A Swiss Army Knife and a multi-tool perform more or less the same purpose. Someone comfortable using a SAK will probably get the job done with a multi-tool too, and vice versa. Apart from the major difference that a multi-tool will always have a set of pliers, where else do the differences lie? Are these differences enough to justify one above the other in terms of performance, design, and ease of use?
‘Multi-tool’ is rather a generic term. Technically, a Swiss Army Knife is also a multi-function tool or multi-tool. But it just became popular with a different name. Whereas, the multi-function tool invented by Tim Leatherman with a different design that incorporated a set of pliers came to be popularly known as a ‘multi-tool’. ‘Swiss Army Knife’ is a brand name, but multi-tool is not.
Apart from these basic design and branding differences, let’s have a look at the other significant differences between the two that might just make one more preferable to you than the other.
Note that we are not comparing any specific multi-tool model made by any specific company. Rather, all multi-tools, big and small, made by all reputed companies have been considered in this comparison.
A SAK has a good design, impeccable build quality, precise fit-and-finish, and is very easy to use
A multi-tool has a good design and good build quality. Most multi-tools are easy to use
Victorinox is the one and only manufacturer of Swiss Army Knives
Many companies make multi-tools, Leatherman being the most prominent
multiple materials are used in SAKs, including a steel alloy, Aluminium, and plastic
Most multi-tools are made of stainless steel
Swiss Army Knives have the most diverse set of tools
Tools in a multi-tool are less diverse and limited
The pliers found in a Swiss Army Knife are small and weak
Multi-tool pliers are strong and capable of replacing a dedicated set of pliers
Only bigger Swiss Army knives have a locking knife blade
Bigger multi-tools employ a locking mechanism for all the tools including the knife blade
Swiss Army Knives do not have pocket clips
Many multi-tools come with pocket clips
Swiss Army Knives are easy to maintain because of the less complex design and the nature of the steel used
Multi-tools, because of the complex design along with the nature of the steel used, require more maintenance
Victorinox Swiss Army Knives are recognized all over the world
Multi-tools are produced by multiple companies and hence do not have a strong brand recognition
Hope the above table has given you a basic understanding of some major differences between the two types of multi-function tools. Let’s elaborate on these differences a bit more.
1. Design, Build Quality, and Ease of Use (Ergonomics)
The Swiss Army Knife is built around a knife blade as the main tool. As such, it has one handle and all the tools are packed between the two layers of the handle. Each of the tools opens and closes out of the handle with utmost precision. The tools are held in place by strong slip-joints springs.
A multi-tool on the other hand is based around a set of pliers, with the two arms of the pliers forming two handles each of which is packed with other tools.
The idea of a multi-tool came to Tim Leatherman when he could not fix his car which had broken down in the middle of the road. He found his Swiss Army Knife inadequate for the job at hand as it lacked a set of pliers.
The tools can be opened and closed easily, though the mechanism and feeling may not be smooth as that of a SAK. In some multi-tools, you may have to open the pliers, i.e. the two handles, to get to the other tools.
The build quality of both a Swiss Army Knife and a multi-tool is top-notch. Of course, here we are only talking about the multi-tools made by the reputed companies. If you take proper care and use the tools only for their intended purposes, both will last a lifetime.
There are 3 specific differences that play a part in the ‘ease of use’ for the two multi-function tools:
- Because of two handles, a multi-tool is usually a bit broader than a Swiss Army Knife with similar features.
- Compared to the impeccable fit and finish along with rounded-off corners of a Swiss Army Knife, a multi-tool might appear a bit rough and sharper around the edges.
- Contrary to an all-metal design of most multi-tools, most Swiss Army Knives have some sort of grippy Cellidor (plastic) or wooden scales on the handle. The bigger SAKs have contoured handles to further aid in gripping.
All the above factors make a Swiss Army Knife easier to grip and work with compared to a multi-tool.
But of course, like everything, there are exceptions. For example, some SAKs with a lot of layers of tools (like the infamous SwissChamp) are so wide that they are difficult to grip and maneuver, especially with smaller hands. Also, the multi-tools designed by Victorinox (called SwissTools) have the same impeccable fit and finish as that of a SAK. But these are, as I said, exceptions.
2. Manufacturing Companies
As of now, there is only one company that manufactures the Swiss Army Knife – Victorinox. Initially, Victorinox along with another Swiss company called Wenger were both the official manufacturers of the Swiss Army Knife.
Other companies may design something similar or copy the SAK design, but it will not be officially called a Swiss Army Knife. Victorinox owns the brand, and the situation will most likely remain the same in the future.
