Mankind’s oldest tool is the knife. Don’t neglect to own a good one. Plus a multi-tool.
Unless you’re living out in the forest, running around naked and eating grubs (and if you are, how can you be reading this?), you’re constantly using tools. Whether awake or asleep, technology is entwined in human existence. (A bed is pretty good technology, isn’t it?) No society of Homo sapiens exists without its tools. And the tool that has been the most important to humanity for the longest amount of time is the knife. We’ve been using knives for over 2.5 million years. For much of that time, that meant something that looked pretty much like this:
Simple though a stone knife seems, from the moment that some alert fellow figured out that he could apply a sharp piece of flint or obsidian to the severing of vines, whittling a point on a stick, carving meat and bone more easily than using his teeth, humans began to live a little more effectively and efficiently in the world. Every other development of civilization followed (including silly string, Metal Gear Solid, the space shuttle, and Mandy Moore).
But it took awhile. Some bright individuals figured out roughly 10,000 years ago how to use copper to make blades. 5,000 years following that, steel was invented. Each advance resulted in our edged tools improving. As knives improved, so did civilization. As civilization improved, so did the materials for making knives. Now, with carbon fiber, titanium, and zirconium oxide ceramics added to the mix, knives are better than ever.
Probably every man should own and carry a great blade or three. Yet for many of us, life has become so easy that we no longer feel much need for our most indispensable tool (except perhaps in the kitchen). But keep in mind what Tom Hanks missed the most in Cast Away –a knife (well, yes, along with Helen Hunt).
Unlike Tom, you can’t always count on coming across a pair of ice skates in a survival situation.
When Forbes magazine published an article on the 20 most important tools in human history, the knife was number one. And five other tools on the list (the scythe, sword, saw, lathe, and chisel) were simply variations on the knife.
Knives are more versatile than any other tool. They can be used for basic survival (cutting vegetation for shelter, making spears, digging up roots, dressing game, signaling an airplane), for cooking and eating, for defense and attack, for surgery, for everyday tasks from cutting rope and cutting down boxes to prying open a can and crunching a walnut. Divers can use them to fend off moray eels. They can carve bone, wood, horn, soapstone, and pumpkins, and even have significance in many spiritual traditions (Sikhs, for example, always carry their kirpan, symbolizing the incisiveness of an enlightened mind).
Some of the Best Knives for Everyday Use
Knives come in two basic configurations: folding and fixed blade. For everyday carry — a knife for many tasks — a folding knife is the most convenient and easy to carry (not to mention legal — in many cities of the United States a blade can’t be longer than 3.5 inches and most fixed-blade knives are longer than that; to be safe, check your jurisdiction).
If you want a folding knife that is good for everyday use yet robust enough for more demanding tasks, look for a folder with about a 3.5-inch blade. My personal favorite for the last couple of years has been the Kershaw Ken Onion Vapor II:
It comes in matte silver and black. The blade (3.5 inches) is 410 stainless steel and the handle is AUS6A stainless. It is tough, extremely sharp, and compact when closed (4.5 inches). The handle is narrow, so it doesn’t make much of a bulge in a pocket. The handle is gnurled on the top and bottom so your thumb and forefinger don’t slip. Not only does the drilled-out industrial design look cool, it helps reduce weight (4.5 oz. total). The knife can be opened one-handed with a stud on the blade. With practice, you can open the blade partially with your thumb then snap your wrist and whip the blade into place. It has a pocket clip. (Update on 1/19/10: Hey, did you notice on this week’s episode of Chuck, that the kind of knife the Ring agent (played by guest star Angie Harmon) was going to throw at Chuck near the end of the show was a Vapor? Apparently they think it’s cool, too.) There are many good folding knives out there, but I tend to like Ken Onion’s designs for Kershaw. He has created many notable knives. For example, his Black Chive folder with Speed Safe technology was Blade Magazine’s 2001 American-made Knife of the Year. The Black Chive is now available with a beautiful damascus blade — a steel created in layers and known for its ability to hold a sharp edge.
Update 9/17/12: By the way, for you fans of Kershaw knives, you can now get 70% off Kershaw folding knives from LeftLane Sports (one of the best outdoor gear flash sale sites). Sale ends 9/21/12.
I generally carry the Vapor II for outdoor activities. For the average workday, it’s generally easier to carry something a little smaller — a knife that will fit unobtrusively in the pocket of dress pants, something you can take to the office. For that purpose, I like a lightweight knife from Gerber called the Mini Paraframe. Closed it is just 3 inches long, but when open the blade is slightly over 2 inches, so you get a good-sized blade in a compact profile that weighs just over 1 ounce. As you can see below, the skeletonized handle is cool. The handle is stainless steel and the blade is high-carbon stainless. It has a pocket clip. For the low price, it’s a nice little knife:
These two knives will fit the bill for most everyday use. They are reasonably-priced and will easily handle most daily tasks. And they will make your girlfriend’s eyes widen when you pull them out (especially if you learn that wrist-flick opening with the Vapor II).
