One common piece of good advice that comes from nearly all survival theme TV shows (i.e., Bear Grylls, Man vs Wild, Dual Survival, Survivorman, etc…) is the need for a good survival knife and my wife used to remind me of that fact after almost every show.
We always keep several pocket knifes in our pockets or day packs and I have a butchering kit that includes a gut hook, a boning knife, a skinning knife and a bone saw that I always throw in the pack when big game hunting, but I don’t usually take it with us when we go hiking or camping. We also have a nice flexible fillet knife that we keep with the fishing gear. These knives do a good job of skinning, butchering and filleting, but wouldn’t be much better than a small pocket knife for cutting wood to build a fire or to make shelter.
I don’t plan on getting into a real survival situation. In fact, we do a lot of planning to make sure we don’t. But that is the whole problem, nobody plans on getting into a real survival situation, but it happens. She was right, we needed a better survival knife than one of my pocket knives or her Swiss Army knife. Next time we made the long trip into town to buy a fresh can of black powder, she reminded me that we should look at knives when we passed the knife counter.
What Should We Look for in a Good Survival Knife?
- Fixed blade
- Full tang
- Solid handle with hilt and flat pommel
- Blade metal – carbon steel or stainless steel
- Blade design – straight edge or partially serrated, flat or serrated spine
- Blade length – 4 – 9 inches
- Blade thickness – 1/8 – 1/4 inch (0.125 – 0.25)
- Lanyard hole – security and for lashing to pole to make spear
- Useful sheath
- Survival not Tactical
There are lots of nice folding and lock blade knives, but I think it goes without saying, that you want a fixed blade for the strongest possible utility and survival knife. Never put force straight down on the tip of a folding blade or you will risk cutting off your trigger finger. Even the best lock blades can fail under pressure. I had a close call once simply because pocket lint had built up under the locking mechanism and the blade wouldn’t lock.
Full tang simply means the part of the metal of the blade extends the entire length of the handle for maximum strength. A half tang blade would extend halfway down the handle. If it goes without saying that the survival knife needs to have a fixed blade, it also needs to have a full tang. Some full tangs are narrow, some are the full width of the knive handle.
I have yet to see a good knife with storage space in the handle. The blade may be strong and sharp, but when the handle breaks off, you will not be happy. I knew a guy that tried to super glue and duct tape a blade back onto the handle. No, they didn’t have super glue or duct tape with them at the time and no, they were not happy with the fix. What can you do with a knife with no handle? I guess you could make your own handle, use the end of the blade as the tang and just have a shorter knife.
Solid Handle with Hilt and Flat Pommel
Handles of the most popular survival knives are made from a variety of natural and man-made products including Kratan (synthetic rubber), molded plastic, leather (stacked leather washers), grivory (nylon polymer), hytrel, (thermoplastic polyester elastomer) or zytel (nylon resin). Some knives only have the metal tang (skeleton) as the handle. The important thing is that it fit your hand and allows a good, non-slip grip when you are sweaty or if the knife is wet. It is also important to have a handle with a hilt and a pommel that is wider than the handle to improve the grip when stabbing and chopping and the pommel should also be flat so you can use it as a hammer. You don’t want the knife to slip while you are furiously chopping.
The easy answer is to choose knives with carbon steel or stainless steel blades. The strength, hardness, flexibility and the ability of the blade to take and hold an edge is all effected by the type of metal used. More importantly than the type of steel itself, according to some experts, is the annealing process (heat treatment). A big point to remember is that all knife metal, even stainless steel will rust if not cared for. Knives are made from metals that do not rust, but those materials are not considered to be “tool quality” steel and they will not last long.
The hard answer is… well, it’s hard. I think of myself as an educated guy, but I am not a knife maker or a metallurgist, so while researching the variations of carbon and stainless steels used by various knife manufacturers and after reading many arguments back and forth between the experts about relative steel hardness, cost, difficulty to sharpen, and the likelihood that blades may chip, my head was spinning. I don’t speak the language. If D2, 1095, 440C or CPM154CM already means something to you, then you probably aren’t looking to me for information. I will let the experts argue the good, the bad and the fine points of each.
We have to trust that there is a legitimate reason to use one type of steel over the other and it’s not just some current marketing hype. We also have to trust that the makers of our knives actually used the type of steel they claim, but probably more importantly that they have treated, ground and sharpened the knives properly. As long as our knives perform well at the tasks we require, holds an edge for a reasonable amount of time, and can be resharpened without too much effort, then it probably doesn’t matter much. For those of you who like the details, here is a knife steel grade composition and hardness chart.
