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“It did not last long. It is only in the movies that knife fighters stab and miss and slash and miss and tussle over several city blocks.”
― James Jones, ‘From Here to Eternity’
Almost every 1990s action movie has a scene where the hero (or villain) pulls out a tactical knife, a long piece of cold steel sharpened to a razor’s edge, and proceeds to go to work. While, hopefully, you don’t have any communist regimes to overthrow any time soon, maybe you’re looking for a blade to take with you when hiking or jogging, or something for self-defense? Perhaps you just need a solid fixed blade for that next field op?
Regardless of the purpose, here are our top picks for the best tactical knives worth carrying
- Best Overall: Cold Steel SRK
- Best Budget: CRKT Minimalist Bowie
- Best Fixed Blade: TOPS Knives US Combat Knife
- Best Concealed: Hogue EX-F03 Hawkbill
- Best Folding: Cold Steel Black Talon II
For more than three decades, the Survival Rescue Knife, or SRK, has been one of Cold Steel’s most lauded blades. Often copied and cloned by other companies, the Navy SEALs’ standard issue knife for BUD/S training has yet to be outdone, and for good reason. This tried-and-true design is rugged, uncomplicated, and affordable.
The base model is made in Taiwan from SK5 high-carbon steel, which is known for its toughness and wear resistance, despite being extremely inexpensive. In our testing, it proved extremely durable and had decent edge retention, all while remaining easy to resharpen in the field with basic sharpening stones. Cold Steel also has higher-end models available in premium steels, including DLC-coated CPM 3V. The handle is made from Cold Steel’s Kray-Ex, otherwise known as kraton. This rubberized polymer has deep checkering to ensure a solid grip, no matter what environment you may find yourself in.
Our main complaint is the Tuff-Ex finish, which appears to be some sort of epoxy finish or powdercoat. While it provides decent protection from wear and corrosion compared to simple paint, it does start to show wear after some, unlike the DLC coating used on most of Cold Steel’s more expensive knives. For the price though, you can’t go wrong — six inches of Japanese steel, a comfortable handle, and a sheath made from fiberglass reinforced nylon, all come together to form a knife just as tough as the servicemembers who trust it with their lives.
- Blade length: 6 inches
- Blade material: SK-5
- Blade finish: Tuff-Ex
- Handle material: Kray-Ex
- Blade shape: Clip point
- Sheath material: Secure-Ex
- Weight: 8.2 ounces
Tough SK5 steel
Textured, comfortable handle
Tuff-Ex finish wears off easier than DLC
One of CRKT’s most popular models designed by custom knifemaker Alan Folts, the CRKT Minimalist series has steadily grown over time to include a wide range of blade shapes, including Wharncliffe, cleaver, clip point, drop point, spear point, hawkbill, and tanto variants. All of them have three things in common. The first is being extremely budget-friendly. This is largely due to them being, well, not large, but is also unfortunately due to them typically coming with budget steels like 8Cr13MoV, or even 5Cr15MoV on the older models. Thankfully, Smoky Mountain Knife Works has you covered with this SMKW exclusive in tough D2 tool steel.
At just over two ounces when sheathed, the Minimalist gets its moniker from the spartan nature of the handle. Full-tang construction, micarta scales, and deep finger grooves ensure that you’ll maintain a secure grip — despite only being designed for three fingers. The micarta scales are an upgrade over the normal green resin-infused fiber scales and make it slightly grippier when wet.
While D2 steel is a little more prone to corrosion, normal blade maintenance should easily prevent rust from forming. The hollow-ground blade allows for a very acute edge and is easily resharpened. And, thanks to the paracord lanyard and adjustable belt clip that it comes with, you can carry it any way you want.
