Guns & Patriots

10 Things That Make a Tactical Knife

What is a Tactical Knife?  Every Company seems to make them.  Everyone seems to carry them.  Or do they?

Well, first let me say this:  I’ve heard some people (Knifemakers/Knife Companies) say the following, that there’s no difference between a “regular” knife and a “Tactical Knife.”  I ask them this question: Is there a difference between a “Combat Handgun” and a “regular” hand gun?  Damn right there is.  But unless you know what those differences are, you probably can’t tell the difference.  It has a barrel, a handle and it shoots, just like every other gun.  However, there are differences and to the educated or experienced, these subtleties can literally spell the difference between life and death.  There is also a difference between a “Tactical Knife” and a “regular” knife.  Let’s take a look.

1.    Design

When NASA asked me to design a knife for the International Space Station they gave me a list of tasks the knife would be used for, including some that were very specific and unique.  I designed the knife from the very start, to fit those needs.  When the US Navy asked me to design a rescue knife for their special boat units (SBU), they gave me a list of tasks the knife would be required to perform.  I designed the knife specifically to address those tasks.  The request for this knife came as a result of a tragic accident in which a number of U.S. Marines drowned in a helo crash.  The rescue knives the SBU units had were “regular” knives that literally self destructed as they were trying to cut the trapped Marines free.

2.    Purpose of the knife

The purpose of the knife will dictate what knife you should get.  A door kicker will need a different knife than a detective.  What is a tactical knife?  Let’s ask.  Is the knife a weapon?  Is the knife a utility tool?  Is the knife an emergency rescue tool?  Is the knife an entry tool?  Depending on your job requirements you may need two or even three knives – not to carry, but as part of the gear you need for specific operations.  These are some of the questions you should ask yourself before making your decision and purchase.

An undercover officer going into a potentially hostile environment will have completely different requirements than a SWAT officer.  I have made several knives for undercover agents that used turquoise and pastel greens for the handles, so the knives did not have a “cop” look to them.  In a couple of instances, the bad guys didn’t even take the knives away after patting the cops down.  Were these “tactical” knives?  Ask the agents.

3.    Ergonomics

Ergonomics is one of the most important aspects of Tactical Knife design.  Without getting too technical, knife ergonomics are simply this:  The knife must feel comfortable in your hand.  Now, I’ll get a little more technical.  It must feel comfortable when you use it and handle it under stress.  There must be no pinch points, sharp corners or unnatural feel to the handle.  Now, it must feel that way in both a forward grip (blade coming out of the top of your closed fist) and in a reverse grip (blade coming out the bottom of your closed fist).  This is where we separate the knife designer from the graphics designer.  There should be no convoluted contours or sculpturing of the handle.  Watch out for over-pronounced finger grooves which will force your hand into a pre-fixed position.  There should be a place for the fingers to go that should not force them.  In addition, the knife should not be too large or too small for your hand, but should be just right.  A good designer can do this.  Another option is to make small, medium and large versions of a particular knife model.  The bottom line is that your knife should feel like it fits you, in size, shape and weight.  One of the greatest compliments I get is when someone picks up one of my knives, smiles and says “It feels like it was made for me.”

4.    Size

As I have already stated, any design must be purpose driven.  Therefore, the size of the knife should be reflective of the task it is designed to do.  All too often I have seen knife makers make what they believe to be the “Ultimate Cop Knife.”  Then proceed to show me a 15 inch long Bowie knife with a leather sheath the size of Tennessee to carry it in.  The whole rig weighs in at least two pounds or more.  “It’s got a steel butt so they can hammer with it.”  Nice knife, but it’s either going to sit in a locker or on the officer’s mantel.  The size of the knife has to be such that the officer will feel comfortable carrying it.  Then he will carry it.  Giant folding knives or humongous fixed blades may indeed have their place, but a cop’s never going to use it if every time he puts it on, it causes him to tilt to one side.  My recommendation for general use and carry?  A folding knife with a blade 3 to 4 inches long and an overall length of 8-9 inches.

