Piercing Pro: Picking The Best Tanto Knife (2023)

Piercing Pro: Picking The Best Tanto Knife (2023)

Nothing cuts as wicked a profile as a tanto knife.

The tanto is one of the most iconic and recognizable knife designs to ever forged, and today you can find it being made all over the world. From pocket folders to heavy fixed blades, there are a lot of Tantos to choose from.

Today, we’re going to go over everything you need to know about the tanto, from its history and modern usage to the best modern examples you can add to your collection. 

Let’s dive right in. 

Tanto Knives: Rich, Battlefield-Proven History

Japan has gifted the world with some excellent things: sushi, Godzilla, anime, the Honda Civic… list goes on. Perhaps some of the most iconic pieces of Japanese culture to spread around the world though are its blade designs. 

The katana is probably the most famous in terms of combat-focused designs, but a close second is the beloved tanto. A very core idea of many sword-based Japanese martial arts is the idea of daishō, which translates to “big-little”. 

Daishō essentially just means having one long sword, and one short sword or long knife to accompany it. Traditionally, the larger sword would often be left outside when entering a palace or other government building, or a temple, and the shorter weapon would be carried inside, tucked through a sash.

The Sidearm of Choice Before Pistols

Originally conceived as a sidearm to be paired with a long sword, the tanto was first carried primarily by Samurai alongside a tachi, the precursor to the katana most of us are familiar with from modern popular culture. 

Over time, the tanto become more widespread, and a smaller version known as a kaiken became popular as a self-defense tool for women. Over several hundred years, the tanto became shorter and thicker, and closer to the blade we know today. 

Japanese Tanto Knife
Photo: Wikipedia

Though eventually replaced in serious warfare by the wakizashi (functionally just a shorter katana, though with some design differences) the tanto remained popular for ceremonial usage and became a matter of pride and expression to wear or own in later years. 

The tanto then saw a resurgence in the years leading up to WWII, as they were viewed as more traditional by the Imperial Court. Following Japan’s defeat, limits on sword forging caused a decline in all traditional Japanese sword-making.

In the 1960s, American and European obsession with Japanese martial arts (spurred on by excellent films such as 7 Samurai, Yojimbo, and others) lead to a resurgence of the tanto, particularly as a combat-focused knife shape. 

Today, the iconic tanto tip is found on traditional full-length fixed blades, as well as more modern folding pocket knives designed for tactical/defensive use. Plenty of manufacturers make tanto-tipped knives, as well as smiths making excellent traditional tantos. (We’re going to cover both in our reviews, don’t worry).

What makes a Tanto, a Tanto?

Today, the definition of a tanto has shifted far beyond the traditional knife of 10th-century Japan, but we’re going to start there and then we’ll talk about the more modern incarnation where we see tanto tips added to a variety of EDC and tactical knives. 

Traditional Tanto Blades

Originally, the tanto was more what we would call a short sword, or perhaps a long dagger, and was worn by samurai. It was very much a weapon to begin with, but become a more ornate and ceremonial piece over the years as weapon designs evolved.

The traditional tanto was a single or double-edged dagger with a length of around 6-12 inches and was designed primarily for stabbing. It was forged with very flat sides, and some were left short with an extra thick cross-section to aid in piercing armor.

Modern Tanto Blades

The more modern interpretation of the tanto is heavily influenced by American tactical knife designs and proves more common outside of Japan. Traditional blades are still made (and beautiful) but less practical for the modern world. 

A variety of American and European knife makers now produce tanto-inspired knives with a very angular tip with the iconic sharply-upswept blade tip, essentially leaving you with two cutting planes—one parallel to the spine of the knife, and one at a 45-degree(ish) angle to the spine angling up towards the tip.

Tanto Knife Edge

Most of these modern “American tanto” designs are folding knives, and while many are for “tactical” or defensive use, the tanto blade shape has become increasingly popular for EDC knives as well. 