- Blade length: 2.13 inches
- Blade material: D2
- Blade finish: Bead-blasted
- Handle material: Micarta
- Blade shape: Clip point
- Sheath material: Zytel
- Weight: 1.6 ounces
- Weight with sheath: 2.2 ounces
Upgraded to D2 steel
No blade coating
Few knives are as iconic as the Ka-Bar Fighting/Utility Knife. Ubiquitous with the United States Marine Corps and nearly 80 years old, it’s as legendary as the M1911A1 that ‘won two wurld worz.’ As with most vintage designs, however, the Ka-Bar is far from perfect. A thin rat tail tang is most people’s primary complaint, while others dislike the thin blade (and even thinner tip). Designed by a Marine Corps veteran, the TOPS US Combat Knife fixes these issues.
Laci Szabo started off by updating the classic clip-point design to have a full-tang, greatly increasing the overall strength and durability of the blade. In addition, the spine is 2mm thicker than that of the Ka-Bar, which translates to a visibly thicker tip. The quillons are notably thicker as well, and the entire knife is finished off nicely with grooved micarta scales that harken back to its predecessor. While this premium fixed blade is notably heavier than the Ka-Bar, it’s worthwhile, given all the improvements.
- Blade length: 7.5 inches
- Blade material: 1095
- Blade finish: Black powdercoat
- Handle material: Micarta
- Blade shape: Clip point
- Sheath material: Nylon
- Weight: 17.5 ounces
Made in USA
Tough, high carbon steel blade
Textured micarta handle scales
Based out of Nevada, Hogue Knives has built a reputation for producing quality, American-made knives, and the EX-F03 is no exception. EX-F stands for extreme fixed-blade, and it’s easy to see why. It’s made from a singular piece of 154cm steel, which has a solid balance of edge retention, corrosion resistance, and toughness.
We went with the Hawkbill model, which, while small, allows for a full grip while maximizing cutting potential. The black, textured G10 grips are as ergonomic as the rest of Hogue’s grips and are slightly hollowed out on the inside. Combined with the skeletonized tang, this helps keep weight down, while providing a space to store smaller items.
The finger ring is actually part of the G10 handles, which means that you can make the EX-F03 shorter and lighter simply by unscrewing the scales. Included with the knife are two sheaths: a black nylon belt sheath and a black Boltaron neck sheath. The sheaths allow you to insert the Hawkbill with the orientation for both right- and left-handed draw, which makes this even more versatile.
- Blade length: 2.25 inches
- Blade material: 154cm
- Blade finish: Stonewash
- Handle material: G10
- Blade shape: Hawkbill
- Sheath material: Nylon/boltaron
- Weight: 3.13 ounces
- Weight with sheath: 5.2 ounces
Made in USA Quality 154cm steel
Finger ring aids unsheathing and retention
Includes two sheaths
G10 finger ring slightly less durable than steel
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, 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 Tri-Ad 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.
- Blade length: 4 inches
- Blade material: CPM S35VN
- Blade finish: Satin
- Handle material: G10
- Blade shape: Tri-Ad lock
- Pivot type: Phosphor-bronze and
- Weight: 4.8 ounces
Premium S35VN steel
Stiff pocket clip
Things to consider before buying a tactical knife
Tactical knives 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 easily find a tactical knife that suits your needs. You can find them at pretty much any sporting goods store or online, and they’re available at pretty much every price point.
Types of tactical knives
Any knife with a blade that is “fixed” in place — that is, one that is securely affixed to the handle and lacks a pivot — is considered a fixed blade. In many ways, they’re the polar opposite of pocket knives. Unless sheathed, the blade is always visible. Due to the lack of a complicated locking mechanism, they are straightforward, easier to manufacture than folding knives, and very user-friendly. The more resilient fixed blades are designed with a full tang, where the portion of the blade inside the handle has the same shape as the handle. Unfortunately, most inexpensive fixed blades are not; they contain a weak metal “tail” that is frequently epoxied or pinned inside the handle and are more prone to breaking.
Also known as pocket knives, folders are compact knives that contain at least one blade that folds into the handle, preventing the need for a bulky sheath. Conveniently carried in your pocket, they’re legal in most municipalities and can be extremely handy for everyday tasks. There are some that are quite large like the XL Espada from Cold Steel, but the majority will have blades between three to four inches in length. Folders are extremely versatile, despite being typically smaller and weaker than their fixed blade brethren.