5.    Materials

There are two categories, blade and handle.  Starting with the blade, I would recommend a good quality stainless steel.  What is good quality?  Quite frankly, the knife industry is so competitive that any reputable knife company is now using good to high quality steel.  Just avoid any knives that have Pakistan or China stamped into the blade and don’t go for cheap.  If the knife is only $3.98, it’s made in Pakistan or China, no matter what it says.  One last word on steels.  Forget the hype about Super Steels.  It’s just marketing spin to convince you one company is better than the other.  Remember, I’m an industry insider.  The best knife steel ever used is plain old W1 tool steel and it’s been around for a couple of hundred years.  It’s the stuff your files are made of and they cut other steels.  Bummer is that it rusts.

6.   Handle

Handles can be made of a variety of materials from plastic to G-10 and from Titanium to Stainless Steel.  What you want in a handle is something that is stable and won’t absorb moisture.  What I mean by stable is: It won’t shrink, check or crack.  Stabilized materials are generally waterproof.  They shouldn’t absorb sweat, water, gasoline, or oil.  This eliminates most natural materials, such as wood, bone, or ivory.  Also, avoid Kraton, the soft grippy rubber like material found on some “Tactical” knives.  It either pops off at some point or deteriorates – feels good, doesn’t last.  With all of the technology out there in polymers and composites, you can generally count on the reputable companies having good handle materials.  In regard to all metal handles, they will probably last forever.  Sometimes they feel a little heavy and sometimes are smoother than the non-metal handles.  It’s really up to you what feels best in your hand.  I have an all titanium-handled knife in my pocket everyday.  Checkering or a textured surface of course will always give you extra traction, especially if the environment is wet.  Bare in mind though, materials do not make the knife.  Design makes the knife.  A bad knife with good materials is still a bad knife.

7.    Blade Design

The blade should have a cutting edge and a point.  It’s really that basic.  More specifically, I like a good strong thick point.  If I have to poke or dig into something, that could damage or break a delicate needle-like point as found on some knives.  A couple inches of cutting edge is plenty.  Curved cutting edges cut cloth and webbing very efficiently, i.e. seat belts.  Blades should be a minimum of .125 (1/8) inches thick up to .187 (3/16) thick, for lateral strength; any thicker and a folder will become too bulky and too heavy for carry and use.  I recommend a hardness of 57-59C Rockwell, contrary to some who take their knives up to 61C Rockwell.  From practical experience I know that is way too hard and brittle.  I will dull a knife, any knife, no matter what any manufacturer claims, and I will need to be able to sharpen it without some exotic diamond sharpener.  If I’m in the field, I might even have to use a rock.  At 57-59 C Rockwell, the blade has some inherent flexibility.  After all, a dull knife is still a knife.  A broken knife is . . . well, expensive crap.  One last word on blades.  Always, repeat always, get a serrated blade.  They always cut, even when dull and they blow through a seat belt like something vulgar through a goose.

8.    Locks

I don’t get too spun up about locks.  Once again, companies are fighting for every square inch of market they can grab.  A folding knife folds.  Get it?  Never depend on the lock.  IT IS NOT A FIXED BLADE!  I have broken them all.  I repeat, I have broken them all.  There are lock backs, there are liner locks, there are axis locks.  They are all good but none infallible.  Once again, good companies have better locks; cheap foreign-made crap is, well, crap.  Don’t trust a $6.00 knife with your trigger finger.  Is your finger only worth $6?  If you want a knife that will never fold, get a fixed blade.

9.    Fixed Blade or Folder

This could be a sub category of purpose of the knife.  Some people like folders; some like fixed blades.  A fixed blade is inherently stronger than a folder (no moving parts).  So it comes down to this: What are you going to use the knife for?  An aviation squad cop would probably choose a big strong fixed blade to carry with him in the Helo cockpit.  A SWAT door kicker should probably have a strong fixed blade to pry, cut, or chop through the things he is more likely to encounter.  This is not to say that all fixed blades need to be huge chopping cleavers.  Some cops who prefer fixed blades carry a much smaller version.  These knives which are the same size as an opened folding knife are very usable, efficient and are compact enough to be carried on a daily basis.  The choice between a folder and a fixed blade should be driven by use first and preference second.  I want to ask you this question.  How many times have you used your gun to pound a nail into a piece of wood?  It’s not a hammer you say?  A knife isn’t a hammer either.  What can I say about folders that I haven’t already covered?  Maybe just this.  Almost every cop who carries a fixed blade in his gear has a folding knife tucked in his pocket.

