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Budget Gear Review: 5 Best Tactical Knives (2016)

In a market flooded with options, it can be intimidating for buyers to pluck a knife from a display and say “this is the one for me”. The use of five dollar words as well as endorsements from celebrities and police or military units can make certain knives appear to be a better option than others—when in reality—the best knife isn’t always the one that the military claims to use, it’s the knife that best suits your needs, and budget.

Let’s begin by addressing the term: tactical knife. Today’s market of knives, firearms, clothing, and other gear is inundated with more of the five dollar words that make things sound cool. Poking fun of the abuse and overuse of the term has bred the nickname: tacticool. Carrying an item labeled as tactical for no reason other than “it’s cool” will probably earn you a few nicknames as well, none of which being said to your face, and none of which being particularly kind.

Don’t be that guy. Buying the knife that best suits your needs is what will make it tactical, because it’s a tool designed and purchased to assist you in the specific task you carry it for. A knife doesn’t need to be oversized, cerakoted black, or covered in paracord to be tactical.

Ernest Emerson, a custom knife-maker—who has designed knives for more government, military, and police agencies than we previously thought existed—wrote an article that may help to sort some of the details on what makes a knife a tactical knife. Check out his article here if you’d like to read up on what makes a knife a tactical knife. You may find information that helps you find the right knife for you.

The 5 Best Tactical Knives On The Market

What Qualities Can Be Found in the Best Tactical Knives?

Hopefully by now we’ve sorted the differences "tactical" equipment, and “tacticool” equipment. To us, carrying a piece of tactical equipment simply means it will cover the host tasks we intend to use it for. These tasks may be as specific as needing the entire knife to be black to minimize reflections, or as broad as needing carbon steel for striking a ferrocerium rod. A knife is just a knife, but a tactical knife is a tool. Many knife enthusiasts appreciate tactical knives with the following characteristics:

Non-folding/fixed blade

Although technically, any multi-purpose knife like the classic Swiss Army Knife can be considered a tactical knife, many outdoorsmen prefer a fixed blade, non-folding knife when it counts the most.

In a survival situation,bushcraft outing, or even a camping trip, chances are your knife is going to be your most-used tool. A knife can be used as a weapon, to process game, or to create many life-saving devices, and it's vital that your knife can cut the mustard (pun shamelessly intended).​

With even the best folding knives, there is an inherent weakness at the joint between the handle and the blade. While this usually is never a problem under normal circumstances, a survival scenario of any type will put your knife to the test. The last thing you need is to be at the mercy of a razor-sharp knife with no handle. The bottom line with folding knives is simply the fact that they are designed to fold—if you dislike the idea of your knife relying on a fold or a lock, be sure to focus on fixed blades.​

Full tang

Along the same lines as fixed vs. folding design, it's almost just as important that your knife has a full tang, or a blade that extends from the edge of the blade all the way to the tip of the handle. Just like a folding knife can break under extreme use, a partial tang knife has some weakness that could result in a broken knife.

Whether a knife has a full tang or not is not always evident from the outside, so don't assume it's a weaker knife simply because the handle doesn't show metal underneath.

Non-slip handle

One of the most basic yet critical components of a knife is its handle. You want a knife that you can hold comfortably, but keeping in mind it’s intended use, you may want to go a step further and find a knife that is made of a specific material.

Even if you think a knife's smooth handle would never slip out of your firm grasp, imagine how hard it might be to keep a solid grip in the cold of winter when you're trying to start a fire—or coated in slick blood while processing game. It's easy to forget how important the little things are, but you'll be thinking of little else when it matters most.

Another consideration should be the shape of the handle. Is it conducive to long periods of cutting into resistant materials? Would it tire your hands?

Finger grooves on a knife can promote grip in a certain position, but going back to the question of what will it be used for, not all handles are created equal. Do the nicely sculpted finger grooves help hold that knife firmly in your clutches? They sure do—until you try to flip the knife around. With the blade pointing down (reverse grip) do those same finger grooves help anymore? Keep the design and construction of the handle in mind when buying, it could certainly make a difference.

