A survival knife is a reliable, durable, and multi-purpose tool that can be used in a variety of ways to aid in your survival. Either to cut flesh, shape various materials, or pry things open, a quality survival knife can accomplish most tasks. It’s important to note before we delve into the details that there is no “Best Survival knife” as it all depends on your environment and where you’re most likely to find yourself when SHTF. For instance, the air force will issue pilots with an ASEK or “Aircrew Survival Egress Knife” which usually features a saw on the spine of the blade to cut through thin aircraft skin and acrylic glass. The Army on the other hand will issue survival knives with a flat spine for batoning through firewood. If you’re tight on space and require concealment, you may want to consider a folding knife but that comes at the expense of being less durable. As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when purchasing a survival knife.
Survival Knife Diagram
Origins of the Survival Knife
Aside from a rock or stick, no other tool has been around with us longer then a cutting tool. What started out as a sharp rock/sea shell developed into an incredibly wide array of cutting tools that we use today for our everyday survival. Specifically though the survival knife itself has gone through thousands of configurations and to this day is still being perfected as new materials and manufacturing techniques are created. Fortunately we can cut through all the clutter of gimmicky survival knife designs by taking a look at what military’s around the world have found to work best through trial and error.
Considerations when Purchasing a Survival Knife
Despite the multitude of options, there are few unbreakable rules that you need to follow regarding survival knives. Most importantly, function trumps style! The Survival Knife market is currently inundated with cheaply made but overpriced gimmicky knives that sucker in too many people. It’s a safe bet that if the “survival knife” looks “cool” you probably shouldn’t consider it. The other rule is that less is usually more! A high quality simple survival knife will last you a life time and work when you need it to. Your first priority should be performance!
Fixed Blade Vs. Folding Knife
This may be the most difficult choice you’ll have to make. For wilderness survival, a fixed blade is definitely what you want to go for (without a doubt) but since this website is about URBAN SURVIVAL we have to look at things differently. Because we’re surrounded by people we have to consider dangers like mugging, kidnapping, and break ins. We also have to consider that we’ll be cutting different material like plastics, metals, and fabrics. We also need to consider concealment since most people will freak out if you have a large survival knife strapped to your belt. With all these considerations in mind a smaller fixed blade (5 inches max) or a folding knife would be your best option.
Too long of a blade and you might be breaking local laws, you’ll also be adding weight and discomfort. Too short of a blade and you might not be able to baton the survival knife through materials or pry things open effectively. Another thing to consider is that a large blade length makes it difficult for fine detail work like skinning an animal or making traps.
Unfortunately stronger metals are typically heavier, not always though. Another big factor in weight is the thickness of the steel. The thicker your survival knife is, the stronger it will be but become a pain in the rear to carry around all day. You want something you can baton and pry with but at the same time be able to pack around with you for an entire day comfortably.
The tang is the part of the blade held by the handle. For a fixed blade you can have several types but for the purpose of a fixed blade survival knife, a full tang is the only way to go! Aside from a full tang, there’s also skeletonized tang (which I’d also highly consider adequate), partial tang, narrowing tang, and rat-tail tang (stick tang). A full tang is robust and is the strongest of all tang types… but it adds weight! Unfortunately folding knives don’t have tangs, the blade has a short metal stub that swivels at the end of the handle. Folding survival knives are far more likely to break but if you spend the money and do your research, you can definitely find something that will last you a life time pre and post SHTF.
The blade spine is an important factor when choosing your survival knife. Serrated or flat spine? The benefit of a flat spine of course is that you can baton the back of the knife but a serrated spine allows you to cut through a wider variety of material. Keep in mind that folding knives almost always have a flat spine to protect the user while it’s in a pocket. Another feature you’ll often find on the spine is “jimping”, small divets made near the base of the spine to be used as a thumb grip. Jimping is a good (although not essential) feature and I don’t really see any downside to it.
The Hilt refers to the guard, grip and pommel. These are features which are not to be overlooked. The following features are just as important as the blade itself and can dramatically effect your ability to thrive in a survival situation.
Guard: The knife guard serves several purposes, to prevent your hand from slipping off the grip onto the blade, and also to prevent an opposing blade from slashing your hand. Since a well formed grip will prevent your hand from slipping, and since it’s unlikely you’ll be in knife fights (which should be avoided at all costs), I’m going go out and say that a guard is useless for a survival knife and just adds unnecessary weight.
Grip/handle: Many survival knives on the market today feature hollow grips that can be used as a compartment for survival items like fish hooks, matches, and etc. A hollow compartment however doesn’t allow for a proper tang and therefore should be avoided. You’ll also see a lot of survival knives with para-cord wrapped handles which in my opinion is quite slippery and doesn’t provide adequate grip. With all this mind, your best bet is to go with a solid handle comprised of the following materials:
- G-10: A fiberglass laminate made by compressing resin soaked fiberglass cloth. It’s extremely light, strong and rugged. The grip is typically augmented by adding a surface texture to it.
