Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Since man first started chipping away at rocks to make rudimentary tools, we have had knives of some form. From these early beginnings, thousands upon thousands of knife designs have been created. Every people on this planet have made a knife that reflects their culture and lifestyle in some way.
Our modern age is no different. Today we have countless blades to choose from for a wide variety of general or complex tasks. But which one is right for you?
To help you find the “perfect” knife for your needs, we have put together this quick guide. Here we will cover the basics of knife design and help you understand what you should be looking for. We will also include links to good knives that are available for purchase.
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Table of Contents
- The Importance of Knife Design
- Some Popular Knives and Why We Love Them
The Importance of Knife Design
The first thing to ask yourself is, “Where and when am I going to be using the knife?” or “What tasks and jobs do I need my knife to accomplish”
Figure this out before you even start looking for a blade, then you can begin to narrow down which purchases make the most sense. The design of a knife heavily influences its effectiveness and how it is used. We will briefly cover the most basic aspects of knife design here.
Fixed Verus Folding Blades
Likely the first big decision, and arguably the most important, will be the basic structure of your knife’s blade. Outside of niche and unique designs (like a butterfly knife), you will need to decide between fixed and folding blades.
As a general rule, heavy-duty tasks like working wood or skinning are more suited to a fixed blade, while a folder shines due to its ability to be carried and concealed easily.
The reason for this is that folders have moving parts, springs, and small screws, that all provide additional points of failure. The internal mechanisms and moving parts also make folders a bit more of a challenge to properly care for and clean.
Many carry folders for self-defense and as a handy everyday utility tool, while a fixed-blade knife is a much more well-rounded survival device. A fixed blade can be used for prying, hammering, and even digging.
For everyday-carry uses, no matter how good a fixed blade knife is, if you find it too big or awkward to carry with you everywhere, then you should consider a folder. No knife is a ‘good’ knife if you don’t have it on you when you need it.
Choosing the Steel, Shape, and Edge of for Your Knife
Once you have decided on the type of blade, you will need to consider the way in which the blade is shaped, both the body and the edge.
Most blades are designed around getting better efficiency with different tasks – kitchen knives, filet knives, carving knives, various tactical knives, etc. All of these knives are designed very differently from one another and will excel at some tasks and be less useful for others.
The same goes for the metal used in the construction of the knife; some steel is softer and easier to work but will not hold an edge well, while other steels will maintain sharpness well but might be more brittle. You will need to consider all of these factors when finding the “best” knife for your needs.
The shape, edge, and weight distribution of a knife are heavily task-dependent.
Parts of a Knife
Before we can get too specific, we need to make sure we have references for some of the terms regarding knife structure. I smashed these images together real quick to help you out.
Choosing a Blade Shape
The blade is the area of the knife from the bolster to the tip. A blade shape refers to the relation between the belly or edge of a knife and its spine, as well as which way the tip is swept. Simply put, this is just the way the blade looks when you are looking at the profile of a knife.
The shape of a blade provides for the most dramatic differences in the way a knife looks, and will greatly change the performance depending on the task at hand.
For example, say you wanted an EDC (everyday carry) self-defense knife. Different self-defense knives focus on either stabbing or cutting, and which is better may depend solely on the training you have received.
Many martial artists prefer a recurve/Karambit style shape due to the speed and depth with which you can cut with it, but an outdoorsman who needs to combine survival with self-defense needs may opt instead for a long straight blade that can handle almost any task reasonably well.
At the same time, you may find a martial artist who prefers to use a straight tanto blade and a hunter who swears by their recurve blade.
There is a lot of personal preference that goes into what is “best,” just be sure you are focusing on practical choices for your tasks.
As a very rough overview, recurve (forward) blades like the hawkbill are better at cutting tough items like rope or zip ties due to the amount of pressure you can put behind the cut.
Kukri blades with more weight at the tip are good for making deep chops and cuts.
Straight blades are highly versatile, and swept-back blades (trailing point) allow for more control while slicing meat and fur.
Tanto and needlepoint are made for strong piercing pressure, and a drop point blade is suitable for multiple tasks involving slicing and cutting.
It is worth noting that in some cases, the blade itself might be relatively straight, but will have an angled bolster in order to recreate a shaped blade effect. A good example of this is the Ka-Bar TDI Law Enforcement Knife. This shows how other design aspects of the knife, like the bolster, can also be very relevant to its effectiveness.
