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What is a Tactical Knife?
Knives
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What is a Tactical Knife?

by Adam Roach

What is a Tactical Knife?

Tactical knives are a type of knife with a fixed or folding blade and specific features inspired by military fighting knives. At first glance, the terms "fighting knife" and "tactical knife" may seem interchangeable. While both knife types share some history, there are many critical differences.

Learn about tactical knives and discover their history, prominent models over the decades, their purposes, and their effectiveness for various applications.

Basic Definition of a Tactical Knife

A superficial inspection of tactical knives may give the impression that a tactical knife is simply a utility knife with cosmetic features inspired by the knives used by military and special forces. Such features include non-reflective blades with matte finishes, bolsters made of carbon fiber or another lightweight material, and handles made of plastic or other synthetic materials.

In an interview with Blade Magazine, Spyderco founder Sal Glesser offered a different definition. In Glesser's opinion, a tactical knife is "any knife you have with you when you need a knife," bringing the idea of the tactical knife closer to the definition of an Everyday Carry (EDC) knife.

Other prominent knife makers have expressed the opinion that a tactical knife is a knife that, while not primarily intended to serve as a combat weapon, has features that make them appealing to both civilian and military personnel. Under this definition, a tactical knife is a utility tool that can be used for self-defense if needed.

Tactical Knives: Finding the Balance Between Combat and Utility

The tactical knife exists at a crossroads between traditional utility knives and single-purpose military and combat knives, combining features unique to both categories to create a type of knife that can fulfill as many purposes as possible.

For instance, many tactical knives have features inspired by larger military and combat knives, such as specific blade shapes (like the tanto), assisted or fast-release mechanisms, high-grade steels, and synthetic materials. 

  • Examples of traditional fighting knives: The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, KA-BAR knives, the Eickhorn-Solingen KM2000, Soviet-made NR43 knives, and the M3 Trench Knife.

Yet, unlike the traditional fixed-blade combat knife, tactical knives are often folding blades. The mechanisms and blade lengths found in a modern tactical knife emphasize ease of carrying, concealment, and utility over pure combat applications.

Today, the tactical knife has become a utility tool that can stand on its own as a fighting knife in its own right when needed.

While no folding mechanism can be as durable or resistant to stress and forceful impacts as a full-tanged, fixed-blade knife, the systems used by tactical knives offer a worthwhile balance of practicality and durability. 

The best way to view the tactical knife is to consider it the ideal between the traditional pocket knife and the combat-oriented fighting knife. 

Tactical knives preserve the utility, lightweight design, and relatively short blades of a pocket knife while also using the steel and synthetic materials, high sharpness, robust locking mechanisms, and specialized blade types of a combat knife.

Folding knives

History of the Tactical Knife

Although the term "tactical knife" was first popularized in the early to mid-1990s, knife enthusiasts and experts are divided on what constitutes the first tactical knife. Below is a list of landmark models in the history of tactical knives.

1963: The Buck Model 110 Folding Knife

Many knife enthusiasts consider the Buck Model 110 Folding Knife, also known as the 110 Folder by Buck Knives, the forerunner of the modern tactical knife. At the time of its introduction, the Buck 110 had the most durable folding mechanism ever built and was advertised as a folding knife that was nearly as robust as typical hunting knives with fixed blades.

Established in 1902, Buck Knives was, and still is, most famously known for its hunting knife models. The Model 110 was the first knife popularly referred to as "the Buck knife," a term that has since become a synonym for folding knives intended for hunting, even those not manufactured by Buck.

It features a clip-point blade made of heat-treated 420HC steel, a blade length of 3.75", and a Rockwell Hardness of HRC58. When folded down, the Buck 110 reaches a compact overall length of 4.875". 

The Buck 110 was famously used by numerous GIs during the Vietnam War as a field and utility knife, finding it a more practical alternative to their standard-issued M6 and M7 bayonets.

1979: The Al Mar SERE Model 3001A

After serving the U.S. Army as a 1st Group Special Forces member and a decade-long career at Gerber Knives as head of knife design, Al Mar founded the company that bears his name, Al Mar Knives, in 1979.

Shortly after the company's foundation, Al Mar introduced the original Al Mar SERE knife, the Model 3001A, designed for use by special operation forces and featuring the company's trademark front-locking mechanism and Japanese handcrafted blades. The steels used were also quintessentially Japanese, including AUS-6, AUS-8, or VG-10, traditionally found in Japanese cutlery.

The Al Mar SERE 3001A was named after the U.S. military training program called Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE), indicating the knife's intended purpose: special operations forces with survival training. It was designed to meet the demanding requirements of Fort Bragg's SERE school, allowing a soldier to carry a knife that could be as durable and useful as a traditional fixed-blade combat knife while being as lightweight as possible.

