Thanks to my varied career and personal choices over the years, I’ve put a lot of knives through their paces. Whether it’s for a field op or camping, a daily use pocket knife or a defensive weapon, a multi-purpose survival knife or a fancy decorative piece. I’ve probably got a knife or two that’ll fit the bill and some strong opinions to suit. To be honest, that’s not all that out of the ordinary here on the internet, where strong opinions are basically the social currency of the day, but where I differ from so many of the “knife experts” you’ll find offering up long form, capital letter-laden opinions on survival forums and the like is that I have a powerful aversion to the two most common facets of the “gear culture:” I don’t believe cost is always a strong indicator of value, and I’m really not into playing the brand loyalty game.
I get asked for help finding a “good knife” fairly often, and I get a feeling that my responses are usually a little more in-depth and complex than people are hoping. When a friend or acquaintance drops a note in my inbox asking for “a good recommendation” on what knife to buy their significant other, for instance, I immediately respond with a series of questions because knives, like guns, cars, and people, tend to be better suited for some tasks to the detriment of others.
What purpose do you want the knife to fill?
I have different preferences for a defensive knife than I do for a utilitarian one, and both of those have different requirements than a survival knife. Knowing what you intend to use a knife for is perhaps the most important question to ask yourself when beginning the hunt for a new blade. The purpose of the knife will help you determine between a fixed blade and a folding knife, as well as overall size you’re looking for. Out here in the woods of Georgia, I could get away with wearing a fixed blade knife on my belt and calling that an EDC piece, but if you live in the suburbs of Connecticut, a visible blade strapped to your waist may raise a few eyebrows.
Survival knives tend to be larger fixed blades ranging from 6-12 inches (with some other adornments), whereas a utility knife you may use for common office activities like cutting open boxes might be a folding knife with a two or three-inch blade. I know we’re all familiar with the scene in Crocodile Dundee where he scares off a mugger by saying, “that’s not a knife, this is a knife,” before presenting a massive survival knife — it’s a great scene, but unless you’re expecting all your problems to turn tail and run at the sight of your blade, you may want to get particular about what exactly you’re shopping for. Bigger isn’t always better.
How often and how do you expect to carry it?
Like the question about purpose, the frequency and way you expect to carry your knife will need to inform your hunt for a new one. I often carry two knives — a utility knife and a defensive one. The utility knife sees some abuse — hacking away at cardboard for the recycling, shaving kindling from firewood, hell, sometimes it’s a flat head screwdriver or pry bar depending on how desperate I get. My utility knife is, by its very nature, not the best blade for a life and death sort of struggle because I kick the living shit out of it. My defensive knives tend to have a longer blade, but I still try to keep them foldable and fairly compact. With two knifes, a firearm, the bigger iPhone you can get, a wallet full of business cards and light on money, a flashlight and my car keys — I’m lucky my pants are staying up as it is.
However, you may be on the market for a good hunting knife that’ll come with you only when you’re on the trail. A knife that’s going to sit on your mantle until it’s time to use it can be bigger and bulkier than one you expect to keep on you at all times. Likewise, with a survival knife that may remain in your hiking kit, rather than your pants pocket.
I don’t believe in the idea that you have to spend hundreds of dollars on a knife to find a good one — however — it’s important to remember that the harder and more frequent the abuse you subject your blade to, the more maintenance it’ll require. A good quality (often higher priced) knife can make that ordeal easier.
What price range are you hoping to stay within?
Here’s where I tend to lose the knife-geek crowd. In every online community, you’ll find a contingent of people that will make declarations like, “if you don’t get a (insert expensive brand here) then there’s no point in getting anything at all!” The premise behind their line of thinking is sound: good quality trumps bad quality, and sometimes it’s worth paying a little extra to make sure your new purchase lasts. That’s all well and good, but when you start to point out that their high-priced brand loyalty has more to do with logos and slogans than it does with quality, people get pissy. You might think than anyone not carrying a $250 Boker pocket knife is a “poser,” but I think that mugger with a $15 Gerber will kill you all the same if given the chance — and the real purpose of a having a knife, if you ask me, is getting the job done and getting home — not impressing strangers with copies of your receipt.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic (and pricey) knives out there. I’ve even got a few Kershaws and Bokers that cost as much as some guns I’ve purchased over the years, but the fact of the matter is, some of the best knives I’ve ever had were cheap, “temporary” solutions to a problem I had at the time. They proved reliable and solid and somehow found their way into a permanent spot in my drawer, despite lacking a brand name knife-nerds fawn over. Hell, I made one of those knives in the picture up top using a piece of scrap, a hack saw and a file. It’s not the best knife around, but its built me a few fires.
It’s that fancy-knife elitism that makes it hard for many beginners to find a good knife for them. You do some Google research, find a handful of pages that tell you that you have to spend $180 on a pocket knife, get disheartened and move on to something less daunting. It’s just like trying to get into racing (“there’s no replacement for displacement bro!”), shooting (“don’t bother buying an optic for less than $500!”), or fishing (“you’ll never catch anything with that piece of shit!”): there’s a wide gap between the internet warriors that bought their gear to show it off, and the practical folks that are out there making mission with what they have. Sure, they may not be the best knives, cars, sights or lures on the market, but they do what you ask of them — and that’s really all I’m looking for.
Of course, there are a million variables you can (and might want to) consider when shopping for a new blade. When it comes to survival knives, for instance, I won’t bother carrying one that isn’t a full tang (the blade extends all the way through the grip) because I know about my tendency to use a knife as an ax by bashing a rock on the back side of it. It works, but it’s also been the undoing of many a pretty knife. These kinds of preferences are important, but will need to come after you’ve got your answers to the above three questions. Think of it like shopping for cars — you need to know if you want a sports car, sedan, or pickup before you can start making choices about power trains.
I’ll leave you with one last tip before you set out on your knife shopping adventure: use the damn thing. Get a knife, and use it for stuff. See if you like how the handle fits in your hand, see if you like the shape of the blade for your common purposes, see if you manage to hack gouges into your fingers with it as you absent-mindedly fiddle with it in a tree stand like you know you shouldn’t. Between us kids, my most expensive folding knife has a bad habit of drawing blood (almost always my own). I don’t know if the blade is cursed or we just don’t get along but if I’m left to choose between it and one of my cheaper alternatives, I grab the cheap one.
Because I don’t really care what something was meant to do, or what someone claims it can do — all that really matters to me is what it can do in my hands. The only way to know that for sure, is to get out there and try.
Images courtesy of the author