There it sits right in front of you. It says “Police Special” on the blade. The knife’s got a flipper and it’s sexy tactical black.  It seems to ooze the essence of tactical right at you. It’s got to be a good tactical knife; because it surely looks like one! Besides being cool and tactical, it’s designed for law enforcement because it says “Police Special” right on the blade.  “BAM” as Emeril Lagasse says, they’ve got you. They pitched it and you bought into it. It’s the modern hard sell to law enforcement.  This is why officers have so many ‘plain Jane’ knives that only “talk the talk but they can’t walk the walk…”

The law enforcement profession is hard work. The duties required and the jobs that need to be done need effective tools, tools that can do everyday things, get abused a bit and still keep on working, or in this case cutting. It’s not a matter of being pretty or looking tactical or deadly.  The question is will this tool actually perform under duress to not only do the tough jobs, but save a civilian or officer’s life. If a knife can’t do those things, who cares what it looks like?

Many factors go into choosing a good hard use knife.  Some aren’t what you usually think of when purchasing a knife. It has nothing to do with your best friend’s opinion, the sales pitch, or opinion of the so called knife expert in the station. It’s not just about the blade, the blade shape, the handle, its color or the fancy opening device. That’s the obvious stuff, the stuff that got you to buy it, like the hot car ads. Let’s talk about these and all the other factors that can make or break your choice of a tactical knife.

One of the first issues is size. How big or small do you want this knife? It should fill your hand, with a bit sticking out past the base of your palm. Usually a tactical folder with a 3 inch blade will have a handle of about 5 -6 inches that fits comfortably in most hands. If it’s too big or too small you don’t want it.

This leads right into a secondary issue on size and it fitting into one’s hand: the ergonomics of the handle. Is the handle comfortable in your hand? It shouldn’t be too thin, too light, too thick or too heavy. It should have purchase in your hand, meaning that under duress, with sweat or blood on it, you aren’t going to slide on the handle. Sliding off of the handle means loss of control and the tool, while sliding down the handle means loss of one’s fingers leading to loss of control of the tool.

One should be able to hold the knife with the same grip concept as holding one’s firearm: the bottom three fingers are the strongest grip, a firearms grip and neither grip should allow your hand to slide off or slide down the handle. The handle should be shaped so that you can latch on to it. If the knife is really smooth, with rounded shapes and slick, then it’s not the handle for you.

The last important factor on the handle is what it is made from. Avoid slick stainless steel, high polished mircarta, smooth plastic, or polished aluminum. Best choices are: G10 (industrial fiberglass filled resin), textured zytel plastic (or something similar) rough linen mircarta, brushed aluminum or rubber.  Choose something that has surface tension you can grip, even when it’s wet, whether from sweat or blood!

The right knife lock is critical. Even if the knife is only used except for basic cutting, then insist on a good lock.  A good lock keeps the blade from falling onto your fingers. If the knife is to be used with static and kinetic force against the lock for trapping, redirecting and locking, then the lock strength is paramount. All you have to lose is your fingers when the lock fails.

Some locks are designed for force against the lock such as the Axis lock, the Compression/ball lock, Puzzle lock, the Arc lock and the Tri-Ad lock to name a few. The second consideration about a lock is where the lock release is located.  Do you have to take the knife out of battery to release the lock? Is the lock release easy to access?  Can it be done without releasing grip on the handle?  Can it be accidentally released under duress or pressure? I prefer a lock release that approximates my firearm by position, magazine release, or de-cocking lever.

Another key issue is accessibility. If you can’t get to your knife, it might as well not be there. It’s not just where you carry a knife, such as the pocket or a holster.  The question should be, is the knife easy to grab and engage without having to do complicated motions or thinking about it. This leads to one of the most contentious issues with a tactical folder… is the knife held in one’s pocket tip up or tip down?

Tip up means that you have to index the knife by sticking your hand deep into your pocket and grabbing the knife at its lowest point.  If it is tip up, the pivot point and top of the knife are deepest in ones pocket.   You would have to draw the knife out of your pocket and rotate from palm down to palm up before the knife is in a usable position… a minimum of three steps.  Tip down means you grab the knife by the pivot end, now near the top of your pocket, and draw it up in a usable position: a minimum of two steps.

Try doing this with a tip down and a tip up: both under duress and casually to determine which position is best for you BEFORE buying the knife. I personally prefer tip down.

Clip placement is also important. If the pocket clip is near the end of the knife, the entire knife is in your pocket, making it very hard to grab. If the clip is positioned so that there is handle showing above the clip, then there is something to grab.  This is not so important when you have all the time in the world and fine motor skills, but it’s VERY important if you are under duress, losing those fine motor skills.

If you want an assisted opener of some kind there’s many that use a rear flipper, or ones that use the motion of drawing or striking of the knife to assist in opening such the wave or kinetic ramp. Stay away from automatic knives, front opening or side opening springs and buttons can malfunction or even fail at the worst times. The buttons, disks, thumb studs, and holes in the blades should be positioned so you can open the blade by a simple rotating motion of your thumb in a pinch grip.  This is called “single-handed opening.”

Does the knife you’re looking at come with a matching functional trainer drone?  I can hear the “well it doesn’t matter because I don’t want to practice “knife fighting!”  Actually it does matter.  You don’t need to practice “knife fighting,” but you will need to safely practice accessing the knife, opening the knife, engaging the knife, and closing the knife.  You should not do this with a “live” blade even though you can.  It’s really bad if you cut yourself while practicing.  Practice ONLY with a safe trainer drone.  Most of the top-name knives will have red safe trainer drone to match their live blade knives.  Of course, if you have a functional trainer drone, you can safely practice biomechanical cutting, trapping, locking and other uses of the knife without fear of harming yourself or your training partner.  Remember, how you train is how you fight!

With all of this in mind, try out a few knives.  Take the knife for a test drive BEFORE you buy it and put it in your pocket.  Once it’s in your pocket it really is a police special knife!

Bram Frank has studied various fighting arts such as Wing Chun, JKD, and American Freestyle Karate for over 40 years. Currently, Bram is Director of Edged Weapons training at the S2 Law Enforcement-Security Institute. He is the SME (subject matter expert) on knives for the Hialeah Police Department. For the last 10 years, Bram has concentrated on the design and use of edged weapons / tools as an instrument of self defense and their use in military, police, and anti-terror applications. Bram was Black Belt Magazine’s Hall of Fame Weapons Instructor of the Year 2007. Action Martial Arts Magazine and their Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2008 named Bram the Grandmaster of the Year 2008. He trains others in Europe, Israel, the Philippines, and the United States.