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Published Mar 11, 2022 3:16 PM

“Taken,” “Burn Notice,” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance” all have one blade in common: the karambit. Originating in 11th century Indonesia, it was purportedly designed to mimic a tiger’s claw, though it was most commonly used as a general-purpose utility knife originally. It was soon recognized for its martial value, however, and saw extensive combat use throughout Southeast Asia.

Karambits may vary in size, but they do share some common features: They have a hawkbill-shaped blade, typically with a very acute tip, and the majority have a finger ring on the pommel. The ring allows for a more secure and consistent draw and helps lock your grip in place, even in extreme environments. This makes it especially useful for those in wet environments, rock-climbers, and first responders as an EDC knife. The needle-like tip allows for pinpoint accuracy and easy penetration, while the recurved blade pulls the material in, utilizing the entire edge without the blade being able to slip out.

While it might be a staple of mall-ninjas everywhere, the karambit has undeniable functionality, both for utility and self-defense. It’s used in quite a few martial arts, including Silat, Kali, Arnis, Eskrima, Bersilat, and Kuntao. Read on for our list of the best karambit knives on the market.

Tops Knives designed the original Devil’s Claw as an easily concealable blade with an intentionally short handle to reduce printing in most clothing. Having achieved that, they noticed that their hawkbill-style blade was essentially a karambit, and as a result, the Devil’s Claw 2 was created.

Made from the same, differentially heat-treated high-carbon steel as its older sibling, the Devil’s Claw 2 is tough, easy to sharpen, and holds an edge. The 1095 steel isn’t stainless steel, so Tops coated it in their proprietary Black Traction Coating for a durable layer of rust prevention. It’s slightly textured, allowing you to choke up on the blade for more detailed work. However, the blade is made to almost the exact same dimensions as the original’s, so the most visible difference is the slightly longer handle, and the addition of a traditional finger ring. This allows for a more secure, comfortable grip, especially when combined with the contoured G10 handle scales and jimping.

While the elongated handle can make concealing this karambit slightly more difficult than its predecessor, it’s still small enough to be easily concealed. Combined with the versatile Kydex sheath, finding the perfect carry position is limited only by your imagination. Whether you’re opening boxes, cutting nylon straps, or carrying it for self-defense, the Devil’s Claw 2 has you covered.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.13 inches
  • Blade material: 1095
  • Blade finish: Black traction coating
  • Handle material: G10
  • Weight: 5.6 ounces
  • Weight w/sheath: 7.2 ounces
  • Sheath material: Kydex
PROS

Tough 1095 steel is easy to sharpen and has decent edge retention

Full tang

Kydex sheath

Black Traction Coating for improved grip/corrosion resistance

Made in USA

CONS

1095 steel is more rust-prone than stainless steels

Unexpectedly, Schrade replaced the previous longtime selection for this category, the Steel Tiger. Their karambit, the SCH111, is not only cheaper, but also has the advantage of being made with 9Cr18MoV stainless steel. This gives it better edge retention and corrosion resistance than the older Aus8. Schrade went one step further by adding a Titanium Nitride (TiN) coating to greatly increase the corrosion and wear resistance of the blade.

The full tang is skeletonized for weight reduction, and it comes with a length of paracord in case you choose to wrap the handle for comfort. Also included is a break-away ball chain to let you set the included sheath up for neck carry. Due to its low cost, quality control varies, and some users received blades with dull edges. It’s also worth noting that the handle, at 3.5 inches long, may be too short for larger hands, but if you don’t have either big hands or a big budget, this karambit will do nicely.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3 inches
  • Blade material: 9Cr18MoV
  • Blade finish: Gray TiN
  • Weight: 2.29 ounces
  • Sheath material: Thermoplastic
PROS

9Cr18MoV has good edge retention/corrosion resistance

Full tang

Rust- and wear-resistant TiN coating

Lightweight

Inexpensive

CONS

Handle might be too small for some hands

Cheap sheath

Editor’s Choice

Marine veteran Connor Toor started out tinkering with military-issued knives in his backyard, but his interests soon evolved and he began developing blade designs of his own. Today, the company that shares his namesake is dedicated to designing and building reliable, tough knives from premium materials, but not for a premium price. The Karsumba is no exception: Made in his small shop in California from American steel, this knife is built to last.

