What is a Tactical Knife?

Tactical knives are a sort of bladed knife with a fixed or folding blade and unique characteristics inspired by military combat knives. The terms “fighting knife” and “tactical knife” may appear interchangeable at first look. Even though both knife types share the same history, there are numerous significant variances between them.

Learn about tactical knives, including their history, significant models throughout the decades, functions, and efficacy in diverse situations.

Basic Definition of a Tactical Knife

A quick examination of tactical knives may lead one to believe that a tactical knife is only a utility knife with aesthetic traits inspired by military and special operations blades. These characteristics include non-reflective blades with matte finishes, bolsters made of carbon fiber or similar lightweight material, and handles made of plastic or another synthetic substance.

In an interview with Blade Magazine, Sal Glesser, the founder of Spyderco, provided an alternative definition. According to Glesser, a tactical knife is “any knife you have with you when you need a knife,” which brings the concept of a tactical knife closer to that of an Everyday Carry (EDC) knife.

Several famous knife manufacturers have opined that a tactical knife is a blade that, despite not being designed primarily as a combat weapon, has qualities that make it desirable to both civilians and military people. A tactical knife is a utilitarian tool that can be used for self-defense if necessary, according to this definition.

Achieving a Balance Between Combat and Utility with Tactical Knives

The tactical knife resides at a crossroads between traditional utility knives and single-purpose military and combat knives, integrating characteristics unique to each category to produce a knife that can serve as many uses as feasible.

Several tactical knives, for instance, contain characteristics derived from bigger military and combat knives, including as blade forms (such as the tanto), aided or quick-release mechanisms, high-grade steels, and synthetic materials.

Examples of traditional fighting knives: The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, KA-BAR knives, the Eickhorn-Solingen KM2000, Soviet-made NR43 knives, and the M3 Trench Knife.

In contrast to the conventional fixed-blade combat knife, tactical knives typically have folding blades. Modern tactical knife mechanics and blade lengths prioritize portability, concealment, and usefulness over pure combat applications.

Today, the tactical knife has evolved into a multipurpose instrument that may serve as a fighting knife when necessary.

Although no folding mechanism can be as strong or resistant to stress and forceful impacts as a full-tang, fixed-blade knife, the mechanisms utilized by tactical knives provide a valuable balance of usability and durability.

The tactical knife should be viewed as the optimum compromise between the traditional pocket knife and the combat-oriented fighting knife.

Tactical knives combine the usefulness, lightweight construction, and relatively short blades of a pocket knife with the steel and synthetic materials, extreme sharpness, powerful locking mechanisms, and specific blade types of a combat knife.


History of the Tactical Knife

Although the phrase “tactical knife” gained popularity in the early to mid-1990s, knife aficionados, and experts disagree as to what the first tactical knife was. Here is a collection of iconic tactical knife models from throughout history.

Buck Model 110 Folding Knife debuted in 1963.

Many knife enthusiasts regard the Buck Model 110 Folding Knife, also known as the 110 Folder by Buck Knives, as the precursor to the contemporary tactical knife. At the time of its debut, the Buck 110 featured the most durable folding mechanism ever created and was marketed as a folding hunting knife that was nearly as tough as conventional fixed-blade knives.

Buck Knives, founded in 1902, is and has always been best recognized for its hunting knife types. The Model 110 was the first knife to be commonly referred to as “the Buck knife,” a moniker that has since been synonymous with folding hunting knives, regardless of manufacturer.

It has a clip-point blade constructed of heat-treated 420HC steel with a 3.75-inch blade length and a Rockwell Hardness of HRC58. When folded, the Buck 110 has a compact overall length of 4.875″

During the Vietnam War, numerous U.S. soldiers utilized the Buck 110 as a field and utility knife, preferring it to their standard-issued M6 and M7 bayonets.

1979: Al Mar Model 3001A SERE

After having served in the U.S. After serving in the U.S. Army as a member of the 1st Group Special Forces and a decade-long career at Gerber Knives as the head of knife design, Al Mar started the firm bearing his name, Al Mar Knives, in 1979.

Shortly after the company’s founding, Al Mar introduced the Model 3001A, the first Al Mar SERE knife, which was designed for use by special operation forces and included the company’s signature front-locking mechanism and handcrafted Japanese blades. Traditional Japanese steels, such as AUS-6, AUS-8, and VG-10, were employed.

