Pocket knives, especially knives designed for an everyday carry (EDC) role tend to gravitate somewhere around the 3.25”-3.75” blade length region. In my experience, this is a good usable blade length for most purposes – long enough to not feel like you’re using chopsticks to eat a steak, but not so long you need to use both hands.
But as the knife market has expanded in the past few years, there’s been a noticeable shift towards high-quality smaller sized knives. This can be explained two different ways. One is that some knives over a certain length are illegal in some places – which we won’t get into in depth here because knife laws vary state by state to an alarming degree. The other is that small knives have a certain charm and an undoubtable utility to them.
Small, chunky and cheerful looking knives are a charismatic carry for knife nuts and generally less intimidating for an increasingly knife-wary public. As much as we shake our heads at the notion that some people believe all knives are weapons (they’re tools) life is easier when people say “that’s a cool knife!” versus reporting you to the FBI.
They’re also easier to use in a lot of situations. A lot of small-bladed knives tend to have a higher handle to blade ratio rather than having a proportionally tiny handle, so you’ve got much more leverage and control on the blade for more “surgical” operations that require precision. So if you’re looking for a good small EDC knife here’s our shortlist of high quality mini-folding knives with blades under 3” that you’ll find useful in your day to day life.
The Spyderco Dragonfly 2 in FRN is arguably the king of mini pocket knives. It does so much so right for so many people while weighing so little. It’s a “sum is greater than the parts” kind of knife that’s equally appreciated by your uncle that “just needs a knife” just as much as it is by veteran knife nerds like Anthony Sculimbrene, who gave the knife a 20/20 Perfect score (a rare accolade indeed) and talked at great length about the perfection of it’s design.
What makes it so great? Well, the devil’s in the details, and the Dragonfly 2 packs a lot of thoughtful details into a small package. It’s extremely light – linerless FRN handles and compact dimensions keep the weight down to 1.20 ounces. Ergonomically it makes the most of its short length by including a full 50/50 forward finger choil allowing you to get a four finger grip with lots of leverage over the blade for finer control. The second revision of the Dragonfly line added a light wire clip to replace the molded plastic clip, jimping at the choil and the spine, and other minor revisions to aid grip.
All Dragonflys feature a 2.25” leaf shaped blade with a full-length swedge along the spine. It’s available in a number of different configurations. The standard Dragonfly 2 comes in full flat ground VG-10 steel and several different colors – black, orange, and a new Zome green that’s a quasi-camoflage pattern dye which looks very cool in person. There’s also a Salt version with yellow high-visibility handles available in rust-proof H1 steel with a thicker saber grind, either plain edged or a full serrated variant, as well as a fully serrated hawkbill blade.
The pick of the litter is the ZDP-189 model, with dark green handles and featuring Hitachi’s ultra-high-performance steel. ZDP-189 steel is unusual among alloys for the huge quantities of carbon and chromium. Carbon is the primary determinant of hardness in steel, and ZDP-189 has three times as much as VG-10 and more than double that of CPM S30V, as well as a ton of Chromium which prevents corrosion and aids in hardness and wear resistance. ZDP-189 is still widely considered one of the best cutlery steels on the market and it makes sharpening a rare occasion even with heavy use.
The leaf-shaped blade combines the strong piercing capability of a clip point with the slicing power of a full flat grind, making it a great “do everything” design other than the top-to-bottom thickness when folded that takes up space in your pocket. The Dragonfly 2 is loved because it pulls of an impossible trick – making a small knife cut and feel like a big one – and for that reason it’s the top of the heap when it comes to mini pocket knives.
Let’s be honest: Boker’s Urban Trapper line, designed by custom knifemaker Brad Zinker, is cooler than dry ice in the vacuum of space. It was a virtual shoe-in for this list, just missing the top spot by virtue of function, not desirability. And indeed there’s nothing wrong with the way the Petite Urban Trapper or it’s big (3.5” blade) brother functions – as a thin, minimalistic everyday carry it’s ideal for around-the-house tasks and it boasts a very impressive weight-to-features ratio.
