Accompany me down this yellow brick labyrinth, into the history and mystery of the pocket knife. Today we’re going to be covering a wide variety of every day carry (EDC) options, where they came from, and how they are used today.
Pocket knives are not solely reserved for The Outsiders, as some may believe. I personally didn’t care much for such sharp objects until one day my father showed me a completely restored pocket knife that was originally forged by his father. He had spent the summer restoring the handle and regaining the knife’s edge. I couldn’t believe how I was being romanced by this object, completely taken by its classy nod to the old ways, born again with a sleek utility for modern day use. I couldn’t deny the satisfaction that came from clipping the stem of a mushroom on a foraging trip, and then using the heirloom again to slice them for dinner. I asked my father if he would dedicate that knife to me in his will, and he awarded me with a strong “Maybe. I may want it with me in the coffin”. Clearly, pocket knife carriers have a certain sentimentality towards their blades.
Table of Contents
- Early History
- Responsibility and Accountability is Cool!
- We Got Options
- What is Considered a Pocket Knife? How Small is Small?
- Edges: Serrated vs. Plain Edge
- What Are My Options of Material?
- Vintage vs. New
- Styles of Pocket Knives (This is the fun part)
- The Camper Knife (or, Multitool)
- The Canoe Knife
- The Pen Knife
- The Trapper Knife
- The Congress Knife
- The Sheepsfoot Knife
- The Tanto Knife
- The Tactical Folding Knife
- Where Can I Find Them?
- Great Gift Idea
Fun fact: the first ever discovered folding knife – complete with a swivelling pivot – was found in Austria, and dated back to as early as 600 BC!
Originally coined as “peasant knives”, before the 17th century they were most often used by gardeners, herdsmen, and farmers, hence the appropriate title for its users’ class. They were also known as “penny knives” for how easily and cheaply they were manufactured. Blades made from iron and bronze, handles made from bone and wood; England in the 1650’s was the hot spot for smelting technology. These earlier models didn’t have the same locking mechanism found in nearly all pocket knives found today, and instead were held open by the thumb of its user, holding the tang in place against the handle.
Responsibility and Accountability is Cool!
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to discuss responsible carrying practices. An every day carry is classified as anything visible and under 3”. Anything concealed and over 3” is considered illegal in most states. Do your homework. Find out what the carrying laws are in your state, and any state or country you may be visiting. Even if your knife is used strictly for cutting steaks and looking very cool, it’s important to be considerate of people around you feeling safe. Updated carrying laws can be found here.
Note: switchblades are illegal in most states. I think most people can agree the speed of lightning is not a necessary standard when opening your knife.
We Got Options
First we’re going to break it down into types of edges, types of metals, and overall shape. Then we’ll move onto the various styles of pocket knives. It’s pretty neat understanding why these kinds of knives were invented in the first place, and how those purposes translate into modern day use. But first:
What is Considered a Pocket Knife? How Small is Small?
As previously mentioned a pocket knife is usually foldable, easily concealed, and under 3″ long. Anything over 3″ is no longer a pocket knife, and is considered a real-deal style weapon. We’re talking Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
As an every day carry it’s important to know when you should be leaving it in the car. Museums, movie theatres, pools, and malls are all places they don’t want you to have a concealed weapon.
But 3″ isn’t the smallest they’ll go! Sometimes 1″ is enough for some peoples’ purposes, and there are plenty of options out there. The blades themselves will have fewer styles, as certain shapes can’t be successfully achieved in such a short amount of space. Nano knives are excellent as letter openers, for cutting thread, opening boxes, and tons more.
Edges: Serrated vs. Plain Edge
Serrated: Very useful when it comes to man made materials like ropes and cords. They can really chomp into difficult mediums, but a biased user might say that their serrated is only used when their plain edge is dull. These puppies are nearly impossible to sharpen, and are often sent back to the manufacturer to be properly sharpened.
Plain Edge: If you can manage to keep your edge sharp, it can also chomp through those tricky materials. It’s super versatile, stays sharp for longer, and you can easily sharpen it yourself. It may be trickier to cut through a loaf of bread, but in certain cultures its considered violent to take a knife to bread! They would rather rip it with their hands, neat huh?
What Are My Options of Material?
Obsidian: A very cool option. Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an igneous rock. It is very hard, brittle, and when it fractures it does so it millions of tiny shards. These shards are probably what the very first bipeds used as cutting tools. Due to its capability for thinness and sharpness, its often used in surgical settings, but these are very delicate practices. It is one of the most brittle options so it may not last very long in your pocket!
Surgical Steel: If a knife says surgical steel, run away from it. This is an indicator that the manufacturer takes you for a fool, when they know that this term is confusing and pretty much meaningless. It’s meant to indicate that your knife will stay sharp and shiny, when all they really mean is that it is stainless steel.
Stainless Steel: It contains a large amount of chromium, this is a metallic element that prevents the blade from tarnishing and rusting. Almost all pocket knives are made from variants of stainless steel. Look for manufacturers that actually included the specific type of metal (VG10, AUS8), these guys are taking you seriously.
Carbon Steel: There are high carbon steel pocket knives, but considering most people use their EDC’s in a rough and tumble kind of fashion, high carbon steel is going to wear more quickly. It may be super flashy and sharp, but it won’t last you on a month long camping trip with no sharpener.
This is pretty straight forward. If it looks like it was designed by Ed Hardy, you don’t want it. Minimalism is best for most things. Wavy edges and pointless divots don’t serve a purpose, and in the end will require more cleaning and hinder sharpening abilities.