The knife features micarta handle scales made from green canvas, milled and contoured to comfortably stay in your hand without any hot spots. A more EDC-friendly design, they opted to not include the traditional finger ring, shortening the handle, while allowing for better ergonomics and easy concealment. The blade is made from American CPM S35VN steel which is a popular choice for everyday use due to its edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance. The more recent batches have been upgraded to CPM 3V, which is even tougher. Regardless of which gen you purchase, the Karsumba has a black MicraCoat finish for corrosion resistance and reducing reflections, and the blade is short enough to be legal in most areas.

While the knife is on the higher end of the mid-tier price range, you get more than what you pay for, both in quality control and high-end materials. This includes the black Kydex sheath that it comes with, which is compatible with Ulti-Clips and other mounting systems, allowing you to carry this however you want. Whether using it in a reverse grip for self-defense or a forward grip for utility, this cryo heat-treated blade will comfortably rise to the occasion.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 2.5 inches
  • Blade material: CPM S35VN
  • Blade finish: Black MicraCoat
  • Handle material: Canvas micarta
  • Weight: 6.5 ounces
  • Sheath material: Kydex
PROS

Premium CPM S35VN steel for toughness/edge retention

Full tang

Kydex sheath

Made in USA with lifetime warrant

CONS

Price

Best Fixed-Blade Karambit

The Bastinelli Kalinou is a traditional karambit with a modern twist. Bastinelli Creations is known for their aesthetically pleasing designs, clean lines, and especially for their karambits. Produced in Italy by Fox Knives, the Kalinou is modeled after traditional karambits, with a thin blade, needle-tip, and extreme recurve.

The Kalinou is lively in the hands at just under three ounces and is made from a single piece of Swedish N690 steel. This gives it good corrosion resistance and edge retention while remaining easier to sharpen than other popular steels like S35VN. The elegant, razor-sharp blade has a stonewash finish, which helps camouflage scratches while limiting light reflections.

The knife is finished off smoothly with a rounded tang and milled G10 scales, making it feel great in the hand, and comes with a Kydex sheath for multiple carry options. While it’s definitely not designed for utility use, and it’s a little on the pricier side, this classy Italian blade is the perfect knife for trained professionals.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 2.75 inches
  • Blade material: Bohler N690
  • Blade finish: Stonewash
  • Handle material: G10
  • Weight: 2.9 ounces
  • Weight w/sheath: 3.8 ounces
  • Sheath material: Kydex
PROS

N690 has good edge retention/corrosion resistance

Full tang

Lightweight

Kydex sheath

CONS

Price

Best Fixed-Blade Karambit Trainer

The absolute most important thing about carrying a karambit for self-defense is, unfortunately, the most neglected: training. Without proper training, you’re likely to be ineffectual at best — and liable to accidentally hurt yourself or others at worst. Naturally, you can’t easily and safely train with a live blade, whether practicing solo, going through training drills, or sparring.

Cold Steel fills the gap with their karambit trainer, based on their popular Steel Tiger. Unlike the real steel variant, this mimicry is made out of Santoprene, which is a rubberized polymer. This gives the trainer rigidity while allowing it to be flexible enough for safe sparring. Just make sure to wear eye protection.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 4 inches
  • Material: Santoprene
  • Weight: 2.4 ounces
PROS

Inexpensive

Santoprene is durable, yet flexible

Ergonomic

CONS

No sheath

Most Innovative Karambit

Arguably the most eccentric karambit on the market, the Provoke was originally created by knife designer Joe Caswell, of Caswell Knives, as an extremely compact folding karambit that could deploy quickly and intuitively. CRKT was quick to recognize the uniqueness of his Kinematic mechanism and come out with a production model. We opted for the variant that features VEFF serrations, but there are plain edge variants as well.

The Provoke’s handle is made from thick arms of aluminum, which helps keep the weight down a little. A stainless steel pocket clip retracts to sit flush with the handle when not in use, minimizing potential hot spots. Deploying the blade is quick and easy with a downward flick of your thumb. The chisel-ground blade is made from D2 steel, which is a semi-stainless tool steel that holds a decent edge. D2 is more rust-prone than stainless steel, so CRKT added a black TiN coating for improved corrosion and wear resistance.

