For everyday use in ordinary situations such as cutting open a package to more critical ones, such as self-defense, it is no exaggeration that a pocket knife is among the most versatile tools you can buy.
However, with so many different choices on the market today, one can easily feel overwhelmed about which one to buy for their specific needs. For exactly that reason, we have created this comprehensive guide on what to consider when buying a pocket knife.
After going through its content, you will be able to better understand which type of pocket knife is just the right one for you.
If you are looking for a knife for outdoor use then check out my article on the best backpacking knife to learn what to look for in a knife to take with you on your next backpacking trip.
Let’s start with the most fundamental – a pocket knife’s blade type. The way it is designed is not a mere aesthetic choice but reflects for what applications it would be most optimal for. Below is a brief overview of popular blade types and their ideal uses.
By far among the most popular pocket knife blade designs, a clip point is represented by a slightly curved and sloping back edge. This grants the knife a narrow, sharp tip and a deep belly, perfect for applications that require slicing or piercing.
Inspired by the design of a medieval Japanese knife of the same name, the Tanto is a highly specialized blade. While not great for everyday use, it is particularly proficient for piercing and cutting through tough materials.
Somewhat resembling a tiny scimitar, a trailing blade has a tip that trails upward and a deep belly. This design makes it great for slicing and peeling but not good for piercing.
Similar to that of a normal kitchen knife, a straight blade is a jack-of-all-trades, great for all-purpose use.
These blades feature a sloping spine and a straight-leveled edge. A Wharncliffe also tends to be thicker most other blade types. This type is great as an all-purpose knife, but particularly good for cutting and craving through hard materials such as wood.
A small blade, the pen design is largely symmetrical but with a still somewhat dull point. This blade type is not particularly sharp nor has much use beyond a few small applications.
A drop point has somewhat of a similar design to a clip point but without a curve. It’s also a great all-purpose design and is popular with survivalists and hunters.
Resembling the head of a spear, this blade has a very symmetrical design with both the spine and the sharpened edge meeting the point exactly at the centerline. As one would guess, this blade works best for piercing and stabbing.
Another highly specialized blade, the hawkbill is unusual in that it has an inward curving edge, not much dissimilar to what is it named after. Its eccentric design is specialized so that is excels at tasks such as cutting wires, box tape or cords.
The blade is named for the application for which it was originally invented. Characterized by a straight edge and a rounded spine nearing the point, its design makes it perfect for delicate cutting tasks where piercing could cause injury.
A needle point blade is similar to a spear-point but with sharper slopes. This makes it very proficient in piecing but also vulnerable to breaking. Its primary use is self-defense and not much else.
The spey blade is another very specialized blade shape that was originally designed for spaying livestock. The rounded tip with long straight blade is usually kept exceptionally sharp while the rounded tip helps prevent accidental punctures or cuts.
Pocket Knife Variations
Next up is the pocket knife variations you’ll find among each blade type. Just as with the design of the blade, these factors also can greatly influence the purpose and utility of the pocket knife.
Number of Blades
A pocket knife may feature one, two, or multiple blades. Here’s the brief on each of these.
The biggest appeal of a single blade is its simplicity. You can quickly flip open these pocket knives for use at a moment’s notice. Single blade pocket knives also, on average, tend to feature a higher quality and sturdier blade, and are less prone to breaking. Opt for a single blade pocket knife if you mainly want to buy one for highly demanding work.
One drawback of a single blade is the obvious lack of variety and it makes little practical sense to carry multiple one of them with you so have all your knife needs covered. The solution to this is to buy a multi-blade pocket featuring two or more blade types.
Of course, the problem with this would be that you might not be able to draw the right blade quickly enough where time is in the essence such as during an assault. In addition, there is often also a compromise in quality with none of the blades packing the same performance as those on their single knife counterparts.
Certain situations may demand that you carry more than just a knife. A multi-tool or Swiss army knife can grant you the versatility to perform a far greater number of tasks than any single blade can handle.
A Swiss Army style knife is great if you want a jack-of-all-trades option in which you have a number of diverse tools at your disposal at all times. However, the trade-off is that the blades they contain are usually smaller and less functional than their larger single bladed counterparts..
2. Edge Type
A blade’s edge can be plain, serrated, or a bit of both. Below we list down the benefits and drawbacks of the three.
With a simple sharp edge, a blade will allow for more controlled, accurate, and cleaner cuts, making it great for peeling, skinning, slicing, and hacking. In addition, a plain edge is great if you value convenience as you can easily sharpen it at home rather than send it to a specialist.
A drawback with a plain edge is that is doesn’t perform that well on materials that require sawing action to cut through such as ropes and leather.
Blades with a more jagged teethed edge are referred to as serrated. These blade edges are ideal for cutting through materials that a plain edge cannot handle. The teeth of the blade catch and rip through the material, allowing for easier sawing cuts.
Of course, a serrated edge doesn’t shine in much else, especially delicate tasks that may require a great degree of precision with your cuts. Also, as mentioned earlier, they can be more difficult to re-sharpen and require you to learn how to sharpen serrated knives properly, but with the right sharpening tools you can keep them sharp and ready for use.
ComboA combo edge is partially serrated on its first half and thus, offers you the best of both worlds. Not surprisingly, in most utility and outdoor pocket knives, this edge design is very popular. Like the serrated edge, you may find a combo edge to be also more difficult to sharpen.
3. Blade Length
Pocket knives come in many blade sizes. You should be very careful with the size you select for your pocket knife as it determines to a fairly large degree what you can and cannot do with it. Here is a detailed description of each of their utility.
