How to Choose the Best Survival Knife.

One of the most important and versatile pieces of equipment you can carry with you while venturing into the outdoors is a survival knife.  Choosing the right knife can make a huge impact on your survival.  With a good knife you can create other tools, build traps, cut and prepare food, prepare raw material, hunt, build shelters, etc.  The list could be endless for such an age old simple tool. 

Other names for this knife may be known as a hunting, bushcraft, utility, jungle, camping and a combat knife.  Each of these may mean vastly different blades for different situations.  I will try to explain some of the differences but my opinion may vary compared to others.  Also the term ‘survival knife’ by definition may be interpreted as a knife required for an emergency survival situation.  However many consider the survival knife as a strong fixed blade suitable as a general all-round outdoor knife.

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Choosing the right knife can make the difference between making a particular task easy or difficult.  The problems is there are hundreds of different blade shapes and sizes, and from many different metals and materials.  To make the choice more difficult, there is no such thing as ‘the best survival knife‘. There are very good knives for particular task but not one can do it all.  For example to do fine cutting you would probably choose a smaller blade and for chopping a larger and heavier knife would be more appropriate.  It is this reasons why many outdoor enthusiasts would take more than one knife.

This is a huge topic and a complete book could be written on the subject of knives and their selections but I will try to simplify this exercise on trying to help you select one knife to suit your needs.  Note, a single knife to do it all will be a compromise on some of capabilities but your selection will determine which capabilities you are prepared to compromise and not.

What do you want to do with your survival knife?

Or hope to be able to do with your knife?  This simple question will be the biggest deciding factor in which knife you select.

Some of those tasks you may encounter while using your knife could be:

Fine cutting: Cutting small objects and materials is best suited towards smaller blades. Generally anything between 2-4 inches is a good starting point.  It offers a finer sharp tip for small fine cutting, is lighter for ease of control and would induce less fatigue.  Another important feature is the ability to be compact and light enough to be carried with you for longer periods of time without being an annoyance for an every day carry (edc).  eg, Fallkniven F1, ESEE-4, Victorinox Pioneer Swiss Army Knife.

Rough cutting: Any blade length will be suitable for general rough cutting with a stronger (thicker) blade to resist breakage from rough treatment. eg, Bark River Knife and Tool (BRKT) Bravo 1, Kabar Becker BK7, Cold Steel Recon Scout, Busse Skinny Anniversary Steel Heart (ASH1).

Slicing: Food preparation is suited towards medium (4-6 inches) to long blades (6-8 inches) with a thin cross sectional area.  A straight blade like a chefs knife is an excellent example.  Note that a  medium blade can also be considered as a nice edc size.  eg, ESEE-6, Mora knives, kitchen utility knives, Fallkniven K2.

Chopping: Usually on wood.  Suited towards large and heavy blades with a steeper grind on the cutting edge to resist edge damage.  These are not really considered as an edc size since they start to become unworldly to carry on your belt or person.  A long and very long blade (+8 inches) can be comfortably carried on or in your backpack.  However, depending on the weight, length and intentions for use (eg, jungle) some people may carry these on their belt.  eg, Axes, Busse Battle Mistress, Kabar Becker BK9, Ontario RTAK 2, Machetes, Ontario Kukuri blade

Drilling: The ability to drill holes or depressions. For example on wood working, leather crafts and carving. Any sharp drop point, spear point or clip point blade would be suitable. These make excellent edc sized knives.  eg, ESEE-3, Fallkniven S1, Spyderco Bushcraft Knife, Cold Steel Pendelton knives, Mora knives.

Digging: Similar to drilling but with a side levering action rather than a rotating movement.  Mainly used on wood to quickly remove material to make an indentation or to retrieve an object embedded within the material.  eg, Digging out grubs from rotten wood.  Any strong spear point or drop point blade will be suitable. eg, Busse ASH1, Kabar Becker BK-2 Campanion, ESEE-5, Fallkniven A1.

Whittling: A blade with a stronger edge for rough cutting tasks.  Mainly used on wood usually along the grain to shape it or to produce wood shavings. Carving a wooden spear or shaving a feather stick are typical examples. eg, anything from BRKT, ESEE, Swamp Rat, Busse, Ranger Knives.

Batoning: Splitting wood by impact driving a strong knife along the grain.  Generally a strong chopping blade would work but not necessarily a long blade. Useful for splitting wood for construction, fire wood or reaching dry wood for fire starting.  eg, BRKT Bravo 1, Fallkniven A2, ESEE-5, anything from Busse, Swamp Rat and Scrape Yard knives.

Skinning: Associated with hunting.  A medium length blade with a pronounced upward curve along the edge like a banana shape.  The upturned tip helps by not catching or snagging on the skin and the wide long curved blade offers a wider cutting edge which will matche the shape of the skin/meat area while it is being pulled with the non knife holding hand.  Usually a lighter blade is selected for less fatigue while handling. Some of these knives may have a ‘gut hook’ which is a sharpened hook to cut open the stomach cavity.  These work with a pull action without having the sharp blade tip puncher the intestines.  Skinning knives tend to be a bit of a specialized blade for hunters but sometimes they still find their way into the survival knife category.  eg, Fallkniven PHK, Victorinox Skinning knife, Cold Steel Master Hunter, BRKT Wolf River, Buck Skinner.

Slashing: A fast wide sweeping movement of the blade generally used to cut large soft objects or a collection of objects with a single swing.  Generally a long and light weight blade for less fatigue.  For example, grass cutting or jungle track clearing through dense under growth (generally soft vegetation).  eg, any machete, Busse Bushwaker Mistress, Ontario RTAK 2.

What shape blade should you choose?

The shape will dramatically influence the capabilities of the knife and understanding the differences will help in your choice.  Some of the more commonly encountered blade shapes are:

1: Straight Back. This has a wide curved edge towards the bottom of the blade.  Suitable for all lengths from small to larger knives.  The strong shape is also ideal for chopping, rough cutting.  The flat unsharpend top side allow it to be batoned easily.  Using your thumb on the same unsharpen top section near the tip allows for controlled fine cutting.  The sweeping curve is well suited to skinning, slicing and general cutting.  The tip is oriented to the top of the blade but still allows it to be easily used for drilling.  An excellent all-rounder shape for hunting, survival, and general camping.

2: Drop Point. Similar to the straight shape except with the tip lowered approximately quarter-way of the width of the blade and with a convexed shape.  Also suitable for all blade lengths.  The lowered tip allows for easier drilling and piercing during thrusting movements.  The convexed top allows the tip to be sharp while remaining very strong.  If the blade has a heavy and thick construction this will allow the tip to handle heavy hole punching, digging and prying.  The curved edge is only slightly shorter than the straight back version but performance is almost as good for skinning and general cutting.  As an all-rounder this shape is probably the most versatile.  This shape is currently the most popular selected for a survival knife.

3. Curved Trailing Point.  The tip is well above the top straight edge to allow a longer sweeping curve to the edge. Suited for medium sized blades.  This shape is more specialized towards a skinning style blade.  This is not as well suited for drilling or punching holes due to the off-set tip.  This blade style is popular with hunters and butchers.

4. Clip Point. Similar to the drop point except with a downward concave shape towards the tip.  The tip appears to be ‘clipped’ away giving rise to a sharper tip.  Designed to allow the tip to reach smaller confined areas while skinning or carving.  Sometimes the concave clip is sharped to provide more versatility for forward push cutting.  Typically seen on the Bowie knife designs.  A versatile and very popular design since Jim Bowie designed it in 1830.  In spite of the popularity the tip has less metal hence will not be as strong as a drop point blade for heavy piercing.

5. Straight Clip Point: A variation of the clip point.  It has has neither a convex or concave top section.  Instead a straight line from the tip to the top of the blade.  The tip on the straight clip point isn’t quite as strong as the drop point but is a good compromise between the drop and the clip point.  Note, it will drill and pierce slightly better than the drop point.  This style is also a great all-rounder and is very popular as well.

6. Sheeps Foot: Resembling the hoof of a sheep’s foot, this has a flat straight-line cutting edge and a downward curving tip.  Similar to the straight back shape but with the opposite side of the knife sharped.  The sheeps foot blade is good for slicing and cutting. It is especially good in giving you a clean cut on a flat cutting surface.  With virtually no sharp point at the tip, they are poor at drilling and digging.  Also with little to no belly on the main edge they are not well suited for skinning (but not impossible).  eg, Box cutter utility knife.

7. Tanto Style: This chisel-like shape is the same used by the traditional Japanese sword makers.  Like the straight back blade but with a straight drop at an angled to the bottom to the blade.  Like the straight back this is also a very strong shape.  There are actually two sharp tips to this style.  One on the top and bottom of the blade. The forward angled straight edge makes a very strong and efficient stabbing tip while the second tip on the bottom makes a great cutting or slashing edge, similar to the sheeps foot.  Hence, the style is perfectly suited to the Japanese Katana and Wakizashi.  With no curved belly to the blade the shape is not well suited to skinning.  This makes the tanto style a great combat blade but not so great general outdoor knife.

