Where I with tact aim to explain why we should not call our knives “tactical”.
Article by David Lew
It seems nowadays everything can be branded “tactical”. Log onto any internet shop catering to the soldier, gun owner or general outdoors person and you will find everything from trousers (pants), shirts, socks, gloves, load-bearing equipment, boots and pens with a “tactical” prefix. I believe this illustrates the point well : http://www.511tactical.com/All-Products/Bags-Backpacks/Business-Tactical.html
In the middle of the last decade when I was a young ‘un who was still being bossed around by my betters in basic and later NCO-school, we learnt the definitions of “battle/combat technique”, “strategy” and “tactics” as used by our armed forces. Since then I have ingested much malt-based drink and forgotten a lot of things but I’m fairly sure my socks/shorts/shirt were not discussed. Now that I think of it, neither was my knife of choice.
Let us be honest here, those of us who read this buy more knives than we need. We may be users, we might study them in detail but first and foremost we are collectors. Nothing to be ashamed of, everyone collects something (even if it’s empty bottles or credit card bills). We buy knives because they interest us; we buy them because they speak to us. We buy them due to clever marketing by the people who make them.
I believe the term “tactical” in general, is just such a marketing rouse and I will aim to show you all why that is the case. We’ll get to the specific topic of folding knives later. But I digress. Let’s talk about the products themselves.
“Tactical” knives come in all shapes and sizes. For the sake of this article I will divide them into the following general categories:
Fixed blade utility/field knives
[Sometimes known as “combat knives” when you order them from dodgy catalogues and men at shows who while not part of any regulated armed forces wear military pattern clothing every day]
Most, if not all armed forces will have one type of common blade used for opening boxes, cutting up food, light field craft and a bit of stabbing enemies on the side. Bayonets, Ka-Bars, Kukris and Puukkos are all fixed bladed utility/field knives.
Folding utility/field knives
The classic Swiss Army Knife is perhaps the best example of this kind of blade, but modern soldiers are often found carrying folders from Spyderco, Benchmade, SOG and many other manufacturers. Used for much the same tasks as the fixed blade utility/field knife, in my experience more often than not privately procured according to the users personal taste.
Dedicated Fighting Knife
Fairbairn and Sykes designed their commando dagger for hand to hand combat, specifically stabbing fools in the ear. There are also many other examples of this with one being the Karambit-style knife and another being the TDI by Ka-Bar. They can be found in both folding and fixed blade varieties.
For some people* “general issue”, “good enough”, “common” or “regular” will not do. Thankfully for them Emerson knives make their innovative folders and Mick Strider makes his meaty slabs of metal wrapped in cord or G10. They are usually very competent tools made from the finest materials and set trends in the wider civilian knife world. Knives in this category come in all the above flavors but they are more special than your “regular” knife. Why? Because they cost a fortune and they make their owners happier than all the beer in Bavaria ever could.
[Apart from the above blades there is perhaps the most used military blade out there – the one you find on the humble multi-tool as made by Leatherman, Gerber and Victorinox. As I have yet to see one labelled as “tactical” I will refrain from discussing them but have no doubt about it; if you want a blade that’s used by military folks (AKA “Operators”) all over the world every day – this is what you want.]
All of these categories come from high-end to low-end. Steel choice is a jungle with everything from 1095 Carbon to SGPS (Super Gold Powder Stainless) found in full tang, stick tang, and partial tang blades with handles ranging from synthetic polymer AKA “FRN”, “G10”, “Kraton”, “Thermorun” (all fancy names for “plastic”, really) to natural (wood, bone, horn, leather) via every single metal from aluminum and titanium to unobtainium (sorry, that last bit is what Oakley uses to make their “tactical” gloves [TACTICAL GLOVES?!]). Some of them are great knives, some of them are good knives and some of them are downright poor efforts.
I fear, however, that I struggle to find a single attribute that unites all of these different tools. What makes them “tactical” other than the fact that the very word seems to be a catch phrase in a western cultural sphere that has been at war for more than a decade? Kyle Defoor, a bona fide “operator” (AKA “proper military bloke who’s been there, done that and shot them in the groin several times”) if there ever was one, wrote a great piece on the 5.11 “tactical” trouser.
The point raised in Kyles’ blog post, is that the term “tactical” in relation to trousers is empty to the point that users will fill it with whatever vague idea they have. This also applies to socks, boots, pens, sporks, stoves and yes, even our beloved blades.