Multi-tools on the other hand are manufactured by a lot of companies, some well-known, as well as many lesser-known companies. Leatherman introduced the idea and is now the top multi-tool maker in terms of popularity. It has the most diverse collection of multi-tool models, ranging from smaller models that can be attached to keychains to huge models (like the Leatherman Surge) that can arguably replace some dedicated tools.
Other well-known companies like Gerber and SOG have also introduced their own multi-tool designs, some of which have been very popular. Even Victorinox makes its own multi-tools, which are branded as SwissTools.
Many Chinese manufacturers have also jumped into the multi-tool bandwagon, introducing their own multi-tool models, both good and bad.
To know more about the top multi-tool brands and manufacturing companies, do read: The Best Multi-Tool Brands You Can Trust.
3. Materials Used, and Weight
Victorinox uses their stainless steel alloy for all the tools in a Swiss Army Knife. The separators between the different layers are made of Aluminium. The scales on the handle are made of a type of plastic called Cellidor. Some models also have wooden or nylon scales.
Multi-tools are almost always completely made of stainless steel. There may be some models which use a few other materials like plastic or Aluminum. But the highly regarded models, especially from Leatherman, have an all-steel construction. Such multi-tools are more robust and comparatively stronger than a similarly-sized Swiss Army Knife.
Following are some points of interest regarding the materials used:
- The use of different materials like plastic and Aluminum usually makes a Swiss Army Knife comparatively lighter than a multi-tool of similar size and features
- The steel used in Swiss Army Knives is highly corrosion resistant and maintains its lustre after decades of use
- The steel used in Swiss Army Knives is considered ‘soft’ than that used in the top multi-tools
There are stories of Swiss Army Knives remaining submerged in seawater for months without any rusting in any of the tools.
The same cannot be said about multi-tools. Even Leatherman multi-tools have shown signs of rusting when exposed to water and humidity for long durations.
Because of the ‘soft’ steel, the blades in the Swiss Army Knife don’t hold an edge for long. A multi-tool from a top manufacturer will almost always have a stronger blade that holds an edge comparatively longer.
However, it is much easier to re-sharpen a Victorinox knife to an extremely sharp edge than any other knife from other reputable multi-tool manufacturers that use a harder variety of steel for the knife blade.
To know more about the composition and the hardness level of the steel alloy used in Swiss Army Knives, read: What Steel Does Victorinox Use in Swiss Army Knives?
4. Tool Options
Swiss Army Knives have the widest variety of tools available. Any tool you can think of is probably available in one or more SAK models.
The compact design and precise engineering of a Swiss Army Knife also allow more tools in relatively less space.
The model SwissChamp packs in 33 tools, still somehow remaining practical enough to be held and used with one hand.
Multi-tools also pack a lot of tools, but the focus is more on providing the most useful ones.
Most of the tools that you will find in a multi-tool are those which get frequent use. You will seldom find a tool in a multi-tool that you don’t know what it is used for.
The tools in a multi-tool are selected keeping in mind the needs of a mechanic, rather than any and every type of user.
The diverse variety of tools allows Victorinox to design different SAK models targeted towards different users based on their hobbies, type of work, or lifestyle. For example, there are models targeted at those who work with computer hardware. There are also some models meant for campers, hikers, hunters, and even fishing enthusiasts (you can read about the fishing SAKs in this post).
Some tools in a SAK that are considered pretty useful by many users are not found in any multi-tool. These include tools like the toothpick and the magnifying glass. Some models have a digital clock on the handle. You can even find a ballpoint pen in some Swiss Army Knife models.
In case you are interested, I have written a complete post on the SAK models that have a pressurized ballpoint pen, and how to use it.
5. Size and Utility of the Pliers
Most models of Swiss Army Knife do not have a set of pliers. There are some models that come with pliers, but these pliers just look like a bigger pair of forceps or tweezers. While these are useful in certain situations, they cannot fulfill the requirement of a true set of pliers.
Multi-tools on the other hand are designed around pliers. The set of pliers in any multi-tool is its biggest, strongest, and heaviest tool. The ones found in the bigger multi-tools like the Leatherman Surge are strong and big enough to replace a dedicated set of pliers.
There are also some innovations happening around the set of pliers in the multi-tool world. For example, the Compound Leverage System introduced by SOG in its multi-tool helps in maximizing the gripping force of the pliers with minimum effort.
The set of pliers in a Swiss Army Knife is no match for the one found in comparable multi-tools, whether in size, strength, or performance. The bigger multi-tools also have capable wire-cutters incorporated in the jaws of the pliers which further add to their functionality. For quick repair in and around the house which involves repairing fences, cutting and untangling wires, etc, a multi-tool is invaluable.
As a side note, if you really need a capable set of pliers in a Swiss Army Knife, you can have a look at the SAK Ranger Grip 74. You can find it on Amazon here. However, do not expect performance similar to that of a top multi-tool model.
