We are well aware of how complicated pocket knife shopping can be. We've been there. Catalog copy makes them all sound the same and good at everything. Other online reviews are incredibly detailed but often written in what seems like a different language. We've been watching the market for decades, scanned hundreds of options, and have thoroughly reviewed 14 models for your consideration. We put hundreds of hours into this review and keep ourselves up-to-date on all the pros and cons of different technologies. In assessing and describing the tools for you, we look at blade integrity, ergonomics, portability, construction quality, and other features. We perform standard tests and research the construction of each one thoroughly. The result is our comprehensive review to identify the best pocket knife for you.
The Best Pocket Knives Review
For Spring 2018, we added three new products, including a contender that was a "shoe-in" for our Best Buy Award. The other two products are unique and buzz-worthy but didn't displace any award winners. The Opinel No. 8 is our new rock-bottom budget recommendation and is widely available in the tested configuration as well as other sizes and materials.
Best Overall Pocket Knife
Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
The Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585 is built for precision and its design helps it maintain its Editors' Choice status in this review update. With a blade that arrives razor-sharp and ready for the task at hand, Benchmade's LifeSharp sharpening service sweetens the deal. If you cover shipping costs, they will return the edge to factory specification through the lifespan of the knife. The handle fits in the palm well, while still tucking easily into a pant pocket. An assisted opening system, deployable by either hand, reliably pulls the blade to "ready" status. And for carrying in a pocket or purse, the blade can be safely locked in the closed position. Finally, our hunting-focused testers endorsed the knife's fine-edged prowess, carrying it as their primary blade for backcountry hunting missions.
This is an expensive product. Over a long lifespan, especially with Benchmade's "LifeSharp" service, you will undoubtedly realize the value of the Mini-Barrage. However, if you are one that easily misplaces equipment like this, the initial investment may be a bit too much. Also, for heavy tasks and frequent usage, the slightly down-sized stature will be noticeable. As long as you aren't using it for hours and hours a day and as long as you can keep track of it long enough to realize the investment, we have no qualms recommending the Mini Barrage to anyone.
Read review: Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
Best Bang for the Buck: High Quality, Low Price
The Kershaw Leek packages a pedigreed blade into a compact, assisted-opening tool at half the price of other high-end knives. The blade is made of high-grade steel and comes from the factory sharp. Like the assisted opening of the Editors' Choice-winning Mini-Barrage, the Leek can be opened with either thumb and locks closed. Also, Kershaw has engineered a tab on the rear of the blade that allows blade deployment with the index finger. For handy carry and light to moderate use, the blade and handle hold up just fine.
The Leek's primary compromise, in our opinion, is the narrow handle profile. Compared to our Editors' Choice winner, the Leek is similar in most dimensions, but it is considerably thinner. Many will appreciate the lower profile for carrying, though edge and handle thinness requires inherent tradeoffs. The thin blade is nice for soft and light cutting but can deform in heavy use. The thin handle doesn't comfortably support heavy pushing anyway.
Read review: Kershaw Leek
Best Bang for the Buck: Bargain Basement, Quality Construction
Opinel No. 8
The Opinel No. 8 is a long-standing classic pocket knife design. For daily use and use in a camp kitchen, it is an excellent value. Established design parameters, an economy of scale, and straightforward construction means that this well-designed product can be available to you for little more than you might pay for a gas-station toy knife. With literally five parts and no more, the Opinel is a graceful design with excellent function.
Modern knives have thicker blades and stouter construction than the Opinel. The thinner "classic" blade of the Opinel, in conjunction with the wooden handle and simple hinge, makes for a package that is noticeably more flexible than others we test. We had no problems with the integrity of the Opinel, but we are also confident that we could break it more easily than we could something like the Editors Choice winner. The good news is that 99% of someone's pocket knife use is very tame, and for this, the Opinel excels at an excellent price.
Read review: Opinel No. 8
Top Pick for Keychain-Readiness
Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army
The Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife earns our Top Pick Award for its keychain-readiness. Significantly more compact than your car's door remote, this Victorinox is unobtrusive and ready for action. When needed, the small blade rises to most occasions. Our lead tester's first knife was a Victorinox Classic, 30 years ago. His childish whittling, prying, and poking never bent or broke the blade. Adults love the Classic for its grooming tools and compactness. The scissors appear toy-like but are easily pressed into duty, cutting things as rugged as rock climbing webbing. For more routine tasks, the scissors excel.