In fact, that’s worth discussing: the real king of lightweight EDC’s the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight weighs only 1.00 ounces with its 2.75” stainless blade and lockback with linerless Micarta handles, no clip, and thumb stud deployment. At near-as-doesn’t-matter the same weight (a tenth of an ounce more) the Petite Urban trapper boasts titanium framelock construction, a ball bearing pivot, a flipper, and a pocket clip – and from personal experience, the flipping action on the Urban Trapper is absolutely incredible, with a soft detent but still a super-fast and firm opening.
In form the Urban Trapper somewhat resembles Boker’s well-known Kwaiken but with a thinner profile and more of a traditional vibe to it. The Petite Urban Trapper comes in four different variations – the standard bare titanium version has a series of holes drilled in the handle for weight reduction, and it comes in either a flipper or a nail nick variant. There’s also a black contoured G10 version as well as a carbon-fiber scaled version. All of them feature a satin finished VG-10 clip point blade that’s 0.10” thick for good slicing and food prep capabilities. Hopefully they’ll see fit to offer the classy Cocobolo wood scales of the bigger Urban Trapper in the future.
Chris Reeve Knives has been the standard bearer for high-quality production knives for more than 20 years. They don’t crank out 17 new models every 6 months and discontinue them a year later when sales cool off. They don’t make flippers, bearing pivots, multi-tools, or toxic green with zombie blood spatter editions. Chris Reeve makes top-shelf folding knives out of titanium and high end steel, they gradually refine them over their lifetime, and they can be counted on to be perfectly made and eminently useful tools.
The Inkosi is a new name on an old friend, the newest incarnation of the classic Small Sebenza. It’s actually a renaming of the Sebenza 25, although in the case of the Inkosi the small version is even lighter on blade length than its forefather. At only 2.75” the small Inkosi is almost a quarter of an inch shorter than the small Sebenza 21, but the Inkosi has slightly thicker blade stock at 0.13” along with Chris Reeve’s new “large hollow grind” – with a shallower radius to the grind to split the difference between the strength of a flat grind and the slicing ability of a full hollow grind.
Stonewashed S35VN steel (which CRK had a hand in developing) is run at a relatively soft 57-59 RC allowing for less chipping and easier sharpening. An oversized pivot for strength is matched with a set of custom-made oversized phosphor bronze washers which are actually larger than the area of the blade they rest against, allowing for a super smooth and stable action as well as large pockets to retain lubricant. The neatest Inkosi feature is the ceramic ball bearing lock interface – the detent ball is positioned on the edge of the lockbar serving as both a closed detent and a hardened lockbar insert to prevent lock stick – the only manufacturer to do this, in fact.
The Inkosi isn’t cheap – well, nothing from Chris Reeve Knives is cheap – but it brings the sort of high tech nerd-grade knife wizardry to the table you won’t get somewhere else, in a light and compact package. They’re the standard bearer for a reason.
That’s not a typo – the Ultralight version of the Al Mar Hawk weighs one ounce. For reference, that’s about as much as a slice of bread, or 5 US Quarters. That’s next-level light weight for a real knife, made with real steel, which has a real lock. Of course that lack of weight comes from somewhere.
The Hawk Ultralight has canvas micarta handles with no liners, and it’s pinned together with polished rivets flush with the handles – no fiddling or dismantling this one. It uses what Al Mar calls a “front lock” which is really just a lockback with the pivot point moved further forward for easier access. There are also no washers, the blade riding directly on the micarta, which gives Al-Mar’s Ultralights a unique feel when opening – slick and soft once they break in. There is also no pivot adjustment on the Hawk, or for that matter a pocket clip – this is one you just slip deep into your pocket.
What it does have is a hell of a blade: whether you choose the standard Hawk with its full flat ground spear point blade, or the Hawk Talon with its swedged spearpoint, the super-thin AUS-8 blade (0.07” stock) and its perfect grinds make for an ideal slicer, for packaging, food prep, or any other household task. Al Mar’s fit and finish is arguably the best in the business, with everything coming together with “how do they do this?” smoothness. It makes the price tag easier to swallow, although in 2017 we can’t help but wish for an upgrade to the blade steel for the $105 retail price. Still, an all-time classic that is so light you’ll accidentally grab a second knife because you forgot you already had one in your pocket.
The Folsom is a recent offering from The James Brand, following the success of the Chapter (a titanium framelock with a thumb stud) and the County (a slick slipjoint with natural materials.) We recently got our hands on a Folsom for review, and it’s an excellent small EDC knife – which is what it was designed for.
