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Published Oct. 4, 2021

Ever wondered why no one seems to carry a pocket knife anymore? For centuries, people from all walks of life have relied on a folding knife to navigate life’s challenges, and today, countless first responders, regular joes, and G.I. Joes do the same every single day, day in and day out. Need to draw a tactical diagram in the dirt? Skip the stick, and use a blade instead. Using steel to draw on nature’s whiteboard saves time and effort while creating a consistent focal point for weary eyes and tired minds. Want to open boxes at your child’s birthday party? Need to help extricate a crash victim from a rolled vehicle? Whatever the application, a compact folding pocket knife is ready to handle just about anything life throws your way. Get things done. Be a leader. Carry a pocket knife.

For the purposes of this buying guide, the gearheads here at Task & Purpose put every knife on this list (save one) through its paces to see how they stood out in a sea of pocket knives. They include:

Best Overall

Finding a quality pocket knife shouldn’t require taking out a small loan, and the SOG Terminus XR proves it. This knife features a three-inch drop point blade constructed with cryogenically-treated,“semi-stainless” D2 steel and sports weatherproof G-10 scales for an excellent combination of minimal weight and maximum toughness. The Terminus XR comes with an ambidextrous “XR lock” that prevents the knife from closing or opening without your input. The reversible deep-carry pocket clip allows for tip-up carry by both right and left handers. The blade’s integrated flipper tab allows for incredibly fast, easy deployment, making it a very user-friendly option. Weighing in at only 3.2 ounces and measuring a nice 4.26-inches long, the Terminus XR easily disappears when not needed, yet its durable construction ensures that it can handle virtually any EDC job whenever duty calls. Want an upgraded version? Help yourself, but expect to pay more for that fancy steel.

Every knife owner needs a basic folder with a half-serrated blade like the Gerber Paraframe I. This affordable, lightweight knife is the perfect utility blade for practical, everyday use, and while it may fit the traditional function, its form is far from traditional. The stainless steel skeletonized frame safely houses the blade when stored and serves as a reliable handle when the blade is in use. This lightweight frame design results in a strong knife that weighs a mere 2.6 ounces despite its overall length of seven inches. For safety, the frame lock secures the three-inch, half-serrated blade while in use. The blade itself features a versatile clip point design and is constructed with high carbon stainless steel. The clip and thumb dual studs make for fast deployments and allow for simple, one-handed use. Of course, the Paraframe I also comes backed by Gerber’s limited lifetime warranty.

Best Premium

While the initial investment may trigger a cringe or two, there is nothing quite like a top-quality knife, particularly one like the Benchmade North Fork. This foldable hunting knife has quality baked into its very DNA, starting with the shallow clip point blade made of CPM-S30V stainless steel. Measuring just under three inches long, this blade provides an excellent balance between toughness, durability, edge retention, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening. The knife relies on Benchmade’s AXIS fully ambidextrous locking system for safety, while the beautiful wooden handle scales give it a timeless aesthetic. (A G10 handle variant is also available for use in moist environments or locales with extreme temperatures.) The dual thumb studs make this knife easy to manually deploy with a single hand, while the lanyard loop and the reversible pocket clip make it easy to carry. Best of all, the North Fork is backed by Benchmade’s limited lifetime warranty and LifeSharp blade sharpening service.

Best Defensive

In most situations, self-defense knives rely on fixed blades for maximum strength, but the CRKT Provoke Kinematic is a folding self-defense knife designed to increase blade strength by way of a unique mechanical design. Most traditional pocket knife blades terminate just past the folder’s pivot point, resulting in a virtually non-existent tang. However, CRKT’s “folding” karambit uses two arms to extend and retract the blade while allowing the tang to stretch past the usual termination point, providing the strength of a fixed blade into the size of a folder. The blade itself consists of edge-retaining D2 steel, while the rest of the knife relies on 6061 T6 aluminum for lightweight strength and durability. When deployed, the knife uses a discreet lock for user safety. The low-profile clip virtually disappears when not in use, and the 2.4-inch blade deploys rapidly, using human biomechanics to its advantage. Of course, this karambit comes with CRKT’s limited lifetime warranty.

Best Salt Water

Boating can be an absolute blast, just ask the SWCC guys. At the same time, it comes with its fair share of hazards too, which is why the Spyderco Atlantic Salt is a must-have for any maritime adventurer. This folding Salt series knife takes full advantage of Spyderco’s nitrogen-based H-1 steel for the 3.7-inch blade, perfect for its intended use in corrosive environments. The fiberglass-reinforced nylon handle is tough, durable, and lightweight and comes in either an easily visible yellow or a low-profile black. The sheepsfoot blade features Spyderco’s SpyderEdge serrated blade, an ideal design for cutting through tough materials such as seat belts, nylon tiedown straps, and similar items. In addition to the manufacturer’s trademark thumbhole in the blade, the metal pocket clip makes this knife easy to use, while the back lock ensures safe use even in high-stress situations.

