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Sunday, January 11, 2009

How to Choose a Survival Knife

A Survival Knife is the most important single item of your survival gear

You need the best survival knife. Choosing the right survival knife is more than an exercise in individuality – your very life may hinge upon its proper selection.

Anyone who has ever spent quality time in the outdoors will vouch for the usefulness of a good knife but to the survival expert his knife is one of his best friends and the most closely guarded of his survival gear. Like a good friend, his survival knife should never let him down.

Every Man Had a Knife

Time was when nearly all men carried knives, if only a small pocket knife while in town. Whenever one went into the wilds his hunting knife, as they were then called, was always close at hand.

The survival knife is the most important item of your survival gear
full tang knive
Full Tang Knife

Today many people have forgotten the necessity of always carrying a knife. Indeed it has become commonplace to meet people who are afraid of knives and question those who carry them. It is a sad fact that the majority of modern day people have no idea about the many uses of a good knife.

Often while out on the trail I will meet people who ask me what the knife hanging from the shoulder strap of my pack is for. “You don’t know what a knife is for?”, is my usual reply. And they think they do. But I know better, for else they would not have asked such a clueless question.

Survival Knives are Required Gear

A good survival knife is the most important item of your survival gear and is one of the 15 essentials that all survivors should have with them. With a good knife you can make or obtain just about anything you need to live and even prosper in the outdoors. With this in mind, your selection of the best survival knife for your needs must be based on solid construction, proper materials, workmanship, and functionality.

Survival Knives to Avoid

Narrow Knife Tang
Narrow Tang

To the inexperienced, survival knives often conjure up images of the huge Rambo type knives as glorified in Hollywood movies. Though they look like potent weapons that can take on the world, these oversized knives are a far cry from the best of knives used by survival experts. The big knives suffer from being difficult to control as they are overly heavy and bulky. Many needs of the survivor require finer detail work than can readily be accomplished with this kind of blade.

Double edged knives are used mostly for thrusting. Because their tips are relatively weak they are prone to breaking. In addition, the second edge is an unneeded edge that can lead to injury.

Many survival knives are sold that have hollow handles, the idea being you can store survival essentials like matches and compass inside the water tight handle. One problem hollow handled survival knives have is that they are prone to being weaker than the solid handle variety. There are exceptions, but generally you are better off storing your survival gear elsewhere. One advantage to this is that should you loose your knife you will still have the remainder of your survival gear to rely upon.

The best outdoor survival knives are actually quite unassuming. Inexperienced outdoorsmen and survivalists will often pass them over to select blades that will mark them as survival neophytes to those who are in the know,

Optimum Blade Length of a Survival Knife

The best survival knives neet to be versatile in the number of things they can be called upon to do. At the same time bulk and weight are important considerations as with any survival gear.

It has been my experience that the ideal survival knife blade length is somewhere between four and six inches. This size blade offers good mix of size and control. Any blade larger than that is overkill and merely adds to the weight and bulk of the survival gear I am carrying.

If a larger survival blade is needed then you would probably be better off packing a machete, axe, hatchet, tomahawk, or kuris. In any case, you would still do well to also have on your person a regular sized survival knife.

In addition to a survival knife with about a 5-inch blade, I like to carry a multi-tool that has a smaller folding blade. This blade comes in handy for finer detail work that would be too cumbersome for the large knife.

Knife Tang

The best survival knife is constructed of one piece of metal, to which there may be slabs of material attached to form a comfortable handle. This kind of construction is known in the knife world as “full tang” or “narrow tang”.

  • Full tang survival knives are made so that the blade merges into the handle. Often two slabs of material are attached to either side of the metal to make a comfortable handle. In order to economize on weight and bulk some knives eschew the addition of handles and the metal is left bare.
  • Narrow tang survival knives reduce the size of the blade material as it enters the handle of the knife. A handle is then attached over the narrower piece of the knife. Often the knife handle is composed of leather disks, the placement of which is a skill in and of itself. Narrow tang knives sometimes have a pommel attached to the handle end of the tang.

Cheap survival knives are often made so that the metal blade is separate from the handle. The weak point on these badly made knives is where the blade and handle are bolted and glued together. You would do well to avoid such a cheap knife in favor of the superior full tang or narrow tang models.

Types of Knife Blades

There are two main types of knife blades that the survivor need concern himself with, namely smooth and serrated. Serrated survival knife blades do well at cutting synthetic materials, clothing, and flesh. For self defense and paramedics, etc, serrated edges are a good choice.

A drawback to serrated cutting edges is that they are difficult to sharpen properly in the field. This is certainly a major drawback in a survival situation where maintaining a keen edge during hard use is vitally important. In addition, serrated knives do not have an efficient blade for carving and chopping.

A plain smooth edged blade is the blade of choice for most survival situations. Such a blade is useful for carving, chopping, and cutting. Though it may not slice through nylon webbing, clothing, or flesh as efficiently as a serrated blade, the straight bladed knives will still make short work of these materials.

The added advantage of the regular blade is that you can sharpen your survival knife on a rock or piece of concrete should you not have a regular sharpening stone handy whereas the serrated blade generally needs a special sharpening device and technique.

On the back of many survival knives are a saw meant for sawing through metal or wood. In too many cases, as in the Rambo type knives, these saws only do a poor job at best. If you require a small saw in your survival gear you would do well to add a tool specifically designed for this rather than use your knife for this purpose.

Knife Blade Thickness

The best survival knife will generally have a blade thickness of between 5/32 and 8/32 of an inch. Any thinner and the blade becomes too flexible and thicker blades lack the finesse for the finer work that knives for survival are often called upon to do.

It is important that the tip of the knife maintains its strength, as this is a likely area the knife is likely to fail.

Knife Blade Materials

There are two main types of steel used in making high quality survival knives:

  • Stainless Steel knife blades are rust resistant and work especially well in wet environments. They require less care than the carbon steel knives. Drawbacks to using stainless steel in knives is that they tend to be more expensive, are more difficult to sharpen, and may not hold an edge as well.
  • Carbon Steel knife blades will rust if not used regularly or coated. Many feel carbon bladed knives hold an edge better than their stainless steel counterparts.

Some of the Best Survival Knives

In future Survival Topics I will explore a few of the proven survival knives that would serve you well. I welcome any input from Survival Topics readers about knives and their personal choices for the best survival knife.

Some of the best survival knives that come highly recommended include Becker Knives, Fallkniven, and SOGs:

When choosing the best survival knife for your needs you make certain you do not skimp. Get the best survival knife for your needs and it will serve you well for years to come. And, it may just save your life!


1 comment:

  1. "Rambo 4 knife - certainly not a choice in survival knives but an expensive knife for collectors."

    I disagree. The knife design rambo makes in the 4th film is actually an excellent, if crude survival knife.
    Yes it is an expensive knife, but thats only if you buy an "Official Replica". The design and work involved in hammering that knife (as he does in the film) is extremely simple. So don't discount it it just because the replica goes for $300. It it a simplistic design that works brilliantly. If you want to discuss bad survival knives shown in films as good, then thats the Topps Tracker shown in The Hunted. Great to look at terrible to work with.