Many enthusiasts still consider the original SERE to be one of the best tactical knives ever made. It features a folding 3.875" spear-point blade renowned for its high sharpness, equally suitable for fieldcraft (cutting rope, wood, etc.) and self-defense (stabbing, thrusting, etc.). Despite that, the knife weighs only 3.5 ounces and folds to an overall length of just 3.875".

1984: The Terzuola ATCF Tactical Knife

The first knife ever marketed using the words "tactical knife" or "tactical folding knife" was the Advanced Technology Combat Folder (ATCF). Bob Terzuola designed the ATCF in 1984 from his knifemaking shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Pro-Tech Knives, a California knifemaking company, was responsible for production and manufacturing.

The ATCF was Bob Terzuola's first folding knife model, primarily known for its liner-lock mechanism and its 3.75" spear-point blade. The original ATCF is often referred to as the first tactical folding knife or tactical folder, employing titanium liner-lock elements, a G-10 handle, Micarta scales, and a stainless steel blade.

The ATCF knife has been declined into numerous variants and manufactured by other knife makers, including shortened versions for EDC and concealed carrying made by Terzuola Tactical and Spyderco.

1989: The Emerson CQC-6

Ernest Emerson, one of the world's most accomplished custom knife makers, created the CQC-6 (or simply "The Six") in 1989 in response to a request from the Navy SEALs.

The CQC-6 is a custom knife design based on an earlier Emerson folding knife prototype, the Viper Six, modified to meet SEAL requirements. It features a corrosion-resistant 3.5" blade made of chisel-grinded 154CM steel, suitable for maritime environments. When extended, the CQC-6 reaches an overall length of just under 8" when deployed. Its overall weight is just 4.9 ounces.

The chisel-grinded 154CM steel was selected for its sharpness, letting special operation forces scrape the hull of a warship deeply enough for sabotage operations, such as attaching limpet mines.

Although the CQC-6 came after the SERE and the ATCF, the CQC-6 was one of the first folding tactical knives to feature a tanto blade instead of more traditional spear-point or clip-point blades.

Besides using tanto blades, the CQC-6's design popularized many current trends in tactical knife design, such as titanium liners, 100% synthetic grip materials, stainless steel blades, and a pocket clip compatible with MOLLE webbing.

Today, the original CQC-6 is a status symbol due to its status as a 100% custom knife and its association with the Navy SEALs and special forces usage. Many variants and successor models were produced, such as the CQC-7 produced by Kershaw Knives and Benchmade. It is also considered the knife model that popularized the modern concept of the tactical folding knife.

Folding knives on a wooden background

What Makes a Good Tactical Knife?

Although many of the historical examples above help paint an accurate picture of the typical tactical knife, the term is broad and encompasses different models and designs.

Knife style: Folding or Fixed-blade?

Although the modern tactical knife is typically a folding knife, it isn't a requirement to be considered a tactical knife. Many fixed-blade military combat knives produced today can also be regarded as tactical knives.

However, tactical knives featuring folding mechanisms are more common, perhaps due to the popularity and pedigree of some of the most prominent models, such as the Al Mar Knives SERE or the Emerson CQC-6.

Regardless of your preferred style, it is crucial to ensure that the knife model you choose has the build quality you need while remembering each style's relative durability. For instance, most knives with a fixed blade tend to be more resistant to heavy use than even the best folders. 

Choose the style that best fits your intended applications. A fixed blade is a better fit for regular, hard use, whereas a folding blade may be better suited for EDC and light use.

Size and Blade Length

One of the defining characteristics of the tactical knife is its portability. The world's best tactical knives are renowned for combining practicality and durability with a lightweight design. Therefore, opting for a larger knife with longer, heavier blades may be counterproductive.

However, as with all knives, your model's size and blade length should match its intended purposes. General-purpose tactical knife blades range from 3.5" to 4" long and are suitable for everyday cutting needs. Shorter blades are usually only viable for concealed carrying and compact self-defense models, whereas longer blades are typically reserved for heavy-duty activities, such as hunting and bushcraft.

Handle Design and Materials

A knife's ergonomics depends entirely on the shape and design of its handle. Traditionally, fixed-blade knives were considered the best choice for ergonomics, as the grip could be molded or cut to nearly any shape to suit the user.

Most folding knives are side-folding, meaning the blade folds into one of the sides into the handle. This style means that the grip fulfills two purposes: to serve as a grip and to house the blade when the knife is not in use.

When deployed, side-folding knife grips feature an open gap. Handle design is crucial for side folders because it can significantly influence how comfortable the knife feels in your hand. 