Closing it is a little less intuitive than opening due to the placement of the liner lock, but the lock itself is easily disengaged once you get used to it. The Provoke is a little pricey for a knife made with D2 steel, but that cost is mostly coming from the kinematic mechanism. CRKT also offers a thermoplastic sheath, should you prefer belt carry over the low-profile pocket clip.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 2.41 inches
  • Blade material: D2
  • Blade finish: Black TiN
  • Handle material: Aluminum
  • Locking mechanism: Liner lock
  • Weight: 6.1 ounces
  • Sheath material(optional): Thermoplastic
PROS

Semi-stainless D2 steel for good edge retention

Rust- and wear-resistant TiN coating

Compact design

Aluminum handles

CONS

Price

More moving parts mean more potential points of failure

Best Fighting Karambit

There’s no way around it, so we’re just going to up and say it: The Black Talon 2 is a dedicated people-opener. It has little to no utility use, and Cold Steel is unapologetic about that fact. Based on Spyderco’s Civilian, it was designed for only one task, and it did very well at said task. Cold Steel’s imitation is the greatest form of flattery and is beefed up in pretty much every respect.

Cold Steel started off with Andrew Demko’s ludicrously tough TriAd lock. Slim, textured handle scales made from American G10 ensure that you’ll have a solid grip, even in the most extreme conditions. The viciously recurved blade is made from premium American S35VN steel and is available in both plain and serrated edges. The Black Talon 2 features a visibly stronger tip than its predecessors, which corrects the fragile, needle-like tip that snaps off all too often on the Spyderco Civilian. Last but not least is the Demko Thumbplate, which allows you to open the knife automatically when drawing it from your pocket, similar to the Emerson Wave.

The Black Talon 2 is uncannily good at turning one piece of meat into two pieces of meat and isn’t something you want to casually handle. It’s one of a very few select knives that we’d describe as frighteningly sharp. Buyer beware, this knife is almost too good at what it does.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 4 inches
  • Blade material: CPM S35VN
  • Blade finish: Satin
  • Handle material: G10
  • Locking mechanism: TriAd lock
  • Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Pivot type: Phosphor-bronze and Teflon washers
PROS

Premium S35VN steel

TriAd lock

Demko Thumbplate

Scary sharp

CONS

Not a traditional karambit profile

Stiff pocket clip

Best Compact Karambit Fixed-Blade

Need as small a karambit as possible? The Diagnostic from Bastinelli Creations might be exactly what you’re looking for. This blade is designed to be carried as a neck knife and has an overall length of merely 3.75 inches.

Manufactured by Fox Knives in Italy, the hollow-ground Diagnostic is made from a solid piece of N690 stainless steel and is coated in a tough black Cerakote finish. To make it as low profile as possible, Bastinelli shortened the handle to two inches. There’s room for exactly two fingers on this tiny claw, courtesy of a finger groove and a finger ring for your middle finger. While it’s not a full handle, it’s surprisingly comfortable and comes with a Kydex sheath and break-away ball chain for everyday carry.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 1.75 inches
  • Blade material: Bohler N690
  • Blade finish: Black cerakote
  • Weight: 0.93 ounces
  • Sheath material: Kydex
PROS

N690 has good edge retention/corrosion resistance

Full tang

Durable cerakote coating

Extremely small and lightweight

Kydex sheath

CONS

Two-finger handle

Price

Best Folding Karambit

As one of the most popular folding karambits on the market, the Fox Knives 479 is affordable and functional. While it’s available in many variants, the one we opted for features rough-textured G10 scales reinforced with steel liners. This makes it slightly heavier, but also helps it feel more solid in the hand. Combined with the ergonomics and spacious grip, even those with big mitts can use this folder comfortably.

