The 12 Most Iconic Pocket Knives Of All Time

May 8, 2019

Category: Gear

There are a lot of everyday carry knives presently available. Case in point: a simple Amazon search for the phrase elicits over 4,000 results. Even accounting for duplicates and alternate editions, that number is still well into the thousands when you pare it down. Still, despite all the variety, there are a few out there that remain at the forefront of the community — ever-present in our collective consciousness.

Think of them like chart-topping hits. The Rolling Stones, for instance, have recorded nearly 400 songs, yet people keep returning to a handful of classics like “Satisfaction” and “Paint It Black” because they’re just that good. These knives have stood the test of time (yes, even the more modern ones), they’re recognizable, they’re reliable, and people keep turning to them time and time again. And each of them has a story as interesting as the tools themselves. These are the 12 most iconic pocket knives of all time.

A Brief History Of Pocket Knives

Ancient Origins

The term “pocket knife” is a fairly ubiquitous one around the world. That’s probably because this seemingly-modern invention — a folding blade one can carry around in their pocket — actually dates back thousands of years into human history. It’s difficult to discern exactly when the first folding blade was invented, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, at the very least, they existed to a discernible degree during the time of the Roman Empire.

Used by Roman soldiers who were far from home, the earliest examples of folding knives (friction folders consisting of a blade, a handle, and a simple pivot at their meeting point) were not made for war, but rather simple utility — looking and functioning a bit like the Swiss Army Knives we know and love today. And they apparently functioned well enough to hold up over time, as archaeologists from across the ancient world found other, similar examples of friction folders used later by farmers, Vikings, craftsmen, etc. Later, sometime in the 1600s, these folding blades would see their first evolution into slipjoint knives — non-locking blades that were a bit easier to use and more secure than the friction folders that came before them.

These types of knives wouldn’t see their greatest and quickest evolution, however, until the late 1800s. Starting around the time that brands like Victorinox and Opinel were first launched, the modern period of pocket knives has evolved exponentially into the vast landscape we know today. What were once simple handles with swinging blades attached have become something more entirely — individualized tools used for an expansive number of tasks that have as much personality as the people who use them. And the variety of the tech built into them — in regards to their materials, design, and construction — has increased tenfold. It would be impossible to distill the significance of every pocket knife into a single article, but there are a few that stand out from the crowd for their staying power, iconic design, and overall impact on the knife industry.

Opinel Folding Knife

If there are two brands most responsible for making pocket knives what they are today, they are Victorinox and Opinel. And Opinel, in particular, has one of the longest-reaching histories in the entirety of the present knife-making community. In fact, they can trace their origins back to a small family-owned cutlery business in the early 1800s. Their first folding knife, however, wouldn’t be developed and offered until much later, in 1897. As just one of the many examples of what makes Opinel such a timeless and significant brand, that original folding blade featured the same silhouette that can still be found in each of their knives to this day. In fact, most of the knives they presently manufacture have a similar makeup, as well — a simple, natural wood handle and a stainless steel blade. While their catalog has expanded in regards to materials (with more modern options than ever before), the spirit of the brand is still intact and their remarkably-useful and relatively inexpensive cutting tools continue to be some of the best ever constructed. This family-owned knife-making brand and their entire suite of offerings certainly rank amongst the most significant of all time.

Purchase: $11+

Morakniv Classic Utility Knife

While it’s certainly a bit of a stretch to say that any fixed blade fits into the category of “pocket knives,” the significance of Morakniv is too great to ignore. Furthermore, their specialty is in compact blades that most certainly can be carried in a pocket, despite the fact that they do not fold. So, we’re bending the rules a bit on this pick. Able to trace their roots back to Mora, Sweden in 1891, Morakniv is one of few lasting brands to come out of the cold, unforgiving, and beautiful expanse of northern Europe. By the early 1900s, they were already a well-known name for their simple, utilitarian fixed blades whose style was reflexive of their no-nonsense purpose. Similar to the traditional Finnish Pukko, Morakniv’s blades still feature the same silhouette as they did when the brand was first formed. However, they’ve branched into more modern materials as they’ve grown. To this day, if you want a straightforward outdoor-focused knife that will serve you day-in and day-out, you can’t go wrong with any of this brand’s cutting tools. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that their offerings are recognizable with even the briefest of glances.

Purchase: $15

Kershaw Cryo Folding Knife

While a handful of the knifemaking brands on this list can trace their roots back a century, older companies do not have a monopoly on iconic pocket knives. Similarly, a high price is not a necessity when it comes to iconic folders, either. Perhaps nowhere is that truer than in Kershaw’s Cryo. There are a few different sizes and finishes of this particular knife, but we’re partial to the original — which has an 8Cr13MoV steel blade that measures up at just 2.75″ in length, making it a perfect compact pocket knife. A large amount of this knife’s staying power must be credited to designer Rick Hinderer. A living legend in the knifemaking community, Hinderer’s signature lies in a subtle, stylistic curvature that is abundantly apparent in the Cryo’s silhouette. Pair that with reliable, yet inexpensive materials, a sturdy integrated frame lock, Kershaw’s signature SpeedSafe assisted opening, and an easily-pocketable size and it’s no wonder this is one of Kershaw’s best-selling and most-lauded knives. It’s not the priciest out there, nor does it have a premium material construction, but it will never let you down.

