BLADE Magazine

Ahoy Matey: Rigging Knife Buyer’s Guide

A sailor's delight, a rigging knife still makes modern nautical chores a lot less tasking.

A sailor's delight, a rigging knife still makes modern nautical chores a lot less tasking.

Battened down the hatches, we’re going full-speed ahead talking about the sailor’s rigging knife!

Rigging knives are a particular type of cutting tool developed in conjunction with sailing ships. There is not a particularly well-documented history on the use of these knives, but by the Age of Exploration, the tool was quite common aboard virtually every vessel.

Bear bones, the rigging knife was designed to cut line. Together with the equally common marlinspike, it could be used to manage lines by cutting, splicing, and freeing knots. The simplicity of these tools has given them long life, and as a result, the knives are available in modern versions suited to our uses today.

The knife has not changed much in hundreds of years, a testament to how it was perfected before it became miniaturized and able to fit in a pocket.

Use And Evolution Of The Rigging Knife

The rigging knife is a similar case. You are almost always better served by a heavy fixed-blade knife than by a small, delicate folder. But, as time has gone on, the need for chopping through lines thicker than your arm has declined for most nautical enthusiasts. In turn, as line material changed from Manila and natural materials to nylon, large-blade rigging knives went the way of the tri mast. In its place, a smaller folding version became the norm.

The rigging knife has, like the penknife, been a multitool of sorts for generations. The earliest examples were of course dedicated to their task. As times changed, it was combined with similar tools that were also at one point their own thing. Let’s take a look at some of the tools likely found on a modern rigging knife.

Sheepsfoot Blade

A sturdy sheepsfoot blade tackles cutting and chopping tasks with easy, while protecting the user from perforating him or herself.

Long before this profile was in fashion for EDC knives, the sheepsfoot profile was used for cutting rigging. The blade shape was perfected over time and was considered the best way to cut heavy lines. The cleaver-like abilities of this profile, when combined with a thick spine, allows it to chop through thick line as well as be pounded through with a mallet if need be. The lack of a defined tip reduced the chances of injury as it couldn’t really be used to stab or otherwise harm by thrusting.


Need to loosen a mooring line? The marlinspike is your tool.

The marlinspike is a linework tool and it is quite simple in terms of how it’s used. It is like a large needle of sorts, meant to work in between tightly tied ropes in order to loosen knots. That is just about all it does. This less-than-glamorous job is of the highest importance on any vessel from canoes to warships and the lack of it can cause serious issues.

Historically these tools were not small, some even exceeding 20-plus inches. Heavy rope, 5 inches or thicker, was common for mooring lines and these massive marlinspikes could move even the largest lines. Today most people use much thinner lines, usually 1-inch or so, on recreational vessels. Half-inch is common for duck boats and other flat-bottom craft. Kayaks and canoes usually work with a 1/4-inch line. Most of the work a modern marlinspike encounters is going to be on a relatively thin nylon line, making huge spikes unnecessary.

Shackle Key

The shackely key is a must to break open a problematic shackel on deck.

The shackle key is just that, a key for unlocking shackles. Shackles are a D-shaped clip used to attach various parts of the rigging together. These devices are usually tightened down beyond what can be accomplished with bare hands, so the key is applied and used to open it. There isn’t a high degree of utility for this accessory on most small, single-person watercraft. Many people, however, still find the tool useful for other duties. If not, it’s prized for its connection to sailing’s golden age.

Top Rigging Knives Available Today

Davis Instruments Deluxe Rigging Knife

Inexpensive, rugged and handy, Davis’ rigging knife has all based covered.

This is among the most baseline functional rigging knives on the market today. Davis‘s knife is inexpensive, under $30 retail, and has every single tool you want in a rigger. Because of salt water’s corrosiveness, the knife is constructed completely out of stainless steel and is easily kept clean and in service. If it ever gets to the point rusting out it won’t break the bank to replace. Functional knives like this lack glamor, but for what it is used for you will have a hard time finding something that truly exceeds it in utility. The folding knife features a marlinspike, shackle key, screwdriver, and blade.

MSRP: $27

Gill Marine Multitool

Gills’ option offer a nice update to the design—particularly the G10 handles.” width=”696″ height=”431″> A modern iteration of the classic rigging knife, Gills’ option offer a nice update to the design—particularly the G10 handles.

This tool retains many of the necessary, time-honored features common to rigging knives but adds some much-need advancements. Taking a hint from automotive rescue tools, the Gill tool a glass breaker and strap cutter to deal with tie-downs and hard-surface obstacles. The blade locks open, which is more than can be said of most rigging knives. The edge of the blade has deep, scalloped serrations that won’t hang up in nylon rope. To increase grip in wet conditions the knife has a machined G10 handle in bright orange. Lastly, the knife has an integrated screwdriver and shackle key. It does not come with a lanyard but has a pouch that can be worn. Interestingly, the knife has a titanium coating, something not usually found on tools at this price point.

MSRP: $45

Old Timer Mariner

The materials that make up the Old Timer Mariner might not endure hard salt-water usuage. However, the knife more than looks the part and is capable of lighter duty.

In terms of classic appearance at a very low price, the Old Timer Mariner is just the ticket. The knife is relatively simple, it has a classic sheepsfoot blade and a functionally tapered marlinspike. The knife is of traditional construction and isn’t made of materials that are particularly resistant to salt water. That said, this style has been in use for decades and is just about what you think of when you imagine what your granddad or great-granddad may have used in the early part of the 20th century. As is common in traditional designs, the blade is nonlocking. Taking into account that many modern versions of this knife incorporate this safety feature, it is up to you to decide if you want the added liability in wet conditions.

MSRP: $27

Parker River Bosun Knife

Parker’s River Bosun Knife harkens back to the earliest versions of the rigging knife. Expensive, it more than speaks to your maritime cred.

If you find that you are in the market for the luxe version of a rigging knife, look no further than the Parker River Bosun Knife. This one isn’t at all on the cheap side, you could easily buy every other knife on this list and still have money left over. But, for the discerning mariner, a tool like this is not just a status symbol but a nod to a long-past way of doing things.

This knife is made in the original bosun knife style, fixed blade and all. It lacks any other adornments, including a marlinspike. However, just like in the old days, you can of course buy a separate marlinspike and tie it on with a lanyard. The interesting part of this knife is it really has not lost function over a multi-tool in that the blade aspect. Having a separate knife and marlinspike allows larger models of, thus makes them easier to use and not hinder you with a folding mechanisms. The knife comes with a leather sheath and is available with custom engraving.

MSRP: $315

Perkin Handcrafted Rigging Knife

Traditional in design, Perkin’s rigging knife is built for heavy usage, but offers throwback appeal.

Another traditional fixed-blade design is the Perkin Handcrafted Rigging Knife. It has many of the same features as the Parker River example and even comes with a leather sheath with an integrated marlinspike loop.

The knife is heavily constructed and bears a thick, heavy spine. It is substantial enough it can be pounded through rope much in the way these knives were originally used. The physical construction is simple, a pinned scales and a bolster. Overall this is a good entry-level kit if you want a classic setup for your boating adventures.

MSRP: $64

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