A recurring theme of Fox Knives is that the blade is made from N690 stainless steel and is coated with their black Idroglider finish. There are three primary ways to deploy the blade: a thumb hole, an Emerson Wave on the spine, and a flipper tab. The Emerson Wave works fairly well once you get the hang of it, allowing you to draw and open the 479 with one smooth motion. The flipper tab is a different story, requiring a wrist flick to deploy the blade.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty common for the pivot to be fairly stiff initially, as it runs on unpolished phosphor-bronze washers. It’s a temporary setback, however, as phosphor-bronze is self-lubricating, and will become a lot smoother with time. Some users found the G10 to be too rough, while others found it to be just right. Its blade isn’t as curved as some karambits, making it easier to use for small utility tasks, while still being a good option for self-defense.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.1 inches
  • Blade material: Bohler N690
  • Blade finish: Black Idroglider
  • Handle material: G10
  • Locking mechanism: Liner lock
  • Weight: 3.53 ounces
  • Pivot type: Phosphor-bronze washers
PROS

N690 has good edge retention/corrosion resistance

Emerson wave feature

CONS

Stiff pivot

Rough-textured G10 handles

QC varies

Best Folding Karambit Trainer

Based off of the Fox Knives 479, this trainer is almost identical but with two visible differences. The blade is made from 420c instead of N690 and has had the edge left completely dull, and the tip extremely blunted. The steel change makes sense, as you don’t need to worry about edge retention if you don’t have an edge, and 420c is tough enough for practice and sparring while remaining fairly corrosion-resistant.

The blade also has several holes drilled into it so that you can quickly distinguish it from a live blade. As an added precaution, Fox Knives changed the color of the G10 to red, making it virtually impossible for you to confuse this trainer with the real deal. That said, it is still going to hurt if you make contact, as the blade is still metal, so make sure to wear proper safety equipment and eye protection.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.1 inches
  • Blade material: 420C
  • Blade finish: Satin
  • Handle material: G10
  • Locking mechanism: Liner lock
  • Weight: 4.59 ounces
  • Pivot type: Phosphor-bronze washers
PROS

Red handle and skeletonized blade for easy verification

Blunt blade

420c steel for toughness and corrosion resistance

Rough-textured G10 handles

CONS

Stiff pivot

Rough-textured G10 handles

QC varies

Why you should trust us

A self-described knife nerd, I’ve dabbled in blacksmithing, martial arts, and competitive shooting in the past. My past reviews for Task & Purpose include the Cold Steel American Lawman, WE Stonefish, Leatherman Curl, Cold Steel Storm Cloud, and Spyderco Slip Stone.

Types of karambits

Karambits come in many different forms and sizes. No matter what task you have in mind or what your local restrictions are, it’s probable that you’ll be able to find a blade that suits your needs. Whether you’re a Kali practitioner or in need of an EDC/utility knife, there are options for you at pretty much every price point.

Fixed-blade

A fixed blade is any knife with a blade that is “fixed” in place, meaning that it doesn’t have a pivot and is firmly, immovably attached to the handle. They’re essentially the opposite of pocket knives. The blade is always exposed unless it’s sheathed. They’re simple, easier to manufacture than folding knives, and very user-friendly due to the absence of a confusing locking mechanism. Fixed-blades can be double- or single-edged.

Folder

Also referred to as a pocket knife, a folder is a compact knife that features one or more blades that fold up into the handle in lieu of using a bulky sheath. Meant to fit easily inside your pocket, these knives are legal to carry in most places, and are convenient to carry and use daily. They are frequently smaller than fixed blades, with blades typically between three and four inches long, although there are many exceptions that are both longer and shorter than this. Folding karambits are also limited to being single-edged, due to the spine of the blade always being exposed. However, they’re quite handy — they can do everything from peeling an apple to cutting rope or canvas to opening packages. Though these folding knives are typically smaller and not as strong as their fixed blade siblings, they’re highly versatile.

Trainer

These are commonly used for practice and training as a notably safer substitute for “live blades,” i.e., knives that are sharp. Typically, trainers are made of rubber or plastic, though unsharpened, blunted metal training blades do exist.

Key features of karambits

Blade length

Depending on the intended use, you might need a longer or shorter blade. For utility uses, you’ll want something around three to 3.5 inches; for self-defense, it will depend on how you train, in addition to taking into account the laws for your state, county, and city, in case they restrict your maximum blade length. Typically self-defense karambits are on the smaller side so that they’re easier to conceal, but there are exceptions.

