Jun 01, 2023

Always Be Ready With These Great Expert

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I don't know how anyone gets through life without a pocket knife. I feel naked if I get dressed for the day without one. Sleeping and flying are probably the only times I’m not carrying. The utility of a pocket knife is obvious—cutting food, rope, packaging, and who knows what else, but they’re also handy for opening boxes, scraping off stickers, pruning shrubs, digging in the dirt, cleaning fish, and whatever else might require an all-purpose tool.

If you work with your hands, a pocket knife can save you time going to get a specialized tool when a pocket knife might work nearly as well. A good pocket knife obviously fits comfortably in your pocket, so I’ve focused here on folding knives, but every person has different priorities for what their knife should do, how it should feel in the hand, and what it should look like, so I’ve highlighted my favorites in a range of common categories of pocket knife.

The Expert: My grandmother once chided me (then knife-less) that a man with a pocket knife was worth an extra dollar an hour on their dairy farm. I never showed up to her house without one after that and I’ve probably carried a pocket knife for 95 percent of the days of my adult life. My preferences for a good pocket knife have evolved considerably over those 30 years, and my collection of pocket knives has grown as well. I now have different knives for different days and activities and have tested most of the top models from the top brands over the past few years.

When considering knives for everyday carry (EDC), look for a folding option that easily fits on your belt or in your pocket when closed. It should be light enough to carry comfortably but with a blade and handle that are sized to your liking. Most blades in this category measure from 2 to 3.5 inches long and have a drop-point shape.

Most handles range from 3.5- to 5-inches. Get a folding knife that locks out. It won't close on your fingers during use, which makes it safer, and the stiffness of a locking blade lets you manipulate it at a variety of angles, like while whittling wood or opening a particularly tricky package. Plus, you can use the back of the blade for things like fire sparking rods without it closing or bending on you.

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The three most common categories for pocket knives are carbon, stainless, and tool steel. Carbon steel is easy to sharpen, holds an edge well, and is durable, but the blade takes more care because the metal is prone to corrosion. Types of carbon steel include 420HC, XC90, and 1095.

Stainless steel isn't as hardy as carbon, but with the addition of chromium, the blade is less susceptible to corrosion. Stainless blades are often cheaper than their carbon counterparts, too. Choose stainless, like AUS-8, VG-10, or 8Cr13MoV, and its cousins in the 9Cr and 7Cr series if you will mostly be using your knife on the water, to process game, or to prepare dinner while camping.

There's also tool steel, which can contain titanium, molybdenum, vanadium, or other elements. The result is generally a strong blade with good edge retention and decent corrosion resistance (though not as good as stainless). Popular tool steels include D2, CPM S30V, and CPM S35VN.

Most importantly, find a knife that fits your hand and feels good in your pocket. Even if you ultimately buy online, it can be worth a trip to an outdoor store where you can handle a wide range of knives and get a sense for the size and style that works best for you.

Liner: One side of the handle's inner liner is bent, causing it to act like a spring. When you open the blade, that springing liner slides over behind the tang of the blade to keep it from closing. Pro: Simple and inexpensive. Con: Fingers are in the way when closing.

Frame: Similar to a liner lock, this system has one side of the knife's frame slide behind the blade when you deploy it. Pro: Secure. Con: Doesn't work with both hands.

Lockback: A locking bar runs up the spine of the knife's handle and springs up into a notch in the tang. To close, press on the bar close to the butt of the handle to pivot it out of the tang. Pro: Ambidextrous. Con: Can wear out, causing the blade to wiggle when deployed.

Crossbar: A steel bar passes through the knife handle and slots into a notch in the tang. It's significantly stronger than a liner lock, and you don't have to adjust your grip to operate it. Benchmade's proprietary Axis was first to market, but it's now joined by SOG's XR mechanism and others. Pro: Ambidextrous. Con: More small parts that can break.

Collar: A circular collar around the base of the blade twists to lock it closed or open. Line up the gap in the collar with the blade for unimpeded deployment. Pro: Simple. Con: Collar can wear out over time and not operate as smoothly.