However, if you want something that’s a little more radical and edgy, something that will make an impression on your friends when they see it, check out the Kershaw E. T. Knife:
“E.T.” stands for “External Toggle” and this design allows a multitude of ways of opening the knife. In fact, the knife comes with a video showing all the ways you can handle it. The E.T. received an award for the most innovative design of an American-made knife from Blade Magazine. It has become popular with collectors. It features a 3.25-inch Sandvik 13C26 stainless steel blade and an anodized aluminum handle. It has a carabiner clip for belt-loop or backpack carry and a pocket clip. And, just in case, it has a bottle opener. The reason to carry this knife is the same reason that certain Jordan basketball shoes are made with patent leather.
Unless you intend to knap your own obsidian knife, I recommend that you consider one or more of these high-quality knives. They are, after all, the end-result of 2.5 million years of technological evolution. Having one in your pocket gives you certain advantages. (Remember how you felt when you got your first pocket knife as a kid? It feels the same.) And you’ll be confident that, should you wind up on a deserted island, you won’t have to depend on finding ice skates. They also make good gifts for your knifeless friends.
Multi-tool Versus Swiss Army Knife
So that takes care of your pocket knives. But you may be wondering: why not carry a Swiss Army Knife for all-around use? Aren’t they more versatile? My experience has been that the typical Swiss Army Knife is bulky to carry; the blade(s) aren’t as robust as a single-blade folder; and I really didn’t use the other tools enough to justify them. I like to keep weight and bulkiness to a minimum and the Swiss Army Knife does not fit that bill. If you really feel you need a few extra tools, I recommend carrying a multitool instead. They come in a variety of configurations and you can find some that have a good blade, a few useful tools, yet are still lightweight and non-bulky. For example, the Leatherman Micra is recommended by Men’s Journal as a fine multitool for use around the home or on the trail:
It’s got a clip-point blade and 9 other tools in a size that fits on a keychain (2.5 inches closed). It includes scissors, tweezers, nail file, 3 different screwdrivers, a bottle opener, and a ruler, all crafted from stainless steel engineered to the optimum hardness for each tool. The scissors are spring-loaded and quite sharp, as is the blade. When the blade is open, closing the handles activates a “Posi-Stop” feature that keeps the blade from closing. Leatherman offers a 25-year warranty on this tool. Dare I say it makes an excellent stocking-stuffer?
If you would like to carry something a little more substantial in the multitool line — a bigger blade and additional useful tools — then look no further than either the Leatherman Freestyle CX or the Leatherman Skeletool CX.
The Leatherman Freestyle CX is designed to act as a “go-to” pocket knife without giving up the functionality of a multitool. The premium 154CM blade holds its edge three times as long as traditional stainless steel and is accessible from the outside for one-handed opening. The overall tool features DLC coating (diamond-like carbon) for scratch and corrosion resistance and includes combination needlenose/standard pliers, and wire cutters. The handle has a carbon-fiber insert for additional strength. The Freestyle CX is a little lighter than the Skeletool CX.
The Leatherman Skeletool CX adds screwdriver functionality (standard and Phillips), a “gate” style loop for carrying on a belt loop or rope and a bottle opener. It also has a carbon-fiber handle, which keeps the weight down:
Reduced weight is a good thing for backpackers, fisherman, and other outdoorsmen, or for anyone who wants to carry this tool on a daily basis. While many such tools have multiple options, their features often bog them down with more capabilities than are regularly used. The Skeletool strikes a nice balance between the functionality of a good knife and the essential tools you need to make necessary adjustments. The length is 4 inches closed; it weighs 5 ounces. In addition to the carbon fiber handle, it’s constructed of stainless steel, tungsten DLC coating, and 154 CM. Included screwdriver bits are Phillips #1 and #2 and flathead 3/16″ and 1/4.” It’s a good tool to have around if you need to make an adjustment on your Chris Craft runabout, P-51 Mustang, or Aprilia. Click here to get it.
Below is a video review of the Leatherman Skeletool that also mentions the Leatherman Freestyle CX. You’ll note that both the regular Leatherman Skeletool and the Freestyle CX are functional, well-made multi-tools. You can’t go wrong with either.
So far we’ve just scratched the surface with respect to knives. Come back for posts on Kitchen Knives and Survival Knives. And click the banners below to shop for a huge selection of edged tools, including all types of knives: