How do you narrow down a dizzyingly complex field of pocket knives to make your choice? A pocket knife is one tool that even the least "handy" person may use every day. Choosing one that fits seamlessly into your life and increases your overall life productivity is a worthy task. After testing a narrow and competitive field of fourteen of the best pocket knives available we have come to understand better how you should work through your own choice.
Why Carry a Pocket Knife?
Pocket knives are, by definition, a general purpose tool. The category is united by the suitability of the tool for carrying in a pants pocket. You may choose to carry it elsewhere, but the knife is sized and designed to be folded and carried in your pants pocket for easy access. A knife needs to be portable and accessible this way for a variety of tasks. Specialized knives for hunting, fishing, box-cutting, kitchen use, drywall, etc., do not necessarily need to be carried in a pocket. Therefore, their design limitations are different.
In choosing to purchase and carry a pocket knife, you must be cognizant of your local laws and regulations. Knives are regulated on state and local levels in the United States. Laws vary, but in the most strict areas, public carry (and sometimes even private possession) of some of the knives we have reviewed is illegal. You must do your homework to be sure you comply. The American Knife & Tool Institute provides state-specific knife laws on their website. This is a good starting point, but be sure to also consult local laws as well.
First of all, do you identify yourself as a "handy" person? Do you seek out creative and self-reliant solutions to life's mechanical problems? Those of you who answer yes to this question will undoubtedly find a use for a pocket knife at least once every day. You will also take pride in the tool you carry, and easily justify the money and pocket or purse space for a functional knife. Using a well-made, purpose-built, and at-the-ready pocket knife for daily tasks is an aesthetically pleasing experience. The subtle swell of pride in employing something classy like our Editors' Choice Award-winning Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585 in a productive fashion is unmatched in a world dominated by a great deal of "screen time" and virtual victories.
Pocket knives are easily lost. Those of you on a first-name basis with your locksmith should consider replacement cost when purchasing a pocket knife. If you regularly replace car and house keys well before the sheen is worn off, find a readily available and inexpensive design that you like. Inexpensive pocket knives still serve the purpose. The difference between the blade steel of a cheaper knife and that in a spendy tool like the Benchmade North Fork is noticeable, but marginal given the difference in price. A cheaper tool will need sharpening a little more regularly (every three months vs. every four, perhaps). The primary difference, as outlined in our main article, is in a far more subjective and aesthetic sense. Those of you multi-tasking enough to lose knives frequently are also too busy to care if the knife blade "feels" good cutting through the box of your eighteenth eBay purchase this week.
Also, regarding losing knives, consider how you will carry it. Especially if you are new to carrying a knife for everyday use, integrating it with your ever-present keys is a good way to train yourself to keep track of it. You already have habits, effective or sometimes not, that keep the keys nearby. Your average bundle of keys will take on little additional bulk with something like our Top Pick Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife. Aside from key-chain carry, the primary knife-security feature is the pocket clip. Most of the knives in our test are equipped this way. The knife lives inside a pocket, with a spring-steel metal clip securing it to the outside of the pants. The clip is indeed visible, but barely. And the knife remains easily in reach and secure regardless of position.
Categories of Usage
Even in the huge field of knives designed for general, everyday carriage in a pants pocket, there is a great deal of variation. Inherently, different design considerations and usage priorities differentiate the field. Here at OutdoorGearLab, we organize the options by differentiating between how you'll use a knife. The vast majority of knives are purchased for routine, "urban" if you will, daily usage. However, our OGL readers are interested in outdoors applications as well. Given all that, we've lumped our buying advice into the following categories.Every Day Carry
This is a big category. Most knife owners purchase their pocket blade for omnipresent carriage. Your knife will become a comforting and aesthetic part of each day. You will find more and more uses for it. You will, if the habit is new to you, risk losing it at first but quickly get to the point where, like your cell phone, you feel naked without the knife in its usual spot. You will use it enough to appreciate sound ergonomics and impeccable construction. In any event, you'll want a just-less-than-full-size, round-handled folder. If you have sound pocket organizational habits, we can unequivocally recommend our Editors' Choice Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585. If you are a little sloppy, losing keys before the sheen wears off, shop around for something of similar dimensions at a fraction of the price; something you won't be as sad to lose. Both of our Best Buy winners fit this bill, and both are suitable for everyday carry. The Kershaw Leek is long and sleek, while the Opinel No 08 is even less expensive and super light.Every Day Carry and Backcountry Usage
