Ask A Knifemaker

Ask A Knifemaker: The Truth About Tantos

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The “Alchemist” asks:

Could you explain the differences between knives with a Tanto point versus a standard point? What is the advantage of a Tanto point on a pocket knife (if any?). I’m considering buying a new Benchmade pocketknife and don’t know what to choose!

Good question! First let’s talk about what a Tanto blade is. A Tantō (短刀) is a traditional Japanese short sword with a blade length less than 1 shaku (11.93 inches) Below is a 436 year old Hira Zukuri Tantō from the Koto period. As you can see the spine has a soft upwards sweep and the belly matches that sweep. At the tip the edge rises upward dramatically creating a strong tip with powerful slashing capabilities. Supposedly this was intentional for use on armored opponents.

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Now that we have the origins of the Tanto covered let’s talk about the American (or Westernized) Tanto. Back in the 80’s Cold Steel popularized the new American Tanto blade shape. Ever since then there has been hot debate about the advantages and disadvantages to the double primary grind American Tanto blade. Lynn Thompson himself will talk about the combative advantages to tip strength and the secondary point’s (yokote) use in snap cutting but honestly these benefits are relegated to offensive knife duties.

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Your question asked specifically if there was an advantage to a Tanto pocket knife. Well yes and no. Yes the Tanto blade shape has the potential for leaving more steel at the tip and making it stronger BUT every maker/manufacturer grinds their Tantos differently. Honestly, unless your job involves perforating car hoods regularly, I doubt you will miss the tip strength on a more traditional spear / drop / bowie pointed blade. If you’re looking for a reliable EDC blade that will fill a variety of roles I would recommend sticking with a more versatile blade shape like the drop point.

There are a few disadvantages to the Tanto design. Firstly, sharpening is more difficult. You have two primary bevels to deal with and keeping the first and secondary points razor sharp will take some time and practice. Secondly, Tantos have two flat edges and zero “belly” to the blade. Slicing tasks can be more difficult depending on the medium.

Bottom line. If you love the look of the Tanto blade go for it! But be aware that there are no practical advantages to the Tanto design in a folding EDC knife.

-Will

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Discussion

40 responses to ‘Ask A Knifemaker: The Truth About Tantos

  1. Ditto on the sharpening issue. To my knowledge while part of
    this is due to shape, the metallurgy also plays a part. Most
    tanto tips are cut into shape not formed. Essentially, the blade
    is made by cutting against the grain of the metal. This makes it
    very hard to actually get the tip section sharp. A few
    manufacturers sidestep this by simply grinding a rough chisel
    edge on the tip (CRKT does this). Many modern tantos also only
    have only one bevel from the spine and are completely flat on
    one side, adding to the annoyance.

    I use a CRKT M16Z for piercing feed/fertilizer bags but as Will
    mentions unless your job requires a lot of piercing you won’t be
    any better off than a standard design.

  2. These days I usually carry drop point blades, but back in the day I was in a long term relationship with a tanto Cold Steel Voyager. Great knife, and the tanto blade never seemed like a handicap.

    And there is one place that a modern tanto comes in handy — spreading mayo and butter. Don’t laugh – try putting butter on a bagel with a Spyderco Endura – you’ll soon understand what I’m talking about. I acknowledge this is fairly narrow application, but it is relevant if the knife is a camp knife, or if you use your folders for food prep, as I do.

    With respect to sharpening: The two distinct edges can present a problem. If you let it. With my tantos, I only sharpen the long edge. The short edge (near the point) is used for rough tasks that don’t require a high level of sharpness – like opening boxes, etc. The long edge is kept razor sharp for tasks that require slicing. I can’t take credit for this idea – I read it somewhere a long time ago and its worked fine for me.

  3. I just bought a CRKT M16-14ZLEK. It’s a nice knife with a sturdy AUS8 Tanto blade. How does the Tanto shaped blade do for self defense situations vs the other shaped blades (ie puncturing soft tissue)?

