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Published Aug 26, 2022 10:15 AM

Kershaw knives are renowned for punching above their weight when it comes to getting the most for your money. The brand’s reputation doesn’t seem to be on the same level as, say, Gerber or Benchmade, and that’s not entirely fair. The best Kershaw knives are quality items, and plenty of knife enthusiasts reach past much more expensive knives to put a Kershaw in their pocket on the way out the door.

In addition to pocket knives built for your EDC, rescue, hunting, fishing, or just a bit of style, Kershaw makes a nice selection of tactical knives that were built with military use in mind from square one. A while back, we reviewed the best rescue knives on the market and did an in-depth review on the Kershaw Clash; now we’re aiming that same magnifying glass at the tactical segment. The result is a list of the best Kershaw knives that thrive in the military.

Best Overall

If you made a wish list of features you want on a tactical knife, you’d probably want things like high-quality steel, a sharp point for piercing, great protection against the elements, and automatic opening. The military-focused Launch 6 checks all those boxes and then some to earn the top spot on this list.

The Launch 6 has been in production for years. In many ways, it hits the sweet spot as a generalist knife that can do just about everything you’ll need in a military environment. The 3.75-inch blade is large enough to do some serious work, whether in the field or as a hand-to-hand weapon, but the folded length easily fits into a hip pocket and the clip can be moved from side to side. You don’t have the luxury of babying your gear, and this knife’s aluminum handle and CPM 154 blade with Cerakote can withstand weeks of abuse between cleanings.

The Launch 6 is the only automatic knife on this list. This style of opening mechanism is lightning fast and only requires one hand, which is a big advantage in the field. Still, it’s not for everyone. There are places you won’t be able to take this knife. Another consideration is the CPM 154 steel used in the blade, which is notoriously difficult to sharpen. The tradeoff is excellent edge retention, and you can always send the knife back to Kershaw for professional sharpening when you have some downtime.

This is a great knife for someone who spends a lot of time in the field. It can survive adverse weather, endure hard use, and make everyday tasks easier. It’s expensive but, if you find yourself sleeping on the ground more than the bed in your barracks room, it’s well worth the price.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.75 inches
  • Blade profile: Drop point
  • Steel: CPM 154 with Cerakote coating
  • Handle: Anodized aluminum
  • Opening mechanism: Automatic
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Launch 6 is one of the most versatile and desirable knives in Kershaw’s tactical collection. It’s a solid automatic with quality steel and an easy-to-carry shape.
PROS

Lightning-fast automatic opening mechanism

Solid corrosion and wear resistance from the CPM 154 blade

All-metal construction is extremely strong

CONS

Automatic knives are restricted in some places

Slightly small for some military tasks

Best Budget

Despite what your recruiter may have told you, enlisting in the military isn’t exactly a great way to make a ton of money. If the time between paychecks seems to be getting longer and longer, you can still get a quality knife that doesn’t break the bank. In fact, it can even save you money because you won’t need to replace it prematurely. Allow me to introduce the Kershaw Fatback.

Getting the Fatback to such an accessible price is all about picking your battles. For the blade, Kershaw turned to budget-friendly 8Cr13MoV instead of the upscale CPM 154. Rather than a protective layer of Cerakote, the Fatback gets a black oxide finish. Instead of letting a button deploy the blade, you’ll have to manipulate a flipper tab. Kershaw has pulled all this off well because the resulting knife doesn’t feel like a cost-cutting exercise at all. The plain-edge, drop-point blade is more than capable. The SpeedSafe assisted opening mechanism is delightfully crisp. The pocket clip isn’t just reversible from side to side, it can also position the knife tip-up or tip-down in your pocket.