8. Spear Point: This has an symmetrical or similar curve on both the top and bottom of the blade.  The tip will be near the mid-way position.  If the bottom curve only is sharpened then the performance is similar to the drop point style.  It’s a slightly better driller shape but it will have slightly less curve or belly for skinning.  It is an excellent all-rounder shape for general cutting, punching holes, digging and batoning.  The shape is slightly lighter than a straight back style so it will be slightly less efficient for chopping.  However, on a larger knife it will still do a respectable job.  This shape is best suited to small to medium length blades.  A versatile and very popular style.

If both the top and bottom curve are sharpened then you can no longer place your thumb along the top side for fine controlled tip cutting.  Also batoning will be less efficient since some of the impact energy, instead of being transferred to the blade, will be absorbed in the chopping action on the baton itself.  Slicing and cutting will remain the same.  In fact with two edges the blade will last twice as long for general cutting before it will need to be sharpened.  The double edge is excellent for drilling, and more importantly, stabbing.  Hence, this style is usually seen on many combat blades.  eg, the SAS dagger.

What do you want it made of:

Knives are generally made of either non-stainless or stainless steels.  There are dozens of different types and grades of both types of steels. Unfortunately, there isn’t one type of steel will excel at all tasks.  So like the blade shape there will be compromises on the properties of the chosen steel.

Briefly, some general steel properties that you will want to consider are:

Hardness: The steel’s ability to resist permanent deformation.  The hardness is usually measured on a Rockwell Count scale (RC scale).  This is very dependent on the heat treatment applied to the steel.

A high hardness (approx RC 60-65) will resist wear and hold an edge for longer but tends to be a bit more brittle.  Sharp impacts on hard objects may chip the cutting edge.  Well suited for small utility knives for prolonged general cutting.

A medium hardness (approx RC 58-60) is a good compromise and is well suited for cutting, rough cutting, whittling, light chopping and slashing.  The edge holding isn’t quite as long but is still an excellent performer.  It is well suited for medium sized knives from the utility to the short choppers and skinners.

A low hardness (approx RC 52-58) is considered to be the softer steels and will not hold an edge as long.  They will at least be the least brittle.  This is well suited to blades that are designed for impact cutting. eg, Axes, swords, choppers, meat cleaver.  Note: Low hardness can also be seen on budget or low cost knives that may have a poor heat treatment or a poor grade low cost steel. eg, movie or ornamental knives, butter knives, general eating utensils.

Toughness: The steel’s ability to flex or bend without fracturing. A tough blade will be able to be bent over without snapping like a glass.  This property is inversely related to hardness but not total dependent on it.  These are well suited to impact blades such as swords.  Also stout blades used for prying or levering are well suited to the high toughness.

Strength: The steel’s ability to resist applied forces.  A high strength blade will be able to resist bending or levering.  An example of this is when we compare the bending of lead to mild steel.  They will both bend but the steel will require much more force.  An example would be a sharpened pry bar used for cutting and levering.

Flexibility: The steels ability to resist permanent deformation from bending.  A blade with good flexibility will be able to be bend over and then return to the original shape without deformation of the tip.  An example is the comparison between mild steel and spring steel.

Edge Retention: The ability of the steel blade to hold an edge. Closely related to hardness.  Generally a hard blade will hold an edge longer and will require much less sharping.  This in effect will make the total life of the blade last longer, provided no other damage is caused along the way.  There are exceptions when a blade has a RC count too high.  It will have a very brittle edge and will chip far too easily with only a moderate force.  This leads to a lower edge retention.

Corrosion Resistance: The ability of the steel to resist corrosion.  Corrosion or deterioration of the steel can either be from the materials being cut or from the environment the knife is being used in.  ie, sea water, acidic fruit, damp or wet conditions.  High resistance is generally associated with stainless steels but some tool grade steels have mild stainless properties as well.

Wear Resistance: The ability to resist wear and abrasion.  Related to hardness and edge retention.  Usually a hard blade will resist scratches and scuffs easier but some stainless steels with a lower hardness have also been found to have excellent wear resistance as well.

