Best Tactical Knives Reviewed & Tested
Can we be honest? Sure we can. Don’t we all dream of that moment when we get to (either in jest or not) look at our compatriots or competitors and say with our best down under accent: “that’s not a knife…. this (brandish your blade), this is a knife.” We can admit that was a factor for us when we began digging into the options in the world of tactical knives. Finding the right one can seem complicated. These are high quality blades. They are investments and just like that aunt that you have who freaks out when she finds you using sewing scissors to cut paper, you want to make sure you’re using a knife for it’s intended purpose. There are different lengths, styles, blade and handle materials, and even different edges. Each one is tailor made to fill a unique role. In order to pick the right tactical knife it’s important to think about what you’ll be using the knife for, where you’ll be using it, and how often you’ll need to reach for it.
Fixed blade knives are rugged and durable but they aren’t very well suited for everyday carry, especially in public. If you plan on using your knife in or around the ocean you can rule out carbon steel blades, which rust quickly when they’re exposed to the salt spray. A knife that’s used daily needs to hold an edge more reliably than one that mostly stays safely sheathed. Using this buying guide, and a little bit of common sense, you’ll be able to find a knife that lives up to your expectations.
Our Top 3 Picks
- SOG SEAL Pup Elite E37SN-CP
- Blade spine rasp for notching, filing, and thumb placement
- SOG SAT004-CP Flashback
- Fastest assisted opening blade available, includes a reversible pocket clip
- Morakniv Bushcraft Carbon Black
- Fixed-blade knife with a razor sharp thick carbon steel blade
What Is a Tactical Knife?
At their most basic level, a tactical knife is any blade that’s been designed to meet mil-spec standards, operate in harsh conditions, and fulfill a particular tactical need. Those needs can range from protecting yourself in close-quarters combat to opening boxes but, as long as the knife has been designed to meet military specifications for ruggedness and reliability, it’s a tactical knife.
Are Tactical Knives and Fighting/Combat Knives the Same Thing?
The best fighting knives tend to be tactical, but not every tactical knife is a fighting knife. In general, folding knives should only be used for self-defense in an emergency, or unless it has a locking mechanism, which we’ll talk about. That will ensure it won’t do more damage to you than your target. Tactical knives come in all shapes and sizes, but only a few are true combat knives.
There are a few things that really set combat knives apart from a typical tactical knife. Combat knives will have some sort of finger guard, a heavier blade, and often times they will have a reinforced point for stabbing and thrusting. Most combat knives have fixed blades, but Columbia’s M16-14ZSF Zytel Desert Special Forces is an excellent example of a modern folding combat knife.
Tactical knives that aren’t designed for combat offer very little finger protection to the wielder. Their blades are thinner which increases the chance of breaking or bending the knife if you ever use it in a self defense situation. Also, tactical knives typically carry most of their weight in the handle, while true combat knives have much better balance.
What Will You Be Using Your Tactical Knife For?
The most important question you can ask yourself before spending money on a high-quality tactical knife is what you’ll be using the knife for. Figuring out what you expect from your new knife is the key to choosing the best tactical knife for your situation.
A knife for everyday carry and utility work will look and perform much differently than the best fighting knife on the market. For more information check out Section 5, and learn how to find the best tactical knife for your particular needs.
How Often Will You Be Using Your Tactical Knife?
How frequently you reach for your knife is nearly as important as what you’ll be cutting when you pull it out. Certain steel types, which will be covered below, are better for daily use than others. Extremely hard steel can chip and, although it holds an edge better, in some cases it might make more sense to just sharpen the blade more frequently rather than risk damaging your knife.
Factors to consider when buying a tactical knife
One thing that the best tactical folding knife has in common with its fixed blade brother is durability. Above all else, the knife that you choose should be able to handle everything you can throw at it. While not every knife will be exactly the right choice for every job, all of these top 10 tactical knives will work for you in a pinch simply because they’re so tough and well made.
What materials make the best Tactical Knife?
In general, you should look for a knife with a composite handle, a good quality steel blade, and a sheath or clip that allows you to carry your knife securely and without worrying over whether or not it will fall out of your pocket or off of your belt. All of the knives in this buying guide have been carefully selected to meet those needs, freeing you to choose the best tactical knife for your individual needs.
Blade size considerations
Look for the smallest knife that does the job that you need it to do. Longer blades are more prone to bent or broken edges, they’re heavier, and some knives aren’t legal to carry over a certain length. It’s more important to find a knife that is well suited to your hand than it is to buy the largest knife you can afford.
