Tactical is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to modern pocket knives. Well, pocket knives and a lot of other things. A trip to AliExpress and you can find tactical bracelets, pens, boots, rings, axes, lights, hairpins, probably even toilet seats and owls. It’s the kind of word that people know what you mean when you say it, but defining it isn’t so cut and dry.
Tactical knives are designed for combat or emergency use versus the more pocket-friendly modern EDC knife, with feature sets that assist in such roles. Common tactical features include things like black-coated blades (for low visibility and drag), tanto blade shapes (better for push cutting/piercing), automatic deployment or deployment aids such as waves and flipper tabs, “overbuilt” construction, flow-through backspacers, and general focus on toughness over practical considerations.
Best Tactical Knives: Summary
- Emerson CQC-7BW
- Spyderco Military
- Boker Kalashnikov Auto
- Cold Steel Recon 1
- ZT 0301
- Hogue X-5
- CRKT M16-KS
- Benchmade AFO II
- Kershaw Emerson Launch 5
- Gerber 06 Auto
Tactical knives are tough, dependable, and have an air of preparedness that some people like – whether you’re deploying overseas or just stuffing it in your pocket before you go to the grocery store. Here are ten great tactical knives you can rely on.
The CQC-7 (Close Quarters Combat) is the prototypical Emerson folder, with all of the things people love – and hate – about Ernest’s knives. Emerson makes a wide array of knives but the 7 is arguably the most closely aligned with the brand. And there’s a large number of variations of the CQC-7, but perhaps the most “tactical” is the recent 7BW Flipper variant, which features three – three! – different deployment methods. Primary is the wave, Emerson’s industry calling card and arguably the fastest method of deploying a folding knife from the closed and concealed to the open, locked, and in-hand position. There’s a hook that protrudes from the spine of the blade towards the tip, that as you draw the knife from your pocket grabs on the corner of the seam and pulls the blade open by itself. There’s also a thumb disc – an unusual departure from the normal stud or hole most knives use – and new to this knife is the addition of a flipper tab. To aid in deployment, this version of the CQC-7 utilizes stainless steel GTC ball bearings for a frictionless action as opposed to the normal 7’s washers.
The 7 does the unique trick of taking premium materials and appearing normal. Blade steel is upgraded to CPM S35VN from the regular 154CM, on this knife with a handsome stonewash finish that hides scratches. The 3.3” blade has a pronounced tanto tip with a long swedge and – most characteristically Emerson – is chisel ground, meaning the primary and edge bevels are only on one side. It’s said this is done to make the knife easier to sharpen in the field – although with S35 steel that seems like an unlikely event versus just sticking to the brand’s core features. The CQC-7 also uses full titanium liners underneath rough textured black G10, and the whole thing is held together with Philips screws for the body and a large straight head screw for the pivot – again, for ease of service. Carry is right hand tip-up only (tip up is the only way the Wave functions.) It’s not pretty, but it’s a design that’s been refined over decades to be useful and dependable in the field.
Most knife nuts give the nod to the Spyderco Paramilitary 2 (colloquially referred to as the PM2) as the best EDC knife out there, capable of tackling big jobs and small with equal ease and polish. They’re not wrong of course; the PM2 is my answer to that weird hypothetical “if you had to keep only one knife forever” question some people like to ask. But its big brother the Military is probably better suited to a tactical role, thanks largely due to its size. Stretching nearly 10 inches(!) from tip to butt when open yet only weight 4 ½ ounces, the Military packs a ton of blade into a pocketable package. It weighs so little by sweating the details. The liners are nested inside the G10 scales and skeletonized, provide strength without weighing you down. All of the hardware (including the lanyard hole) sits flush with the handles for a smooth grip as well. One odd thing about the Military: right hand tip down carry only, with a clip that spans the pivot screw.
The Military’s blade shape is a long, thin fully flat ground clip point with a perfectly straight spine and a continuous curve to the edge that stretches out a full 4” compared to the PM2’s 3.4” blade. Standard steel is CPM S30V for around $175, but you can also upgrade to CPM S110V and “blurple” G10 scales for $191. There’s also a “fluted titanium” military with intricately machined, contoured titanium scales (and a frame lock) for $225, but larger size and weight (5.6 ounces) doesn’t match the high-speed-low-drag ethos of tactical knives. The Military is rock solid but featherlight, a great slicing and piercing knife, and made from top notch materials.