Purchase: $22

Douk-Douk Friction Folder

As proof positive that, sometimes, simpler is better, the French Douk-Douk friction folder has been around for the better part of a century and is still widely carried by everyday carry enthusiasts to this very day. With nothing more than a handle, a blade, a simple bail attachment, and a pivot, the douk-douk will go down in history as one of the most significant and iconic folding knives ever. Its origins date back to French colonialism in the South Pacific. In fact, it derives its name from Melanesian spirits of destruction. Of course, this knife was not ever intended to be used for combat, but rather as a simple utility tool. And its simple construction — a carbon steel blade and folded steel handle — makes it still just as useful to this day. As simple as it is, however, the douk-douk still has a flourish all its own in the form of stylistic engravings on the blade, handle, or both. Usually, the artwork is representative of the spirits from which the blade derives its name, but it is also easy to find modern examples with alternative art or even no art at all — if a more spartan design is your preference. In any case, this knife has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 100 years. So the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Purchase: $30+

Victorinox Swiss Army Knife

Almost definitely the most well-known folding multi-tool or pocket knife of all time, the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife is legendary around the globe. Like Opinel, Victorinox was also founded back in 1897 — making it one of the few knife-making companies to have existed for a century or more. And that fact is due, in large part, to their continued production of both classic examples of the SAK, as well as modern interpretations. In fact, the only other brand with a license to make this knife, Wenger, was absorbed into Victorinox in 2005. Originally built as a standard-issue piece of military gear for Switzerland’s infantry, the Swiss Army Knife was quickly adopted by militaries around the world, has been an included tool for NASA’s manned missions, and is available in just about every permutation you can imagine — including SAKs designed for bartenders, computer engineers, first responders, and more. In fact, the Swiss Army Knife is so ubiquitous across global culture, other industries have used the term as a descriptor for similarly useful products — as in, “the Swiss Army Knife of [insert item here].” As mentioned, there are versions of this tool for all walks of life (even an insane 141-function version), but if you want to get one that’s as close to the original as possible, we suggest either the Cadet or the Pioneer.

Purchase: $32+

Case Trapper

While the likes of Victorinox and Opinel are century-old brands that hail from Europe, there is also an American brand that has been around nearly as long. Originally known as the Case Brothers Cutlery Company, this brand got their start selling knives out of the back of a wagon in western New York way back in 1889. And we have to think it was their pioneering spirit and exposure to some of the more rough-and-tumble frontier crowd that transformed Case into what they’ve become today. Probably the most significant of their knife designs (the other contender being the Stockman), the Trapper was originally built for — you guessed it — hunting and trapping. It was a simple enough concept — equipping a folding knife with two blades, a clip point for general-purpose cutting and a spey blade that was useful in gutting — but it catapulted Case from a small local brand into a massive, well-respected manufacturer. Favored by farmers, frontiersmen, hunters, and more, Case is about as American as it gets. In fact, they still make most of their knives in their Bradford, PA headquarters. Today, the Trapper is available in a wide variety of materials, but the silhouette is still as classic and iconic as ever.

Purchase: $50

Nagao Higonokami Friction Folder

Originating in Japan with a history that dates back further than 1896, the Higonokami is a knife born out of a necessity to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The craftsmen who first built them, you see, were the same blacksmiths who served the samurai back before Japan was exposed to western culture. However, when it became illegal for folks to carry swords in public, they had to apply their expertise elsewhere. Thus, Japan’s knifemaking community was sparked to life. As some folks know, many of these blacksmiths turned their attention to crafting chef knives. Others, however, opted to begin crafting these small, concealable friction folding knives. As simple as they are elegant, the higonokami is not unlike the French douk-douk or Spanish Navaja, in that it consists of a simple metal handle (usually brass) attached to a pivoting blade (made from a variety of steels) and has no lock of which to speak. The higonokami also often features an extended blade tang with a rounded lever at the end which would allow both for quick deployment and serve as a safety feature — keeping the blade extended, so long as the user kept a sturdy grip on the handle. They also frequently feature engraved kanji (simplified Japanese language characters) on the blade, handle, or both. To this day, they’re still constructed in the same manner by the successors of the craftsmen who originally built them.