Ease of sharpening: The steels ability to gain an edge.  Inversely related to hardness.  A harder blade will be more difficult to sharpen.  With the right sharpening stone (eg, ceramic, diamond stones) this task can be easier.  Strangely this ability is related to corrosion resistance steels.  Stainless steels tend to be a bit more difficult to sharpen compared to carbon steels, yet carbon steels tend to hold an edge longer.

There are no steels that will excel in all the above properties but there are some which will have strong abilities in many of the properties combined.

Here are some of the more commonly encountered steels:

Non-stainless Steels:

10 series (1095, 1084, 1070, 1060, 1050, etc.):  1095, a high carbon steel, is very popular for knives since it has high hardness, wear resistant, good edge holding, easy to sharpen, tough and low cost.  This steel will rust easily so more care is required (oil coating or painted blade).  1050 is a lower carbon steel with lower hardness but has excellent toughness.  Well suited to swords.

A2: A high carbon tool steel that is hard and very tough.  Also very abrasion resistant. With the proper heat treatment it will have an excellent edge retention.  Well suited to mid to large sized blades for fine to heavy use. Low corrosion resistant.

D-2: A tool steel with a mild stainless property, but not a full stainless steel (more than A2 and 10 series).  It has a very high hardness, good toughness, excellent wear resistance and combined with the mild stainless ability it is usually seen on high end knives.  Well suited to medium to small knives since the high hardness will make it slightly more brittle in chopping applications.

5160: A carbon steel with chromium added for harden-ability.  It has good hardness, wear resistance and excellent toughness.  Well suited for larger knives and swords.

INFI: A propriety super steel used only by Busse Combat knives.  A rare steel to have high hardness, excellent toughness, strength, flexibility and edge retention, and is easy to sharpen.  It is not a stainless steel but it does possess a relatively high stainless property for a type of tool steel.  An outstanding steel for medium to larger knives but is very expensive.

Stainless Steels:

420: A low carbon stainless steel which makes this steel very soft. It does not hold an edge well but it has excellent corrosion resistance which makes it good for dive knives.  Usually seen on low cost knives labeled with just ‘Stainless Steel’.  Not a good choice for a quality survival knife.

420HC: Similar to the 420 above but with more carbon.  This has excellent corrosion resistant, good abrasion resistance, is easy to sharpen but has a better edge retention. Similar to 440A steel.  Well suited for medium sized knives for reasonable performance.

440A, 440B, 440C: Excellent stainless steels.  All three resist corrosion well with 440A the best.  Good hardness and very tough with 440C being the best.  440A is a good all rounder.  440B is very good while 440C is used on excellent high end knives.

AUS-6, AUS-8, AUS-10: Japanese stainless steels very similar to the 440 series steels (AUS6 similar to 440A) but with slightly less chromium and some vanadium added which makes them slightly less corrosion resistance but with better wear resistant, toughness and easier to sharpen.

154-CM: An American stainless steel with manganese added makes it excellent in hardness and good toughness.  Not as corrosion resistant as 400 series steel but will hold a better edge.  Excellent for small utility and folding knives.

ATS-34: Manufactured by Hitachi is almost the same as the 154-cm steel.  Also well suited to small utility and folding knives.

VG-10: A stainless steel with vanadium added.  This steel will hold an excellent edge, is very tough, high hardness, wear resistance and more corrosion resistant than ATS-34. Well suited to high end folders and small utility knives.

BG-42: This stainless steel is similar to ATS-34 but with more manganese and a bit of vanadium added.  This has better edge holding abilities and is tougher than ATS-34. This is well suited to top end small to medium knives.

S30V: A stainless steel with a high level of vanadium added. This has excellent hardness, very high toughness, and an excellent edge retention ability.  This is usually seen on expensive top end small to medium knives.

Fixed blade or folding knife?

Most outdoor knives fall into two broad categories:

A fixed blade has the blade material continue from the blade into the handle.  This creates a strong transition between the working edge and the handle.  Fixed blades are able to handle any tasks from the most delicate to the really tough jobs.  eg, chopping, batoning.  The simple construction keeps the cost of manufacture and modification lower.  With no moving parts and complicated mechanisms it allows the knife to be kept clean more easily.  This is especially significant after performing dirty tasks like skinning and gutting where cleaning is required to keep the level of hygiene up on your working tools.

Another important feature of fixed blades is the tang which is the section of metal within the handle that continues to the blade.  The strongest knives will have full tangs which have the steel run the full width and length of the handle.  The handle is effectively slabs of material (eg, wood, plastic, micarta-resin/canvas) on both sides and is held in place usually with rivets or screws. This will expose the steel along the full length of the handle. Due to the strength and simplicity full tang knives they are incredibility popular with survival knives chosen today.

