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Tactical blades are knives with one or more military features designed for use in extreme situations. In popular usage the terms "fighting knife" and "tactical knife" are frequently employed interchangeably, despite the fact that a tactical knife is principally designed to be used as a utility tool, not as a weapon.
Folding knives are rarely if ever designed primarily for use as fighting knives or combat knives. However, many armies and military organizations have issued folding "utility" knives that were not intended to be used as weapons, but which had tactical features that appealed to military personnel as well as civilians. This includes the German Mercator "Black Cat" folding utility knife, the German Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger-Messer, the British Ibberson World War II gravity knife, and the U.S. World War II M2 automatic pressbutton utility knife, also intended for use by parachute troops and flight crews.
Many civilian folding knives also have been privately purchased by both civilians and military personnel for use as general-purpose utility knives. Among these is Buck Knives' Model 110 Folding Hunter, a lockback folding knife. Originally marketed as a hunting knife, the Model 110 saw use with military and naval personnel as a utility or emergency knife for cutting rope, strapping, harnesses, rigging, and a variety of other tasks. Custom knife makers began making similar knives intended for private purchase use by both civilians and military personnel. The earliest production company to make a tactical knife was Al Mar Knives with their SERE model designed for the military with input from Special Forces Colonel James N. Rowe in 1979.
By the 1990s, tactical folding knife sales had risen sharply, and new designs were being regularly introduced at many large gun and knife shows. The trend began with custom knifemakers such as Bob Terzuola, Michael Walker, Mel Pardue, Ernest Emerson, Ken Onion, Chris Reeve, Warren Thomas and Warren Osbourne. These knives were most commonly built as linerlocks, although McHenry & Williams introduced the Axis lock, which is used by Benchmade Knife Company, under license. Blade lengths varied from 3 inches to as long as 12 inches, but the most typical models never exceeded 4 inches in blade length for legal reasons in most US Jurisdictions. Knifemaker Bob Terzuola is credited with coining the phrase "Tactical Folder".
In response to the demand for these knives, production companies offered mass-produced tactical folding knives Companies such as Benchmade, Kershaw Knives, Buck Knives, Al Mar Knives, Gerber Legendary Blades and Spyderco collaborated with tactical knifemakers; in some cases retaining them as full-time designers. Tactical knifemakers such as Ernest Emerson and Chris Reeve went so far as to open their own mass-production factories with Emerson Knives, Inc. and Chris Reeve Knives.
Critics of the "tactical" folding knife point out that the design is not well suited for individual combat when compared to a purpose-built fixed blade combat knife or fighting knife. The very nature of a folding knife means that it will usually have to be retrieved and its blade deployed during a fight – an impractical maneuver during a fight. Students of knife fighting also point out that any locking mechanism can fail and that a folding knife, regardless of lock strength, can never be as reliable as a fixed-blade combat knife. Lynn Thompson, martial artist and CEO of Cold Steel pointed out in an article in Black Belt magazine that most tactical folding knives are too short to be of use in a knife fight and that even though he manufactures, sells, and carries a tactical folder, it is not ideal for fighting.