There are a few basic edges on modern tactical knives. The most common is a hollow ground straight edge, and this is the sort of knife that springs to mind when you think of a combat knife.
There are also combination edges, with both straight and serrated areas on the blade, and they’re well suited to utility work like cutting cordage, branches, and cardboard.
There is also a specialized edge, called a Scandinavian grind, which is easy to sharpen and maintain even if the knife’s steel is very hard and high in carbon.
When we talk about blade shape we’re mostly referring to the point of the knife. There are three commonly used points: clip, drop, and tanto.
Clip pointed knives taper to the tip from the spine, or top edge, of the knife and combine the strength of both tanto and drop points.
Tanto points taper in a similar way, but they do it from the bottom, which leaves a thick, sharp tip that works well for thrusting and stabbing.
Drop point knives don’t taper as sharply as the others, and the gentle sweep of the tip of the blade makes them ideal for skinning and other delicate jobs.
The amount of carbon in the steel of the knife determines how well the blade holds an edge. Carbon also causes the knife to be brittle, and makes it a poor choice for prying. High carbon steel knives are prone to breaking their tips off when they are handled too roughly, effectively ruining your survival knife.
Another additive that’s used in making steel for knives is chromium. Tactical knives made of high-chrome steel resist corrosion better than carbon steel blades, but the chromium also softens the edge of the knife. Stainless steel knives have large amounts of chromium alloyed with the steel, and although they need to be sharpened more frequently, they’re much easier to care for in the long run. We could write for days about the varying degrees or Carbon, Chromium, Manganese, Nickel and Tungsten in blades but honestly we’re going to put that on you. What we will do here though is try and point out the toughness, or edge-holding ability of the knives that make our list here and generally point out the best of the best.
It’s easier than ever to find the perfect handle. In the past, since handles were exclusively made out of natural materials like bone, horn, and wood, it took a lot of time and effort to find the perfect combination of handle and blade.
Now, most knives have composite handles and they not only hold up to abuse better than natural materials, they’re ergonomically designed to fit perfectly in your hand. Morakniv and KA-BAR stand alone when it comes to comfort, since both knives use a composite rubber material for a softer feel. Every other tactical knife in our list has a grip made from tough, no-nonsense fiberglass-reinforced nylon.
Design is a big subject, and there’s no accounting for individual taste. You should absolutely find one of the tactical knife brands that you like to look at, but don’t ignore the nuts and bolts of knife design either.
One of the most important considerations is whether or not you can wear your knife on the proper side of your body. Military tactical knives often have reversible clips which can be set for carrying on the left or right hip. The best tactical knife is the one that you can reach easily with your dominant hand.
But you can also attach knife to your boots. See how to do it in this video guide:
If price is your biggest concern, then take a close look at Mora, Smith & Wesson, Colombia, and KA-BAR. All of these knives are very well made, and it’s absolutely possible to find a knife that fits your needs at every price point, but keep in mind that you get what you pay for.
More expensive knives have the widest range of features and use the highest quality steel. Buying an expensive knife doesn’t guarantee that it will last forever, but deciding to get a cheap knife may mean that it will need to be replaced more quickly.
How to find the best tactical knife for your particular needs?
Again, all of these knives were selected because of their versatility, quality, and the amount of value that they bring to the table. That said, some knives are better suited to certain tasks than others. Use this section to help narrow down your choices, but none of these knives are only suited to one particular job.
The Best Tactical Knife for Survival and Camping
Morakniv’s Bushcraft line was made for camping and outdoors use. Along with the SOG Seal Pup, the Bushcraft is the knife to pick if you want to start a fire, baton firewood, and even hack down deadwood for a fire.
The Seal Pup is the slightly more expensive of the two, but its combination serrated edge and premium AUS-8 corrosion-resistant steel make is slightly more tough and versatile than the Morakniv.
The Best Tactical Knife for Combat and Self Defense
There’s no question that KA-BAR makes some of the finest combat and self-defense knives on the market, and their #1213 is no exception. It’s based on a long line of military tactical knives and incorporates a thick spine, large finger guard, and slip-resistant grip that makes it the absolute best tactical fixed blade combat knife available.
