Let’s start by talking about the term “tactical knife.” While it’s readily used, it’s not entirely accurate or useful in segmenting a certain type of blade. Knife enthusiasts talk about combat knives — blades designed for general use by the military. This is something like the classic KA-BAR USMC.
Knife enthusiasts also talk about fighting knives — blades designed for hand-to-hand, close-quarters combat. This is something like the Fairbairn Sykes dagger. Knife enthusiasts don’t talk with regularity or precision about “tactical knives” unless they simply mean “modern knives” (as opposed to something like a traditional slip-joint or to distinguish a more utilitarian custom knife from an art knife).
In addition to not matching up with accepted terms in the knife world, “tactical” has become so broadly used in the general discourse that it has stopped having meaning. Now it’s a synonym for “tough” or “aggressive.” But even that fails, as all modern knives are tough, and any edged tool can be deployed aggressively. Because combat knives and fighting knives have niche uses, we wouldn’t recommend them to most people.
- Best Fixed Blade Tactical Knife: Gerber Reserve Terracraft
- Best Folding Tactical Knife: Benchmade Mini Griptilian 555-1
- Best Budget Fixed Blade Tactical Knife: KA-BAR BK16
- Best Budget Folding Tactical Knife: CJRB Small Feldspar
- Bark River Bravo 1 in 3V
- Spyderco Native 5 in SPY27
- SOG Terminus XR in S35VN
- Chris Reeve Sebenza 31 Titanium
- Spyderco Paramilitary 2
The Best Tactical Knives of 2023
While we noted that “tactical knife” is not an accurate term, we know that you likely searched it to find a hard-use, versatile knife. You may want it for military service or to take into the woods. We think the following roundup will serve many people well.
- Classic blade shape
- Great sheath
- Surprisingly excellent handle
- Handles will turn off traditionalists until they use them
- Great handle
- Great pocket clip
- Very useful blade shape
- Um … it’s darn near perfect
- Great “Coke bottle” handles
- Wonderful drop point
- Stain-attracting steel
- Cut-inhibiting powder coating
- Smooth action
- Excellent blade shape
- Amazing value
- Could start a knife addiction
Best of the Rest
- Convex grind
- Amazing handle
- Dreadful leather sheath
- High price tag (made higher by the need for a new sheath)
- Great steel
- Very slice-y blade
- Good blade-to-weight ratio
- Somewhat boxy handle
- High-riding clip
- Carbon fiber handle
- Excellent flipper
- Fully ambidextrous
- Don’t confuse this for the D2 version or the older BD-1 version
- Smooth action
- Classic design
- Great blade shape
- Steel S30V (base) / S110V (upgrade) / almost any steel in a Sprint
- Blade length 3.4”
- Weight 3.9 oz.
- Compression lock
- Slice-y blade
- Tons of aftermarket upgrades
- Weird blade-to-handle ratio
Tactical Knives Comparison Chart
|Gerber Reserve |
|Benchmade Mini |
|KA-BAR BK16||$124||1095||4″||6.4 oz.|
|CJRB Small Feldspar||$48||D2||3″||2.82 oz.|
|Bark River Bravo |
1 in 3V
|Spyderco Native 5 |
|SOG Terminus XR |
|Chris Reeve Sebenza |
|Spyderco Paramilitary 2||$245||S110V||3.4″||3.9 oz.|
Why You Should Trust Us
From skinning a kill in the backcountry, to whittling a marshmallow stick around the fire, the GearJunkie team has spent endless hours fiddling with all sorts of knives. We’re experts in spotting the often subtle minutiae between a cheap knockoff, and a sturdy work of art. Sure, you could buy that $15 folder at Walmart that looks similar to the Spyderco Paramilitary, but you’ll likely be purchasing a replacement in a few months. If you want a blade worth its salt, you need to invest in quality steel and craftsmanship.
To create this guide we sifted through our old knife collections, roamed the internet, and talked with experts to narrow in on the best tactical knives for any task you could encounter. We tested each model extensively, with an eye for durability, ease of use, and cutting ability. After distilling our favorites down to the list above, we’d confidently recommend any of these knives as a reliable, tough-as-nails tool that will stay on your side for years.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Tactical Knife
With so much variety on the market, finding the best tactical knife for your use and budget can be a daunting task. Below we’ve highlighted some things to consider when buying these knives, which hopefully helps to streamline the process.
Kinds of Knives
Knives are broken into two categories: fixed blades and folders. A fixed blade knife is one where the blade and handle are a single continuous piece. A folder is a knife where the blade collapses into the handle.
Fixed blades are better for messy, hard-use tasks. Folders are better for daily use.
While there are overbuilt folders, there’s no real reason to press a folder into the tasks best performed by a fixed blade regardless of the hype around a design or lock. Additionally, because folders are almost always more expensive than fixed blades, pressing a folder into fixed-blade duty isn’t financially prudent.
You likely came here looking for the best tactical knife. And while that terminology is not accurate, choosing a knife that will suit you well isn’t terribly complicated. As long as you avoid the garbage at big-box stores, gas stations, and flea markets, you’ll probably get a decent knife.
Designs and materials have improved rapidly in the past 30 years; even a mediocre knife today would’ve been great back then. That said, there are some basic things you should think about when buying a knife.
First and foremost, check your local laws. Unlike most other gear reviewed on this site, knives, especially automatic knives and those with large blades, are subject to legal restrictions.
