The knive may very well be the oldest tool that man has utilized throughout history, and it has not changed significantly over the millenniums.
From Folsom points, to obsidian blades sharper than a razor, to bronze, iron, and steel, the knife even more that its relatives, the sword, the spear, or the axe, has been the essential implement or tool most intimately associated with man.
In fact, optimistic anthropologists estimate the existence of knives to extend 2 million years into the past.
The basic form of the knife has not changed meaningfully over time. It’s primary function to pierce or cut(slice) remains the same; that in itself is extraordinary given man’s tendency to want to change, adapt, modify or rearrange any contrivance, device or utensil he can get his hands on.
Since this article is about survival knives it seems appropriate to start by looking at some factors that make a knife a useful possession. To quickly name a few attributes:
- A knife is small compared to a saw, axe, sword, spear, etc. and therefore more easily carried on one’s person or in a portable container.
- The shape and function of the knife is simple and does not require any complex process to put it into action.
- Maintenance of the knife is easy, does not require elaborate care or complex or cumbersome equipment.
- A knife possesses some versatility, it can perform a limited variety of tasks without changing its basic form.
For our needs, we are interested in a knife whose shape, size, and design is more geared toward survival and Bug Out situations.
There are hundreds of brands of knives and knife manufacturers, all producing knives which they label “Survival Knives”. In fact there are so many brands and styles that the average person who simply wants a knife that is sharp, easy to operate and maintain without getting into the esoteric science of types of steel, handle material, and manufacturing process, can become discouraged looking at the myriad of offerings.
So how does one choose the right survival knife?
We want to make the best choice possible, without paying an outrageous amount for what is basically a piece of metal with minimum moving parts, if any. We want a knife that can perform one or two basic functions and their variations. And of course, in a survival-type knife we want a sturdy implement that will hold up under some degree of stress.
Types of Survival Knives
In order to make a somewhat educated evaluation of the type of knife we want, it is worthwhile to acquire some knowledge about the variety and manufacturing of knives.
Essentially, there are two styles of knifes: folding blades, and fixed blades. Folding blades, or pocket knives, are knives where one or more blades are folded inside the handle. Fixed blades are knives such as hunting knives, daggers, etc. These knives are large, consist of one piece, with the cutting blade at one end and the handle at the other end.
Multi-purpose knives are generally folding knives and contain various blades, and modifications, such as the well-known Swiss Army knife. The more modifications a knife has the more it is compromised in performing a knife function to its fullest. Nevertheless these knives are useful and very popular.
For our survival knife, an important requirement is toughness; that is the blade should not break easily, it should hold a sharp edge, and it should be large and massive enough to perform tasks normally beyond its basic capability, i.e. chopping, prying, twisting.
It has been said that a Survival Knife is the single most important item in a survival inventory!
Before we get into selecting a survival-type knife we should know a little about their construction.
The fixed blade knife consists of the following:
- Blade: the working part of the knife. The blade may be plain or serrated, or partially serrated.
- Tang: The tang is the part of the knife that forms the handle. There are 3 types of tangs. A stick tang is a narrow ‘nail’-looking protrusion at the end of the knife where the handle is attached. This is a common and cheap way to manufacture the handle. It is not strong and is subject breaking or bending when significant stress is placed on the blade.
- A partial tang is where the tang is the approximate width of the blade but only extends part way into the handle. A drawback of this type of blade is the handle has a tendency to break above the end of the tang.
- A full tang is where the tang is approximately the same width and thickness as the blade and runs the full length of the handle. The advantage to this is readily apparent. The handle and the blade are strong and essentially one piece when in operation.
- Edge: The cutting surface of the blade.
- Grind: Grind is that part of the blade that is shaped or beveled down to the edge, the cross-section of the blade.
- Spine: The spine is the back of the blade, the thickest part of the blade. It provides the strength to the blade.
- Ricasso: The flat section of the blade at the junction of the blade and the knife guard.
- Choil: Where the blade is unsharpened and indented where the blade meets the handle (at the ricasso).
- Guard: A barrier between the blade and the handle. The are two common types of guards: a partial guard that extends down to protect the hand from sliding onto the blade, commonly found on hunting knives. Full guard extends out from the handle on both sides, commonly found on combat knives to protect the hand from an opponent’s blade; also found on survival-type knives.
- Fuller: A groove along each side of the blade where stock is removed by grinding, commonly referred to as a blood groove but its real purpose is the lighten the weight of the blade.
- Blade Profile: The shape of the blade, how it is ground and the form of the blade.
- Straight: The blade is straight along the spine from handle to point without a curve.
- Clipped point: The point of the blade is curved at the spine to give a dagger-like point.
- False Edge or Reverse Edge: Where the forward top edge of the blade (spine) is thinned and left unsharpened.
