Why carry a knife?

Every since I was a young teen I've been in the habit of carrying a knife on my belt, specifically a "Swiss Army knife"-style multitool. This started when I was gifted a knife a family friend had had when he was in the Boy Scouts. It turns out to be hugely useful to have a knife on hand, since it's effectively several tools in one (even before you get to the rest of the multitool—bottle opener, scissors, screwdrivers, etc.)

Every once in a while, though, I encounter someone who is put out by the idea of carrying a knife, sometimes even nervous or alarmed by the idea of it. Out of the context of the kitchen or workshop, they seem to picture all knives as weapons, not tools. (I suspect these are mostly people who grew up in a suburban environment, never far from the tools they can retrieve from the kitchen or garage.) There's a cultural component here for sure, where people who grow up in rural areas are used to carrying a knife for use on the farm, in the woods, etc. But I've also come to understand that if someone has never carried one, they just have no idea how damned useful they are.

So, in this post I describe how I end up using mine, which may help people understand what the appeal is.

What I carry currently is a Victorinox Swiss Army knife with a 2-3/8" blade and ten or so other tools. I use the other tools as well, but the most versatile of them turns out to be the knife. Some things I've used it for recently, just off the top of my head:

  • Cutting down thick invasive vines when out and about
  • Using the tip to clean out the groove on my garden clippers
  • Cutting up an apple for my daughter when we were at the park
  • Cutting twine when putting up rabbit fencing in the garden and tying it to stakes
  • Opening packages and other boxes, rather than finding a box cutter. (There's a technique for this: Pinch the flats of the blade so only a small portion of edge sticks out. Lift the flaps when cutting the tape on the centerline so that the blade can't reach the contents.)
  • Opening letters, rather than finding a letter opener (I don't think we even have one)
  • Cutting through zip-ties, such as when helping a neighbor remove an outdated political sign from her fence
  • Removing old packing tape that is slowly strangling urban trees long after the sign it was holding was taken down (this sounds weird but it's absurdly common)
  • Paring down a piece of plastic when I was gluing something back together and it didn't fit quite right
  • Removing a splinter (not with the blade, just using the tip to pull the skin back a bit)
  • Tightening the screw on some eyeglasses (this can be really bad for the knife! but it works in a pinch if you don't use much force)
  • Stripping a wire when I was installed an electrical plug (carefully scoring the insulation so I can pull it off)
  • Whittling on a stick when I was bored
  • Harvesting various crops at the farm where we are CSA members
  • Opening blister packs

Of course I use the other tools on there as well: Tweezers, awl, corkscrew, scissors, bottle opener, can opener, weird little hook thing, screwdriver, etc. But most of those are special-purpose and don't come in handy as often. The knife ends up being remarkably versatile, and on the rare occasions I don't have it with me, I find myself annoyed by myriad little tasks that it would have made easier. (This was mostly in the window between 9/11 and when I stopped flying altogether. Teens today might not realize the TSA used to allow pocket knives, which meant you always had them on hand when traveling.) And it means there are certain special-purpose tools I don't need to have at all, such as letter openers and box cutters.

It's true that you need to be careful with knives, just like other basic tools such as hammers and fire. It's also possible that a Swiss Army knife could be used as a weapon, but without a longer blade this is a bit dubious, and without a locking blade it would be just as likely to hurt the wielder as the intended victim. (Locking blades are a safety feature, and larger utilitarian knives usually have them.) There are very few tools that are "safe", but any danger is usually to the user, not bystanders. Knives that are intended for use as weapons generally have a fixed (not folding) blade and are often sharpened on both sides (which is illegal in my state). Other kinds of knives, even large ones, are generally intended as tools. The wicked sharp 10" chef's knife in my kitchen would be a far better improvised weapon than the small, dinged-up knife I wear on my belt, but no one would bat an eye at that being used in its proper context. (And similarly, if you cook a lot and have never had a good chef's knife, you probably don't realize what you're missing.)

Essentially, having a knife on your belt or in your pocket means you're just that much more self-sufficient and capable of handling what life throws at you—it's another tool at your disposal, and one that takes up very little space while also making a surprising number of small tasks go faster and more easily.

I hope this gives people a better understanding of why carrying a knife is so useful, and why they might want to carry a knife or multitool themselves.


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