The Al Mar SERE 3001A was named after the U.S. military training program Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE), reflecting the intended use of the knife: survival training for special operations troops. It was created to suit the stringent standards of Fort Bragg’s SERE training, allowing a soldier to carry a weapon that was as robust and functional as a traditional fixed-blade combat knife while remaining as light as feasible.

Many aficionados continue to regard the original SERE as one of the finest tactical knives ever created. It has a folding 3.875″ spear-point blade renowned for its extreme sharpness, making it appropriate for both fieldcraft (cutting rope, wood, etc.) and self-defense (stabbing, thrusting, etc.). Despite this, the knife weighs only 3.5 ounces and folds to a total length of 3.875″.

1984: Terzuola ATCF Tactical Knife introduced

The Advanced Technology Combat Folder was the first knife to be advertised using the terms “tactical knife” or “tactical folding knife” (ATCF). In 1984, Bob Terzuola created the ATCF from his knifemaking shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. California-based knife manufacturer Pro-Tech Knives was responsible for production and manufacturing.

The ATCF was Bob Terzuola’s first folding knife model, notable for its liner-lock mechanism and 3.75″ spear-point blade. The original ATCF is commonly referred to as the first tactical folding knife or tactical folder, with titanium liner-lock parts, a G-10 handle, and Micarta scales.

Terzuola Tactical and Spyderco have produced EDC and covert carry versions of the ATCF knife that are shorter.

1989 saw the introduction of the Emerson CQC-6

In answer to a request from the Navy SEALs, Ernest Emerson, one of the world’s most experienced bespoke knife makers, designed the CQC-6 (or simply “The Six”) in 1989.

The CQC-6 is a bespoke knife based on an earlier Emerson folding knife prototype, the Viper Six, updated to fulfill SEAL specifications. It has a corrosion-resistant 3.5″ blade made of 154CM steel that is ideal for maritime settings. When fully extended, the CQC-6 measures just under 8 inches in length and weighs 4.9 ounces.

The 154CM steel was chosen for its sharpness, allowing special operation forces to scratch a warship’s hull deeply enough for sabotage operations such as attaching limpet mines.

Although the CQC-6 was released after the SERE and ATCF, it was one of the first folding tactical knives to utilize a tanto blade instead of the more common spear-point or clip-point blades.

In addition to employing tanto blades, the CQC-6’s design popularized a number of contemporary trends in tactical knife design, including titanium liners, 100% synthetic handle materials, stainless steel blades, and a pocket clip compatible with MOLLE webbing.

Nowadays, the original CQC-6 is a status symbol due to its position as a 100% bespoke knife and its relationship with the Navy SEALs and special forces. Several modifications and successor models were manufactured, including the CQC-7 produced by Kershaw Knives and Benchmade.

What Characteristics Create a Good Tactical Knife?

Although many of the historical examples shown above assist to portray a realistic portrait of the conventional tactical knife, the term is broad and embraces a variety of types and styles.

Knife style: Folding or Fixed-blade?

Modern tactical knives are often folding knives, however, this is not required to be termed a tactical knife. Several fixed-blade military combat knives manufactured today can also be considered tactical knives.

However, tactical knives with folding mechanisms are more prevalent, maybe due to the popularity and pedigree of models such as the Al Mar Knives SERE and the Emerson CQC-6.

Regardless of your favorite type, it is essential to verify that the knife model you select has the required build quality while keeping in mind the relative durability of each style. For example, most knives with a fixed blade are more resistant to heavy use than even the best folders.

Select the design that best suits your intended usage; a fixed blade is more suited for frequent, rigorous use, while a folding blade may be more suitable for EDC and light use.

Size and Blade Length

One of the distinguishing aspects of a tactical knife is its mobility. The world’s best tactical knives are recognized for combining practicality and durability with a lightweight design. Thus, it may be counterproductive to choose a larger knife with longer, heavier blades.

However, as with all knives, your model’s size and blade length should correspond to its intended functions. General-purpose tactical knife blades range from 3.5″ to 4″ in length and are suitable for everyday cutting tasks.

Handle Design and Materials

The ergonomics of a knife are totally dependent on the shape and design of its handle. Historically, fixed-blade knives were considered the most ergonomic since the grip could be shaped or carved to fit the user.

The majority of folding knives are side-folding, meaning that the blade folds into one of the sides of the handle. This design allows the grip to serve two purposes: as a grip and to store the blade when not in use.

When deployed, side-folding knife handles show an open gap. The handle design is vital for side-folding knives since it has a considerable impact on the knife’s comfort in the hand.

