The Growth of the 12 Best Tactical Knife Manufacturers
The tactical knife world may seem to have become overly-crowded in the past few decades.
The proliferation of boutique manufacturers, the array of styles, designs, and materials can leave consumers bewildered in their search for the ideal tactical knife.
Which design is best?
Should I choose a fixed or folding knife?
Which manufacturer produces the highest quality product at a reasonable price?
Which knife is tough enough to meet my performance needs for the long-term?
Many of the answers to these questions will surface as a result of a deep dive into the various manufacturers and an understanding of their history, struggles, and purpose.
Although the choices are many, you’ll soon appreciate the myriad of super products that are offered by the best tactical knife companies surveyed in this article.
When it comes to tactical knives, the options are endless. The knives come in all shapes, sizes, finishes, and models. Some brands focus on keeping up with innovation while also continuing to offer the basics that got them started. Other brands are more boutique in style and offer a limited number of knives in any style they release.
So what is a tactical knife, besides something that looks really cool? Tactical means that the knife has military features for extreme situations, like combat. Many companies fill the need for tactical knives, but it is possible to get overly gimmicky with some of the options available.
The Best Tactical Knife Companies and best knives
These are all important questions and a select handful of manufacturers have stood the test of time and still provide products that meet the exceptional demands of the modern tactical environment.
Here is a list of companies that provide the best of the best in high-quality tactical (and classic) knives without a lot of fluff.
Wallace and Emerson Brown founded the Tidioute Cutlery Company, in the late 1800s, for the purpose of producing higher-quality men’s razors. After surviving the Great Depression and expanding into the knife industry, the company submitted a new combat knife to the US Marine Corp.
This became the most iconic combat knife of World War II.
The knife referred to simply as the KA-BAR (the company’s new name), featured a simple, bowie-style design, made of high-quality components and performed exceptionally well during hand to hand combat scenarios. The KA-BAR saw action in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and has been the tactical knife of choice for millions of combat service members.
Today, KA-BAR knives, are the definitive standard by which all other tactical knives are measured. All of their products are handcrafted by skilled workers in the US. These knives are easy to maintain, simple to use, and are made to the exacting standards tactical professionals demand. Prices range from $56 on the low-end to $312 for a presentation-grade knife.
The company continues to add to its lineup with a wide range of designs and material options. But, the USMC KA-BAR, priced around $70, will likely always be their most popular offering. If you are looking for the most bang for your buck and low maintenance requirements, the KA-BAR should be at the top of your list.
Probably the best example of KA-BAR is the original US Marine Corps fighting knife, made with 1095 Cro-van steel, an overall length of 11.875 inches, and with a 7-inch blade, available at Amazon.
SOG Specialty Knives and Tool, LLC (SOG) was formed by knife collector, Spencer Frazer, after he added an example of the MACV-SOG knife, used in Vietnam, to his collection in the 1980s. Frazer was mesmerized by the knife, which was unlike any he had ever seen and was determined to reproduce it. His first course of action was to contact an industry icon, Bo Randall of Randall Made Knives, who told Frazer it would take far longer to complete the project than Frazer expected. So, in an effort to reduce the production timeline, Frazer reached out to a Japanese knife maker, who turned out to be the son of the original MACV-SOG designer.
The two worked together and soon Frazer was selling his SOG Bowie knife out of his third-story apartment. Members of the US Navy SEAL community picked up on the knife and it quickly became a favorite. Over the years, SOG added new designs, such as the Tomcat, an innovative folding tactical design. Now in its fourth iteration, the Tomcat has become the defacto standard for folding tactical knives.
Today, SOG is considered a major influence in the tactical knife marketplace. Their products carry a limited lifetime warranty, give a sharp appearance, and provide durable performance.
SOG tactical knives range in price from around $40 to more than $300 for higher-end examples of the SOG Bowie and Tomcat lines. With a wide range of choices and price points, there is a SOG knife from everyone. Great value and quality.
As discussed, the SOG Tomcat 3.0 is probably one of the best examples of a quality folding knife. Constructed with VG-10 steel, this 3.75-inch blade is a classic knife and has won the overall knife of the year award in 1988. It’s featured here on Amazon.
In 1974, Sal and Gail Glesser formed Spyderco and began selling their new knife design, the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker, at trade shows around the country. By 1981, they had designed and produced a new knife that featured their now-iconic belt clip, a serrated edge, and a round hole on the blade for easy, one-handed opening. At the time, these features were fairly revolutionary and were considered high-tech when pitted against more traditional designs.
Over time, Spyderco continued to innovate and has added a large number of patents to the company’s portfolio. With manufacturing facilities in five countries, and their home base in Golden, Colorado, Spyderco has become a trusted name in knife manufacturing around the world.