    • I myself own a CRKT M16-10KZ in Tanto. Decent little knife. For self defense I would NEVER recommend a small folder. Honestly when comparing soft tissue damage between tanto, drop point, spear, and bowie blades there will be little to no difference. I would say the speed of deployment and handle design would be more important in a small folder self defense situation.

      Now in a large dedicated anti-personnel fixed blade knife the Tanto design does have some real advantages. My issue with the Tanto is the claims people make adding them to standard EDC type folders. Whats more likely, you opening packages with your knife or defending your family from tigers with body armor?

  4. I’ve only bought one Tanto in my life, a Microtech SOCOM. I only bought it because they were on sale and they didn’t have anymore drop points. I EDC it but not much

  5. I’ve never wanted a Tanto knife. They just don’t seem to be as versatile as other blade shapes. One of my favorite blade shapes is on the Bark River Canadian Special. Unfortunately I don’t own one yet, but I will someday.

  6. For a Benchmade EDC look no further than the 940 model. It features the reverse tanto blade – that is, the the sharp angle is on the back side of the blade. This leaves the cutting surface the more traditional and easily maintained curve while also having a stronger tip than you would with the spear type. Also, it makes the tip heavier so one handed opens are faster and easier. I love Benchmade knves.

  7. Thank you for writing some logical, analytical piece about Tanto blade shapes. I am a traditional knife guy who likes his blade to have a lot of belly and a strong, precise tip. As such I wafer back and forth between clip points, (great for poking holes in bull elk hides to use as finger holes to help pull the hide while skinning) to drop and speer points (not so great for poking those holes). Lately I have been tempted to try the tanto shape because of the great precise point that would be great for suck “pokey” procedures, but sacrificing a bit of the the stroking-slicey function of a blade with a lot of belly. After reading this I am less tempted toward experimenting with tantos.

  8. I recently bit the bullet and bought my first “Americanized” tanto blade, a Benchmade 557 Mini Griptilian with a plain edge. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

    I learned three things. First, the edge, although sharp, is a monstrous 27.5 degrees per side with a very thin bevel. I reshaped it on water stones and it took a long while to get it right because of the “second”tip.

    Second, I now know why the blade shape is so good. The 557 has a drop point of sorts. When pushing the tip into say cardboard, you can readily see what’s happening. The drop point pushes the knife into the secondary edge, which is at about a 35 degree angle to the cardboard surface and is VERY sharp. as the blade keeps going in that razor sharp edge is at the perfect angle to easily slice into the cardboard and this greatly enhances penetration for such a stout blade.

    Finally, the second tip is also VERY sharp, and that small amount of steel in contact with any surface cuts into it very quickly.

    So, the design works, and very well indeed.

  9. US style tantos are superb for scraping and for making squaring and chisel cuts with the short edge. Kind of like a knife/chisel/pry bar/scraper hybrid. So I actually see them as more versatile than many traditional points. For food preparation I prefer to use a proper kitchen knife rather than a pocket knife any day, and I don’t ever do any skinning, so the lack of belly isn’t a huge issue for me. YMMV.

  10. Pretty much comes down to the question: Do you want a weapon that can be used as a tool, or a tool that can be used as a weapon ? I’ve made the first choice.

  11. While this article starts out informative, the verdict is poorly justified and idiotic. Yes, tantos require more effort to sharpen, but really? stabbing car hoods? I work in retail and I am a hobbyist. I’ve owned many curved blades and all of them were rubbish at opening boxes, precision cutting and numerous other tasks. I picked up a cheap set of tanto folders at a convenience store and have yet to find another blade that can match the utility for my everyday tasks. If you’re going to dismiss an entire style of knife just because you don’t have a use for them, fine, but don’t masquerade as an expert and make blanket statements that no one has a use for a tanto folder. A tanto is the only type of EDC knife I’ve found that can remove stickers/labels without damaging both the label and the surface. If you like skinning rabbits and chopping vegetables with your pocket knife, (not exactly sanitary but w/e) a tanto is not your thing. If you need a knife to plunge cut thick, low density materials, open boxes, slice paper and occasionally misuse as a screwdriver/pry-bar/can opener, a tanto may be an excellent choice, just try not to hurt yourself, as they don’t break as easily as your fingers.

