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The tactical folder field has become the most popular category of cutlery in the marketplace. Not only do thousands of civilians, emergency services and LEO personnel carry them on a daily basis, but these heavy-duty lockbacks have also replaced many traditional fixed blades for military use.

What exactly makes a folder “tactical”? There might never be one true definition that everyone will agree on, but I can certainly give you mine. The knife needs to have a locking system that should be stronger than a pocketknife’s. After that, one-hand opening is absolutely essential for emergency use.

A certain amount of blade length is desirable—no less than 3 inches with something over 3.5 inches being better. The blade and handle finishes should also be able to stand up to hard use in the field. So, what we end up with is a tough-as-nails, all-purpose tool that will always have your back.

Here are just a few of the excellent choices modern knife carriers have as options.

Benchmade HK 14715 Axis

Heckler & Koch is certainly one of the best-known names in tactical firearms, but Benchmade’s folders with the same brand name are equally well designed for going into harm’s way. Having carried a number of different Axis Lock folders over the years, I can also recommend this system as both easy to use and highly reliable. (benchmade.com; 800-800-7427)

Boker Plus Marlowe Squail

Boker leads the cutlery industry in offering custom design collaborations with knifemakers in high demand. The Charles Marlowe Squail model is an excellent example of this. With its 4-inch, 440C steel blade, you would need to take a very close look at this heavy-duty tactical knife to see that it wasn’t handmade. (boker.de/us; 800-835-6433)

Cold Steel Code 4

Few cutlery companies have a better reputation for testing their products before their release to the public than Cold Steel. The Code 4 series is a great example of this. Available in either clip, tanto or spear points, with or without serrations, the folder was designed at the request of law enforcement for a strong but lightweight duty knife to carry on their everyday belt loadout. (coldsteel.com; 800-255-4716)

Combative Edge M1-A

Rob Walker has a well-established reputation as a close-combat instructor, and his knife designs reflect this expertise. While the M1 model has been around for a while, Walker recently kicked things up a notch by offering an automatic version of the knife with a 3.75-inch blade made of S30V steel. Only law enforcement and military personnel can get this one, though. (484-947-2656; combativeedge.com)

CRKT M16-14SFG

The late Army First Sergeant (retired) Kit Carson designed an entire family of tactical folders for Columbia River Knife & Tool (CRKT), with the M16 group being one of the most popular. From photos I’ve seen from combat zones, the M16-14DSFG model, with its 3.880-inch, 8Cr14MoV steel blade, lives up to its name among the elite units serving in the field. (crkt.com; 800-891-3100)

Emerson Patriot

When it comes to having been there when terrorists met their end, few knives have more credentials than those made by Emerson. One of the more heavy-duty models to be introduced in recent times is the Patriot, a full-fledged folding fighter if there ever was one. It features a 3.9-inch, 154CM steel blade and a G10 handle. (emersonknives.com; 310-539-5633)

Gerber Propel

Gerber has been a leader in tactical cutlery since the Vietnam days. One of its more recent introductions in the field is the Propel folding tanto in a choice of either full-auto or assisted-opening versions with 3.5-inch blades of S30V or 420HC steel. (gerbergear.com; 800-950-6161)

Hogue EX-01

A few years ago, Hogue teamed up with custom knifemaker Allen Elishewitz to create an entirely new line of tactical folders and fixed blades. A great example of the talents Allen brought to the table is the EX-01 tactical tanto, which sports a 3.5-inch, 154CM steel blade and G10 handle scales with texturing for a sure grip in any condition. (hogueinc.com; 800-438-4747)

Pro-Tech Les George Rockeye Auto

Retired Marine Les George has partnered up with Pro-Tech knives to offer the Rockeye line of both tactical folders and fixed blades. The folders, with their 3.38-inch blades, are available in a variety of handle finishes and materials as well automatic or manual opening systems. (protechknives.com; 562-860-0678)

Spartan Akribis

Few knife-making companies can match the real-life special operations background as the guys at Spartan Blades. Curtis Iovito and Mark Carey have been there and done that three times over, so when they design a knife, you know it comes from practical experience. The company’s Akribis folder is great example of this. (spartanbladesusa.com; 910-757-0035)

Spyderco Tatanka

The Tatanka is Spyderco’s biggest and baddest Clip-It folder yet. Given the size of the blade, the company also had to redesign the locking mechanism for added strength. Called the “PowerLock,” the improved rocker-bar system is built to stand up to everything you expect of a magnum-sized blade like this. (spyderco.com; 800-828-1925)

SOG Trident Elite Tanto

Long the maker of some of the favorite cutting tools used by SEALs, SOG has added a tanto-point version of its Trident Elite assisted-opening folder series. The folder has an excellent main blade as well as a built-in strap-cutter on the handle and a small prying point on the butt. (sogknives.com; 888-405-6433)

Timberline Tactical SOC

Timberline’s Tactical SOC folder was designed to provide a tough-as-nails everyday work knife of practical size at an affordable cost. It is available in a variety of colors, including coyote brown. There are also partially serrated or straight edge options in each blade finish. (gatcosharpeners.com; 800-548-7427)

TOPS MIL-SPIE 3.5 Tanto

While the company is better known for its heavy-duty, fixed-blade combat and survival knives, TOPS Tactical also produces a few very functional folders, too. The combat-ready and easy-to-carry MIL-SPIE 3.5 Tanto is great example of this, with its 3.5-inch, N690Co steel blade. (topsknives.com; 208-542-0113)

Zero Tolerance Model 0620

One of the big announcements for 2014 was that Zero Tolerance and Ernest Emerson had joined up to produce a line of tactical folders. Zero Tolerance blades have a reputation for being some of the toughest cutting tools on the market, and the new Model 0620 certainly lives up to that. (ztknives.com; 800-325-2891)

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