Anyone on a tight budget should have the Fatback at or near the top of the list. It’s a huge value for money and is small enough to carry every day, so you’ll get plenty of use out of it. Would I want to use it as a fighting knife overseas? Hell, no. But I’d happily slay MRE packaging and Amazon boxes any day of the week. Considering that this affordable knife is backed by Kershaw’s warranty and can be mailed off for professional sharpening whenever you want, it’s a clear winner over the vast majority of knives in its price range.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.5 inches
  • Blade profile: Drop point
  • Steel: 8Cr13MoV with black oxide coating
  • Handle: Glass-filled nylon
  • Opening mechanism: SpeedSafe assisted with a flipper tab
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Kershaw Fatback is priced like a bargain-basement pocket knife, but offers vastly superior materials, build quality, and support to become one of the best buys out there.
PROS

Black oxide coating adds corrosion resistance

Fast, easy-to-use SpeedSafe opening mechanism

Four-position pocket clip for customizable carry

CONS

Definitely on the smaller size

On the budget-minded side of steel types

Best Assisted

The Kershaw Clash takes a lot of the things people like about the Fatback and cranks up the volume to make a more field-worthy tactical knife. If you want one affordable knife to do everything, a blacked-out Clash with a partially serrated blade is a solid choice.

Like Kershaw’s other entry-level knives, the Clash uses budget-friendly 8Cr13MoV steel and glass-filled nylon to keep production costs down. It’s also manufactured in China, although design, prototype, and quality control are still handled in Oregon. When I did a hands-on review of the Clash a while back, one thing that stuck with me is the incredibly strong action from the SpeedSafe opening mechanism. It snaps the blade into place with more force than any other knife I can remember. Serrated blades are a matter of personal preference, but this one does open up your options and makes the Clash a versatile piece of gear.

The handle is a little chunky for everyday use and it takes up a lot of room in the pocket of jeans or board shorts, but it’s fine for baggy cammie trousers. When you consider how well this knife performs in a wide range of situations and how affordable it is, it starts to look like an awesome field companion. Drag it through the mud, cut 550 cord, and clean it whenever you get around to it. The Clash is proof that you don’t have to spend a lot to get a quality tactical knife.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.1 inches
  • Blade profile: Drop point
  • Steel: 8Cr13MoV
  • Handle: Glass-filled nylon
  • Opening mechanism: SpeedSafe assisted with a flipper tab
Why It Made The Cut
  • During hands-on testing, the Kershaw Clash proved to punch above its weight. Its forceful assisted opening mechanism and versatile, partially serrated blade are an asset in the field.
PROS

Excellent opening mechanism and accessible flipper tab

Partially serrated blade is up for anything

Represents a solid value

CONS

Uses more affordable, entry-level steel than some Kershaw tactical knives

Thick handle is bulky in the pocket

Best Pocket

I swear that some people are convinced that life in the military is a nonstop montage of Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor. Yes, we all like our tactical gear, but sometimes it’s nice to have just a little bit of chill. Maybe you’re looking for a knife to carry out in town, or maybe you don’t want to feel like a Rambo wannabe every time you need to open an envelope in the S-1 shop. If you need a classic, understated pocket knife that can hold its own, the Kershaw Federalist is an awesome choice.

The first thing you need to know is that the Federalist is the only truly manual knife on this list. It isn’t automatic and it isn’t spring-assisted; the only thing moving the blade into position will be your own fingers. The nail nick is a time-honored approach, but it does require both hands and — of course — a fingernail to deploy this blade. Unlike other pocket knives in this genre, the Federalist uses modern touches where it can. That means you get premium CPM 154 steel and weatherproof Micarta handle scales.

This is a great option for an EDC or more formal events, but I recommend leaving it in the barracks when you go to the field. The lack of a locking mechanism is the biggest hindrance to heavy use, so let this knife stick to what it’s best at. It’ll be a great addition to your collection and a high-quality tool when you need a blade that doesn’t scream, “Thank me for my service.”

