For many law-abiding Americans, the knife is an essential, multi-purpose tool that is easy to carry daily for numerous applications, from opening boxes and packaging to bushcraft and field activities. However, knives are also commonly selected as self-defense weapons, and choosing a knife with the right features is essential to ensure its effectiveness.

Find out everything you need to know about self-defense with knives and what aspects to consider before carrying.

Is it Legal to Carry a Knife for Self-Defense?

Before checking what makes a good self-defense knife, it is crucial to check whether carrying a knife for self-defense is legal in your area. It is vital to understand the legal principles regarding knife ownership and carrying and what types of regulations to check for before choosing your knife.

Knife Laws and Regulations

Rules and regulations regarding knives and self-defense in the United States occur at the state and local levels. While one federal law regulates knives (the Federal Switchblade Act of 1958), its purpose is to legislate the interstate and international commerce of items legally defined as switchblades.

Consequently, state and local knife laws are the primary concern for an individual looking to carry a knife for self-defense. While every state has different laws and regulations, especially if your knife falls under a specific legal definition, such as dirks, daggers, switchblades, or automatic knives, the four main questions to ask include:

  • Possession laws: Is your type of knife legal to own in your state? Are there limitations regarding knife types, blade lengths, and other features?
  • Sale and transfer laws: Is the type of knife you want legal to buy in your jurisdiction?
  • Carry laws: Can you carry a knife for self-defense openly or concealed in your state? If your carry method is legal, are there conditions or prerequisites you need to follow? For example, some areas require a concealed carry license to legally conceal-carry a knife.
  • State pre-emption and local laws: Does your state have a pre-emption law, and if not, are there city- or local-level ordinances that regulate possession, sale, and carry, even if it’s otherwise legal in your state?

As long as no laws or ordinances restrict you from owning or carrying, it should be legal for you to do so. Always consult all applicable local laws before making a decision.

The Principle of Deadly Force

Even if carrying a knife for self-defense is legal in your situation, it is crucial to understand the concept of deadly force (also called lethal force) and when it is justified.

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The terms “deadly force” and “lethal force” are typically defined in the context of police and law enforcement use (10 CFR 1047.7). However, most definitions of the term refer to force that can cause death or grievous bodily harm, regardless of who uses it.

Although they aren’t typically viewed in the same way as firearms, knives are considered deadly force weapons. So, you must have a legal justification to use a knife in self-defense.

The general principle is that deadly force is only justifiable in response to an immediate threat to your life or that of another person. This principle applies even if the person issuing the threat didn’t intend to carry it out. However, the justifiable use of deadly force ends as soon as the danger disappears or is no longer immediate.

In addition to these general principles, each state and local jurisdiction may have different rules and regulations regarding using deadly force for self-defense in public and inside your home. Some commonly encountered terms and principles include:

Duty-to-retreat: If your state or locality has a duty-to-retreat law, you must prove you’ve made a demonstrable attempt to avoid or escape the threat before resorting to deadly force. Stand-your-ground: A state or locality with stand-your-ground laws allows an individual threatened by deadly force to choose not to retreat, making it legal to confront the threat “where they stand” in other words, as soon as they realize their life is in danger. Castle doctrine: Castle doctrine allows a person to use deadly force to defend themselves against someone illegally entering their home (and, in some cases, their vehicle), regardless of the intruder’s intent, including in duty-to-retreat jurisdictions.

Carrying a knife for self defense

Should You Carry a Knife for Self-Defense?

Although they may not have the same range or stopping power as a firearm, knives can be excellent self-defense weapons in the right circumstances.

The 21-Foot Rule

If you are in a dangerous situation within close quarters, carrying a knife for self defense may be a more effective solution than a gun.

The “21-foot rule” is a principle derived from the results of a 1983 study by Salt Lake City PD Sergeant Dennis Tueller. According to the “21-foot rule,” an average attacker armed with a melee weapon can cover a 21-foot distance in approximately 1.5 seconds.

The principle is intended to highlight that if the distance is sufficiently short, it may be impractical, if not impossible, to draw, aim, and accurately shoot a firearm at the attacker. In these scenarios, a knife may be the more practical option.

Mechanical Simplicity

Knives are among the simplest types of melee weapons and benefit from numerous advantages over other options. For example, traditional fixed blade knives, such as military combat knives, have no moving parts and are very easy to maintain.