I frequently test and write about knives, so I make an effort to test all the new offerings from major knife brands that I realistically can. While I have my favorites, I constantly have different pocket knives in my rotation, putting them to work opening boxes, sharpening pencils, prying things open, scraping off paint, cleaning fish, cutting meat and vegetables, and lots of other things pocket knives probably aren't really designed to do.

For this roundup, I also relied on the previous work of Popular Mechanics editors and writers who, using fairly strict evaluation criteria, tested single-blade, plain-edge knives, and a few smaller multi-tools built with portability in mind. The combination of all these efforts helped us to deliver these recommendations of the best pocket knives you can buy right now.

The Twitch II has earned many fans over the years. It's sized just right, easy to open, and has delivered consistently strong results throughout testing. The stainless-steel blade, housed in a simple and sleek-looking aluminum handle, is substantial enough for a variety of tasks, yet the knife retains a modest, slim profile. It is comfortable to carry in your pocket and attaches securely to a belt.

There are a few ways to deploy the blade, including a thumb stud on each side (lefties, rejoice). Many prefer the kick. Sometimes called a flipper, this triangular tab sits at the end of a knife's tang and protrudes from the handle when the blade is closed. Pressing it down with your index finger swings the blade out nearly all the way (with help from a coil spring), and it locks into place with a small tug upward. Once open, the kick doubles as a finger guard.

Under relatively little pressure, the knife made even, smooth cuts. The blade slid into an apple on contact, though it needed greater force to completely slice through. It also finished among our top performers for the cord and zip tie testing, cleanly cleaving the fasteners with a modest amount of force.

A small sliding lock on the handle adds extra assurance that the blade won't deploy accidentally. After more than a year of frequent use, this knife is still in fine form, though some paint has chipped off the handle. If you’re looking for a trusty EDC that delivers quality at a reasonable cost, the Twitch doesn't disappoint.

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Twitch II


For a blade that deploys as fast as possible, go with a spring-assisted knife. You most likely won't find one better than Kershaw's Link. The blade popped open as soon as we pulled down on the kick with our index finger and stopped at full extension with a satisfying click. In fact, it is so pleasing to open, we had to stop ourselves from popping it in and out just for fun to avoid wearing out the mechanism.

What's more, the one-handed operation is just as easy with our non-dominant side, making the Link a decent ambidextrous choice. As for the performance of the blade itself, the carbon steel doesn't disappoint, providing an even cut for whatever is needed. The Link isn't as well suited to finer detail work, like coring apples, but that shouldn't be expected from a blade with this type of design.

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The Opinel has remained virtually unchanged for decades, thanks to its low cost, effectiveness, and light weight. You can buy it with a stainless-steel blade, but the incredible affordability of the carbon model is a no-brainer. The No. 8 delivers one of the best cuts when slicing apples, and its sharp tip makes quick work of zip ties, and it punctured packaging easily.

Although there is no belt clip, the collar lock affords peace of mind when the knife is in your pocket. There's absolutely no chance of the 3.3-inch blade will deploy accidentally. Plus, it keeps the blade open when additional rigidity is needed. However, it does take some effort to rotate the collar and lift the blade with the nail nick, which makes deploying this knife slower than all the others.

The beech wood handle, one of the most comfortable in this roundup, is a uniform cylinder, save for a taper just before the pommel. Plus, the wood construction keeps the weight in check. That a sub–2-ounce knife can sport a blade this long and capable is impressive, making the No. 8 a worthwhile pick. Looking to make it one of a kind? Opinel offers custom engraving (for an additional fee).

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No. 8 Carbon Steel


The Delica has been a staple in the Spyderco lineup for more than 30 years, and the fourth generation includes styles with different blade steels, edges, and shapes, as well as different handles. The standard model features a sharp VG-10 blade that excelled in our tests at slicing—due to its fully flat-ground design—and it ripped through materials, particularly our rope, without hesitation.

Deploying the blade is simple thanks to Spyderco's hallmark circular thumb hole, measuring a generous 13 millimeters. The fiberglass reinforced nylon handle has textured molding for better traction, a finger guard, and subtle finger grooves.

