For years and years, most who considered themselves "prepared" carried a Swiss Army Knife, in large part for all the various tools they included: screwdrivers, scissors, saw, file, and the like. The one area the SAK never addressed adequately was pliers, a means to grip and turn things. The pliers built into the SAKs are wimpy things, hardly worth consideration for anything serious. That all changed in 1983 when Tim Leatherman introduced the Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool which for the first time combined full size needle nose pliers (with wire cutters and a conventional gripping area) along with the most essential tools heretofore found in a typical Swiss Army style knife, all together in a pocket sized package. Nearly two decades later the so-called multi-purpose tool market is hotter than ever and there is a dizzying array of multi-purpose tools to select from.
The typical multi-purpose tool is sort of a Swiss Army Knife on steroids, including in a single package at least one knife blade, pliers, and other tools such as multiple screwdriver blades, can opener, file, and others handy implements. Each of the available multi-purpose tools has its strong points and weak points. Because so many of the unique features of these tools are patented, great ingenuity is needed to accomplish the same or similar results, with varying degrees of success.
Virtually all of the multi-purpose tools reviewed here are capable, well made, and would be an asset to a survivor. With such a huge variety of tools to select from, each with an assortment of often unique and intriguing features, it's important to identify what features are most important to you, then select the multi-purpose tool that includes those features. Some differences, however, go to the essence of the matter.
The first criteria to consider is size. Many manufacturers offer multiple sizes of their multi-tools. Generally speaking, the smallest versions, often referred to as "mini-," are not up to the types of jobs that a survival situation may demand of them. Next up the size ladder are the so-called "pocket" size tools. These tools are large enough to be useful, but still small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket, being roughly the same size and not too much heavier than a larger multi-blade pocket knife. While convenient and of adequate size, these tools often lack some desirable safety and functional features. At the top of the multi-tool pyramid are the larger tools, with more desirable features, but which are most comfortably carried in a belt sheath due to their size and weight.
From both a functional and safety standpoint, a very desirable feature is locking blades and implements. This prevents the tool from accidentally folding while in use and injuring the user, as often happens otherwise. This feature is currently found almost exclusively on larger tools, but it is starting to trickle donw into pocket-size tools. Most other tools are designed so that the tools cannot close when opened, if the tool has been properly configured for "safe" use by closing the handles, but that is far different from locking them into place. They can still move enough to seriously pinch or injure you. As with folding knives, we prefer a multi-purpose tool with locking blades, at a minimum.
The type of pliers incorporated into the tools vary from a true needle nose to a basic blunt nose, and everything in between. The blunt nose pliers are generally somewhat stronger, they simply have more thick metal in the jaws and don't come to a weaker point as do the needle nose. On the other hand, the needle nose pliers tend to be far more versatile and useful for getting into small places, something that many of the things we end up improvising from or trying to repair have in spades, airplanes and vehicles in particular. We prefer needle nose pliers for these tools.
How useful a tool is depends upon the type, number, size, and design of the blade(s) and other implements. The ideal multi-purpose tool being carried for survival purposes should incorporate, at a minimum, wire cutters capable of cutting moderately hard wire, a plain edge blade (though there are those who will prefer a serrated or partially serrated blade and an argument could be made that as long as you carry a robust, plain edged folding knife, it really doesn't much matter if the tool has a serrated blade), a file, and a selection of slotted and Phillips screwdrivers with maximum possible reach. Beyond that, individual preferences take over.
We strongly recommend everyone carry one of these multi-purpose tools. While they all have at least one knife blade, by their very nature most of the blades are relatively thin and certainly not as robust as we prefer for survival use. Some of the third generation tools with blades that open out or one-handed could serve as the "pocket knife" that we recommended everyone carry, but they really are not quite as versatile, useful, or easy to use in this regard as a good one-hand opening locking folding knife. Most of the earlier designs make a poor substitute. Best to carry both.
On ETS we review the multitude of available multi-tools that meet the general criteria described above. Other multi-purpose tools on the market (SOG "Toolclip," Al Mar "4x4," Wenger "SwissGrip," etc.) are much bulkier, offer fewer tools and do not have needle nose or thin nose pliers, a significant disadvantage for many purposes. Cheap knock-offs of the multi-purpose tools are generally poorly constructed, inferior in most, if not all respects and should be avoided.
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Revision: 025 November 2, 2001
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