10.    Carry Options

Just like your primary weapon or your backup, pick a place to carry your knife and always carry it there.  There are plenty of sheaths, leather, nylon or kydex out there.  If you carry the knife on your belt, any of these sheaths are fine as long as they are well made.  Most modern “Tactical” knives use a spring metal clip which is mounted directly onto the handle.  Some clips are mounted fore and some are mounted aft.  I don’t care which, just pick one and stick with it.  This allows you to carry the knife in your trousers pocket clipped there for easy access.  Which side?  Off hand or gun side?  Again it’s a matter of personal preference.  Some guys do not want to clutter up their gun side with too many choices.  Some officers carry their knife clipped in their offhand pocket as a backup weapon against a gun grab when their gun hand is protecting the holstered weapon.  I’ve even had a couple of guys tell me I’ve put the clip on the wrong end (the butt end) on my knives.  Sorry, I must have missed that in the “How to Design A Tactical Knife” rule book.  There is no right or wrong about how you carry your knife.  It must be easy and clear to access and it must be in the same place all the time.  That’s it.  The glove box or trunk of your car are poorer choices.

11.    Reputation

This is one of those intangibles that’s somewhat hard to describe, but I’ll give it a try.  Given the choice, you wouldn’t buy a $100 Saturday Nite Special for your duty weapon.  So it is with knives.  There are several things to look at in this regard.  Your knife may break or need service at some point.  Will the maker of your knife guarantee their product and honor their guarantee?  You’d be surprised.  Remember, I’m an industry insider.  Does the company know what they are doing?  Remember, something painted black doesn’t make a tactical knife; it’s just a black something.  Engineers and 19-year-old graphics designers, design horrible knives.  They can’t help it; they’re just not knife guys.  And here’s another one to look out for.  If the knife says anything like “official SWAT,” “Army Ranger,” “Delta Recon,” (What the hell is that?) or “FBI HRT” on the blade, I guarantee you, 100% Guarantee you, it’s not.  Stay away from those.  The knives are made in China and their labels are incorrect.  Hell, they’re not incorrect, it is a lie!  Neither stand very tall in my book.  Personally, I like to see “Made in the USA” on things I buy.  But that’s just me.

Get your knife from a company that cares about its product and takes pride in what they make.  They are out there – you just have to look.

In the end, the “Tactical Knife” that you decide to carry should be one that you have confidence in.  Choose a knife from a reputable manufacturer and purchase it from a reputable dealer.  Swap meets are not on that list.  A knife, unlike a gun, is used for many mundane purposes; however, someday you may need it to save the life of a loved one, your partner, yourself, or a complete stranger.  Is your knife up to the task?  There is one company that has this motto: “When Your Life Depends on Your Gear . . . Get the Gear Your Life Can Depend On.”  Guess which one.

Editor’s Note: To see Emerson knives please visit

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  • BoSundling

    I have carried an Emerson CQC7 for many years and now I almost feel naked without it. Great knife.

  • GrumpyOleMan

    To me the “best” tactical knife is the one Janet Napolitano’s thugs can’t find without a strip search! And one that’s sharp enough if her thugs find it by “feeling one up” they lose some fingers. Now that’s a tactical knife. Anyone know where they are available?

  • GrumpyOleMan

    If Napolitano’s goons can’t find it, and if they do by feeling me up and losing some fingers, then it’s a good “tactical” knife! “We have met the enemy…..and they are our government!”

  • walter77777

    I am not the type of guy to be too popular on this site since I favor all sorts of strict handgun control, but knives are different. Most of a knife is defensive in nature and is used (unless you throw it) at ranges at which someone would be capable of doing you harm.

    The problem of knives which make some people think that they are so very inferior to guns is that it is obvious that they require training and practice to use well while so many persons think that a firearm rquires little pracctice and learning effectively at close range. ther are too many7 persons out there pascking heat who don’t know beans about marksmanship, weapon retention in hand-to-hand situations, or (maybe most important) in making shoot-don’t-shoot decisions.


