How to Pick a Good Survival Knife

How to Pick a Good Survival Knife by Gary Benton
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Which is Best, a Military Surplus or Commercial Design?
One aspect survival that many of us never look at very closely is where we buy our equipment for outdoor use or the purpose of our gear. Granted, most of the outdoor stuff offered in surplus stores is a bargain and it has years of hard testing behind it, but is it always a good deal? Often, in the long run, some of the gear purchased from military surplus stores may not be the best of quality, when compared to the same commercial product. Oh, I still buy my Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU’s), canteens, ALCE packs, web gear, and most of my general field gear at a surplus store, because they are hard to beat for general field use and for the price. But, what about something that is very important to a survivor and in some cases a key player in a survival situation? What about survival knives?

Survival knives are available in many different designs, construction materials, features, and costs. For those of us who buy from military surplus stores, or commercial sporting goods shops, the big four are the United States Air Force aircrew survival knife, the United States Marines Corps K-bar knife, the hollow handle “specialized” survival knife, and most come with a good quality sheath. Many good surplus stores will have all four of these knives available and each of them has individual strengths and weaknesses. Let’s look at each of these knifes in more detail.

The United States Air Force aircrew survival knife has been around for years. When I entered the Air Force in 1970 one was issued to me at my first duty assignment and I was told it had been around since World War Two. It has not changed much since its original design, with the exception of the sheath. To me that says two very important things, first the knife has a proven past performance in the field and second, the knife’s design might be outdated and may no longer be the best knife for current survival or field situations.

Now, before all of you US military veteran’s (especially Vietnam vets) jump on the soapbox, let me say, I carried the aircrew survival knife for over twelve years and I have used it under some extreme field conditions many times. It is a good knife and does what it was designed to do, keep you alive as you attempt to survive for a short period of time. But, the U.S. military knows that most survivors are rescued within forty-eight hours, so honestly, how long do you think the knife will last as a skinning knife, field knife, and survival knife? Not very long, I suspect. The air crew survival knife currently sells for around forty-five dollars in many surplus stores (in some stores it may go for more or less).

Now, if you are determined to purchase this knife, let’s go over a couple of considerations before you lay your hard earned money down. I have carried this knife in arctic survival training, mountain survival training, water survival training, and during jungle survival training, as well as a year in Southeast Asia. Additionally, I often used it on my job as a Life Support supervisor. I found the wet stone to be of poor quality, which made it very difficult to quickly re-sharpen the edge on the knife. The knife blade itself, which is made of 1095 carbon steel and has a black phosphate coating (to keep the blade from shinning at night and to aid in camouflage), was difficult to sharpen as well. It seemed to me that the coating on the blade made putting an edge to the blade very frustrating (first I had to get past the coating to reach the steel blade. Then again, it may just have been me, but I do know how to properly sharpen a blade. I just didn’t have hours to sit around and re-sharpen a blade, so this knife did not impress me much. I also felt the knife edge didn’t last long. And, never once in my career did I ever see anyone seriously use the saw teeth on the top of the blade for anything constructive (though I am sure there are uses for it).

None the less, the knife comes in two types of leather sheaths, a metal covered sheath tip and the uncovered sheath tip. The uncovered sheath tip is potentially dangerous, as the tip of the knife can (and I have seen it happen) penetrate the leather and cause an injury. Avoid this knife design without a metal tip on the sheath, because it is either very old (we got issued the metal tipped sheaths, I think, in the mid 1970’s, though it could have been a little earlier) or it is a cheap import model.

Additionally, a word of warning, the tip on this knife is not very strong and I have seen many with the tips broken off following rough field use. Where they abused? More than likely they were, after all it was demanding survival training, but in my opinion the blade tip is too thin and pointed anyway. I also saw more than one with the blade broken at the hand guard, once again, most likely the victim of abuse.

Well, what about everyone’s favorite knife the US Marine Corps K-bar knife? I was issued a couple of these knives at different times in the mid 1970’s and while I loved the design and the battlefield history of the knife (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) I found the K-bar to be too big and difficult for me to handle easily for most field tasks. I prefer a smaller blade than the large seven inch blade on the old military issue K-bar. Keep in mind, this knife was never intended to be a survival or field knife, but rather a knife to kill with by stabbing. It is actually considered by many military members and survival professionals as an assault knife, not a survival or field knife. However, if you do an online search, K-bar will come up as a survival knife.

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About Gary Benton

Garys contributions to each issue of the online magazine can be found in two forms. First we have the Survival side of the matter where he brings us in-depth information for safety and survival in the outdoors. On the flip side Gary also writes the humor section for each issue where you’re sure to be entertained. View Entire Bio