The Best Neck Knives: Small Functional Knives To Bring With You
There are all kinds of knives out there. No matter what you want one for, chances are, there is a specialty blade available for just that purpose. There are knives for kitchen work, wood work, craftsman, outdoors, fishing, boating… There have even been knives designed specifically to go into space, made by Randall, Emerson, Case, and Victorinox (Canadian astronaut Chis Hadfield used a Swiss Army Knife to break into the Russian MIR space station in 1995). There really is a knife for every purpose.
One of the newer types of knives currently on the market is the neck knife. Over the years, there have been many people who have modified some smaller knives so that they could be worn and deployed from a neck-carry position. But the first actual knife designed specifically as a neck knife was the Buddy System knife, in the 1980s. It was designed and patented by the legendary Blackie Collins. He used a new polymer material called Kydex to make a friction fit sheath that would allow the knife to ‘lock’ into the sheath securely, without the need for a retaining strap. This is what makes neck knives possible. It wasn’t too long before other companies began marketing their own versions, such as the Woo, the Hideout by Pat Crawford, and some designs by Bob Dozier and Bud Nealy, who coined the term, ‘neck knife’. By the late 1990s, neck knives had begun to make an impact on the knife market, and several other production knife companies like Cold Steel, CRKT, Boker, and Kabar began to offer their own versions. Now, neck knives have a certain following. They are either loved, or hated, by millions of blade enthusiasts around the world.
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What Is A Neck Knife?
As I said earlier, many knives have been modified so they could be carried around the neck, but for the purposes of this article, we will only concentrate on utility blades made specifically as ‘neck knives’. I did not include push-daggars, or knives designed primarily for combat, because I don’t think they are very useful for everyday tasks. I consider them Hide-Out knives, and will review them in a later article.
A neck knife is a small fixed-blade knife, usually with a blade of 3” or less, either plain or serrated, single-edged, and uses a specialty sheath molded so that the blade ‘snaps’ into place, locking it firmly in the sheath. The knife is held in the sheath only by friction, and form-fitting. The sheath will have a hole, or holes, drilled through the bottom where a bead chain or paracord loop can be attached, and the loop placed over the neck. The knife can be worn ‘blade down’, also called the Mountain Man Carry, or with the blade pointing ‘up’, and can be worn either inside, or outside the shirt. Deploying the blade involves simply giving it a good tug, freeing the knife from the sheath. To return it to the sheath, you just slide the blade in until it ‘clicks’, and locks in.
Various steels are used in the blade, but since the blade is so short, I would opt for the best steel possible. As far as scales, many neck knives do not have any, or just use a paracord wrap (which is fine by me…I love paracord…), but some also have Gri-Ex, G-10, Zytel, or even wood scales. Just remember, the more elaborate the handle, the bigger the footprint and weight will be.
Why Carry A Neck Knife?
I have to admit, I have never used neck knives until recently. I have always regarded the blades as too small for any real use, and most of the ones I have seen were cheaply-made, with junky steel like 420J, and worse. But in writing this article, and testing some of the best neck knives out there, my opinions have changed somewhat. A well-made neck knife can be a very useful tool, especially under some special situations.
If you paddle canoes and kayaks, you can see the logic in having a knife that can be attached to a PFD, and neck knives are perfect for this. While at the beach, wearing swim gear, there is no place (as a rule) to carry a pocket knife, at least where it can be readily deployed. Neck knives solve this problem elegantly. They are also very handy at the gym, because tights and gym shorts do not always have pockets, and your knife can fall out of a pocket when doing things like leg presses, using weight machines, or lifting free weights. I have had pocket knives pop out of my pockets many times while playing squash, volleyball, badminton, tennis, handball, racquetball, etc… Lycra bicycle shorts do not have pockets, and it may be difficult to reach behind you into your jersey pocket while riding, especially on a recumbent bike. A neck knife is easily accessible while riding.
Surprisingly, I found another situation that neck knives solve very well. If you wade trout streams with chest waders while fly fishing, you know that there is no way to realistically carry a pocket knife where you can get to it if you need it. Your fly vest pockets are going to be full of fly fishing necessities, and your pant’s pockets are completely inaccessible. A sheath knife around your waist is not possible because of the danger of loose fly line loops snagging on it during the forward-cast. I found that a neck knife is comfortable to wear all day, and easily accessible while wearing fly fishing gear and waders. It could actually save your life.
Pocket knives and sheath knives are very difficult to deploy when sitting down, especially when wearing a seat belt. Neck knives are easy to draw from a sitting position. If you are involved in an accident, trapped in your vehicle by the seat belt, and possibly injured, a neck knife is much easier to get to, than trying to squirm around (if you are able to) to get at your pockets, and there may not be enough time. If you replace the bead chain lanyard with paracord, then you also have a piece of cordage always available for making a tourniquet, tying something together, making a snare, or any number of things.
