Saturday, October 18, 2014

Knives: A Primer

As I have said before, I am not an expert on knives.  I don't even collect knives.  I just like them.  I am writing this to provide some basic information for people to use as they are looking at knives.  Mostly just vocabulary, so when you see a word in the description of a knife you can actually know what it means.


The Basics:

The most basic division I am going to point out is fixed blade vs. folding knives.  This one is pretty simple and self explanatory.  Fixed blade knives do not fold, and folding knives do.

Fixed Blades:

These are the only non-kitchen fixed blade knives that I currently own.  The top one is a 1970's K. Tragbar Solingen knife that my mother gave me when I was 11.  It is not a valuable knife now or when it was made, but it's a very good knife and important to me.   The bottom knife is one I made out of a busted leaf spring from a semi-truck, a brass pipe, and a moose antler when I was 14.  There are things I like about it and a lot of things I don't, but I made it.

Fixed blade knives (provided they have a good tang) are much sturdier than folding knives.  Even an excellent locking mechanism on a folder is not equal to a solid tang.


These are the four folding knives I currently own (though two more are in the mail).  1) The leftmost is my Gerber Applegate Fairbairn Covert folder.  2) The second from the left is an awful awful piece of crap knife that I found while working security.  It is absolute garbage, but ironically it is the only knife of mine that has a name, "Kate's Favorite Knife," so called because my unit partner at field school liked that the blade is so loosely hinged that it can be easily snapped open with centrifugal force.  But opening it is about all that the knife is good for.  3) The second from the right is my $9 Bozeman beater.  It is modeled off of Spyderco knives, just poorly.  4) the rightmost is my Kershaw Scrambler.
Folding knives are not as sturdy or reliable as fixed blades, but they are more portable (as long as they aren't too big).  The biggest advantage of a folding knife is that it fits in your pocket and people usually don't freak out when you pull it out.  Traditional folding knives were usually small enough to sit comfortably in your pocket and often had multiple blades.  I don't currently own any of those, but there is something to be said for having a small knife with different blades for different uses.  More modern folders often have clips for holding in place in your pocket and various types of locking systems.


Here is all two of my multitools.  The one on the left is a Winchester multitool.  It was cheap and low quality, but surprisingly useful, especially since it has a bit that allows you to use all of the screw heads you see there.  The one on the right is a two part multitool.  It is made by Husky, it includes a folding box cutter and a multitool.  The Husky has a very solid brass and rosewood construction, and the steel is pretty good.  Unfortunately the Husky is so heavy that carrying it in a belt holder is a necessity.  For most multitools this is the case, and sadly for me both of my multitool sheaths are trashed.  The Winchester sheath was customized by my ex-wife's dog, whereas the Husky sheath was just used to death.
A third important group is multitools.  The most famous of these are Swiss Army Knives and Letherman Multitools.  I won't discuss these much here, but they provide the carrier with a mini toolkit.  The drawback for me is that the knife blades tend to be less easy to use, and the size and weight of most of them require a belt sheath.  But if you need to do a variety of mechanical tasks on a regular basis you probably already have one.

Less Basic Basics:


This picture is to show the tang on my K. Tragbar
The tang is the part of the blade material that extends into the handle.  There are various types of tang.  Full tangs are the most sturdy.  Here is a handy guide chart:
As you can see, according to this chart my knife has a rat-tail tang
On a folding knife the tang only extends to the pivot point, unless you get something like a Case Russlock or a  Svord Peasant Knife.
The Svord Peasant Knife, an unusual style of folder

Basic Knife Terms:

This handy little diagram gives a good overview of basic knife terminology
Anatomy of a folder
I provide these diagrams primarily to provide some basic vocabulary for the rest of the entry.


Basic Knife Shapes:

There are many many many knife shapes.  There are a huge number of different special types of knife shapes, far too many to talk about here, so I will just focus on four of the most common among US knives.

The Clip Point:

A clip point knife.  A chose this image because it clearly shows the swedge on the clipped edge
The clip point is one of the most common types of point.  Clip points have been used for a very long time, the oldest known being a flaked stone Greek knife.  In the US the clip point is often associated with Bowie Knives.  You may also recognize the clip point from your dad/grandfather's Buck 110.  The Buck 110 is the granddaddy of lockback folders.  There are good reasons that it has remained ubiquitous for over half a century.

I have personally always been rather partial to Bowie style knives.  Not for any particular reason, I just like the look of them.  When I was a teenager I was all about the biggest meanest bowie I could get my hands on.  As I got older I realized that I didn't actually use knives over 6" very much.  And after moving to Seattle I found that I pretty much only even used the Tragbar while camping, since people in cities tend to get nervous around 6" fixed blades.

The clip point takes off the top of the blade near the tip which makes it more effective for piercing because there is less mass at the tip.  This also makes the tip more fragile than some other styles.  The clips can be flat or concave (but if they are convex then they are not clip points by definition).  Often clip points will be swedged (or have a swedge) which is the unsharpened bevel on the top (sometimes called a false edge).

Spear Point:

The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, aka the British Commando Knife
Here is a point that is even older than the clip point.  The spear point is the kind of symmetrical point one sees on a dagger, or some swords, or (duh) a spear.  Obviously if you've ever looked at a stone projectile point you can see that this design is a pretty obvious and straight forward way to poke holes in things.  The spear point is just really good at poking stuff, and when it comes to knives the things that daggers are mostly designed to poke are people.

I chose to use a picture of the Fairbairn-Sykes knife at the top because it is a 20th Century fighting knife design that was and is tremendously popular.  The knife has been copied and adapted many times by many people.  One of my favorite derivatives is the Applegate-Fairbairn Fighting Knife.  The AF mainly altered two things, it gave the user more slashing ability and it changed the handle shape so that one would know where the edges were even in complete darkness (that's a little more tricky with the round handled FS).  Plus the AF was adapted into the Combat Folder that my own Covert was derived from.
The Applegate-Fairbairn Fighting Knife and the combat folder

The Spear Point design is so old humans didn't even invent it.  This one was made by a Neanderthal.

The Drop Point:

A Drop Point knife made by Bob Loveless
The Drop Point is a very popular point, and one of my personal favorites.  The drop point's advantage functionally is that it brings the spine of the blade closer to the point.  This provides thicker metal and more strength near the tip of the blade, while simultaneously bringing the point down to make fine work easier and still providing a useful belly.  I also think that the blade style is just plain pretty.

Unlike the previous two point styles, this one was popularized in the Mid-20th Century, primarily by one knife maker, Bob Loveless.  This point style is so ubiquitous these days that I didn't even know that it was popularized by an individual until I was writing this entry.  Obviously knives with a dropping point have been around for some time, but clip points were more common.   Bob Loveless was a hugely innovative and influential knife maker.

The Tanto Blade:

Since Bob Lum was the guy who originally popularized this style in the US I thought I would show one of his before showing the American Tanto style. And I think this is a pretty knife.
And here is the knife that started the "Tanto" craze.  The Cold Steel Master.
The "Tanto" is basically a chisel tip on a knife.  The idea behind the style is that by bringing as much metal as possible as close to the tip as possible that you create a strong tip that can be used to penetrate hard things, like armor.  Rather than having a curving belly leading from the main edge to the tip there is a corner, and the leading edge is actually a separate grinding face.

The term "Tanto" is kind of a misnomer.  Tanto just means short blade, and the short blades had many different configurations traditionally.  What we tend to think of as the Tanto was popularized by Bob Lum (another Northwesterner, he was from Astoria Oregon).  He made knives using a Japanese blade style that was designed for punching through armor.  In the 1980's Cold Steel started producing their tactical Tantos influenced by Lum's designs, and the tactical Tanto craze was on.

I personally really don't like Tantos for the very scientific reason of I think they're ugly...  So I don't really want to write too much about why I'm not fond of them.  I also find the corner where the belly should be is not good for delicate slicing tasks, and the belly is the section of knives that I tend to use most.  But my basic dislike of the style is aesthetic and emotional, so bear that in mind if you're thinking about a Tanto.

(One last thought on Tactical Tanto Folders.  I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would want to use a folding knife to punch through armor, regardless of the tip.  On a fixed blade this can make sense, but it is never a good idea to rely on a folding knife's locking mechanism to hold when you are punching through a surface designed not to be punched through unless you really don't like your trigger finger.)

Other Blade Styles:

There are endless variations on blade styles.  There are also specialized knife types like Trench Knives, Karambits, Kris, Balisong, etc. that I am not going to go into here (though I will write a little bit about trench knives in the future).  If you would like me to write about some specific topic or type of knife please mention it in the comments.

In lieu of writing about more of the common blade types I will just provide you with a link to A. G. Russell's glossary of blade shapes.  This is a very informative page.  It is worth noting that the blade styles listed do not include Drop Points or Tantos, I assume this is because the described blades are the traditional blades commonly used in US knives.  Specialty blade styles like Nessmuks are also not described.

Blade Geometry:

The five most common grind types
Blade Geometry is a topic that can be very confusing to a lot of people, and it is worth covering briefly.  I'll go in the order of the picture.


Scandi is short for Scandinavian.  This is a sturdy blade geometry that tries to find a middle ground between edge stability and sharpenability.  The main grind on a Scandi doesn't start until more than halfway down the blade.  This means that there is a lot of steel providing overall strength to the blade.  The main grind is flat and relatively steeply angled which means that there is a lot of metal right up to the edge, this helps prevent folding of the edge.  the flat grind also makes this more easily sharpened than the convex edge.

Hollow Grind:

In this case the grind is concave.  This means that there is very little steel behind the edge.  This makes the edge more delicate, but it also makes it much easier to sharpen.  This also means that you can sharpen the knife many times before you get to a point where the blade is hard to resharpen.  In my experience this also means that the blade slices through things easier because there is less resistance from the width of the blade.

High Flat:

The high flat gives you a shallower angle which makes sharpening and slicing easier than with the Scandi.  This also gives you more metal behind the edge which makes the edge sturdier than the hollow grind.

Full Flat:

The full flat is pretty much what is says.  The whole blade is ground to angle down to the edge.  This gives you an even shallower angle than the high flat, but provides less metal behind the edge.


The convex edge gives you the maximum amount of steel behind the edge.  The drawback to the convex primary grind is that you are looking at fewer times the blade can be easily sharpened.  Every time you sharpen a knife you take away metal.  So on a convex edge you have a very sturdy edge that can take abuse, but can only be sharpened so much before it becomes round.

(On the knife I made that I showed at the start of this entry I put a convex edge on it.  I actually did this because I don't know how to do a hollow grind, and it was on big wheel that was designed for working on heavy equipment.  Since I actually made the knife for jointing moose the design wasn't a bad one, but I did not know that at the time.  The other reason I gave it a convex grind is because I had made another knife before that I thinned out a lot to make it slice well, but it snapped as soon as I tried to chop something, so I over compensated.)

For further reading, here is an article by Joe Talmadge on Blade Geometry.

If you want to know more about blade geometry this is a pretty good video: 


Blade Steels:

I am not even going to try to tackle this right here, right now, because this is a huge topic I understand very shallowly.  I will however provide you with a link to A. G. Russell's Steel Guide a wonderfully comprehensive chart providing some basic info on composition and typical hardnesses for a huge variety of blade steels.  A. G. Russell also provides an article about steels by Joe Talmadge.  You can also look at the Wikipedia entry on Steel Grades.

So that about does it for me for this entry.  I will write more in the future.  Knives is a huge topic, and I am very much an amateur in the world of knives.  But I hope that this entry might give you some basic knowledge to work with as you look at knives.

To wrap this up I wanted to provide you with a link to the very useful Glossary from A. G. Russell's Knife Encyclopedia.

I hope that this article has been worth your time.  Please comment and let me know if there is anything I should write more about, and of course if there are things I got wrong or should be doing differently.

P.S.  This entry focuses on non-kitchen knives, because kitchen knives are a whole 'nother ball of wax.  I will say however, that if you want to spend a lot ($100 or more) of money on just one knife, maybe spend it on a kitchen knife.  A good kitchen knife will see more use and improve your life more than just about any other knife.


  1. nice information shared all together, appreciate your hard work &affords, keep posting good stuff like this in future, looking forward to read more from you.

  2. v informative, thanks for compiling