How To Buy a Knife

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).

Folding Knives

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.

Knife Handles

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.