Seeking the best pocket knife? Over the last seven years, we've purchased and tested 37+ unique folding knives side by side, with 18 knives in our 2020 review line-up. Our experts test each knife while exploring backcountry terrain throughout the United States, preparing food, camping, mountain climbing, and more. In addition to field tests, we compare key characteristics that help us evaluate five metrics, such as blade integrity and portability, which we use to assign a score to each product. Using both an unbiased and objective approach, we have identified top performers, award winners, as well as products that simply don't make the cut.Related: Best Multitool of 2020
Best Pocket Knife of 2020
Best Overall Pocket Knife
Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
The Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585 is built for precision with a design that has helped it maintain its top status for years now. Its blade arrives razor-sharp, and Benchmade's LifeSharp sharpening service sweetens the deal. If you cover shipping costs, they will return the edge to factory specifications through the life of the knife. The handle fits in the palm well, and it tucks easily into a pants pocket. Pocket clip carry is modular; you can wear it on either side. An assisted opening system, deployable by either hand, reliably pulls the blade to read status. For carrying in a pocket or purse, one can safely lock the blade in the closed position.
The Mini-Barrage 585 is an expensive product, but over a long lifespan, especially with Benchmade's LifeSharp service, you will undoubtedly realize its value. However, if you are somebody who easily misplaces equipment like this, the initial investment may be too much. Also, for heavy tasks and frequent usage, its 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, the Mini-Barrage earns our strongest endorsement.
Read review: Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
Best Wooden Handle Pocket Knife
Benchmade 15031-2 North Fork
This is the smoothest knife we tested and the best option if you want a wooden handle. It features smooth opening, closing and cutting. While expensive, it comes with a sharpening service to keep it in top condition. It has some of the highest blade performance we have ever seen and comes in a great size.
Our main gripe, other than the price, is the lack of assisted opening. If that is a deal-breaker for you, then you may want to consider its near-equal, the Mini-Barrage 585. The two knives are very similar and it comes down to if you want the more classic version with the North Fork or the more modern version with the Mini-Barrage.
Read review: Benchmade 15031-2 North Fork
Best Bang for the Buck
The Kershaw Leek packs 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 sharp from the factory. Like the assisted opening of the Mini-Barrage, the Leek can be opened with either thumb and can be locked 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 well.
The primary compromise with the Leek is the narrow handle profile. Compared to the Mini-Barrage, the Leek is similar in many dimensions, but both the blade and the handle are thinner. Some users will appreciate the lower profile for carrying, though edge and handle thinness requires tradeoffs. The thin blade is excellent for soft and light cutting but can deform in heavy use. The slim handle doesn't comfortably support heavy pushing. Still, this is a beautiful and functional knife; quality steel at a steal.
Read review: Kershaw Leek
Best on a Tight Budget
Budget knives keep recalibrating our expectations. Some restaurants charge more for chips and salsa than Sanrenmu charges for the 7010 everyday knife. The construction quality is tight, and the blade is made from excellent value 8CR13MoV steel. Virtually all of the high-scoring models we've tested for less than fifty dollars use this steel because it works well. Some knives well over that price threshold use the same steel. The locking mechanism is sound, and the one-handed opening function works from either side. If the pocket clip orientation works for you (right pocket, tip down), the stiff steel clip and deep carry are just right.
If that pocket clip orientation doesn't work, the Sanrenmu 7010 isn't customizable. You get it this way and this way only. The whole package is just a little smaller than some of our favorite knives, and ergonomics suffer just a little bit. For the size, lack of assisted opening, and limited modularity, 3.2 ounces is pretty hefty. These minor drawbacks are hardly enough to make us steer away from this super low priced, yet reliable quality, pocket knife. The price almost takes all decision-making out of the equation.
Read review: Sanrenmu 7010
Best for Keychain-Readiness
Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army
Significantly more compact than your car fob, this Victorinox is unobtrusive and ready for action. When needed, the small blade rises to most occasions. Our lead tester's first pocket knife was a Victorinox Classic, 30-some years ago. His 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 can cut things as stout as rock climbing webbing. For light tasks like paper or fingernails, 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 few definite steps down from something like the full-sized knives. If this is okay with you, and you have room on your keychain for another little piece of equipment, the Victorinox Classic will find daily use in your world.