If you are concerned with conceal-ability, a neck knife under the shirt has a very low visual footprint. Personally, I do not care about conceal-ability, and actually prefer for others to know I have a blade. I commonly wear a sheath knife in public (up to a 5” blade, it is legal where I live), and if anyone freaks out because they see it, well, that’s their problem. But there are times when it would be more socially appropriate to conceal your blade. I am also a musician, and wear tuxedos frequently. Tuxedo pockets are very loose, and knives can easily fall out of the slash pockets. Wearing a neck knife, and adjusting the length to where it rides just above the cummerbund, allows for quick deployment just by pulling or popping one shirt button. Neck knives are great when wearing a suit, and will not freak people out in a social setting.
These are just a few of the situations where a neck knife can be handy. Situations where a neck knife is not a good option is laying down prone, or hanging upside down. Neck knives can also be a little tricky to deploy when walking and running, because they do bounce around some. Another disadvantage is that neck-carry limits the size of the blade you can comfortably carry to about 3”. 3” is a little puny for some tasks, but better than not having a knife at all.
Over-all, a neck knife may be a very good investment for some situations, or just for your personal preference. I wouldn’t recommend a neck knife as my main knife, but since researching for this article, I have been wearing a neck knife as a back-up every day.
What To Look For In A Neck Knife
There are some outstanding neck knives available, and there is a lot of cheap junk as well. Basically, you should use the same criteria in selecting a neck knife that you would use for any other knife.
First, decide what you want the knife for, because this will determine the blade shape. A modified Bowie-Style blade is a good choice for general use. If you think you might need to use it to skin something, or prepare food, a modified “Beavertail”, or drop-point blade is excellent. For general EDC, spike blades, Karambit-Style blades, and other exotic styles may work for you. If you are unsure, go with a Bowie, or drop-point blade. They are the most versatile, and time-proven designs.
Next, pay attention to the steel. which is the heart of any knife. Avoid cheap steels like 440A, C, 420, and ‘mystery’ steels. Good knife manufacturers are proud of their designs, and are not afraid to tell you what steel they used. Avoid any knife marked simply, “Stainless Steel”, or, “Surgical Steel”, because they obviously used low-quality steel. Chinese knives are fine if they are from a good manufacturer. After all, China is the original inventor of steel, and they still make excellent knife steel to this day. For the money, it is hard to beat 8CR13MOV. It holds a wicked edge, sharpens easy, and has excellent rust resistance. It is used on a lot of great knife models from companies like Spyderco, Gerber, Camillus, Ontario, etc…. Japanese steel, like AUS 8 is also excellent. Other good steels are 4116 Krupp, from Germany, and any of the new super-steels. I prefer 1095 high carbon, or similar steels, but stainless is OK if it’s good steel.
Pay attention to the scales. Some neck knives do not have any real scales, and are just paracord-wrapped. Personally, I love these, because they are just one piece of steel, with nothing to break, no rivets or screws to work loose, etc… But there are those who feel they are uncomfortable in the hand. To each, his own…. I would not consider anything with scales less than Grivory, Griv-Ex, FRN, Micarta, or other high-performance polymer. Wood is OK, but will require extra maintenance, and is sensitive to both temperature and moisture. As I said, my favorite is plain-old paracord…simple, tough, and useful. I would pass on fancy materials like ivory, pearl, bone, etc… Pretty?… Sure, but who is going to see it?
Don’t forget the sheath. These are invariably going to be made of Conceal-Ex, Kydex, or other thermoplastic polymers, since the blade is retained in the sheath only by friction and form-fit. Avoid leather, or plastic. They will not hold the knife well, and will deteriorate quickly. Be sure to test the draw. You want the knife to be held securely, but come loose with a good sharp tug, and not hang up. The blade should not rattle in the sheath. A good test is to give yourself plenty of space in a safe area, hold the sheath, with the knife in it, at arms-length over a soft, non-bouncy surface like grass, and give the sheath a good shake or two. The knife should not come out.
The Best Neck Knives: My 3 Favorites
I acquired 8 knives for testing from various manufacturers, but only these 3 models stood out significantly. They were tested on cleaning trout, skinning small game, cutting frozen chicken, trimming small brush, whittling, cutting through 1” river cane, 1” hemp rope, 750 paracord, leather, and 1/2” cardboard. The other models I considered a waste of money. Out of respect for the manufacturers, I will not name them.
CRKT Minimalist Bowie
Minimalist is right. At a mere 2 oz., including the sheath, you’ll never notice it around your neck. Designed by Alan Folts, this little CRKT knife is about as perfect as a knife this size, and in its price-range, can be. The diminutive 2-1/4” blade is surprisingly useful. The 5CR15MOV steel holds a great edge, and has excellent anti-rust properties. The sheath is Zytel, offers multiple carry options, and is almost indestructible. The scales are good solid Micarta.
The Minimalist did a very nice job cleaning trout, and was a very passable skinning knife on an opossum, and squirrels. The small size actually made skinning small game easier, with less damage to the hide. Would I use this to skin a deer or hog? No, but I probably could if I needed to…it would just take a while…. This was nice to know. It chopped onions and peppers very well. The 5CR15MOV blade literally glided through paracord, rope, brush and cardboard. I was able to baton it through 1” river cane, then slice a small tomato so thin you could see through it, all without re-sharpening.