What’s more tactical than a knife named after the world’s most prolific assault rifle? Boker received the approval of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the father of the infamous Russian AK47 rifle, to build knives under the Kalashnikov name before his passing in 2013. The Kalashnikov’s are a line of push button autos from the Boker Solingen line (German built) and the Boker Plus line (Chinese built) that all feature similar handles and blade steels. The standard Kalashnikov has a simple flat ground drop point blade in AUS-8 steel, with aluminum handles with individual finger grooves and a grainy texture to increase grip.
It retails for $40 and comes in a variety of configurations – dagger, tanto, reverse tanto, black coated or plain blade, partially serrated variants, and a few different handle colors. There are also a few upgraded versions in the $70-80 range – most appealing is the 70th Anniversary edition, which has a satin finished drop point blade in CTS-XHP steel, as well as some limited editions with Damascus blades in a bowie or a tanto configuration. All of them have a deep carry clip that’s configured for right hand tip up carry only. They all offer a remarkable value for money and no-nonsense automatic deployment for people that need it.
Cold Steel is probably the mainstream knife company most closely associated with “tactical” knives. They make all kinds of crazy combat and self-defense oriented products: push daggers, swords, a kubotan that looks like a Sharpie, that kind of thing. But when it comes to actual rely-on-it-when-it-counts dependability and performance, Cold Steel’s the real deal. Their line of folders that have been designed with input from Andrew Demko includes his Tri-Ad lock design, which is a modification of a lockback that includes a stop pin fitted between the lock bar and the tang of the blade, which eliminates vertical blade play and reduces the effect of wear on the two surfaces. In practice it’s a very solid lock, with a characteristic “thwack” when it opens. The added strength of the Tri-Ad lock makes tasks that you wouldn’t normally put a knife through – like batoning – less likely to damage the knife.
The Recon 1 is beefy but fits well in the pocket- two thick slabs of grippy G10 handle scales with two deep finger choils don’t require the use of steel liners, so the handle is pretty thin in the pocket while still having solid ergonomics. There’s a reversible tip down carry clip that’s set into a square recess for added stability. The blade on the Recon 1, like a lot of Cold Steel’s lineup, was recently upgraded from the old standby AUS-8 steel up to Carpenter CTS-XHP, a very high performance steel that’s got interesting chemistry. Compared to an industry stalwart like S30V, it’s got a bit more Carbon and Chromium, but also portions of Manganese, Nickel and Silicone giving it great hardness and wear resistance. It’s available as a spear point, clip point, or tanto – all blades come black DLC-coated – and either plain edge, partially, or fully serrated. The Recon 1 isn’t fancy, it doesn’t flip on bearings or have Mokuti anything. But it’s ergonomic, tough as nails, has a top notch blade steel, it’s thin enough to disappear in your pocket, and it’s yours for $100. A must-have.
Yeah, you read that right. The ZT 0301 weighs more than half of a pound. This is what built the house of Zero Tolerance: ridiculously, meticulously overbuilt knives that you can bring into hell and back no worse for the wear. The ZT 0301 actually went out of production, and is back for a brief sprint run because retailers and consumers alike were upset it was gone – despite its old age.
The 0301 is a co-design between Mick Strider and Ken Onion, and there’s a lot going on to be certain. The blade is 3 ¾” long and cut from beefy 0.17” blade stock, made from CPM S30V steel – which was top of the heap when this knife was introduced! It features a dramatic recurved drop point shape, with a two tone “tiger stripe” finish to the blade. It uses Kershaw’s SpeedSafe assisted open technology to get the big blade out, so there’s no worries of sand or other grit getting into a bunch of ball bearings. Everything about the 0301 is heavy duty, and none more visibly than the pivot. Instead of a T10 screw, the 0301 uses a 3/8” hex bolt to secure the pivot, which you can adjust with pliers if you need to.
