The Best Pocket Knife Review
Which pocket knife should you carry? We narrowed a thoroughly mystifying and huge field to eight of the best knives available. We carried, cut with and critiqued these high quality tools for months and years of use. Occasionally they sat unused for the day in our pockets and purses, though most days in every testers' life required the application of a simple blade at the very least. We also conducted, at the same time, a review of the best multi-tools, finding that many users will prefer a pocket knife, while others will desire a multi-tool. Some will even want one of each. Consult our pocket knife buying advice article and multi-tool buying advice to determine which option will best suit your needs.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Pocket Knife
Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
Top Pick for Keychain-Readiness and Compactness
Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army
Top Pick for Burly Construction in a Lightweight Package
SOG Trident Elite
Best Bang for the Buck
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Analysis and Test Results
Our selection, and most models on the market, are of excellent quality. The tools we have evaluated represent a spectrum of materials, size, ergonomics and features. All are designed for multi-purpose "everyday carry." Subtleties in that design, however, make some brands stand out. Additionally, varying design emphasis and a deep market means that there is a knife out there virtually custom made for your needs.
Why a Pocket Knife?
Readers of this review can be lumped into two categories. Those that are avowed lifelong pocket knife carriers and those that will soon be. Pocket knife carriage in many circles is currently "out of fashion," if not outright non-politically-correct. We would be remiss, also, to overlook the gender stereotypes associated with knife ownership. The editors of OutdoorGearLab are practical, forward-thinking individuals in a modern world. We believe that the utility of a simple blade carried with the owner basically every day transcends fashion, gender, and stereotypes. Try carrying any one of our reviewed models for a week, and we promise it will be easier to count the days you don't use it.
Criteria for Evaluation
Blade Integrity (Sharpness, More or Less)
Little confuses pocket knife shoppers (and reviewers and designers and manufacturers) more than the over-simplified "sharpness" of a blade. The user's experience of the sharpness of a blade is a function of many variables.
First of all, and despite what infomercials may suggest, every knife will need to be sharpened after some amount of use. Different materials and designs will hold an edge longer, but all will eventually need some TLC. There are professional knife sharpening services as well as a whole host of commercially available sharpening kits for home use. Additionally the manufacturer of Editors' Choice Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585 and Benchmade Griptilian 551 will sharpen these knives for the life of the knife for a small handling fee each time.
The process of designing a blade starts with the material. All of our reviewed knives (and virtually all knives on the market) have blades made of some variety of steel. Steel is a metal made of mainly iron. In one of a variety of processes, that iron is mixed ("alloyed") with small amounts of carbon and possibly other elements. The possible variations are virtually endless. Steel for a knife must be hard enough to resist the abrasion and deflection of the material being cut. However, it must be soft enough to bend at least slightly in the face of significant forces. Too hard and the steel will be brittle. Too soft and the steel will lose its edge rapidly. For an absolutely dizzying array of steel types, useful to the knife shopper only in an entertainment sense, visit this page. In our review, a few knives use highly regarded blade materials. Notably, the SOG Trident Elite Assisted Opening's "AUS-8" and the "154cm" we tested on the Benchmade knives is very expensive and well-tuned blade steel.
However, in order to understand the quality of the blade you may purchase, understand two things: good knife steel is inexpensive enough that all knives now are made with good-enough metal. Most manufacturers of high quality knives advertise the type of steel they use. Trust us when we say that it's all good. How the steel is handled is as important as the raw material. Once a manufacturer chooses the steel for a knife, it is cut to the rough shape and then hardened in some variation of a heating-and-cooling process. The various types of hardening result in different characteristics. After the hardening process the edge-holding characteristics of the material being used are well established. Provided the user doesn't expose the blade to enough heat to reverse the hardening process, the steel now has a fixed mechanical nature. With hundreds of types of knife steel, and tens of varieties of hardening, there are thousands of permutations. In short, trust in the manufacturers. Buck Knives is known to use relatively soft steel ("420hc"), but has an industry leading heat treatment. The end result is that the Buck Knife 110 Famous Folder we tested has an excellent and strong blade, despite its cheaper materials.
