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Stockman's penknife with (from left to right) clip, sheep's foot and pen blades; wooden grips; brass bolsters and liners

A pocketknife is a folding knife with one or more blades that fit inside the handle that can still fit in a pocket. Blades can range from 1/2 inch to as much as 12 inches in length, but a more typical blade length is 2 to 6 inches.[1] Pocketknives are versatile tools, and may be used for anything from opening an envelope, to cutting twine, to slicing an apple or even for self-defense.[2]



Roman period pocket knife from Gellep, Germany and reconstruction

The earliest known pocketknives date to at least the early iron age. A pocketknife with bone handle was found at Hallstatt, dating to around 600-500BC.[3] They remained quite rare until modern times compared to fixed-blade knives. For most of history, knives were worn inside sheaths or scabbards attached to the belt. Pockets in clothing are a relatively modern invention. Before this, pockets or pouches were attached to belts, in which these early folding knives would have been carried. In recent times, it has become illegal to carry fixed-blade knives in certain jurisdictions, which has made pocket knives much more common.

Slipjoint knives

Most pocketknives for light duty are slipjoints. This means that the blade does not lock, but, once opened, is held in place by a spring device that allows the blade to fold if a certain amount of pressure is applied. Most slipjoint locking knives have only one blade that is as large as can be fit in the handle, because the locking mechanism relies on the spring along the back of the blade to lock it and it is difficult to have multiple levers for each blade. Slipjoints tend to be smaller in size than most typical pocketknives.

Some popular styles of slipjoints are:

Style Description Image
Barlow The Barlow knife has a characteristically long bolster, an elongated oval handle, and two blades.[4] It is assumed to be named after its inventor, although there is some dispute as to which Barlow this actually was.[5][6]
Canoe The Canoe knife has a handle shaped somewhat like a native american canoe and usually comes with two spear point blades
A Canoe Knife
Congress The Congress knife has a convex front with a straight or shallow convex back. It usually carries four blades.
A Congress Knife
Elephant's toenail The Elephant's toenail is large design similar to the sunfish but usually tapers on one end giving it the "elephant's toenail" shape. These knives like the sunfish usually have two wide blades
Peanut The Peanut knife is a very small knife with one or two blades.
Penknife The Penknife was originally intended to sharpen quill pens, but continues to be used because of its suitability to fine or delicate work. A pen knife generally has one or two pen blades, and does not interfere with the appearance of dress clothes when carried in the pocket.
Sodbuster The Sobuster has a simple handle with no bolster and usually only one blade.
Stockman The Stockman has a clip, a sheep's foot and a spey blade. They are usually middle-sized there are straight handled and sow belly versions.
A Medium Stockman Knife
Sunfish The Sunfish is a large design with a straight handle with two bolsters. The blades are usually short (sub 3 inches) but both the handle and blades are very wide. Sunfish knives usually have two blades.
A Small Sunfish Knife
Trapper The Trapper is larger knife with a clip and a spey blade.
Whittler The Whittler is slightly larger than a pen knife and has three blades.

Multitool slipjoint knives

Multitools have enjoyed a revival in recent years, thanks in part to newer options. These new varieties often have for the "main blade" a pair of pliers, but there is typically one or more knife blades included (e.g. spear and serrated), often locking.

Multitool knives often have more than one blade, including an assortment of knife blade types (serrated, plain edged, saws) as well as a myriad of other tools such as bottle openers, corkscrews, and scissors. A large tool selection is the signature of the Swiss Army Knife. These knives are produced by Victorinox and Wenger and issued to the army and sold to the public. The German Army knife is large but light, with two blades opening from each side. It has hard plastic grips and aluminum liners. The United States Army knife, made by the Camillus Cutlery Company and Imperial Schrade, used to have carbon steel blades and brass liners (both vulnerable to corrosion), but as of the Vietnam War became more durable with all-stainless steel construction. It has four blades opening from the same side. The Imperial model has a bottle opener with Standard screwdriver blade on the tip, a can opener with sharpened curved blade for piercing metal tins (and is so labeled to avoid confusion with the bottle opener), a sharpened knife blade, and an auger. The unpainted stainless steel handle has "US" stamped in the center with metal hoop for attaching to a lanyard. The handle, as manufactured, has rough edges but these can be rounded, yielding an excellent and versatile knife. Another method of non-locking knife is the friction-folder. These use simple friction between the blade and scales to hold the blade in place once opened. An electrician's knife typically has a locking screwdriver blade but a non-locking knife blade. The credit card knife is a very thin knife that is the shape and size of a credit card. It is designed to be carried in the wallet along with regular credit cards. Some of this shape of knife also contain other small tools, such as tweezers, or toothpicks.

