Updated August 2017
This summer, we put 11 of the top contenders to the test, slicing and dicing our way through the kitchen and great outdoors. We added a few new contenders to our current line-up; the Benchmade North Fork, while not an award winner, tied for second place, thanks to its high level of quality and blade/edge integrity. The Benchmade Mini-Barrage remains our Editors' Choice winner, and the CRKT Squid, at $30, became a new Best Buy winner.
Best Overall Pocket Knife
Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
Legendary blade construction
Blade-closed lock mechanism requires a learning curve
The Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
is built for precision and its design helps it maintain its Editors' Choice status in this review update. With a blade that arrives razor-sharp and ready for the task at hand, Benchmade's LifeSharp sharpening service sweetens the deal. If you cover shipping costs, they will return the edge to factory specs throughout the length of your ownership. The handle fits in the palm well, while still sitting easily in a pant pocket. An assisted opening system, deployable by either hand, reliably pulls the blade to "ready" status. And for carrying in a pocket or purse, the blade can be safely locked in the closed position. Finally, our hunting-focused testers endorsed the knife's fine-edged prowess, carrying it as their primary blade for backcountry hunting missions.
Read review: Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
Best Bang for the Buck
Constructed like a work of art
Excellent blade, for the price
Handle doesn't allow significant application of pressure to blade
Thinly sharpened blade is fragile
The Kershaw Leek
packages a pedigreed blade into a compact, assisted-opening tool at half the price of other high-end knives. The blade is made of high-grade steel and comes from the factory sharp. Like the assisted opening of the Editors' Choice-winning Mini-Barrage, the Leek can be opened with either thumb and locks closed. Also, Kershaw has engineered a tab on the rear of the blade that allows blade deployment with the index finger. The Kershaw Leek's primary compromise, in our opinion, is the narrow handle profile. Compared to our Editors' Choice winner, the Leek is similar in most dimensions, but it is considerably thinner. Many will appreciate the lower profile for carrying, though edge thinness requires inherent tradeoffs.
Read review: Kershaw Leek
Best Bang for the Buck
Heavy for the size
The CRKT Squid is a solid, compact day-to-day knife for the regular user, all at an excellent price. As compared to the Leek, this is even less expensive, with a more-or-less corresponding decrease in blade quality. However, both of these Best Buy winners are budget offerings from excellent blade manufacturers. They wouldn't stake their reputations on crappy blades. Our testing supports this. You get more than what you pay for with the Squid. The shape is unique but functional. For heavier tasks, one of the spendier knives is sure to be better. For normal to moderate usage, the Squid is worth way more than the cost.
Read review: CRKT Squid
Top Pick for Keychain-Readiness and Compactness
Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army
Tiny and portable
Not suitable for heavy usage
The Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife
earns our Top Pick award because of its keychain-readiness. More compact than your car's door remote, this Victorinox is unobtrusive and ready for action. When needed, the small blade rises to most occasions. Our lead tester's first knife was a Victorinox Classic, 30 years ago. His childish whittling, prying, and poking never bent or broke the blade. Adults love the Classic for its grooming tools and compactness. The scissors appear toy-like but are easily pressed into duty, cutting things as rugged as rock climbing webbing. For more routine tasks, the scissors excel.
Read review: Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife
Top Pick for Tactical and Rescue Usage
SOG Trident Elite
Burly construction in a lightweight package
Bulkier than some options
We grant Top Pick awards to specialized gear excelling in a subcategory. Among the tactical, rescue-oriented knives tested, the SOG Trident Elite
stands out. When compared to close competitors (not tested here), the SOG is lighter and has a blade made of better steel. SOG is well known for making its blades, even on their most budget-friendly products, of powerful AUS-8 steel. The Trident has this material, shaped into a burly blade and packaged in a handle that breaks glass, cuts cord, and engages and stows the blade quickly and securely. The whole package is a little heavier than our Editors' Choice product. It also comes in a serrated and straight edge version, so you can tailor your knife to fit your needs.