Build on the handle side is similarly chunky, with full titanium 3D-machined scales on both sides. The thumb studs double as the blade stop here, and the titanium frame lock features a bolt-in stainless lockbar interface to avoid premature wear and sticking. The clip is four-way positionable, and the entire handle is textured for a secure grip – although there are runs of jimping on the spine and the butt as well. The 0301 has never been an everyday carry knife that you slice your mail open with at the office – it’s been the one folding knife you’d want if you were dropped on a deserted island.
Hogue is primarily known in the firearms industry for their gun grips, holsters, and other high quality accessories. So it’s a natural fit that their knives would have a tactical element to them. What sets Hogue knives apart from other “gun brand” knives are two things: one, they actually make their own knives (most all other gun-branded knives are outsourced, and in fact Hogue is now making H&K’s knives after Benchmade sold the rights) and two: they’re actually good. Anyone who’s used a “Smith & Wesson” branded knife is familiar with this concept.
The X-5 is a design by Allen Elishewitz, and its design is… noticeable. Much like the EX-04 I reviewed previously, the X-5 is not what you’d call a conventionally-styled knife. Like that knife, you have a choice of two blade shapes and two sizes: here, a spear point (although I’d say it’s more of a “harpoon point” with the dip in the spine) and a modified wharncliffe – highly modified. It has a compound grind with a thicker primary bevel towards the pivot, a reverse-tanto tip, and a smooth concave curvature to the spine. Both blade shapes come in CPM-154 steel, a great mid-level stainless that’s easy to sharpen and holds an edge pretty well.
The X-5 uses a unique deployment method: it’s a flipper with a plunge lock, but it uses a separate detent to give it a strong opening action. The detent is actually mounted on a steel plate that’s inset inside the handles. This is done because a plunge lock, while smooth, doesn’t provide the strong detent needed to make a flipper really impressive, and also gives the knife additional safety when closed. I’ve handled an X-5 at the excellent USA Made Blade showroom and from experience can say that it flips like a knife on bearings – without any bearings. It’s a remarkable experience. Speaking of safety, the plunge lock (button lock) is an incredibly strong design that – in my experiences – requires a little break in to be fully smooth. If that’s not enough, the X-5 also features a secondary lock safety switch that can be slid forward in the open position to prevent accidental release of the lock during use for extra piece of mind. There’s also a fully automatic version using a coil spring and the plunge lock (where the safety switch works in both open and closed positions) if you’re so inclined and permitted.
The X-5, like all Hogue knives, is tough, capable, impeccably built, sharp beyond belief from the factory, and also offers impressive deployment without the added complication and vulnerability that a bearing system can present.
Kit Carson’s M16 design has been the cornerstone of Columbia River Knife & Tool’s lineup seemingly forever, selling in a bewildering array of variations – blade shapes, sizes, coatings, steel types, you name it. For a lot of people (your author included) the M16 was their introduction to tactical knives. I remember the first time I held one – my uncle had found it under a seat in a used car he bought, with the cheeky “1*” stamp on the blade. Feeling it pop open with a press of that flipper tab had me hooked, realizing there was a world beyond the Swiss Army Knives I’d known.
That was a decade and a half ago, and the M16 is still with us- sadly, Kit Carson isn’t. The M16 KS line is an update to this classic design, keeping all the things that make it a function driven tool but adding a few updates. The KS is available in 4 variants that all share some common attributes but different sizes and blade shapes. The 01 and 02 are a spear point and a tanto around the 3” mark, the 03 is a 3.5” spearpoint, and the 04 is a beefy 3.9” tanto. For this new line they’ve switched from a liner lock to a stainless frame lock – the handles are all stainless instead of the normal polymer scales with stainless liners – which also means the removal of the sometimes-awkward LAWKS secondary safety system. Like the normal M16, the ambidextrous thumb studs also serve as the blade stop in the open position. The KS line has also been upgraded to Sandvik 12c27 steel from the AUS-8 the M16 line normally uses which offers slightly better edge retention as well as corrosion resistance – it’s the same steel on the uplevel Swindle I reviewed which I rather liked.
At around $40 these upgraded M16’s are very affordable, and they’re imminently practical. Two deployment methods, a four-position pocket clip, flow-through construction for easy cleaning, simple but effective ergonomics, and a thin profile in pocket – these are less than 0.40” wide – means the M16-KS line is a tough knife you can rely on that won’t drag you (or your wallet) down.