Read review: Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife
Best for Backpacking
Gerber Ultralight LST
If you need a blade but need it to be as light as possible, you can't do better than the Gerber Ultralight LST. For backpacking, rock climbing, or any other sort of extended human-powered travel, this half-ounce knife is unmatched. It cuts what you need to cut, holds up to light-duty use, cleans easily, and virtually disappears in your backpack.
At this tiny size and low weight, ergonomics and quality are going to suffer, as a knife's ergonomics are very closely related to its size. A full-size knife fills your fist for maximum control and force. This Gerber knife is just too tiny for maximum control and cutting power. Lightweight and construction quality aren't always mutually exclusive. The LST could be made a little more robust without an impact on weight. The small handle, even under low forces, flexes and bows more than we think it should. You might not even notice, and it won't hamper your utility. For the lightest model that's still functional to stuff in a pack, the Gerber is our hands-down recommendation.
Read review: Gerber Ultralight LST
Best for Tactical and Rescue Usage
SOG Trident Elite
Among the tactical, rescue-oriented knives tested, the SOG Trident Elite stands out. When compared to close competitors, the SOG is lighter and has a blade made of better steel. SOG is well-known for its blades of robust AUS-8 steel, even on its 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 available.
The whole package is a little heavier and bulkier than other top competitors. For everyday carry, the hardened steel glass breaker nub is more prone to wearing through your pants pocket liners than knives with a smooth exterior. Over time the wear and tear can be noticeable. You should favor the tactical attributes of the SOG for it to be a better choice than some of the others we assess. This product does very well for a niche user.
Read review: SOG Trident Elite
Great for Hunting
Havalon Piranta Original
Hunters need a darn good reason to not use the Havalon Piranta Original for field dressing and home skinning. Processing of any but the smallest of big game will dull any blade at least once partway through the process. You can, and many do, forge on, working with a duller blade. Or you can carry multiple sharpened knives. Or you can bring a full sharpening kit. Or, much simpler than all the above, you can carry a Piranta and a few extra blades. This knife comes with 12 spare blades.
There isn't anything like a well-done factory-honed blade edge. No matter how good you are with your home sharpening system, you won't match the edge on a fresh blade. You certainly won't get a super narrow blade repolished to a very narrow edge angle. With the Piranta's scalpel-style interchangeable blades, you can have an edge way finer than any reusable blade, and swap it in much easier than any sort of effective resharpening. It's this simple; the interchangeable blades of the Piranta change the game of dressing game.
Read review: Havalon Piranta Original
Why You Should Trust Us
Aside from testing gear, Senior Review Editor Jediah Porter's main thing is guiding skiing and climbing in the mountains as a certified American Mountain Guide. Outside of climbing and guiding, he can be found mountain biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and trail running. Jed calls Wydaho's Tetons home but frequents Alaska and South America for larger mountain objectives.
We considered well over a hundred knives in the marketplace, then selected the 18 most promising models. Each year we reassess the market and select new options to add and some to omit. We tested with a combination of controlled tests and daily use. Daily use ranged through routine tasks like simple food preparation and opening packages to more specialized applications like home improvements and automotive repairs. Controlled tests consisted of side-by-side cutting of materials like rope and webbing, whittling, and even boring holes with the tip of the blade. We paid attention to blade integrity, ergonomics, portability, and durability.
Related: How We Tested Pocket Knives
Analysis and Test Results
Our testing selection is limited to folding knives with blades between 1 and 4 inches in length, and most models have just one blade. Every product we review can be carried in a pocket or purse for everyday use, and every product has a variety of applications in outdoor pursuits. Beyond these overall commonalities, each product's specifications and attributes vary quite a bit. Some are classic models with decades of customer loyalty, while others feature more modern construction that includes the latest and greatest features that improve ergonomics and portability. All knives should be handled with care.
Related: Buying Advice for Pocket Knives
The range of quality with different pocket knives can vary a great deal. On one end of the spectrum are very inexpensive and mostly mass-produced products that are little more than toys, often found at places like gas station checkouts, county fair booths, or travel gift shops. These knives do not work well for most real-world applications and should probably be avoided. At the other end of the spectrum are small batch or even one-off pocket knives that are meticulously designed and manufactured by boutique craftsman producers. These knives can be very comfortable, stylish, and high-quality, but can also be ridiculously expensive. OUr selected lineup fits somewhere between these two extremes. Our entire selection is widely available and of above-average to high quality.