Thin G10 scales and a low-profile clip make the Folsom remarkably thin – 0.39” means you hardly notice it at all in your pocket. It’s light, too – 3.4 ounces despite the full stainless liners. The James Brand really sweated the details on this one and the fundamentals of knife design are right – the full flat grind and gentle drop point is a “how to” of a useful blade shape and a great cutter, the ergonomics are simple and effective, it’s quite well made, and the blade is just the right size for everyday tasks.
Carpenter CTS-BD1 blade steel is the new standard for good-quality low-cost steels, holding a decent edge and being remarkably easy to sharpen while resisting corrosion well. A broad choice of colors adds to the appeal, with white, black, blue, or “electric moss” green handles and a satin or black finish blade as options. It’s a good bit cheaper than the Chapter too, coming it at a more reasonable $100 versus $275. Has the potential to become an EDC hallmark in my opinion.
The Feist has been attracting a lot of attention in the knife community lately, some good and some bad. The original batch of Feists were plagued with issues related to pivot grittiness caused by burrs in the channel the internal stop-pin traveled in, as well as lock stick and other minor gripes. Kizer and designer Justin Lundquist worked together to correct these issues and a “second generation” Feist is replacing the original batch. Which is good news, because the Feist is a really compelling design.
It uses a front-flipper, which is still a fairly uncommon deployment method. The flipper tab protrudes from the leading edge of the handle instead of perpendicular to the spine, and you use your thumb to flip it open, so the tab is hidden when the blade is opened all the way. The Feist itself is a very minimalist design, with a 2.875” hollow ground drop point blade in stonewashed CPM S35VN steel, and a very simple “rounded box” handle design.
Like the rest of Kizer’s high-end line, it has a smooth contoured titanium handle with a stainless steel framelock insert, and the Feist flips on caged ball bearings sitting in stainless races to prevent galling. A 3D machined pocket flip is configured for tip-up right hand carry, and the whole thing weighs in well under 3 ounces. Light, simple, minimalistic with an intriguing flipping mechanism, the Feist may well follow the Gemini in helping to bolster Kizer’s reputation as a company that builds things for knife nuts.
The Reverb is a new model for Kershaw this year, aimed at the camping and outdoor markets. It’s definitely a looker: a splash of carbon-fiber laminate can make anything look exotic, just ask the Leatherman Skeletool! There are a lot of interesting features packed into this knife that’s both light in your pocket and on your wallet: only $22 means if you skip Starbucks for a week you can add this to your rotation. Low risk, right?
The blade is a 2.6” drop point in 8Cr13MoV which is expected at this price, but what’s not is the two-tone satin/PVD blade finish. Instead of a thumb stud or a flipper the Reverb has a flat thumb “slot” sort of like the Chris Reeve Mnandi for opening, Kershaw says “to avoid it catching on your gear.” There’s a spring-gate carabiner built into the spine to clip it to your bag or belt loop, as well as a deep carry pocket clip for tip-up right hand carry. Those who are beverage-minded individuals will also note that the opening of the carabiner serves as an impromptu bottle opener, as if we needed more in our lives (hint: we always do.)
The scale on the show side is cut away from the carabiner to save weight, and a single standoff at the end also serves as an anchor point for a lanyard if you’re so inclined. The lock is also interesting: technically it’s a liner lock, but it’s punched out of a rectangular slot in the lock side rather than coming all the way to the bottom edge of the handle scale to retain some additional rigidity. The open construction of the show side allows access to this lock bar when the blade’s open to release it. Since the lock doesn’t extend all the way to the end of the handle, the remaining portion of the handle also serves as an overtravel stop when your thumb hits it – clever stuff. You wouldn’t want to baton through a Jeep with the Reverb, but that’s not the point – it’s a clever, ultra-light, inexpensive camping knife. Plus, as mentioned earlier, it’s only about $20!
The Elephant in the room when it comes to small Benchmade’s is obviously the Mini Griptilian, which is similarly sized to the Valet. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Mini Grip in its myriad of different configurations (especially the new G10/20CV models) but the Valet offers nicer materials and similar size in a smaller footprint, fitting more as the disappear into your pocket role than its chunkier brother.