  • Earl

    I too am in favor of gun control. But, I believe my definition is probably different than yours. Mine is: One should control one’s gun and hit the target with each round!

  • Macdaknife

    having been a former FDNY/NYC Paramedic for about 10 yrs..and a knife dealer for over 16 yrs…I can honestly say that Kershaw, Cold Steel, CRKT (Columbia River Knife and Tool) and the aforementioned Benchmade….ALL come shaving sharp right outta da box (sic)…..let Nappy’s henchmen take mine! …..they prob will get cut (of their own doing!!!)… comment Grumpy….oughta boil a pot o’ tea and tawk a bit …

  • Macdaknife

    As I posted my background in a comment above, I wont be redundant. I have been a LONG time fan of Mr. Emerson, and as a fellow martial artist as well (although not as accomplished!) I have a very deep respect for Mr. Emerson’s work and his opinion. Quite refreshing to read about my first love of knives, on a gunners’ page …yes, I am an avid gunner too…..please keep the info flowing on Mr. Emerson…and Knives!!! great work..thx. Mac

  • Stevod

    My experience has taught me that “tactical” simply means “more expensive.”

  • 5sfsniper

    Any tactical knife used for fighting must have a hilt. Tactical = fighting… The industry is flooded with so called tactical knives made by those who never fought with a knife and sold to those who never fought with a knife and never will…

  • 5sfsniper

    A tactical knife means a knife you fight with otherwise a leatherman wwill work fine. Tactical = Fight. A real tactical knife must have a nice sized hilt for the purpose of preventing blood mixing…yours and the bad guys. The market is flooded with so called tactical knives made by many who have never fought with a blade, and bought by many who never will fight with a blade in combat…That is not an all inclusive statement…

  • 5sfsniper

    A tactical knife means a knife you fight with it, otherwise a Leatherman will work fine. Tactical = Fight. A real tactical knife must have a nice sized hilt for the purpose of preventing blood mixing…yours and the bad guys. The market is flooded with so called tactical knives made by many who have never fought with a blade, and bought by many who never will fight with a blade in combat…That is not an all inclusive statement…

    I did carry an Emerson P Sark given to me by Air Marshals I trained for years as an alternate w/o a hilt. But if you are serious about fighting with your blade as a secondary weapon to your secondary gun, make sure it has a good hilt unless you want hepatitis, or AIDs, or something else floating around in third world countries…

  • Ernest Emerson

    Dear Mr. Collins,

    Not to niggle back but, not only have I fired almost every gun you can imagine from the Ma Deuce to flintlock rifles, I have not just attended, but have instructed at most of the world’s most respected firearms instructional schools. In addition I have also spec’ed both pistols and rifles for some of the best known firearms manufacturers most notably the Emerson CQC-45 manufactured by Les Baer. In addition to being a gunsmith, not a gun tinkerer, I also manufacture custom grip panels for 1911′s and various other pistols. I am well aware of the application of the two terms, grips and handles, and their use in the common vernacular as they relate to firearms. In my usage of the term handle in the first paragraph was purposely chosen in an analogous reference to make an allegorical point, meaning; that by which a tool, object or the like is held or manipulated with the hand. in this context, since a gun does physically have a handle and knives generally have a handle and not grips, the term was correctly used.

    My Best Regards,

    Ernest R. Emerson

  • Mohut

    Whew! The majority of you folks have alot more experience than I’ve got with these … tactical (for lack of a better term) … knives. But, like Mike, I’ve carried a pocket knife since I was a young kid and, well, let’s just say I’ve got a few years on dirt!!! ;~)

    Anyhow, I was surprised by Mr. Emerson’s comment that ALL “tactical” knives should be serrated. Do any of you know how to sharpen a serrated blade with a simple sharpening stone (what I’ve used all my life)? Moreover, the #$%@ things TEAR for cryin’ out loud! They sure as heck don’t CUT!

    Ok, that said, my main purpose for commenting is this. I didn’t get interested in “tactical” until a few years ago. So, IF you’re not considering a knife for gutting your fellow man, and IF you’re wanting something that mainly serves as a cutting tool, then I’ll tell you what I used for 50 some years and that’s 25 or so fairly cheap single blade lock back knives with fairly soft steel (see Mr. Emerson’s comments about hardness). I’d use one for a week and then toss it in a box and take out another. And so on until I’d gone thru my entire collection. THEN, I’d get out my sharpening stones and sharpen again — each to the point where you could shave with it. It only took a minute or two at the most to sharpen. Something to think about.