Narrow tangs, sometimes called Rat Tail tang, will almost run the full length of the handle but with a narrower section of steel.  This allows the tang to be completely enclosed within the handle material.  This makes them easy to manufacture the handles.  eg, injection molded rubber handle that can be glued or rived in place.  A bone handle will have a hole drilled along the length for the narrow tang.  This is not as strong as a full tang but in many cases the narrow tang will be strong enough for most tasks thrown at it.  It does have an advantage that no metal is exposed to your hand in an arctic environment.

The half tang or short tang will have a similar width as the full tang but will only run partway along the handle.  Usually seen in knives with hollow handles to contain a tiny survival kit or a few survival items.  This is mainly seen on budget survival knives that follow in the Rambo genera.  These knives are generally not recommended, not because of the hollow handle or blade shape but because of the low strength between the handle and the blade.  Also the mini survival kit could be better stored in a small pouch on the sheath.  This in turn would allow the handle to be constructed as a full tang.

The other category is the folding knife.  A folding knife or pocket knife has a hinged joint between the blade and the handle.  Once folded this creates a shorter knife overall.  The handle itself acts as a sheath for the sharp edge.  The blade can either be held in position with just simple spring pressure or a locking mechanism (eg, liner lock, lock-back, axial-lock).  These are generally not considered to be as strong as a fixed blade but the convenience of a compact folding blade means that they find there place as an edc.

What blade grind should you use?

An important property you should also consider is the blade grind.  The blade grind may not be as easy to choose after choosing the blade shape however, with so many different manufactures, you should be able to fine the right one for your choice of blade shape.  The grind will determine how well the edge will cut and hold up to a given task.

1. Concave Grind: Also called a hollow grind, is a good grind for general cutting of relatively thin materials but the thin edge is not well suited for chopping.  The shape will tend to wedge or stick while cutting thick stiff materials like wood but is excellent on softer materials like meat.  This grind is seen on many hunting knives.

2. Full Flat Grind: A lot of steel is removed to shape the flat sides all the way to the top of the blade.  A very sharp edge that is excellent for slicing and general cutting.  Chopping may damage the edge unless it is ground from a thick blade stock.  Well suited to mid-top end knives for general cutting.

3. Saber Grind: A flat grind to the mid point of the blade.  A strong edge that is well suited to heavy, rough cutting and chopping.  Not as well suited for slicing due to the steep sides but will perform acceptably.

4. Chisel Grind: A single sided flat grind to the mid point of the blade.  A strong grind that will excel at slicing and rough cutting on a flat surface.  The grind can be either left or right handed.  It is this reason that make this grind not suitable as an all-rounder.

5. Compound Grind: Also known as a Double Bevel.  There is effectively two grinds.  A flat or saber grind with another smaller and steeper grind along the edge.  This final steep grind will remove the delicate feather edge for a stronger cutting blade.   This grind is well suited towards heavy cutting and chopping but may reduced the slicing ability.  With a very small secondary bevel, the compound grind is one of the most common grinds used on many outdoor knives.

6. Convexed Grind: Very similar to the compound grind but with a smooth convex curve on the whole side of the blade.  This grind retains a strong edge but the absence of a secondary bevel or shoulder will allow this edge to be a very good slicer.  An excellent all-rounder.  This edge is more expensive to produce hence, is seen mainly on top end knives and choppers.

A serrated or plain edge blade?

Serrations act like a sharpened saw which will zip through most fibrosis materials with minimal sawing action. If the serrations are slightly blunt then the teeth will still effectively saw through a rope while a slightly blunt plain edge will only gnaw at it.  Hence, they excel at rope or webbing cutting.  Serrations could be considered as an edge for lazy users since it will give the impression of a longer performing edge with minimal sharping.  However, this is where their usefulness is limited.  Given that you can still chop lightly, cut and slice with a serrated blade, the serrated teeth will be slightly less efficient slicing through harder materials.  Also you may actually damage the tips of the serrations if you attempt to chop with it which would reduce it’s performance.

The biggest problems with serrated blades is when you come to sharpen them.  First you will need a specialize shaped tool or stone to match the shape of the serrations.  Without this special sharping tool, sharping will be much more difficult and you risk damaging the serrations.  Second, it can be much slower to sharpen compared to a plain edge.  With a plain edge you could at least sharpen it in an emergency situation using a flat river rock or stone.  Also, if you kept a plain edge sharp it will cut through rope or webbing equally as good.

