By Matt, 30/6/2017

An edited version of this article was originally published in the first issue of Australian Knife Magazine.  Copies of Australian Knife Magazine are available at iSubscribe.


Recently I had a realisation, namely that, despite collecting and enjoying knives for at least the last 20 odd years, I was ignorant (perhaps blissfully so) of a significant portion of modern knife history.  I speak of course (as the more intelligent readers may have already guessed) of the period of transition which resulted in the modern tactical folder which we know and love today.

Now first things first, this term ‘tactical’.  It has become part of the vernacular when talking knives, but, where does it come from?  What does it mean?  Is it just fancy-pants marketing spin or something more?

I decided to ask some of my more intellectually gifted (i.e. Western Australian) knife enthusiast alumni what the term meant to them and if they knew where it came from.  Strangely enough, I couldn’t get a straight answer, one said survival knife, another said something black and serrated, yet another said it implied a military weapon and on and on it went…

Well fortunately for you readers I turned to the man who literally wrote the book on the tactical folding knife, the legend himself Sir Robert Terzuola.  He defines a tactical folder as having three key characteristics.  Number 1, it must be on your person when you need it (i.e. it is easy and comfortable to carry).  Number 2, it must be able to function as a last-ditch survival tool or defensive weapon (i.e. it must be tough and lock up solid).  And finally, it must be quickly accessible (i.e. it can be drawn and deployed quickly).

Essentially, at its core a ‘tactical folder’ refers to a folding knife which can perform in the role of a fixed blade, combining portability with a rough-as-guts survival tool and last-ditch weapon in the one package.

But how did this concept come to be?

Prior to the 1960s the typical gentleman in the street would carry a small slip-joint knife (or perhaps a fixed blade if their job required it).  These generally were thought of more like an item of clothing, essential for the light tasks one would encounter in their everyday life (with a few exceptions).  Even in the military, folders like the tough as nails Australian WWII clasp knife (which interestingly was first issued to Australian troops in the Boer War) were considered utility implements for opening rations, ammo boxes and the like.  The humble folder, while useful, was certainly not considered suitable as a weapon or survival tool in the mind of the populace, that was the realm of the fixed blade.

An Australian military clasp knife from WWII.

This all started to change when in April 1963 a little company called Buck (you may have heard of them) released a wee knife known as the 110 Folding Hunter.  Now the 110 wasn’t the first lock-back knife in history (interestingly the lock back actually dates back to the early 1800s) but it was the most significant.  With its striking design, stout heavy brass frame, stainless steel blade, belt pouch and back-lock design, the 110 introduced the concept of a heavy duty folding knife and changed people’s perception of what a folding knife could do.

Gradually a locking folder began to be perceived as a superior option to the old tried and true slip-joint and also a viable alternative to a fixed blade.  Famously, in Vietnam many troops carried the 110 on their belt in lieu of the traditional Ka-Bar.  Likewise, back in the States it was becoming common place for outdoorsmen, hunters, farmers and the like to trade in their fixed blade for the more convenient locking folder.

The legendary Buck 110.  This particular example was made in the 1980s.

However, the 110 and its imitators did have a couple of issues which became apparent.  Firstly, the lock was prone to failure if used inappropriately (i.e. prying, battening, stabbing etc.). Secondly, as it was primarily designed as a hunting knife, the clip point blade was ground thin and hardened to maximise edge holding which meant breakage was a frequent occurrence when heavy and or lateral force was used.  Finally, it was slow to access and deploy from its belt pouch and the knife was too heavy to be carried in a pocket.

The next big leap forward occurred around 1980 when an ex special forces soldier named Al Mar, who had recently started his own company, began working with a certain Colonel Rowe on a new type of folding knife.

At the time Col. Rowe was the commanding officer of the SERE training school.  He had noticed that soldiers were prone to discarding their heavy gear (include their fixed blade knife) at every opportunity, essentially leaving themselves unarmed.  Col Rowe wanted Al to produce a knife that the solders would carry on them at all times, something smaller and easier to carry than a fixed blade (much like a 110) but strong enough to be used like a fixed blade could.

