Yup, I do love me some them click-bait titles!
I wrote for Tactical Knives magazine for 16 years. During that time, between the knives that went across my desk and that I otherwise got to handle or play with, I must have worked with, to a greater or lesser degree, over 1000 knives from all the good manufacturers and many custom makers. (Of course I didn’t extensively carry or test that many knives — that distinction would probably go to TK’s extraordinarily knowledgeable editor, Steve Dick.) Between this wide exposure to knives, a modest background in the Filipino knife arts, decades of hiking, a genuine lifetime love of knives, the writer’s ability to meet with and tap the minds of actual experts, and a reasonably realism-focused thought process, I have come to some opinions about them, some of them strong.
Spoiler alert: knives are primitive, simple weapons. Don’t get all confused-in-the-head about their “special” qualities.
- Knives are simple things. They cut and poke. They do not ward off evil spirits nor impart knowledge or skill to their owners. They are just tools. No one gets all sexually excited about hammer, nor should they about a knife. Not that I don’t have some real favorites.
- The steel is not very important. Yes, a great high-end steel is a joy to cut with, and it will hold an edge longer than a low end knife steel, but all knife steels these days (from the major manufacturers) are way, way better than anything that Grandpa could have wished for, and he and his peers settled a continent with much lesser knives and steels. Professionals who use knives all day long, day-in and day-out, use pretty generic steels.
- Edge geometry is the main determinant of performance. Almost — almost – without exception, the best cutting knives that I’ve used had full flat grinds (a single grind from edge to spine) or nearly full. Scandi-ground pukkos, even with half grinds, usually did well, too. Hollow grinds often sliced well, but as you’d expect, at the price of edge retention and the ability to take a beatin’.
- Knives can be too hard. Too hard means really hard to sharpen and maybe brittle. There’s a sweet spot of compromise between edge retention and ease of sharpening.
- Sharpness is not the full story. How thin an edge you put on a knife is one half of the story, but how “toothy” or micro-serrated the edge is is important. The ability of different steels to take a particular edge with a particular tooth was the most important aspect of any steel to me. A sharp edge with no tooth will slice paper well, but not a fibrous material like rope (it will simply slide over rope).
- The simpler the blade shape, the more versatile the knife. With very few exceptions, unless you want a knife for a single, specific, unusual task, you want a straight handle and a simple blade with the point in line with it. Weird, exotic, macho, comic-book looking blades are for pubescent teenagers. That said, some unusual knives do, in fact, have real application to very specific tasks (I have designed one such – look for an announcement later in the year).
- Almost all simple blade shapes are good at getting the job done.
- Double-edge knives are, pun fully intended, a double-edge sword. These things are purely defensive (or offensive) weapons, and in the contact-distance chaotic cluster-fuck that is a fight, particularly a knife-involved fight, I have enough to worry about without having to keep track of an extra edge. I’ve always “cut” myself in realistic simulations with a double-edge trainer.
- The grip (handle) is the human interface to this simple tool, and is usually far more important than what’s in front of it. Handles are the failing of many an otherwise-acceptable knife, and most unusual handles are ergonomic failures, meant for comic books, not the real world
- The best easy-to-do overall test for a general-purpose utility knife is cutting cardboard. You simply can’t give every prospective knife a years-long field test before making a decision about buying or carrying it.
- Most knives come with crappy sheathes. If you carry a fixed-blade knife, you’ll want to invest in an after-market sheath. After all, you don’t get a good holster, if you get one at all, when you buy a gun.
- Many so-called “defensive”, “fighting” or “tactical” knives are all looks and no function. For just one example of a typical shortcoming (there are way too many others), see if you can you stab one, full strength, into a hard object like an old tire or a piece of plywood without your hand sliding onto the edge and getting deeply cut? Remember: bone is hard if you hit it.
- The best overall design for a general-purpose utility knife is the pukko. But it has no guard or choil, so it assumes that you are half-assed competent around sharp things. (I do admit the validity of a few other opinions on this subject.)
- Finally, if you have knife, know how to sharpen it! It’s just astonishing how few knife owners do.