If you were a climber or an emergency worker (eg, Firemen, Search and Rescue) where you constantly deal with ropes and seat-belt webbing then a full or a partial serrated blade would be recommended.  If you feel that you must have serrations then I would recommend the partial serrated blade where the serrations are closer to the handle rather than the tip of the blade.  This will leave the tip as a plain edge for general cutting tasks.

Otherwise for a general cutting tool I would recommend a complete plain edge.  Provided you keep it sharp it will handle just about any cutting task thrown at it, within it’s general capabilities.

How long should the blade be?

This is a hotly debated subject amongst outdoor enthusiasts.  A survival knife should be long enough to be able to handle a large task such as light chopping or heavy cutting yet be small enough to handle delicate cutting like carving and skinning.  It is generally considered by many professionals that anything between 4 to 6 inches is the optimum length.  I personally feel that this is a good starting point for anyone learning about knives for the first time but do use this as a rough guide only.

In reality there is no such thing as an optimum knife length.  The length will mainly come down to your personal preference and experience.  Also your choice may change over time as your requirements changes.  You may initially want a long Rambo sized knife (9-12 inches) but after experience you may end up with a smaller 6 inch knife.  This edc knife would be easier to control if you find that most of your cutting tasks are smaller.  Or the reverse could be true if you find that most of your tasks involve chopping.

Note: I use inches as a standard measuring unit for knife blades.  When a length is stated for a knife it usually means the blade length only.  If it was the total length of the knife then it would be clearly stated as the over-all length.

Examples of longer knives being used can be seen by the native people living in the Amazon tropics or in the African bush.  They have been seen with light but long spear point knives or with long machetes.  These people depend on their knives everyday for survival.  Their uses may be anything from shelter building, game preparing to intricate fine wood carvings.

Examples of shorter knife use can be seen, contrary to belief,  by the elite military where many specialist only require the knife for general cutting tasks such as opening packets of food rather than combat roles where they would mainly depend on their firearm.  Typically 4-5 inches or a strong folder have been seen here.  Note: General infantry are still issued bayonet knives that are approx 6-7 inches.

Examples of medium length knives can be seen by hunters.  Skinning and stabbing blades can be in the order of 6-8 inches.

There are always exceptions to the rule where some just simply prefer using a large or a smaller blade.  There is no real right or wrong length.  It is what ever you find is right for you.

How thick or wide should the blade be?

Like the blade length this can also be a personal choice.  (eg, 1/8 to 3/16 inch thick.)  The thinner the blade the easier to slice and cut.  They also have the advantage of being lighter to carry which make them excellent as edc blades.   Examples of these are the Mora blades.  They are low cost but great performing, a very popular choice.  The thin, light and longer blades have the advantage of reach and low fatigue during extended usage. Not as well suited to chopping on very hard wood or heavy use.  Be cautious of a blade that is too thin.  It will flex too easily on moderate cutting tasks.

Hence, the thicker it is, the stronger and heavier it will be.  (eg, 3/16 to 1/4 inches thick.  5/16 inches very thick.)  Thick blades are excellent for chopping, levering, prying, digging and hammering.  For example, clearing fallen trees or branches.  There are some exceptions to the rule like using a machete where length can make up for mass.  With the right edge profile a thick blade can also slice well.  A thick blade is not quite as easy to carry due to the extra weight, and possibly length, but to the heavy users it may be the only choice available for their intended tasks.

Saw Back Blade?

There are a number of survival knives on the market that offer saws on the top of the blade (saw back).  Depending on the knife this may added a feature or hinder the performance.  Most saws on such knives will only be able to cut a short depth into wood or plastic before they will lodge.  For the saw to be effective they will require the teeth to be thicker than the blade body to be able to cut a clearance.  For virtually all saw back knives this is not so.  Some saws are so ineffective that they are more ornamental than practical.  However, some saw are useful for notching, rope cutting or even fish de-scaling.  Disadvantages may be reduced bationing performance, they will catch on clothing or the sheath, and you can no longer control the back of the blade with your thumb.

It is generally considered that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages of a saw.  Most users chose not to have the saw back.  But if you have a real need and can find a suitable design then don’t let any experts steer you away from saw backs knives.

What kind of handle should it have?

The handle is the direct contact point between you and the blade.  Choosing the right material and shape for your needs can mean the difference between a sure grip or unintentionally launching your knife into the thick bushes or worse, into someone else.

