What is a Pocket Knife?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A pocket knife is a knife with a folding blade which is designed to be small enough to slip into a pocket. Many companies make pocket knives with multiple blades, ensuring that their products will be versatile. A good pocket knife can be an extremely useful tool in a wide range of situations, and they are common equipment for campers, farmers, and emergency services personnel among others. The Swiss Army Knife is probably the most well known brand of pocket knife, with a distinctive logo in the shape of a square cross.

Some pocket knives also include a corkscrew.
Some pocket knives also include a corkscrew.

Pocket knives have been popular items for quite some time, with various refinements to the design being introduced over the ages. The pen knife, for example, was carried by gentlemen in the 19th century for the purpose of sharpening the quills of pens, while larger blades were carried by stockmen and explorers in the American West for an assortment of purposes. By 1900, the locking blade had been introduced, making pocket knives much safer since the blades would not snap shut under pressure, and manufacturers started adding useful features to their pocketknives.

A pocket knife may contain multipurpose tools.
A pocket knife may contain multipurpose tools.

A very basic pocket knife may only have have one blade, which is typically straight and long so that it can be used for a variety of functions. Optional additional blades might include things like an awl for drilling through material such as leather, a hooked blade with a smooth outside edge and a sharp inner edge, or corkscrews for opening wine. Pocketknives also come with things like tweezers, toothpicks, small scissors, screwdrivers, and so forth.

With the multitude of options, it can be hard to strike the balance between a pocket knife and a multifunction tool. Ideally, a pocket knife should fit easily in someone's pocket, without obviously bulging. However, many companies make knives which are so loaded with options that they are no longer practical for the pocket, although they can be carried in lightweight tool kits or worn on the belt.

Some people like to give pocket knives as gifts, especially to people who are embarking on trips or new chapters in their lives. Others may pass down these blades as heirlooms, since many manufacturers make very sturdy, solid pocket knives which can be used through multiple generations. A pocket knife is certainly a gift to consider for a new graduate, someone planning a major outdoor expedition, or someone going into a field like emergency services, farming, or forestry.

Pen knives were originally used to sharpen quill pens.
Pen knives were originally used to sharpen quill pens.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@browncoat - I agree that it's indispensable. I have a couple of friends who I know can't really afford a decent pocket knife, but still like to go hiking. They are both students, so it can be hard to get them to slow down and be cautious.

I bought each of them an engraved pocket knife for their recent birthdays.

Not only did it make a really nice gift, but I was able to make sure the knife was of decent quality, so I know at least that part of their gear won't give out on them under pressure.


@KoiwiGal - I would argue that if you are heading out to hike or mountain climb you ought to have the best knife possible just as a matter of convenience, not to mention safety.

A folding pocket knife with a few extra additions is all you really need. I would also include something to sharpen the knife if possible, since even the best knife can be blunted depending on what you need to use it for.

I think a lot of people think of it as something that you only need if you are going to be skinning something. But you never know when it will come in handy.


I recently saw the movie 127 Hours which is a biographical account of Aron Ralston, who was the hiker who ended up trapped by his hand in a canyon, and used his pocket knife to cut himself free by amputating his arm.

There are a lot of things you can take away from that situation, one of the most important and emphasized being that you should always let people know where you have gone.

But, something which I think needed more emphasis might be that you should always carry a decent pocket knife. Ralston had a cheap knife which was blunted from his escape efforts after only a few hours.

It made his final escape that much more excruciating and in fact could have prevented him from even taking that method in the end. It took him nearly an hour with the tools he had.

This is an extreme situation of course, but if you are going out into the wilderness, you should get the best pocket knife you possibly can.

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