Looking for a folding survival knife? It's important to know what to look for before you buy. Here's our review of some of our favorite survival knives, as well as tips on how to choose the one that's best for you. Check out part one here.
Finding the right knife
Keep in mind that this is a tool you might use “every day”. And in an emergency, your life may well depend on it. So this is not a choice to be made lightly. Acceptable knives can usually be found in the $50 to $150 range (that is list price, not necessarily the price you pay). Cheaper knives may or may not be junk; some can be suitable. More expensive knives may be better, but can take money away from other preps. Buying used or from discount outlets can keep the cost reasonable with little impact to quality, and sometimes you can score a real bargain off of eBay. I usually try to get at least 35% off list when buying knives new. Used should be cheaper, unless the knife is of limited availability (custom or discontinued). If you find a knife you really like, it might be worth getting a backup or two of it to stash away just in case the knife you use gets lost or damaged. Note that if your preferred knife is ok for some occasions but just “too big” for other occasions, the company may have a smaller version of the same knife which WOULD be appropriate for those occasions when the full sized one is not.
First of all, go for the best quality you can afford. A “name” brand, which has been around for years, is often the best choice. Made in U.S.A or Germany is often a good sign, although good knives can also come from Sweden, Japan and Switzerland. And from pretty much any other country as well. Yes, a lot of “junk” knives come out of China and other Asian countries, but some good ones come from there too. A quality American company with an adequate history, which gets some of their knives from China or Taiwan, is worth at least looking at. For instance, I'll consider any Cold Steel product based on its own merits. Still, American made is preferable from both a quality and a patriotic standpoint.
Because of the criticality of a good lock, I first would look at some companies which offer “Specialty” locks which are claimed to be more secure than standard liner or mainspring locks. The ones I found were from Cold Steel, Benchmade, Spyderco and CRKT. Cold Steel regularly tests their folding knife locks against comparable competitors, comparing impact resistance and weight bearing capability of their locks. They have videos of these tests on their web site ( http://www.coldsteel.com/Riposte-Putting-It-To-The-Test.aspx ). It would probably be a good idea to watch some of these videos. After you see one all the way through, you can (if you wish) fast forward through the boring tests to find out the final results for other brand tests. It appears that Cold Steel always “wins” these tests with the implication that their locks are always strongest in every class. The tests LOOK fair in the videos, but that does not guarantee the tests are a reliable guide.
Cold Steel has the “Tri-Ad” lock which they claim is very secure. They have a few models which appear to meet the specified criteria, including the American Lawman and the Ultimate Hunter, although the latter is beyond the target price range, and worse, was not adequately discounted when I was looking for contenders. The American Lawman is quite reasonably priced (at least currently, less than half price on eBay). Cold Steel also has the economy priced Pocket Bushman, with another “enhanced lock” called “Ram-Safe” which might be unique to this knife. With a blade of 4 1/2″, this one may be a bit large for everyday pocket carry. This system appears to be not as strong as the Tri-Ad system, but it does appear to be a competitive choice in its price range. …
CRKT has the “AutoLAWKS” secondary locking mechanism. This really is a nice, liner locking system with additional safety lock, which appears like it should be a very secure lock. It did not fair well in the test shown on the Cold Steel site. The M21-04 looks like it might meet the desired folding survival knife criteria.
Benchmade has the “AXIS” system, which is truly ambidextrous and easy to close. It held up to the weight test well, but not the impact test in the Cold Steel video. A good model is the Griptilian.
SOG has the “ARC” system, which is similar to the AXIS system. It did only fair in the Cold Steel tests. More importantly, I was not able to find a model of theirs which had this system AND met the other criteria. I did not try any of the ones which were close, as the discounts available were not as deep as I would like. I've always liked SOG military/combat knives, but folding survival knives does not appear to be a strength of theirs. SOG does have a few acceptable models with more standard locks, which should be competitive with other companies standard locks. In particular, they have the Aegis assisted opening knife, which looks like it might have promise.
Spyderco has the “ball bearing” system, which did ok in the Cold Steel impact tests, but not well in the weight tests. Impact resistance is possibly the more important test for a survival knife though. Historically, they have had several good survival pocket knives, all discontinued. Many of the modern models have blade shapes which are not optimal for general survival, and “lightweight” linerless grips which may or may not stand up to the rigors of survival. There are a few promising looking models though, particularly the non-lightweight version of the Manix 2, replacement for the excellent Manix. The regular Manix 2 has a 3 3/8″ blade, and the XL version has a 3 7/8″ blade; both have steel liners, the lightweight Manix versions typically do not. Their prices have shot up beyond the target price range though.
