What Tang Type is Best?

There are several types of tang construction in the world of knives and swords, the three most common of which I will discuss here.  All of the ongoing controversy in knife circles over relative tang strength notwithstanding, any of these three tang styles can be used effectively in the design of a functional and durable cutting tool.  All of them have their pros and cons, which we will examine here.  For the purposes of this article, I will refer to the handle end of the bare blade as the tang, the handle material as the grip, and the entire assembly as the handle.



The Full Tang


The first tang style is the full tang.  In this method, the tang is the entire width of the handle of the knife, and the handle consists of two slabs of grip material, often termed scales, which are attached usually by epoxy and pins/rivets to the sides of the tang.  In this style, the tang can be seen along the edge of the entire handle of the knife. 

Many people feel that this is the “strongest” method of tang/handle construction, as the tang is much wider this way and therefore should resist bending more readily.  One thing to consider about this design is that the knife is more apt to be handle-heavy with the extra metal in the tang; this is a problem commonly offset (with added cosmetic appeal) by evenly tapering the tang from right behind the bolsters/guard all the way to the butt of the handle.  In this way, a knife maker can reduce weight in the handle and shift the balance forward toward the ricasso.
Other factors to consider are: one, the steel of the knife tang and the wood/micarta/bone/g10/whatever of the grip scales expand and contract at diffent rates with heat and cold over the life of the knife.  What this means is that eventually one may see problems of glue gaps widening, pins loosing, etc. as tang and scales swell and contract against each other slighly over time.  Two: in ways the full tang is not as practical for a using knife, due to the edges of the tang being exposed to corrosion.  Even a “stainless steel” tang will corrode significantly over time if continuously exposed to skin oils, blood, salt air or water, etc.  This can be countered to a great extent with proper maintenance.

Good things about this design are that full tang handles can be very strong when well constructed, and have definite visual appeal, especially with a tapered tang, colored spacers or decorative liners, or even filework along the edges of the tang.  This is probably the most common way currently of constructing handles in the knife world.



The Hidden Tang


Next we come to the full hidden tang, or “stick tang” as some like to call it.  This design is generally executed by forging, and/or grinding the tang narrow behind the guard/bolster area.  This is done so that a grip may be constructed of a solid block of material or composite materials, a hole drilled and shaped through the middle, and slid over the tang completely to sit flush against the guard/bolsters. Epoxy is often used to completely seal the handle, fill the gap, and bond the grip to the tang.  An exception would be if the knife were designed for take-down capability.
            One common version of this design consists of using a threaded screw-on buttcap or pommel to snug everything together and complete the handle.  The end of the tang is either threaded or has allthread welded or brazed on as an extension.  Then, a buttcap/pommel is fabricated, by either drilling a blind hole and threading it, or brazing on a nut to act as female threads.  Occasionally the buttcap will simply have a hole drilled through it, the tang will extend through, and either it will be threaded with a nut screwed onto the end, or simply not threaded at all and peened into a rivet head, locking the handle on.
Advantages of this style include: the ability to showcase outstanding grip material on all sides, such as burl woods and ivories, the ability to completely seal the tang from outside moisture, the tendency toward a lighter handle due to less tang weight, the ability to use less blade stock therefore possibly defraying some small cost, not having to sand and blend the tang edges,and the fact that grip material swells and shrinks much less longitudinally than laterally, meaning thermal changes will hardly affect the handle integrity over time, etc.

Disadvantages include the added difficulty of manufacturing the tang/buttcap joint, in some cases the unavailability of some grip materials in large enough single blocks, the fact that some feel it is not as strong as the full tang, (debatable) and the offense of one’s sensibilities should one prefer the look of another design.



The Partial Tang


            The third type of design I will discuss is called the partial tang, or stub tang.  In this design, the tang is generally narrow, and is inserted into the grip material only part of the length of the handle.  Some steak knives, etc., are manufactured with a full width tang slotted partway back into the grip. Generally, epoxy and one or more pins are used to secure the grip to the tang in these styles.
            One common method is to drill a blind hole into the grip material, shape it to fit the tang or burn the tang in to fit, fill with epoxy, insert the tang, let the epoxy set, and drill in and set one or more rivets/pins.  Another common way is to rabbet the tang in, that is, to split the grip in half lengthwise, mortise a pocket inside both or one of the halves exactly fitting the tang, and epoxy the halves back onto the tang, then rivet.  This is the way in which Samurai swords were commonly hilted. (Sans epoxy.)  A third way, which is becoming more common, is to simply forgo rivets altogether, relying entirely on the strength of epoxy to hold the handle together.  Methods such as notching the sides of the tang, roughing the tang heavily, or drilling holes through the tang for “epoxy rivets” are often used to aid the epoxy in locking the grip on.
            Traditionally, the partial tang has been largely sneered at in knife circles, and certainly one can still see awful knives made with this type of tang construction everywhere.  However, these designs can be more than adequately strong in a well-constructed blade.  Many truths have changed in the knife world with the introduction and subsequent improvement of industrial epoxies.  If the grip cannot be gotten off of the tang without being destroyed, it is definitely strong enough.
            Advantages of the partial tang designs include: potentially the lightest handle of all, the ability to use rare, oddly shaped or characteristic material for the grip, such as crown stag or oosic, a complete seal against moisture, and the reduction of varying coefficients of thermal expansion in the grip/tang.
            There are other notable methods of tang construction around the world, but many can be grouped loosely under one of the above three styles, and others are outside the scope of this article.  When considering a knife to buy, look carefully at the fit and finish of the entire handle, including the pins, (hopefully) non-visible glue gaps, and buttcap, and assess the weight and balance of the overall piece.  Ask the maker/dealer about the design, and observe him/her while getting your answer.  You are now armed with more knowledge than many to make a wise decision about what to depend on in a knife.
The Wu Tang
             The Wu Tang ain't nothing ta #$@% with!  Just kidding....