Read review: SOG Trident Elite
Analysis and Test Results
Our selection, and most models on the market, are of excellent quality. The tools we have evaluated represent a spectrum of materials, size, ergonomics and features. All are designed for multi-purpose "every day carry." Subtleties in that design, however, make some brands stand out. There are literally thousands of pocket knives on the market. Also, since pocket knives are largely very durable, there are legacy products on the used market that are still entirely relevant. Regardless of the knife you seek, there is likely a product virtually custom made for your needs. In assessing any knife, and especially the high-end, carefully selected subset we chose to review, the following attributes should be examined and balanced against one another.
In our 2017 update of pocket knives we added, from left to right, the Spyderco Tenacious G-10, the Benchmade North Fork, and the Best Buy CRKT Squid.
Blade Integrity (Sharpness, More or Less)
Little confuses pocket knife shoppers (and reviewers and designers and manufacturers) more than the over-simplified "sharpness" of a blade. The user's experience of the sharpness of a blade is a function of many variables.
First of all, and despite what infomercials may suggest, every knife needs to be sharpened after some amount of use. Different materials and designs will hold an edge longer, but all will eventually need some TLC. There are professional knife sharpening services as well as a whole host of commercially available sharpening kits for home use. Additionally, the manufacturer of Editors' Choice Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585
, Benchmade Griptilian 551
, Benchmade North Fork
(All reviewed here), and a whole line of other Benchmade knives will sharpen these knives for the life of the knife for a small handling fee each time.
The process of designing a blade starts with the material. All of our reviewed knives (and virtually all knives on the market) have blades made of some variety of steel. Steel is a metal made of mainly iron. In one of a variety of processes, that iron is mixed ("alloyed") with small amounts of carbon and possibly other elements. The possible variations are virtually endless. Steel for a knife must be hard enough to resist the abrasion and deflection of the material being cut. However, it must be soft enough to bend at least slightly in the face of significant forces. Too hard and the steel will be brittle. Too soft and the steel will lose its edge rapidly. For a dizzying array of steel types, useful to the knife shopper only in an entertainment sense, visit this page
. In our review, a few knives use highly regarded blade materials. Notably, the SOG Trident Elite
's "AUS-8" and the "154cm" and "S30V" we tested on the Benchmade knives is very expensive and well-tuned blade steel.
However, to understand the quality of the blade, you may purchase, know two things: decent knife steel is inexpensive enough that all knives now are made with good-enough metal. Most manufacturers of high-quality knives advertise the type of steel they use. Trust us when we say that it's all good. How the steel is handled is as important as the raw material. Once a manufacturer chooses the steel for a knife, it is cut to the rough shape and then hardened in some variation of a heating-and-cooling process.
The various types of hardening result in different characteristics. After the hardening process, the edge-holding features of the material used have been well established. Provided the user doesn't expose the blade to enough heat to reverse the hardening process, the steel now has a fixed mechanical nature. With hundreds of types of knife steel and tens of varieties of hardening, there are thousands of permutations. In short, trust in the manufacturers. Buck Knives is known to use relatively soft steel ("420hc") but has an industry leading heat treatment. The result is that the Buck 110 Folding Hunter we tested has an excellent and powerful blade
, despite its cheaper materials.
The factory edge on this knife virtually jumps through ripe tomatoes. And with Benchmade's "LifeSharp" program, they'll tune it up as often as you want and as long as you own it.
Once a blade is shaped and hardened, the cutting-edge receives its final grind. Knife edges can be tuned for different tasks. The thick blade of the SOG Trident Elite
is sharpened to a steep angle that preserves the edge during heavy cutting, but isn't quite as "sharp" for finer tasks. On the other hand, the fine tiny blade of the Victorinox Classic starts thin and is sharpened thinner
, making for a very sharp yet fragile edge. The procedures, facets, and angles used to finish an further edge influence the initial sharpness and edge-holding ability of the blade.