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.25 inches
  • Blade profile: Clip point
  • Steel: CPM 154
  • Handle: Micarta
  • Opening mechanism: Manual with a nail nick
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Kershaw Federalist is a modern take on the classic American pocket knife. Step up your game with CPM154 steel and Micarta handle scales without going fully tactical.
PROS

High-end steel and handle material

Understated appearance; real-world usability

Slim shape takes up minimal pocket space

CONS

Nail nick is slow and somewhat tedious to use

No pocket clip

So, you need a solid EDC but the Clash is too tactical and the Federalist is too genteel. It sounds like you need a true go-anywhere, do-anything knife that can ride on your plate carrier all week and jump into the pocket of your civvies for the weekend. What you need is the Kershaw Cryo II BlackWash.

Everything about this knife screams durability. From the BlackWash finish to the stainless steel handle, it’s like a metal album you can stab things with. At the same time, it only costs about $50, so there’s no pressure to be precious with it. At that price, you’ll still get the satisfying SpeedSafe assisted opening, a confidence-inspiring frame lock, and a pocket clip that can be mounted in four different positions to carry the knife tip-up or tip-down on either side. That edgy BlackWash finish is for more than looks, too. A Kershaw spokesperson confirmed that it’s one of the best finishes for minimizing signs of wear and tear. I suspect that it’ll look even better as you break it in.

One thing you should consider is the lack of texture on the handle scales. It won’t be a problem most of the time but, if things get messy (like they often do in the field), something like the Clash might be a better alternative. Aside from that, this is a solid, reliable EDC knife that you can truly count on every day of the week — with just a slight bias toward casual use. Think of it as a compromise between the Clash and the Federalist.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 3.25 inches
  • Blade profile: Drop point
  • Steel: 8Cr13MoV with BlackWash finish
  • Handle: Stainless steel
  • Opening mechanism: SpeedSafe assisted with flipper tab
Why It Made The Cut
  • What’s more metal than an all-metal, blacked-out knife? The Kershaw Cryo II BlackWash’s stainless steel handle scales bump up durability while a BlackWash finish protects the budget-friendly blade.
PROS

BlackWash finish hides wear marks

Fast and easy one-handed opening

All-metal construction is extremely tough

CONS

Blade steel is relatively entry-level

Some handle texture would be nice

Best Fixed Blade

Folding knives are great because you can carry one just about anywhere and stay within the bounds of polite society. In combat, however, an old-fashioned fixed blade is every bit as relevant as it was hundreds of years ago. The Kershaw Secret Agent is a refreshing departure from the usual bushcraft and Bowie knives that we turn to so often, and it might be just what you’re looking for in a military knife.

To understand what the Secret Agent is, let’s start with what it’s not — and that’s a bushcraft knife. You aren’t going to baton firewood, craft wooden tools, or light fires with this blade; it’s an unashamed, raw combat knife. The skinny, spear-point blade is made for piercing rather than hacking or slicing. It’s built for the coldest realities of combat; ones that deserve your attention if you’re going to join the American freedom team for a road game.

You’ll notice that the price is appealingly low, and that’s a function of cost-effective materials like 8Cr13MoV steel and a rubber handle. It’s also a benefit of not needing a complicated opening mechanism. Buy this knife, lash the sheath to your plate carrier, and choose something else to take off base. I hope you never have to use it, but it’s a good blade to reach for if you do.

Product Specs
  • Blade length: 4.4 inches
  • Blade profile: Spear point
  • Steel: 8Cr13MoV
  • Handle: Rubber
  • Opening mechanism: It's a fixed blade, buddy
PROS

Slim profile takes up very little space

Fixed blade is always ready

Rubber handle provides loads of grip

CONS

Too large to carry in your pocket

Not sturdy enough for bushcraft-style activities

Things to consider before buying a Kershaw knife

We’ve all bought plenty of knives on our own, but sometimes it’s helpful to go straight to the source. I got in touch with Dominic Aiello, marketing manager for Kershaw and Zero Tolerance Knives, to get his take on knife shopping.

“When buying a knife, you want to consider how, where and when you’ll be carrying and using your knife,” Aiello said. “Are you wearing bulky gloves or are your hands frequently wet or greasy? If so, a textured grip might be the best option, such as the Blur. Will you have both hands free to open the knife? If not, then a manual opening nail nick wouldn’t be a good choice. How much pocket real estate are you willing to dedicate to your knife? Do you have large hands? If so, you’ll want a longer-handled knife. Answering these questions can help narrow down your choices.”

