When I was but a baby-faced butter-bar in the Marine Corps, I decided that a tactical knife needed to be among the first purchases in my military life. My hand-me-down Case XX — as awesome as it was — didn’t feel quite right in desert cammies. I looked at the latest offerings from Benchmade, Gerber, and SOG, but I felt like every Marine should have a handy KA-BAR by their side and decided to start there.
The original iconic KA-BAR needs no introduction, but it isn’t exactly EDC material for most people. A folding knife was definitely what I wanted. Enter the KA-BAR Mule: small enough to fit in a front pocket (barely) but burly enough to feel nearly as substantial as a fixed-blade knife in the open position. The blades came with a serrated section or without, and the handle is available in black or desert tan.
Editor’s note: the KA-BAR Mule also made Task & Purpose’s roundup of the best folding knives of the year.
More than a decade ago, I thought the KA-BAR Mule looked like a solid all-rounder that would be just as useful in the garage as it would in a combat zone. Years of daily use, a deployment to Afghanistan, and countless outdoor adventures backed up my initial assessment. No piece of gear is perfect, but damn did this one turn out to be a keeper.
I first laid eyes on the KA-BAR Mule in a military supply store in Oklahoma. A few other Oklahoma State guys and I had just graduated from Officer Candidate School and were in desperate need of gear for The Basic School (and a few moto items, just for good measure). Looking into the display case of knives, I saw the Mule and knew I had to have it.
Like a lieutenant colonel who partners up with you for the Combat Fitness Test fireman carry, the first thing you’ll notice about the Mule is its weight. This isn’t a pocket knife, folks — it’s a tool, a weapon. KA-BAR says the knife weighs 0.45 pounds, and I confirmed that with my food scale. That might be a bit much to toss in your front pocket every morning, but it’s something you’ll appreciate when there’s manual labor on the agenda.
Above all else, this knife is burly. The handle is thick, the blade looks like something you’d chop wood with after crash-landing in the wilderness, and you’ll always be able to feel it weighing down your pocket. Those attributes aren’t for everyone, but I like them. Sure, I’m not going to carry this in a pair of slacks around an office, but there are plenty of classier options for that kind of thing. This knife belongs in a survival kit, alongside your camping gear, or strapped to a plate carrier.
Life with the KA-BAR Mule
You can tell how comfortable someone is around knives by the way they open one. The motion should be smooth, swift, and effortless. Be prepared for that to change with the Mule. The ambidextrous thumb knob is massive, so getting a grip around that thick handle is no problem, but the arc it has to travel from closed to locked open is massive. With my hand in the normal position on the blade, I have to really stretch to get my thumb to full-lock. It’s easier to cheat up on the handle and adjust my grip after. The spring is also industrial-grade-strong. Flicking this critter open isn’t done with the wrist—it gets the elbow involved, too. Get it right, and you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying clack that’s not too dissimilar from the bolt slamming home on your M16.
The result of all this heavy metal is a knife that feels like you could chuck it out of an Osprey, dust it off (or not), and carry on like nothing happened. The blade locks into place incredibly firmly. It doesn’t matter if you’re using the razor-sharp blade to field dress a game animal or hack through firewood, this workhorse isn’t going to let you down. I’d argue it’s about as close to fixed-blade rigidity as you can get with a folding knife.
EDC-ability depends on personal style, especially if you want a knife to keep in your pocket. Did I have this thing rattling around in the sunglasses compartment of my gentlemanly Golf R? Hell yes I did, but it’s a lot more at home in the door pocket of my pickup. Whether the Mule is a piece of adventure gear or a viable EDC is up to you.
How we tested the KA-BAR Mule
So, you want a long-term test? When I bought my KA-BAR Mule, Travie McCoy was on the pop charts, Taylor Swift was just a country singer, and people were excited to get their hands on the brand-new iPhone 4. It’s safe to say I know what this knife is good at and where its flaws lie.
Testing this knife wasn’t just a matter of time, but experience as well. I wish I had a dollar for every piece of 550 cord I cut with this knife. It crafted shelters and sliced open MREs during every field exercise. In Afghanistan, it gave me a trustworthy last resort if my motivated M4 ever ran out of freedom Skittles. I can’t count the number of times it helped me set up camp or get a clapped-out dirt bike running again in the Sierra Nevadas. Around the garage, it still outperforms every utility knife I’ve come across. At this price, I’ve also never felt like I needed to be precious with it.
Students of the blade will have more to say about this than I, but for a work knife, this has been perfectly acceptable. I’ve never babied it and it’s still holding its original edge. That’s pretty impressive. But when the time to sharpen the Mule does come, the serrated portion can be tricky. Whether you want to bother with it at all is up to you, because a non-serrated version is available. I like the versatility and most of this knife’s work is done with the traditional edge, so sharpening the serrations isn’t an issue for me.
What we like about the KA-BAR Mule
There’s plenty to like about this knife. It’s rugged, utilitarian, and honest about what it is. Mine has paint worn off the blade, the rubber handle texture is worn thin, and the pocket clip fell off years ago, and these traits feel more like personalization than wear. In the car world that’s called patina, and people pay extra for it.