    • I like your point about the sticker removal. The only time that was a frequent activity for me was when I was building boats, and I just grabbed a replacement utility knife blade.

      I think Will certainly covered the durability of the tip, and while it may be advantageous for you in how you break down boxes for days on end with a higher performance plateau than some other styles, I have broken down shit-tons of boxes as well, and I have never found drop points deficient in this task. My personal favorite EDC for the task is my Mini-Grip.

      • There is nothing sanitary about skinning an animal with any knife. I don’t know anyone who washes a carcass with antibacterial soap prior to dressing. I have dressed countless small game animals with an EDC. I just clean it thoroughly before it reenters the rotation.

        Personally, I think a Buck 110 is the finest implement I have ever used for breasting out a dove.

        A Tanto blade is akward at best for the task.

        I would also argue that properly dressed and cooked game meat is more sanitary than factory farmed and industrially processed meat any day.

        • I used my Cold Steel Voyager XL Tanto to field-dress my pheasant. Yes, I used that ridiculously sized blade on a small fancy chicken. It was magnificently easy. You’re just used to your drop/clip points and such that doing it with a tanto is awkward. For someone like me, using a tanto is second-nature. It’s the only type of knife I’ve ever cared to use. And the sharpening thing mentioned in the article? I call BS. It takes a little more time and effort, but it’s not rocket-science. Good steel knives can be kept sharp just by rodding/stropping. I’m not even going to blame anybody for disliking the tanto as far as it looks. Majority of knifenuts like Spyderco while I think they’re all basically slight variations of same ugly bird-face knife. Doesn’t mean Spydercos are bad, I just think they look bad. But don’t justify your taste with BS.

  12. While you make some good points in this article, I have to call you out on the “no practical advantage” point. I own several westernized tantos as well as drop point folders. As a hobbyist and retail worker, my gerber evo and ridgerunner rescue blades are quite handy. the western tanto is useless for hunting and fishing, but for opening boxes and cutting paper against a flat surface the point between the two grinds is very useful. Also the front edge is great for scraping, such as removing stickers or trimming. It’s a matter of use and taste. for self defense, blade shape doesn’t matter, but for utility, it really depends what you do. Many hobbyists can benefit from a tanto knife while an average user is probably fine with a drop point.

  13. Upon reading this article, I realized my collection of knives (fixed and folders) consists mainly of tanto and reversed tantos. Only drop points I own are folders. For my EDC, I am usually carrying a tanto folder (for work), or my reversed tanto fixed blade (with a sheath clipped onto my pants pocket or worn on my neck under my shirt, for when I am just out and about). I also enjoy carrying my cold steel fixed blade tanto, but its bit bigger than my other edc so I only carry that when I will be spending some time out and about alone etc.

    I suppose my interest in tantos stem from protection/defensive aspect more than usages for hobbies or work (even though I use a folder tanto for work, which has suited me just as well compared to a point drop)

    I find my self using my night shade line up tanto from cold steel for more aggressive and carefree actions since I dont have to worry about rust or other cons that come with steel blades. Durable, and cheap. Its been through hell and back and its still put to heavy use when I am just messing around in my backyard or out in woods, river etc…

  14. I just replaced my 28 year-old EDC drop point lock blade with a SOG Vulcan Tanto. The blade is razor sharp and visually thicker and wider than my retired drop point. I use my EDC for everything from spreading peanut butter to cutting tree limbs. I see this blade as a significant improvement to the drop point for its jack of all trades mission.

  15. Some states have laws against certain knife blade shapes. I am not aware of any of the states in my area having the “American tanto” shape on the books as illegal. Therefore, less likely to get hauled to jail for it, if you EDC it as a defensive tool.