Purchase: $50

Laguiole Folding Knife

While a knife doesn’t necessarily have to have a unique story in order to become iconic, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Such is the case with the French Laguiole folding knife. Interestingly, the name of this blade (which shares a similar appearance and format to the Spanish Navaja) does not come from a person or company, but rather a small town of the same name — the location from which the Laguiole style originated. First carried by farmers and used as a simple utility tool, this blade made its way from the fields into the factories following the Industrial Revolution. And while the world around changed, these knives retained their usefulness and, as a result, remained largely unchanged through to the present. In their purest forms, they are solely pocket knives, however, there are some with added embellishments — like folding corkscrews for wine enthusiasts or stylistic elements to individualize certain knives. There is one small, painful issue faced by the French craftsmen who make these popular, iconic blades: the Laguiole name is public domain and is not protected by the French government, the EU, or any other governing body. This means there are imitators all over. Hence, if you’re looking to pick up one of these blades, make sure you get it straight from the source.

Purchase: $74+

Buck 110 Folding Hunter

Hoyt Buck, an apprentice blacksmith out of Kansas, first made a name for himself by developing a new way to temper steel so as to hold an edge longer. This led to the creation of the first Buck Knife in 1902. However, the folding, pocket-friendly version — the Buck 110 Folding Hunter — wouldn’t come into existence until 1963, when Al Buck (Hoyt’s son) decided he wanted to create a more compact and carry-friendly knife specifically for the needs of hunters. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but imbuing this folding cutting tool with Buck’s signature styling (including wooden handle scales and a clip point blade) would result in one of the most iconic pocket knives of all time. Today, this knife comes with a wide variety of options in regards to blade steel, edge serration, handle materials, and more — there’s even an automatic deployment for those who live where such a knife is legal — but the spirit of the knife and the silhouette are completely intact. As perhaps the biggest added benefit, they’re still made in the USA. And that gives the 110 Folding Hunter a big leg up in our book.

Purchase: $82

Benchmade Griptilian

Compared to some of the older brands on this list, Benchmade hasn’t been around for very long. Still, over 30 years of operation is definitely nothing at which to scoff. One of the major reasons the Oregon-based brand has had so much staying power is their Griptilian family of folding knives. What’s especially interesting about this particular knife is that — thanks to its wide variety of available handle materials, handle colors, blade steels, blade shapes, edge styles, and finishes — it doesn’t have a single recognizable silhouette, but many. In fact, this is the most widely customizable knife that Benchmade has to offer. However, every single one is built to the same exacting standards and fits squarely at the junction between eye-catching good looks and remarkable utility. We know it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a knife with so many different appearances and constructions could be considered iconic. And we’d probably agree with that sentiment if it weren’t for the Griptilian. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its seemingly endless number of permutations, this Benchmade knife certainly deserves consideration as one of the most iconic pocket knives ever.

Purchase: $95+

Spyderco Paramilitary 2

As a knifemaking brand, Spyderco does a lot of things exceptionally well. For instance, although their catalog of blades is full of designs of all shapes and sizes, they are almost always recognizable as Spyderco knives. This is due, in part, to their iconic styling cues — namely, their oversized thumb hole and signature leaf-shaped blades, amongst others. Perhaps the purest Spyderco design, however, comes in their most coveted knife — the Paramilitary 2. A modern everyday carry knife in every sense of the term, this pocketable blade features tactical toughness in a format that can slip discreetly away. That includes an ergonomic G10 handle, a stout 3.44″ blade (with both the leaf shape and thumb hole), and what might just be the sturdiest pocket knife locking mechanism of all time — a compression lock. A follow-up to the original Paramilitary knife, the second version does everything right and then some. It’s durable, reliable, gorgeous, and has been in production since 2010. That’s not something that happens by accident. For a do-it-all EDC knife, you truly can’t do much better than this one.

Purchase: $132

Chris Reeve Sebenza 21

With no hyperbole, we think it’s safe to say that the Chris Reeve Sebenza may very well be the most significant modern everyday carry knife in existence. In fact, take a gander at the various forums and knife sites across the internet and you’ll find discussions on most of them concerning this very fact. Dating back to an original design from 1987 and with its first run unveiled in 1990, the Sebenza is borne of passion and refinement — meaning it has evolved and only gotten better with time. Today, the base model is a minimalist and, frankly, gorgeously simple cutting took which is renowned and revered around the world for its reliability (especially in regards to the ever-sturdy proprietary Reeve Integral Lock) and extreme ease of maintenance. Yes, not only is it a versatile and easy-to-use blade, but it is also exceedingly simple to take apart, fix, and get back into working condition — meaning it has a generational lifespan and can be passed down like a family heirloom. While there are a wide variety of special editions, including variations in size, handle inlays, and blade materials, each and everyone is recognizable as Chris Reeve’s — which only lends credence to how iconic it is.

Purchase: $450

Primer: How To Clean Your Pocket Knife

Almost all of these iconic blades are built to last a lifetime or more. You can ensure that happens by treating them with respect and giving them a bit of love and care. Learn everything you need to know about preserving your favorite EDC tool on our complete guide on how to clean your pocket knife.

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