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  • Sean Tirman

The Most Overlooked Feature on Your Pocket Knife Is Also One of the Most Important

You might be surprised by the number of methods there are to open up a pocket knife.

There are many bits and pieces of pocket knives to get excited about, and some get a lot more love than others. Blades and blade steel, for instance, are much more talked about and geeked out over than, say, types of pocket knife hardware. And that’s all well and good; the pointy bits are really the main reason anyone wants a knife.

But there are also some unsung heroes that probably deserve more attention. To that end, we want to illuminate an oft-overlooked pocket knife part: the deployment (AKA the method by which a folding knife is opened). There’s actually a surprising number of deployment methods out there, each with its own functionality, as well as plusses and minuses. Here, we’ve outlined the most common, as well as explained how they function, and offered up an example of a knife featuring the said deployment so you can get a better idea of which works for you.


The simplest of all deployment styles, manual folders require the user to physically put pressure on the blade and either push or pull it in order to remove it from the handle. There are a few variations on this style, however — some that require two hands and others that necessitate only a single finger or thumb. Here are the most common versions of a manual deployment:

Nail Nick

Maybe the most ubiquitous (or at least the oldest) of all knife deployments, the nail nick is a small depression just below the spine of a blade that’s just deep enough for the user to hook a fingernail to it in order to pull a blade from its handle. This is the kind of deployment used on most Swiss Army Knives, traditional/historical pocket knives (like the Buck 110 Folding Hunter) and hundreds of others. While it requires two hands in order to operate, it’s as simple and classic.

Thumb Stud

Another very common manual deployment, this type hinges on a (usually) cylindrical protrusion found on the lower back of a blade (toward the base of the spine). Operable either two- or one-handed, the user simple applies pressure to the stud and pushes the blade out of the handle and into open position. Typically, the stud is found on both sides of the blade, allowing for ambidextrous opening (though not always).

Thumb Disc

Very similar to a thumb stud, albeit slightly sleeker in the closed position, a thumb disc is a small circular token that’s fastened to the spine of a knife, which juts out on either side of the blade’s spine (making this another ambidextrous deployment). Like a thumb stud, a user must simply apply outward pressure on the disc in order to extend the blade away from the handle and into open position.

Thumb Hole

You can think of the thumb hole as kind of the opposite of the thumb stud or perhaps the evolution of the nail nick. This deployment requires that there is a pass-through near the base of the spine of a knife’s blade — a literal hole from one side to the other. To utilize it, you can either grab it from both sides, pinching your fingers together for a two-handed deployment, or you can exert pressure on just one side and push the blade open (depending on the size and shape of the thumb hole, you’ll be met with varied success).


Faster than most manual openings, flippers require a given knife to have some kind of protrusion or textured edge, which allows the user to apply pressure to quickly “flip” the knife blade out of the handle. Typically, these knives exchanged the sleekness of their silhouette in favor of quickness. These are also among the most popular deployments.

Back Flipper

The most common type of flipper, a back flipper has a small notch or protrusion that sticks out of the back of the handle toward the top (near the knife pivot). With a press down on this notch or protrusion, the knife blade with extend out of the handle and slot into its open position. The protrusion usually then sticks out near the front of the handle and acts as a finger guard, preventing the user’s digits from scooting up the handle and onto the blade, serving as an extra bit of security in use.

Front Flipper

Similar in operation to back flippers, front flippers are usually vertically oriented when a given knife is closed, sticking up and away from the blade’s tip rather than out the back of the handle. This usually results in a sleeker overall profile but can necessitate using one’s thumb (rather than an index finger) to flip the knife open. This style requires a bit more practice than a back flipper and can be somewhat clumsily executed, but the tradeoff is that the silhouettes of front flipper knives are usually a bit sleeker than back flippers.

Assisted Opening

Technically speaking (and in theory), an assisted opening can be applied to any kind of deployment. However, they’re definitely most commonly found on flipper knives. This kind of opening still requires initial exertion on the part of the user (unlike automatics, which require virtually no effort at all), but once the knife opens to a certain degree, a spring inside the handle will help “push” the knife out of the handle much more quickly, smoothly and efficiently than the user might on their own.


What makes automatic knives distinct from others is that they require the least amount of effort on the part of the user in order to deploy. Operationally, they rely on internal springs and other mechanisms in order to deploy their blades with lightning quickness. There are three common types, although each operates on the same basic principle.

The first and most common is the button, which requires users to depress a small protrusion (known, unsurprisingly, as a button) into the handle in order to extend the blade. Sliders, however, require users to push a small protrusion/button laterally along the handle (instead of a perpendicular depression) to deploy and unlock their blades. And finally, levers operate similarly to buttons, although they protrude out and away from the handle, rather than being housed within it—like a light switch.

Proprietary Deployments

There are some knife deployment styles that are signatures of specific brands. While they may be similar to other opening methods, they usually have some measure of distinct features to separate them from their cousins. These deployments are fewer and further between, but there are two that stand out as worth mentioning. We’ve outlined these two below.

Spyder Hole (AKA Round Hole)

Operationally speaking, Spyderco’s colloquially-named, patented and trademarked Spyder Hole (technically called the Round Hole) is just a variation on a thumb hole. However, it is much more oversized than most other thumb holes. While this makes it visually distinct from other thumb holes, it also comes with an added benefit: Because there’s a larger space into which you can place your thumb, it offers better leverage than many other similar deployments. This can make it easier and quicker to use than other thumb hole deployments.

Emerson Wave

Much more common with tactical and self-defense folding knives, Emerson’s Wave deployment is actually a type of flipper. However, rather than relying on the user pressing a finger or thumb on the flipper to deploy a given knife, the Wave has a forward hook to it (making it shaped, you guessed it, like an ocean wave) that allows the knife to be deployed as it is removed from the user’s pocket (by hooking onto the edge of the pocket itself. Technically, this makes the Wave the fastest deployment in the world (when the knife is stored in a pocket). Yes, even faster than an automatic.

Kershaw SpeedSafe

Technically speaking, Kershaw’s SpeedSafe is simply an assisted opening. That being said, the brand does own the specific technology — meaning they’re the only brand that can use it without it needing to be licensed out. Functionally (as it applies to the user experience), there’s no difference between Kershaw’s assisted opening and others on the market.

Fixed Blade

Technically speaking, fixed blades don’t have any deployment method of which to speak. This is because they’re not folding knives — i.e. they’re always deployed. However, many fixed-blade knives do come with a sheath — a kind of sleeve into which the knife can be put when not in use, usually made from leather, fabric, or synthetic material and designed to be worn on a belt, bag, boot, etc. A fixed blade’s sheath allows for the safer transport of the knife from place to place, as it prevents the blade’s edge from being exposed in transit.


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