Kyle Defoors’ post: http://www.kyledefoor.com/2011/10/brief-history-of-tactical-pants.html
So let us call our tools/collectibles what they are: Fixed and folding utility/field knives, fighting knives and exclusive production/custom knives. Call it a “combat knife”, a “heavy duty folder” or use the prefix “military” if you must. None have anything to do with small unit, large unit or indeed, squad level tactics.
So let’s agree, for the sake of the argument, that it’s quite silly to bunch all of the above categories into a single genre be it “tactical”, “combat” or “military”. But what about “tactical” folders? Surely that name is decent and proper? Not so.
If we travel into the dark depths of the past, to a time where the Madonna did not steal all the babies of Africa and still kept the Catholic faith, where Tom Cruise was more famous for kicking ass/taking names/playing volleyball in Top Gun than jumping on Oprahs’ couch/being crazy. We will find ourselves in the mythical times known only as “the 80’s”. It was in this dark time that bladesmiths of rank such as Bob Terzuola, Michael Walker, Chris Reeve, Sal Glesser, Ernie Emerson and many others defined what we now consider to be the modern folding knife.
Slowly but surely folding knives evolved from slip-joints and back-locks that you opened with two hands and stored in a sheath (such as the Buck 110) to the marvels of design and technology we carry around every day.
In his book “The Tactical Folding Knife” Mr. Terzuola, arguably the “father of the tactical folder” defines it as “…one that can constantly be carried in a legal, comfortable and easily accessible manner…must have a provision for rapid deployment such as a hols, stud or disc…finishes to the blade, materials from which they are made and decorative embellishments, I believe are of no real consequence to the definition of a tactical folder.” He rounds it off by stating: “While this definition is probably incomplete, it does reflect accurately my concept of the tactical folding knife and does describe the majority of knives being sold as such today.”
Now walk into your local knife shop or check in with your favourite web-based dealer. The attributes that mr. Terzuola stated defined the “tactical” folder are now found in almost every new folding knife, even those made by companies that previously made more traditional offerings. You can today get a Buck, Kershaw or Swiss Army Knife that according to the old rules would be “tactical”.
We have to remember that the term was coined more than 20 years ago in a time when the concealed carry of firearms was rare, even in the US of A, and the last big war the West had taken part in en masse was Korea. Today what used to be “tactical” is just “ordinary” in folding knives the same way trousers with cargo pockets or trench coats used to be considered “military” but today are just regular clothes. What in the year 2000 might have been rightly called a “tactical folder” I would today call a “modern folding knife”. My EDC, a BM556 in blue, might fulfill Mr. Terzuola’s criteria but I’d feel silly calling it a tactical knife.
In short: “Tactical” is a cool word today and it was without a doubt a great way to separate the new wave of folding one-hand-openers (OHOs) from your dad’s Buck 110 back in 1990. Today it’s an empty term overused by a community used to more than a decade of war. In fact, if you want to keep your defensive/fighting knife à jour with modern mil-speak you should probably call it your “kinetic” knife (don’t, it’ll make you sound like a numpty**). Compare this with other “cool” prefixes; the way makers in the 70s-90s put “survival” on anything with a serrated/combo edge and put serrated/combo edges on things that never should have had them.
To put it simply (some infantrymen know how to read after all):
A low-yield nuclear warhead is tactical; your brand new Benchmade 580BK Barrage is not.
To put it even simpler (some of us find “nuclear” too big of a word):
You would never call your magazine/radio/admin pouch just a “tactical” pouch, would you?
Don’t cut yourself
– David Lew
*Call them geardos, the Gucci-crowd, flash-operators, the shiny professionals, discerning consumers or what you will. All units and crowds have them and they range from the Doritos-eating champion to the PT god, from actual navy SEALs who spend their working lives slaying tangos in Durkadurkastan to guys that get mistaken for Shamoo the Orca on a regular basis. All knife-collectors in the service are at least halfway there (we all have that guy in our platoon who can blow an entire months’ pay on gear) and most knife-collectors in the general population have a fetish for at least one “Gucci”-brand be it CRK, Emerson, Strider or your custom maker of choice. I am not talking about “mall-ninjas” here, these are people with huge amounts of knowledge and highly advanced skills of quality spotting/a penchant for the exclusive.
*Numpty (noun) = British English for a grade A moron.