Known by many names, a tactical knife generally refers to a hardworking, do-all blade. Here, we review the best folding and fixed-blade knives for every budget and use.
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, I wouldn’t recommend them to most people.
The Best Tactical Knives of 2021
While I 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.
Best Fixed-Blade Tactical Knife: Gerber Reserve Terracraft
This is a brand-new blade, part of a new high-end line from Gerber — and it’s excellent. With a crazy, angular handle and a traditional blade shape, the Terracraft ($150) is a great fixed blade. The leather sheath looks great and, thanks to some innovative touches, works exceptionally well.
It’s also made in the U.S. and hand-finished. Finding all of this for under $150 is impossible, making the Terracraft the best fixed blade out there for most folks. You can also customize the knife, choosing handle colors and blade markings.
- Steel: S30V
- Blade length: 4”
- Pros: Classic blade shape, great sheath, and surprisingly excellent handle
- Cons: Handles will turn off traditionalists until they use them
With a huge number of aftermarket upgrades and mods as well as a blade and handle shape that will never be out of date, the BK16 ($124) is a fixed blade anyone can buy, use, and appreciate. It’s not a fancy knife, still relying on 1095 (with an excellent heat treat), but it’s a solid blade.
If I were buying a knife for someone heading to a combat zone, this would be the combat knife of choice — tough, nice, but unlikely to be “borrowed.”
- Steel: 1095
- Blade length: 4”
- Pros: Great “Coke bottle” handles, wonderful drop point
- Cons: Stain-attracting steel, cut-inhibiting powder coating
The Bravo 1 is the Sebenza of the fixed blade world — the standard by which all other knives are judged. Made in Michigan by skilled knifemakers, the Bravo 1 is the best camp knife in the world, and the price reflects this. Most configurations are more than $275, and versions with exotic handles and 3V run well over $300.
Bark River uses a convex grind and does it as well as any company in the world. The grind offers a huge amount of durability but requires a slack belt sharpener and hand-grinding, making it very expensive.
Editor’s note: The Bravo 1 is currently out of stock but worth snagging when you can find it.
- Steel: Available in many steels, 3V is the best choice
- Blade length: 4”
- Pros: Convex grind, an amazing handle
- Cons: Dreadful leather sheath, high price tag (made higher by the need for a new sheath)
None of the fixed blades above are true budget knives, and none are explicitly designed for hunting. But the Mossback ($70), which is a production version of the great Tom Krein Whitetail, is a sterling choice for folks with not a lot of money to spend. It’s also smaller than all of the other fixed blades here.
The real selling point is the classic Krein handle, which is simple and useful in many grips. The big concessions come in terms of the sheath and the steel — SK-5 isn’t the best at edge retention. But seeing as you can score it on sale for just $25, it’s a good deal.
- Steel: SK-5
- Blade length: 3”
- Pros: Great blade shape and handle, excellent value
- Cons: SK-5 steel isn’t good at anything but sharpening, cheap sheath
Best Folding Tactical Knife: Benchmade Mini Griptilian 555-1
With a simple design, a great blade shape, and deceptively good proportions, the Mini Griptilian 555-1 ($164) is probably the best folding knife currently available for most people. The AXIS lock and thumbhole make it fully ambidextrous.
While the standard Mini Grip sports S30V steel, this version (the upgraded version) sports the really great 20CV steel. If you need a bigger blade, Benchmade also makes a full-size version.
- Steel: 20CV
- Blade length: 2.98”
- Pros: Great handle, great pocket clip, very useful blade shape
- Con: Um … it’s darn near perfect
Best Budget Folding Knife: CJRB Small Feldspar
There are not a lot of cheap knives on this list, primarily because knife quality is largely a function of steel and good steels are expensive, but this knife is the exception. For around $35, you get a D2 blade, an excellent, sculpted G10 handle, and some truly great action. The package is rounded out with a very solid deep-carry, over-the-top pocket clip.
- Steel: D2
- Blade length: 3”
- Pros: Smooth action, excellent blade shape, amazing value
- Cons: Could start a knife addiction
Leave it to Spyderco to create a super-steel that’s user-serviceable. Lots of companies have knives with ultra-hard steel, but only Spyderco has SPY27 ($180). The Native 5 platform is an excellent choice for a folder — light, compact, and simple, with a very good, full flat-grind, slice-y blade. This knife is also a good price for what you get.
- Steel: SPY27
- Blade: 3”
- Pros: Great steel, very slice-y blade, good blade-to-weight ratio
- Cons: Somewhat boxy handle, bland, high-riding clip
SOG makes a ton of knives, and in the last 3 years, it has moved away from big-box store designs back to its roots — quality cutlery. No knife better symbolizes that return than the Terminus XR ($94).
With a sliding bar lock (functional twin of an AXIS lock) and a good flipper design, this knife is useful for a lot of general-purpose tasks but still tough enough to hold its own in hard-use tasks. The steel upgrade is key here — this is a very good knife in the cheaper renditions (that use D2), but it’s an excellent blade in S35VN.
- Steel: S35VN
- Blade length: 3”
- Pros: Carbon fiber handle, excellent flipper, fully ambidextrous
- Cons: Don’t confuse this for the D2 version or the older BD-1 version
The standard by which all folders are measured, the Sebenza ($450) is beloved because it offers custom levels of fit and finish with production pricing and availability. The 31 was released just this year, and it’s a wonderful knife and an incremental upgrade to the 21.
With both large and small sizes, the Sebenza is incredibly robust. It’s also one of the few knives designed to be taken apart and put back together by the end-user. All of this costs a pretty penny, but if you want to buy one knife for your entire life, the Sebenza should be on your list.
- Steel: S35VN
- Blade length: 2.99” (small) and 3.61” (large)
- Pros: Smooth action, classic design, great blade shape
- Cons: Price
Long a favorite among both users and collectors, the Paramilitary 2 ($221) is a big knife that carries like a smaller knife thanks to a great handle design and a nice blade shape. It would fit the definition of toughness and military inspiration that many people want when looking for the best tactical knife.
The base model sports S30V, which is a decent steel. But if you want to hunt, you can find a PM2 in pretty much any steel used in knives. The upgraded version sports the very excellent S110V.
- Steel: S30V (base) / S110V (upgrade) / almost any steel in a Sprint
- Blade length: 3.4”
- Pros: Compression lock, slice-y blade, tons of aftermarket upgrades
- Cons: Weird blade-to-handle ratio
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.
How to Choose a Knife
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 need 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, I 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 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 a 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).
My 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 your knives, and most of the time doing so will void your warranty (though this is changing).
If you want to tinker, I 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 you a two-step process — you need 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. I use a Ken Onion Work Sharp and freehand belt-sharpen my blades to stellar results.
If I had to do it over again, I 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 my 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. I would never opt for one of these systems as my 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.
Have a favorite tactical knife? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll check it out for future updates to this article.