Even within this range of products, price and quality can vary. Your purchase price should correlate with how much you plan on using your knife. If you use it hours a day for decades, spending more will get you better steel material for the blade and hinges. You'll also get locking mechanisms that last longer as well as carry options that blend seamlessly with your life. For more occasional use, or for those that are prone to misplacing smaller possessions, less expensive options will probably be a better value.
Depending on your use and budget, the best values will appear at various price points and functions, a. The Kershaw Leek is pretty spendy to most, but you get materials, ergonomics, and function well above the price range, putting it in competition with products that cost at the high end of the market. The Sanrenmu 7010 is priced like a convenience store impulse buy, but has sufficient quality that earns it a place in our main list. It's much better than what you'd buy in a checkout line next to the Skittles. Other good deals in our test selection include the featherweight Gerber Ultralight LST and the lifelong interchangeable blade function of the Havalon Piranta. Even the higher initial money that you'd spend on our top performers would become a good value over decades of use and with periodic and affordable factory maintenance.
Blade Integrity (Sharpness, More or Less)
There isn't a consumer choice more mystifying than the sharpness of a knife. You might just want to know, "is this knife sharp?" Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. Sharpness, at any point, is a function of the raw materials, material treatment, knife geometry, and blade maintenance. All of these things balance together to deliver actual performance and sharpness.
First of all, you must resharpen every knife after some amount of normal use. Different materials and designs will hold a sharp 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 our Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585, Benchmade North Fork, and a whole line of other knives will sharpen these knives for the life of the product for a small handling fee each time.
The process of designing a blade starts with the raw material. All of our reviewed knives have blades made of some variety of steel. Steel is a metal made mainly of iron. The iron is then mixed ("alloyed") with small amounts of carbon and often other elements, with the possible variations being virtually endless. Steel for a knife must be hard enough to resist the abrasion and deflection of the material it is cutting. However, it must also be soft enough to bend (rather than break or crack) at least slightly in the face of significant forces and to respond to commonly available sharpening methods. Too hard and the brittle steel would be nearly impossible to sharpen. Too soft and the steel will lose its edge rapidly. It must resist corrosion in the face of a wide array of commonly encountered substances, and water alone is a common corrosive agent that must be protected against. There are a dizzying array of steel types. In our review, a few knives use highly regarded blade materials. Notably, the SOG Trident Elite's "AUS-8" and the "154cm" and "S30V" on the Benchmade knives are very expensive and well-tuned blade steels.
Know two things: decent knife steel is inexpensive enough that all branded knives (but not truck stop or flea market knives) are made with good enough metal. Most manufacturers of high-quality knives advertise the type of steel they use. It is a general assumption, but we've found that it is pretty safe to say that if the manufacturer is willing to tell you what the blade steel is, that steel will suffice. If you can't find out its actual materials, it is probably really, really poor stuff. The steel hardening method is just as important as the raw material. Once a manufacturer chooses the steel for a knife, it is shaped and then hardened in some variation of a heating-and-cooling process.
Various types of hardening result in different characteristics. After hardening, the steel's edge-holding qualities are well established — provided the blade isn't exposed to enough heat to reverse (or even further) the hardening process. The Buck Knives brand, for instance, is sometimes known to use relatively soft steel but has an industry-leading heat treatment. The Buck Knives Vantage Pro uses one of the stronger steels in their line-up (S30V stainless steel), and adding the excellent heat treatment improves the blade quality.
We especially like budget knives made by companies that also make high-end knives. To hit a price point, a company like this might downgrade the steel, but it doesn't make sense to tool up an independent heat treatment infrastructure. The Kershaw Chill is an excellent example of this. Kershaw makes top-end knives and delivers similar quality control to something much less expensive like the Chill.
Once a blade is shaped and hardened, the cutting-edge receives its final grind and can be tuned for optimum performance 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 more delicate tasks. The blade of the hybrid tactical Kershaw Blur is also sharpened to a steeper angle. On the other hand, the tiny blade of the Victorinox Classic starts thin and is sharpened thinner, making for a very sharp yet fragile edge. The Opinel No. 8, CRKT Drifter, and Kershaw Chill are similarly slender. All-around, modern knives like the Spyderco Tenacious G-10, Sanrenmu 7010, and the Benchmade Mini-Barrage have blade geometry that splits the difference between the above extremes. Middle road blade geometry is, predictably, versatile, and functional. The procedures, facets, and angles used to finish an edge further influence the initial sharpness and edge-holding ability of the blade.