Most Versatile

Looking for a high quality, highly versatile blade available for the least amount of money? Then check out the Buck Cadet. This traditional design serves as an EDC knife, an outdoorsman’s knife, and a woodworking knife all in one, thanks in part to its three blades. The 2 1/2-inch clip point blade is perfect for common tasks and carving while the smaller 1 3/4-inch sheepsfoot blade makes clean cuts, especially on flat surfaces, and the 1 11/16-inch spey makes sweeping cuts and skinning jobs a breeze. Each blade consists of Buck’s unique strain of 420HC steel for an excellent, affordable combination of strength, edge retention, and corrosion resistance, and the rosewood handle creates a sharp visual contrast to the brass bolsters. Like all Buck knives, the Cadet is American made and backed by Buck’s Forever Warranty.

Best Low-Maintenance

When performance, weight, and edge retention matter, nothing beats the Spyderco Para Military 2. This star from Spyderco boasts a 3.42-inch blade with a full flat grind and a straight edge. The blade is constructed with top-end CPM S110V steel, a steel known for amazing edge retention, and it locks open thanks to the easy-to-use back lock. Despite its tough, durable design, the Para Military 2 tips the scales at a lightweight 3.8 ounces, and with a removable, four-position pocket clip, you’ll hardly notice this pocket knife. This knife features an easy-to-clean open back design and comes with a lanyard ring to further increase carry and retention options. Spyderco’s Para Military 2 includes excellent balance and ergonomics as well, making it an excellent, low-maintenance pocket knife for just about any application.

Honorable Mention

If shaving ounces is your thing, the Benchmade Bugout is the perfect blade for you. This knife features a 3.24-inch drop point blade crafted with high-end CPM S30V steel, known for its combination of edge retention and corrosion resistance. The Bugout was designed with outdoorsmen and women, and it shows, tipping the scales at a mindblowing 1.85 ounces! The lightweight grivory grips include a diamond weave texture for added security, and the reversible mini pocket clip was designed with tip-up deep carry in mind. The dual, thumb studs and generous lanyard hole help round out this Benchmade knife’s outdoor-oriented design. To round things out, the Bugout comes in a variety of handle colors for a look you’re sure to like, and it can be had with either a plain straight edge or a combination straight and serrated edge for enhanced versatility.

Honorable Mention

Many knife owners either love or hate tanto, but either way, there’s a lot to like about the CRKT M16-10KSF. This new take on an old CRKT classic features a 2.94-inch tanto blade with a combination straight and serrated edge, constructed with 8Cr14MoV stainless steel and finished with a handsome black oxide coating. The blade includes two meaty flippers and dual thumb studs to make deployment of this blade quick and easy. Once deployed, this CRKT’s frame lock secures the blade in place. When it’s time to head home, the reversible pocket clip ensures an equally secure, comfortable ride for both righties and lefties. Weighing in at only 2.7 ounces and less than $40 apiece, this member of the M16 family does no harm to your pocket and barely leaves a dent in your pocketbook, and thanks to its durability, the only chance you’ll ever need to spring for another is if your original M16 sprouts legs.

Why should you trust us

After receiving my first pocket knife as a young kid, I’ve never been able to get enough. Usually, I’m a bit of a tightwad, saving dough for a future rainy day, but when it comes to pocket knives, my wallet has been known to take quite the hit. When I’m not writing buying guides on everything from rescue knives to old school slip joint knives, I’m cranking out full-fledged reviews of folding blades like the Buck 110 or learning the lost art of creating legendary Damascus blade steel.

Of course, I don’t test all the knives at Task & Purpose. My fellow gearheads have put their own fair share of blades through the wringer, both at home and downrange, and they’ve found their own share of diamonds worth sharing here. Rest assured that these knives have been tested by the best and brightest, both in the Marine Corps and out (but don’t tell anyone).

