from a knife-first prospective, we don’t want to be weighed down with a bunch of useless, semi-useless, or corner-case tools that we’d be lucky to use once in 20 years: it’s cool that Victorinox offers models with magnifying glasses and wood saws and the like, but for the average user these tools are just extra space and weight in the pocket. We just want a few, simple tools, so that we don’t have to go out to the garage and rummage around in the toolbox when we need to, say, tighten a screw on a vent in the house.
I’m going to echo a refrain you’ll hear all over the gear community: try the Victorinox Cadet. This is a sublime Swiss Army Knife.
First, there is the blade. The Victorinox Classic SD, the canonical SAK, has a useful, but very small (1.5”) blade. The Cadet sports a 2.5” spear point blade, a 66% increase in size, and with a commensurate increase in broadness to allow for much better slicing capabilities. The steel is the standard Victorinox blend, a very soft, but very stain-resistant steel that is the perfect choice for the sort of light-duty use this knife will see.
Now, by itself, that’s a blade worth having, but, this being a SAK, we are also getting tools: a nail file with a nail cleaner/small 2D Phillips driver on the end, a can opener with a small flathead driver, and a bottle opener with a large flathead driver. With the possible exception of the can opener, these are all good, useable tools, and they’re all crammed into two layers, so that the Cadet is not only lightweight at 1.6 oz., but thin as well; this is the definition of good carry.
This is the most affordable tool we’ve talked about so far at circa $30, and, if you’re new to the game or an old hand, but don’t have a Cadet, I really have to urge you to try one; you won’t regret it.
Pocket knives, of course, have been around for hundreds of years, and before the advent of “modern” folders in the 60s-70s, America already had a rich tradition of, well, traditional knives.
The category of “traditional knife” encompasses many different patterns and sizes, but can usually be identified by a few hallmark features: they lack clips, feature nail nicks for opening the blades, and typically will be slipjoints, i.e., non-locking blades.
Size is important in a traditional knife: often they will feature multiple blades that, like a SAK, are arranged in layers between the covers. Unless you have a specific task in mind, though, it is better to stick to 1-2 blades, both for ease of maintenance as well as weight-saving. The size of the blade or blades is important: something around the size of the Cadet’s blade is about right for everyday utility tasks. And finally, because we’re looking at a type of knife rich in history and artistry, I think that it’s fair to say that beauty is something we want in our traditional knives: something that it is simply a pleasure to look at, as well as hold and use.
Northwoods Knives makes a knife in limited batches called the Indian River Jack that is the perfect balance of the characteristics one should look for in a traditional. Similar in overall length to the Victorinox Cadet (3 5/8” closed), and with a single 2.5” blade, the cigar-pattern Indian River Jack is a dream in the pocket. The latest iteration, due out the end of this year, will be made in S35VN, a super steel with excellent edge retention that is also easier to sharpen and less prone to chipping than S30V, its predecessor; I don’t know of any other traditional knives, besides customs, that are made with such impressive steel. And, it is beautiful: available in a variety of handle materials including smooth and jigged bone (starting at around $130), it is truly what they call “heirloom quality,” while also designed to be used hard, every day.
Now why would I designate a knife as “all-purpose” when I said at the outset that there is no knife that will do everything perfectly? Well, as much as I stand by that statement, I also believe that there are knives that are pretty good at everything. They may not be ideal tactical knives, or ideal EDC knives, but they perform the functions of both admirably enough to earn not only a place in your pocket, but a category unto themselves.
The criteria are simple: we want a blade bigger than an ideal EDC, but smaller than an ideal tactical knife, so that we can flex the knife into either role without going overboard in either direction. We want a handle that is ergonomic, as is always the case. We want a good steel that can take an edge and hold it. We want a knife that is strong, but not so overbuilt as to add unnecessary weight or make for an inconvenient carry.
I believe that best all-purpose knife on the market is the Spyderco Paramilitary 2. This blade is a darling of the knife community, and when dealers get them in they sell out almost immediately, even several years after its release. It has a 3.43” blade, just under the standard “tactical” blade length of 3.5”. That blade can come in any variety of high-end steels, as Spyderco has released several Sprint Run (i.e., limited release) models with everything from Elmax to M390. The standard model runs S30V, a steel that, as I mentioned above, is prone to chipping, but if you treat it sensibly it will serve you well.
Whichever PM2 you purchase, you’re going to get what is, to my mind, the best-designed handle in the knife world: Spyderco gives you a long (nearly 5”) handle that facilitates any grip the job calls for, and which also incorporates a choil, a groove for your finger created by the handle and a cutout at the end of the blade tang, that lets you choke up for amazingly precise cuts for a knife this size. The G10 is textured without being abrasive, and is basically impervious to temperature and impacts.
The lock is Spyderco’s proprietary Compression Lock, which is sort of a beefier liner lock that wedges a leaf of hardened steel between the blade tang and a giant stop pin; the end result is the most convenient, low-maintenance lock I’ve ever seen or used. All of this comes in a carry package that comes in at under 4 oz. The Spyderco Paramilitary 2 is one of the definitive knives of the last 10 years, easily worth the $140 (base model) it costs, and deserves to be a part of every knife user’s collection.
Those are five of the best knives available in this golden age we live in. As I said, this list is in no way definitive, but it does give a new enthusiast a place to start, and an old hand a couple of tips on where to look next. It is a wonderful hobby, and an exciting time to be a part of it.
For more, be sure to bookmark Reliable Knife!
- If you enjoyed this article, please join the Reliable Knife Facebook page!