By Anthony Yeary
As you prepare for the unexpected and put your gear together, a survival knife should be one of your earliest purchases. A survival knife will likely be the most versatile and strongest tool among your gear. Like a multi-tool, it can do a wide variety of life-saving tasks. Yes, it slices and dices, but you can dig with it, split and chop wood, hunt, skin an animal for food, start fires, hammer, pry and signal for help.
Some people will use a fighting or hunting knife as a survival knife, but I’ve always felt that there is a fine line between the three. I feel this way because their purposes all overlap.Let’s take one of the most famous knives, the Ka-Bar U.S.M.C Fighting Knife. It is a fighting knife and weapon. But Ka-Bar designed it to be more versatile than that- it was also meant to help our soldiers survive in the wild and get their day-to-day tasks done too. Yet, it is not truly a survival knife.
Of the three classes, hunting knives are smaller and lighter since it is more desirable for field dressing animals. Fighting knives can be of the same size as survival or hunting knives, but they are oftentimes less rugged. Usually, this is because the lighter knife is quicker to use and is not intended to take a ton of abuse. Either of these tools could be improvised as a survival knife, but they wouldn’t be the right tool for the job. Survival knives can be weapons and they can skin animals just like the other knives can. This is due to their inherent versatility. There are many choices out there, some awesome, some practical and some downright awful. Let’s take a brief look at how to identify good knives and ignore the junk.
What to Look for in a Practical Survival Knife
It must be made of good steel:
A good blade begins with good steel. If the knife you’re considering is made by a good company, chances are that it will be made from good stock. Most quality knives are made from stainless or carbon steel. Stainless steel is far more corrosion-resistant, but may not hold an edge quite as well. Carbon steel tends to hold its edge better and can be extremely tough and abrasion resistant. The most popular carbon steels used in knives are A2, D-2, 5160 and the “10” Series (which includes the ridiculously sharp 1095 High Carbon Tool Steel). In my opinion, survival knives, D-2 and 5160 are best. Carbon steel is higher maintenance, due to it being more inherently corrosion-prone. You will need to be sure to clean and lubricate a knife made of it after every serious use.
Stainless steels are more popular than carbons when it comes to survival knives. As far as what type is best, at the very least, it should be made from 440 or 420HC stainless. 440A is adequate enough, but 440B and C are better. This series of steel is known for its corrosion resistance, hardness and ability to retain its edge. 420HC is very comparable to 440, but not quite as pricey. Other notables are AUS8 which Cold Steel likes to use and VG-10 and S30V, which are both very high quality steels.
It must be a fixed blade and it should have a full tang:
With a fixed-blade knife, a “tang” is the section of the knife blade that extends into the handle. Survival knives are sold with all kinds of tang styles, but a full tang is what will be the most rugged. Knives with partial, narrowing and stick tangs make for a lighter weight knife, but they are weaker and are prone to breakage under heavy use. At the very best, the handle may weaken the tang over time and move around which makes for a dangerous tool. Knives of these designs are better off being avoided in survival knives.
Blade shape and Blade Style:
Knife blades come in four basic styles of point: drop point, clip point, spear point and tanto points. I prefer a spear point style for use as a survival knife because it offers the best and sharpest point possible. However, clip point blades are fine too. The blade’s edge can come two different ways: straight or serrated. A straight blade has a normal beveled cutting edge all the way, but with a serrated blade, there are serrations toward the plunge line of the base of the blade. The serrations are excellent for cutting rope or cord, but a plain straight blade is easier to sharpen and better for chopping wood. As to what is best, I’ll leave that to your preference.
Make sure it is a proper size for you:
The proper size for a survival knife is always debated. In one camp, people believe that the blade length should be between 6 to 8 inches, because any shorter and it would not be useful enough, but any longer would make it too large and “Hollywood” like. In the other camp, people believe that the blade length should fall between 9 and 11 inches, because the larger heavier blade is better suited for batoning and chopping. I tend to gravitate toward larger survival knives, but I also believe that you should use whatever works best for you. Whichever you prefer, try to keep the thickness of the blade’s spine around 3/16th to 1/4 of an inch, that way it won’t have any flex and it’s strong enough to handle the rigors you’re sure to put it through. A flat spine is also preferable over beveled spines as it makes it easier to baton and strike a fire starting tool.
Also, check its ergonomics:
Something about knives that people often forget about when selecting one, is how well the tool fits their hand. If at all possible, hold the knife in your hand before you buy it if the store will let you. Be sure it’s not too large or small for you and that the weight is manageable if it’s a full size survival knife. Check the handle of the knife to see if you actually get good traction off of it; you wouldn’t want it to fly out of your sweaty hands while chopping at a log!
Other concerns of practicality:
Here are some other things to consider; choose a knife with a solid pommel so that you can have a proper blunt instrument. When you don’t have a proper hammer for pounding tent stakes for instance, you’ll be glad you have the extra capability. Having a lanyard hole in the handle near the pommel is a nice feature too as it gives you added retention over your knife. Some knives have added holes either under or on the hand guard which allows you to better lash the knife to a pole or limb. This way you can produce a makeshift spear if necessary. Speaking of the hand guard, try to get a survival knife that has a guard large enough for your hand.
A forgotten feature of a knife is its sheath. Some knife makers really skimp in this department and it’s a shame, but remember that you can always purchase a better one or even have one made at your local leather or tack shop. A sheath that has a strap at the end to tie around your leg is desirable, as is a sheath that works with your load bearing gear (ALICE or MOLLE). A retaining strap that holds the knife where the handle meets the sheath is another quality option.
Finally, a word about hollow knives:
A hollow knife is a survival knife that has a hollow cavity within its handle. Within the cavity you can store survival items like matches, sutures, a fishing line and hook or a compass. As many of us know, such knives were made popular by the Sylvester Stallone film First Blood where the character John Rambo utilized very frequently. The knife for that film was designed by Jimmy Lile who was inspired by the survival knives that pilots carried during the Vietnam War. After audiences watched Rambo evade the police, Army National Guard and survive the wilderness during the course of the film, using such a blade, who wouldn’t want one?
Alas, the reality is that hollow knives are generally less than stellar. Usually, there is no tang with these knives; the blade is sometimes threaded to the handle or pressure fitted into it (push tang). Logic draws the obvious conclusion that if you put the knives under heavy pressure (like batoning a log), they will eventually break and leave you in the woods with your pants down. Now, I’ll admit out loud that I own a knife like this. It is a really cheap knock-off of the previously-mentioned Rambo knife. I like the look of it, but I would never use it for anything serious.
If you wish to have the added capability of a hollow knife combined with the ruggedness of a full tang survival knife, there are solutions. The Schrade SCHF1 Extreme Survival Knife is a hollow knife machined from a single piece of steel, making it an unusual example of a one piece, full-tang, hollow survival knife. It is a large, heavy knife with a thick spine that, despite it being hollow,
I’m reasonably sure the Shrade knife wouldn’t break, even if the world’s fattest man drove over it with a fully loaded Abrams Tank pulling a U-Haul full of depleted uranium.
Whether you’re out enjoying the great outdoors or if the stuff really hits the fan, you do not want to find yourself vulnerable. It’s for these reasons we prepare and having the right equipment and tools will make toughing the rough times all the easier. A quality survival knife that fits you well should be an integral part of your preparedness plans. Because of the survival knife’s inherent versatility, your ability to hunt, defend yourself, start a fire and, in general: survive, will be enhanced when the more proper tools are not readily available. If you do not own a good knife yet and have not factored one into your budget, I would urge you to do your own research and begin looking into one for yourself.