Types of pocket knives

  • EDC knife: An EDC pocket knife is the single-blade alternative to the multitool. Like a multitool, this traditional design provides users with a combination of durability and capability. Often, this design uses a clip point, drop point, or tanto blade with either a straight or half-straight, half-serrated edge in order to provide the best all-around performance for accomplishing common, everyday tasks.
  • Outdoorsman’s knife: Outdoorsmen of all kinds rely on their knives for any number of common duties. The outdoorsman’s knife includes any number of hunting knives and survival knives, each with its own unique abilities. Not surprisingly, hunting knives are excellent tools for field dressing game and usually include finer clip point blades. Survival knives tend to be tougher and more versatile and often employ a slightly wider variety of blade patterns, such as drop point, clip point, and tanto shapes.
  • Rescue knife: Rescue knives are a breed of their own. This design is tough and durable like its tactical, EDC brother, but they rely on radically different features. Often, rescue blades feature a sheepsfoot or other blunt-tip pattern for use in safely cutting clothing or other materials located close to flesh and bone. Serrated blades, seat belt cutters, glass breakers, high-visibility coloring, extreme blade hardening, and salt resistance are other common features that first responders and emergency personnel will require from their knives.
  • Self-defense knife: As the name implies, the self-defense knife exists primarily for use in life-threatening situations when a retreat is no longer an option. This (usually) straight-edged design is tough and durable yet exists with a single purpose in mind, ignoring unnecessary extras. While most self-defense blades rely on fixed blades with their stiff blade design, a folding self-defense knife may be the best or only option for a given use case. Commonly, self-defense blades rely on thrusting and cutting blade patterns, such as the tanto, spear point, Bowie, and hawksbill or talon blades.
  • Tactical knife: The tactical knife attempts to combine the versatility of an EDC knife with the capabilities of the self-defense knife. Like the fixed-blade Ka-Bar first issued to U.S. Marines in the Pacific Theater of World War II, this knife design can accomplish everyday tasks with ease, is tough enough for more demanding roles that require leverage, and, in a pinch, can be used defensively. Most often, these knives employ drop point or tanto blades in place of more specialized patterns.
  • Woodworking knife: For many of us, our first pocket knife was a woodworking knife, such as a Buck or an Old Timer. This woodworking pocket knife design is a multi-blade take on the traditional folder and usually boasts two or three blades with each featuring a different length and pattern than the other(s). This design makes for an excellent EDC knife thanks to a variety of specialized blades that can complete a variety of tasks better than a single jack-of-all-trades blade. The most common blade designs include the clip point, pen, straight back, spey, sheepsfoot, and wharncliffe blades.

Key features of pocket knives

  • Blade shape: A knife is not just a knife. Much to the surprise (and chagrin) of some, knives can come in a wide variety of blade shapes and sizes. Even more confusing is the fact that each blade shape was created to accomplish specific tasks, and sometimes, only a single task. Most blade owners cannot go wrong with a drop point, tanto, or clip point blade, but those looking at something exotic should do some reading first.
  • Blade steel: Most knife blades consist of carbon steel, tool steel, or stainless steel, each of which varies from the others in terms of toughness, corrosion resistance, edge retention, and ease of sharpening. Additionally, heat-treated blades are considerably harder, increasing their durability and performance. To learn more, check out this article on common knife steels. If you want more details (or just need something for a little PowerPoint practice), then read this one.
  • Safety mechanism: A safe pocket knife will never open or close without permission, but an insubordinate blade can create a sticky situation. Most pocket knives rely on springs, locks, and little friction to maintain safety. Spring systems use high spring tension (shocker, we know) to keep the blade from folding down onto your fingers, while blade locks usually rely on friction or spring pressure to keep the blade closed and a simple mechanical lock to keep it open.

Benefits of pocket knives

Pocket knives are as American as baseball, apple pie, and the Ma Deuce and are more practical than any of them (except the .50 cal, of course). A traditional or EDC pocket knife can tackle a variety of common tasks, such as opening boxes, MREs, and more. More specialized knives can handle these tasks and more. A survival pocket knife can be a solid fallback option for dealing with tough outdoor chores, such as preparing food, creating improvised shelters, field dressing game, and even digging small holes. Dedicated self-defense blades are a valuable backup tool in tactical applications, and emergency knives are must-haves for first responder applications. Of course, a good whittling or woodworking blade is always ready to help you pass the time on a land nav course while you wait for your lieutenant to catch up. Due to the pocket knife’s insanely practical value (and a shortage of M2s), we think pocket knives should be a standard issue for every American high school graduate.

Pocket knife pricing

Pocket knives can be a very affordable tool, depending on what you need them to do. Budget-friendly blades usually run at or below $50, although as a general rule, pass on anything that costs less than $15, as these blades usually use cheap, soft steels, have poor retention systems, and lack quality components and workmanship. Mid-range knives will run you between $50 and $100 and feature good quality designs, materials, and components, although they may not be the longest-lasting or most impressive blades available. If you want a high-quality knife, be prepared to shell out at least $100 for a mass-produced blade. While these blades may not be custom, one-off productions, they still boast well-engineered designs, high-end steel, top-notch components, and excellent workmanship. Short of ordering from a custom bladesmith, these are the best that money can buy.

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For over 25 years, Brian Smyth has been neighbors with the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Army’s Ivy Division. He loves the challenge of crafting words and has written for The Drive, Car Bibles, and other publications. Nothing gets him going quite like the roar of dual Pratt & Whitneys overhead, the smell of cordite, and the stories of the Greatest Generation.

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