  16. I have a cold steel recon 1 tanto. Best knife I’ve ever owned… And I own alot of em. Tanto folders are great for wood batoning, basic camp carving, bark scrapping for primitive fire, etc. I’ve used it for work tasks for over a year now and never was left wanting. I would take a folding tanto over many knives for a defensive/survival knife any day. With that said, still love me some esee fixed blade all day.

  17. I really don’t know what the freak most of you are talking about with this talk of Tantos (Americanized, that it) not having belly. You can see that one at the top swells at the back of the blade, and many Tantos are curved. My Cold Steel Voyager, amazingly resilient, is slightly curved. Whether a knife has belly has little to do with whether it is a Tanto style.

  18. As a hunter and farmer, my use for fixed-blade knives is in everything from breaking down large carcasses, to removing splinters. I don’t buy expensive knives, as the potential for loss is too high.

    I have tried the American-style tanto for butchering, and found it awkward.

    Recently, I acquired a Cold Steel Recon, at a discount, and being a practical user, I modified it by grinding to more closely resemble the edge shape of the traditional Japanese blade shown at the beginning of this article. The angle of the point remains the same and it has not been weakened. Only the secondary point has been removed, blending the two edges into one in a sweeping curve.

    It does not have quite the sweep of my favourite pointed skinner – a modified trade-blade – but it has enough, while still being a very capable “sticker” for killing pigs or slaughtering sheep and similar sized livestock.

    Cardboard boxes don’t taste very good.

    Peter.

  19. I find that it’s a love – hate relationship with the tanto style blade. My Ka-bar tanto, primarily a fighting knife is fantastic for that purpose. As a general purpose blade, it’s quite awkward. I prefer a drop point for hunting, camping and general use. The exception is for my tool box knife. I keep a Ka-bar Warthog tanto folder in there. Not too expensive, great for general purpose, and the flat tip works great as a super sharp chisel for mortising door hinges, strikers and what not.

  20. I’m a fan of the tanto blade. My current edc is a Gerber Edict with the 154CM steel and sports a tanto. Tip is incredibly strong compared to a clip or drop point. I hear the argument that they are hard to sharpen but if you are like me and truly enjoy knives then you enjoy the challenge. Sharpening is one of those things that relaxes me and the better you get at it, the more you’ll want to try different blade styles. It’s no harder than sharpening a recurve. You do the long edge first and then work on the tip edge.

    • I hardly think that carrying tanto blades are the mark of a mall ninja. I’ve seen too many people in Afghanistan and Africa carrying tanto blades. For penetration you can’t beat them. I’ve seen too many clip points break off when put to the test. While the tanto may not be the “best all around” knife, it can’t be beat when you need a strong penetrating ability–or you find yourself in the fight of your life. If you’re familiar with how most knife fights go, there’s not a lot of slashing involved–it’s more like a blade going in and out of the victim as if it were a sewing machine needle. Knife fights are more about penetration–and they are quick and dirty and usually involve the element of surprise. And a tanto blade will go through a so-called “bulletproof vest” like a knife through butter–while other blade styles could break during the attempt.

  21. in my state, the laws on knife carrying are fairly vague to say the least, in the state of Maine, most knives are legal, other than the typical automatic switchblades, balisongs, and more specifically vague “knives designed to hurt other humans”. My question is this: Would a tanto blade be classified as “designed to hurt humans”, or would there be a more reasonable reason to possess and carry one? My query arises due mostly to the vague nature of my state’s laws and wanting to seek further information from others long before I truly consider any purchases or commissions.

    • First of all, I would say that Maine’s laws are so vague that anyone fighting the charge of illegal carry would have the case thrown out of court. Tanto blades are designed to be superior penetrators–and that doesn’t necessarily mean flesh. All knives are made to cut, and that characteristic can “hurt humans.” I like the tanto point for those times you need to penetrate a box or some tough material. I have seen clip points snap off when stressed. I think you will be all right as long as you steer clear of “automatics” and balisongs. Knife laws, like guns laws, are based on emotions, not logic. By the way–never admit that you carry a knife for self-defense. If questioned by law enforcement, either say nothing or that you use it as a utility knife–offer no more statements whatsoever.

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