Key features of tactical knives
The blade shape and general geometry are two of the most crucial factors to consider when selecting the appropriate blade, as they have a significant impact on the utility and longevity of your knife for particular applications. A box cutter will perform noticeably better than a machete in its intended purpose, while the machete will perform noticeably better when used outdoors. Some tasks call for a thicker, more powerful blade, while others call for a thinner, slicier blade. A knife with a very thin tip might be perfect for delicate, intricate work, but if used for cutting, will probably break.
As many different blade shapes as there are, there are even more different kinds of blade steel available for tactical knives. Although high-carbon steel rusts more readily and is frequently less durable than premium stainless steel, it is typically tougher and easier to sharpen than stainless steel. Lower-quality steel is less expensive and usually easier to resharpen, while premium steel, whether carbon or stainless, typically has considerably higher hardness and edge retention.
A box cutter would not be used to cut through the undergrowth, just as a sword would not be used to open an envelope. While you might want a longer blade for a tactical knife, your state, county, or city might have restrictions that limit the length of your blade. Having said that, it’s generally preferable to have a little bit more length than is required — you can do a lot with an extra inch or two.
Nowadays, there are a wide variety of materials that are frequently used for handles, and each one has its own distinct advantages. Despite being more easily compromised by weather and rot than modern materials, wood and leather are classic choices frequently seen on traditional blades. You’ll have a better grip with rubber handles, although different compositions may be vulnerable to UV rays or abrasion damage. Our personal favorites are G10 and micarta because of their enhanced grip in harsh environments and resilience against abrasion, chemicals, water, UV radiation, and temperature variations.
FAQs about tactical knives
You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.
Q: Where should I carry my tactical knife?
A: This depends entirely on the knife, and what your local restrictions are. Some municipalities disallow open carry, while others only allow open carry. Some limit where you can carry knives in general. As always, it’s best to be informed before you pack up to head out. KnifeUp.com is a fantastic source for up-to-date information.
Q: What type of tactical knife is best for self-defense?
A: The one you train with. No, really. As with a firearm, if you aren’t training with it, you shouldn’t be carrying it for self-defense — you’ll only be endangering yourself.
Q: What is the best length for a tactical knife?
A: Depending on your intended use, you may need a longer or a shorter blade. In general, though, you’ll want to stick with a two- to four-inch blade for concealed carry, while you can get away with longer blades when you’re open-carrying out in the field. Just make sure to check your local regulations before you do so.
In general, there’s an unfortunate market for “tacticool” knives and mall-ninja blades. If something’s legitimately tactical, however, it’s also practical. Most of the blades on this list are proof of this, as they are just as handy for EDC or camping use.
I’ve been collecting and selling knives for nearly a decade and was even a blacksmith’s apprentice for a while. I’ve also written extensively about the subject for Task & Purpose. In addition to writing guides about Damascus knives, utility knives, and karambits, I’ve also reviewed individual blades like the Cold Steel American Lawman, WE Stonefish, Leatherman Curl, Cold Steel Storm Cloud, QSP Penguin, and Spyderco Slip Stone. Bluntly put, I’m a nerd — pun intended.
For this article, we used recommendations shared in forums around the internet, particularly a handful of Facebook groups for knife enthusiasts. We relied on these sources because the members tend to provide better feedback than what you’d find in product review sections on most knife websites.
The knives we selected came highly recommended because of their overall quality and performance. We looked for blades that were durable, versatile, and easy to maintain. We considered things like the materials used for the blade, handle, and sheath, as well as the manufacturer’s reputation for quality control. We specifically looked for blades that were corrosion-resistant, either due to them being stainless steel, or having a protective coating if they were high carbon steel. Leather sheaths were avoided, as were wooden handles, due to their tendency to retain moisture.
For more information on our methodology and product reviews, check out the Task & Purpose review guidelines.