6. Locking Mechanism
Neither Swiss Army Knives nor multi-tools have any kind of locking mechanism in the smaller models, the ones meant for key-rings and keychains. This is understandable since the tools in these models are too small to cause any inconvenience or injury.
However, even the mid-size Swiss Army Knives do not have any locks. The tools are held in place by slip-joint springs. It is surprising that Victorinox never introduced a locking mechanism in any model of their popular 91mm SAK category. The lack of a proper lock in the blade makes it unsuitable for certain types of tasks.
A proper locking mechanism is only found in bigger models, in the 111mm and 130 mm category of SAKs. But here is another surprise – even in the bigger SAKs, only the main blade and the flat head screwdriver lock in place. None of the other tools lock and they work via the same slip-joint mechanism.
However, multi-tools are a different story. All medium to large size multi-tools manufactured by reputed companies has proper locks for most, if not all the tools.
Multi-tools are usually designed for serious work and having a locking mechanism is deemed necessary.
Even the SwissTool, manufactured by Victorinox, has a superb locking mechanism for all the tools in it.
7. Pocket Clip
Swiss Army Knives do not have pocket clips. They never had one, right from the first model, the Officer’s Knife, designed by Karl Elsener in 1897, till today. It may be a design decision made by Victorinox long ago. Even though many consider a pocket clip very integral to a pocket knife, Victorinox is still holding to its decision not to incorporate one in a SAK, even after more than a century.
Multi-tools made by various companies usually come with a pocket clip. Some models come with a pocket clip already attached, whereas is it is an accessory for some other models to be purchased separately and attached to the tool.
Where there are some off-market pocket clips available for the SAK, these are not always an ideal solution. Also modifying the SAK to add a pocket clip may void the warranty (in case the lifetime limited warranty is important to you).
Because of the design and the way a Swiss Army Knife is constructed, it is easier to clean and maintain. The slip joints and the springs work as usual even after years of inactivity. The compactness and clever arrangement of the tools do not leave much space or gaps for dirt and debris to collect.
Also, the corrosion resistance nature of the steel allows it to be submerged in water for proper cleaning.
This, along with the fact that the blade can be sharpened very easily, makes a SAK almost a zero maintenance tool.
A multi-tool even though made of stainless steel, is not as corrosion-resistant as a SAK. Also, because of comparatively harder steel, the knife blade requires some effort to re-sharpen. It is almost impossible to get a razor-sharp edge in a multi-tool blade unless you are an expert in blade sharpening.
Also, a multi-tool has a more complex design with two handles joined by the pliers in-between. The pivot point along with two separate sets of tools in the two handles introduces more moving parts and gaps. These are just extra open spaces for dirt and debris to collect over time.
Without proper care and oiling from time to time, the individual tools, and even the pliers in a multi-tool are known to jam sometimes.
9. Brand Recognition and Social Acceptance
Victorinox has strong brand recognition all over the world as the manufacturer of the Original Swiss Army Knife. The company has a history of more than 130 years behind it. Also, as the supplier of the standard issue knife to the Switzerland army as well as the military of many other nations, Victorinox has an impeccable reputation.
One of the benefits of having such a strong brand recognition is that a Swiss Army Knife has more social acceptance than any other type of multi-function tool.
Most common people do recognize a Swiss Army Knife when they see one.
Someone holding a Swiss Army Knife with an open blade in a public place does not raise the same level of alarm as someone holding a multi-tool with an open blade. Multi-tools mostly have a tactical look and may appear scary to some because they lack the same kind of recognition as a SAK.
Even though many companies make multi-tools, usually Leatherman is the brand associated with it. Leatherman also has a long history of almost 40 years behind it. But it does not have similar brand recognition as Victorinox, especially outside the Americas.
Common people will mostly fail to identify a multi-tool just by looking at it.
Hopefully, the above comparison will help you decide between a SAK and a multi-tool. As you can probably see by now, the two are not much different in usability. They just have different designs to accomplish the same thing.
Also, the existence of so many models of Victorinox Swiss Army Knives, as well as multi-tools manufactured by different companies (some by Victorinox itself) makes a side-by-side comparison really difficult.
No matter how you look at it, the main difference almost always boils down to the set of pliers. If you need a robust set of pliers, a multi-tool will serve you much better than a Swiss Army Knife. But if pliers are not that important to you, then in most cases, a SAK will be a better choice.
For me, when I know beforehand that I will be working on something that may need a set of pliers, I always carry a multi-tool. When I do not know (for all other occasions) a Swiss Army Knife is my EDC.
I have four multi-tools in my collection, but none of them see as much use as the SAK that I carry in my pocket. However, I do think that a construction worker or a mechanic will probably find a multi-tool much more useful than a Swiss Army Knife.