As one of the most written about type of tools throughout history, this article does not look to be a comprehensive examination of knives and their uses in law enforcement. There are training, books, articles, entire magazines, Web sites, exposition shows and more all dedicated to knives, knife design, collecting and use – any attempt to sum this essential issue in a single piece of writing would be a futile effort.
However the subject remains vital for anyone interested in obtaining or currently donning any type of knife.
Before cutting into the topic, the term “tactical” should be quickly examined, especially when in the aspects of knives – leading into a hidden redundancy. Steve Shakleford, editor of Blade, a magazine devoted to the knife industry, says, “The word tactical itself is pretty much misunderstood, as Sal Glesser of Spyderco says ‘A tactical knife is a knife you need to have when you need to use a knife.”
Spyderco’s Special Projects Coordinator Michael Janich agrees, saying that “one of the aspects of the definition is simply using a tool to achieve a specific goal for a specific circumstance.” Apart from Spyderco, Janich also trains modern knife self defense and tactical applications under Marshal Blade Concepts.
With that baseline it’s still clear that not any knife can be relevant for law enforcement – there are certain qualities necessary, yet knife makers don’t design from a single checklist of specific characteristics. To begin, a designer might start deciding whether a new design will be a folder or fixed blade, type of steel, blade design, point design, handle/grip considerations, etc.
Many knife makers start looking at answering what is the person going to do with the knife, how are they going to hold the knife and where are they going to wear the knife.
Knife maker and designer Brent Beshara of Besh Knives starts with the basics. “I look at the intent of the product, what is the purpose,” he says. “With that methodology, the [design] basically writes itself, it’s almost as if the knife designs itself through understanding the environment in which [it] is going to conform.”
Beshara considers himself more of an end user. A custom knife maker since 2001, he uses his years of experience within the Canadian military (infantry and navy bomb disposal diver), Canadian special forces and bomb disposal instructor to aid in understanding the day to day benefits of knives.
Afterwards, if a designer took this route, decisions on blade, steel, handle, etc. unfold.
“[Designers] are always looking for little mechanisms, little tweaks or looks to their blade designs,” says Shackelford.
For example, Tim Galyean of Galyean Custom Knives, designed a boot knife for Zero Tolerance. “Some of the things that it had to do, and what I thought of in the design process was it had to be a certain size to be concealable. I wanted it to be flat so that it could be worn against the body and not stick out, also the handle is actually short on the average man’s hand and rectangular … it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world but [the shape] locks it in your hand … giving you a more secure grip.”
Todd Begg of Begg Knives, also considers use into the equation, assuming not every officer is skilled at sharpening – most aren’t. “I’m going to give something that is going to be successful at sharpening, if I gave one of those super steels where it needs diamond belts to sharpen it’ll go dull and he’s not going to take it with him.”
Begg also mentions the design has to “blend” with the rest of the equipment an officer might be carrying – alluding to how the Black color turned to represent tactical. He add that cost is a factor in design as well: “A lot of officers don’t make a lot of money, so they have to have something that they are not afraid to use, or lose.”
“If he’s afraid to use it, he’s not going to have it when he needs it,” he says.
Weapon & utilization
Imagine shopping for a knife, asking the shop owner or paging forwards to the appropriate page of a catalog – the word tactical printed in large block letters on the top – what will be presented?
“When people think about tactical folders, they’re thinking more of the blank-handled knives,” says Shackelford. The knife might include such high performance features such as Titanium handles, high tech, stainless or metallurgy steels, inner locking mechanisms and accessories for quick access.
One helpful aspect is to have an idea why the knife is useful in the first place. Some common explanations are for weapon retention, self defense or a rescue tool. No matter what, the knife needs to be strong enough to handle the job. “For defensive use, you want to make sure, especially if it’s a folding knife, that the mechanical structure is adequate so that there’s no way that there’s a chance to fail in use to potentially cause more injury,” explains Janich.
“Whenever I design a knife,” says Galyean, “I try and make a well-rounded knife that should do a majority of tasks well.”
While both folding and fixed blades have their own roles bringing two different engineering solutions to the officer, many have come to assume that a single blade will be all that’s needed. “They figure it’s going to do just about everything,” says Begg. Knowing this, designers try and match up what their potential customer will be going to be doing in the line of duty. He adds that “a lot of officers carry both, a fixed blade – like a neck knife or on their hip – and a folding knife, where the fixed would be more of a … last ditch backup.”
The design can also control where the officer may want to wear the knife: Tip up or down; Strong or weak side; and above or below the waist.
To illustrate, Frank Borelli, editor in chief of Officer.com, explains that if an officer wore his firearm on his right side (his strong side) and someone grabs for the gun, his right hand may instinctively go onto the gun to keep it into the holster – leaving the weak side (left hand) for defense. Depending on the placement of this knife dictates how it’s carried. This weak side knife, if a folding knife, needs to be able to be opened single-handed. “Right handed models are made to be held in the right handed pocket, when you pull [the knife] out it’s positioned so that you open the blade with your right hand thumb,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to [open a right handed folder] with your left hand, but you do it with your right because it’s designed that way.”
