Grasp a knife and connect instantly to a collective consciousness dating back 2,000,000 years. This most perennial human creation antedates fire and the wheel, yet its essential components remain the same. Through it all, the knife has retained its basic elements of blade, point, and handle. It can gut a deer, slice a ham, saw through a rope, or carve a work of art. The glint of light off the blade conjures primordial emotions born in the dark caves of forgotten time. The weight of a knife in hand, sheath, or pocket brings a sense of comfort and competence.
Our guide will help you learn how to choose the best knife for your needs.
Forget the infinite numbers of descriptions found online. Knives are divided into two main types: the fixed blade and the folder.
Fixed Blade Knives: The fixed blade is strong and durable, usually longer and thicker than a folder. You can slice open a bear with a pocketknife, but a fixed-blade is the right tool for the job. The most popular examples of fixed-blade knives include:
Hunting and Camping Knives: The best uses of hunting knives include skinning, boning, gutting, cleaning, and stabbing. Camping knives should be able to easily slice through less organic things like tent rope and kielbasa.
Skinners: feature a short blade, strong and razor sharp.
Gut-hook Knives: In addition to the normal blade gut-hook knives feature a very sharp hook perfect for opening the body cavity of an animal. The blade length on the smaller fixed-blades can range from 3 or 4 inches (total length being 8 or 9 inches) to something much larger. Weights are often in the 5 to 6 ounce range.
Features for hunting and camping knives: When considering a hunting/camping knife, the one you want hooked to your belt should incorporate several mandatory features.
Full Tang: Tang may be what the astronauts used to drink, but it’s also the part of the knife that extends into the handle. A full tang is defined as a continuous piece of metal onto which the handles (or scales) are mounted. This is in contrast to a half tang or rat-tail tang. Simply put, a full-tang knife is sturdier than all others and if you can get your hands on one, do it.
Solid Pommel: The pommel is the handle’s butt end. You’ll see lots of “survival” knives featuring a hollow handle (for storing matches, etc) and a shoddily made pommel. While handy around camp, these aren’t always the best choice for serious survival scenarios. If you need to hammer something with the pommel you don’t want it shattering into a million pieces.
Sharp, Strong Point: Perhaps you need to pry at something, or lash your knife to a stick and use it as a spear. A drop-point blade with a sturdy tip is a must. Angles or rounded tips boast exotic good looks but lack in overall performance.
Single-Edged Blade: Single-edged blades provide similar performance to their double-edged blade brothers with the added benefit that you’ll be less likely to cut yourself. An instance where this advice doesn’t apply is if the top of the double-edged blade is serrated. (Sometimes it’s nice to have a sturdy, hand-held saw.)
Other Fixed Blade Knives
The size, weight and shape of these blades cover the gamut. Larger fixed-blades include:
Bowie-style, tactical or survival knives: An average hunter, tactical or tanto might weigh over 12 ounces, and feature a 9‑inch blade (14 inches overall).
Japanese tantos, machetes: A machete blade is 17 inches or longer (a couple of feet overall) and weigh a minimum of 24 ounces.
Nepalese ghurka (known in its homeland as a “khukuri”): A curved-blade ghurka can weigh 23 ounces and sport a 12-inch blade (17 inches overall).
Let’s call them what they are: pocketknives. Buying a pocketknife can be confusing, as thousands of models crowd the market. The most common categories are single-blade, double-blade, multi-blade, and (because it’s unique) Swiss Army Knives. They range in size from a key-ring version to something too big to fit in your pocket. The most common types of pocketknives are as follows:
The Barlow: It’s long, slender, oval on one end and contains a clip-point and a pen blade. Your grandpappy carried one. So did his grandpappy. If it was passed down, you’ve got it right now.
Congress: These generally have a convex front and a concave back. Four different blades are the norm (spear point, pen blade, coping blade and sheepsfoot).
Canoe: It’s called a canoe because it looks (vaguely) like a canoe. It has a spear-point and a pen blade.
Elephant’s Foot: It’s long, fat and oddly cool. The elephant’s foot boasts a sheepshead and spearpoint blade.
Stockman’s: This is another classic. It’s long, slender and straight. Blades are almost always a clip-point, sheepsfoot and spay (for those times when you just must neuter someone).
SAKS and Multitools: Swiss Army knives and multitools deserve mention due to originality. They might have a few blades and half a dozen functions (or 10 blades and 50 different tools) expertly set into a long, oval knife frame. Multi-tools are great instruments, but die-hards don’t consider them to truly be knives.
Types of Blades
The shape of a blade often defines the type (and sometimes the name) of the knife. All are designed for specific purposes. Many blade shapes exist, but the two most common are the clip point and the drop point.
