The Duty Knife
December 20, 2011 By Craig Coleman - Dave Brown
It happened in an instant. My patrol car was hit on the side by another vehicle. The collision was so severe; it partially collapsed the driver compartment. When my world came to rest, I found that the force of the collision put enough strain on the seat belt buckle that it would not unlock. While bystanders were outside the patrol car trying to pull open the collapsed driver door, I reached for my duty knife to cut my seat belt free. It didn’t work.
I had to cut and cut and cut, until finally the belt frayed and gave way. That knife I used that day was a $20, tiger-stripe camouflage-pattern that I thought looked real cool in the display. Never again!
The time it took me to cut that nylon belt could have cost a life in another scenario.
After that day, I went in search of a duty knife that will serve me properly and do the job when I needed it the most. The search continues today, and as my collection of quality duty knives grows, so does my depth of knowledge. I learned from experience; I learned what works for me, and I learned what are just gimmicks.
The taxpayer and the community you serve have invested a lot of time and money in your equipment and training. Your service pistol for example, is probably the most expensive piece of kit you have, combined with the ammunition, your training and your competency in its use. Why cheapen all of this with a low quality knife? As simple as a knife is at first look, it is actually a complex tool that can serve many uses. Ultimately it will also be used far more often than your service pistol. And like the pistol, the knife should be handled like it was an extension of you.
Most knives cut and do the minimum that is required of them. But is it a reliable piece of kit worth carrying and having your life, or someone else’s life, rely upon it? Regardless of how many or how few gadgets and gizmos are attached to the body, the duty knife must be able to cut, quickly and efficiently… every time.
As a Police Officer, I admit I have spent a considerable amount of money on many different knives based on factors other than its ability to cut swiftly and reliably. We have all been tempted by the $20 knife on display near the cash register of your local tactical or sporting goods shop. But they are there for a reason: they look cool.
But will they work when you need them?
Well, first of all, this isn’t a call to go out and spend a fortune on a knife that you won’t even want to use in case it gets damaged. This is a call to those of you serving the public to re-think what you carry, or to help decide what to carry if you do not currently pack a duty knife.
The first thing to decide is what you want the duty knife to do.
They can cut, sever, shred, rip, and separate many materials, objects, or obstacles you may encounter. At a car collision where seconds count, a seat belt or child safety seat strap can be cut. A child may be choking on a discarded piece of rope or string at a park. A swimmer may be entangled in cord, rope, or netting. Clothing may need to be cut from a victim for immediate first aid treatment, or you yourself may be in a life and death situation where you are alone and cannot rely on anyone else, and you need to free yourself in order to survive and go home.
Quality costs money but it will also perform for you. I will look at what I consider some of the most important factors when choosing a duty knife.
Choose quality blade steel for simple reasons: good steel will not fracture or crack, but will allow some flex; and good steel choice will allow sharpening and profiling while maintaining resistance to rust and patina.
There are many blade shapes on the market, some very simple by design, and others very complex. Choose something that will allow you to fulfill a variety of roles with the knife but also allow you to properly care for it when needed.
I recommend a spear point/drop point-style blade, or if possible, a “Tanto” style blade. These are the most common and the easiest to sharpen. They are multifunctional in cutting, thrusting, shaving, and slicing. A Tanto blade also has better penetrating qualities that may be an additional asset in some scenarios.
Plain Edge or Serrated
This is somewhat of a personal preference. A plain edge knife will always cut providing it is maintained with sharpening and any chips or dents repaired with re-profiling. But for on-duty carry, I would recommend a combo edge blade, meaning the front portion of the blade is plain, but the back portion is serrated. This allows the knife to serve a multifunctional role. The serrations will tear through tougher material allowing the plain edge portion of the blade to continue and slice.
Some blades are fully serrated. This limits their use somewhat, but doesn’t take the knife out of use. Serrations last longer and do not need to be sharpened as much, but a fully serrated knife will shred and tear material without surgical precision, unlike a plain edged blade. If carrying a fully serrated knife blade, I encourage the carrying of a second knife in a plain edge or combo-edge to cover all possible roles.
You will find a lot of steel or alloy handles on the market. Some of these steels or alloys are low quality and may be detrimental to grip. I prefer polymers such as glass-reinforced nylon (FRN) because they clean easy, resist dirt and maintain grip qualities even when wet. Handles made from a product called G-10 use extremely durable layers of fiberglass soaked in resin, then highly compressed and baked. Impervious to moisture or liquid and physically stable under climate change, they are among your best handle choice for the dollar. They are comfortable to use wet or dry and clean easily with soap and water.
There are a number of locking mechanisms for folding knives, including back locks, compression locks, liner locks, and frame locks. Pick what you are comfortable with, particularly when closing with one hand. Make sure the mechanism is from a quality manufacturer so you will have no issues with the blade having solid and rigid lock up under extreme use.
Pocket or Belt Carry
This is personal preference. A number of knife companies offer pocket clips that allow the duty knife to be clipped to the inside of your pant pockets, allowing for easy access and deployment. But sheath carry on a duty belt is also a very viable choice. Depending on what knife you choose, that may be the only option you have available. A quality top covering sheath is not only professional looking, but it also keeps the knife safe and secure.
How many knives should I carry?
This up to you and your service policy and procedures. Two knives is always better than one, either both kept in a pocket, or one in a pocket and one on your duty belt. They can fulfill many roles together and each can also be role specific.
How much should I spend?
This is another personal decision. The cost of a quality duty knife will likely be coming out of your own pocket so you need to balance the cost of the purchase against its possible service life and potential uses in critical situations. A minimum $50 – $75 will get you some excellent entry-level duty knives from very well known and reputable companies. You will also get a good warranty on the knife as well as possibly sharpening service. Both of these are worth their weight in gold for busy police officers.
Keep your choice simple. You do not need a lot of folding blades, flip out seat belt cutters, or other add-ons. This adds to the cost of the knife and these additions are somewhat useless. If you want the seatbelt cut, use the knife itself.
Other add-ons can be hard to open and use in immediate situations, and require fine motor skills that may hinder their deployment. One useful accessory is a carbide tip in the butt end of the handle. This can be used for breaking glass on vehicles and buildings, allowing immediate access.
Treat Your Knife with Respect
Treat your duty knife with as much respect as you would any other piece of kit you carry. Use it and get a feel for it. Train with it. Learn how to properly deploy the duty knife in varying scenarios.
Learn how to properly sharpen your duty knife. Many companies out there offer varying sharpening systems, from simple honing stones and oil, to ceramic rods. Get what is simple to use, and do it yourself.
Clean and oil your duty knife. When you clean your issued service weapon and equipment, do the same with your duty knife. The oil, brushes, and rags are already there, so take that opportunity. Learn the workings of the duty knife, this way you can identify it’s strong points, and also it’s shortcomings. Look after it. It will serve you for many years to come.
And that $20 point-of-sale knife? Keep it and carry it. This is what you will use to poke, prod, and jam into doors, windows, and other nooks, preventing damage to your primary duty knife.
After all, everything has its use.
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