In recent years, “tactical” has become a bit of a buzzword within the knifemaking community. When you hear the word tactical, you undoubtedly picture vivid images of swat teams bursting through doors with guns drawn or Navy Seals stealthily creeping around in the shadows. The people in your images are probably well outfitted with gear, mostly black or camo, with straps and gadgets galore. These images are probably based on the Hollywood portrayal of these kinds of scenarios, as well as the vast media coverage of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq over the last decade. As images like these pervade pop culture, they are sure to shape certain trends. Because the look is currently in vogue, gun guys and knife guys have picked up on it and capitalized on it.
But sadly, “tactical” has become more of a marketing term than an accurate description of what most of the gear labeled as such is designed to accomplish. These days, it typically implies a certain over-the-top look as well as superfluous features. Unfortunately, if you subscribe to the modern day marketing misconception, you probably aren’t going to end up buying the best tactical knife for your needs. Instead, you will end up with something that is moreso “tacticool” that doesn’t provide any benefit other than awesome looking aesthetics.
Now let’s talk about what “tactical” is. In the real world, and for purposes of this article, tactical really signifies an item that is strategically functional. Truly tactical gear is often times mission specific and tailored to provide specific capability. A tactical knife for an underwater diving mission is going to be very different than a tactical knife for an urban mission or a desert mission. For instance, a tactical dive knife is going to have to be extremely corrosion resistant due to the high salt environment that it is used in, although color might not be an important factor due to the low light conditions. In an urban setting, a good tactical knife might have a built in glass breaker and have a gray or black blade. Similarly, a tactical desert knife will likely be desert tan or flat dark earth, allowing it to be less visible amongst its surroundings. These different examples illustrate the vast differences you must account for when picking good tactical gear, and more specifically a knife.
Tactical Knife Features
When it comes to choosing a tactical knife, there are many different aspects that you need to think about. To generalize, some universal facets of a knife that is truly tactical are as follows:
Failure is not an option in any situation where true tactical gear is required. As such, a tactical knife must be dead reliable. Most often this is going to steer you towards the fixed blade category. Fixed blade knives have less moving parts, which means less to break. As such, fixed blades typically make great tactical and survival knives. This isn’t to say that you should turn your back on a folding knife entirely though, as they too can be completely reliable but it is less common and usually more expensive to go this route.
A good tactical knife is also going to be highly functional. It must hold an edge extremely well. It must provide ample grip, both bare handed and when wearing heavy gloves. Additionally, if it is a tactical folding knife, it must be easily deployed with bare hands and gloves. It must have sufficient cutting edge to perform the necessary tasks, but be sufficiently sized to be easily concealable if necessary. An often overlooked aspect of tactical knife functionality is the sheath. The sheath must hold the knife in place firmly while still allowing easy draw. Additionally, a good sheath will provide numerous mounting options such as MOLLE loops, a belt clip, and velcro so you have options for how you carry it.
You’ll almost never see a shiny tactical tool, whether it is a knife, gun, flashlight or otherwise. Polished knives can reflect light and give away your position. A polished surface also makes your knife more visible and harder to conceal. Typically tactical knives are coated with hard and wear resistant coatings such as a powdercoat or Cerakote. Usually knifemakers choose earth tones so as not to stand out.
Tactical Knife Reviews
Now on to some recommendations. I will now choose a few knives that I think make good tactical knives for a large variety of situations based on the criteria that I listed above. It’s important to remember that the knives recommended below aren’t going to be the best for every situation, but at least one of them should most likely cover yours. That said, they are great all around knives and if they have the ideal characteristics that you need you can’t go wrong.
The ESEE ESEE-6 is an absolutely outstanding fixed blade knife. The knife has a full flat grind, making the knife a great slicer. In addition, the blade has sufficient thickness at .188″ to withstand some torture. It weighs a reasonable 12 ounces and comes in at an overall length of just shy of 12 inches with the blade making up 6.5 inches worth of the total length. The knife has a full tang as well. The ESEE-6 comes with a black blade and natural colored linen micarta scales. The scales have excellent texture and are pretty thick, so the knife nicely fills the hand and won’t slide around when you use it barehanded. The knife comes in 1095 steel, which is extremely tough and takes a nice edge when heat treated properly.