While we never had issues with the durability of the Classic, it is clear that it is not as robust as more substantial and heavier knives we test. Similarly, the tiny blade is a definite compromise over something like the full-size Top Pick SOG Trident Elite. If the compromises are ok with you, and you have room on your keychain for another little piece of equipment, the Victorinox Classic will readily find daily use in your world.
Read review: Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife
Top Pick for Tactical and Rescue Usage
SOG Trident Elite
We grant Top Pick awards to specialized gear excelling in a subcategory. Among the tactical, rescue-oriented knives tested, the SOG Trident Elite stands out. When compared to close competitors (not tested here), the SOG is more lightweight and has a blade made of better steel. SOG is well-known for making its blades of powerful AUS-8 steel, even on their most budget-friendly products. The Trident has this material, shaped into a burly blade and packaged in a handle that breaks glass, cuts cord, and engages and stows the blade quickly and securely. Serrated and straight-edge versions are also available, so you can tailor your knife to fit your needs.
The whole package is a little heavier and bulkier than our Editors' Choice product. For everyday carry the hardened steel "glass breaker" nub is more prone to wearing your pants pockets than knives with a smooth exterior. This may seem minor, but over time the wear and tear can be quite noticeable. In short, you must envision requiring the tactical attributes of the SOG for it to be a better choice than some of the others we assessed. This is the definition of our Top Pick award: a product that does very well for a niche user.
Read review: SOG Trident Elite
Analysis and Test Results
A good pocket knife will serve you very well. If you aren't already a regular pocket knife user, you may be surprised at just how handy it is. If you know the value, but don't know exactly what you want next, shopping carefully will even further enhance the utility of your purchase. Our comprehensive review, with assessment broken down by a set of metrics we have found to very well describe and compare pocket knives, will help you choose the right knife for you.
The quality of pocket knives varies a great deal. On one end of the spectrum are very inexpensive and largely mass-produced pocket knives that are little more than toys, often found at places like gas station checkout counters or county fair booths. These knives do not work well and should be avoided. At the other end of the spectrum are small batch or even "one-off" pocket knives meticulously designed and manufactured by cottage producers. These knives can be very, very good, but ridiculously expensive. All of what we have tested fits between the two extremes. Our entire selection of knives is widely available and of high-quality.
Even within this range of knives, price and quality vary. It is simple but generally valid to say that your purchase price should correlate to just how much you plan on using your knife. If you use it hours a day for decades, spending more will get you better blade steel, hinges, and locks that last, plus carry options that blend seamlessly with your life. For more occasional use (or for those that are prone to losing small possessions), less expensive knives work very well. The chart below is a visual representation of the knives we reviewed in respect to their performance-to-price ratio.
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 needs 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, Benchmade Griptilian 551, Benchmade North Fork (all reviewed here), and a whole line of other Benchmade knives, 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 and to respond to commonly available sharpening materials and procedures. Too hard and the steel will be brittle and virtually impossible to sharpen. Too soft and the steel will lose its edge rapidly. For a 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's "AUS-8" and the "154cm" and "S30V" we tested on the Benchmade knives are very expensive and well-tuned blade steels.
However, to understand the quality of the blade you may purchase, know two things: decent knife steel is inexpensive enough that all branded knives now are made with good-enough metal. (Again, be extra cautious about unbranded knives available at truck stops and county fairs. These are the likely exception to the "all knives now are made of good steel" rule.) 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 features of the material used have been 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, for instance, is known to use relatively soft steel ("420hc") but has an industry leading heat treatment. The result is that the Buck 110 Folding Hunter we tested has an excellent and powerful 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 SOG Trident Elite is sharpened to a steep angle that preserves the edge during heavy cutting, but isn't quite as "sharp" for finer tasks. The blade of the hybrid tactical Kershaw Blur is also sharpened to a steeper angle. 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 Best Buy Opinel No. 8 is similarly slender. The procedures, facets, and angles used to finish an edge further influence the initial sharpness and edge-holding ability of the blade. All-around, modern knives like the Spyderco Tenacious G-10 and the Editors Choice Benchmade Mini Barrage have blade geometry that splits the difference between the above extremes.