The Steel

Are you a metallurgist? If you don’t know the difference between varying types of steel, hardness ratings, and coatings applied to them—don’t let them be the driving factor behind your purchase.

Good quality steel is what you need, and so long as you’re not buying an incredibly inexpensive knife made in a country with questionable manufacturing standards, you’re probably in the clear. The United States makes plenty of reputable steel, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to look around for some quality American made products, but that’s another story altogether.

Although the type of steel doesn’t need to be your number one focus, there are a couple things to consider. Carbon steel does have the disadvantage that it can rust; however, it has some strengths that more than compensate for this inconvenience.

Carbon steel can strike a spark off of flint or a ferrocerium rod with ease. If you're stuck in the wilderness in the dead of winter with no matches, this can be a life saver. Combine a carbon steel blade with a flat spine along the back of the knife, and you’ll have a knife that makes an excellent fire starting tool when coupled with a ferro rod.

Stainless steel blades are best protected from rust, and make for a quality blade as well. There are dozens of arguments on which steel holds the best edge, and you could probably even go as far as to definitively prove which steel is the best choice for maintaining an edge, but the fact remains: a knife requires sharpening and maintenance. Even the best knives will need sharpening. Keep this in mind when deciding which type of steel you choose to carry, because the type of sharpening system you’ll need may vary.

Blade design

Drop point, tanto, partially serrated. There are enough options in blade design to make your head spin. To further complicate things, most manufacturers will offer the same model knife with a myriad of different blade designs. Don’t let this hold you back, and don’t pick the one you think looks the coolest—stick to the plan of buying the knife that suits your purpose.

Here is an image link that will describe a whole mess of different blade styles for you. The only thing I want to note is that the knives bearing serrations (clip point, tanto point, spear point, and needle point) are not necessarily the rule for that category.

A majority of knives are offered with a partially serrated blade, which can be an excellent feature, but buying a clip point knife may not automatically mean it will be partially serrated.​

Easily sharpened, holds an edge well

It's also important that your knife holds its sharp edge well and that it sharpens easily. Although you might not know which will do that from studying the knives in the stores, the following tactical knife product roundup should give you some idea.

Of course, we can’t decide which knife suits your exact needs—so what we’ve done is select five of our favorite knives which fall into the tactical category. We’ll give you an overview of each one, this should open the door for you to decide which products best suit your needs.

Top 5 Best Tactical Knives on The Market 2015

1. Morakniv Companion Fixed Blade Outdoor Knife with Carbon Steel Blade

  • Type of blade: Carbon steel blade
  • Blade length: 4.1 inch
  • Blade thickness: .08 inch
  • Weight with sheath: 3.9 oz.
  • Type of grip: High-friction patterned grip
  • Type of tang: 3/4 tang

Made in Sweden, the world-renowned Morakniv brand of knives are a favorite for many outdoorsmen. Simple, strong, and so affordable you may feel guilty—it’s easy to see what makes theCompanion knife so heavily preferred for bushcraft and outdoor use.

Since this product roundup is catered to a budget-minded buyer, we felt like finding a knife that offered a ton of value was necessary. Morakniv is a no frills knife maker, and although this knife is unusually inexpensive, it’s an unmistakably well-made piece of kit.

It may not be wrapped in paracord, be coated black, or come with a web-gear sheath, but the Companion is a quality knife that has a textured grip and flat spine along the back of the steel which makes for an excellent fire starting knife.​

Things We Liked

  • Very affordable
  • Lightweight
  • Sharpens easily and stays sharp
  • Great for cutting wood, carving, and shaving tinder
  • Comfortable, safe grip
  • Sheath holds knife securely
  • Sheath has drain hole to keep knife dry and prevent corrosion
  • High hardness blade
  • Performs well in wet and cold conditions without slipping
  • The spine can strike sparks with flint if it's filed square

Things We Didn't Like

  • Requires conditioning to keep blade from rusting
  • Not full tang
  • Spine is rounded and will not spark well without filing down square

This particular knife comes with a matching durable plastic sheath. The handle of the knife is military green and black, and it fits comfortably in your grip without fear of slipping. The simple lines of this knife don't bring to mind images of exotic warriors wielding curved scimitars, or black ops agents fast roping into a building with suppressed weapons. That's really not a bad thing, though; for outdoorsmen and women who are more interested in a carrying tool that sharpens easily and gets real work done, than a high-design low-function knife that makes them feel like they crawled off the cover of a Tom Clancy novel, this knife is perfect.


