If you’re thinking about buying a really good knife, the options can be overwhelming. The more you dig, the deeper you get buried in the infinite variety of blade shapes, handles, steel types, edges. And then there’s the question of you—what type of knife and tool user you are, and how you’re using it.
If you’re lucky enough to have a good knife shop nearby, we always recommend talking to the salesman—and generally the one with the biggest beard or the most forearm tats. If not, well—you’ve got me. And I’ve got both.
Here are a few general questions we recommend you use as a jumping off point in determining what knife and tool are right for you:
1. Can I legally carry a knife in my state?
Yes, it’s true—there are a few states in the Union that don’t allow you to carry a knife on your person, others that restrict the blade length and others that have different rules for what’s allowed for concealed carry and open carry. We would like to tell you that these laws are cut and dry, but like an onion – there are many layers; what’s legal in one state COULD be illegal in an adjacent state. No kidding. That said, we’ve found that this website cuts down on the chit-chat and gives you the facts (although we’re not lawyers, so don’t throw your Bowie knife at us if you get busted).
Once you nail down what you can and cannot carry, if you’re like me, you need to decide how many knives or tools you’re going to carry. If you’re like most people, though, you’re looking for one knife that’s going to do it all for you.
These are the rest of the important questions to ask.
2. What’s the best blade shape for all around general use?
There are an almost infinite number of blade shapes — tanto, clip point, sheepsfoot – to name a few, but none are as common and universally functioning as the drop point style of blade. Because of its shape, a drop point style blade can cut, slice, chop, and even poke and puncture with ease – which is why a majority of folding knives on the market today feature its iconic shape. A classic example of a drop point blade can be found in SOG’s Twitch series of knives.
The Twitch not only utilizes the drop point blade shape, but the blade is also thin and comparatively narrow – which makes it even more useful to that person looking for a single knife that could do most anything.
3. What’s better — a fixed blade or folding knife?
That depends. Both knife types are well suited for everyday carry, although a folder is generally better for day-to-day use due to it being smaller, inconspicuous and easy to carry. If you’re just looking for the convenience of having a sharp edge or a point at hand, a folder is going to be your best bet. There are some very strong, reliable, high quality folding knives out there—don’t think you need a full fixie to get your quality fix.
Where a fixed blade shines is in the woods. When you need a knife that can hack, pry, split; when you need to put a lot of force onto the handle; and when you need to remind the local yuppies who’s boss—a fixed blade is the way to go. For prolonged exposure to outdoor adventures, you can’t beat a good fixed blade.
4. What’s the best knife steel that requires the least maintenance?
Two things that ruin a good knife are rust and edge abuse—and there isn’t a blade steel out there that can claim to be completely impervious to both. And, in all honesty, you don’t want you blade steel to be a champion in both categories because it will probably lack in other areas.
But, overall, this is where environment and intended use play the biggest role.
A highly stainless steel blade will have high levels of chromium—which is the best thing to keep rust at bay. (The downside of lots of chromium is you’ll have a tough time using it to start a fire with a ferro rod in a jam.)
A blade steel chock full of carbon could stay sharper longer, in comparison, but will patina and rust without constant care. Rust is your worst enemy. It will eventually cause your blade edge to fail and then the knife is useless.
Unless you’re a specialist, what you really need to look for is a balanced middle ground – a steel that is corrosion resistant, holds an edge, sharpens easy, but isn’t so purified that it needs constant care or is limited in its ability to function on an adventure.
I have narrowed down my choices of blade steel based on my needs, and here are may favorites.
- Bohler M390
- Carpenter CTS-XHP or CTS-BDZ1
These steels will do anything you need if they are properly heat-treated and cared for. All have their strengths in abrasion and corrosion resistance, and they all have the right balance of metallurgic elements to not only allow you to maintain a sharp blade edge, but also sharpen it back up with ease. Furthermore, none of these steels require a high-level of coddling and could be buried in the mud, removed and wiped down, then stored in your pocket for a week with very little change in function or appearance.
SOG’s “Terminus XR” is a fine example of the right elements being fused together into a knife that is sized for everyday pocket carry, at an affordable price. It has a clip point blade made of CTS-BDZ1. The carbon fiber scales and G10 scales keep it lightweight and rigid, but the blade itself is a real beast, a real treat to use and abuse in day to day life indoors or outdoors.
5. What type of handle material should my knife have?
You need a knife that will stay in your hand, wet or dry. Some folks are fooled by overly textured handles or metal handles (mostly because they are durable). For a knife to maintain grip in both wet and dry situations, the material needs to either be porous, or woven. That’s why my top choices, in no particular order are: bone, horn, lightly polished or waxed wood, carbon fiber, and G10 (a glass-reinforced resin material). These materials have all been time tested and rarely fail under regular use and by applying routine maintenance.
6. Will the locking mechanism work with gloves?
Whether you’re filleting a fish or trying to stave-off frostbite, you’re bound to end up relying on gloves at some point when using a knife. That said, the most common style of lock mechanism is not all that glove-friendly. It’s called a “liner lock” or “frame lock” and consists of a prong of steel nested in the underside of the handle that can be used aside to allow the blade to swivel.
The trouble is it’s usually tucked into a spot that’s difficult to get to with gloves on.
If you’re often going to be using gloves with your knife, I recommend a button or slide-style locking mechanism, or the tried and true, old-school, lockback mechanism – initially made popular in the old school Buck knives your granddaddy probably carried.
A lockback is a kind of spring-loaded spine that releases the end of the blade to let it fold, but snaps down firmly to lock it in place. The only problem is the spring-release is usually located on the spine of the knife handle, so it can sometimes be accidentally released during strenuous use. No doubt this has led to many premature knife closures and visits to the ER over the years.
SOG has reimagined the Lockback in their Twitch series of knives by adding a locking tab so that the knife won’t accidentally close on you. This is a smart design that breathes new life to the “strongest and most reliable lock” mechanism known to folding knives.
To close, because we are all unique and our adventures are unique to us, it’s important to think through what you’re going to need a knife for. It’s important to think about the environment you’re going to use it in, as well as how much you’re going to rely on it – is it just for an adventure, or will it be by your side everyday? In the end, asking these questions, and doing your homework will help you narrow down the myriad options available in the marketplace, as well as insure that the knife you finally choose, is the right one for you.
Stay sharp my friends!