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There’s something to be said about a well-built pocketknife, a small folding blade usually with a simple and unadorned handle, a sharp, stout blade, and a robust pivot point. It’s not as showy as a fixed-blade knife one straps on their hip, nor is it as precious and expensive as a knife one would keep in a wooden box in their curio cabinet. Pocketknives are utilitarian, useful, expendable, and practical. They’re small enough to slip unnoticed deep into one’s pocket but easily accessible and quick to the task.

Not only does a pocketknife speak volumes about the owner—does he have well-practiced backcountry abilities or do all of the letters on his desk get opened neatly—it immediately harkens back to faded memories of fathers and sons on fishing trips and sentimental moments of young boys and girls learning how to use a knife for the first time: gleaming chrome, nickel, or brass fittings, shiny blades glinting in the sun, and that comfortable weight of responsibility in their hands.

You might think that what goes into a pocketknife is different than the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into constructing a collector’s knife or a high-end, single-purpose knife like a skinner or a survival knife. However, the materials used to make pocketknives have evolved from the shoddy, cheap metals to high-quality alloys and sophisticated textiles incorporated into the handles, and the computer-aided designs take into consideration a wealth of new information, from the ergonomics of the hand to complex locking devises and safety needs.

When looking to buy a pocketknife, go beyond the utilitarian ideals associated with pocketknives and ask yourself why you might need or want one. If you are looking for something to open letters with, save yourself the trouble and dig around in the kitchen for a butter knife. If you need something to clean underneath your fingernails, try a set of nail clippers instead. Unjustly, pocketknives have had an aura of cheapness that no long applies to the genre; they’re well made and have been the subject of a ground swelling of respect. Most of the knives represented here have a fixed-blade counterpart, making the structure, materials, and design the same as the fixed-blade version, except that they fold up instead of utilizing a sheath.

Look for a pocketknife that is rugged and will withstand more abuse than would a fixed-blade knife, as it will invariably fall out of your pocket or be dropped on the ground at some point and should hold up to the wear. The pivot point should be well machined and affixed, allowing the blade to unfold and fold smoothly and easily. They should have a blade lock so it won’t fold up on your knuckles while in use, and the handles should be textured enough to make the grip comfortable and non-slip. Most of all, the knife will represent you as a person; old, hardly used, scratched, dull, dirty, sharp, clean, or broken, a pocketknife is an extension of its owner.

Here are 12 such knives that represent a cross section of the pocketknives currently on the market. They all have similar features and functions—with some exceptions—but they vary in price and quality (two things not always related).

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Puma Vintage 3530

Founded in 1769, the first rule of the Puma Knife Company, which is still true today, is that it uses quality materials in all of its knives. This knife offers flip action and a sturdy pocket clip. The 3.5-inch drop-point blade is made with 440a stainless steel, and the handle is red pakkawood (a hardwood veneer mixed with strong resins) with a “scales” texture for a comfortable grip. The blade locks into place and the finger groves allow for a steady hold, while the flip mechanism doubles as a finger guard.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.9 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.5 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.5 inches
  • Weight: 4.2 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 440a stainless
  • Blade Thickness: 0.12 inches
  • Blade Hardness: 55-57
  • Handle: Pakkawood
  • MSRP: $29.99

 

Gatco D2 Simba Skinner

 

The Great American Tool Company (Gatco for short) was started in 1989 in Buffalo, New York. The founders wanted to provide high-quality knives and sharpeners. Tim Wegner designed this folding pocketknife. It features a 3.5-inch blade made from D-2 steel for great edge retention and the 60-61 Rockwell hardness means that it will withstand a great deal of work. The dual-layer handle with 420-J2 recessed liners in the shape of lion’s paws makes for a thinner profile. The pocket clip is stainless steel with matte finish and is moveable for tip up/tip down carry and left/right hand use. The blade has two thumb ramps for detailed knife work and the slide locking mechanism is smooth and easy to use. The butt-end has a hole for a lanyard.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 8.1 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.4 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.7 inches
  • Weight: 4.7 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: D-2 steel
  • Blade Thickness: 0.12 inches
  • Blade Hardness: 60-61
  • Handle: Dual-layer G-10
  • MSRP: $79.99

 