There are literally hundreds of blade styles. Find out the task you want to accomplish, and figure out which blades best serve that function.
Choosing a Blade Grind
The grind of a blade refers to the shape of the blade’s cross-section, or to put it another way, it is the way your cutting edge is shaped.
Most “knife guys” will talk your ear off about the various shapes and handles a knife has, but the truth is that the grind of a blade is perhaps the most relevant aspect to consider when picking the right knife for your purposes.
Like shapes, there are a ton of possible blade grinds. The best way to narrow it down is to see which grinds are typically recommended for your planned knife usage.
Here are some examples:
Generally speaking, a more narrow grind, like a hollow grind, will be sharper but will lose an edge faster. A grind like a Scandi grind will not be as sharp but will hold an edge better. Survival items should have larger grinds, while tools for specific and dexterous tasks will typically have more narrow grinds.
Steel Type and Cutting Ability
Regardless of the type of knife you are buying, you are going to need it to cut something at some point. There are three major factors to pay attention to when evaluating the cutting ability of a knife
- The shape of the knife blade
- The type of steel
- The heat treatment of the steel
Steel and heat treatments are a big topic in and of themselves, but suffice to say stainless or carbon steel will be your typical go-to. A high-end favorite is the modern S30V steel blades which are very durable and hold an edge well, the same goes for ZDP-189 steel.
Always beware of buying a knife from a company that won’t tell you the steel used in its construction.
Instead of trying to learn everything about each type of steel, find a knife style you like, then do some research into the steel used in your buying options. Go for steel considered to maintain sharpness well and is durable.
There are many proprietary types these days, so you may need to delve into some customer reviews regarding a steel’s durability.
A Note on Legality
Make sure to research your local knife laws regarding what you can carry and what types of assist you can have in your knife. Here is a pretty good resource for looking up your state knife laws. If you can’t use a knife in your area, it likely isn’t going to be the best one for your purposes, as lame as that reality is.
Some Popular Knives and Why We Love Them
Here is a selection of folding and fixed-blades that are available for purchase and come highly-rated.
This GVDV knife is made from 7Cr17 stainless steel and has a nice wooden handle. It feels good in the hand, holds an edge, and can be bought for under $20.
With a little love and care, this knife can last a good while. Also, a great knife when you want something you can beat up without too much guilt.
This Kershaw Tanto blade folder is another knife you can beat up with little guilt, but offers that next level in outdoor durability and pure tactical effectiveness.
The tanto point makes it able to pierce even the toughest materials, and the durable steel and construction mean it can handle most tasks you will throw at it. It won’t be able to replace a fixed blade, but this is a personal favorite for carrying on the hip.
This Benchmade spear-point blade is an exceptional piece of equipment for a wide array of tasks, not to mention self-defense.
The skeletal handle and superb steel mean this blade is incredibly dexterous and lightweight, and though while the blade is expensive, the steel and finish mean it will hold an edge and operate at high efficiency throughout even the toughest jobs.
As a U.S. Marine, I had to include this blade, but to be fair, it deserves to be on this list. These knives have proven to be incredibly effective in combat, as well as survival situations, and you will be hard-pressed to find a blade that has proven itself in more difficult conditions.
You take care of a Ka-BAR, and they will take care of you for a lifetime.
This blade was made with today’s soldiers in mind and has the versatility today’s battlefields demand (this pretty much means you can wear it in a wide variety of gear layouts).
A more modern design than the KA-BAR with added Mollie features and a number of comfort add-ons. This is a durable and effective knife that you can rely on for a lot of outings, and it doesn’t come too expensive either.
More exotic than our other fixed-blade examples, The Kiku Matsuda was designed by one of the premier Japanese blade makers of our age. This is a highly designed and sophisticated outdoor knife or boot knife and will last you a lifetime if well cared for.
The tagline for this blade sums it up best: “rugged utility and elegant design exist in flawless harmony.”
An “OK” Knife is Better Than No Knife
Don’t get too caught up in finding the perfect knife, just try and get a good knife. From there you can begin to refine your purchases in the future. You may need to spend some time using a blade before you know for sure where it is lacking and what would be a better purchase.
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