Just for fun, I even sliced up a bean can with it, with no damage to the edge that I could detect. Due to the blade design, you can only whittle away from you, but it feathered white pine very well, and I was even able to whittle a small bass popper out of a piece of birch. It felt very comfortable in my hand with a 3-finger grip, was very maneuverable. The jimping allows for great precision work. I made a few tomato roses and carrot flowers, and they turned out almost as good as they would with my specialty knives. As far as EDC, the Bowie blade is as good for defense as any other style in this size would be. The scales provide a secure grip, and it is very quick and maneuverable. The knife deployed quickly and easily, and went back into the sheath with a nice sharp ‘click’.
The only thing I could suggest to improve this knife would be to modify the blade slightly to accommodate a small jimped choil, for even finer detail work. The price is low. It’s a lot of bang for your buck.
Kabar Becker Necker
My favorite of all the knives I tested for this article, and the one I now carry as back-up for EDC. From the company that designed the greatest military knife in all of history (USMC Combat Knife), and designed by Ethan Becker, the Necker is an outstanding knife, even when compared to its full-sized brethren, like the USMC Knife.
This is a neck knife that doesn’t know it is a neck knife. To start off with, it is made of wonderful 1095 Cro-Van high-carbon steel…super-sharp, tough, and time-proven. The blade is epoxy-coated to help it resist rust in extreme conditions. It has no scales, but has holes to wrap paracord through, or use torque screws to make your own handle easily, out of whatever you want. I prefer it just the way it is. The holes also allow it to be lashed to a stick or staff for a make-shift spear, or for extra reach. The drop-point blade it perfect for almost anything. Beefier than the other neck knives I tested, The 3-1/3” blade is as large as some hunting knives, but small enough to be comfortably worn around the neck with the included paracord lanyard. The butt-end has an integral can/bottle opener and wire-cutter….a nice touch. At 4 oz. it may be a little heavier than most other neck knives, but it more than makes up for it in performance. It has a finger guard, and jimping can easily be added to the spine if desired. It even came with a striker to start fires with. What more could you ask for? The FRN-type sheath holds the blade securely and has multiple carry options.
I was able to wear this comfortably around my neck while kayaking, hiking, and doing yard work. Strangely, the extra weight gave me a feeling of security. It deployed quickly and easily from under my T-Shirt, and was no problem to return it to its sheath.
The Necker worked just like I would expect any good small hunting knife to function. It cleaned trout perfectly, and I even dressed out 3 semi-large carp with it. It skinned small game acceptably, and made short work of rope, paracord, cardboard, and river cane. I batoned it through 3” diameter pine wood with no trouble (something I did not try with the other knives…). I feel confident it would dress out a deer or hog very efficiently, if needed. The drop-point blade makes it an acceptable caping knife. In fact, to make a long story short, there is nothing I would not do with this knife. I even took it snorkeling for mussels, and it makes a very handy dive knife. This is the only knife of all that I tested that I would consider for a primary EDC blade. In fact, I now carry one as a back-up. At this price, this is a great bargain. It may be a little pricier than some other neck knives, but you get what you pay for.
ESEE Izula II
Another great knife from ESEE. I rate this one almost as highly as the Kabar. I say almost, simply because I prefer the lack of scales and slightly larger blade of the Kabar, but that is just me. Your mileage may vary….
Also, like the Kabar, what sets this knife apart from the rest is its functionality. This is a utility knife that can be worn as a neck knife. It is not just a cutesy, trendy piece of jewelry, like many other neck knife models. The 2-3/4” blade is made of outstanding 1095 high carbon steel and comes as sharp as a retort from my wife when she is irritated. A stainless steel version is also available. The scales are canvas-textured Micarta, and feel great in the hand. The grip is a little larger than the Kabar, and may be better for people with larger hands. The jimping allows for fine detail work. I would consider this a fine Upland Bird Knife. The FRN sheath offers multiple carry options. At around 3-1/2 oz., it is not too heavy, but robust enough for real tasks.
In summary, the Izula performed admirably on all tasks, except that I did not baton through large diameter wood with it, because of the risk of damaging the scales. It cleaned fish, dressed birds and small game, cut frozen meat, cut rope, cane, and even bamboo with relative ease. The choil allows you to choke up on both sides of the blade for incredibly detailed work. The sheath holds the knife securely, and allows for quick deployment. It was the most expensive of the knives I tested, but still well worth the price.
It’s Your Turn
You may have your own favorite neck knife model, and I do not mean to denigrate anyone’s choice. But, I believe that if you are going to carry a neck knife, you should carry the best neck knife you can get, and these 3 models are what I feel represent the best value vs utility. Of course, just about any decent knife is better than none at all. Whichever model you choose, be sure to take good care of your knives, because you may need them to take care of you someday….