Pros of the Tanto Design

Piercing: Piercing, piercing, piercing. The shape of the tanto is optimized for stabbing and piercing, and it excels in those contexts.

Whether you’re a pre-Edo period Samurai trying to slip a blade between (or through) segments of your opponent’s armor, or a frustrated office worker attempting to poke your way into some plastic clamshell packaging, the tanto is ideal for putting a hole in something.

We see similar knives used for leather work around the world, and with good reason. The tanto is great for putting a hole in tough material. 

Draw Cuts: Modern American tantos are also great for draw cuts and slices, particularly when you’re working with something on a flat surface like a cutting board. The dual edge geometry makes short work of many slicing tasks.

You can also (carefully) use that second point where the two edges meet like a chisel for shaving wood, scraping a sticker, etc. This makes for a very handy EDC. 

Defense: Lastly, as a defensive tool, tantos excel because of their narrow, piercing point. This point easily defeats heavy clothing and makes for an effective means of defense in skilled hands. 

Many knife-based martial arts focus on stabbing strikes as the most effective fight-enders, and the tanto fits that training paradigm very well, while still being perfectly capable of slashing. 

Cons of the Tanto Design

Cutting Edge: The tanto’s main drawback, besides additional time and care needed when sharpening, is the fact that you lose some usable blade edge by having essentially two edges, one parallel to the spine and one swept forward and upwards. 

In practical use, this means you have less effective blade length for certain tasks, around 20% less than you’d have with an equivalent-length drop or clip-point blade. To compensate, tanto blades intended for EDC are usually a bit longer than a similar knife with a different point. 

All of this can be adjusted for, and as long as you aren’t doing something like spoon carving, you probably won’t notice a difference in real-world use. 

At the end of the day, “real-world use” for most of us is opening boxes and packaging, and slicing apart those god-awful packing straps used to hold children’s toys in display boxes. And the tanto excels at all those tasks. 

How The Hell Do You Sharpen a Tanto?

Sharpening a tanto may look a bit scary, but once you break the process down, it’s quite simple. All you’re doing is sharpening two edges that meet at a point. The only real pitfall is that it’s easy to round over the point where the forward edge and the edge parallel to the spine meet. 

To avoid this, be mindful of that meeting point, and stop your sharpening stroke on or before it. Then, when sharpening the forward edge, rotate the blade and sharpen it in much the same way you would a chisel. 

Just be careful not to pull through the point where the two edges meet so you don’t round over that point and you’ll be good to go. Beyond that, it’s just like sharpening any other knife. 

10 Ten Knives with Tanto Blades: EDC, Fixed Blades, and Folders

CIVIVI Elementum Tanto

Tanto Knife Civivi

The CIVIVI Elementum has become something of a modern classic in the EDC knife world. Since its release a few years ago has gone on to become one of the most popular pocket knives around. 

There is a nearly limitless amount of blade and handle combinations out there now, but we’re going to focus on this excellent tanto blade with a copper handle. 

At its core, this is still the same Elementum knife aficionados are already familiar with (a simple, dependable liner-lock flipper folder) but outfitted with a tanto blade that makes piercing tasks a cinch, without compromising on slicing performance. 

Basically, it’s everything you need in an EDC knife for regular daily tasks, and it comes with a gussied-up stonewashed tanto blade and a lovely hand-polished copper handle that adds a touch of class and elegance to this very affordable knife. 

The Elementum tanto is also available in a button lock version and features a 2.96-inch blade made of D2 steel.

MSRP: $80

Kershaw Emerson CQC-7K

Kershaw Emerson Tanto

Ernest Emerson has brought much success to Kershaw with his designs. Back in 2014 he hit it out of the park again with the Emerson CQC-7k, which won that year’s Best Buy award at BLADE Show for sheer value. In the almost ten years since it’s held its own as one of the best EDC options out there. 

It features the iconic Emerson Wave that facilitates blade deployment by simply pulling it from the pocket and hooking the “Wave-Shaped Feature” on the pocket on the way out (sort of an inverted kicker).

It also features an ambidextrous thumb disk that doubles as a comfortable place to press your thumb when doing fiddly work. The scales are nicely-textured G10, and the handle features a stainless frame lock that is one of the more secure we’ve tested (read: beat the hell out of). 

The one thing to look out for is the blade steel. I would suggest spending an extra few bucks on the D2 stainless version and avoiding the 8cr14Mov version. There’s no reason to spend more than $40 on a knife with bottom-tier blade steel like that in this day and age. 

You can get five gas station knives for that price and be better off. 

The Emerson CQC-7K has a D2 blade that is 3.25-inches long.

MSRP: Starting at $74

Benchmade Bailout

Tanto Knife Benchmade

You’ve heard of the Bugout, surely. Now meet its newer, slightly-tacticooler cousin, the Bailout (one of my favorite knives of the past several years). 

As you can surely imagine, the Bailout is a bit of a riff on the Bugout most of us knife fans know and love, but with some notable changes. Our favorite version is the CPM-M4 model which features woodland green anodized aluminum handles. 

CPM-M4 is a great steel, which you would expect from Benchmade, and the knife itself is the perfect length to straddle the line between EDC knife and tactical folder. It also features a lanyard loop if you’re one of those people who like lanyard loops, and more interestingly a micro glass breaker. 

How often do you need to break a car window in an emergency? Probably not very often, but it is nice to have it if you’re leaning toward a more tactical-style knife. You can also get a version that doesn’t have the glass breaker or the aluminum handles if you want to save a bit.

The Bailout features a 3.4-inches, CPM-M4 blade.

MSRP: $129

Ontario Ti-22 Equinox

Tanto Knife Ontario

Ontario Knife Co. is one of the most criminally underrated makers out there. Everything in its catalog is smartly designed and intended to excel in real-world conditions. That includes the Ti-22 Equinox.

It features, as the name suggests, a full titanium handle and an S35VN blade coated black to inhibit rust and corrosion in difficult environments. S35VN is a premium steel that holds an edge incredibly well, and the lightweight titanium handle is as robust as you could ever want. 

The action is flippy and fidget-friendly, and the handle feels comfortable during extended use. The blade slices paper right out of the box, and comes to a sharp angle where the forward edge meets the primary cutting edge, giving you plenty of piercing power. 

Draw cuts, slicing, and even some camp kitchen prep were easy and straightforward, and the knife handled being carried on a sailboat for a week without showing any signs of rust. All in all, a great EDC that again toes the line towards the more tactical/defensive side of things. 

The Ti-22 has an S35VN blade that is 3.03-inches long. 

MSRP: $138

Case Kinzua

Case Tanto

Case Knives made a flipper! Several actually, with the Kinzua being part of the first line of Modern Everyday Carry Knives to come from this iconic brand. 

This isn’t your grandad’s Case knife, though we love some of those old three-blade traditional babies as much as anyone. These are incredibly modern designs for a modern audience that expects things like one-handed opening, a frame lock, and a deep-carry pocket clip.

In addition to all that, the Kinzua (named for a scenic forestry area in Allegheny County, PA) features an S35VN blade and faceted anodized aluminum handles that are a joy to hold. The flipper tab is nicely contoured, and the knife opens and closes smoothly. 

The tip is a now-familiar American tanto and is great for piercing pesky packages, or anything else you might need to poke a hole into during your daily life. 

MSRP: $179

Spyderco Paramilitary 2 Tanto

Tanto Knife Spyderco

The Spyderco Paramilitary 2 (or PM2) is beloved in the EDC community, and it’s not hard to figure out why. 

It features a polished washer pivot system that is very smooth to open and close, features Spyderco’s iconic compression lock, and now, for the first time, comes with a tanto blade. 

That blade is made of CPM-S30V steel, one of the best you can get in a pocket knife at this price range. Sharpening isn’t too difficult, and the edge will last you a very long time, even with aggressive daily use battering away as you slice open Amazon boxes (or whatever). 

The PM2 has fine-textured G-10 handle scales out of the box, but you and your trusty screwdriver can pop those off and replace them with any one of roughly ten bazillion aftermarket options. Companies like Flytanium keep PM2 owners well-supplied with choices.

MSRP: $246  

The Spyderco PM2 Tanto features a 3.44-inch blade made of CPM-S30V steel.  

Cold Steel Recon Tanto

Cold Steel Tanto

Of course, we can’t have a list of modern tanto knives without bringing out something from Cold Steel, the progenitors of the modern “American tanto” that is the most accurate description of most of the knives on this list. 

Their Recon Tanto is our first fixed blade on this list and is positioned as a tactical/rescue blade. The incredibly robust SK5 steel used in the blade is a common for hard-use tools like machetes and survival knives, particularly military ones. 

The grip is made with Kray-Ex, which is designed to maintain good friction in the hand at all times, even if your hands are wet or you’re wearing gloves. It also doesn’t shred your paws like some rougher materials. 

If you’re looking for a more tactical tanto that can handle everything from camp tasks to self-defense, this is a great option that is a bit heavy, but bomb-proof and reliable. 

The Recon Tanto has a 7-inch SK5 high-carbon steel blade. 

MSRP: Starting at $70

Chaves Redención Street Tanto

Tanto Knife Chaves

Ramon Chaves is a custom knife maker that has made a name for himself as one of the premier designers of tough, hard-wearing, but still stylish blades. His Redención tanto is…very expensive, and worth every penny, exactly the way a custom knife should be. 

If you’ve got the cash and you like the look of it, especially if you enjoy the artisan nature of a custom knife, go buy that.

For those of us with slightly less to spend, Reate has put out a production version of the Redención that comes with a slightly more obtainable street price and is considerably easier to find in stock. 

Ramon works hard, but it’s always going to take longer to produce a custom knife than a production knife coming from a factory with purpose-built tooling. The Redención Street is a great way to get your hands on the design, without waiting months for the custom version.

The Street Tanto is an incredibly well-built framelock folder with an aggressive piercing tip. Despite a 3.63-inch blade length, the whole thing weighs in at just over 6oz thanks to the titanium handle design (which you can get in about two dozen different colors). 

The blade is made from the fabulous Bohler M390 steel, one of the best you’ll find in a pocket knife. 

MSRP: $300

Siam Blades Traditional Black Copper Hira Tanto

Lastly, I’m throwing in a little treat for the two or three of you reading this who came here looking for traditional, no-fooling, tantos made the old way. Siam Blades is a traditional blacksmith shop located in Thailand, but they have Japanese-trained smiths that create blades using traditional methods.

For most people, this is going to be a good balance of value and authenticity. A traditional tanto made in Japan will probably run you about three times what this one does. The Black Copper Hira tanto is made to a similar standard, in the same traditional way, and is as beautiful as it is functional.

Best of all, they have stock ready to ship, so you don’t have to wait 18 months for your tanto to be finished and shipped. I’ve chosen the Black Copper version here, but there is a large variety available depending on what aesthetic you’re going after. 

The blade itself is made of extremely durable high-carbon SK5 steel (very common in machetes, and battle-ready sword reproductions) and is 9.5-inches long.

MSRP: $820

Final Thoughts on Tanto Knives

The tanto is an iconic design, whether we’re talking about the traditional Japanese original or the modern American remix. This knife shape has stuck around for a thousand years for a reason. 

Today, most production tantos are more in the American style at least as far as the tip goes, but this battle-tested design has its roots going back much farther. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look into that long history, and you’ve got a better idea of what your options are for picking up a tanto of your very own.

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