Vintage vs. New
The primary question you must pose to yourself when considering a knife is “how much work am I willing to apply to maintain this tool?”. Manufacturers reply to this question by providing endless options, basing their production value starting from “not at all” to “I’m going to treat this knife like it’s my two front teeth”. But why don’t we for a moment consider antique and vintage knives?
I previously shared the generational sentimentality towards a pocket knife that was passed down from my grandfather, to my father, to me, and that is something worth cherishing. This ownership falls towards the end of significant concerted effort, but it could also be worth your while.
Look at that beauty! That knife and sheath are over 50 years old. The sheath has been oiled and restitched for decades, the blade has had its edge maintained, and the handle is (nearly) free of nicks and chips. Due to the basic materials involved in knife making their shelf life is far longer than most things, and if maintained, can live longer than you.
The main difference in blades of yesteryears and blades of today, is the type of steel that is used. Before the 1980’s 440C steel was used, this still is high carbon, as well as quite corrosion resistant. Most antique knives you find will be made from 440C steel, as it is resistant to wear and has survived the years.
Lots of knives today are made from 420HC (high carbon) steel, which is a great material for a low entry knife. We’re talking about knives for those folks who don’t want to put too much effort into maintenance, and there’s nothing wrong about that!
The final factor I will mention is environmental impact. I make a concerted effort to purchase used items, simply because it’s a great practice to recycle! Things simply aren’t manufactured in the same way anymore, and vintage items have a certain detailed quality that is hard to find in newer products. The quality is impressive, and the earth will thank us for consuming and disposing of fewer materials. This practice does require more time and effort, but provides deep gratification from caring for a special item. That being said, whenever my pocket knife needs repair, I am absolutely paying my father a visit.
Styles of Pocket Knives (This is the fun part)
The Camper Knife (or, Multitool)
This was probably the first tool ever given to you (if yours was a Samurai, I would like to meet you), and comes well equipped. We’ve got a screwdriver, can/bottle opener, scissors, pliers, nail file, tooth pick, tweezers, pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. I personally really love multitools, due to their versatility. I can change a bike tire, give myself a manicure, pluck out splinters, and whittle a more than capable marshmallow skewer.
The Canoe Knife
This sucker gets its name from its shape when its closed: a canoe! It commonly possesses two different blades that collapse on opposite ends, but on the same side of the handle. It carries a pen blade (this will be expanded on just below) and a drop point blade. The drop point has an uber straight spine until the very tip, where it starts to slope and meet the bottom of the blade into a pointy point.
The Pen Knife
This is a neat story. Pen knives were created during the time when people began writing with quills. Before being able to write, the end of the quill needed to be pierced. This is reflective of its use, but also the shape of the pen knife: a thin and narrow blade with a dangerously sleek tip.
The Trapper Knife
Equipped with two blades, this knife was and is commonly used by you guessed it, trappers! We’ve got a clip point for skinning hides, and a spey blade. The spey blade gots its name for a specific use, spaying and castrating herd animals. The straight edge curves up right before the tip and meets on the bottom end for a short and dull point.
The Congress Knife
Here’s a bit of Americana for you: Abraham Lincoln sported this knife in his rail splitting days! It comes equipped with four blades: we already know about the pen blade, the spear point (pretty self explanatory) and two sheepsfoot blades (which I’ll describe below). It was named the congress knife rather patriotically, signifying “where all the best parts come together in the middle”. Aw, how adorable you founding fathers you.
The Sheepsfoot Knife
Originally formed to help trim the hooves of sheep, this dull back straight edge knife curves towards the tip, and results in a remarkably useful tools for whittlers! I repeat: it is not restricted to only sheep lovers.
The Tanto Knife
Made popular in Japan, this is an intimidatingly aggressive looking blade. It’s a much thicker blade with a harshly angled point, and this is absolutely what you would imagine being pulled on you in a nightmare.
The Tactical Folding Knife
This is the first knife to ever have a clip put on the handle. Clip it to your belt, your hat, your shoelaces, your eyebrow ring! It revolutionized the quick release feature, with either a thumb hole or a stud for smooth single handed release.
Where Can I Find Them?
There’s no shortage of pocket knife manufacturers, but here is a compiled list of where to find the best ones in 2020, according to Outdoor Gear Lab.
Great Gift Idea
We already know that pocket knives are an object of great sentimental value. Maybe its owner would appreciate a little engraved addition to an existing one, or the final step on a thoughtful gift. This can be accomplished on the blade, or the handle. Here are some places that will engrave your pocket knives.
What is considered a pocket knife? What defines it?
Pocket knives are blades that fold into their handle, and range from 2-6 inches.
Are pocket knives allowed on planes?
Yes, but strictly in your checked baggage. If you try to attempt bringing it through TSA it will be confiscated, and you may be brought aside for questioning — since it is considered a weapon, and sharp. (They sometimes even confiscate tweezers!)
Why should you carry a pocket knife?
These tools are very multi-purposed, and can get its holder out of various sticky situations. In emergencies, you almost always want a pocket knife on hand. That being said, lots of public places don’t allow them (movie theatres, malls, museums, pools, etc) so be mindful of that!
What pocket knives are best?
It’s best to ask the experts! Here are a few links to what they recommend:
Savanna Lentz hails from no place in particular. Having moved 30 times before the age of twenty, the constant change in environment has earned her expert status in all things homemaking. Whether it be interior painting and designing, baking, hosting charming dinner parties, or colour coating her collection of books, she is the cool kind of Stepford wife.
A double major in English Literature & Creative Writing has truly harnessed her ability for communication, and her knack for the strange and comedic has been read far and wide. Savanna loves contributing to any canon, from short fiction to music reviews, DIY projects to climbing lifestyle magazines. This multifaceted lady is a gemini ginger (oh god), and she has got something to say!