Like steel hardness, there is no single perfect edge finish. Too narrow an angle and the blade's leading edge is too thin to resist deflection and to dull, while too steep an angle on that leading edge doesn't feel nearly as sharp in actual usage. Like questions of material and hardening, feel free to investigate the different characteristics of the hollow grind, the edge angle, and single vs. double bevel. Or you can rest assured that knife manufacturers of all types have this figured out. Follow their instructions for proper care, and the knife will serve you years and years.
Close up of the Leek's simple "liner lock". Also, but not shown, the Leek has a clever and simple sliding "tip lock" to hold the blade closed.
In summary, knife "sharpness" is a function of a wide array of virtually invisible variables. A user's long-term experience with the knife depends as much on his or her maintenance regimen as it does on initial manufacturing. The manufacturer has balanced numerous conflicting criteria at every step in the process, and all of the pocket knives we tested demonstrate more-than-adequate edge integrity and sharpness.
Lastly, a few notes on blade shape and cutting-edge design. All we tested have some "drop-point" shaped blade; this is the most versatile blade shape. Also, note that models in our test and elsewhere can be either straight or serrated. Neither is in any way better than the other. Serrated blades cut tough materials more efficiently while straight blades are easier to sharpen. The OutdoorGearLab team prefers, generally, straight blades. Hybrid blades, partially straight and partially serrated, can address a variety of needs. Use and sharpen the straight portion regularly, and save the serrated portion for tougher tasks like cutting carpet or rope.
Properly sharpened, and there-when-you-need it, a knife still needs to be usable. Heavy cutting requires a sturdy handle that doesn't pinch or pressure the user's hand. In many ways, portability and ergonomics are direct competitors. The most ergonomic knife has a rounded-profile handle that fills a loosely clenched fist. The most portable knife is the smallest and thinnest. Our scoring reflects that tradeoff. The most user-friendly knives were the least portable, and vice versa. It is up to you to evaluate your needs and choose a blade that strikes the balance you seek. The tool needs to be easy to open and smooth to deploy and stow. The locking mechanisms should be intuitive and simple. One-handed blade deployment is best. So-called "assisted opening" knives are even easier to use. In our review, the Kershaw, Mini Barrage, and SOG knives all work with assisted opening blades.
Ideally, for pocket-clipped knives, the clip is oriented such that the tool can be pulled from the pocket and thumbed open without regripping. Both Benchmade knives are made this way and can be rearranged to work that way in either left or right pocket. Why other manufacturers do not employ this same simple strategy if only for the majority of right-handed users, is mystifying. The Spyderco Tenacious G-10
has a pocket clip that can be user-configured to hang in your pocket in one of four different configurations; it is your choice to set it up in some combination of tip up or down and for left or right thumb activation. For those that don't know exactly how they wish to carry their blade, or for those that can't find a knife to match their preference, this attribute alone can set the otherwise standard (and average in this crowd is decent) Spyderco.
The Victorinox knife has multiple tools. While none of the blades can be opened with one hand, all devices can be easily engaged with even the most closely-trimmed fingernails. The Buck Famous Folder
and Old Timer 180T Mighty Mite
also open with (finger)nail slots. All the other knives have some form of one-handed opening.
The Benchmade Griptillian in what we consider heavier usage. Wood carving and whittling requires a sturdy blade and a handle that will push that blade around. We looked for rounded handles that fill the users loosely clenched fist.
A knife is only as good as it is handy. Will it be there for you when you need it? Bulky and heavy knives will be left at home. Small knives floating around in a glove box or crowded jeans pocket will be too time-to consume to dig out. The most portable knives in our test were either overall small and equipped to hang on a key chain easily, or had a low profile and a tight pocket clip.
By far, the Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife is the most portable. The Buck 110 Folding Hunter
and the Spyderco Tenacious G-10
are both bulky and cumbersome. In both these cases, however, this bulk and weight can be justified by some for their function and versatility. The Benchmade Griptillian is similar in size to the SOG Trident Elite
but is a little lighter. Similarly, the SOG
tactical knife is arguably comparable to the Buck
but comes in quite a bit lighter. This portability difference between these two serious knives is what tipped the balance in favor of the SOG for our Top Pick Award. With large and small knives in the review, it is no wonder that two of our general purpose award winners (Best Buy and Editors' Choice. Kershaw and Benchmade Mini-Barrage, respectively), sit exactly in the middle. For most users, the size is manageable while still being functional. The Kershaw is thinner than the Barrage, but both are equipped to clip discretely into the users pocket.