Case Slimline Trapper

This elegant-looking knife’s blade features the traditional steel that Case uses for all of its knives, chrome vanadium. The Slimline Trapper is a family of eight knives with different handle material and textures; this one is dark red bone, which sets off the chrome bolster end pieces nicely. This is one of its most popular pocketknives. It features no pocket clip nor does the blade lock, but instead, it carries with it a refinement unlike the rest. It is a gentleman’s pocketknife.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.3 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.0 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.12 inches
  • Weight: 2.4 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: No
  • Blade Steel: Chrome vanadium
  • Blade Thickness: 0.10 inches
  • Blade Hardness: n/a
  • Handle: Dark red bone
  • MSRP: $34.95

 

Gatco Timberline Tactical SOC

This is a strong and simple knife designed for everyday carry. It was designed by the Great American Tool Company as a tribute to the American Tradesman. The 440 stainless steel provides a sharp blade that is easily kept so. Ambidextrous thumb studs on both sides of the blade, combined with a Teflon spacer pivot system makes for a smooth “one-hand open, one-hand close” operation. The pocket clip is reversible.  The blade features 1 inch of serration, and the locking mechanism is textured to keep thumbs from slipping. The tan handle is a G10 composite material (Fiberglas and epoxy) with a slightly ribbed texture for a comfortable grip, and the blade is anodized with a matching camo finish.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.75 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.25 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.5 inches
  • Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 440 stainless
  • Blade Thickness: 0.12 inches
  • Blade Hardness: 55-56
  • Handle: G10 Composite
  • MSRP: $40

 

Klecker NT-03 Cordovan

The detailed and uniquely stylish Klecker NT-03 Cordovan has a 3.63-inch drop-point blade made from 12C27 stainless steel, making it a rugged folding knife equipped with the unique Klecker lock mechanism.  The one-hand-open flip point acts as a finger guard when open. The handles are a combination of matte-finished stainless steel and layered brownish-red G10 composite insets, all held together with polished brass accents and a reversible pocket clip.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 8.56 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.63 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.89 inches
  • Weight: 5.8 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 12C27 Stainless
  • Blade Thickness: 0.111 inches
  • Blade Hardness: n/a
  • Handle: G10 composite/stainless steel
  • MSRP: $115

 

Bear and Son Cutlery Camouflage Aluminum Sideliner

This is one of two new camo Sideliners (Model 9112) offered by Bear and Son (the other, 9112G has a guthook for field dressing). The blade is made of 440 high-carbon stainless steel and features a quick-opening thumbhole so it can be opened with one hand. The blade has a slightly modified clip-point, and the locking mechanism is smooth and easy to use. The handles are high-quality T6 aircraft aluminum with a slip-resistant camouflage coating. The satin-finished metal pocket clip provides quick, easy access.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.75 inches
  • Blade Length: 4 3/8 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.375 inches
  • Weight: 3.3 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 440 stainless
  • Blade Thickness: 0.12 inches
  • Blade Hardness: n/a
  • Handle: T6 Aluminum
  • MSRP: $44.91

 

CRKT Graphite Folding Knife

If Terminator were to own a knife, it would be this one. Built by Klecker Knives, this “skeletal” knife has a modified drop-point blade (serrations is an option), double thumb studs so it can be opened with both hands with the help of the flip point. At 3.06 inches, the blade is stout in comparison to the others, but wider and made with 8Cr13MoV stainless steel (similar to 440B but with more carbon). With finger grips, the handle is comfortable and comes with a lanyard hole at the butt end. It is made of G10 composite overlaying a 2CR13 stainless steel frame. The locking blade is released with a design similar to Klecke-style knives.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.5 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.06 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.44 inches
  • Weight: 4.4 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 8Cr13MoV
  • Blade Thickness: 0.14 inches
  • Blade Hardness: 58-60
  • Handle: 2CR13 Stainless Steel with G10 overlay
  • MSRP: $69.99

 