Carry location also factors in knife wearing decisions. Borelli explains that for a folded knife in a pant pocket, or anywhere below the waistline, when a right-handed officer reaches for it, their thumb is actually point at the end of the knife – the point of the blade is pointing up with the pivot end points down.
As the officer takes hold, his thumb should then be pointed at the pivot end, in position to push the blade open.
However, this all changes when the knife is worn in a pocket of an officer’s jacket. “Now, when you pull the knife out, unless you want to stick your elbow way up in the air to position your thumb correctly, when you pull the knife out you’re actually pulling the tip end and your hand isn’t positioned to open the blade efficiently,” he says.
In this situation, the knife should be placed pivot-end up when it’s carried above the waist so the thumb is still at the pivot end – this may require adjusting where the clip is placed on the handle and which side.
“Some folding knives are specifically designed to be carries above the waist, some are designed to be carried below; some specifically right handed and some left,” he says.
Adding that, “It can be kind of obvious, but you need to think about it.”
The clip itself changed how knives were worn. “The pocket clip really revolutionized folding knife design,” says Janich. Prior to the clip, he mentions that if someone wanted to carry a substantial folding knife they had to carry it in a belt pouch.
“The idea of a clip-carried folding knife that rides on top of the pocket allows you to maintain the utility of the pocket, keeps the knife accessible and allows it to be easily used,” he adds.
Considering the designer creates the best knife he can for whatever purpose or intention, an officer’s knife may be limited to type, color, carry location and function.
A common situation cited is a first responder coming onto a vehicle accident and needing to cut someone from their seatbelt. Some manufacturers have gone so far to make the rescue knife, a handle with a small opening to the blade to slip the seatbelt through – a pull and the belt should be cut without posing any danger of injury to accident victim or officer.
Another innovation, inspired by potential damage accrued through prying objects open, is designing a pry edge to handle the task.
“There are a lot of considerations, it really boils down to making [the knife] a convenient and accessible tool that is easy to carry on a daily basis and when you need it, it performs well,” adds Janich.
However, performance does have a unique drawback. In the appropriate situation, an undercover officer might not prefer the tactical utilitarian most-purpose knife. He compares the custom to tactical knife through the imagery of a civilian Hummer to military version. “One has all the extras, leather interior and sound system, it doesn’t necessarily perform any different but it’s a certain level of luxury attached to it,” says Begg. In a knife design for the military, he stripped away the “pretty stuff” leaving the knife to work the same with the same steel and edge but without the polished edge and material handle inlays.
For the undercover officer, this “luxury” knife though may be what might be needed. Begg continues: “It depends on what the undercover officer might be in; he has to blend in which includes weapons. He might want the flashy saw blade with the polish, yet still maintain utilitarian or materials.
“It needs to play the part,” he says.
The SWAT officer, on the other hand, might not be as concerned about what it looks like to the public to wear their knives.
On the edge?
With the number of knife styles available, it can be understandable to become overwhelmed with the choices and options. With what the unknown environments tomorrow brings, attempting to understand the knives use, potential situations the shift may bring can be daunting.
“Cops need to know their intended purpose,” says Borelli.
Expanding Janich suggests to visit knife shops, attend knife shows and put hands on as many different knifes as possible. He also encourages new officers to talk to other officers and more experienced officers, discover what they actually use knives for and in what types of situations.
“Try to find something that feels good in your hand and will perform in the situations you anticipate,” suggests Begg.
Beshara agrees, “It does behoove the purchaser to do some research, especially for law enforcement where one’s life can depend on a sharp pointy object. Ask around.”
Yet, training is a major part to any weapon purchase – whether it be for rescue, last ditch effort in self defense, weapon retention, the rare time that screen is in the way, etc.
Janich points out that knives are typically the only lethal force tool that officers carry on a regular basis, but in most cases there is no clearly defined policy. In comparison, the officer might be carrying a firearm, a backup, a baton, potentially an ECD device and an irritant spray. “[The officer] has all these different weapons available to him, and each one of those has a specific policy associated and a training doctrine with it,” he notes.
Adding that, from merely a liability standpoint and from an officer training standpoint, agencies place as much focus on the knife as every other tool.
“If you want to learn how to defend against a weapon, you must learn how to use the weapon,” he says. “If you’re going to carry it, you owe it to yourself and you owe it to other officers to invest time and training to do that.”
If given the option to choose, much like the firearm, the knife can be utilized in such a plethora of situations officers should ensure it is comfortable.
“A lot of the times it depends on the person,” says Shackelford. “Just like in anything, a lot of it is just a personal preference.”
Begg, speaking in the mindset of an officer: “I might only make so much, but if I spend a week’s pay on this knife and it brings me home and it lasts me my entire carrier – that’s worth it.”