Choosing a knife specifically for self-defense is a completely different animal from picking a humble pocket or belt knife. Everything from the grip, to the blade style and the location of the sheath must be considered. The users own skill and training or the lack thereof will partially dictate which style of knife is best compatible with their art.
Perhaps even more so than guns, knives fit into various niches in a defensive context. But just like a gun, the work a knife does always gets done the same way; metal meeting, and parting, flesh. A tiny “GTFO” knife may be pathetic compared to a larger one, but its small size, and the fact that it is easy to hide may see it crowned supreme for low-profile self defense.
In this article I’ll give you some things to think about when buying your next defensive knife, and offer up a selection of my favorites for you to think about. When the action is close, fast and furious, the gruesome reliability of a knife is just what you need.
The Big Question: Folding or Fixed?
Blade, that is. This question is the equivalent of 9mm vs. .45ACP in the gun world; it never ends, and will never end. Both have advantages that, on paper, make them seem superior, case closed.
In reality, the small details often make the recommendation for one or the other. Both are entirely acceptable for defensive use so long as you know your tools and more importantly know your own limitations!
Fixed blades are far stronger that folding knives, and practically far quicker into action than a folder, simply needing to be drawn and secured in the user’s hand to start giving some criminal the business.
Fixed blades are as a rule much more reliable and certain to draw as there is no moving part or locking system to fumble with, a fact that will many times see deployment of a folder botched, resulting in loss of the knife or injury to the user’s hand.
With some practice, a fixed blade knife can be drawn and an opponent slashed or stabbed that it seems like black magic. This is countered by the fixed blades greater overall bulk for carry, as it must be used with a sheath for safety and a sure draw.
Fixed blades can though be carried in all sorts of ways depending on their style and size, from on the belt, to mounted on the ankle or boot, or even on a forearm when carried with long sleeves.
Folding knives on the other hand are weaker than fixed blades, and require much more work and practice to draw and deploy consistently, to say nothing of rapidly.
The size of the knife, shape of the handle, the deployment mechanism, and the user’s skill all determine how fast a folder can be deployed.
With a lot of practice, you can get pretty fast with one, in ideal circumstances. Under pressure, though, they become far more taxing, and you can ill afford a fumble in a fight for your life.
So what does a folder bring to the table, then!? Ease of carry and convenience! The folding knife acts as its own sheath, and the vast majority feature a clip of some kind to simply tuck the knife into a pocket of your choice where it may be (theoretically) drawn from easily. In other words, you give up much for convenience with a folding knife compared to a fixed blade.
There is one advantage inherent to the folder that some followers of the blade forget about, however: a folder can be palmed. Especially for folks with large hands, if your sixth sense starts tingling or you just want a little assurance moving through a sketchy area, a folding knife can be held in the hand, closed, and with all but the most ostentatious styles will draw little attention.
With the thumb staged on the opener stud, hole or whatever, the blade can be produced and locked out in an instant, ready for action. Action beats reaction, but pro-action beats action.
For most folks, a fixed blade is what you want for self defense. You get so many advantages for only a modest sacrifice in convenience and perhaps comfort.
If you want to stick with the familiarity and comfort of a pocket knife, you can get a folding knife that otherwise has all of the features you want, just be prepared to really put in some time practicing with it to reach and maintain proficiency. at the end of the day, the best knife for self-defense is the one you have on you when the attack occurs.
Blade Length and Style
The subject of blade design for defense is another highly argued topic. Martial art and personal philosophy often inform the selection of all of the above for a blade user.
Generally, a longer knife is more effective since it has a greater chance of reaching vital targets in the body when thrusting and stabbing. Proponents of slashing arts will be quick to remind you that even a tiny scalpel, with its impossible sharpness, will open someone up to the bone effortlessly. Then of course we must consider the style of tip, too.
You should choose a defensive knife with a blade length between 3 ½ and 5 inches or so. Any longer and the knife may be unwieldy and tricky to draw in a scrum. Any shorter and stabbing performance is significantly compromised.
Slashes may cause very grisly wounds, and can certainly be fatal, but we can take a page from our anatomy lessons here: the huge majority of the most vital targets in the human body, especially the torso, are deeply sited for protection. These targets can be very tough to reach with a slash or cut, excepting major vessels in the neck and underside of the arms.
A stab is the most reliable way to get to them, and to reach the necessary depth that will take a blade of adequate length. As far as the tip goes, you should choose one that offers good penetrative performance and good durability for follow-up thrusts.
Among these, spear and dagger points offer a good blend of both attributes. Wharncliffe points afford freakishly good penetrating ability, but are fragile.
Tanto points will depend on the style; geometric “American” tanto points are supremely durable, but only fair at piercing. Traditional Japanese tanto points are the opposite, with great penetration and only fair durability.
You may consider a clip point, as seen on the iconic Bowie knife, for a decent blend of piercing and cutting performance but many of these suffer from relatively weak points.
A conservatively shaped clip point can work well, however. There are plenty of other styles, but these are considered to be among the best for defensive purposes.
When selecting your defensive knife, pay close attention to the grip. The grip should fill the hand and afford excellent traction, wet or dry. Most crucially, the grip, or grip in conjunction with the blade or guard must not allow the user’s hand to slide forward under impact and so be sliced open.
Some knives achieve this with only the shape of the handle, others rely on a prominent guard or deep choils to fix the hand in place. Whatever method they employ, you must stress test this cautiously and safely before relying on the knife for defense.
Grip materials run the gamut from textured plastics to composite materials like G-10 and micarta. Any of these can work well and be durable, but you should always strive to get a knife that has a sharply textured set of scales, the better to lock your hand onto the handle. Even on a properly shaped handle, the addition of sweat or blood can see it squirming in the hand.
Some knives can be improved with the addition of aftermarket or homebrew grip enhancements like heat-shrink tubing, grip tape, cord wrapping and others.
Like any piece of equipment, your knife’s stock configuration is only a starting point, but you should not choose a knife with a handle too far out of compatibility with your own hand.
The Best of the Best Self Defense Knives
The following knives are my favorites, chosen for their unparalleled characteristics for defense. There is something here for everyone and at every price point, so no matter what your need or budget, you can get a nice piece of straight silver to keep the bogey-man at bay.
the Spyderco Yojimbo 2 Folding Knife Spyderco Yojimbo 2
This Michael Janich designed folder is a superb all around defense knife that does not give up much in the way of utility. An aggressively tapered Wharncliffe tip and arrow-straight edge make for great penetrating capability and powerful cuts all the way out to the end.
The handle features ergonomically sculpted G10 scales for a sure grip, and Spyderco’s trademark thumbhole is a swift and simple opening mechanism.
Excellent build quality and a reversible clip make this a winner for a do-all EDC blade with serious defensive chops. No pun intended…
Check out Spyderco Yojimbo 2’s price on Amazon.
the Spyderco Street Bowie Spyderco Street Bowie
Our second Spyderco offering and first fixed blade up on our list, the Street Bowie is the brainchild of the legendary trainer and knife designer Fred Perrin, and his fingerprints are all over the Street Bowie.
The Street Bowie features a prominent, but highly conservative clip point, a traditional touch that has been massaged into what is probably its most durable and performance-oriented incarnation.
The other striking feature is the deep finger choil that takes the place of a guard for securing the hand on the Kraton rubber handle.
A good multi-position sheath suitable for several carry positions make the Street Bowie an ideal minimalist fixed blade.
Check out Spyderco Street Bowie on Amazon.
the CRKT Hissatsu EDC Folder knife CRKT Hissatsu Folder
This knife excels at one thing: stabbing. With a long, slender blade and wickedly sharp traditional tanto point, Hissatsu folder brings the DNA of the larger fixed-blade Hissatsu, designed by James Williams, into a more suitable form factor for daily carry by civilians.
The lightly textured coffin shaped handle flares at both ends, meaning a strong grip will effectively lock the knife in place by preventing the fingers from skidding off at either end.
This is a larger knife for a folder so you will definitely feel it in your pocket, but if you need serious defensive capability in a folder, and favor stabbing over cutting, this is a fine choice, and affordable.
Get the CRKT Hissatsu Folder here.
the Kershaw Secret Agent boot knifeKershaw Secret Agent
The classic lines and shape of fighting knives from eras past are still showing their worth in the Secret Agent, a double edged knife at home in a variety of roles and carry positions.
The Secret Agent is a classical dagger in shape, but features only one sharpened edge for legality in more places. It is complete with twin guards and prominently flared checkered handle. It’s slim profile and small size makes it equally at home as a boot knife or belt knife.
the KA-BAR TDI KA-BAR TDI
Designed as a last-ditch backup knife for law enforcement, the TDI from KA-BAR is an ideal fixed blade for those who do not have much schooling in traditional knife arts.
The crooked handle makes the knife easy to draw from the frontal belt line and leverages basic punching motions to deliver ferocious thrusts and snap cuts completely out of proportion with its diminutive size. A decent sheath and ample handle make it easy to draw.
A unique design and great defensive tool, even better at its price!
Any knife can be used for defense but the serious prepper who relies on a blade for defense will choose one designed accordingly. With the right combination of ergonomics, blade design and speedy deployment, you can take your EDC knife from box opener to self-defense slayer.