Today, Spyderco is recognized for having revolutionized the world of folding tactical knives and is widely preferred and enjoyed by armed professionals and civilians alike. Various models, which now include fixed blade knives, are featured on many top tactical product reviews. Features like the hole in the blade come in different sizes depending on the style of knife to make these knives easy to use even with gloves on.
More recently, Spyderco has teamed with Emerson to include Emerson’s Patented Remote Pocket Opener in some of their designs. Prices for these tactical knives range from $75 on the low end to $550 on the higher end. While not quite as low maintenance as other brands with fixed blades, the keyword here is easy.
Probably one of the most iconic tactical folding knives from Sypderco is the ParaMilitary2 G-10. This 3.438-inch blade in plain or SpyderEdge weighs in at 3.9 ounces and features a 4-way clip and S30V steel construction.
In 1979, Les De Asis began with a blueprint for his dream knife after searching for a better quality alternative to the flimsier butterfly knives he was accustomed to. When he met Victor Anselmo they worked together and produced the very first prototype from the blueprint. Les took this “dream knife” of his to his local gun shop where he was commissioned to provide 100 of them to sell. The knife was dubbed the Bali-song. In 1980, Les began Bali-song, Inc. and opened his first shop.
Les continued to expand his business until he was no longer able to control quality, price, and delivery. The company dissolved after a few years, but Les went right back to the drawing board. Returning to his original product, a new version and a new company was born. Because the knife parts were machine-made and then hand-assembled, Les named the new company Benchmade. Since that time, Benchmade has grown into the innovative and quality business that it is today with elite products and tactical knives that regularly appear in top reviews.
Benchmark knives are high-quality, high-performance knives at a great value. All Benchmark knives come with the LifeSharp service and warranty, meaning when knives are sent in for maintenance, all worn parts are replaced. The knife is completely oiled and reassembled before being returned to its owner at no cost.
Probably the most popular knife in the Benchmade line is the 556 Mini-Griptilian. This high quality and stealth everyday carry knife utilizes 154CM steel and has a blade length of only 2.91 inches while weighing in at a mere 2.81 ounces.
Emerson Knives were founded in 1996 and have remained 100% American made. Emerson’s combat-proven designs are highly popular with SEALs and the British SAS in particular. They have built quite the name for themselves by utilizing features such as the banana blade that allows the knife to be used in saber and reverse grip. A small “hook” on the blade, dubbed the Remote Pocket Opener, makes this folding knife the quickest of all to open as the user in removing the knife from a pocket.
Ernest Emerson was a student at the Filipino KALI Academy when he made his first knife. Being unable to purchase a quality knife due to the lack of funds, he set about to make one. He quickly realized that he wasn’t the only broke student and began making more of his design for others in the Academy.
In the late ‘80’s Emerson became the lead Hand-to-Hand Combat Instructor for Global Studies Group International where he had already made a name for himself in the Navy SEAL community, thanks to his knife making skills. Emerson credits martial arts with influencing the style and designs he has patented for his tactical knives. The price of these knives ranges from approximately $110 up to $700.
Popular among special ops troops, the Emerson CQC-7 is a 2.9-inch blade of 154CM steel and weighs 4 ounces. It sports a titanium lock with a ball-bearing pivot system. Although lesser-known, this knife is all quality.
Cold Steel was started in 1980. The owner, Lynn, was a Martial Artist who found that none of the knives he was using in training would stand up. One after another they would break, so he began to design a knife that would hold up in combat. The first customers were military and law enforcement; folks that could really appreciate that whatever Cold Steel produced would be to the standard of a weapon.
Through rigorous testing, Cold Steel backs up the claim that they produce the strongest knives. Recon 1 is the most popular model for the military, law enforcement, and even civilians. These blades hold up under a wide range of conditions without chipping, and the Tr-Ad lock feature ensures that the blade only opens when you want it to. Lynn vows to continue testing and producing knives that just work and work well. Prices range from about $40 all the way up to $300, but the majority of the knives stay in the lower range making it a viable option for everyone.
As discussed, one of the most popular and iconic Cold Steel knives is the Recon 1 with Tanto Point. This is a heavier knife at 8.3 ounces and has a blade length of 5.5 inches. The steel is carpenter CTS XHP Alloy with DLC coating. It is definitely a crossover knife between the folder and fixed.
Before getting too far into the list, there’s a brand that deserves mention from Orlando, Florida no less.
Even though it’s really more of a boutique brand, it has stood the test of time and is truly a work of art.
In 1936, Bo Randall bought a handmade knife that inspired him to create something of equal quality. After honing his skills he began Randall Made Knives in 1938. Randall took pride in producing simple, but high-quality handmade knives which he first began selling in his father-in-law’s shop. World War II caused a massive boom in business when a sailor friend requested a knife for hand to hand combat. It wasn’t long before he had orders pouring in from other sailors who had seen the knife Randall had made for his friend. Quality was of the utmost importance to Randall as the men fighting in WWII relied on his knives, both in combat and daily tasks.