Once a blade is shaped and hardened, the cutting edge receives its final grind. Knife edges can be tuned for different tasks. The thick blade of the tactical purposed NeoKut Black Kryptonite - Spring Assisted is sharpened to a steep angle that preserves the edge during heavy cutting, but isn't quite as "sharp" for finer tasks. On the other hand, the fine tiny blade of the Victorinox Classic starts thin and is sharpened thinner, making for a very sharp yet fragile edge. The procedures, facets and angles used to finish an edge further influence the initial sharpness and edge-holding ability of the blade. Like steel hardness, there is no single perfect edge finish. Too narrow an angle and the blade's leading edge is too thin to resist deflection and dulling, while too blunt an angle on that leading edge doesn't feel nearly as sharp in actual usage. Like questions of material and hardening, feel free to investigate the different characteristics of the hollow grind, the edge angle and single vs. double bevel. Or you can rest assured that knife manufacturers of all types have this figured out. Follow their instructions for proper care, and the knife will serve you years and years.
In summary, knife "sharpness" is a function of a wide array of virtually invisible variables. A user's long-term experience with the knife depends as much on his or her maintenance regimen as it does on initial manufacturing. The manufacturer has balanced numerous conflicting criteria at every step in the process, and all of the pocket knives we tested demonstrate more-than-adequate edge integrity and sharpness.
Lastly, a few notes on blade shape and cutting edge design. All we tested have some sort of "drop-point" shaped blade. This is the most versatile blade shape. Also, note that blades in our test and elsewhere can be either straight or serrated. Neither is in any way better than the other. Serrated blades cut tough materials more easily while straight blades are easier to sharpen. The OutdoorGearLab team prefers, generally, straight blades. Hybrid blades, partially straight and partially serrated, can address a variety of needs. Use and sharpen the straight portion regularly, and save the serrated portion for tougher tasks like cutting carpet or rope.
In the pocket knives we tested, quality of manufacturing aside from the knife blade itself varied far more than the quality of the blade. Handle, hinges and locking mechanisms reveal the attention paid to detail. Sturdy parts and materials, close manufacturing tolerances and carefully thought out construction really stand out in a piece of equipment the end user will handle and use every day. In our testing, tight design considerations stood out virtually right away and only increased in value as time and usage wore on. Our evaluation of these knives' construction quality was mainly subjective. Does it "feel" sturdy and confidence-inspiring? When this almost-aesthetic assessment came up short for a given knife, it inevitably followed that some aspect of the mechanical function of the knife would act finicky. Locking mechanisms are the most vulnerable to construction quality. Well made knives like the Kershaw Leek open and close smoothly every time. Less expensive options like the Gerber STL 2.0 Fine Edge cut just fine, but the locking mechanism can be difficult to disengage. Similarly, the expensive Benchmade knives, whether the assisted opening Mini Barrage or standard opening Griptillian 551, open super smoothly with all the various locks and options working effectively every time. Smaller knives are harder to get fine tuned. The miniaturized components just don't leave much room for error. A great comparison is between the somewhat classically designed Buck Famous Folder and the Old Timer. They look similar, and are made with similar materials and designs. The Buck has a large construction, and works smoothly. The Old Timer is very tiny, and the locking mechanism sometimes takes some fiddling. Also quite tiny, the Victorinox Classic seems to escape some of the issues of other small knives. All the components work well and smoothly. None of the features on the Classic lock at all, which likely saves some hassle.
A knife is only as good as it is handy. Will it be there for you when you need it? Bulky and heavy knives will be left at home. Small knives floating around in a glove box or crowded jeans pocket will be too time consuming to dig out. The most portable knives in our test were either overall small and equipped to easily hang on a key chain, or had a low profile and a tight pocket clip. By far, the Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife is the most portable. The Buck Knives 110 Famous Folder and the Neokut Black Kryptonite - Spring Assisted are both bulky and heavy. In both these cases, however, this bulk and weight can be justified by some for their function and versatility. The Benchmade Griptillian is similar in size to the NeoKut, but is quite a bit lighter. Similarly, the SOG tactical knife is arguably comparable to the NeoKut, but comes in quite a bit lighter. This portability difference between these two tactical style knives is what tipped the balance in favor of the SOG for our Top Pick Award. With large knives, and small knives in the review, it is no wonder that our two general purpose award winners (Best Buy and Editors' Choice. Kershaw and Benchmade Mini Barrage, respectively), sit exactly in the middle. For most users, the size is manageable while still being functional. The Kershaw is thinner than the Barrage, but both are equipped to clip discretely into the users pocket.