Add in the jimping notches on the blade's spine, and you won't ever have to worry about slip with your grip. Lastly, the handle's stiff belt clip is reversible—a perk for lefties—and can be reinstalled for tip-down carry, if that's your thing.

Altogether, the Delica 4 is a very capable EDC and an especially great option for people who regularly get their hands dirty and need a knife that will stay put.

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Delica 4 FRN Flat Ground


In 2020, Benchmade released this pint-size version of its popular Bugout folder. The Mini is lighter (by about three-tenths of an ounce), shorter (the overall lengths differ by just more than 1 inch), and features a blade that's nearly a half-inch smaller.

Still, the pint-size knife packs explosive cutting power. The CPM S30V blade quickly and cleanly cut through food, cardboard, and rope of all sizes when tested, and the textured Grivory handle felt comfortable and secure even when laid into.

If you're a fan of crossbar locking mechanisms, the Mini proves its Axis is the one to beat. The spring that disengages the lock has a healthy yet smooth resistance, letting you neatly tuck the blade away. There's nothing subtle about the neon orange, but that can be a bonus when this is in your hiking pack. The bright color is easy to spot, even in low light.

If that's not your style, try the 533BK-1 model, which has a white handle and black blade. Given the knife's 1.5-ounce build, you may, as our testers did, frequently forget it's in your pocket or holstered on your belt, ultimately making it a convenient option to carry everywhere. This is one featherlight EDC that doesn't slouch on performance and is worth the expense.

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533 Mini Bugout


Case Knives started way back in 1889 in upstate New York where I grew up. In part because my grandfather carried one in his pocket on his dairy farm, I have a soft spot for classic Case knives. But a knife that you drop in your pocket just isn't as practical as one with a clip, and a knife without a locking mechanism can be dangerous if, like me, you’re accustomed to modern, lock-out knives.

That's why I was excited to see Case add lines of more modern EDC pocket knives to its lineup like the Marilla which has won over modern knife users since its launch in 2021. This is a mid-sized knife, but feels longer than its 3.4-inch blade, thanks to a gradually tapered, almost filet-like drop-point blade that's great for gutting fish or dressing wild game in the field.

The company's knives use modern materials like anodized aluminum and G10 fiberglass inlay in the handle, but they’re still made in Bradford, Pa. (80 miles south of Buffalo, N.Y.), and the S35VN steel comes from upstate New York where Case got its start.

At 3.6 ounces, this knife feels substantial, and the reliable frame lock paired with the thicker blade and handle mean you won't hesitate to shuck an oyster or pry off a 2x4 with it in hand. The flipper mechanism is smooth and fast for one-handed opening and closing—there's even a satisfying audible and tactile click into both the open and closed positions.

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Marilla Pocket Knife


Tactical often implies a military aesthetic along with lots of ostentatious features and add-ons that announce themselves a mile away, much like wearing a combat helmet to a bluegrass concert. The James Brand's Elko is small but mighty— a tactical-light option for those who want quiet capability coupled with concealment.

This knife is small yet not impractically so—sporting a 1.74-inch blade. The entire package is less than a half-inch thick. (If you want a knife with more tactical chops with "tactical" right in the name, check out 5.11 Tactical's ESC Rescue knife which has a glass-breaker, belt cutter, and regular drop-point blade in one rugged and affordable package.)

It is suggested by the manufacturer to attach the Elko to your keyring via the scraper/prybar/bottle opener/glass breaker end, but it's more easily deployed tucked into a fifth pocket (there's no clip).

This isn't a big, tough-guy knife—it's small in the hand—so it's easily concealed when you don't want anyone with eyes to be able to tell you’re carrying a blade. With The James Brand's more modern, minimalist aesthetic, it's also a great option for city dwellers who want to carry a good-looking knife without the obvious pocket clip showing on their work slacks.

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Elko Knife


I was first introduced to Victor, Idaho-based New West Knife Works through their impressive American-made kitchen knives. Their Glory folders feature the same hand-assembled quality and attractive designs as their cutlery. (For over 15 years, New West Knife Works has exhibited and won awards at the fine art shows across the country, including the Smithsonian Craft Show, Crafts Park Avenue, Sausalito Art Show, Cherry Creek Arts Festival, Park City Kimball Arts Festival, and many more).