Randall Made produces some of the finest fixed blades on the market. The simple and functional, yet stunning design makes them a fine collector’s piece in addition to their quality. The most expensive on the list of brands, these knives run upwards of $400. The hand-forged knives are guaranteed to be free from defects and will be replaced in the event effects appear for the original owner. These knives are regularly awarded to Green Berets.
So, what does a $2,000 knife look like? You’re looking at one. Not only is the materials top-notch, but it’s all custom and handmade. With a 3 1/2 inch blade and Micarta handle with copper and stainless steel inlays, it truly is a piece of art. At this price point, I wouldn’t want to do anything but look at it. But first, someone has to buy it for me.
Though one of the youngest companies on this list, Microtech, from Fletcher, North Carolina, has made a name for itself. These American made products come with a Lifetime Warranty and 95% of their parts are made in-house. Anthony Marfione keeps his production tight and guarantees the same quality now as he did when he began making and selling knives out of his apartment in 1994. Users can
choose from a wide variety of styles, blades, and finishes. This includes the military-grade tactical coating that protects and extends the durability and life of the blade.
Microtech operates to make sure that each customer is satisfied. With all the options available, each knife seems to be custom made for its owner. Prices can run anywhere from the $200’s to over $2000 for a tactical knife, but the massive following of happy customers don’t seem to mind.
This is an amazing knife company and is currently not even available on Amazon. They offer very special pricing to the military, and first responders and as such it’s easy to tell to whom they cater. Some of the U.S. best. Go Microtech.
The Boker name dates back to the 17th century in Germany. However, it wasn’t until 1829 that Hermann and Robert Boker began producing sabers. The production continued to grow throughout the 19th century to the point the brothers made the decision to emigrate. Hermann set up shop in New York (Boker & Co.), while Robert took to Canada (Casa Boker). Robert later added another location to his side of the business in Mexico. Another Boker, Heinrich, partnered with Hermann Heuser in Solingen, Germany to form Heinr. Boker & Co.
Heinrich’s company produced razors and pocket knives that were in great demand. When the US demand became greater than Heinrich’s ability to keep up, the New York Bokers joined in the pocket knife production. WWII saw the destruction of the Solingen factory, but shortly after the war the workers returned to rebuild and the American cousins joined in the aid.
These knives don’t come cheap, but the quality is worth every penny. An interesting feature that Boker uses is the Micarta handle. Micarta is a composite made from absorptive fibers and epoxy cured together. These handles are smooth to the touch but don’t be fooled. The grip on the micarta handles gets even better with moisture, providing a stable grip in any weather condition. Be prepared to spend about $200-$500 for a mid-range priced knife, although some models exceed $2000.
Of all the quality U.S. and Asian manufacturers, Boker stands out as the German classic. Boker makes both classic Buck type knives as well as modern tactical folders and the Urban Trapper is one fine example. With a 3 1/2 inches blade length, the Urban Trapper is available in either Carbon Fiber or Cocobolo handles. It weighs only 1.8 ounces and of course, comes with a lifetime warranty. Manufactured in Solingen, Germany, Solingen is synonymous with quality steel and the Boker doesn’t disappoint.
If you can envision someone with a Maglight has his tactical flashlight, chances are he’s also got a Buck knife. The two go together as classic USA tactical gear.
While it’s not necessarily the first name that comes to mind when looking for tactical knives, Buck, from Post Falls, Idaho, has garnered quite the reputation over the years for being quality, dependable knives in general. They actually started making tactical knives during WWII and their heavy-duty knives are built to stand up in the most demanding of situations. Hoyt Buck started his company in 1902 by hand-making each knife using worn-out file blades. The company has remained in the family for four generations, to include the current CEO.
Buck’s lineup offers plenty of choices at a great price. Their forever warranty guarantees these knives to be free from defects for the life of the knife. Buck Knives offers features such as their Black Traction coating on blades to prevent corrosion, Kryptek handles, and Buck’s Advanced Edge 2x technology. Prices range from approximately $30-$200. The history of this company combined with affordable options makes these knives great options for anyone.
One of the most popular and most classic looking knife in the Buck line is the 110 Famous Folding Hunter. This knife utilizes 420HC steel for it’s 3 and 3/4 inch blade at only 7.2 ounces. The handle is a classic walnut with brass bolsters. It doesn’t look anything like some of the other tactical knives in this article, but, that’s the point, with a lifetime warranty, the classic 110 doesn’t need to look like other knives.
Joseph Gerber famously described his company “the birth of an enterprise that grew into a big business”. From 1939 to 1960, Gerber, out of Portland, Oregon, grew from handmade cutlery sets he gave as gifts into a widely recognized and trusted producer of knives. The ergonomic handles on Gerber tactical knives make them a popular choice with military and civilians alike, although some models in the Defender series require service credentials. G-10 handles minimize slip in critical situations and Glass Filled Nylon handles with Kraton rubber coating create a comfortable grip, but the options don’t stop there.