The Buck Knives Vantage Pro has a blade thicker than its stature might suggest. We found it more similar to the robust blade of the tactical SOG Trident than to all-around options like the Spyderco Delica 4. The interchangeable blade of the Havalon Piranta Original is the thinnest, with the lowest edge angle, of any knife we test here. They can do this because it doesn't need to be resharpened at home, and if it breaks in use, you can just slide on a new one.
As with steel hardness, there is no single perfect edge finish. Too narrow of an angle and the blade's leading edge is too thin to resist deflection and dulling, while too steep of an angle on that leading edge doesn't feel nearly as sharp in actual use. Rest assured that knife manufacturers have this figured out. Follow their instructions for proper care, and your knife will serve you for years and years.
In summary, knife sharpness is a function of a wide array of variables. A user's long-term experience with the pocket knife depends as much on his or her maintenance as it does on the materials and 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.
All the knives we tested have some drop-point or clip point shaped blades; these two are the most versatile blade shapes, similar but subtly different. Also, note that many blades in our test and elsewhere can be either straight or serrated. Serrated blades cut tough materials, especially rope and webbing, more efficiently while straight blades are easier to sharpen. The GearLab team generally prefers straight blades. Hybrid blades, partially straight and partially serrated, can address a variety of needs, or they can be the worst of all worlds. Use and sharpen the straight portion regularly and save the serrated portion for tougher tasks like cutting carpet or rope. There are many common blade shapes. Some are utterly more general, and some are quite specific.
Regardless of the blade shape or sharpness, heavy cutting also 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 while 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 straightforward, and one-handed blade deployment is best. So-called assisted opening knives are even easier to use. The Mini-Barrage, SOG, and two Kershaw knives, among others, have assisted opening blades, which we prefer.
The assisted opening function requires at least a bit of a learning curve. Deploying an assisted opening blade is best done with one hand, for instance. Opening one with one hand is easier than opening the same knife with two hands. Further, some like their assisted opening knife to be equipped with a mechanism that locks the blade closed. Most have this, but not all. The Kershaw Blur is the only assisted opening knife we tested that doesn't lock closed.
Ideally, for pocket-clipped knives, the clip is oriented such that the tool can be pulled from the pocket and thumbed open without regripping. This tip-up carry is the fastest to deploy. Tested Benchmade knives are made this way and can be arranged to work that way in either the left or right pocket. Why other manufacturers do not employ this simple strategy is mystifying. The only reasonable argument against tip-up pocket carry is that the blade can be more likely to fall open in your pocket with gravity. An open or, worse yet, partially open, knife in your pocket is terrifying, but a low likelihood. We have never, ever, had this happen. The Spyderco Tenacious G-10 and Spyderco Delica 4 both have a pocket clip that can be user-configured to hang in your pocket in one of four different configurations: tip-up or down and left or right thumb activation. For those unclear how they wish to carry their blade or can't find a knife to match their preference, this attribute alone can favor a Spyderco.
Both Victorinox knives have multiple tools. While you can't open any of the features with one hand, you should be able to engage them with even the most closely-trimmed fingernails. The Buck Famous Folder and Opinel both also open with fingernail slots. The Gerber Fine Edge LST opens by just pinching the blade between your fingers. In slippery conditions, a fingernail slot would be an improvement to this knife. All other knives have some form of one-handed opening.
One-handed opening options include thumb stud, thumb hole, and index finger pull. All have their pros and cons. Thumb stud is the easiest to work with, but adds bulk and protrusions that can snag. Also, for ambidexterity, two thumb studs need to be affixed to the blade. A thumbhole, as on the Delica 4, is inherently ambidextrous and removes material and weight from the blade. It is just a little less ergonomic to deploy. Finally, finger flick opening, as seen on the Buck Vantage, Kershaw Chill, and as an option on the Kershaw Leek is unique and a little less intuitive than the others.
The Opinel No. 8 has unique ergonomics. The wooden handle, nearly perfectly round, feels nice in hand and is more than adequate for light-duty tasks like cutting food. For more substantial use like extended whittling or cutting of rope and webbing, a more oval-shaped handle profile like that of the Benchmade North Fork is preferred.
