What is a Survival Knife?

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What is a survival knife? This question brings more opinions than any other topic I know of. How big, what metal, hollow handle, plastic sheath, double edge or single and of course, what brand is the best.

Mostly what I read on the web is personal favorites but none really deal with the core subject of survivability. Of all the survival tools in your inventory, regardless of the environment, the knife is something you don’t want to make the wrong choice on. So facts speak volumes and opinions are, well, opinions.

It is widely agreed that a true survival knife falls between 5″ and 7″ (blade length). I personally lean towards the 5″ blade but I do commonly carry a 7″ blade especially when I know I’m not making any stops at the local grocery store. For whatever reason, many people see that extra 2″ of blade a “clear and present danger”. With a 5″ blade, in the right sheath, I can usually cover it with my shirt.

Grips are a no brainer. Micarta really is the only choice. Originally developed by Westinghouse, this material is designed to withstand virtually any environment (including a wide variety of chemicals) and temperature ranges. If blade steel was this good I wouldn’t even bother with this article! Micarta also has the unique ability to be molded into any color and makes for some beautiful handles (not really a “survival” concern, but nice).

Sheaths are in the same category as the grips. You can’t beat the new, molded to the knife shape, thermoplastics. Even though I prefer my knife sheaths to be leather, the long-term durability of plastics make leather “antiquated”. There is some room for a nylon sheath argument, but compared to Zytel  resin, nylon fabric is old fashion. Plastic sheaths also have an advantage of being mounted in any configuration, on about anything with just a new hole and a plastic tie. You’ve got to love them!

Blade style is a big area of contention. Knives run from the exotic and saw backed to the plain Jane clip. A good blade shape takes into consideration what the knife is going to be doing on a day to day basis. If the knife is going to be hacking down trees then a heavy, weight-forward blade would be ideal. If skinning a moose was the primary function then a long upswing  in the bowl would be good.

A Survival Knife is a tool. A tool which may be asked to do a lot of different tasks from hacking down a tree to skinning a moose so it needs to take all these into consideration. Of course, designing a knife which could do all these and do them perfectly would probably create a freakish looking piece of steel. People have tried, but for the most part people have failed. So what does a survival knife look like?

The answer may surprise some because it has been around for a long time. The clip point bowie, made famous by the USMC in their knife. Straight and to the point it defines the shape of a tool which can do a lot of different things and do most very well. Most modern knives are some variation of a clip point, but for long term reliability, the less “sexy” the better. You can beat on it to split wood, hack down small trees and even skin a rabbit. Overall there really isn’t a better style.

Does that mean the Marine knife is the best. Not really. They are good but the tang is lacking because of its design. A survival knife should be solid (same stock dimensions) tip to tip. However, the blade shape is spot on.The Marine signature knife, although adequate and proven, lacks a few things. The grip is leather and susceptible to environment, the blade is not quite thick enough for extreme use and although a good fighting width it should have more meat for chopping etc. etc. However, for its purpose, it works.

So now that I have upset the world of survivalists, lets move onto the steel and bother everyone else. The are so many new alloys on the market that saying this steel or that is the best for survival is almost impossible. With new methods of tempering stainless and infusing nitrogen, this metal once only used in the dive industry is now common place in field knives. So where do we go when we pick a metal for our knife?

Lets start out with a brief comparison between stainless and non-stainless (often called carbon steel). First, carbon is what makes steel hard and chromium makes it rust resistant. Stainless blades have less carbon and more chromium, Non-stainless the inverse. Carbon steel blades can be forged, giving them additional strength. Stainless, can be forged….by very qualified people with great difficulty and even then the forging can cause microscopic fractures which can lead to blade weakness. Carbon steel can be differentially tempered giving them good edge quality and good flexible strength. Stainless’ temper is consistent. Carbon blades tend to rust. Stainless is just that; stainless.

So in my little book, you can never beat a good carbon (non-stainless) knife. I can treat rust in the field with animal fat but I can’t fix a snapped off tip. Now I already hear the arguments and I’m sure they are all good, but I have broken enough knives in the field to know what I will carry. So of the carbon steel alloys, which is the best? It is a close call between A2 and D2 steel. A2 is an air-hardened steel famous for it use in combat knives (and is the one I prefer)  but  D2  has the best overall performance and can be differentially tempered. It is highly rust resistant, flexible, holds a great edge, very abrasion resistant….its just good steel. In fact it’s good enough that many high end knife makers are turning to it.  Now I do want to make a possible exception to the D2 “ONLY” statement. There is a new alloy called INFI which is supposed to be as good or better, but I haven’t used it or studied it yet…..however there are some credible rumors.

Does that mean there is no place for stainless. NO, the Scandinavians have been using stainless to great success for…..heck I don’t know; a very long time. And some of the new stainless alloys are really getting close to D2 performance (close). The best thing about stainless is that it is environment resistant so anywhere there is going to be a lot of salt or moisture, stainless may be the way to go. So which is the best stainless, if your inclined that way? I have to lean towards VG-10. I think S90V (found in some Spyderco knives) is the ultimate stainless but it is seriously pricey. So stainless of choice goes to VG-10.

VG-10 is a good balanced alloy with just enough vanadium in it to allow it to be honed to a nasty edge. I has good rust resistance, good strength, and is moderately durable. Overall it is a good material to make a knife out of. The one thing to remember about stainless is that quality means higher $$$. You can have a 1095 carbon blade (lower end of the non-stainless) and it function well, but if you go with a cheap stainless you may just leave part of the blade behind.

So what makes a good survival knife? Nothing, really, that wasn’t in use way before my time. A good forged carbon steel blade with simple straight lines and a sheath to hold it. Modern technology has brought us more consistency in our steel quality, better handle and sheath materials and it has given us field knife grade Stainless Steel (something which was un-heard of just 30ish years ago) but other than that we haven’t come that far. As far as Survival knives are concerned the key is Strong, Simple and functional.

Personally, when I carry a mass production knife, It’s the US made A2 steel field knife by Blackjack (Mod. 14). HOWEVER, recently Universal Survival Innovations has been designing their own Combat And Tactical Survival (CATS) series of hand made knives out of D2 Tool steel and by far these are the my preferred choice!

Remember! A knife may be your last option for survival so make it your best option!


Overall preparation for what nature can throw at us is not that overwhelming but it does take a little effort. USI has a wealth of information, equipment and training for everyone about all forms of mitigation so visit our web site at www.usiusa.com and if you have a need feel free to call!

USI understands that Survival isn’t learned from books but real world experience. This is just one area which makes Universal Survival Innovations unique in the world of training and equipment.

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Author Ben Barr is a 30+ year SERE Specialist who has been a curriculum developer for the USAF Survival School, USAF Water Survival School, USAF Air Mobility Command, USMC and USN

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