Leatherman.com

What we’d expect from Leatherman is a pocketknife that blurs the lines between knife and multitool, as the C33TX comes with a couple of screwdrivers and a retracting keyhole for a lanyard. The blade is made from 420HC steel and is a combo straight blade and serrated. The black handle is made with a glass-filled nylon, allowing for durability without adding much weight (as it lacks an inner steel frame). It is a simple and straightforward folding knife with a couple of much appreciated additions.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 6.5 inches
  • Blade Length: 2.6 inches
  • Closed Length: 3.87 inches
  • Weight: 2.36 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 420HC stainless steel
  • Blade Thickness: 0.10 inches
  • Blade Hardness: n/a
  • Handle: Glass-filled nylon
  • MSRP: $54.66

 

Jantz SS3523 High-Tech Folder

Because this knife is offered with three choices of handle materials (this one is red linen micarta), some assembly is required (you’ll need a #T6 and #T10 Torx wrench to do the job). The embossed checkered bolsters near the blade give a little bit of charm to this “working man’s” knife, and the five holes between the bolsters and the handles add a little extra flare. With thumb studs on both sides, the knife can be opened with either hand, though the pocket clip can only be placed on the right side. Serrated thumb ramps offer a bit of stability when doing small jobs, and the red micarta handles go well with the stainless motif of the knife.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.75 inches
  • Blade Length: 4.625 inches
  • Closed Length: 3.12 inches
  • Weight: n/a
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: n/a
  • Blade Thickness: 0.086 inches
  • Blade Hardness: n/a
  • Handle: Linen micarta
  • MSRP: $24.95

 

Hogue Ex-04

Introduced in 2012, the EX-04 is the next step in Hogue’s Extreme Series. Like the EX-01 and EX-03, it features a button lock with manual safety (to keep it locked) and integrated stainless steel bolster plates. The EX-04 is designed with an ergonomic G-Mascus G10 composite in four colors (blue—shown, red, black, and gray), which makes the knife very beautiful. The design of the handle is comfortable in both saber and ice-pick grips. The upswept blade as a dual grind that makes for a sharp edge, and the 154CM stainless steel was developed by Bob Loveless in 1972 to be used for high-end knives. The double thumb studs are for easy opening, and the pocket clip is mounted high so the knife sits deep in the pocket.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 8.0 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.5 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.625 inches
  • Weight: 4.48 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 145CM stainless steel
  • Blade Thickness: 0.15 inches
  • Blade Hardness: 57-59
  • Handle: G10 Composite
  • MSRP: $259.95

 

Buck 845 Vantage Force

The Vantage Force knife by Buck Knives has a quick and smooth opening with a blade flipper that doubles as a finger guard when opened. Using an oversized liner lock and stainless steel frame, it is a very strong and durable knife.  The all-black body, the 420HC stainless steel blade (oxide coating), and pocket clip lend itself to the overall sinister appearance of this knife. This blade is full bellied with a strong, thick point for heavier tasks. It can also be used as a general work knife. The top of the blade drops down toward the tip, which minimizes accidental puncturing while skinning. The drop point blade is strong and very versatile. The small jimping on the spine of the blade and the thumbhole used for opening are added features. Larger and heavier than previous versions in the Vantage series, the fit and finish is solid, as is the glass-reinforced nylon handles.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.6 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.25 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.325 inches
  • Weight: 4.3 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 420HC stainless steel
  • Blade Thickness: 0.120 inches
  • Blade Hardness: 58
  • Handle: Glass-reinforced nylon
  • MSRP: $65

 

Gatco Timberline Every Day Workhorse

Designed for everyday use and general ruggedness, these two knives differ in their blades. The 4301 is a plain-edged blade, while the 4302 is a combo with serrations. The all-black configuration of each knife The 440 stainless steel provides a sharp blade that is easily sharpened. Ambidextrous thumb studs on both sides of the blade, combined with a Teflon spacer pivot system makes for a smooth “one-hand open, one-hand close” operation. The pocket clip is reversible.  The combo blade features one inch of serration, and the locking mechanism is jimped to keep thumbs from slipping. The black handle is a G10 composite material with a slightly ribbed texture for a comfortable grip, and the blade is finished in titanium nitrate.

Specifications:

  • Total Length: 7.75 inches
  • Blade Length: 3.25 inches
  • Closed Length: 4.5 inches
  • Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Pocket Clip: Yes
  • Blade Steel: 440 stainless steel
  • Blade Thickness: 0.12 inches
  • Blade Hardness: 55-56
  • Handle: G10 Composite
  • MSRP: $40

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.