Properly sharpened, and there-when-you-need it, a knife still needs to be usable. Heavy cutting requires a sturdy handle that doesn't pinch or pressure the user's hand. In many ways, portability and ergonomics are direct competitors. The most ergonomic knife has a rounded-profile handle that fills a loosely clenched fist. The most portable knife is the smallest and thinnest. Our scoring reflects that tradeoff. The most user-friendly knives were basically the least portable, and vice versa. It is up to you to evaluate your needs and choose a blade that strikes the balance you seek. The tool needs to be easy to open and smooth to deploy and stow. The locking mechanisms should be intuitive and simple. One-handed blade deployment is best. So-called "assisted opening" knives are even easier to use. In our review, the Kershaw, Mini Barrage, NeoKut, and SOG knives all work with assisted opening blades.
Ideally, for pocket-clipped knives, the clip is oriented such that the tool can be pulled from the pocket and thumbed open without regripping. Both Benchmade knives are made this way and can be rearranged to work that way in either left or right pocket. Why other manufacturers do not employ this same simple strategy, if only for the majority of right-handed users, is mystifying. The Victorinox knife has multiple tools. While none of the blades can be opened with one hand, all tools are easily engaged with even the most closely-trimmed fingernails. The Buck Famous Folder and Old Timer 18OT Mighty Mite Single 2 3/4" Lockblade also open with fingernail slots. All the other knives have some form of one-handed opening.
In our test, only the Victorinox Classic and "tactical knives", Neokut Black Kryptonite and SOG Trident Elite have any functions besides a primary blade. Depending on your intentions and usage, these functions may be the deal maker for you. The tactical knives are designed for rescue usage. Paramedics and firefighters will use the burly blade, seat belt cutter, and glass breaking punch occasionally. The rest of us may fear situations where we'd need to cut our seat belt off and bash through the window of the car, but we'll tire of carrying such a burly knife long before using these features, statistically speaking. The tiny Classic Swiss Army knife packs a versatile punch in a tiny package. For the day-to-day user, the combination of tiny tools on this knife could be almost perfect. From office tasks to personal grooming to light home maintenance, the Victorinox Classic's simple combination of features gets the owner through most of life's challenges.
Pocket, or folding-blade, knives have been in use by humans for at least the last 2,500 years. A jackknife with a bone handle that was found in Hallstatt, Austria has been dated between 650 – 500 BC, with the next most recent historical example of a folding knife comes from the Roman armies. Many bronze knives from the first century AD that used friction to stay open have been discovered.
Although other historical examples of folding knives exist, it wasn't until 1650 that pocket knives as we know them today became the handy, everyday tool that we take for granted. The peasant knife, also called the "penny knife" due to its affordability, was mass produced in Sheffield, England, and featured a single blade that pivoted freely in and out of the handle. Similar to the models still produced by the manufacturer Opinel today, peasant knives were the first modern pocket knife.
Slipjoint knives were also invented in Sheffield, England in 1660, and although they were not popular at the time, they used the same simple technology incorporated into most models today. Slipjoint knives do not lock but are held open by tension from a spring. These small parts needed fine machinery to manufacture on a wide basis, so it was not until the industrial revolution of the late 1700s that slipjoint knives grew in popularity. Many different styles were invented and named, with each style typically being designed for a specific purpose or trade of its user. Common styles are the Stockman, the Sodbuster, the Canoe knife, Pen knife and the Camper knife.
The Camper knife typically features two blades of different sizes as well as a variety of other tools such as a screwdriver, can opener, awl or punch, and many others. The most commonly known camper knife is the Swiss Army knife produced by Victorinox. These knives were originally contracted by the Swiss Army and produced by Karl Elsener with the intent that a soldier could use it to open canned food and disassemble a service rifle, which required a screwdriver. Elsener soon re-named his company Victorinox, and together with the Swiss company Wenger, has produced these widely known multi-tool camper knives since 1891. The knives became popular worldwide and received their now ubiquitous name "Swiss Army Knife" after World War II. American soldiers returning home had purchased the knives en masse while in Europe and coined the new name because they couldn't pronounce the German one.
Lock-blade knives have a mechanism that keeps the blade locked in the open position when in use. Historical examples date back as early as the 15th century, but these knives were popularized in the 1960s, when the term "Buck Knife" became eponymous for all lock-blade knives. Although these knives were designed for hunting use, they were soon in widespread use by militaries as well. The term "tactical folder" was coined to describe the new style of lock-blades designed specifically for combat use. This style became widely popular in the U.S. in the 1990s and many companies were spawned that mass produce tactical folders, including Benchmade, Gerber, Kershaw Knives, Buck Knives, CRKT and Spyderco amongst others.
Ask an Expert
To help you navigate your purchasing decisions, we decided to ask an expert on pocket knives about what to consider on your buying journey. David Suggitt has been a fishing and hunting guide for the last eight years. Currently he owns the YouTube channel DRSuggitt that has videos compiling fishing adventures, big catches, memorable moments, and tips for becoming a better angler. Who better to ask advice for buying pocket knives?