A well-designed side-folding tactical knife should decrease the relative discomfort of the open gap, whereas cheap, poorly-designed ones will feel square, have numerous sharp angles, and be difficult to use for lengthy periods.

The OTF (out-the-front) knife is a type of tactical knife with a blade that retracts and extends from the front of the grip. This design allows the user to have a full-handed grip similar to fixed-blade models, thereby removing some of the ergonomic concerns inherent to side-folding knives.

The handles of tactical combat knives are often composed of 100% synthetic materials, such as G-10, Micarta, or composites like fiber-reinforced polymers. Other models are all-metal, incorporating titanium or stainless steel grips instead.

Blade Design

Although the Emerson CQC-6 popularized the tanto blade design, tactical knives have been manufactured in virtually every blade style for decades, including the following:

  • Clip-point
  • Spear-point
  • Drop-point
  • Tanto
  • Reverse tanto
  • Needle-point
  • Trailing-point

Despite the fact that practically any blade style may be used for light-duty and EDC applications, the differences between blade styles become apparent if you intend to utilize your tactical knife for specific objectives.

For instance, a drop-point blade is perfect for a pocket knife intended for everyday cutting tasks, while spear-point blades are double-edged and excellent for slicing and stabbing, and trailing-point blades are ideal for hunting tasks such as skinning or filleting.

Materials and Finishes of the Knife

When selecting a tactical knife, one of the most important factors to examine is the type of metal used in its construction and the treatments and finishes it receives. The best blade steel should be sturdy, long-lasting, easy to resharpen, and resistant to rust and corrosion.

Most knife steels come into three categories: carbon steels, stainless steels, and tool steels.

Carbon steels, such as 1070, 1084, and 1095, are among the hardest and most durable steels on the market. high-carbon steel blades are relatively simple to resharpen, but they require extra care and maintenance to prevent corrosion due to their low chromium concentration.

Stainless steels, such as 154CM, 420HC, and AUS-8, are steels with a high chromium content. Although stainless steel is not as robust as carbon steel, it often offers greater corrosion resistance.

Tool steels, such as D2, O1, S7, and CPM3V, are among the world’s hardest premium steel alloys. The high carbon content and the presence of alloying elements, such as tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium, increase the steel’s durability and corrosion resistance but make it more expensive and difficult to resharpen.

Although tactical knives often have non-reflective coatings, not all knives in this category have this characteristic. A more relevant criterion is whether the finish improves the blade’s durability and use.

Consider blade finishes that improve its resistance to rust, corrosion, and scratches, such as bluing, bead-blasting, hand satin, electroless nickel plating, titanium nitride (TiN) coating, and Teflon non-stick coating.

Purposes of Tactical Knives

While a specific tactical knife may perform better at specific activities based on its design, manufacturing, and blade type, tactical knives as a category are not designed for a specific function.

Instead, the tactical knife is best considered as a lightweight, compact, multipurpose weapon that may be utilized efficiently for any situation where a knife may be appropriate.

If you have access to a high-quality tactical knife, here are a few potential uses:

Daily carry (EDC): Because to their low weight and compact design, tactical pocket knives, especially folding ones, are ideal for EDC. Examples of everyday chores include opening parcels, cutting boxes, chopping fruit, and opening mail.

Camping: A tactical knife can substitute a traditional pocket knife for camping tasks, such as clearing brush, slicing food, or cutting rope.

Woodworking: Although they do not replace dedicated woodworking tools, you can use a tactical knife for basic woodworking tasks, such as carving or splitting.

Hunting and Fishing: Besides camping tasks, some hunters and anglers use tactical knives for slicing, skinning, and even filleting. Some knife models are even available with suitable blade shapes like trailing point blades for field dressing animals and preparing fish.

Self-Defense: Many individuals believe that if a tactical knife is good for EDC, it is also suitable for self-defense and personal protection.

Combat: Historical tactical combat knives such as the Emerson CQC-6 or the Al Mar SERE have demonstrated that well-made folding knives have a place in the arsenals of military and special forces personnel. Numerous prestigious units around the world use and train with tactical folding knives today, from the Navy, and SEALs to special forces in the UK, France, Germany, Israel, and many other nations.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, a tactical knife is an indispensable weapon for individuals who wish to be prepared for any circumstance. Whether you need a knife for self-defense or a dependable tool for everyday usage, you have a number of options to pick from. It is crucial to consider blade material, handle grip, and overall size and weight when buying a tactical knife. You may acquire a tactical knife that will serve you well for years to come by conducting research and evaluating your demands carefully.

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