Clip Point: The clip point has a large cutting edge and a very sharp point. About halfway up the unsharpened back of the blade is a cut-out area that curves downward. The point tends to be weak, but it’s designed for piercing, not prying.
Drop Point: The second most popular shape, the unsharpened back of the drop-point blade runs straight to the tip in a gentle curve. This is the shape most common on hunting and fixed-blade knives. The point is very strong.
Tanto: The front end of a tanto is angled. The point where it meets the straight, unsharpened back is incredible strong. Tantos are designed for piercing hard objects, not for slicing.
Sheepsfoot: The sheepsfoot blade is handy for cutting and slicing. The cutting edge is straight, leading to a point (sort of) which curves back to an unsharpened top.
Dagger point: Both the top and bottom of the blade are sharpened, ending in a needle-sharp point. As expected, this blade is designed to pierce soft materials. The tip is weak, but the knife is efficient for its purposes.
Serrated blade: Think of this as a small saw. The best serrated blades are usually straight and feature sharp cutting-teeth. The back of the blade is typically dull. Pro Tip: Knives that feature only a partial serration (one-half normal blade and one-half serrated) are handy enough but won’t perform nearly as well as a fully serrated blade when it comes time to do some serious sawing.
Spear Point: The spear-point shape is reminiscent of a claymore sword. Both the top and bottom of the blade are straight, curving down to a very strong point. Sometimes both sides of the blades are sharpened. You’ll often find the spear point on throwing daggers.
Trailing Point: The unsharpened back edge of the trailing-point shape makes an upward curve toward the point. This is the blade found on skinning and filet knives. The cutting edge is long and sharp, and the point doesn’t get in your way.
Gut hooks: You don’t get more specific or descriptive than a gut-hook. Just behind the point is a cut-out semi-circle featuring a tiny (very sharp) hook. The blade is easily controlled, allowing a hunter to open up an animal without slicing the internal organs and ruining the meat.
Bone, plastic, horn, wood, carbon fiber – you name it. The best handle is the one that suits you in terms of grip, feel and appearance. If you’re buying a knife from a reputable manufacturer, it will likely have a decent handle. If you’re buying a cheap blade, good luck.
Wood: Hardwood is far superior to softwood. Keep in mind that exotic woods dramatically drive up a knife’s price. Still, a high-quality hardwood handle is extremely durable. There’s something nice about the combination of wood and steel.
Horn (stag): Handles made from antler are extremely popular. Again, because they’re often carved, antler handles can double (at least) a knife’s price. Its texture is rough, unless polished to extreme, which makes for a sure grip.
ABS: It’s much easier to say “ABS” than “amorphous thermoplastic terpolymer.” If you’re wondering what your plasticized handle is made of, ABS is as good a guess as any. It’s tough, and designed for hard and frequent use.
Bone: Your bone handle could come from virtually any critter. It’s stabilized, with the surface roughed up to provide a sure grip. Bone can be dyed in almost any color combo; it’s very common on pocketknives.
Types of steel
Steel, broken down to its most basic elements, is a combination of iron and carbon and a few other elements (sulphur, manganese, silicon and phosphorus). Most blades have additional elements added, making them alloy steels.
People write entire books about the different properties of steel; many other people go to sleep reading the title. Look for a blade that suits its primary purpose (for instance, rust resistance, hardness or flexibility).
Carbon Steel: Carbon steel is extremely strong. Lots of homemade knives are made from the carbon-steel leaf springs taken from old Chevy trucks. It holds a decent edge, but rusts if you don’t care for it.
Stainless Steel: Stainless won’t rust or corrode, but it comes in a huge variety of grades. Find out the hardness of the steel prior to purchasing. Just because it’s shiny and can withstand salt water doesn’t mean it’s the right knife for your needs.
High Carbon Stainless Steel: The advantages are that it doesn’t rust and it’s much harder than garden-variety stainless. Again, research the blade’s hardness. Often, high-carbon stainless is a good choice.
Titanium: This metal might consist of carbon with a titanium alloy. It might be stainless steal coated with titanium. It’s not particularly strong, but it is flexible (a nice way of saying flimsy) and holds a good edge. If you’re looking for a filet knife, consider titanium.
Damascus Steel: This is legendary stuff, and for the most part doesn’t exist in its original form. When you get into this area you’re really talking about forged steel and blades consisting of many (sometimes hundreds) of laminations. You’re also talking astronomical prices, as this is the type of steel found on handcrafted knives utilizing traditional Japanese methods of forging and fashioning. If a cheap knife is labeled as Damascus steel, it’s probably a fake.