The Best Tactical Knife for Everyday Carry and Utility Work
ALMAR makes a premium knife for everyday carry, thanks in part to its superior liner lock, excellent blade quality, and comfortable size. It’s not too big and not too small, so you’ll find yourself reaching for it more often than you might think.
The Kershaw 1550ST and Spyderco Police 3 are strong contenders too, and more moderately priced. The main difference between the two when it comes to utility work is the Kershaw’s combination serrated blade, which the Spyderco Police 3 uses a more traditional straight blade.
The Best Tactical Knife for Lightweight and Concealed Carry
Both the Smith & Wesson and the SOG SAT004-CP have sharply pointed tips, which makes them an excellent choice if you want to conceal a tactical pocket knife for combat. The Smith & Wesson is the most affordable of the bunch, and it’s geared more toward a lightweight multipurpose knife than a true tactical fighting knife.
Zero Tolerance’s ZT0350TS might be more expensive, but it’s also the smallest and most durable of the three, thanks to its use of advanced S30V tungsten alloy stainless steel which is outstandingly tough and feather light.
10 Best Tactical Knives
1. Seal Pup Elite by SOG
The Seal Pup Elite measures 9/5” long with a 4.85” blade, weighs 6.4 ounces, and features a fiberglass-reinforced nylon handle. It comes with a durable Kydex sheath that can be worn on either side of the body. SOG covers this knife, and all of their premium tactical knives, with a limited lifetime warranty.
2. SOG SAT004-CP Flashback
3. Morakniv Bushcraft Carbon Black
4. Columbia River M16-14ZSF
5. Zero Tolerance ZT0350TS
6. Spyderco Police 3 G-10
7. Kershaw 1550ST
8. ALMAR ALS2K Sere 2000
10. KA-BAR #1213
The KA-BAR #1213 is 11.75” long, making it the largest tactical knife in the list. It has a 7.5” blade and weighs in at a solid 16 ounces. Its razor-sharp drop point blade is crafted from high-carbon steel for the ultimate in edge retention. KA-BAR includes a Kydex sheath that can be worn on either side of the body, and they warranty this knife for a lifetime.
Tactical Knife Brands
SOG Tactical Knife
SOG Knives has their genesis in the US Special Forces in Vietnam. This American knife manufacturer is known for making some of the best blades on the market. They use premium materials, like high-carbon steel and indestructible Kydex to put together their high performance knives.
Anyone who can appreciate the attention to quality, detail, and craftsmanship of a modern military knife will be able to find something to love from SOG’s huge line of tactical knives.
Spyderco Tactical Knife
Spyderco is known for their tactical folders, and for good reason. This company has led the way in adopting traditional military pattern knives into civilian folding knives, keeping the strength and durability of the originals while offering them in a more convenient package. Spyderco was among the first knife manufacturers to offer a tactical folder, and a lot of people believe that they’re still the best.
Zero Tolerance Tactical Knife
Zero Tolerance is the newest brand to be featured in our list of top tactical knives, but they’ve earned their place at the table with the big boys. ZT set themselves apart in 2006 by being quick to adopt new and unique locking mechanisms, blade steels, and composite materials in order to make a high-quality, affordable, and reliable tactical knife.
Since then they’ve perfected their formula which mixes modern engineering with traditional bladesmithing principles in order to deliver excellent tactical knives.
Smith & Wesson Tactical Knife
Almost everyone is familiar with Smith & Wesson’s tradition of excellence. For over a hundred years, they’ve manufactured America’s finest pistols and revolvers. Smith & Wesson is synonymous with quality and reliability, and their knives are no different. If you’ve never held a Smith & Wesson blade in your hands, you’ll be able to tell right from the moment that you pick it up that they’ve made a knife you can trust to keep you safe.
Kershaw Tactical Knife
Like SOG, Kershaw came out of the Vietnam-era when tactical field knives were vital to the American mission. You might not use their current offering in the far-off tropical jungles, but if you wanted to you sure could. Kershaw’s folding tactical knives are some of the very best, employing a unique serration pattern that helps these blades bite deep and tear through just about anything.
KA-BAR Tactical Knife
KA-BAR makes some of the world’s toughest fighting knives and bayonets, and they have since 1898. They have lines of sporting, outdoors, and military tactical knives available for some of the best prices around. You should look to KA-BAR if you want a knife that you can unsheath and use to defend yourself, although with the classic silhouette and reputation for deadly efficiency, sometimes just unsheathing a KA-BAR is enough to win the day.