The diminutive James Brand Chapter has a simple design that opens with one hand. Because of a slightly sticky blade and the overall dimensions, the user's thumb is a little vulnerable to cutting on the blade while opening. Users learn to deal with this concern, but our test team had some trouble while riding the learning curve.
The Spyderco Delica 4 is a long-time player on the market with somewhat outdated shape. The handle is narrower than would be ideal, while the wide blade sticks out and takes up pocket space. The wide blade is to accommodate the thumbhole, which assists in opening the blade. While this is a convenient and ergonomically-friendly way to open the knife, it feels more substantial than necessary in our pockets.
A pocket knife is only as good as it is handy. Will it be there for you when you need it? You will probably leave a knife that is too bulky or heavy at home from time to time. 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 quite small and equipped to hang on a keychain easily, or had a low profile and a tight pocket clip that was, or could be, configured in the user's ideal arrangement.
By far, the Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife and Gerber Ultralight LST are the most portable of the knives we tested. Both are awarded for their tiny stature and weigh under a single ounce. The Spyderco Tenacious is bulky and cumbersome in comparison. In these cases, however, bulk and weight can be justified by some for their function and versatility. Similarly, the SOG Trident Elite tactical knife is relatively large but doesn't weigh as much as its size suggests.
With both large and small knives in the review, our all-around favorite, the Benchmade Mini-Barrage, sits right in the middle. For most users, the size is manageable while still being functional. The Sanrenmu 7010 is just a tiny bit smaller in most ways than the Kershaw Leek. Both of these are pretty close in size to the Benchmade.
The Opinel No. 8 is also on the smaller 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 lightweight. The Leek and Opinel both have very thin blades. The Kershaw Chill (costing a low price but with excellent construction), has almost the same dimensions as the Kershaw Leek.
In the models we tested, the quality of manufacturing aside from the knife blade itself varied far more than the quality of the blade. Our evaluation of these knives' construction quality was mainly subjective but equal across the board. Does it feel sturdy and confidence-inspiring? When this assessment came up short for a given pocket knife, it inevitably followed that some aspect of the mechanical function of the knife would act finicky.
Handle, hinges, and locking mechanisms revealed the attention paid to detail. Sturdy parts and materials, tight design, close manufacturing tolerances, and carefully thought out construction stood out right away and only increased in how much we noticed as time and usage wore on. Overall, construction quality was more than adequate for all test subjects. We had no failures or breakages.
Locking mechanisms are the best window to construction quality. Well made knives like the Kershaw Leek open and close smoothly every time. Some less expensive options cut just fine, but the locking mechanism can be difficult to disengage. The Sanrenmu 7010 feels like it is made to much more expensive standards than its price indicates.
Smaller knives are harder, generally, to optimize construction quality. Their miniaturized components don't leave much room for error. A testament to our high selection standards, the small knives we test are better than average. The Gerber Ultralight LST is fantastic, partially because of its tiny stature. Also quite small, the Victorinox Classic seems to escape some of the issues of other small knives — all its components work well and smoothly. None of the features on the Classic lock, which likely saves some hassle.
The Opinel No. 8 has a unique construction. It is, first and foremost, super simple. With only five 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. Opening and locking require two hands.
In our test, only the Victorinox Classic, Victorinox Climber, Kershaw Blur, and tactical style SOG Trident Elite have any functions besides a primary blade.
The tactical knives are designed for rescue usage. Paramedics and firefighters use the stout blade, seatbelt cutter, and glass-breaking punch. The rest of us may fear the need to cut our seatbelt and bash through the window of our car, but we'll probably tire of carrying such a burly pocket knife long before using these features. The SOG Trident Elite is considered a full tactical knife, with both seatbelt cutter and glass breaking punch. The Kershaw Blur is a 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 will get the owner through most of life's challenges.
The larger Victorinox Climber has most of the same features as the Classic, but these features are larger and more functional. The Climber also adds a corkscrew and a couple of other small tools that some may find useful.
A pocket knife serves many purposes. It is with you for trivial tasks like opening mail or cutting off a frayed shoelace end, and it will come along on backpacking trips to cut the carrot or cheese. You might hope to use it in disassembling a deer or elk. It might just be something you fidget with during online video meetings. Regardless of what you intend to use it for, your selection process matters. We are glad to be part of that process and hope we've helped you find the best product for your needs.
— Jediah Porter