One look at a gear shop’s knife case will confirm a simple fact as cold and hard as steel: pocket knife blades come in all shapes and sizes. And yet, it's easy to overlook the fact that even subtly different blade shapes have unique histories behind them and specific uses in front of them. One shape that's occupying an increasing amount of space in those display cases (and online store pages) is the tanto.
What Is a Tanto Knife?
Tanto knives are easier to spot than nearly any other blade type. They're characterized by an angular, almost noncontinuous edge made up of two cutting planes instead of the flat or curving belly of most pocket knives. A tanto knife's edge draws a line out from the handle before making a hard change of direction and running up to the tip. The result? A striking appearance, for one, but also a broad and durable point.
That distinctive shape has contributed to the popularity of tanto knives as statement pieces for everyday carry, but their history goes back much further — all the way to 12th century feudal Japan, to be specific. Then and there, samurai carried two swords for combat, one long and one short. The latter was known as the tantō (which translates to "short sword" or "dagger").
The tantō that samurai wielded were different from tanto knives you'll see today though; they maintained a continuous edge that curved near the tip like some straight back pocket knives do. The Texas-based knife manufacturer Cold Steel gets credit for introducing the sharp angle into the blade belly, sometimes referred to as an American tanto, in the early 1980s. It's this shape, not the sleeker Samurai version, that you're most likely to encounter in a modern pocket knife.
Why You Should Get a Tanto Knife
Samurai used their tantō blades for close-quarters combat, and Cold Steel introduced its version of the tanto similarly in fixed-blade designs for tactical use. More recently though, the shape has gained popularity as an everyday carry object and you're just as likely to see a small, 2.5-inch folding tanto as you are a tactical one.
This relatively new breed of smaller tantos has the same benefit as larger ones — primarily, that broad point. The shape is strong, which makes tanto knives good for puncturing and piercing. Samurai appreciated the trait for poking through armor, but you might find its use in getting into plastic clamshell packaging or adding an extra hole to a leather belt. And while some criticize the tanto shape as being clumsy in slicing tasks, a well-made knife can still get those jobs done — with style.
After all, the tanto trend is the result of the shape's most readily apparent difference: its shape. That angular blade just looks cool, plain and simple. A pocket knife you plan to carry every day should be useful, sure, but it should also look good enough that you'll actually want it in your pocket. There's nothing wrong with having a snazzy object to show off to friends, either.
5 Tanto Knives to Consider
Civivi built the Brazen's tanto blade with D2 steel, a mid-grade type that's easy to maintain. That means you can put it through its paces, knowing you can always sharpen it up when it needs some extra edge.
Cold Steel continues to honor its role in popularizing the tanto shape, and the Recon is one shining example. With a fixed-blade design and a seven-inch blade, this knife calls to mind its Japanese origins and is more of a showpiece than something you'll actually use day-to-day.
Despite its attempts to be stealthy, Benchmade's Bailout is a looker thanks to its 3.38-inch tanto blade. Beneath those looks is CPM-M4 steel, a material so premium it falls into a limited group known as super steels.
On the Kiku, SOG modified the traditional tanto shape to create a broader blade with a wider corner angle and inversely curving edges that are better for slicing. The LTE model also boasts a lightweight carbon-fiber handle.
Case Knives has been around since the 1800s, so it says something that the brand included a tanto in its first modern EDC collection. The Kinzua has an anodized aluminum handle and a 3.4-inch blade made of high-grade S35VN steel.