Editor's Note: This article was originally submitted as one piece. Due to its length and the large amount of information involved, it's been broken into two parts for publication. Part Two is slated for release / publication on July 22, 2010.
This is the golden age of knives. Every police officer seems to carry one (we think they should), and the cop magazines a full of ads for them - something we didn't see 20 years ago. There are hundreds of knives targeted at public safety professionals from dozens of companies - each loudly proclaiming that it's "ideal" for you in the constabulary profession. Each touts its "new, perfect" steel, its "high-strength" construction, its "high-tech" materials, and exceptional design.
It can be so confusing!
So what's the real skinny? What kind of knife does a police officer really need? How much should you pay? How do you cut through the hype and decide which knife is right for you?
It's really not that hard because as we first said, this is the golden age of knives. There are so many excellent knives being made now for short prices that by keeping a few things in mind, you'll have a choice of literally dozens of first-rate knives to choose from in your price range. If you're impatient, here's the bottom line: pick any knife that's comfortable in your hand, has a simple blade shape from 2.75 to 4 inches in length, comes from a major manufacturer, and costs no less than $45 (in gereral.)
Fixed-blade or folder?
In terms of a fixed-blade vs. a folder, a folder is what you should have clipped to your pocket, on your belt, or clipped to your vest. Fixed-blade knives are useful for raids and SWAT, but for patrol and regular plain-clothes assignments, stick with the folder - it's the knife you can always have with you.
Police use a folding knife for a wide variety of unpredictable tasks, from opening donut boxes to collecting evidence to searching containers to self-defense. This is the key to understanding the kind of knife blade they are best served by. Form follows function and a simple blade shape is best suited to a wide variety of tasks. Conversely, a strange or specialized blade shape is restricted to the few tasks that it can do well. For general utility work - which is what police do with a knife - you want a drop point, spear point, modified clip point or a slightly clip-pointed blade shape. Companies like to come up with strange, macho, "Rambo" or exotic-looking blade shapes and promote them as "tactical" and thus ideal for police work. Just the opposite is true. If you've served time in the military in a hot zone, you know that utility function comes from simplicity. Ditto for us on the civilian LE side. Stick with simple blade shapes.
Folding knives vary from tiny little pen knives with thin, maybe one-inch blades, to monsters with 6 or more inches of blade sandwiched between the handle. Now, pen knives can handle a surprising number of LE tasks, and carrying one is a good idea - they hardly take up any room after all. Conversely, folders with five- and six-inch blades can usually be (surprisingly) comfortably worn in a front jeans pocket if we are in plain clothes, but they are certainly less comfortable and less versatile in terms of the jobs we usually need to do than a smaller folder (although some emergency jobs benefit by their extra length.)
In uniform, with the whole bat-belt thing going on and all the other stuff we have to carry in our cargo pockets, etc., such a folder is definitely too long. I'll save you the trouble of experimenting: the right blade length for us is between 2.75-inches and 4-inches. Since the knife closed is usually about one inch longer than the cutting edge, this translates into a closed folder of about four to five inches - which is perfectly comfortable to carry all day long and is right in the "sweet spot" of ideal length for the tasks we need to do.