Locking knives

Medium-sized lockback knife with deer-antler grips, nickel-silver bolsters and brass liners
A Claspknife (Opinel No. 10)

Locking knives, such as the lockback knife or claspknife have locking mechanism such as a twisting ring or catch that must be released in a distinct action before the knife can be folded. This lock improves safety by preventing accidental blade closure while cutting. In contrast, slipjoint knives rely only on a small sliding spring to keep the blade open, and if enough force is applied to the back of the knife, the blade will close.

Locking knives have appeared as early as the 15th century, in Spain in a knife known as the navaja.[7] Opinel knives use a ring lock, where a ferrule rotates to lock the blade open. In the late 1800s locking pocket knives were popularized and marketed on a wider scale. Companies such as Buck Knives, Camillus, Case, SARGE, and Gerber, created a wide range of products with locks of various types. The most popular form, the lockback knife, was popularized by Buck Knives in the 1960s, so much that the eponymous term "buck knife" was used to refer to lockback knives that were not manufactured by Buck.

The lockback is a refinement of the slipjoint, where the spring along the back of the knife has a hook on it and the blade has a notch. When the blade is fully open the hook and notch align, locking the blade in place.[8] Closing the blade requires the user releasing the blade to apply pressure to the back of the blade and in addition press on a lever located on the back of the knife handle to disengage the hook from the notch and thus release the blade.[9]

The Walker Linerlock and the framelock came to prominence in the 1980s. In both designs the liner inside the knife is spring loaded to engage the rear of the blade when open and thus hold it in place.[9] In the case of the framelock, the liner is the handle, itself. The Swiss Army knife product range has adopted dual linerlocks on their 111 mm models.

Tactical folding knife

Buck's lockback was originally marketed as a "folding hunting knife" and while it became popular with sportsmen, it also saw use with military personnel as it could perform a variety of tasks. Custom knifemakers began making similar knives, in particular was Guatemalan-born knifemaker Bob Terzuola. Terzuloa is credited with coining the phrase: "Tactical Folder".[10]

In the 1990s in the United States, as a response to restrictive gun laws, tactical folding knives became popular.[11] The trend began with custom knifemakers such as Bob Terzuola, Allen Elishewitz, Mel Pardue, Ernest Emerson, Ken Onion, Chris Reeve, Rick Hinderer, and Warren Osbourne.[12] These knives were most commonly built as linerlocks, although Osbourne introduced the Axis lock. Blade lengths varied from 3 inches to as long as 12 inches, but the most typical models never exceeded 4 inches in blade length for legal reasons in most US Jurisdictions.[13]

In response to the demand for these knives, production companies offered mass-produced tactical folding knives. Companies such as Benchmade, Kershaw Knives, Buck Knives, SARGE, Gerber and Spyderco collaborated with tactical knifemakers; in some cases retaining them as full-time designers.[14] Tactical knifemakers such as Ernest Emerson and Chris Reeve went so far as to open their own mass-production factories.

There has been criticism against the notion of a "Tactical Folding Knife". Students of knife-fighting point out that any locking mechanism can fail and that a folding knife regardless of lock strength can never be as reliable as a fixed-blade combat knife. Lynn Thonpson, Martial-artist and CEO of knife manufacturer Cold Steel pointed out in an article in Black Belt magazine that most tactical folding knives are too short to be of use in a knife fight and that even though he manufactures, sells, and carries a tactical folder, it is not ideal for fighting.[15]

Other features

Traditional knives were opened using nail-nicks, or slots where the user's fingernail would enter to pull the blade out of the handle. This became somewhat cumbersome and required use of two hands, so there were innovations to remedy that. The thumb-stud, a small stud on the blade that allows for one-handed opening, led the way for more innovations. One of these being the thumb hole: a Spyderco patent where the user presses the pad of his thumb against a hole and opens the blade by rotating his thumb similarly to using the thumb-stud.[14] Another innovation of Sal Glesser, Spyderco founder, was the clip system, which he named a "Clip-it". Clips are usually metal or plastic and similar to the clips found on pens except thicker. Clips allow the knife to be easily accessible, while keeping it lint-free and unscathed by pocket items such as coins. Assisted opening systems have been pioneered by makers like Ken Onion with his "Speed-Safe" mechanism and Ernest Emerson's Wave system, where a hook catches the user's pocket upon removal and the blade is opened during a draw. .[9] One of the first one handed devices was the automatic spring release, also known as a switchblade. An innovation to pocket knives made possible by the thumb-stud is the replaceable blade insert developed in 1999 by Steven Overholt (U.S. Patent no. 6,574,868), originally marketed by TigerSharp Technologies and as of 2007 by Clauss.