The end result was the Al Mar SERE, a bloody great tank of a knife, measuring in at 25.5cm open and sporting a 4mm thick blade.  While technically designed as a two-hand opener, due to the mass of the blade and the smoothness of deployment it could easily be flicked open with one hand if so desired.  The blade was heat treated on the softer side so as to resist breakage and allow easy sharpening in the field.

While it utilised traditional methods of construction and belt pouch carry like a 110, it was nothing like any folder which had come before (I would wager that it is still tougher than 99% of the folders available today).  Essentially, Al Mar and Col. Rowe had created the first modern tactical folder and the thinking the SERE most certainly formed the foundation for what was to come.

An original AL Mar SERE made in the 1980s.

Cue one Mr Sal Glesser, an inventor of sharpening systems and other oddities, who had turned his mind to solving the issues he saw with the pocket knives of the day.  In particular, Sal wanted to eliminate the need to use two hands to operate a knife; and increase the ease of which said knife could be carried and accessed.

At the 1981 Shot Show, to little fanfare, Sal unveiled his solution, a concept known as the ‘Clipit’, which was embodied by an odd-looking pocket knife designated the C01 Worker.  With its distinctive hump and hole, it was quite unlike any folding knife which had come before.  Little was the crowd at Shot 81 to know that this little knife would redefine the direction of the knife industry forever.

A 1983 Spyderco Worker.  This was a transitional model featuring the original non-chamfered scales with the updated clip and serrated blade.

Let’s just quickly pause to look at the innovations which debuted on the Worker:

Firstly, it was the first pocket knife designed to be operated completely with one hand.  After much experimentation with alternatives, Sal settled on the now iconic hole for deploying the knife.  The hole also resulted in the distinctive hump, a feature of many subsequent Spyderco knives which had the added benefit of preventing the hand from sliding forwards onto the blade.  Sal utilised (under permission) the Al Mar mid-lock which provided secure lockup but while enabling the user to close the knife with one hand.

The second major innovation was the humble pocket clip (an idea Sal had adapted from a novelty frog key chain) which enabled a user to easily carry, locate, draw and return the Worker to the pocket.  I must admit I found it funny that even all these years later the pocket clip on my Worker is still one of the best I’ve used (it also looks strikingly familiar to the standard Benchmade clip… make of that what you will).

As if this wasn’t enough, the Worker also featured a sharpened false edge for light cutting tasks (an idea which didn’t catch on but one I found quite useful) and was the second pocket knife to feature a serrated edge (after the C02 Mariner).

Sal and his ideas seemed to spark a flurry of creativity in the custom knifemaking world.  During the first half of the 1980s knifemakers were inventing new mechanisms (such as the Walker Liner-Lock) and experimenting with new steels and exotic materials left right and centre.  All this fervour culminated with one Bob Terzuola, who, in the middle of the decade brought together these innovations with Col. Rowe’s concept (i.e. a folder which could substitute for a fixed blade).  The result was the now legendary ATCF.  In that instant the modern tactical folder was born.

My well used Bob Terzuola ATCF.  Probably the finest knife I own.

In the following years Mr Terzuola’s formula was adopted by countless other makers including future industry icons the likes of Ernie Emerson, Allen Elishewitz and Kit Carson to name a few.  Then, much like it is now, it took the production world a few years to catch up to what was the hotness (technical term) going on the custom knife scene.  Finally, in the early 90s they did catch up and overnight every second folding knife was ‘tactical’.

Production tactical folders from the early to mid 90s.  All follow the Terzuola formula.  From the top; Spyderco Military, Benchmade Emerson CQC7, and Benchmade AFCK.

Jump to 2017 and in the interceding years many fashions and trends have come and gone in the knife world.  However, while technology, tastes and materials have evolved, Bob Terzuola’s concept of a tactical folder has stood the test of time.  Today tactical folders are more popular than ever and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

So, there you have it folks, my take on how the modern tactical folding knife evolved.  There are countless other significant knives and innovations which I would have liked to cover, however, they will have to wait for another time.  God bless.

The evolutionary steps of the tactical folder.


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