Does a 50% difference in price between two metals translate to a 50% difference in desired performance of strength, hardness, flexibility or the ability of the blade to take and hold an edge? How would that be demonstrated to us before we bought a knife?
Straight Edge vs Partially Serrated
Some blades are serrated or at least partially serrated, not just to look intimidating, but to increase the effectiveness of slicing cuts. Since a survival knife may need to make both pushing cuts and slicing cuts, a reasonable option is to have a partially serrated blade. A blade that has a serrated portion of less than 1.5 inches may not be very useful. It is interesting that most partially serrated blades seem to have the serrations near the handle which is the best place for whittling; maximum control for push cuts and the plain straight edge is at the belly of the knife, which is the exact place on the blade you need for slicing. That may seem to be reversed, but remember, the survival knife is a general utility tool, not a specific tool for a specific job. Chopping is also best with a smooth blade and the sweet spot for chopping is also at, and just behind the belly of the knife.
Flat vs Serrated Spine
A knife with a flat spine can be hit with a baton (club) to be driven through poles or to split wood, but it can not be used as a saw. The serrated spine was originally developed for U.S. Air Force pilots to be used to escape from downed aircraft. It may look tough, but it won’t be much use in the woods unless you need to open a can from the inside.
I see where people recommend blade lengths from a small as 4 inches to as large as 10 inches. A small blade can cut, but can’t chop or be driven through wood with a baton very well. On the other hand, a large knife may chop well, but will always be heavy and may be hard to carry strapped to your leg. Again, a survival knife is a general purpose tool and if we knew what task was needed most, we could make a better decision about blade length. Any length of a good quality blade in the hand will be better than other blade left at home.
I have seen everything from 0.1 inch up to 1/4 inch thick blades recommended for survival knifes. The thinner blades will be better for fine whittling jobs such as making trap triggers and the thicker blades will be better for prying and chopping, but again, they will always be heavier.
Hole for Lanyard
A loop of para chord through a lanyard hole is the first step to prevent losing your knife while crashing through the bushes or scrambling up and down steep hillsides, especially if you have a poor quality sheath. Additional lanyard holes make it easy to attach the knife to a pole to make a spear.
I like the look and feel of a leather sheath over Kydex, but in wet weather leather can absorb water and kydex does not. Once wet, it may take days for a leather sheath to dry out and all that moisture will cause the knife and the sheath rivets to corrode. The sheath must hold the knife safely and securely and not restrict our movement. It must keep the wearer safe from getting cut or stabbed while scrambling through thick cover or while climbing. It also must keep the knife from falling out even if it is upside down.
Survival Not Tactical
Remember, a survival knife needs to be a multi-pupose tool, not a specialized weapon, entry or rescue tool. It is much more likely that the knife will be needed to cut, chop and split wood or to pry and dig than to be used for self defense or for hunting and butchering food. Many knives seem to be cross marketed as both survival and tactical knives as if both types of knives were totally interchangeable.
Where to Buy a Good Survival Knife?
According to some custom knife makers, the only way to get a quality knife that will never fail is to buy from a custom knife maker. According to them, you can’t trust the big manufacturers to even know what metal their knives are made from, since nobody can verifying what is sent to them from foreign sources. Not only do they claim that the blades of the big factory-made knives are made of inferior metal, they also claim that many have not been tempered correctly and the factories either don’t take the time or don’t have the knowledge to sharpen knives correctly. One knife maker claims to have tested the hardness of some factory knives to be less than 40, though the knives should have been in the 58-60 hardness range.
Custom knife makers further criticize the popular knife designs because they are mostly based on an old WWII design or hyped up, bad ass Rambo type movie designs. It seems that factory-made knives are criticized at every level of the process and are blamed for cutting corners and trying to cut cost anywhere possible.
Custom Knives are Expensive
As the man said, he has “made more knives that I have laid eyes upon” and I am sure he is correct. I was totally convinced to buy a custom knife and started looking at custom survival knives. All I can say is Damn!
Many of those guys are true craftsmen and make some beautiful knives that I am sure are worth every penny, but they have prices to match.
I have made choices in my life that virtually guarantees that I will never own a Lamborghini, a Learjet, a private island or more importantly, a 10,000 acre ranch.
I will never own a Browning Superposed shotgun, I will never wear a $10,000 watch, I will never drink a $1,000 bottle of wine and I will never spend $1,000 on a survival knife.
So what’s a poor guy to do? We do what we always do, we buy a mass produced product that was produced for the masses. Thank you Henry Ford.
Question: What do you think makes the best survival knife? What brands/types of knives have you used in the past?