Carrying a small-sized blade, you aren’t likely to get in trouble with authorities as they are more often legal in most of the world’s jurisdictions. A small blade works perfectly for small and delicate tasks. They also have the advantage of being easily concealable and very easy to carry.
The obvious drawback is, of course, a small blade isn’t as durable as a larger blade or strong enough for use in more demanding tasks such as hunting, cutting through hard materials and even self-defense
Medium (2.75’ – 4’)
A medium-sized knifes carries the advantage of being small enough for use in delicate cutting tasks but still large enough for usage in everything else save perhaps for the most heavy-duty ones. There isn’t much in the way of drawbacks with pocket knives of this size.
Large (>4’)Large blades are employed where a smaller one just won’t cut it (pun intended). For the most heavy-duty and demanding tasks, a large blade is the way to go. Their use in self-defense is a mixed bag, while they are certainly intimating to look at and highly lethal, they are also far more difficult to conceal. In many places, openly carrying one around could get you in trouble with the local authorities.
Knife Handle Material
A knife’s handle can be made from a diverse set of materials, each affecting its grip, feel, and handling a bit differently. Here’s a breakout for each.
The traditional material used for making knife handles. A wooden handle normally feels comfortable to the touch and provides a steady grip. Wood, while strong, isn’t very resistant to abuse from the element, making it not the most ideal material for prolonged outdoor use unless the user is experienced in its care and maintenance.
While there is great diversity within the material, in general, plastic handles tend to provide mediocre grip and lower grades and break easily from repeated abuse.
A metal handle is highly durable and lightweight but generally carries the drawback of a poorer grip and somewhat uncomfortable handling.
Synthetic composites such as G-10, Micarta and Zytel are often used to make handles for outdoor and heavy-duty pocket knives. They are strong, highly durable, and lightweight and can be augmented to provide a better grip.
The biggest advantage of a rubber handle is the amazing grip it provides but it also suffers from a lack of high durability and can be difficult to draw out of your pocket.
There are a large variety of different locking mechanisms available on the market today. The type of lock you choose depends on your intended uses for the knife as well as your personal tastes. Some of the more common knife locks are covered below.
As the name implies the knifes blade "slips" at the pivot joint and actually has no specific locking mechanism. This type of knife was much more common in many older pocket knives as well as many of the more classic styles still available today.
This lack of solid lock also makes these knives more acceptable in certain localities such as the United Kingdom where they have very strict knife laws.
The downfall of this style of knife is that if you are using it for poking or a task such as striking a flint with the spine of the knife the blade could easily close and could have the potential for injury.
This is a classic locking mechanism which has a solid bar running inside of the handle scales that locks the blade in a very secure position. It has a section of the handle along the back where the lock bar can be depressed to release the lock. Hence, the name "lockback"
A frame lock knife is similar to the liner lock below in that it uses a length of metal that is under tension that wedges against a flat spot on the back of the blade pivot and locks the blade into place. As the name implies, this length of metal is a portion of the handle itself which locks into place when the blade is fully opened.
This style of locking mechanism is usually fairly easy to unlock one handed which makes it a good choice for a multi purpose knife.
Like the Frame Lock above, the liner lock uses a length of metal under a slight spring load to lock into place when the blade is fully opened. The difference between the two is that the linerlock uses a portion of the handles liner metal to perform this task instead of the handel itself.
This allows the handle to be made out of various synthetic materials such as G-10 or Micarta while still keeping a metal liner to perform locking duties as well as add additional strength to the knife.
Other locking types
There are various other locking mechanisms on the market today. Locks such as; ball locks, friction locks, pin locks, etc. are all very functional and will hold your blade securely in the open position.
Now we’re down to the last important factor to take note of when buying a pocket knife – its opening mechanism. Below are details of the three most common types.
In a manual setup, you require your hand(s) to engage the knife. There are different variations of this mechanism. The most common and oldest being the ‘nail nick’, in which there is a little grove within the knife’s blade that allows you to use your nail to grab and open the blade.
The downside of a manual mechanism is the potential difficulty of opening the knife, especially one handed. This can be even more important when the situation is far from calm such as a critical emergency with seconds to spare.
Most every day carry style pocket knives today come with some sort of provision to easily open them one handed. These types of knives are often referred to as flippers as a quick one handed motion can flip the blade open for quick use.
There are many different styles and designs that allow this such as thumb studs, flipper tabs, and the infamous "Spydie Hole". Each of these gives a protrusion or edge where you can catch the edge of your thumb or finger to flip the blade open with one hand.
This style of blade is especially handy when working and you need to quickly flip open your blade to cut something without using both hands to do it.
As the name implies, the user can engage the blade to open with the help of a spring or lever such as pressing a small switch located on the knife’s handle. Since only one hand is required and the engagement is almost instantaneous, pocket knives with this mechanism are ideal where speed is required such as in self-defense.
However, a downside to this is that the risk of injury is higher as the blade could automatically engage in your pocket or in your hand by accident if enough pressure gets applied.
An upgraded variant of the switchblade is an assisted-opener in which the blade only engages when a certain amount of force gets applied on the switch.
Be sure note, however, that switchblade knives are illegal or restricted in some jurisdictions, even those in the U.S. So, before considering buying, make sure to do your research on local knife laws.
A pocket knife isn’t just a tool but an asset, one that can be useful in a whole host of scenarios and applications. We hope you found this guide to be useful and that it helps you make a better, more informed decision regarding what type of pocket knife you should purchase.
This post is designed to discuss the details and styles of different pocket knives. If you want to learn more about the different pocket knife brands such as Spyderco, Benchmade, or Cold Steel you can check out our post here about the best pocket knife brands.
Have any thoughts you would like to share with us? Feel free to do so in the comments below.