    FWIW, I now carry TWO pocket knives. I carry a — sorry — tactical that never leaves my pocket except for drawing practice and a “pocket” knife that gets a lot of use! ;~)

  • Mohut

    I’m fairly new to this, but I have a hunch you don’t often see somebody reply to their own dadgum comment! Anyhow, I wonder why Mr. Emerson didn’t directly mention draw speed (he does address topics such as ergonomics, but not quantatively). Anyhow, I can draw, “cock”, and “fire” my “tactical” knife in less than 3 seconds on a “bad” day and less than 2 on a “better” (I have very few “good” left in me). So, if you young folks aren’t getting better than, I’d say, 2 — you’d best be finding yourselves a new putter (those of you who play golf will understand what I’m alluding to). Good luck.

  • mel

    Tactical is a term that is painted with a broad brush.Tactical to a LEO is much different than to an ugly white boy like me who uses something for personal defense. My tactic is stealth, concealment, and surprise. My Officers ACP is concealed carry and my auto knife is as well. Both can be put into action as required quickly, though I hope I never have to use them. I feel sorry for the folks who live in oppressive states that gut the Second Amendment and hope they can overturn the socialist/liberal polices that enslave them.

  • Bob Collins

    Touche’. Slightly embarrassed by this, but now I understand.

    I have grown ready to pounce at a moment’s notice when the unknowing around me speak of firearms like they know the difference between a magazine and a clip. My apologies for “going off half-cocked.”


  • john2174

    A firearm has a stock, grip is how the firearm is held.

  • WooHooU

    Mauser Broom Handle Pistol, Good Info Thanks

  • WooHooU

    Grip vs Handle, Mauser Broom Handle Pistol. Great Info Thanks

  • Buffalohump

    Interesting article! I agree with most of the points made with the exception of two: I dont agree that a knife should always be serrated. I believe a plain edge is far easier to sharpen than a serrated. If someone buys a knife and spends well over $100 on it, they should at the very least buy a sharpening stone or a kit with it. A dull knife is both useless and dangerous! Once you have masted the basics of sharpening (and its really not difficult) you will find a plain edge knife far easier to maintain and keep sharp. Secondly I dont agree about super steels being just about marketing and selling. Steels are improving all the time due to advancements in knowledge and technology. Do you still own a tube TV? No, of course not. So why accept outdated technology on your knife? There is always something new in this world and knife steels are no exception. 154CM is all well and good but there are better options available to the knife user today.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    The “tactical” label doesn’t make it inherently a weapon, man. I think you kid of missed the point of Mr. Emerson’s article. A real tactical knife means it was designed for a certain job, and that it will hold up well to the job it was designed for.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    Unless I am misinterpreting something.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    One more reason I never intend to sojourn into NY.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    You get what you pay for, man. It’s like it was mentioned in the article, is your finger worth six bucks? I carry an Emerson karambit every day, and I have not felt a desire to carry anything else since the purchase.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    He mentioned serrations because, if sharp, they DO in fact cut, not tear, and even when the serrations dull, they are still capable of slicing through something in the event you need to save your own life.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    Apparently this article went right over your head. Tactical just means the knife was designed for a certain set of tasks, and will hold up well when put to it. See parts one and two of the article if you really don’t believe me. Tactical knife could very well mean SARK (Search And Rescue Knife) for those of you (I can’t imagine) who don’t know.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    Tell that to my Emerson karambit.

  • Brandon Michael Bush

    You really don’t know, do you?
    As I said to the guy who said with a certainty that any and all knives made for fighting MUST have hilts, go tell that to my Emerson karambit. The CQC-7 has set the bar for folding knives worldwide, and why? Because it’s a folder that DELIVERS.

  • 5sfsniper

    A true Karambit used with the techniques presented at my unit by the man who pioneered bringing that to the US, is probably the only exception to my above comment.  Have you fought a real fight or a fight in combat with a knife?  No offense, just curious?