I see the word "tactical" used to describe objects. But I'm not sure what it is supposed to mean. It doesn't obviously flow from the usual dictionary definition of "tactical", which describes plans and actions.

The word seems to be used in a military, police or perhaps general combat context. I'm not sure if it would cover a general fighting context, such as street fighting.

Eg the following news article of 9-June-2022 describes a man as having a "tactical knife": Armed man charged with attempted murder of US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh - ABC News

The man, identified as Nicholas Roske from Los Angeles, was carrying a handgun he had purchased to kill Justice Kavanaugh, as well as ammunition, a tactical knife, pepper spray and other items, according to an FBI agent.

But the word doesn't just describe weapons. It may also describe torches/flashlights, backpacks or water bottle holders. There are shops that sell "tactical gear", eg Tactical Gear Australia—Supplier of Police Military Outdoor Products. That web site has a banner that says "tactical; law enforcement; military; outdoor; survival".

So, the word seems often related to military and law enforcement, but not exclusively. What is the essential meaning of this usage of "tactical"?

  • 2
    It’s just a fluff word, like “professional” or “deluxe”. Don’t look for something that isn’t there. Army dressup is not the same as real army. Jun 9 at 6:30
  • @GlobalCharm I can understand that it might be fluff for retail/marketing. But, how about the quote from the ABC News article? Is that a technical term that came from the FBI agent? Jun 9 at 7:39
  • 2
    It’s more than fluff or dress-up. A tactical knife is a knife suitable for use in a defensive or aggressive purpose, not merely for cleaning fish after they have been caught, or cooking dinner once caught.
    – Xanne
    Jun 9 at 8:33
  • … . .It has a purpose in an altercation, even among individuals. The analogy is from military operations.
    – Xanne
    Jun 9 at 8:37
  • 1
    @GlobalCharm I don't think it's "just fluff" in "tactical nuclear weapon".
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 10 at 19:02

3 Answers 3


I agree that the word 'tactical' is often mis and/or over-used, usually to appeal to wannabe warriors like Kyle whatshisname. A search on Amazon.com yields any number and type of equipment that is styled as 'tactical'...

However, the usage of the word used only to apply to equipment that performed a specific offensive/defensive purpose...

: of or relating to combat tactics: such as...
(1) : of or occurring at the battlefront a tactical defense; a tactical first strike,
(2) : using or being weapons or forces employed at the battlefront; tactical missiles

-Merriam Webster

The most extreme usage of the term is seen in "tactical nukes". These were designed for the battle front, but are admittedly a bit of overkill in tank warfare. (Expect to see more usage of this term in the near future.)

[By way of comparison, we also see the term 'Strategic'... Many people do not understand, or cannot explain the difference, and really has no bearing on the topic at hand...]

So what does "tactical" mean more recently?

In the last 20-30 years, the term has been extended to body armor, as well as MOLLE vests and other equipment that attaches to these as used in small arms tactics (such as knives). [See the second image below.]

Knife Lore

"The good knife fighter thinks on point and blade and shearing-guard simultaneously. The point can also cut; the blade can also stab;"

Frank Herbert (Dune)

Knives have many uses, but primarily they are intended for cutting and stabbing. Most people who look at knives with a civilian eye see only the shiny tool that cuts their tomatoes. Professionals such as Chefs think on the cutting edge, and butchers look at the tip, but also the edge.

Some large knives are designed for survival in the field; this may include self-defense.

For example, to the left in the first image below, the heavy ESSE 5S is considered a survival knife. It was designed for RAT SAR, and made to chop its way out of a downed helicopter and also to survive in the field. It's primary purpose is to cut and hack (see: batoning). It includes other features that are non-tactical. It is considered unbreakable, but some old hands may blunt the tip just in case.

The two knives to the right (Gerber StrongArm and Boker Nano L-R) I would consider tactical; notice the spear tip. Its primary purpose is to provide maximum penetration. If you try to chop wood with these they might break. Tactical blades like these are often worn clipped to a Molle vest (see link above, and image below), or even hidden inside a boot.