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 to dull, while too steep 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 "drop-point" or "clip point" shaped blade; these two are subtly different but are similar enough. These two shapes are the most versatile blade shapes. Also, note that models in our test and elsewhere can be either straight or serrated. Neither is in better, overall, than the other. Serrated blades cut tough materials, especially rope and webbing, more efficiently while straight blades are easier to sharpen. The OutdoorGearLab team generally prefers 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. Like any hybrid or compromised piece of equipment, hybrid straight/serrated blades can be seen to have the "best of both worlds," or the worst of both worlds.
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 an elongated 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 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 Mini Barrage, SOG, and both Kershaw knives all have assisted opening blades. We prefer 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 Spyderco Tenacious G-10 has a pocket clip that can be user-configured to hang in your pocket in one of four different configurations; it is your choice to set it up in some combination of tip up or down and for left or right thumb activation. For those that don't know exactly how they wish to carry their blade, or for those that can't find a knife to match their preference, this attribute alone can set the otherwise average (and average in this crowd is good) Spyderco.
The Victorinox knife has multiple tools. While none of the blades can be opened with one hand, all devices can be engaged with even the most closely-trimmed fingernails. The Buck Famous Folder, Old Timer 180T Mighty Mite, and Opinel also open with (finger)nail slots. All the other knives have some form of one-handed opening.
The ergonomics of the CRKT Jettison must be noted. The Jettison is large, overall. A disproportionate amount of that bulk is in the Jettison's blade. The handle is small in profile. The handle of the Jettison is similar in size to that of the Best Buy Kershaw Leek, but the blade is larger than most. This unique balance makes for a knife that is surprisingly tricky and a little uncomfortable to use.
The Best Buy Opinel No. 8 also has unique ergonomics. The wooden handle is nearly perfectly round in profile. This feels nice in the hand and is more than adequate for light duty tasks. The entire knife is optimized for lighter applications like cutting food. For heavier use like extended whittling or cutting of rope and webbing, a more oval-shaped handle profile like that of the Benchmade Griptillian 551 is preferred.
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 hang on a keychain easily, 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 110 Folding Hunter, CRKT Jettison, and the Spyderco Tenacious G-10 are all bulky and cumbersome. In 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 SOG Trident Elite but is a little lighter. Similarly, the SOG tactical knife is arguably comparable to the Buck but comes in quite a bit lighter. This portability difference between these two serious knives is what tipped the balance in favor of the SOG for our Top Pick Award. With large and small knives in the review, it is no wonder that two of our 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.
The Best Buy Opinel No. 8 is also on the compact end of the spectrum. It is similar in overall volume to the Kershaw Leek, but they differ in shape. Both are easy in the pocket, but the Leek is longer and thinner while the Opinel is super light. The Leek and Opinel both have very thin blades.
In our test, only the Victorinox Classic, Kershaw Blur, and "tactical knife" 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, seatbelt cutter, and glass breaking punch occasionally. The rest of us may fear situations where we'd need to cut our seatbelt 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 SOG Trident Elite is considered a full tactical knife, with both seatbelt cutter and glass breaking punch. The Kershaw Blur is a sort of hybrid tactical knife with just the hardened and pointed glass breaker.
The tiny Classic Swiss Army knife packs a versatile punch in a small package. For the day-to-day user, the combination of little 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.
In the models 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 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. Overall, while there was some variety in our test roster, construction quality in all was more than adequate. We had no failures or breakages, for instance.
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 efficiently every time.
Smaller knives are harder to get fine-tuned. The miniaturized components just don't leave much room for error. A significant 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 massive construction and works smoothly. The Old Timer is very tiny, and the locking mechanism sometimes takes some fiddling. Also quite small, 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.
The Best Buy Opinel No. 8 has unique construction. It is, first and foremost, super simple. With only 5 parts (handle, blade, hinge pin, and two collars that serve as the locking mechanism) the overall build is very clean. The result is light and reliable, but a little uninspiring regarding robustness and opening and locking requires two hands.
It is our experience that folks reading this review are not only unclear about which pocket knife to get but that they are also not entirely sold on pocket knife ownership in the first place. Even if you know you want a pocket knife, the value of a carefully chosen tool may not be super clear. To be blunt, there is a big difference between a crappy knife and a good one. Just picking whatever is handy and cheap might work, but you won't use it nearly as much as you will a more carefully selected tool. We encourage you to consider this choice very carefully and trust that your choice will be rewarded with service that exceeds your expectations.
— Jediah Porter