Blade profile

While a karambit can be used for utility tasks, typically you’ll want one that is more of a traditional hawkbill shape, with a thicker, stronger tip. A lot of karambits are designed with a super-thin tip and extreme recurve, which is great for self-defense and martial use, but probably won’t work as well for utility

Steel type

There are a ton of different karambit models available in different steel alloys, depending on your use and environment. High-carbon steels tend to be tougher and easier to sharpen than stainless steels, but rust much easier, and often don’t have as good edge retention as premium stainless steels. Lower-end steels like those found on gas station knives are cheaper and typically easier to resharpen, but premium steels, whether stainless or carbon, tend to have noticeably better edge retention and toughness.

Benefits of karambits

Finger ring

Also referred to as a safety ring or retention ring, a finger ring is one of the most recognizable features on your average karambit. As its different names suggest, it’s a metal ring on the rear of the handle that you can slip your finger into. This helps you retain your grip on the knife, whether the blade got stuck, you’re using it in adverse conditions, or your assailant is trying to wrestle it from your grasp. When held in the traditionally-used reverse-grip, the ring can be used similarly to brass knuckles. However, it’s important that the ring is large enough, thick enough, and chamfered so that you don’t run the risk of degloving your finger.

Needle tip

When compared to other hawkbill blades, karambits tend to have significantly thinner, pointier, needle-like tips. This is especially true for those designed for self-defense and martial arts. It allows the blade to slip into softer materials with minimal resistance but is less durable against hard materials than other, thicker tips.

Recurved blade

One of the other most notable features of the karambit is the downward curve of the blade, or recurve. As a type of hawkbill, this recurve helps pull the material you’re cutting further into the blade, whereas upswept blade designs like the clip point and drop point might slip away or glance off.

Karambit pricing 

Budget

Plenty of karambits are budget-friendly and priced at $100 or less. You’ll find quite a few fixed blades and a few decent folders in this price range. If you just need something as soon as possible for self-defense, an expendable tool, or if your inner Scrooge absolutely has to pinch those pennies, this might be for you.

Mid-range

If you’re looking for a karambit that offers the best bang for your buck, you’ll find most of those in the mid-tier range of $100 to $300. These knives will tend to be made with better materials, designs, and overall much better quality control.

Premium

Only accepting the best of the best? You’ll want to look in the $300-and-up price range. Here’s where you’ll find specialized karambits and custom knives, and they’ll typically come with premium materials and a great warranty.

How we chose our top picks

We chose our top picks by looking at karambit knives at various price points and then assessing which ones had the best customer reviews and highest ratings. We then examined the durability and versatility, along with the materials and quality control that went into making each knife. Karambits that had no-name stainless steel blades, poor ergonomics, or sheaths that weren’t ambidextrous were eliminated.

FAQs on karambit knives

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: Is it illegal to carry a karambit?

A: Karambits are legal in most states, but it depends on your state’s knife laws and local restrictions. Laws that limit your blade length or ban carrying fixed-blades concealed can severely limit your options. To check out your state’s knife laws, click here.

Q: How dangerous are karambits?

A: As dangerous as any other knife. Without proper self-defense training though, karambits become less dangerous to assailants and more dangerous to the user.

Q: Is a karambit used for self-defense or utility purposes?

A: While the karambit is primarily designed for self-defense, it can still be used for many utility tasks. Some karambit models are designed primarily for self-defense, others for utility, and some as a happy medium between the two.

Q: I think karambits are cool, especially for doing tricks with. Should I get one?

A: No. Spinning a karambit around your finger might look cool, but it serves no practical use, and you risk accidentally cutting yourself. There are a lot of important nerves, tendons, and blood vessels in your hands and forearms that are at risk if you play with your karambit. Karambits are tools, not toys.

Q: Are karambits good for self-defense?

A: The short answer is no. The long answer is that successfully using a karambit for self-defense requires training, and a lot of it, so we’d heavily advise against getting one for self-defense unless you’re willing to put in the time and effort to become proficient.

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Josiah Johnston is an active duty Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, originally from the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. He’s dabbled in blacksmithing, martial arts, competitive shooting, and is a self-described knife nerd.

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