For more on knife laws, visit the American Knife and Tool Institute’s website. The AKTI has a good state-by-state breakdown of legal restrictions on knives.
If they can’t answer your questions, ask your local police or contact a lawyer in your area that practices criminal law or Second Amendment law.
If you plan on doing messier or more physically demanding tasks with a knife, such as skinning game or splitting firewood, you should choose a fixed blade. Because of their simpler construction, fixed-blade knives brush off grime and shock that would render a folder useless.
Most fixed blades on the market are full-tang — that is, the steel of the blade goes to the very end of the knife. Full-tang knives are stronger, simpler, and more durable than other fixed-blade designs (like a partial-tang or stick-tang knife).
The trade-off, of course, is that fixed blades are difficult to carry. If carry matters and you plan on doing light fire prep, food prep, and package opening along with detail work (splinter removal or whittling), a folder will be fine.
If you’ll be doing a lot of wood processing, you should consider a small axe or hatchet over a knife. The blade geometry (shape of the blade seen from the point of a knife or the eye of axe/hatchet) on an axe or hatchet is far superior if you have to process large volumes of wood.
If forced to choose only one type of knife, for whatever reason, we would opt for a small fixed blade, something with a 4-inch blade and a 5-inch handle. You may look like a weirdo with it on your belt at the grocery store, but it’s small enough to carve with and large enough to split wood.
Steel is the heart of a knife; it is to a knife what a movement is to a watch or an engine is to a car. You can’t have a good knife with bad steel.
Steel comes in two groups: high-carbon steel and stainless steel. High-carbon steels used to be harder than stainless but more prone to rust. With modern powder metallurgy, stainless steels are both stainless and are harder than high-carbon steels.
Other than cost, there’s no real reason to buy high-carbon steel. The cheapest stainless steels — steel like 440C or AUS8 — are worse than the best common high-carbon steel 1095, but other than the true bottom-of-the-barrel stainless steels, high-carbon no longer outperforms most stainless steels.
There are four attributes knife enthusiasts talk about with steel: hardness (resistance to dulling or deformation of the edge), toughness (resistance to chipping), corrosion resistance (stainlessness), and sharpen-ability (how hard steel is to sharpen). Modern powder metal steels do all of these things well compared to older steels. S35VN is a very common, very good modern steel that’s available at relatively low prices.
One issue with these ultra-hard — measured in Rockwell C scale numbers (HRc) — steels is that they tend to be a challenge to sharpen. You get hard, tough, corrosion-resistant steels that are a bear to sharpen, especially compared to “hard” high-carbon steels like 1095 (“hard” being relative, as 1095 peaks around HRc 59 while some powder steels start at HRc 62).
Our favorite steels right now:
- SPY27: A crucible steel exclusive to Spyderco that has all of the advantages of a powder-metal steel but is actually pleasant to sharpen.
- LC 200N: The only non-powder steel I strongly prefer — this steel is virtually rustproof but still holds an edge
- S90V: Another crucible steel that’s very hard and very tough, but not quite as corrosion-resistant and is a misery to sharpen.
- M390: “Family” steels (M390, 20CV, and 204p); these steels are a bit harder than SPY27 but not as hard to sharpen as S90V
- 3V: The premium “tough” steel on the market that truly handles a beating
Knife people tend to be tool people, and tool people tinker. If you value the ability to tune all of your tools, you’re going to have to buy more expensive knives. Most knives under $300 aren’t designed to be tuned and taken apart. In fact, other than sharpening, companies don’t want you to disassemble their knives, and most of the time doing so will void your warranty (though this is changing).
If you want to tinker, we strongly recommend the Chris Reeve Sebenza. At over $350, it’s a very expensive knife, but it’s a time-tested design with absolutely flawless tolerances. It’s also designed to be taken apart and put back together by the end user.
Putting a Sebenza back together is one of the true joys of owning a high-end knife, and it will make you feel like you’re ready to assemble watch movements. But for most people, that feature isn’t worth the price tag. If you’re a “set-it-and-forget-it” person, opt for a sub-$300 knife with M390 family steel. You can have someone sharpen it for you once a year.
If you plan on owning and sharpening your own knives — which you should because it’s a good skill to have and, once you have the right equipment, easy and fun to do — you should use a two-step process with strops and stones/belts. Stropping regularly will prevent you from having to grind away precious steel and instead will just realign the micro-edge and make your knife cut better.
If your blade is dull beyond what stropping can repair, you should have a set of stones or a belt sharpener. We like to use a Ken Onion Work Sharp and freehand belt-sharpen our blades to stellar results.
If we had to do it over again, we would probably opt for a set of good stones, like Shapton stones. Unlike a belt, you can more easily sharpen all sorts of things on stones — chisels, scissors, and straight razors. Freehanding on stones requires a lot of practice, and a good set of stones can easily cost $500 — hence our love of the Work Sharp. For $200, you can get stellar results with only a bit of a learning curve.
There are all sorts of jigs and bracing systems, like the Spyderco Sharpmaker and the Wicked Edge. These tend to be very expensive and are really nothing more than stones with training wheels. We would never opt for one of these systems as our primary method of sharpening, as they offer little cost savings and deny you the full range of sharpening stones give you. Use stones or belts, or pay someone else to sharpen your knives.