Unfortunately Becker, who designed some really fine fixed blade survival knives (some now available through KaBar), seems not to have entered the folding knife field. Custom makers such as Christopher Reeve often have excellent options, but the price is likely to not only be beyond the target price range, but be beyond the budgets of most people.
These are the ones I looked at; if none of them floats your boat, then any quality liner lock or mainspring lock knife (or even other locking mechanism knife) which meets the specified criteria AND satisfies your preferences, should be entirely adequate. I've never had a standard lock break, and very few cases where a lock released unintentionally; all my previous survival and EDC (Every Day Carry) folders have had standard locks. You may find it a little more difficult these days to find candidates, since it seems the trend is for folding knives to be “lightweight” and the blades to be smaller, or have more exotic or specialized shapes. Also, there has been a preponderance of “cool” aggressive grip shapes, which may or may not be more usable, but tend to be less unobtrusive and in some cases, can even wear a hole in your pocket.
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Based on the manufacturer's claims mentioned above (and difficulty in finding anything in my price range which appeared to be “better”), I tried the Cold Steel American Lawman (Mini version available), the Cold Steel Pocket Bushman, the CRKT M21-04, the Spyderco Manix 2 XL (Standard length is available) and the Benchmade Griptillian (Mini version available). And the SOG Aegis, since I have a couple non-survival appropriate assisted openers, and would like to test one which appears like it might meet survival criteria. I bought these sight unseen, because I like knives and always try to have the “best” one on me (and at least one available for if I lose the one I'm carrying). Of course, visiting knife stores or even better, shows, first would have been a more economically wise methodology, as shown by around half of these turning out to be questionable or unsuitable, with the attendant annoyance and possible monetary loss of trying to sell them. Seeing the options all lined up, available for inspection and comparison, sounds like the most efficient method of find the best choice.
The CRKT AutoLAWKS system appears like it should be quite strong, so the Cold Steel test results were surprising. And the M21-04 is a very nice knife… until you go to close it. You have to release TWO locks to close it, which takes some practice with your strong hand. It requires even more practice, and not a little dexterity, to close it with the off hand. Plus, the false edge was a bit more extreme than I would prefer. I thought it was likely that I could find a knife better or at least as good, which would be easier to close, so reluctantly sold it off.
The Cold Steel Pocket Bushman seemed interesting at first glance. It is a quite large pocket knife, but due to the thinness, it is less obvious in a (big) pocket than smaller knives. Yet the bulge in the middle makes it fairly comfortable to hold. The grip is smooth metal, which probably would get slippery under survival situations. The grip shape is good, and the blade is very good, although a bit hard to open (stiff, might loosen up with use or lubrication). When I went to open it with my left hand, I found that the opening stud was much shorter on this side, and it was very difficult and a bit painful to open it. But because of what is required to close it, this one, as currently available, is rejected for survival usage without question. There is “no way” to close this with one hand, and closing it with two hands is not trivial. It comes with a lanyard (too short to be useful, but easy to replace), and to close the knife, you have to pull the lanyard, HARD, and while it is under tension, start the blade closed. I can't express how much I dislike this system, even if it were the strongest system possible, which according to its own maker, it is not. This may be a great knife for extended use, but it is impractical for intermittent use. An interesting option might be to have a sheath which holds the knife either open or closed, so you could carry it either way. Without the need for regular closing, this knife could be quite useful, so I might try designing that dual carry sheath..
The Cold Steel American Lawman is pretty nice. Size wise, the grip is a bit thick and squared, not optimal for inconspicuousness, but comfortable and secure to hold. The shape is very good at preventing the hand from sliding onto the blade, and even has the finger choil . It does not have the grooves on the back of the blade The blade has a good shape and width, but is hollow ground. Opening is easy, although it has the same asymmetrical thumb stud which the Pocket Bushman has. In this knife, it could be opened with the off hand without much difficulty, so adjusting the studs to be more even is not necessary. Good thing, since although it looks like you can just unscrew the stud to center on the blade, the stud is actually two parts and it does not appear it can be adjusted. Closing the blade takes a LOT of pressure; I can do it one handed with either hand but the technique (which I got from the Cold Steel lock comparison test videos since its been a while since I used a lockback) seems to be slightly risky to me. Of course, the guy in the videos has done it 100s of times, seemingly without getting cut. This knife has many plusses, and the only significant minuses are the hollow grind and the somewhat kludge-y one handed closing technique. I'm keeping this one; it should be hard to beat for every day uses, and would be quite good in a survival situation, although the edge may be too thin to hold up to some of the most strenuous survival knife tasks.