2. ESEE 6P-B

  • Type of blade: 1095 High Carbon Steel
  • Blade length: 6.5 inches
  • Blade thickness: .188” inches
  • Weight: 12oz (without sheath)
  • Type of grip: Micarta scales
  • Type of tang: Full extended tang

When it comes to quality knives for extreme uses, ESEE is a name that comes up frequently.

Their top quality materials, paired with quality design place their products in the upper echelon of knife makers.

The ESEE 6P-B comes into the market with a price tag that places at the top of our budget minded gear section, but the quality is so great that we feel it is worth mentioning. As of this article the 6P-B will demand $136 of your dollars, although we feel like this is a knife you could realistically use for at least ten years. It evens out in the long run.

Things We Liked

  • Full tang makes it extremely durable
  • Molded sheath is a great fit
  • Color options are available
  • No questions asked lifetime warranty on all 1095 carbon steel knives
  • Warranty transfers so the knife is literally covered for life
  • Lanyard loop in pommel
  • Jimping along sping provides texture for thumb grip

Things We Didn't Like

  • Slightly heavy
  • Will rust on the edge and along laser engraving if not properly maintained
  • Moderately high price

While not everyone is looking for a knife that is an investment, we strongly feel that the ESEE 6P-B is an excellent offering in the tactical or survival knife market. This knife should be on your radar if your needs include camping, hiking, hunting, or plain survival.


3. Ka-Bar Becker BK2 Campanion

  • Type of blade: 1095 Cro-van steel
  • Blade length: 5.5 inches
  • Blade thickness: 1/4 inch
  • Weight with sheath: 1.5 lbs.
  • Type of grip: Grivory
  • Type of tang: Full, extended tang

TheKa-Bar Becker BK2 Campanion Fixed Blade Knife is a powerhouse of a knife that's been loved by outdoor enthusiasts and military service members alike. A quality knife that could be used for both self-defense, and survival in the wilderness.

Things We Liked

  • Razor sharp
  • Heavy duty
  • Excellent sheath that won't retain moisture
  • Versatile
  • Great for prying, digging, skinning, or defense
  • Ergonomic
  • Thick blade is highly durable
  • Tough Grivory handle holds survival items
  • Extended tang can be used as a chisel

Things We Didn't Like

  • More expensive
  • Not lightweight
  • Shorter blade isn’t suited for batoning larger wood

Although the Ka-Bar Becker BK2 Campanion Fixed Blade Knife holds a moderate price tag, it’s backed by years of expertise in defensive knife making. Ka-Bar is widely known for making military fighting knives, and a lof of that tough durability has carried over into their other models, like the BK2. We consider this Ka-Bar to be a great bridge between the budget knives and the exclusive brands that can cost well into the hundreds of dollars.


4. SOG SE38-N Force

  • Type of blade: AUS-8
  • Blade length: 6 inches
  • Blade thickness: .24 inches
  • Weight without sheath: 10.5 oz.
  • Type of grip: Textured glass reinforced nylon grip with glass-breaking point
  • Type of tang: Full tang

If you are looking to get a knife that is just plain tough, the Sog Force may be as far as you need to look. Opening the presentation box you’ll be met with a black TiNi coating. In our opinion, if you’re looking for a knife that screams “tactical” this may be exactly what you’ve been after.