If you intend to use the knife in the backcountry, weight and bulk become far more critical. Sure, carrying a knife every day requires ensuring that its bulk won't interfere. However, front country users are far less fanatical about the grams than backcountry travelers. Our Best Buy Opinel No 08 could be just the ticket for folks in this category. It's ergonomic and durable enough for everyday usage, but compact and light for extended hikes and climbing.Just Backcountry Usage
Perhaps your knife will live in your backpack or first aid kit. You'll use it to cut cheese, climbing webbing, and the occasional light repair task. As compared to every day carry, you're far less apt to misplace this knife. And you're going to use it less often. In our review, the Gerber STL 2.0 Fine Edge is an excellent backcountry knife. It is tiny and durable, with a functional blade.Every Day Carry and Hunting or Fishing
If one hunts or fishes a great deal alongside the roads, having a dedicated, purpose-built knife is just the ticket. Fixed blade hunting knives and long, slender fillet knives are designed for a reason. However, if you need a backup, or will be hunting and fishing deep in the backcountry, many every day folding pocket knife designs can be employed to good effect. The primary special consideration one should look to address is the simplicity of construction and ease of cleaning. Use of a folding knife in dressing game and fish is a messy proposition. Tools with additional features and spring-loaded assisted opening function will get gunked up unnecessarily. Sharp and straightforward folders like the Benchmade Griptilian 551 are perfect for the user who also participates in the more "consumptive" forms of outdoor recreation.Every Day Carry and Home Handiwork
Finally, you may choose to carry a knife for general usage but live in a "fixer-upper" of a home. Or you work in a field that requires the occasional improvised field repair. Or you are simply a handy type, making "for some reason" numerous little fixes and improvements in your day-to-day and week-to-week life. If you are handy enough, any simple blade can be forced to do a high number of tasks. However, occasionally you will need more specialized tools. For that application, peruse our Multi-Tool Review to see if something there suits you.
After addressing the big questions of how and where you will use your knife and how much you are willing to spend, it is worth considering the smaller and additional features of a knife.
These other functions can be divided into two major categories. Look for the modularity of a knife and subtleties in the hinging mechanisms.
When we discuss modularity of a pocket knife, we're talking about the ability to tweak the knife to exactly suit your purposes. Some knives are equipped to swap out blades. High-end knives can be rebuilt entirely, usually by the manufacturer or an experienced technician. The user can remove the pocket clip on many knives. In some of those cases, the pocket clip can be remounted on the opposite side, or even on the opposite end of the handle. This movable pocket clip allows the user to set it up for carrying in either pocket while still being easily manipulated upon deployment.
All pocket knives have at least one blade that folds into the handle. Virtually all knives have some spring to hold the blade open, at least under light pressure. Some knives add another lock. To close the blade of locking knives, one must hold some tab open while simultaneously closing the blade. This protects the user's hand while the knife is in heavy use. Some knives add in secondary locks as well. In these knives, two steps are required to close the knife. We find this level of protection to be unnecessarily complicated. We tested no knives with secondary locking mechanisms. We like simple "liner" style locking mechanisms. This is a clean and proven feature. There is simply a tab inside the handle and alongside the blade that stays flexed out of the way while the blade is closed. When the blade is opened and reaches full length, the tab springs out to block the closure of the blade. The user simply and intentionally flexes the tab out of the way before closing the blade. Benchmade and Opinel knives each use their proprietary blade lock. Both work just fine also. Some knives are made to lock closed. In crowded pockets, especially with assisted opening knives, this can be a valuable feature. Realize, however, that a blade locked closed often negates much of the effort the manufacturer has exerted to make the knife open more quickly.
Next, consider the added convenience of an assisted opening knife. Assisted opening knives, as the descriptive label suggests, are equipped with springs that help pull the blade to full extension. The user gets the blade moving, usually with a thumb-stud on the base of the blade, and the springs quickly "take over" and pull the blade the rest of the way out. Our testers appreciate this function and uniformly preferred those knives thus equipped. Deploying the blade for simple and quick tasks is more efficient. If one carries a knife for efficiency and convenience, it follows that an assisted opening feature will further enhance the experience. The assisted opening mechanism in a knife adds just a little cost and complication to the construction.
Finally, consider value. One can spend mere pennies, up through hundreds of dollars on a pocket knife. There are scores upon scores of pocket knives on the market, ranging from mass-produced versions that are little more than decorative toys to one-off, hand-crafted pieces of art. In addition to quality, the price is a function of uniqueness and batch size, even more than in other consumer categories. Limited production runs of handmade knives are going to be much more expensive, all else equal, than models with long production and high volume. It could be argued that the most significant driver of price is this economy of scale. We have tested excellent knives that are very affordable while noticing little real performance difference in those with stratospheric prices.