It’s almost disingenuous to refer to the standard version of the 485 Valet as “standard” as it’s made with one of the best blade steels available today – Bohler M390, which is top of the line for wear resistance, hardness, toughness, and corrosion resistance placing it firmly into “supersteel” territory. The painfully expensive “Gold Class” Valet with its snazzy Damasteel blade and Titanium handle certainly looks the part, but paying exactly 3.5 times the price to get a blade that won’t hold an edge nearly as long strikes me as a bad deal.
There’s also a Shinola x Benchmade Valet collab for $200 with “Dymonwood” stabilized wood handles if you’re into hipster things. Otherwise, your standard valet comes in grey G10 with a natural-looking grain pattern and either a plain edge or half-serrated blade. The drop point blade has a long swedge to create a good piercing tip and a clean-looking satin finish. A lot of the hardware on the Valet is smaller than typical Benchmades to make the Axis lock fit into the body, making the whole knife take up very little real estate. It’s not a loud, shouty knife but the Valet mixes minimalistic design with high end materials in an extremely portable package, a knife that’s designed to be used, not passed around.
The Cold Steel Tuff Lite is a fairly odd product considering who it comes from – the purveyors of swords that can chop through an entire pig in one swing, and “lock strength contests” (which are pretty entertaining) pitting knife against knife in a contest of things people would literally never do to their knives featuring everyone’s favorite heavy duty knife designer Andrew Demko. But I’ve always said that Cold Steel’s marketing hides the fact that they make exceptionally well made knives, and the weird little Tuff Lite is a great example of that.
It’s a “real knife” adaptation of the classic utility knife, a pure Wharncliffe blade with a totally straight cutting edge and a spine that radiuses all the way down to the tip, creating an ideal box cutter thanks to its tip downwards shape – that can also do “real knife” stuff. Ergonomics are the Tuff Lite’s strong suit, with a pair of full finger choils giving you a firm grip and lots of leverage over the little 2.5” blade. It also utilizes Cold Steel’s fantastic Tri-Ad lock, a lockback that’s fortified with a stop pin between the tang and the lock bar to eliminate wear on the lock surface and stress on the lock bar for a super-strong and reassuring lockup.
The Tuff-Lite hasn’t been upgraded to CTS-XHP steel like a lot of the rest of Cold Steel’s line (hello there American Lawman, looking good) but the upsides of the old-school AUS-8A Stainless are good corrosion resistance, ease of sharpening, and a low price point – $30 for one of these! Carry is ambidextrous tip down with a polished double-bent spoon clip. The handles are “Grivory” which is a textured, hardened polymer. There are no liners which helps keep the weight down at 2.50 ounces, and there’s a slot cut into the back of the handle for a lanyard if you want one.
Since the handles are injection molded you have choices for color, including red, flat dark earth (brown), OD Green, Blue, and Black – which is available as a straight or a serrated edge. There’s also the charming Mini Tuff Lite with a lot of the same attributes, but a 2” blade, 1.70 ounce weight, and a $27 price tag. It’s unconventional but the Tuff Lite is a must have for most knife nuts.
The CRKT Jettison Compact is the smaller version of the beefy Jettison framelock, but unlike a lot of “mini” versions of knives in this industry the Compact really is much smaller, 2.5” shorter in overall length and almost a quarter of the weight of the original. It’s designed by Robert Carter, whose name may not ring a bell but who is the grandson of Mel Pardue of Benchmade design fame.
It’s actually designed as a keychain knife, evidenced by the backspacer that extends out past the butt of the knife to form a keychain hole – but which can also serve, more usefully, as a lanyard hole. With a thick lanyard to help pocket retrieval you can also use it to extend the usable length of the handle when cutting. Part of the reason for the featherweight is that unlike the full size Jettison, the Compact uses titanium handles instead of stainless steel, which is pretty unusual at a $30 price point.
There’s a Hinderer-style lockbar stabilizer to prevent overtravel, and the Jettison is opened with a flipper and traditional washers instead of bearings. Blade steel is 8Cr13MoV, which is par for the course at this price range, and the blade shape is pretty unique – a dramatically styled modified Wharncliffe with a deep convex swedge leading down to the tip for piercing ability. Since it was designed as a keychain knife there’s no pocket clip, which with a handle this small would just be an ergonomic hot spot anyway – better to just keep it in a coin pocket. For the price, you can’t lose.