The knife was man’s first tool and we’ve been using knife-like tools for over 2.5 million years. It was knives that allowed early man to perform tasks like cutting, chopping, and hunting. We can thank the knife for giving us a competitive edge and fueling our survival. Without knives, who knows what would have become of mankind. And, without a knife in a survival situation, your chances of making it through are going to be diminished. But not all survival knives are the same. Before you pack any old knife in your pack, take some time to learn these qualities of a good survival knife.
Qualities of a Good Survival Knife
- Blade shape
- Blade material
Survival Knife Length
When you watch a Hollywood movie like Rambo, you will almost always see the characters running around with some gigantic knife. While these do look fearsome, a big knife isn’t always better.
Large knives are cumbersome to carry (and every ounce matters in your survival pack!). If you were to carry one on your hip, it could easily get snagged on something. If you were to put it in your pack, then it wouldn’t be readily accessible. Large knives are also really bad when it comes to doing precision tasks like carving snares or using the tip as an improvised screwdriver.
By contrast, small knives aren’t going to be much help in a survival situation either. You can’t do rugged tasks like batoning wood with a small knife.
In a family survival situation, I might have one large knife for myself, a medium-sized knife for my wife, and give my daughter the tiny Swiss Army knife to carry. But, if you only have 1 survival knife to pick, then I’d go for a medium sized one.
The perfect survival knife length is between 9 and 11 inches. So, the blade might be 5 inches and the handle another 5 inches.
Survival Knife Tang
Tang is the part of the knife that extends into the handle. The tang is usually attached to the handle with bolts, pins, screws, or glue. Really cheap knives will have just a small partial tang that is glued to the handle. If you used these knives for anything require force, the handle would easily break off.
When choosing a survival knife, you want to choose one with a full tang. Because there is more metal, the knife is much sturdier. Even if the handle comes off, you can still use it simply by wrapping some paracord around it. The only real downsides are that full tang survival knives will cost more, and that the full tang adds weight to the knife. If weight is really a concern, you could get a skeletonized tang which is a full tang that has some metal removed from it to make it lighter.
What about folding knives?
A folding knife, such as a Swiss Army knife, cannot be a full tang. For this reason, you should never choose a folding knife as your primary survival knife. This doesn’t mean that folding knives don’t have their place and advantages, but reserve them for EDC situations and choose a sturdier knife for survival situations.
Survival Knife Blade Shape
The shape of the knife blade is also known as its grind. There are all sorts of knife grinds, and some are much more suited for certain uses. For example, a kitchen knife has a rounded blade shape which makes it perfect for cutting onions and carrots. This knife won’t help you spear a fish or carve an arrow though!
AVOID knife blades which are sharp on both sides (like a dagger). While these might be good for fighting, they are terrible for more survival uses, and can even be downright dangerous. For example, I often rest the back of the knife on my thumb for leverage when doing precision work like carving. This is not safe with a double-edge blade.
AVOID knife blades that have angles, hooks, or highly-rounded edges. These blades won’t hold up well during rugged tasks. You also want to avoid knives which have completely flat blades. There needs to be a bit of curve to the blade to reduce strain on the hands when cutting with it and also distribute the force throughout the blade.
The BEST survival knife blade shape is a drop point blade (S3 in the picture). Starting at about halfway down the blade, the dull side of this blade slopes downward slightly to meet the point. This geometry is best suited for most survival tasks.
Alternatively, the clip point blade (S4) is also good for survival situations. It is like a normal blade (S1) but has a “clip” taken out. The sharper tip makes it better suited for cutting in tight places, and also using as a pick. The clip is often curved. Just don’t choose a clip point blade with too much of a curve because it could easily break if you pound on it.
Survival knife blades are made from steel, which is an alloy of iron and carbon. There are two main types of steel used to make survival knives:
- Stainless Steel: Isn’t as strong as carbon but is resists rust better. It loses its edge faster and is harder to sharpen than carbon steel.
- Carbon Steel: These blades are stronger and will hold an edge longer, but will rust if not cared for properly.
Remember that not all stainless steel and carbon steels are the same! The way that the materials are made will affect how durable and strong they are.
Good Qualities of Stainless Steel
- ATS 34
- BG 42
*You can find a chart of stainless steel types here.
Good Qualities of Carbon Steel
- Carbon V
The pommel is the bottom of the knife’s handle, more frequently just called the “butt” of the knife. It might not seem like an important characteristics of your survival knife, but you want to make sure you choose a flat pommel. Do NOT get a pommel which is curved or V-shaped. The reason is because you may want to hit the butt of your knife with a rock or piece of wood (for example, if you are digging with your knife). Or, you might want to use the butt of your knife to hit something (such as when hammering tent stakes into the ground). You can’t do this safely unless the pommel is flat.
Survival Knife Handle
There is no one “best” handle material for a survival knife. I personally like wooden handles, but they do need to be cared for and absorb water. Rubberized handles have a very comfortable nonslip grip, but they don’t last as long. There are many comfortable long-lasting synthetic materials for the handle. I would recommend handling several survival knives and seeing which material you like best.
Some knife handles have guards on them. I personally don’t like them because they make it difficult to do carving. But, some might prefer to have them there.
Most importantly, do NOT get a knife handle which has some hallow compartment (such as for holding matches) or a built-in compass. These features may seem useful, but they are just gimmicks. If your handle is hollow, then it won’t be sturdy enough for real survival applications. And that built-in compass is going to break the first time you try to hammer with your survival knife.