The term “tactical knife” has been thrown around by knife manufacturers and enthusiasts without a clear-cut definition as to what actually defines a knife for it to be tactical. The scope of different varieties in terms of designs and materials makes this even harder. Generally, a tactical knife is one that bears semblance to the fighting knives of a bygone era, but with better, up-to-date materials, and features you’d use on a daily basis. Common traits that you’d find on all tactical knives are strong and often coated blades that will last in any situation, grippy handles for both left and right-handed users, and a design similar to standard-issue military knives. And they are knives you’d use hard, being more than capable for any task. To help you choose, I’ll round out the features commonly seen in most tactical knives sold today.
A range of different yet durable materials find their way in the blades and handles of a purposeful and functional tactical knife. Blades are made of different grades of stainless steel, with varying levels of trace materials. Adding carbon improves the hardness of the blade and its resistance to wear and corrosion. For higher tensile strength and better edge retention, chromium is added. Other additives also improve the properties of a tactical knife. Molybdenum, nitrogen and silicone enhance blade strength, and manganese and vanadium increase hardness and resistance to wear. Coatings also help in blade longevity. Ceramic and titanium nitride coatings give tactical knives their non-gloss finish by which they are recognisable. You’ll find numerous branded and patented names for blades used by different knife manufacturers. But for tactical knives, what’s important to remember is that blades are sharp, tough and damage-resistant no matter how or where they’re used.
As for handles, there’s more variety in the materials, something more in line with the purpose of the knife and the intended look. Typical finishes include a paracord wound around the tang, or the part of the blade that extends into the handle to make for a durable, tough knife. Tactical knives with paracord handles are often used by military and law enforcement personnel. Other handle materials are variations of ABS plastic, mainly soft-touch grippy polymers like Nylon, sandblasted aluminium for durability, and rubber or leather for better comfort. Like blades, there is also a lot to choose from in terms of handles. Handles need to be comfortable, provide enough grip with textured indentations, and last when exposed to chemicals or liquids. Getting a feel of the knife and how it sits in the hand should be a priority when buying.
Blade Types and Designs
Fixed vs Folding Knives
Most self-respecting tactical knives are of the fixed type, meaning blades don’t fold into the opening in the handle like a folding knife. This serves a purpose. Blades are longer and thicker, making them stronger and suited to cutting or piercing into harder materials. Most feature a full tang blade, meaning it extends from edge to edge, and is enveloped by the handle. Such knives are also well balanced in terms of weight, providing for better feel. And they’re the knife that will serve you the longest. That is not to say there aren’t decent folding tactical knives, but these often tend to gravitate towards smaller pocket knives, which though functional lack the overall strength, sharpness and durability of a full tang tactical knife.
Blades and Blade Points
Blades and blade tips are also differently shaped. The majority of tactical knives have a straight blade spine that ends in either a drop point or clip point, like the popular Bowie knives. Drop points have thicker spines that end in a convex-shaped point. They are good as an all-around utility blade. For deeper cuts, a clip point works better. The concave tip pierces into materials and flesh easier, making them a popular choice among hunters and in EDC. For the deepest cuts and detailed work, look to tanto blades, with blade points resembling a right-angle triangle. The type of blade and blade point you choose will determine how you use your tactical knife and the types of cuts the knife makes.
Size and Feel
Choosing the size of a tactical knife mostly depends on what you intend to do with it. Smaller knives are generally preferred in everyday carry, while knives with bigger and longer blades are best for heavy-duty work. Blades range from around 5 inches in smaller fixed bladed tactical knives with an overall length just shy of 10 inches, whereas bigger knives gravitate toward 7-inch blades and 12 inches in length. This also affects how heavy the knife is, along with the choice of materials. Combined with a simple handle design providing just the right amount of grip, this makes for comfortable handling. There are much bigger knives out there, but tactical knives favour utility and portability, over pomp.
Many tactical knives have features that enhance usability. Serrated blades are common, and will easily cut through fabrics and plastic. Also, at the end of the handle, steel pommels are used to crush bones, rocks, glass and nutshells.
When choosing a tactical knife, look for quality blades and handles, preferably with a full tang design; one that is comfortable to handle and of the right size and features that suit your needs and budget.