Gerber Tactical Knife
Gerber has built a reputation around their survival gear, but they’ve always been known for their tactical knives and other large blades. This is one of the only companies in America that makes a heavy-duty machete alongside a small, traditional folder. Their tactical line straddles the gap between the two, combining the toughness of their machetes with the attention to detail of Gerber pocket folding knives.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Should I Buy A Fixed Blade Tactical Knife or a folding tactical Knife?
A: The answer to this question depends almost entirely on how often you want to use your tactical knife. If you already have a favorite pocket knife for day to day tasks, then the best choice will almost always be a fixed blade knife. If you’d rather have a multi-purpose tool that you can use around the house and at work for a variety of utility tasks then a folding knife will be the right decision. Regardless of which knife you choose, make sure that, if you plan on carrying it every day, the blade is short enough that it won’t cause you any trouble.
Q: What should I expect to pay for a tactical knife?
A: The honest answer is that you should expect to pay less than you ever have. These knives are all incredible values, and even the ALMAR, which leads the pack when it comes to price, is less than half of what you could expect to pay 10 years ago. The reason is that affordable steel from overseas has flooded the marketplace, driving down the cost of high-quality domestic alternatives. Some of it, like AUS-8 from Australia, was impossible to find in years past due to its high demand for consumer goods. As lesser knife manufacturers switch to bargain basement steel, premium quality materials sit around practically unused. All of that is great for high-end bladesmiths who end up paying less because of decreased demand, which allows them to lower prices to the ones you see today.
Q: How do I sharpen my blade?
A: The best approach to blade sharpening is a two-stage process. If your knife is really dull, then start out with a medium-grit whetstone. Most of the time it will only need touching up with a fine whetstone, but fortunately, most stones are reversible, with medium on one side and fine on the other. The best way to finish your knife is on a leather strop with chromium oxide honing paste. Using chromium oxide on a leather strop will put a mirror finish on the blade and hone it to an edge fine enough to shave with.
Q: What is the best material for a tactical knife?
A: The best tactical knives are made from high-carbon stainless steel, although sometimes a softer steel is a better choice, especially if you’re worried about chipping the edge or tip of the blade. Softer steels with more chromium in the alloy will bend instead of break, which is much easier to repair in the field.
Typically the best tactical knives have some form of nylon handle, typically reinforced with fiberglass. Some knives, like the Police 3 by Spyderco, use G-10 composite which is slightly tougher than nylon. Other knives, for instance, the Morakniv Bushcrafter and KA-BAR #1213, have nylon handles covered with a rubbery composite which offers a superior feel and protection against slipping when your hands are wet or muddy.
Q: What can I use my tactical knife for in everyday life?
A: Depending on whether you pick a folding knife or a fixed-blade knife you might be able to use it for quite a lot. Folding tactical knives are no different than any other pocket knife, except they tend to be of much higher quality. They have heavier blades which make breaking down cardboard very easy, and typically the ergonomic handles are comfortable enough to use all day long. Any time you would reach for a traditional pocket knife you’ll see better performance and a cleaner cut from a tactical folding knife than you would a traditional pen knife.
Fixed blade tactical knives are also useful, although typically only in the outdoors. Aside from their obvious self-defense capabilities, the best tactical knife will be able to make quick work of heavy duty cutting and chopping. They’re great for use in the yard since most fixed blade tactical knives are excellent choppers. In a pinch, you can also use a fixed blade knife in the kitchen as a replacement for any boning or paring knife.
Making The Right Choice
Only you can decide which of these 10 tactical knives is the right fit for what you want to do with it, but we’ve covered all of the bases.
Whether you want the raw power and combat capability of a KA-BAR, or the classic pocket knife lines of the Police 3, there’s more than one knife in every category, and every price, for you to find something that you’re completely happy with. These knives represent some of the best engineering and modern bladesmithing available today, and any knife you choose from our list will be able to stand up to tough jobs, bad weather, and rough treatment.
We’ve picked through some of the most respected brand names in order to highlight knives that can fill any tactical role you need. As you can see, everything from ultra-light tactical folders to heavy-duty fixed blade daggers are available, all at a spectacular value.
There’s never been a better time to pick out a tactical knife, the quality of the steel, modern composite materials, and advanced ergonomics are all on display in these functional, flexible, and affordable tactical knives. Take your time, look through our list of the top 10 tactical knives, and pick out something you can be proud of to take with you on the trail. It might just save your life.