Take a trip over to the Kershaw website, and you’ll be met with 30 pages of products to sort through. The company also offers a helpful buying guide, but these are three main considerations that should factor into your purchasing decision.

Opening mechanism

First and foremost, do you want a fixed-blade knife or a folding knife? Kershaw offers both. If you want a compact and portable folder, do you want help opening it? Assisted mechanisms like Kershaw’s SpeedSafe help you deploy the blade rapidly with minimal effort. Automatic knives take it a step further by opening the blade with the touch of a button. That’s a serious asset in the field, but it can limit where you’re allowed to take your knife.

In my exchange with Aiello, he pointed out that the design principles behind Kershaw’s tactical knives go beyond the opening mechanism. They’re also built for superior piercing ability, which is why you’ll notice a lot of spear points in the tactical collection.

Blade steel

Kershaw has a lot of options when it comes to choosing steel for its blades. Kershaw’s high-end tactical knives tend to get high-quality CPM 154 steel, which is favored for its toughness and ability to hold an edge after extensive use. Others get D2 steel, which offers limited corrosion resistance but improved edge retention. Both require some effort to sharpen, but that’s a worthwhile tradeoff considering how infrequently you’ll have to break out the whetstone

On the budget-friendly end of the spectrum is 8Cr13MoV, an alloy chosen for entry-level knives that need to hit an affordable price point but still provide reliable functionality in a wide range of environments.

Kershaw also offers a range of treatments and coatings to protect its blades, regardless of composition. Aiello recommends thinking about where you’re going to bring your knife when choosing a specific blade coating. 

“Personal preference seems to be a significant factor when choosing the finish,” he said. “However, some finishes will be more durable in certain environments and heavy use. For example, a Cerakote finish can help prevent rust in wet, damp, or salty environments, but BlackWash or StoneWash will help hide heavy-use wear better.”

Budget

Of course, none of these details matter if you can’t afford a knife in the first place. Setting a budget for yourself will help you narrow down your search. Fortunately, Kershaw has always made value a priority, so you can get more than you pay for. You should also remember that Kershaw backs its knives with a limited lifetime warranty and offers complementary sharpening — you just pay for shipping and processing.

FAQs about Kershaw knives

Q: Are Kershaw knives high-quality?

A: Yes, Kershaw makes very good knives and they’re generally a great value.

Q: Is Kershaw as good as Benchmade?

A: The best knives from Kershaw and Benchmade are comparable, but Kershaw also makes a healthy selection of more affordable knives. 

Q: Are Kershaw knives made in China?

A: Many Kershaw knives are made in China; others are made in the company’s Oregon facility. Kershaw specifies where each knife is made.

Q: What steel does Kershaw use?

A: Kershaw uses a dozen types of steel to make its blades. The result is a product lineup that has something for every budget.

Q: Does Kershaw have a lifetime warranty?

A: Yes, Kershaw knives are backed by a limited lifetime warranty

Final thoughts

These Kershaw knives are all great options for people in the military, but the best has to be the Kershaw Launch 6. It checks all the boxes for an outstanding combat knife. It’s portable, opens with the press of a button, withstands the elements, retains a razor-sharp edge, and easily fits into your pocket. What’s not to love?

Methodology 

Kershaw makes more knives than I can keep track of and, frankly, most of them would be more than adequate around town or in garrison. For this Kershaw knife review, I focused on the ones that would excel during a combat deployment or long weeks in the field. That meant focusing on Kershaw’s tactical models, although I was open to a few others. I also went straight to the source for an insider’s perspective on what works in the military — and why. For that, I turned to Dominic Aiello, marketing manager for Kershaw and Zero Tactical. Not only does he have extensive expertise, but he also carries a Launch 1 and knows first-hand what Kershaw’s tactical knives are capable of.