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important things, first the knife has a proven past performance in the field and second, the knife’s design might be outdated and may no longer be the best knife for current survival or field situations.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.

The blade on a government issue K-bar is longer and thinner than the USAF survival knife (there are commercial K-bars with shorter blades available) and that feature is to allow deeper penetration when stabbing. The K-bar blade is also made of 1095 carbon steel with an epoxy coated finish (to reduce shine and aid in camouflage) and the sheath is re-enforced with metal rivets at six locations. This knife does not have a metal sheath tip cover, which could cause injuries during falls. And, yep, I found it hard to sharpen and to keep an edge on as well, but then again I strongly dislike all coated knife blades. Oh, and I have seen some K-bar’s sharp enough to shave with, but I just didn’t want to spend that much time working on a blade. However, once you pick up a K-bar you will love the way it feels in your hand, because it feels like an extension of your arm. That, my friends, indicates a very solid and well built knife design. But, honestly, there are better knives, in my opinion, on the market these days and for about the same price, at around fifty dollars.

Now, let’s look at those hollow handled “specialized” knifes on the market today. Buyer beware is my first advice. I know of at least a dozen different designs and probably double that many different qualities of steel used in the various blade construction as well. I have seen imported versions of these knives priced as low as $4.99 (are we talking quality here or what?) and as high as $150 (this may be a better choice), so you have a wide selection to choose from.

The steel used in these blades are some of the biggest mixed matched bunch on the market (from very low carbon content to high) and I suggest you pay very close attention when considering one of these knives. I prefer a good 440C stainless (or stain-less as they should be named, because they will stain) that is easy to sharpen and it keeps a good edge. But, some of the blades on these specialized knives won’t take an edge with an electric grinder (I know a grinder will ruin a good blade, but some of these cheap blades can’t be ruined because they already are)! Many of the sheaths are of very thin leather or plastic without any reinforcements on the sheath, which could lead to injuries.

Most of the hollow handled knives on the market now and those sold a few years ago where purchased because they looked neat (or were seen in action packed movies), not because they served any real practical function. I am not saying there are no hollow handled knives of quality out there, because I have seen more than just a few. My biggest complaint with the knife design is why? Why do we need a knife (which can be dropped unknowingly from a sheath or lost when it is misplaced) designed to carry our survival gear in a hollow handle. Keep in mind, if you lose the knife your survival gear goes with it. And, the amount of gear in the handles of these knives could be easier carried in a shirt pocket or your wallet. The contents typically consists of,
Compass, which is fitted into the butt and handle of the knife (I wonder how accurate that will remain after a few days of rough field usage?)
A few wooden matches in a small plastic bag
3 or 4 fish hooks with line (maybe a couple of lead sinkers)
A cheap metal wire saw
Some have a small piece of flint, band-aids (very small), and maybe a needle or two, and perhaps other small items
The concept is basically good, but with the market flooded with cheap imitations, it is difficult at best for the average outdoors person to separate quality from trash. Additionally, I have always disliked items that are designed to be half of one thing and half of another (is it a survival kit, or a knife?). Why? Because most items designed to perform two functions usually end up not doing either aspect of the design extremely well.