A well-designed side-folding tactical knife should mitigate the relatively uncomfortable feeling of the open gap. Cheap, poorly-designed models will feel square, have many sharp angles, and won't feel comfortable for extended periods.

One type of tactical knife, the OTF (out-the-front) knife, features a blade that retracts and extends from the front of the grip. This design allows the user to get a full-handed grip similar to fixed-blade models, eliminating some of the ergonomic issues inherent to side-folding knives.

Tactical combat knives typically feature handles made of 100% synthetic materials, such as G-10, Micarta, or composites like fiber-reinforced plastics. Some models are all-metal, featuring titanium or stainless steel grips instead. Regardless of your choice, it is crucial to ensure the handle employs durable, moisture-resistant materials that won't break, crack, or corrode easily.

Blade Design

Although the Emerson CQC-6 has popularized the tanto blade style, tactical knives have long been produced in nearly any blade style. Some of the most popular styles include the following:

  • Clip-point

  • Spear-point

  • Drop-point

  • Tanto

  • Reverse tanto

  • Needle-point

  • Trailing-point

While you can use nearly any blade style for light-duty and EDC applications, the differences between blade styles become apparent if you have specific purposes for your tactical knife.

For example, the drop-point blade is suitable for a pocket knife meant for everyday cutting purposes. Spear-point blades are double-edged and excellent for cutting and stabbing, whereas a trailing-point blade is best suited for hunting applications, such as skinning or filleting.

Blade Materials and Finishes

One of the most critical elements to consider when choosing a tactical knife is the type of metal used in its construction and the treatments and finishes it received. The best blade steel should have the following traits: durable, long-lasting, good edge retention, easy to resharpen, and high resistance to rust and corrosion.

Most knife steels come into three categories: carbon steels, stainless steels, and tool steels.

  • Carbon steels, such as 1070, 1084, or 1095, are among the toughest and most durable steels available on the market. High-carbon steel blades are relatively easy to re-sharpen but require more care and maintenance to prevent corrosion due to their low chromium content.

  • Stainless steels, such as 154CM, 420HC, or AUS-8, are steels with high chromium content. While not as tough as carbon steel, stainless steel typically offers higher corrosion resistance.

  • Tool steels, such as D2, O1, S7, or CPM3V, are among the world's hardest premium steel alloys. The high carbon content and the presence of alloying materials, such as tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium, enhance the steel's durability and resistance to corrosion but are costly and more challenging to resharpen.

Although tactical knives typically have non-reflective coatings, not all knives in this segment have this feature. A more important criterion is whether the finish enhances the blade's durability and practicality. 

Look for finishes that enhance the blade's resistance to rust, corrosion, and scratches. Examples include bluing, bead-blasting, hand satin, electroless nickel plating, titanium nitride (TiN) coating, and Teflon non-stick coating.

Purposes of Tactical Knives

While a specific tactical knife may perform better at particular tasks depending on its design, construction, and blade type, tactical knives, as a general category, are not intended for any particular purpose. 

Instead, the tactical knife is best viewed as a lightweight, compact, general-purpose tool that you can use effectively for any task where a knife might be suitable.

If you have a well-made tactical knife at your disposal, here are a few potential applications:

  • Everyday carry (EDC): Tactical pocket knives, especially folding models, are excellent for everyday carry due to their low weight and compact design. Examples of everyday tasks include opening packages, cutting boxes, slicing fruit, and opening mail.

  • Camping: A tactical knife can substitute a traditional pocket knife for camping tasks, such as clearing brush, slicing food, or cutting rope.

  • Woodworking: Although they do not replace dedicated woodworking tools, you can use a tactical knife for basic woodworking tasks, such as carving or splitting.

  • Hunting and Fishing: Besides camping tasks, some hunters and anglers use tactical knives for slicing, skinning, and even filleting. Some knife models are even available with suitable blade shapes like trailing point blades for field dressing animals and preparing fish.

  • Self-defense: Many people recognize that if tactical knives are suitable for EDC, they are also suitable for self-defense and personal protection. While that may be true to an extent, you should always consult local knife laws and ordinances first.

  • Combat: Historical tactical combat knives such as the Emerson CQC-6 or the Al Mar SERE have proven that well-made folding knives have their place in the arsenal of military and special forces personnel. Numerous prestigious units worldwide use and train with tactical folding knives today, from the Navy SEALs to special forces in the UK, France, Germany, Israel, and many other countries.

Find Quality Tactical Knives at Uppercut Tactical

Uppercut Tactical carries an extensive selection of tactical knives in many styles, such as fixed, folding, OTF, and assisted opening. Browse our inventory of tactical knives today and find the ideal knife for any purpose, from EDC to self-defense.

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