I have already touched on the subject from the tangs section but also consider materials such as rubber (sure grip in wet and cold conditions), horn or bone (beautiful finish while durable), micarta or G10 (sure grip and very robust), wood (beautiful finish with a sure grip), plastic (very durable and non-absorbing), and metal (very robust but heavy).  Note: Wood will require a bit more care since it will absorb moisture.  If left unchecked it will deteriorate.

Next consider the shape of the handle.  It should fill the hand and provide a sure grip without being overly larger or too small.  Many handles will have a slight palm swell and a small first finger notch for a better fit and control.  Also a raised rear talon just after the little finder will help with the firm grip during heavy swinging tasks such as chopping or slashing.

Even the rivets holding the side slabs on may make a difference.  Some are ground flat so you can’t even feel the transition between the handle material to the rivet, while others may be held together with screws which may leave an indentation.  This in turn may lead to a hot spot or blister.  Some have flared tubing in the middle of the grip which leaves an even bigger hole.  Some may find it comfortable while others may find it irritating.

A hand guard between the blade and the handle is excellent in stopping the hand from slipping onto the blade during thrusting or stabbing.  The most popular choice is a single guard which is on the bottom side of the knife.  This leaves the top of the knife clear for your thumb.  This will allow a number of  grip positions for different cutting techniques.  A double guard may not be as versatile for multiple grip positions but will be very secure for combat stabbing blades.

Since your requirements and hand shape may vary to the next person i would recommend that you try a number handles in a local outdoor store.  This will help you to understand the different materials and shapes available before you make a decision.  Some may be aesthetically pleasing but uncomfortable to hold while others may fit you like a glove.  So it does pay to try a few different handles.

Where do you want to use it?

The location where you plan to predominantly use your survival knife will help determine your main uses.  A few locations you may encounter are:

Jungle: Dense undergrowth with thick vegetation.  Much of the flora will be rapid growing and relatively soft.  The machete is king here.  Fast light and easy to sharpen with low fatigue during extended use.  Just as well since in any jungle environment there is plenty of vegetation to chop through.  Or you may consider carrying on your belt a long light weight knife for general task such as hunting and skinning.  A strong folding knife would make a great backup or can be used for small fine cutting tasks.

Forests: This is a general destination since there is a wide range of forests types.  Common tasks would be the shaping or processing of wood for either tools or firewood.  This is where may hunters would spend there spare time.  A strong medium to larger knife would be suitable.  For mainly chopping and batoning a larger knife or axe would the suitable.  A strong medium blade would work well for moderate wood processing and be idea for skinning/hunting, food processing and general cutting.  (eg, drop point and spear points)  It would also be an ideal as an edc.

Arctic: Or any other frozen environment.  A number of knives would be ideal.  If in the far north arctic then a long thin knife like a machete would be useful for shelter building in the snow.  If in a frozen forest then an axe would be the ideal for chopping.  A large portion of the food in these regions will be mainly from hunting animals so a small to medium blade with a deep belly would suit hunters and skin trappers. (eg, straight back, drop points)  Fixed blades will be much easier to use with gloves on.

Deserts: The most important requirement would be water and water gathering.  Cutting tasks would be secondary.  A short or a small light weight knife would suffice as an edc.  A quality folder would be popular here as well.  If wood and small animal hunting is available then a short to medium fixed blade would suit as well.

Seas: If you spend a lot of time on ships then your cutting tasks may be limited.  On a sailing ship you may want to consider a convenient folder with a partial serrated blade for rope cutting.  Where as on a fishing boat you may want a medium thin blade for mainly fish processing.  Also consider a blade made of stainless steel to help resist salt water corrosion.

How do you choose your survival knife?

If you are still not sure how to choose your knife then a quick review of some of the simple questions may help:

1. What do you want to do with it and where do you plan on using it?  These two questions are closely related.  Chopping would normally be done in forests or woodland areas.  A strong larger blade would be the norm. For general cutting a medium blade would be appropriate as an edc.  Hunting could be just about anywhere but would still suit a small to medium blade for edge control.

2. Match the shape to your tasks.  Skinning requires more belly to the edge with a medium to thin thickness.  Drilling and digging would suit a drop and spear point with medium thickness.  A camping knife may be required for general cutting to food processing so a flat grind blade would excel here.  For heavy chopping then a compound or convexed grind would be ideal for strength of edge.

