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10 Things You Need to Know About Folding Knives

Before buying a duty or off-duty blade, consider the following.

June 21, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Spyderco's Military LH folder is specifically made for southpaws. Photo: Sypderco
Spyderco's Military LH folder is specifically made for southpaws. Photo: Sypderco

Few tools carried by the average officer are more useful on the job than a quality folding knife. A good blade can be used to cut rope, webbing, or seat belts; open boxes; peel an apple, and handle a bunch of different chores.

And oh, yes, a good quality folding knife can be an excellent backup weapon when nothing else is available. This is especially true when some dirtbag has grabbed your gun and you're having to use your strong hand to keep it in your holster and you need a piece of steel in your weak hand to discourage him. A blade across the back of the hand is a powerful discouragement.

For these reasons most cops carry at least one folding knife while on duty. Many take those knives for granted. But there's a lot that you should know before you buy a knife, and a knife like any tool needs some TLC to keep it in top shape.

1. Hand Feel

You want a knife that feels like an organic extension of your own hand. This is a matter of size, weight, grip, and handle design. "Hold it in your hand with your eyes open and then close your eyes," advises Bill Raczkowski, category manager for Gerber. "If you have to use this knife in an emergency, you may have to do so without looking at it. Make sure it feels like part of your own body." For officers who wear gloves on duty, Raczkowski adds that they should also test the hand feel while wearing the gloves.

2. The Business End

The most important aspect of any knife is the blade. A savvy buyer has to consider the blade design, the material used to make the blade, and the length of the blade. But the tip is one of the first things you will notice when you open a blade. Folding knives suitable for police duty generally have one of two types of blade points: tanto and drop point.

Tanto blades are based on the design of a Japanese fighting knife that was traditionally made from a broken sword. The blade maintains its thickness until the very tip then it angles to a very sharp point. This design makes many people believe the blade is stronger at the tip. It also makes the blade an excellent puncture and chopping tool. A fixed blade tanto is even a very powerful prying tool. Note: a folding knife should not be used for prying because the liner can slip or even break, causing catastrophic failure.

Drop Point blades are the traditional rounded blade like a kitchen knife. They are great for slicing things and for skinning animals. These blades thin out toward the tip, which makes this design the preferred tool for making fine cuts.

3. Teeth or No Teeth

The other concern for blade design is whether the blade is serrated or a straight edge. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Serrated blades are excellent tools for ripping through webbing, rope, and other fibrous materials. They also don't have to be kept as sharp as straight edges to be effective, which is good because they are much more difficult to sharpen than straight edges. There are several options for sharpening a straight edge; the only good way to sharpen a serrated edge is with a round file.

4. Carbon Content

There are two major factors that go into determining the quality of blade steel: chemical composition and hardness.

Chemical Composition—Blade steel is made of a bunch of different stuff, including carbon, cobalt, chromium, nitrogen, magnesium, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorous, sulfur, vanadium, silicone, and tungsten. A high carbon content makes the blade hold an edge a lot better, but it also makes it susceptible to corrosion. For this reason, low carbon content blades are preferred for marine use. Many knife manufacturers list the codes for chemical composition of their knife blades on their Websites. And if you have any questions, you can call their customer service.

Hardness—This is a function of heat treatment and carbon content, and it is expressed as a Rockwell Hardness code. The hardness of steel is measured with a special machine, so it's not something that you can safely test on your own. Hardness levels for blades tend to be in a range of Rockwell 55 to Rockwell 60, which means they are soft enough to be sharpened and hard enough to withstand tough use. When the blade steel is too hard it gets brittle, and it is difficult to sharpen.

5. Getting a Handle

Folding knives are manufactured with several different types of grips, including plastic, polymer, aluminum, G-10 (resin-coated glass fiber), and titanium, just to name a few. Knife collectors and aficionados tend to prefer expensive metal grips, but for the average user, the main thing about grips is feel. If you don't like the grip, then it's not the right grip for you. "An aluminum grip is not any more durable than a molded plastic handle knife. It's just a matter of personal preference," says Chris Cashbaugh of SOG Knives.

Tags: Folding Knives, Spyderco, 5.11 Tactical

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Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

Bob @ 6/27/2012 5:17 AM

Generally good article on a neglected subject. Two quick notes. First, automatic knives are not illegal in all 50 states. They are, in fact, legal in 28 states. Federal law governs interstate shipment, exempting military, LEO, their procurement agencies, etc. Some states allow possessing but not carrying autos, though some require a CCW permit to carry them. I wholeheartedly agree that the laws are stupid on this point, and are based purely on movie hype.

Second, a serrated blade may be sharpened effectively with ceramic rods like those in the Spyderco Sharpmaker and other products. A generic rat-tail file will ruin a good blade. Personally, I only use ceramic sticks for routine sharpening and Arkansas stones for reshaping jobs, though I carry a small, fine diamond rod in the field just in case.

The Spyderco Military pictured on the first page is an excellent duty knife. It was designed for its namesake group, deployed military. It have proven very effective and popular, and can be easily and quickly opened and closed one-handed while wearing gloves.

Sgt. A. Shear @ 7/20/2012 8:39 AM

Very good article. I have carried numerous folders over my 35 years. I have found Zero Tolerance knives to be the best for the intended use. My choices are the ZT0350,ZT0301 for duty use.

Greg @ 8/3/2012 11:39 AM

I agree Sgt. I am a civilian and have used and carry knives for years. ZT is the absolute best brand, in terms of quality and craftsmanship. I found the blades to be of exceptional quality.

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