The tactical knife is like the officer’s firearm. Most of the time this piece of equipment is on standby, always at the ready. Like any piece of safety equipment, failure is costly.
Some experts say that the best type of knife for law enforcement is the multi-tool, the kind with a knife blade, pliers, screwdrivers, and other tools. Others insist that the semi-serrated, one-handed opening or folding knife is best. In my opinion, the best tactical solution for a law-enforcement officer on duty is to have the toolkit-knife on the belt and the folding knife clipped to the pocket.
When looking to purchase either a multi-tool or a folding knife, here are some important aspects to keep in mind.
1. TACTICAL KNIFE Manufacturer
The first rule for a law enforcement tactical combat knife is to avoid “cheap” ones. Rather, purchase a quality tool in the moderate price range that will give years of service.
Consider the blade design, its edge holding characteristics and balance when shopping for them in a store. Knife maker reputation should be the selling point when it comes to its durability and usability, for when it comes to knife purchases, reputation is everything. Also, the tactical knife must be robust, reliable, able to hold an edge, and available in a split second.
2. TACTICAL KNIFE Needs
For police work, the pen knife is usually too small and the bayonet is too large. The locking folder is the “just right” porridge.
Select a folding knife with a locking blade for most tactical knife assignments. Fixed blade knives have limited utility in general law enforcement work. If a fixed blade knife is required for an assignment, its purpose is limited in nature. The other reasonable fixed blade option is the neck knife. For police work, wear the neck knife over the vest, not under, lest the weight of the vest combined with movement produce unwanted results.
The least likely use of a tactical knife falls under the category of defensive weapon. Out of the millions of times a folding knife has been flicked open on duty, only a handful has been made in the name of personal defense. Having said that, of all the tasks a law enforcement officer will assign to his edged tool, almost all of them describe a sturdy medium length blade that can be opened quickly using one hand. Even if the primary duty is not a defensive purpose, the tactical blade would still look like a tactical blade. Thus, picking the most logical configuration for police work will still arrive at the same design.
Think about it. Police officers will use their knives to hold one object in one hand and slice with a knife in the other, without having the luxury of releasing their grip and opening a knife with both hands. This type of activity includes cutting a length of fingerprint tape while keeping the loose tape from being contaminated, or holding a bag of a “white powdery substance” or “green leafy organic substance” while slicing it open with the blade. Seat belts, wire ties, articles of clothing, and building materials usually have to be stabilized with one hand and cut with the other.
The steel used in knife making is the soul of the blade. Every aspect of knife making is a compromise. A blade that holds an edge well could be the one that is harder to sharpen or so inflexible that it could snap when given lateral stress. A blade that has the best edge could also be the one that oxidizes or stains easily.
Creating a knife blade is part science, part art. Knife makers can control the characteristics of a blade by the type of steel, the way this deal is formed, the shape of the blade and the way it is tempered. Knife makers are constantly on a quest for better steel and modern tool-steels are getting better.
It is impossible to rate knife steels from best to worst. It is also impossible to guess the tempering of the tool just by looking at it. It is possible, however, to make a few recommendations for law enforcement knives based on a majority of cutting tasks. Steel performance takes into account strength, the blade’s ability to resist lateral stress, toughness, the blade’s ability to resist chipping, resistance to abrasion, and hardness. There are other factors, but knowing these major qualities is probably enough information to help select a law enforcement knife. There are several common steels used for law enforcement tactical knives, which include 440C, ATS 34 (154 CM), D2, and AUS 8. There are dozens of other types of steel but this list is a good start.
4. Locking Blade
A locking blade should be mandatory for folding knives. There are several different methods for keeping a blade locked open, including locks in the liner (the material that surrounds the blade when closed), and locks in the spine.
Should the law officer get an automatic knife? Inherently, they are not as strong or reliable as a locking folder, but having said that, some automatics are like cousins of reliable locking mechanisms.
The purpose of a semi-serrated edge is to make the physical length of the cutting edge longer than the physical length of the blade. Imagine tracing a line along the edge of the serrations of the blade. Now imagine straightening that line like Paul Bunyan’s blue ox Babe straightened roads; the serrations put more of the blade into a smaller space and give the cutting edge more aggressive cutting angles.
Some edges are chisel ground, which often creates a sharper and easier maintained edge. This will come down to personal preference. Almost all serrated edges are chisel ground, even if the other part of the edge is ground symmetrically.
Handle materials can be wood, plastic, aluminum or “micarta.” Micarta tends to be resistant to most elements and harder than other materials. Wood looks great but is harder to pin or epoxy in place. Aluminum tends to make the user sensitive to temperature extremes. Space Age materials similar to polymers are excellent for keeping the knife durable, low priced and lightweight. The handle’s materials, or scales, should be textured to improve the grip and hold it in the pocket until needed.
Knife makers began using Torx screws to secure the pocket clip, often offering the “tip up” or “tip down” option. This is important for officers who often carry the spare blade in the trauma plate pocket, tip down.
The liner material is just as important as the handle. If the knife does not have a liner made of durable materials such as aluminum or steel, it is likely the hinge pin will loosen easily and the handle will fail under extreme use. Select a knife with a liner material that, put together, approximates the width of the blade; that is, the aluminum or steel that surrounds the blade when the knife is closed should be as thick as the blade itself. This will ensure the blade open smoothly, even when after the officer had been rolling on the ground a bit.
If there is no liner, the knife may have been assembled using steel pins in a plastic frame, or no pins in a molded frame. This is desirable in a lightweight knife, but not recommended for law enforcement.
8. TACTICAL KNIFE Design
Tactical knives usually come in geometric, wedge-shaped reinforced designs, or drop-point utility designs. While the geometric designs are cool, the drop point ones will offer more consistent cutting surfaces. Double-edged blades also are eye candy, but not quite as useful.
Some blade makers have blade designs which open the blade upon their withdrawal from the pocket. This might be a desirable feature for your law enforcement tool.
Is it advisable to purchase a custom knife? A custom knife is a purchase made for pride in ownership, not police work. If the officer can afford to purchase one, he will enjoy some of the intangible qualities of a good knife, like polished interiors (which make mechanisms buttery smooth), hand-selected materials, and custom tempering.
A moderately priced knife from a reputable manufacturer will give the officer years of use, with reliability and peace of mind.
Police1 Products Columnist Lindsey Bertomen contributed to this report.
NEXT: 8 tactical knives for police officers
This article, originally published 5/31/2009, has been updated.