First, the Mule’s beefy handle makes it easy to get a firm grip. A depression on either side near the blade gives my thumb and forefinger a perfect place to hold steady. On the other end, the flared shape helps prevent the handle from slipping forward. Along the length of the handle, a series of raised rubber strips add even more texture to hold onto. These are made from soft material and wear over time, but they still add value ten years later.
Second, despite being sharp enough to shave with (but please don’t), the Mule’s blade has more in common with a machete than a katana. It’s perfectly at home chopping up kindling and splitting branches if a bit thick for precision slicing. In something like a camping or survival situation, that’s what you’d want most of the time. One of the most useful survival techniques is using a rock or piece of wood to pound a blade through logs to split them when you don’t have an ax, and this blade is more than capable of taking that kind of beating.
Finally, I swear this thing is like the Nokia phone of knives: it’s not fancy or sophisticated, but I’ve never given a single thought to pampering it. Mud, sand, rocks, and grease have all had a go at this knife at one time or another, and it never missed a beat. At around $70, I wouldn’t bat an eye at replacing it, either. Using amortization, this knife has cost me less than seven dollars a year. Not bad.
What we don’t like about the KA-BAR Mule
Nothing is perfect, not even my trusty Mule. The more you learn about knives, the more you’ll notice compromises and opportunities for improvement in this one. I’m inclined to recommend it as an addition to your collection, rather than your one-and-only.
Level of refinement
Compared to high-end tactical folding knives, the Mule feels a bit crude. It takes too much effort to open and, as durable as it is, I certainly don’t believe that Gerbers and Benchmades would fall to pieces before this KA-BAR does. If you appreciate overbuilt strength, great. If you want the latest and greatest, you’ll probably be disappointed.
About as portable as a brick
Those of you looking for a slick, high-speed, low-drag EDC knife, keep on looking because this isn’t it. The Mule has plenty of heft to it and the handle is as girthy as what you’d find on many fixed blades. The rubber strips along the side are great for creating a firm grip (while they last) but they also make it tricky to get this knife out of a pocket. I constantly found it sticking to the fabric, making smooth entry and exit difficult.
The sheath tapped out way too early
The clip doesn’t last, the knife is a burden to carry in your pocket, and the sheath is a bummer, too? Yes and no. My sheath lasted several years but it did succumb to my abuse while the knife was still going strong. The fabric was durable but it wore thin eventually. The snap closure got gummed up often, but you can blame that on Quantico slime and the moon dust that covers Helmand province as much as the actual construction.
On the bright side, I did appreciate the MOLLE compatibility. That should be a requirement for every piece of tactical gear. Go ahead and use the sheath. Just plan on buying a replacement (pistol magazine pouches work great) to keep this knife in action.
Ten years and countless uses later, how does the Mule stack up?
There are bottles of fine scotch that I keep in a cabinet, tucked away for special occasions with close company. You might also find a fifth of Jim Beam stashed in the garage to get me through exasperating repairs on my trusty, rusty pickup. The KA-BAR Mule is akin to the latter.
My Mule isn’t flashy. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to wash your hands after handling it. It’s been to hell and back and has the scars to prove it. Still, it’s never occurred to me to shop for a replacement and I don’t think anything could take this knife’s place. I have others, sure, but they haven’t earned the kind of reverence enjoyed by this old KA-BAR.
The design hasn’t changed over the years, so go get one for yourself. You just can’t have this one. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
FAQs about the KA-BAR Mule
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the KA-BAR Mule cost?
A: You can add a KA-BAR Mule to your EDC for right around $70. That’s a fair deal for something this practical.
Q. How often does the blade need to be sharpened?
A. The answer to the age-old sharpening question is “it depends.” If you abuse your knife, plan on regular sharpenings. I used my Mule normally (no blatant disregard, no pampering) and it never lost its edge.
Q. Is the Mule a good EDC knife?
A. If you can tolerate the size of the KA-BAR Mule, it can absolutely serve as your EDC. This kind of relentless durability is commendable and there have been many times when I was glad to have it on me. The sheath is a great option for situations when you need to strap on a lot of gear. The clip is handy for pocket duty, although mine did come loose and fall off eventually.
Q. Is the Mule a better option than the original KA-BAR?
A. Deciding between a fixed-blade knife and a folding knife is personal. They both have advantages and disadvantages, so you’ll want to consider your realistic expectations when choosing the right knife for any given job. The compromise with folding knives is typically rigidity; they just aren’t as strong as a full-tang fixed blade. That’s true for the Mule, as well, but I’d imagine this knife ranks pretty high in the world of folding-knife durability.
Q. How does the Mule stack up against the competition?
A. The truth is, this knife is nothing fancy. The AUS 8A stainless steel used to make the blade is a middle ground between soft steel that provides maximum sharpness and hard steel that’s more rugged. It gets the job done. You won’t get free sharpening from the factory, and your friends won’t marvel at the level of craftsmanship that went into making it. If those things are important to you, there are plenty of high-end knives that you can be proud of. This is a no-nonsense tool for the dirty work in life––and that’s OK.
Q. Is this legal to carry?
A. Check your state and local laws. Some places allow knives of certain sizes, some ban them outright. Private businesses and public spaces often have their own rules, too.
Got questions? Comment below & talk with T&P’s editors
Scott Murdock is a Marine Corps veteran and contributor to Task & Purpose. He’s selflessly committed himself to experiencing the best gear, gadgets, stories, and alcoholic beverages in the service of you, the reader.
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