How to Choose the Best Survival Knife
Don’t take a knife to a gunfight, but in daily application a good knife is a more important survival tool than a gun, so choose it well.
We’re not talking about combat situations; we’re talking about the daily grind of providing shelter and food, and manipulating the raw materials in your environment. Sure, carry a handgun if you like — I do — but your knife will come into your hand literally dozens of times a day, whereas you’ll most likely draw your gun only once or twice a day, and even then just to check it.
My family camped out with several others this past weekend, and as I always do, I found the need to transfer my knife from the EDC bag to my belt. Here is a sampling of uses:
- cutting twine for the tent’s rain fly
- cutting open plastic vacuum packed meat
- cutting down bamboo for a shelter-building demonstation
- manipulation for a edged weapon self-defense demonstration
- sparking a ferrocerium rod to light a fire when I couldn’t find my Bic lighter
- cutting twigs on a tree to make hangers for bags, lanterns, and a ladle
- scraping an infestation of stick-tights off my pants
- pounding a green stick with the pommel to fray the end into a makeshift brush, with which I cleaned some cake-on gunk out of a cup
- sharpening some sticks to roast marshmellows
- using the tip to reach around some bricks and push some shims under a Coleman burner to level it
- cutting food into bitesize pieces
I could go on, but you get the idea. I probably drew the knife three dozen times each day. This all brings up a very important question — what should you look for in a survival knife?
You need a tool suited to its use. A survival knife is a multi-use tool. It will cut a wide variety of materials (e.g., meat, wood, leather, soft metal), do fine carving (e.g., toothpick, barb), serve as a medical instrument (remove a bee stinger; serve as a scalpel), hammer, chop, slice, poke, push… the longer you use it, the more uses you’ll find for it.
It’s no secret that my favorite EDC knife is the Swedish Mora Clipper Companion Model 860. This knife has almost none of the features you should look for in a good survival knife, but I don’t use it as a survival knife — I use it as my EDC utility knife. If my life depended on the knife, I’d choose another,
and in fact I keep the Bear Grylls Ultimate in my bugout bag. (Update: My recommendation of the Bear Grylls knife was hasty and short-lived; it is junk. The steel is so brittle it chipped when sawing through bamboo. The pommel broke during pounding. It has features that look good on the spec sheet, but they didn’t pull it off. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t test it more thoroughly before writing this article. Live and learn). But for everyday carry, nothing beats the Mora.
Features to Look For in a Survival Knife
Here are some things you should look for in choosing your survival knife:
- Fixed blade. Fixed blades are stronger than folders.
- Drop point. Drop points are stronger than upturned points as typically found on skinners and fillet knives.
- Full tang. This means the blade and handle are made from a single piece of metal, and the handle part runs all the way to the pommel and the entire width of the grip… as opposed to a narrow tang, which is essentially a wimpy spike of metal that sticks into the grip. This makes the knife tougher — less risk of bending or snapping it at the hilt.
- Good steel. Good steel resists corrosion, is tough (not brittle), hard enough to hold an edge, yet soft enough to take an edge. The harder the steel, the more difficult it is to sharpen and the more brittle it tends to be. Generally, stainless steel is harder and more brittle than carbon steel, but there have been improvements in the last couple of decades. I prefer carbon steel. Yes, it corrodes, but it’s tougher and takes a razor edge. You have to sharpen it more often, but that’s no big deal. Two popular types of steel are O1 and A2. O1 is a simple high-carbon steel with 1.1% manganese, which gives it a very fine grain. This makes it capable of taking an extremely fine edge. A2 has a coarser grain structure, so it doesn’t take as fine an edge, but it can be made both tough and hard, so it retains its edge longer than O1. (More about O1 and A2 steel). If you like stainless, consider a knife made from cpm-154. It’s a hard and tough steel that has a very unusual quality in stainless steels — it will take a fine edge. True, it’s hard, so it takes longer to sharpen, but its finer grain allows it to get very sharp. At this writing, it’s rarely used in factory knives — you’ll have to find a custom maker. (More about cpm-154 steel).
- Half-serrated edge. Actually, I prefer a smooth edge, but I’ll concede that a half-serrated edge is useful in bushcraft or survival applications. I prefer the serrations to be near the hilt, as it is on the Bear Grylls Ultimate by Gerber, as opposed to near the point, as it is on the Victorinox Rescue Tool. This is because on a half-serrated blade, if you’re using an oil stone it’s easier to sharpen the tip of the blade than it is the base. Also, I use the serrations mostly for sawing actions, and it’s easier to do near the hilt than the tip; if you saw at the tip your knife tends to slip off the material. NOTE ABOUT THE BEAR GRYLLS ULTIMATE: This knife is feature rich and it is a good design; however, the steel they used is less than optimal. The serrations chipped when I used it to saw through bamboo. They’ll need to use better steel to really rank this as a top-drawer survival knife.
- Reasonable size. Giant knives like the Cold Steel Trailmaster are very cool, but I find them to be essentially useless in bushcraft. My favorite knife has a 4-inch blade. A 5-inch blade is also a good choice. I’d say up to 6 inches is still serviceable, but beyond that would be too big.
- Blade thickness. The knife blade should be more than 1/8-inch thick. Having said that, my favorite utility knife is the Mora Clipper Companion Model 860, which is less than 1/10-inch thick. I know that’s not thick enough, but I can’t help it. I love it. It’s my EDC knife.
- Flat spine. I don’t like a saw-tooth or sharpened spine because I like to be able to pound the knife with a club to cut through logs or to split wood.
- A hard, flat pommel. You can use the pommel for hammering if it is hard and flat, and firmly set onto the tang. This is such a common use of the knife that I consider it an essential feature.
Other Factors in Choosing a Survival Knife
To this point I’ve discussed what I consider to be essential characteristics. Now let’s look at some other factors that might influence your choice of a survival knife:
- The sheath. I prefer a plastic sheath over leather because leather tends to absorb and retain moisture and might make your blade corrode faster. This is less of a problem with stainless steel, of course.
- The grip. I prefer a non-slip grip made from a synthetic material such as silicon rubber.
- The hilt. A guard at the hilt will keep your hand from slipping onto the blade and ruining your day.
- Lanyard holes. If you have a lanyard hole at the pommel and two at the hilt, you can lash your knife to a pole and make a spear. Very handy feature.
- Weight. If you find two knives that are identical in every respect except that one is lighter than the other, take the lighter one. That is, weight is a factor, but it isn’t the end-all of your decision.
Some of the most beautiful handmade knives I’ve seen are created by a genius blacksmith named Armand Bussell. Do yourself a favor and visit his web site.