The contents of the hollow knife is sparse at best when it comes to survival gear and a person would be hard pressed to survive using just the contained equipment alone. I suggest you prepare a survival kit that contains what you think is needed or use a suggested list prepared by a survival professional. A survival kit does not have to be large and a small one can easily fit into a small fanny pack. The U.S. Air Force suggests as a minimum your survival kit contain the following items (and no knife can store this much gear in the hollow handle):
Insect repellent (available at most sporting goods sections)
A lotion or oil for your skin (usually found in the home)
Chapstick to keep your lips in good shape (usually found in the home)
A small first aid kit (found in most sporting goods sections)
Water purification tablets (in most sporting goods sections or military surplus, but check the expiration date closely)
Band-Aids (usually found in the home)
About fifty feet of parachute 550 cord (military surplus)
Small throw away sun shades (sporting goods departments)
Fuel tablets for a quick fire start (found in both sporting goods sections and military surplus stores)
A small disposable patient examination light (sporting goods sections or some of your larger military surplus stores)
A good quality small multi-bladed knife (any place that sells knives)
A metal match with striker (for fire starting and found in either sporting goods or military surplus)
Plumbers candle (hardware section of most department stores)
A roll of electrical tape (hardware section of most department stores)
A whistle (sporting goods and military surplus)
Small signal mirror (sporting goods and military surplus)
A variety of fishing snaps and swivels, but stay away from commercial fishing kits because usually most of the contents are for saltwater fish (sporting goods and military surplus)
Two (2) boxes of coated matches, somewhat water-proof, (sporting goods and military surplus)
Flint or a magnesium match for fire starting (sporting goods and military surplus)
A sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil for cooking, boiling, or for signaling (found in almost any store)
About fifty (50) feet of thin brass wire for snares (sporting goods, hardware sections, and military surplus)
Fishing line, I would suggest between 2 and 6 pound test because most of the fish caught will be small (sporting goods and military surplus)
Four (4) safety pins (sewing section of most department stores)
A dozen hooks in assorted sizes, but concentrate on smaller sizes (sporting goods and military surplus)
Four needles of assorted sizes with thread and be sure to thread one of the needles beforehand so it can be used in an emergency quickly (sewing section of most stores)
A large bandage, a trick here, many military members will carry a woman’s Kotex pad (sanitary napkin) or two and they work great! (just about any store)
Needle nose pliers (hardware section of most stores)
Miscellaneous personal items (can be packed in an old 35MM film canister or small plastic baby bottle and they will be water-proof)
A fanny pack or an old fishing vest will hold all of these items and still have room for a couple of packs of dehydrated soups, some hard candy, and other dried or powdered food items you may desire (sporting goods, grocery stores, and military surplus).

While the knives I discussed above all have good as well as bad traits, any one of them may keep you alive if you have to use it, as long as your experience is not a long ordeal. But, what knife would I personally suggest and want in the field? Selecting a knife for emergency use is not like picking a knife for hunting trips or a pocket knife for small camp chores. A survival knife should be designed with one purpose in mind, keeping you alive until you are rescued. To me that means a strong carbon steel blade (strong and takes a good edge quickly), good solid construction (tough for the field), a comfortable feel and a nice balance to the whole knife (these are all good points for extended use survival or field knives). I would suggest you stay away from knives with thin and very pointed tips (designed for stabbing and may break under rougher survival conditions) and go with a more blunt point. Just about any well designed and high quality knife made of good carbon steel can serve as a survival field knife.

My favorite field and survival knife has a small four inch blade and I keep the blade to around the four or five inch length, because they are easier for me to handle and use in the bush for a wide variety of chores (I have field dressed everything from rabbits to moose with my knife and then used it to make a shelter). Additionally, look for a strong hand guard that will resist bending or breaking under rough usage, and a handle with a butt that is built tough and is attached solidly. Be sure the knife feels comfortable and balanced in your hand. You can expect to pay around fifty dollars (some can cost hundreds of dollars) for a good general purpose sheath knife that will perform well in the field as a survival knife. But, once again I have to strongly suggest you stay away from cheap imports that may use poor quality materials and even poorer construction standards. After all, how much is your life worth?

Military surplus knives have a long history and are often copied by cheap knife makers in third world countries, because the U.S. military combat designs are proven money makers. However, consider the simple fact that military knives may be years behind in design and may lack the technological advances currently used by better knife manufacturers in construction of new products (but, then again, if it’s not broke don’t fix it comes to mind and I think it all boils down to individual choice after some serious consideration).

The military does purchase excellent quality knives for extended and continuous use, but usually only for specialized career fields (riggers, pararescue, combat controllers, etc.) or for special missions.

However, the military uses their basic issue survival knives because they are inexpensive (made by the lowest bidder) and only have to perform for a limited time (usually less than 48 hours). I know from experience, all survival components once used or even those carried during an actual survival situation by U.S. Air Force members are condemned and discarded after the survivor returns to the base. To me that clearly indicates the components were designed with one time usage in mind, or that the gear may have defects from survival usage that are difficult to see and the components may no longer be dependable.

Survival knives, there are thousands on the market and many are good quality products and are sold in military surplus stores. Just remember, once in the field the knife you carry with you will be the only survival knife you have on hand. Pick a survival knife that you can rely on, is well made, is strong enough for rough field use, and is the best you can afford. After all, your life may depend on it.

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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