Things We Liked

  • Protective TiNi coating
  • Sheath is ready for MOLLE attachment
  • Minimal grind
  • High hardness rating
  • Grip works well in winter and wet conditions
  • Limited lifetime warranty
  • Durable but remains lightweight
  • Non reflective surfaces
  • Excellent reputation in military applications
  • Cryogenic heat treatment

Things We Didn't Like

  • Extreme design and hardness may make for more difficult sharpening
  • Dark design may be harder to find in low light applications
  • Thicker blade may make intricate jobs tricky
  • Price is very close to the $100 mark

The SOG SE38-N Force knife is a perfect example of a tactical knife from the perspective of a military operator. A soldier, police officer, or perhaps civilian contractor might very well set out to find an extremely durable knife that can last through an extended trip into the field without requiring much in the way of maintenance.

The rugged design, special hardening process, and stealthy look definitely lend themselves easily to special operations. The extended tang is formed into a glass-breaker, and there is also a lanyard hole.

If you’re in the market for a tactical knife that will see heavy use in the field—not just starting fires or chopping wood—the SOG Force is the one for you.


5. Ontario RAT-1A SP

  • Type of blade: AUS-8
  • Blade length: 3.5 inches
  • Overall length: 8.5 inches
  • Type of grip: G10

Sometimes having a quality knife can be cumbersome. The option to neatly fold your knife and pack it up, or stow it in a pocket could be a benefit to a hiker who is looking for a low-drag setup to make movement easier. Enter the Ontario RAT-1A SP folder.

Things We Liked

  • Good price for a high end folder
  • Ergonomic handle has finger grooves for comfort and stability
  • Great for Everyday Carry (EDC)
  • Satin finish blade
  • Tactical Assist Opening (T.A.O.)
  • Pocket clip can be configured four ways
  • G10 handle provides grip

Things We Didn't Like

  • Folding design adds weight
  • Smaller blade isn’t suited for large tasks
  • Locking blade may be a hassle

Ontario Knife Company is a brand known for making exceptional products, albeit some folks would say they are a bit plain in design. We’re ok with that, we want a knife to perform well—how it looks just isn’t a factor when choosing a blade—we save our style expertise for selecting our sweater to wear to the annual Outdoorhill Christmas party.

A smaller package than a fixed blade knife, the RAT-1A makes for a good piece of kit for a handful of applications. The assisted opening is lightning quick, and gets your steel into the game in a hurry. For EDC, and even self-defense, this is a great option that doesn’t break the bank​


The Best Tactical Knife of Them All

Each of these tactical knives are stellar options for a host of scenarios and applications. It’s up to the end user to decide which knife is the absolute best choice for them. In the task of bringing our readers an excellent tactical knife for a good price, we’ve really had our work cut out for us. Seeing as each person has a different reason for carrying a knife, we’ve opted to recommend the knife that does the most.

Our favorite of them all is the SOG SE38-N Force Knife. Here's our reasoning:​

  1. It is priced below $100 which makes it attainable for many buyers.
  2. The razor sharp edge stays sharp thanks to the special hardening process.
  3. The extended tang has a glass-breaking point on it, which can be used to break your way into—or out of—a lot of scenarios. We’re not saying you should be breaking into anything, but you never know when you need to get into a burning building to rescue a family, or their cat.
  4. The matching sheath is durable and secures to your gear very well.
  5. SOG’s reputation in the military and special operations community carries this product directly into the higher tier of knives—especially for someone looking to get their hands on quality tactical equipment.

Understand, this knife does have drawbacks. Being a bit on the pricey side, it may take a bit of saving for this knife to fall into your budget. On top of the price hurdle is the size. A larger knife can be a bit trickier to use for more intricate tasks—but all in all this knife offers so many features and covers so many potential scenarios, it’s no wonder SOG’s knives find their way into the kits of so many military, police, and government operators.

Regardless which type of knife you should choose, remember that it's always best to understand what danger may potentially lurk in your particular area, and prepare yourself for it. Any one of these knives should afford you with the ability to survive, or defend yourself, in some of the most difficult circumstances. Not only that; you'll likely find that putting your new steel to good use is just plain fun as you head out into the field, equipped for whatever may come your way.​

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