The Benchmade Griptillian is also quite nice. It is sleeker than the American Lawman, but still comfortable to hold and reasonably slip resistant. It has the choil for easier sharpening, and the grooves on the back of the blade for thumb control (not forefinger control, a rare option). It opens AND CLOSES with the greatest of ease, one handed, either hand The blade is not optimal, being not quite wide enough and having a very slight false edge, but it is flat ground and quite adequate. All in all, this approaches the “perfect” survival folding knife. As such, note that survival guru Doug Ritter has worked with Benchmade to make the RSK Mark 1, which is a Griptillian with an improved blade (shape and material). This version appears to only be available from one source (knifeworks.com) and discounts are limited. Be aware that Benchmade has a “Pardue” Griptillian version with thumb hole instead of studs and what appears to be an even narrower blade.
Choosing which to try between the Spyderco Manix 2 and the Manix 2 XL was a challenge. The major difference is blade length; I chose the 3 7/8″ XL over the 3 3/8″ standard, since I prefer my blades to be 3 1/2″ or longer whenever practical. Many of the Manix models are “lightweight” and do not have liners; I went with a model which did have liners, as strength is more important to me than weight. Although this knife is considerably beyond the target price range, I wanted to see if the new model was as good or better than the original model, which was pretty good and reasonably priced in its day. The new version is excellent. Blade shape? Wide, drop point, check. Cross section? Flat ground, check. Grips? Thin, non-slip, steel liners, comfortable, plenty of protection against fingers slipping onto the blade, check. Finger choil, thumb serrations? Check. Completely ambidextrous? Check. It is not as easy to open and close as the Griptilian, but entirely adequate. Perhaps not as strong a lock as the American Lawman, but strong enough. And the back of the grip is hooked enough to reduce chances of the knife slipping or being pulled forward out of your hand. Really nothing I can complain about except for the price, and deep discounts are (or at least were at this writing) available.
The SOG Aegis is nice in appearance, and opens easily with either hand. There is a “safety” to prevent any accidental opening. The lock and the safety are not ambidextrous, although with practice and dexterity, it can be not only be closed with the off hand, but the safety activated/deactivated. It has the choil, and grooves on the spine of the blade for thumb control. Blade shape and width is pretty good, and it is flat ground. One glaring lack I overlooked when ordering was there is no lanyard attachment. You could put one through an existing hole on the pocket clip, but this would not be optimal. Another hole could be drilled in the top bend of the clip which might be better. My biggest concern is the Zytel grip material, since I don't know if it is strong enough without a liner. It is not completely comfortable to hold; in particular, the carry clip tends to “bite” into the hand. All in all, a nice knife and the best assisted opener I have now, but not “proven” as strong, not completely comfortable to hold, and not as easy to close with the off hand as some of the other knives.
My first choice, hands down, is the Spyderco Manix 2 XL. The Ritter/Benchmade RSK Mk1 may or may not be as good or better, and has a significantly lower list price, but the Spyderco discount price is significantly less than the RSK discount price. If the XL model was “too big” for circumstances or legality, the standard Manix 2 model (with liners, not a lightweight version) should have all the same benefits. It's blade would be a quarter inch less than the competition, and that would be a significant factor, to me at least. I would say the Griptillian would be my second choice and the American Lawman a distant third due mostly to the hollow ground blade.
You might rank them differently, based on your situation and preferences; and you may well find other contenders, particularly if you don't mind a shorter blade or look at new brands which I am not familiar with yet. Or have a different budget (or have no objection to paying list price).
Knife buying suggestions
The things to keep in mind are:
1) Choose a knife which is suitable for as many survival tasks as is practical, and remember that just because it is advertised as a “survival knife” (or looks cool), it does not mean it IS a good survival choice
2) Choose a knife which you could live with “every day”; if you are encouraged to not carry it, you won't have it when you need it
3) Quality and price do not have a one to one correspondence, but they are related – remember, a broken survival knife could be responsible for your death, while one which is “too expensive” may encourage you to not carry it
4) A company which has been around for years is less risky than the “new kid on the block”, yet the oldest company there is was once the new kid, and fine old companies can get stale or “sell out” (can anyone say “Camillus”?)
5) Determining what knives you want is best done in person; buying them over the internet can be a good option, as long as you know the makes and models you want
6) Don't be overly resistant to upgrading your choice if something truly better comes along (a proven new design, a substantial discount on a knife which used to be out of your price range); having a backup or two is wise, and you can always sell off rejects, sometimes with little or no loss if you bought wisely and took care of them.