ESEE offers the ESEE-6 in either plain edge or partially-serrated edge. I am usually a fan of plain edges due to the limited utility of serrations, but the ESEE-6 has a long enough blade to leave enough plain edge to be useful for most cutting tasks should you choose the serrated knife. You can also get the blade with a sharpened top edge (which you could dull into a false edge with a good sharpener). The knife also has an accessible lanyard hole and a rounded pommel. Lastly the sheath for the knife is of excellent quality as well. It is a molded sheath that comes in coyote brown, olive drab, or black. You can get an add on MOLLE back, MOLLE locks, a belt clip plate, and an accessory pouch in a variety of colors as well.
Overall the ESEE-6 is a superior knife with outstanding build quality and attention to detail. This knife will treat you well and you can’t go wrong if you pick one up.
Zero Tolerance 0560 / 0561
The ZT 0561 (the 0560 is extremely similar so I will talk about the 0561 but the review applies to both) is a collaboration effort between ZT and the famous Rick Hinderer. The ZT 0561 is essentially as close as you can get to a production version of Rick’s famed XM-18 which is one of the most highly regarded knives out there.
So let’s talk about what the ZT 0561 has to offer. It is a folding knife of course, with a titanium frame lock. The blade is 3.75″ in stonewashed Elmax steel which is non-reflective. It offers two deployment options including a thumb stud and a flipper. I find the flipper to be far more usable than the thumb stud, especially when wearing gloves. The locking mechanism is a titanium frame lock, which locks up tight, can withstand tons of abuse, and is easy to actuate. The scale opposite the liner lock is machined G10 when phenomenal texturing and can be had in black or coyote brown. The knife is heavy at 5.8 ounces, but this is acceptable for a heavy duty tactical knife. Best of all, the knife is made in the USA.
Overall, the Zero Tolerance 0561 is extremely robust, has high build quality and can take a serious beating (To give you an idea of its application, the Hinderer XM-18 that it was modeled after is only available by direct order through Rick Hinderer if you are active military, an LEO, firefighter, etc otherwise you have to wait for an infrequent production run to ship to a dealer). Fortunately, anybody can buy the ZT 0561 without having to wait around. Due to the target market Rick tailored this knife to, you can be absolutely sure that it will serve your needs.
Full Size KA-BAR
It would be negligent if I were to omit the full size KA-BAR from the list of best tactical knives. KA-BAR’s full size fighting knife was adopted as the US Marine Corps combat knife in 1942, and subsequently adopted as the US Navy utility knife. The KA-BAR has been thoroughly field tested by the US armed forces and has withstood the test of time. It is an outstanding knife that has made an appearance in every major war since World War II and one that you can’t go wrong with.
Make no mistake, the full size KA-BAR is a big knife. It is just as comfortable opening cans of food as it is in hand to hand combat. It is a fixed blade knife with a 7″ long blade. It has a .165″ blade thickness and is made in the USA. The blade steel is 1095 and the total knife weight is .65 pounds, which is surprisingly light for a knife this size. The knife can be had with a variety of handle options. The most basic is the black Kraton handle, but there is a variety of leather washers of varying colors that you can get as well. You can also get it in a dress knife configuration, which is more decorative than the combat knife although technically will provide the same function. The knife is also made in the USA.
Handling the blade reveals that you feel every bit of its size. The handle is thick which provides great ergonomics and allows you to grip comfortably. The grooves between the washers(Kraton or leather) on the handle provide great texture that allows you to maintain your grip on a wet knife or dry knife. The knife can take a serious thrashing and the blade cleans up easy with a few passes on a sharpener. Overall it is an outstanding knife that our soldiers trust, and so should you. It should also be noted that the full size KA-BAR gets absolutely top reviews by most everybody.
You will notice that each of the above knives are simple with nothing flashy about them. These are reliable knives with no gimmicks or add-ons that you don’t need. If there is one piece of advice that I hope you walk away with, it is to avoid the tactical marketing hype and pick a blade that is actually going to help you should you need it. Avoid the fancy stuff in favor of elegantly simple and you will win. I hope that this article has provided you guidance in choosing the best tactical knife! Feel free to make recommendations of your own as far as tactical knives in the comments section.