This is my expert opinion...however, most civilians and even war correspondents may not see the differences, and probably refer to all of these as "tactical".

To make it even more confusing, many manufacturers are combining features , and often describing pretty much anything made for the woods and colored in olive, black or desert tan as 'tactical.

knife image 1

Below is an image of the Gerber clipped to a MOLLE vest. enter image description here

  • If someone could help me edit to get rid of the empty space between the 2 images, I would really appreciate it.... Jun 10 at 17:02
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    I think you could fix them as follows: download the image to your computer, then upload. If it's too large or has an unpleasant border, edit on your machine (e.g. with Irfanview). Jun 10 at 17:58
  • @aparente001 I think I tried that yesterday, and ended up losing half the post! After 2 hours of revision! Jun 10 at 18:10
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    Sounds like you might have highlighted too much stuff by accident. I just replaced the first image with a screenshot of the first image without the extra white space. I recommend that you avoid using google links. Also, I recommend the Yandex browser extension that fixes google links. Also I recommend installing a clipboard manager (I use Arsclip but you might prefer something simpler), and then you can highlight all and copy periodically. Jun 10 at 18:16
  • 1
    Very nice...... Jun 12 at 18:13


Tactical weapons or forces are those which a military leader can decide for themselves to use in a battle, rather than waiting for a decision by a political leader: They have removed all tactical nuclear missiles that could strike Europe.

(I don't think the example really fits the definition they gave, but I thought the definition was interesting.)

Collins, cited at freedictionary.com:

  1. (Military) (of weapons, attacks, etc.) used in or supporting limited military operations: a tactical missile; tactical bombing.


  1. tactical aircraft, missiles, and other weapons are designed to be used over short distances: sea-based tactical aircraft

From all of these I interpret tactical knife as being a knife designed to severely maim or kill another human being, to distinguish it from other types of knives. Also I understand that a tactical knife is in the style of a knife that might be used in war. (I know nothing about implements of war and would prefer to keep my head in that patch of sand....)

  • Dictionary definitions of tactical are of limited help to somebody who is trying to make sense of the usage of that word that has recently become widespread, particularly in the U.S. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the contrast between tactical and strategic, which was an aspect of its traditional meaning.
    – jsw29
    Jun 10 at 13:41
  • There are other dictionary definitions that seem more relevant, e.g. M-W "of or relating to combat tactics" or Lexico "Relating to or constituting actions carefully planned to gain a specific military end." You're right that a tactical weapon or item is somehow, however loosely, designed for use in combat or warfare (although in practice most will never see battle) but (as jsw29 says) there is more to be said about this sense, where it comes from, and how it is used.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 10 at 14:17
  • @jsw29 - I agree that the tactical-vs.-strategic aspect appears to be irrelevant in this case. And in the end maybe it just boils down to tactical knife = really serious, nasty knife or military-grade knife. Jun 10 at 18:04
  • @aparente001 closing thoughts: Rambo used to carry a K-Bar, and so this knife was popularized in the movies and became a legend.... Although it includes all kinds of 'survival' items in the pommel, people like me consider this to be the last thing we would want to depend on in the woods...and yet this is the image that most people have in mind when they hear "survival/ tactical knife". Unless maybe it is an Ontario RAT blade... Jun 16 at 21:52
  • @Cascabel_StandWithUkraine_ - I know nothing about knives except that where I live, young people sometimes tragically maim and kill each other with them. The only curiosity I have is, what implement should I buy to get the rest of the scales off my salmon fillets, when the grocery store salmon hasn't been scaled properly. Also where to buy one. I've been using a tomato knife but I have a feeling the right implement would make it easier. Jun 17 at 3:23

Tactical can also be used ironically. Police in the UK often use a red-painted hand-held battering ram to force entry to properties, commonly called 'the big red key'.

In a recent police TV programme I was watching, an officer referred to the one he was using as having been painted 'tactical black'. Regrettably I can't remember the name of the programme.

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