One of the best examples of Gerber tactical knives is the Silver Trident, which features the most innovative handle known to tactical knives. The handle is created to resist heat, UV light, and chemicals. A design that was brought about by a founding member of the Navy SEAL 2 Team. This knife is a perfect example of how the people at Gerber continue to make great knives, while still seeking out newer and better technology so that these knives can continue to handle anything they come into contact with.
Although know for both fixed and folders, the Gerber StrongArm Fixed Blade is truly a fine representation of Gerber products. With 420HC steel and glass-filled nylon with rubber over-mold handle, the Strongarm has a 4.8-inch blade yet only weighs 7.2 ounces. Knives are not supposed to look pretty, but the StrongArm really is a great looking knife.
With so many manufacturers overseas, there’s always a welcome place for a “Made in America” company like Zero Tolerance Knives out of Oregon.
This company was founded in 2006 to do just that; make quality knives in America. The company started out producing combat knives to fit the needs of military, law enforcement, and other first responders. Since that time, they have expanded to produce knives for a general variety of uses. Customers describe these knives as “proudly overbuilt” but not too heavy.
Zero Tolerance uses premium grade steels to make their blades and they offer G10, titanium, and carbon fiber handle scales. All knives are made by skilled workers in the Oregon facility. Don’t expect to get a cheap knife here; you definitely won’t get one that is cheaply made. Prices range from $175 to $400. That being said, these tactical knives are just as pleasing to the eye as they are in functionality and durability.
The Tiger Stripe Blade that ZT offers is unique and impressive with Tungsten DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon) coating. The assisted opening, KVT ball-bearing opening system, and flipper features ensure easy, one-handed opening. CNC controlling allows ZT to produce complex geometries and complex 3-D grip textures. Of course, there’s also the wave opening feature that opens the knife as it is being removed from the pocket.
Zero Tolerance is a company that raises the bar for rugged, quality knives. Truly a great addition to any collection and worthy of the professionals that carry it.
Last but not least, it the Zero Tolerance 0450CF with a 3.25-inch blade and DLC-coated S35VN stainless steel blade and black carbon fiber or silver and titanium handle. The Zero Tolerance has a KVT ball-bearing opener and weighs a manageable 2.45 ounces. The flipper is ambidextrous and the pocket clip is reversible. Zero Tolerance is yet another company that constantly shows up under the best of best reviews and the 0450CF is a shining example of what they can produce.
Different needs and specialized requirements
Although tactical knives come in different sizes and are made from different components, the configurations are basically of two types – folders and fixed.
Generally speaking, outside of specialized needs such as combat, fixed blades address the outdoor needs of campers and hunters, while folders are directed to every day carry.
It is often stated that folders are compromised, and to the degree, that fixed blades provide a full tang configuration into the handle, one could hardly disagree. This deficiency, however, has been largely addressed by the enhancements made to the locking systems of modern tactical folders.
Still, each has a purpose and although there have been substantial improvements made to folders, each type is specialized and appropriate for their specific purposes.
I have already discussed the importance of the different steels, handle material and locking mechanisms used in the construction of knives.
In summary, the various steels impart different degrees of
- Hardness – This is the ability to resist deforming when subject to stress. Hardness is related to strength and measured using the Rockwell C scale (HRC).
- Toughness – Toughness is the ability to resist impact damage like cracks and chips. Counterintuitively, the harder the steel, the less resistant to impact damage.
- Wear Resistance – This is simply the ability to resist wear and abrasion during use.
- Edge Retention – This simply relates to how well the blade will keep sharp when subject to use.
- Corrosion Resistance – How well the steel resists deterioration as a result of the steel’s reaction to the environment.
The handle also directly relates to comfort, strength and gripping security.
Finally, with respect to folders, we’re able to address the ease of opening and closing as well as the security and rigidity of the knife while opened.
Many of these features are personal preference and aesthetics as well as functionality.
As a consumer, understanding your needs and recognizing the various options are absolutely essential in making the right purchase decision.
Tactical knives don’t suffer the same inexpensive market overload condition as do tactical lights. The reason is that tactical knives are harder to produce and it’s difficult to make cheap knives. Additionally, most would suffer a cheap light but wouldn’t begin to consider a cheap knife.
Fortunately, we are blessed with a number of extraordinary knife manufacturers who have produced an unbelievable array of fine choices.
Each company leaves its own unique footprint on the quality, style, and function of tactical and classic knives. Each has a story and the choice has never been more difficult – there are just so many great options.
Look at the companies and choose based on your needs. You almost can’t go wrong.
Be well. Always be prepared.