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Even the most mechanically complex knives, like a double-action OTF knife, have fewer moving parts and are much easier to maintain than a firearm.

Size and Concealability

Compared to a firearm, a taser, or even a can of pepper spray, the knife is the smallest, lightest, and most easily concealed option for self-defense, especially if you select a folding model.

Fixed blade knives can safely be transported in their original sheaths, whereas pocket knives function as their own holsters; the handle shields the blade, protecting your fingers and reducing the knife’s profile.

Additionally, unlike handguns and concealable holsters, carrying a concealed knife doesn’t require many adjustments to your wardrobe. For instance, a compact knife is ideally suited for pocket carry because a standard pants pocket can effectively conceal it.

Affordable and Attainable

Although there are knives for virtually every budget, from inexpensive $15 folding knives to premium-grade tactical knives costing over $1,000, the average knife is generally far less expensive than the average firearm. The low cost of entry makes the knife an affordable, attainable tool that can also serve as a suitable self-defense weapon.

There are also several operating costs associated with using a knife. Besides purchasing occasional supplies for cleaning and maintaining your knife, you don’t need to buy additional accessories and consumables to use your knife, unlike firearms (magazines, ammunition), stun guns (batteries, cartridges), and other self-defense tools.

how to choose a self defense knife

How to Choose Your Self-Defense Knife

After you have decided that you need a knife for self-defense, the next question you might ask is: “What type of knife should I use?” The defensive effectiveness of your knife not only depends on your skills with a blade, but the blade shape, form factor, and ergonomic features also play a crucial role in whether the knife is suitable for self-defense.

Form Factor: Fixed or Folding

Most knives fall into two categories: fixed blade or folding. A fixed blade knife has a classic configuration used by most bladed tools throughout history: handle at the bottom, blade at the top, with no moving parts in between.

Folding knives use a mechanism (usually rotating or sliding) that allows the user to retract the blade into the handle.

Knife manufacturing technology has evolved to the point that both types are suitable for self-defense. The following is a breakdown of each type’s pros and cons for self-defense.

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Fixed blade knives:

  • Pros: More durable, no moving parts, longer blade lengths, easier to deploy, easier to maintain
  • Cons: More challenging to conceal, heavier, requires a sheath to carry safely

Folding knives:

Pros: Lighter, smaller, more concealable, no accessories needed to carry Cons: More mechanically complex, requires more maintenance, more dexterity needed to deploy

That said, we’d almost always recommend a fixed blade knife for serious self-defense focused carry.

Handle and Ergonomics

A knife is a one-handed weapon by nature, and unlike handguns, there are few situations where a two-handed grip is necessary. When choosing a self-defense knife, paying attention to how the handle feels and whether it fits comfortably in your hand is critical.

Fixed blade knives feature rounder, more naturally shaped handles that are easier to grip for prolonged periods. In folding knives, the handle serves two purposes: it must be both a gripping surface and a compartment to house the blade when retracted. Consequently, the handle is usually flatter and rectangular-shaped.

Side-folding knife handles feature an opening on one side to allow the edge to sit inside the handle. They trade some ergonomic comfort for compactness and ease of carrying.

Out-the-front (OTF) knives offer a compromise between fixed blade and side-folding ergonomics: while they are still rectangular, they lack the side opening, making them more comfortable.

Blade Shape

When choosing a knife, the blade shape you need depends mainly on the motions and gestures you need to perform the most. Although you can use any knife type to defend yourself, efficient knife fighting requires the user to make fast, imprecise slashing and stabbing moves, often under unpredictable circumstances.

Consequently, a self-defense knife should be double-edged and feature a sharp edge and point. Examples include spear points, dagger blades, talon blades, and needle points.

Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones with Uppercut Tactical

At Uppercut Tactical, we understand the need for preparedness and premium tactical and self-defense tools. Whether you prefer side-folding or fixed knives, we have the high-quality self-defense knives you need to protect yourself and your family at an affordable price. Our selection includes side folders, OTF, tactical knives, and Karambit knives for $100 or less.

Legal Disclaimer

This information is presented as a brief synopsis of the law and not as legal advice. Uppercut Tactical is not a legal service provider. Use of the site does not create a lawyer/client relationship. Laws are interpreted differently by enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, and judges. We suggest that you consult legal counsel for guidance.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>