PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENT BY ENSURING PROPER SHEATH SELECTION
One of the most important, yet often overlooked, considerations when purchasing a knife is its primary home: the sheath.
It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the intricacies of the knife itself—with super steels and exotic handles to catch your attention. The sheath, I argue, is an equally important factor.
With so many options to choose from, it is easy to get disoriented and lose track of what to look for. Because your knife will likely spend most of its time in service sheathed at your side, don’t let proper sheath selection become an afterthought.
Here are some basics to point you in the right direction and get you started in selecting the best sheath for your needs.
Natural or Manmade Material?
Sheaths tend to fall into two main categories—leather and synthetic. Synthetic sheaths include Kydex, injection-molded plastic and nylon. Some sheaths, although not nearly as common, are being made from machined metal. Both natural and manmade categories offer distinct advantages and drawbacks.
Leather sheaths have a very traditional look and can be found at every price point. The least expensive might be made from lightweight leather, untreated leather or minimally finished leather. These sheaths could lack a refined finish or show the marks from the sewing machine foot.
Higher-end leather sheaths are often hand stitched, engraved/tooled or feature exotic inlay materials—such as rare snake or ray skins.
Become an educated customer and ask questions such as, “Is the leather vegetable tanned?” and “Do you use oil dye?” Both are important features and will indicate the value of the sheath you’re considering.
“BECAUSE YOUR KNIFE WILL LIKELY SPEND MOST OF ITS TIME IN SERVICE SHEATHED AT YOUR SIDE, DON’T LET PROPER SHEATH SELECTION BECOME AN AFTERTHOUGHT.”
Synthetic sheaths can also vary in price and quality. Depending on the value of the knife, it might come with a simple nylon sheath with a rolled plastic insert or can have a highly customized Kydex sheath with additional accessories attached to the sheath body.
Synthetic sheaths tend to be working sheaths, and what they lack in looks they make up for in performance. In other words, they might not look like leather, but they will probably never rot, hold moisture or get scratched as easily.
Instead of stitching, most Kydex and injection-molded plastic sheaths are held together with rivets. Synthetic sheaths will not absorb many liquids and can be used in adverse weather without the need for much upkeep.
Because these sheaths are often molded or shaped to fit a particular blade, they can offer excellent retention—another important factor to think about when choosing the proper sheath.
Kydex sheaths are lightweight and, given their rigid design, can feature a small footprint with minimal bulk in their construction. Much like leather, Kydex sheaths come in different thicknesses; obviously, the thicker the material, the heavier the weight.
Getting a Grip
At the very least, a knife should have enough retention to hold it securely inside the sheath when the sheath is tipped upside down. (This is not to suggest you will be upside down wearing it, but that could happen.) Instead, this important ability is to prevent your knife from being dropped, damaged or lost.
Bushcraft knives and those meant for survival should have a secure means of “locking” the knife into the sheath. Many times, this is accomplished just by looping a paracord lanyard behind the belt the sheath is worn on.
Other times, this is accomplished with the deep “pocket-style” sheaths that only leave a small section of the handle exposed. Some sheaths feature multiple retention straps around the handle, while others, such as deep-pocket sheaths, provide retention from the squeeze placed around the handle.
Some hunting knives with pronounced guards may have sheaths with a snap strap to keep the blade in the sheath.
Take note of the placement of the strap and its orientation to the cutting edge. A common complaint about sheaths of this design is that the blade can cut the keeper strap as it is drawn. If the knife is drawn and re-sheathed carefully, this is a non-issue.
Knives with tactical intent should be easily accessed with a good master grip, with most of the hand in position to grasp the knife and retrieve it from the sheath securely.
A good tactical-style sheath should be unobtrusive, capable of multiple carry positions and snap securely with good tactile and audible feedback, letting the user know it is locked back in place.
Keeping it Close By
Sheaths can be attached to your person or gear in a variety of ways. These generally include loops, clips, cords or straps.
Belt loops range in size, so you should be aware of the size of the loop on your sheath in relationship to the size of your belt. Just as a small belt loop will cause you trouble, too large a loop will let the knife move forward or backward easily.
Also consider the ride height that the belt loop offers. Some belt loops sit flush with the opening of the sheath for a “mid-ride,” with the handle higher than the belt, while others are dropped, with the handle of the knife sitting below the belt.
“BOTH NATURAL AND MANMADE CATEGORIES OFFER DISTINCT ADVANTAGES AND DRAWBACKS.”
Additionally, some sheaths come with clips. These are not all created the same. Plastic clips are often prone to breaking and offer little retention. Cloth-grabber clips, which require no belt at all, vary in quality. You should factor in their strength and durability before tucking in a knife that costs a few hundred dollars and could ultimately become unsecured and lost.
Neck knives often get suspended inverted or handle-up around the neck or torso, with some form of ball-chain or breakaway cordage. Both leather and paracord are used frequently in the main body of the neck lanyard.
In the case of inside-the-pocket sheaths, they will not have any means of carrying for the belt and rely solely on your pants pockets not having any holes to keep them secure.
Some knifemakers are highly talented sheath-makers. Some make sheaths that are just good enough to carry your knife, and others do not provide sheaths at all.
It is not uncommon to seek out custom makers to create the ideal sheath for you. If you need a custom sheath, you can search online for reputable makers. If the knife is a custom creation, you will likely have to send it to the sheathmaker for fitting.
Alternatively, you’ll have to purchase a universal design and roll the dice. Should your knife be common, the sheath-maker might have it in stock and save you the trouble of mailing yours out.
And that is another consideration to keep in mind: When you factor in shipping and insurance, as well as the actual cost of the creation, custom sheaths can become expensive in the long run. Be prepared to pay for quality.
Custom sheaths give incredible options. Firesteel loops, sharpening/honing steel pouches, cross-draw configurations, piggy-backed smaller blade options, magnetic retention—the list of options is far and wide.
At some point, a basic sheath can become complex and truly unique. Getting exactly what you want makes a custom order well worth the additional expense.
Of course, if you are the “crafty” type, you can also custom-make your own sheath. There are many great tutorials online to help get you started.
An Integral Part of the Experience
The sheath for your prized knife shouldn’t be an afterthought. It is truly an important part of the knife-buying experience; and only when you know what to look for can you have peace of mind that your blade will stay in place—by your side.
Do your homework and try many models and styles. Never stop at “okay,” because your knife deserves the best … and that is what you should always try to achieve.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2019 print issue of Knives Illustrated.