The Saddleback blade on the Glory folder that I own (the company also offers a more traditional drop-point blade) lets you put a little more pressure on the blade when, for example, pushing it through a particularly dense salami. The blade itself is American S35VN steel from Crucible Industries (a Syracuse, N.Y.-based company— and in business since 1876), and it's the same raw material used in their kitchen cutlery that provides high-end durability and edge retention. The hardness makes sharpening a little more difficult for amateurs, but New West provides free tune-ups along with its lifetime warranty.

This is a mid-sized folder, and it's thick thanks to a robust titanium liner lock that inspires confidence but doesn't feel bulky. The slightly rounded handle means it doesn't lay as flat in the pocket, but I love the classic feel, especially with the solid Ironwood handle on my model. (You can also get handles made from G10 composite or carbon fiber in a variety of colors.)

The action is incredibly smooth and makes for easy one-handed operation with the flipper mechanism, and the liner lock is also one-hand operable, both must-haves for me in a knife I want to carry every day.

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Glory Folder


The Bugout is perhaps Benchmade's most popular knife and for good reason—it's long enough but not oversized, ultralight but not wimpy. It's the lightest knife I own, at 1.8 ounces, and while it's sibling the Mini Bugout (also recommended earlier in this article) is a fraction of an ounce lighter, I’d rather carry the extra length of the regular Bugout.

I do find myself hesitating to use it for prying and twisting tasks since it just feels so insubstantial, but over a year-plus of carrying it regularly, I’ve yet to experience any issues. It's pricey, but backed by Benchmade's lifetime warranty. You get free lifetime sharpening service if you’re hesitant to start grinding away on a $150 knife.

The S30V steel (from Crucible Industries) is a tried-and-true, powder-base steel known for its combination of hardness and durability. Edge retention is made thin here at just 2.29mm. This is part of an overall very thin profile and one of the first things you’ll notice—just how streamlined this knife is. It's barely noticeable in your pocket since the Axis lock action is recessed into the injection molded Grivory plastic handle.

While you might not carry the Bugout if you need a heavy-duty knife, you can do a lot of prying with it. It's perfect as an ultralight EDC option that you’ll often forget you’re carrying.

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Longtime hunting personality (he's been around too long to call him an influencer) Randy Newberg popularized replaceable blade knives for hunters through his partnership with Gerber to design this knife.

Replaceable blade knives are now de rigueur for hunters who need to field dress game because the easily replaceable blades mean you always have a surgically sharp edge at the ready. It's easy to dull a blade before you’re even a quarter of the way through an elk, and I know hunters who carry as many as four knives in their hunting pack (I used to) to avoid being stuck without a sharp knife when you really need one.

The concept is the same as a good old utility knife, a.k.a. box cutter, where you can easily swap in new blades when the current one dulls. The difference here is the blades are the more common drop point style. And, unlike some other replaceable blade knives, Gerber's Randy Newberg model includes 3 different kinds of blades: a longer blade for removing backstraps, a shorter multipurpose blade, and a serrated blade. This is an essential tool for hunters and anglers both, but my only gripe is it isn't the best as an everyday carry knife.

For one, the blades are so sharp, it's easy to seriously cut yourself, especially if you’re used to carrying a more forgiving pocket knife. The blades also aren't as durable for prying at things, and they dull quickly when used for anything outside their intended purpose of dressing game. But for hunting season, it's hard to argue you should carry anything else.

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Randy Newberg Exchangeable Blade System Hunting Knife


Multi-tools expand on the simple utility of a pocket knife with an array of more specialized tools: screwdrivers, scissors, saws, and other additions. Their downside is that multitools can often be bulky and better-suited for a belt than a pocket.

The James Brand's Ellis knife lands somewhere in between a pocket knife and a fully featured multi-tool by adding scissors and a pry bar/scraper/screwdriver to a basic folding knife design that's small and slim enough to carry like a normal pocket knife.

You don't get the do-anything diversity of a bigger multi-tool, but I’ve found I’m much more likely to carry the Ellis than a true multi-tool since it's easy to slip into the pocket.