- Micarta: Not recommended but we’ll mention it because it’s often toted around as being adequate for a survival knife. It’s made in a similar fashion to G-10 except with different materials. It’s weaker and more expensive then G-10 so I’m not sure why anyone want to use it.
- FRN/Zytel: A practically unbreakable thermoplastic developed by DuPont. It’s extremely inexpensive, and does a great job at resisting impacts and abrasions. Although the texture is slightly smoother then G-10, you’ll often find it with added surface texture. Although FRN/Zytel reigns supreme, G-10 will do when your survival knife of choice isn’t manufactured with it.
Pommel: The pommel (or butt) of the knife can be an incredibly useful part of your survival knife. Ideally there is only one type of pommel that I would consider for urban survival purposes and that would be one with a carbide point made for glass breaking. Glass breaking pommels unfortunately aren’t very popular and are therefore difficult to find. Definitely avoid pommels with compasses built into them since they’re typically cheap, unreliable, and useless. another feature worth mentioning is a lanyard hole. Having a lanyard to run your hands through while using the survival knife is a good additional safety to a well formed handle.
Although there are many types of blade grinds, the compound bevel (aka the double bevel) is the only grind type you should be looking for. The compound bevel is an excellent balance between durability and sharpness. Fortunately almost all survival knives on the market come with a compound bevel but where it gets tricky is that some survival knives will come with a hollow grind! The hollow grind is incredibly sharp but lacks durability and therefore requires constant resharpening. A hollow grind can typically be found on hunting knives where a sharper blade for skinning and processing game is required.
Blades types come in many shapes and sizes, most of which are inadequate for a survival knife. The general consensus is that a drop point blade is the most ideal for survival purposes as it has no major drawbacks (it’s the jack of all trades, but master of none). For the purposes of education, he’s a list of the most common blade types along with some pros and cons for each:
- Drop Point: All round effective blade for general use.
- Clip Point: Ideal for detailed work and puncturing but has a weak tip prone to breaking.
- Tanto: Sturdy tip and can be batoned but terrible for sharpening since you have two edges.
What is the Best Survival Knife Steel?
Quality knife steel is an allow primarily comprised of iron and carbon. Typically there will be a few other elements added in to improve certain qualities of the steel. I won’t go into all the details of knife steel as most of it will be unnecessary for most peoples needs, just the basics! When talking about knife steel, there are 5 traits you should be aware of and understand:
- Hardness/Strength: how well it holds up against deforming and being bent. An important trait if you plan on using your knife to pry things open. This is measured using HRC (The Rockwell C Scale).
- Toughness: This refers to how well it holds up against chipping and cracking. Typically hard steels chip more and tough steel is able to bend and flex more. That’s how you should think about it.
- Corrosion Resistance: The steels ability to resist rust and oxidation. Humidity, fluids, chemicals, and even just air will slowly effect the steel (some more then others) of your survival knife. It’s incredibly important that you clean/wipe your knife after every use.
- Wear Resistance: A steels ability to resist abrasive wear. This is actually more complicated then most people think. It’s not just the hardness of the steel that is a factor but also the size of the particles in the alloy.
- Edge Retention: How well the blade maintains it’s sharpness. There is no standard for measuring this and it’s entirely subjective. Mind you, the type of blade grind will dramatically effect edge retention.
So with all this in mind, there are only a few steels we’d recommend for a survival knife. Even though there are dozens of options… you definitely don’t want to cheap out when your survival is on the line. I’d highly consider the following steels:
- CPM S90V: Expensive but offers excellent hardness and edge retention.
- Elmax: Easy to sharpen, keeps an edge, and has high corrosion retention. It not that hard though and not ideal for heavy duty chopping. Good all around steel.
- CPM 20CV: Difficult to sharpen but keeps an edge and offers good corrosion resistance.
- ZDP-189: Extremely high level of hardness, but low corrosion resistance.
- M390: Good all around steel that offers excellent corrosion resistance and strength.
There are of course exceptional knives that use cheaper knife steel but made with excellent craftsmanship like the Falkniven F1. Definitely keep the steel in mind though when you’re purchasing your survival knife and do the research!
Survival Knife Uses
Survival knives can be used for cutting, carving, and shaping various materials. Either to skin an animal or manufacture a spear, the possibilities are endless. Consider that with a knife, you’ll be able to make other tools like utensils, traps, bows and arrows. You may want to consider bush-crafting skills as those skills/ways of thinking will transfer effectively to an urban setting.
Top 6 Survival Knife Brands
Unfortunately the “cool” factor plays a huge influence in the knife industry so finding the “perfect” survival knife is next to impossible. Compromises will have to be made when picking your survival knife but by having a deep understanding of the basics, you’ll be able to choose what’s most important to you and choose accordingly. Also remember that gear is no substitute for skills and training. Use your knife often and push yourself to learn new bush-crafting skills. A good knife is essential to every ones survival plan, treat this seriously and you’ll survive even the toughest situations.