Eminently portable, the Classic knife virtually disappears on most key chains.
The Best Buy CRKT Squid
is also on the compact end of the spectrum. It is similar in overall volume to the Kershaw Leek, but they differ in shape. Both are easy in the pocket, but the Leek is longer and thinner while the Squid is short and thick, in all dimensions. Even the blades and edges of these knives are respectively thick and thin.
In our test, only the Victorinox Classic
and "tactical knife" SOG Trident Elite
have any functions besides a primary blade. Depending on your intentions and usage, these functions may be the deal maker for you.
The tactical knives are designed for rescue usage. Paramedics and firefighters will use the burly blade, seatbelt cutter, and glass breaking punch occasionally. The rest of us may fear situations where we'd need to cut our seat belt off and bash through the window of the car, but we'll tire of carrying such a burly knife long before using these features, statistically speaking.
The tiny Classic Swiss Army knife packs a versatile punch in a small package. For the day-to-day user, the combination of little tools on this knife could be almost perfect. From office tasks to personal grooming to light home maintenance, the Victorinox Classic's simple combination of features gets the owner through most of life's challenges.
Close up of the added features of the Black Kryptonite knife, showing the dedicated v-cutter blade and steel glass breaker nub.
In the models we tested, quality of manufacturing aside from the knife blade itself varied far more than the quality of the blade. Handle, hinges and locking mechanisms reveal the attention paid to detail. Sturdy parts and materials, close manufacturing tolerances and carefully thought out construction stand out in a piece of equipment the end user will handle and use every day. In our testing, tight design considerations stood out virtually right away and only increased in value as time and usage wore on. Overall, while there was some variety in our test roster, construction quality in all was more than adequate. We had no failures or breakages, for instance.
Our evaluation of these knives' construction quality was mainly subjective. Does it "feel" sturdy and confidence-inspiring? When this almost-aesthetic assessment came up short for a given knife, it inevitably followed that some aspect of the mechanical function of the knife would act finicky. Locking mechanisms are the most vulnerable to construction quality. Well made knives like the Kershaw Leek open and close smoothly every time. Less expensive options like the Gerber STL 2.0 Fine Edge
cut just fine, but the locking mechanism can be difficult to disengage. Similarly, the expensive Benchmade knives, whether the assisted opening Mini Barrage or standard opening Griptillian 551, open super smoothly with all the various locks and options working efficiently every time. Smaller knives are harder to get fine-tuned. The miniaturized components just don't leave much room for error. A significant comparison is between the somewhat classically designed Buck Famous Folder and the Old Timer. They look similar and are made with similar materials and designs. The Buck has a massive construction and works smoothly. The Old Timer is very tiny, and the locking mechanism sometimes takes some fiddling. Also quite little, the Victorinox Classic seems to escape some of the issues of other small knives. All the components work well and smoothly. None of the features on the Classic lock at all, which likely saves some hassle.
It is our experience that folks reading this review are not only unclear about which pocket knife to get but that they are also not entirely sold on pocket knife ownership in the first place. Even if you know you want a pocket knife, the value of a carefully chosen tool may not be super clear. To be blunt, there is a big difference between a crappy knife and a good one. Just picking whatever is handy and cheap might work, but you won't use it nearly as much as you will a more carefully selected tool. We encourage you to consider this choice very carefully and trust that your choice will be rewarded with service that exceeds your expectations.
2016 and 2017 tested knives, from left to right: SOG Trident, Buck Famous Folder, Neokut Kryptonite, Benchmade Griptillian, Benchmade Mini Barrage, Kershaw Leek, Gerber Fine Edge, Old Timer Mighty Mite, Victorinox Classic.