I’ve reviewed Leatherman's excellent Free P4 in the past, and while it's compact enough to pocket carry, its thickness makes it better worn on a belt in its pouch and so I hesitate to classify it as a pocket knife.

The Ellis may not offer a ton beyond a regular folder, but the pry bar is an extremely useful feature that spares you from damaging your blade using it to wrench on things. The scissors offer another cutting option when a knife blade is a little too crude. I also like that you can get the very durable 12C27 steel blade either straight or partially serrated for added versatility.

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PM: How long of a blade should I carry?

JP: Blade length is a personal preference, but there are a few factors to guide you. First is legality. Most states have some kind of restrictions on what knives you can carry on your person.

Even in wild west Colorado where I live, it is illegal to carry a blade longer than 3.5 inches "concealed" which would include "in your pocket." In New York state where I grew up, switchblades are illegal and you must be a U.S. citizen to even own a knife, but there are no concealed carry restrictions. Check your state laws here.

Outside of local laws, consider how a knife fits in your hand. A knife that feels tiny and awkward to someone with large hands might be perfect for someone else. If you’re not already a regular pocket knife carrier, stop into an outdoors store where you can handle a wide range of knives and see what feels good. Most people will feel comfortable with blades in the 2.5- to 3-inch range, though folks with larger hands may want something bigger.

PM: How should I keep my pocket knife sharp?

JP: I’ll start with a caution... that you may not want a surgically sharp pocket knife. Because I use my pocket knife so frequently and casually, I don't like to be as cautious as you have to be with an ultra-sharp blade.

I experimented with carrying a replaceable blade knife for a few months and I ended up giving myself several minor but annoying slices. That said, any knife will eventually require sharpening. Most pocket knives have a fairly obtuse 20-degree or higher blade angle which makes them less challenging to sharpen yourself.

Knife sharpening is a skill that's not easy to master (learn how here) but there are tools available to help. While whetstone sharpening is soothing in a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sort of way, you probably already have a pull-through sharpener somewhere (check kitchen drawers).

These sharpeners aren't the perfect sharpening solution, but they’re relatively idiot-proof and good enough to perk up your blade. I personally have started using the Work Sharp Ken Onion Edition Knife and Tool Sharpener which lets you adjust for blade angle and uses a series of electrically driven belts for a fairly quick sharpen, though it does require a bit of practice to use well.

If all of this sounds like something you’ll never bother with, there are lots of mail-in sharpening services such as The Sharp Brothers, who will professionally sharpen your blades for a fee. Many manufacturers offer similar services and Benchmade, for example, has a LifeSharp program that gives you free sharpening for any Benchmade knife. Some manufacturers such as Kershaw also offer blade replacement (often for a fee) if you’ve broken or otherwise damaged your blade beyond repair.

PM: How much should a good pocket knife cost?

JP: This is both a surprisingly common and difficult to answer question. Obviously your personal budget comes into play, but so do your preferences. Despite considering myself a pocket knife enthusiast, I carried a cheap pocket knife from Walmart for years that cost me literally $1. They raised the price to $2 at some point. Those knives would rust at the hinge, but they did the trick and were great for putting in my checked luggage. I wouldn't worry about losing it at my destination and wouldn't cry if TSA took it.

While I can't recommend buying $2 knives in good conscience for most circumstances, quality options such as the Opinel No. 8 recommended above can be had for less than $20. If you’re new to knives, I recommend starting out with something cheaper, definitely under $50, until you develop strong opinions about the pocket knives you prefer.

The $300 price for the Benchmade Bailout, for example, might seem outrageous at first, but starts to make sense if you’re as particular as I am and realize that it's something that will likely be in your pocket every day for the rest of your life.

*Editor's Note: Adrienne Donica and James Lynch contributed to this article.

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The Expert: More for Your Outdoor Adventures: Best Hiking Shoes • High-Quality Hiking Socks • Best Backpacking Packs • Best Trekking Poles • Best Rooftop Tents Liner: Frame: Lockback: Crossbar: Collar: PM: How long of a blade should I carry? JP: PM: How should I keep my pocket knife sharp? JP: PM: How much should a good pocket knife cost? JP: You Might Also Like