Now we would like our survival knife to be sharp and to stay sharp as long as possible during work. The process that distinguishes the sharpness of a blade is called tempering. Tempering is a science, an art and a skill. The detailed chemical and forging factors that are involved in making the ideal blade are beyond the scope of this article, nevertheless, we want to have some idea of the type of blade and its capabilities when we examine our survival knife.
Elements of Steel
Alloys affect the durability, sharpness, strength and toughness of knife steel. Here are some important steel alloys.
- Carbon: Knife edge steel should contain >5% carbon.
- Chromium: Increases wear resistance, corrosion resistance. Stainless steel.
- Molydbdenum: Prevents brittleness, maintains steels strength at high temperatures.
- Nickel: Adds toughness
- Tungsten: Increases wear resistance.
- Vanadium: Contributes to hardness, and wear resistance, allows blade to take a very sharp edge.
- Blade Steel: Blade steel is the type of steel used in the manufacture of a knife, sword, axe, hatchet, etc.
Blades are made from a variety and mixture of materials, most common carbon steel, stainless steel, tool steel and alloy steel.
Some additional terms:
Carbides: Hard particles formed in steel when carbon bonds with iron. Carbide types influence wear resistance, and toughness in steel.
Edge stability: Ability to hold a thin highly polished edge. Finer carbide structure increases the ability of the steel to hold sharpness with acute highly polished edges.
Grain size: Steel is made up of grains, decreasing grain size means increased toughness and strength.
Strength: Different steels have different strengths, measured by a calculation called Rockwell hardness (Rc.)
Toughness: Ability to resist chipping or breakage.
Wear Resistance: Ability to resist abrasive wear. Important for slicing and cutting, especially items like rope, cardboard. Generally greater wear resistance means the steel is more difficult to sharpen, so less wear resistance may be preferred.
Steel: All steel rusts.
The type of steel your survival knife is made of is sometimes etched or stamped into the blade. Often however, there will not be a code and the most you may know is whether or not you knife is made of stainless steel.
Stainless steel is popular for knife blades because it resists rust and staining. In addition. here are a few compositions of steels used in quality knives. The numeric codes are too numerous to include, however here are some principle ones used today.
-400 series: the most popular choices for knife makers because it is easy to sharpen and rust resistant.
-420HC is used extensively by knife makers. HC stands for High Carbon.
-440A is used primarily in inexpensive stainless steel.
-440C is considered a high-end stainless steel, one of the most common alloys used for knife making.
-A2 is air hardening tool steel, frequent choice for combat knives.
-1095 most popular for knives, i.e.. Ka-bar.
-5160 popular with forgers, generally used in bigger blades that need more toughness.
Finally, there are some considerations to take in to account as we select our survival knife, mainly, what kind of survival are we contemplating for use with our knife?
Typically we will want an emergency tool to cut our way out of our automobile, a knife to cut firewood, skin game, build shelters, and more of what we like to call “rough” work. So, for rough work and general survival here are some suggestions.
1. Look for a full tang knife.
2. Avoid hollow handles.
3. Survival knives generally come in two types of steel, stainless or carbon. Stainless steel resists corrosion, and some say it does not hold an edge well, however, 440C, 440HC, are high-end stainless steels and popular for knife making. Carbon steel, excellent qualities but rusts and requires maintenance. Steels such as Muela knives contain Vanadium, are excellent quality steel. Nevertheless, steels vary by manufacturer.
4. Blade (length): Most survival knives are between 6 to 12 inches (15-30 cm), with 7 to 9 inches (18-23 cm) the most versatile. Any bigger and we are talking Rambo, and the knife becomes unwieldy to handle.
5. Blade (Thickness): A good general rule is about 3/16 – 4/16 of an inch (5-6 mm) thickness. You do not want a survival knife that is “whippy” or has a lot of flex to the blade. You need a knife that can withstand wood chopping or prying.
6. Sheath: A belt loop, a lower attachment or hole in the bottom of the sheath for strapping the knife to your leg and permit drainage of moisture from the sheath. The strap that closes around the knife. A cross-strap, where the handle meet the sheath is considered the best.
Some Knives to Consider
And finally here are some great Survival knives to consider for your survival needs.
KA-BAR Fighting/Utility Serrated Edge Knife # 1214 (www.kabar.com)
Cold Steel SRK
Fallkniven A1 / F1 Survival Knife (http://www.fallkniven.com/ )
SOG SEAL Team Knife
SOG Specialty Knives, TF3 Trident (folding type)
There is no such thing as the perfect survival knife since individual needs and budgets may vary. Our best advice is to pick a knife, use it for awhile then add a second knife to add functionality and additional usefulness. Whatever you decide, be sure to use your knife in various situations now. Become skilled and proficient while time is on your side.