What are the most important things to consider when purchasing a pocket knife?
First, identify how and where you're going to be using it. Knowing the environment and uses you have for your new knife will determine where to begin looking.
Secondly, what size of knife do you need? If you're going to be performing small jobs, get a small blade. If you're going to be using it as a tool, to dig, or to perform tasks that require leverage, you consider a larger blade.
Thirdly, blade shape. There are a lot of different blades out there. Over the years, I have tried many and realized that the draw point with a straight bellow (Swiss army knife design) works just fine for all outdoor activities. I also prefer a knife with a serrated edge as it allows you to saw, making your blade more versatile.
Fourthly, a good locking mechanism. Make sure there is a good one so it doesn't close on your hand accidentally. Find one with a liner locker, using the handle to lock the blade in position.
Fifthly, and most importantly, how does it feel in your hand? I need to see what the blade feels like in my hand. Every knife fits everybody's hand differently. Make sure it feels comfortable. If you're using it for a long time, you don't want to get fatigued from a blade that doesn't fit right.
What do you use a pocket knife for when you are hunting or fishing?
In hunting, I carry both a multi-tool and knife. I use my multi-tool pliers, saw, blade, and screwdriver to set up tree hanging stands and trim lanes, but not to dress the animal. A multi-tool has a lot of moving parts, and it will get really gunked up when you begin to get into dirty work like cleaning an animal. Instead, when working on the animal, I would recommend using a folding or fixed blade knife. You want a good sized blade that isn't too big so you can to get inside of the animal with good dexterity.
In fishing, I would look at a multi-tool instead of a straight pocket knife. Simply because it has a small blade that can still cut line and gut fish. It also has a screwdriver, which is helpful for boat-based repairs. The most valuable tool is a set of pliers. You can use these to bend hooks, remove hooks, and help to perform a variety of repairs that might be needed in promptu.
What are the different types of blade materials?
There are a lot of combinations of steel used in blades, though it comes down to two types of materials. Carbon steel and stainless steel. Carbon steel is a lighter metal that sharpens easily but dulls out faster. Stainless steel is a little heavier, stays sharp longer, but is harder to sharpen. I prefer stainless steel as it stays sharper longer, and requires less upkeep.
How do you know when to sharpen your knife?
There is nothing more dangerous than a dull knife. A simple, classic test is to run the blade of your knife gently across your fingernail. If the blade slips off, it is dull. If it makes a line and digs in, it's nice and sharp. If it's dull, make sure you take the time to sharpen it before going out. A dull knife will cause you to use more force, and could lead to injury.
Do you maintain or clean your pocket knives? If so, what sort of cleaners do you use?
Yes, this is very important especially when working around fish oils, scales, blood, and hair. You want to keep the gunk out. My system is pretty simple. I use an old toothbrush, pipecleaner, dish soap, and 3-IN-ONE multi purpose oil. I use the toothbrush, pipecleaner, and dish soap to clean out hard to reach places. Once the knife is cleaned up, I use a couple drops of 3-IN-ONE on the swivel mechanism. This draws out water and keeps the opening mechanism smooth and clean.
What systems exist to carry your knife, and which is your favorite?
There are three options. The first is a carry case. Basically you can put it in a carry case that you can either weather over your shoulder or clip to your belt. These are good, but if you're bushwhacking, you may lose it if it's not secure. The second is to just place it in a backpack or stowaway compartment. This is great as you aren't wearing it on your person, but you also don't have it as accessible. The last is to just simply clip it to the inside of your pocket. I like this one the best because it is easy access, it's on the inside, so it won't fall out when bushwhacking, and your knife is more secure.
How much should a good knife cost?
Look at spending $70-$100 for a good pocket knife. Don't skimp. The quality makes a huge difference.
Anything else that you would like to add?
If you're somebody who tends to lose their keys and you know this about yourself, then get a knife with a really bright handle! It might look funny, but if you lose it on the trail, at least you'll be able to find it.
David Suggitt has been a fishing and hunting guide in Northern Ontario for the last eight years. He has guided over 300 fishing and hunting groups at the Silver Water Wheel Lodge. In addition to his guiding career, he has worked in several forestry based jobs, including heli-logging and coastal tree planting. Dave is a woodsman that has been carrying a pocket knife for over 15 years, and uses it for everything from small household projects to skinning bears.
— Jediah Porter
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