The Benchmade 9051/9052 – better known as the AFO II – is a revision of the original AFO, which was Benchmade’s first automatic knife. It’s a push-button automatic where the button is both the lock and the deployment method, and it’s a favorite choice of military members serving overseas for its reliable one-handed deployment, solid build, and no-nonsense blade shapes.
The AFO II comes in two variants – the 9051 which is a drop-point blade, and the 9052 which is an American tanto shape. You have the choice of satin finish or black DLC coating on the blade, as well as option of plain edge or partially serrated. All AFO II’s use 154CM stainless steel, a mid-range non-powdered “do everything” steel that’s an excellent balance between edge retention and sharpen-ability. Compared to the original AFO, the lock button is larger and has a stronger spring to prevent accidental firing, as does the sliding safety on the spine of the blade. The AFO’s handles are made out of 6061 anodized aluminum with a series of grooves milled in, and are tapped for a four-position clip carry – unusual for an automatic. These knives spring open with a satisfying “clack” and have a reassuring pressure to the deployment button – they feel great to use and they last a long time. They’ve also included a carbide glass breaker on the butt of the handle. In keeping with the military oriented role, AFO II comes with a nylon sheath that is Molle compatible if you prefer to carry it that way.
When Kershaw launched the Launch series a few years ago, no one was prepared for how popular they would become, but it’s not a tremendous surprise. There is a pretty significant gap in the automatic knife market in between affordable knives like the Boker Kalashnikov ($40, on this list) and pricey high-end automatics like Protechs, Microtechs, and Benchmades. So combining Kershaw’s well-regarded approach to quality, consistency and value with a modern tactical automatic folder was a sure-fire win at a mid-range price. It’s even more of a win when you include a design from Ernest Emerson in the mix, a man who knows a thing or two about tactical knives to be sure!
The Launch 5 is visually identifiable as Emerson’s work, but also as a modern high-line Kershaw product, with high quality finishing and details. Blade steel on the Launch series is CPM-154, a powdered-metallurgy upgrade to 154CM which results in finer grain size for better sharpening. The blade itself is a 3.5” clip point with a deep stonewash to it to hide scratches and resist rust. It uses an aluminum handle with a series of radial grooves milled in which extend to the bottom of the handle and taper off- a nice touch. There’s also a lanyard tie-off in the handle, which uses an integrated backspacer for a stronger build and less parts. Like the rest of the Launch series, the deployment button is highlighted with red rings- and on the 5, its set level with the surface of the handle to avoid accidental opening. This whole series of knives from Kershaw has ridiculously good deployment. It’s a no-nonsense automatic without all the frills and toys, just good materials, design, and ergonomics.
The Gerber 06 is another heavy duty automatic that’s favored by the military for its durability and ease of use. If you’re used to Gerber’s that are cheap Chinese blister-pack knives sold in Wal-Mart you throw away when they get dull, the 06 is probably about as different from that as possible. It’s not pretty, but it’s tough as nails and ready for anything.
Handles are 6061 aluminum with a tough anodized coating. Ergonomically it’s got a rock-solid grip, with pronounced outward curves that your fingers rest against towards the pivot forming an effective finger guard. Deployment is coil-spring automatic with a stout plunge lock, which also features a two-way safety. When pushed towards the button, it locks the blade closed – and can also be engaged when the blade is open to prevent the lock from releasing. Like a lot of firearms the safety switch has a red dot to indicate the safety is disengaged as well. Unusually, the 06 doesn’t actually use washers – there is a raised surface integral to the handle that the blade rides against.
You have two choices for blade shapes: a flat ground drop point or an American tanto, both of which are available partially serrated as well as black-coated. There’s also the new 10th Anniversary edition, which features OD Green scales and a stonewashed drop point blade. All 06 Autos also come with a backspacer that extends past the end of the handle to form a “strike pommel” – which also includes a lanyard hole if you need it.
That’s it for our top ten tactical knives rundown. What did you think? Did we miss your favorite tactical knife? If so, drop us a line!