3. Where? Corrosion won’t be too much of a problem, with a little blade care,  in forests and deserts but strength and wear may be important.  A low cost carbon steel blade would be strong and hold an edge well.  Upmarket would be tool and quality stainless steels.  You only have stainless steels in constant wet or corrosive environments. This could also be useful to some who don’t care for there blades as often.

Currently for myself I wanted a general all rounder that I could carry as an edc so a medium length was needed (6-7 inches).  I also wanted it to handle light chopping, digging, hammering and levering so a thick blade for weight and a full tang for strength.  I don’t look after my blades as often as I should.  I wanted a strong long lasting edge that will take a beating without chipping.  Carbon steel will rust and stainless steel may chip while chopping.  I selected INFI steel which has a good compromise of being strong with a mild stainless ability.  Micarta handles for low maintenance and strength.  I also wanted to drill and stab holes so a drop or spear point would suit.  I ended up choosing a Busse ASH1 (6.5 inches, 5/16 thick) which is a beast of a blade and is considered by many to be too thick and heavy.  I personally find it still manageable as a medium sized tool and it suits my needs.  Shown above in the top picture.  With a full flat grind and a sharp edge it will slice respectability and is strong enough to chop small branches   There were some compromises but at least I have the ability to perform many tasks with a single blade.

Note: Since writing this article I have skeletonised the tang and reduced the pommel to lower the weight to a more manageable edc weight.  (Note: This knife can only now be found on the secondhand or the exchange forums such as on BladeForums.com)

On longer excursions I may also carry a Leatherman Charge for very fine cutting and utility use.

On shorter excursions, day walks or on trips that I do not expect to do any larger cutting tasks I may carry a folding knife such as a Spyderco Delica 4 or just the Leatherman Charge instead of a fixed blade.  Folding knives are beyond the scope of this article but your choice of blade shape, blade steel and handle material will still apply.

Practice, practice and practice using your survival knife:

To gain the most out of your survival knife you should practice as often as you can.  The more skills and techniques you acquire the more you will be able to do with it.  To quote Bruce Lee: It is not enough to know, you must do.

For example I have seen someone able to chop down small trees with just a 4 inch blade.  This person used a wooden baton on the back of the knife to chop through.  I have also heard of some people who could just about perform surgery with a sharp machete.  These skills will especially come in handy when you are not able to choose your ideal blade.

In a real survival situation you may only have access to what ever is available.  It could be a sharpened butter knife, a scrap of metal or even a piece of glass.  What ever you choose or have at hand, the skills gained, hopefully beforehand, will be invaluable.

Finally:

If you are still reading this then you would probably have the time to be more selective on your choice of a survival knife.  With so many locations, tasks and requirements the choice can be daunting.  Also, with so many different physical abilities and requirements from different users your choice may vary from others.  In spite of what some experts may say, just remember that there is no such thing as a single best or optimum knife. But with the right knowledge and experience, combined with your ability and requirements you will be able to select the best survival knife to suit you.

Also over time as you gain more experience or if your requirements change then your choice of a survival knife may also change.

I hope this article has been helpful and what ever you choose, i hope you enjoy using your knife.

AB.

Note: Some countries and states may have restrictions on knives being carried on your person.  Please be observe and practice all rules and regulations before you intend to carry and use your blades through these locations.





7 Responses to “How to Choose the Best Survival Knife.”

  1. Carry the Right Knife | Trails of Life Says:

    […] How to Choose the Best Survival Knife by Andy Beck […]

  2. The Trailhawk Says:

    I wouldn’t care what curve or what shape as long as it can cut and doesn’t break. Good article. Keep on posting.

  3. Warrior Pilgrimage Says:

    Hello Andy,

    Can I use your article as an instructional aid for an outdoor course about Knife Care and Safety. I am from Cebu City, the Philippines and I’m teaching people about bushcraft and survival here.

    Regards,

    ~PinoyApache

  4. AB Says:

    Hi PinoyApache,

    As long as you quote the source where it came from, sure you can.

    I’m glad the article can be of some use for your outdoor course.

    Best of luck with your bushcraft and survival teachings.

    Cheers,
    Andy.

  5. Drew Laursen Says:

    Awesome article and one of the most in-depth ones on this subject that I have seen. I recently wrote an article like this on my new website but is currently holds nothing to yours. ( I will not post the website name on here to avoid spamming). Anyways, well done!

    -Drew

  6. AB Says:

    Thanks for your kind words Drew.

    Now, if I could only find more time to add more content….

    All the best,
    Andy.

  7. barry Says:

    cover kukri one day

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