Legal issues

Pocketknives are legal to own in most countries, but they face legal restrictions on their use. While pocketknives are almost always designed as tools, they do have the potential to become weapons. In some jurisdictions it is illegal to conceal knives larger than a certain size, or with certain locking or opening mechanisms. They are often banned or heavily restricted in secure areas, such as schools and airports. Switchblades and other "auto-openers" are banned from interstate shipment by the U.S. Government and prohibited entirely in some states, although certain statutes allow an exception permitting ownership by the handicapped, military, and police.

It is illegal to carry knives in public in the United Kingdom without "good reason". This term is not defined, but examples of "religious duty", "national dress" and "requirement of employment or hobby" are given. It is up to a police officer's individual discretion, and ultimately a magistrate to decide whether or not the requirements of "good reason" are met.[16]. Folding knives with blades of 3 inches or less may be carried without needing to provide "good reason" so long as the blade is not capable of being locked in the open position. However, it is illegal to have the intention of using any object in public as a weapon, meaning that even a knife that is legal to carry without needing 'good reason' may still be found to be illegal if the police officer has grounds to suspect it will be used as a weapon.


  1. ^ Lake, Ron; Centofante, Frank; Clay, Wayne (1995). How to Make Folding Knives/a Step-By-Step How-To: A Step-By-Step How-To. Krause. pp. 190. ISBN 0873413909. 
  2. ^ Stewart, Ron; Ritchie, Roy (2000). Big Book of Pocket Knives: Identification & Values. Collector Books. pp. 348. ISBN 978-1574321784. 
  3. ^ Horváth, László; Kovács, Tibor; Szabó, Miklós (1987). Transdanubia I (Corpus of Celtic Finds in Hungary) (v. 1). Akademiai Kiado. pp. 38–41. ISBN 978-9630538077. 
  4. ^ Emerson, Ernest R. (2003), "Grandpa Gave a Part of Himself With That First Knife", Sporting Knives 2003: 54–59, ISBN 0-87349-430-X 
  5. ^ Barlow, Edson. "Our Knife". Retrieved 2008-11-18. 
  6. ^ "History of Barlow Knives". Advantage-Advertising,LLC. 
  7. ^ Pacella, Gerard (2002). 100 Legendary Knives. Krause Publications. p. 101. ISBN 978-0873494172. 
  8. ^ Price, C. Houston; Mark D. Zalesky (2008). The Official Price Guide to Collector Knives, 15th edition. House of Collectibles. pp. 164–166. ISBN 978-0375722806. 
  9. ^ a b c Dick, Steven (1997), The Working Folding Knife, Stoeger Publishing Company, pp. 280, ISBN 9780883172100 
  10. ^ Terzuola, Bob (2000). Title The Tactical Folding Knife: A Study of the Anatomy and Construction of the Liner-Locked Folder. Krause Publications. p. 158. ISBN 978-0873418584. 
  11. ^ Hopkins, Cameron (2000), "The Worse it Gets, the Better We Like It", American Handgunner Magazine 25 (157): 92–93 
  12. ^ Walker, Greg (1993). Battle Blades: A Professional's Guide to Combat/Fighting Knives. Krause Publications. p. 210. ISBN 978-0873473274. 
  13. ^ Hartink, A.E. (September 30, 2005). Complete Encyclopedia of Knives. Lisse, The Netherlands: Chartwell Books. pp. 448. ISBN 9781854091680. 
  14. ^ a b Delavigne, Kenneth (2004). Spyderco Story: The New Shape of Sharp (Hardcover). Colorado: Paladin Press. p. 312. ISBN 1-581-60060-7. 
  15. ^ Young, Robert (2001). "Secrets of the Blade". Black Belt 39 (4): 92–97. 
  16. ^ "British Knife Collectors Guild 'The Law' page". Retrieved 2006-11-19. 

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