What is the best survival knife? In previous articles, we discussed choosing a folding survival knife (here and here.) As mentioned, a folding knife might not be your first choice in an emergency situation, just the most convenient to carry every day, since any knife you happen to have on you is better than no knife at all. Because a knife is often critically useful during an emergency, let us now consider how to choose your best option, a good fixed blade knife, for survival purposes. That is, for inclusion in a survival kit or BOB (Bug Out Bag) or equivalent, and to be strapped on when an emergency is likely.
Your survival blade may be used for constructing shelter, making fire and catching/preparing food, among other uses. Although not designed specifically for combat, a knife suitable for survival uses can also be used for defense.
It is both easier and harder to choose the best fixed-blade knife than it is a folding knife. On the one hand, you don’t need to worry about lock type and strength, or opening/closing methodologies, or ambidextrous usage. Likewise, there is a much broader selection of sizes, as well as many more choices in each size.
How to Identify a Survival Knife
What Is NOT a Survival Knife?
Many knives are advertised as a “survival” knife, and when you see that description, be extra careful. There are two features common to such knives, which tend to make them LESS suitable for survival, not more so. The first is the “hollow handle.” The concept is, you can keep “survival supplies” in there, which is an interesting idea, but not practical. You can’t really keep much in the handle of a knife, particularly not a lot of what you really need. Worse, a tube is not really the best shape for a knife grip, and worst of all, such a knife blade is likely to snap off or become unglued under stress due to the necessarily weak joint between blade and grip.
Avoid a hollow handle knife under all circumstances, with the possible exception of a “one piece” knife such as was made by Chris Reeve until 2009. The other common “survival” feature is a “saw blade” back strap. This was originally part of aircrew survival knives, designed to rip through the thin metal skin of a downed aircraft if no other means of escape was available. The original designs were mostly horrid at cutting wood, and with the possible exception of a few with true offset teeth, the latest designs are little better. Plus, with teeth on the back of your blade, you can’t put your finger there for fine control, and it prevents the use of the knife for ‘batoning’, an important survival task. That is, using a club on the back edge to split a branch to get at the dry interior for fire starting.
If the knife does not have a “full tang,” that is, the piece of metal which includes the blade does not extend the full length of the grip, then it is not a good choice for a survival knife. Any joint between blade and grip is a break just waiting to happen. A narrow tang (one which is not as wide as the blade) or a skeleton tang (one which is slotted or drilled to reduce weight) generally is acceptable.
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When looking for a folding knife, size is somewhat dictated by the size of your pocket, or if you can carry the knife in a pouch on your belt. In fixed blade knives, there is no such restriction. There are fixed blade knives with an inch long blade, and there are “knives” with blades a yard long or even longer. Let us consider the two most common “classes” of fixed blade knives.
One class of interest to those in the survival community is the so-called “bush” knife. These are “medium” sized knives, good for most every survival task except chopping, as they don’t have the length, weight or balance to excel at this. The other class of primary interest is the “field”, or “large” sized knives. These excel at chopping and can be superior for combat uses. They can be used for most other knife uses, but their length, weight, and balance tend to not be convenient for such tasks. There is a fair amount of controversy over which class is “better” for survival purposes; some experts say that a bush knife is all you need and anything bigger is a waste of space or even “too dangerous” for people in stressful situations; other experts say that a big knife is always better, and can do everything a small knife can do, as well as more. Which side is right? Both have valid points. And neither is completely correct. Personally, I prefer to have one of each. This is because there are some things a medium knife won’t do at all well, and there are some things which are inconvenient to do with a large knife.
Field Knife vs. Bush Knife
If you prefer to have only one knife, you will need to consider the tasks you are most likely to have to do, and which class of knife is most appropriate for your circumstances. Note that versatility equal to that of a field knife and a bush knife can be equaled by a field knife and a good survival folding knife as described in the earlier articles. In other words, the survival folder can replace a bush knife, as long as you also have a field knife for the tasks which the folder is not strong enough or big enough to handle well.
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So what is considered to be a “field” or “large” knife? As might be expected by its primary task, chopping, the blade is long, usually 9 to 12 inches, and thick (3/16″ to 1/4″), with a lot of weight forward. The edge, at least in the chopping area, may be optimized for chopping; that is, a fairly wide angle grind like you might see on a hatchet. For optimum versatility, the front and back couple inches of the edge could be optimized for slicing; that is, a more narrow-angle grind. Serrations should be avoided. In order to get that ‘concentrated weight’ over the chopping edge, an oversize ‘belly’ (the curve between the tip and straight edge) is optimal. The Kukri style blade is an excellent example of this sort of blade. The standard survival optimal blade shape (drop point, spear point or short, straight clip) is most versatile if this is your only knife; if you have multiple knives, then having a more specialized blade shape on your field knife is not only acceptable, but in some cases might even be a good idea.
A “bush” or “medium” knife, then, has a shorter, thinner blade, 4 to 6 inches long and 1/8″ to 3/16″ thick. For maximum versatility, it should have a bit of belly, but a constant angle grind optimized for its primary tasks, which involve slicing. As in folding knives, drop point is the most versatile tip, while a spear point or short, straight clip point is usually entirely adequate as far as versatility and point strength (thickness) are concerned. Again, serrations, although they do have their uses, are not as useful in a survival knife. If you really want serrations, a combination blade which has mostly a standard edge with serrations near the grip would be a tolerable compromise, although having a separate knife with a serrated blade would be better.
Shorter bladed knives have their uses but are not optimal as your only survival knife. Longer bladed knives are primarily only useful for clearing brush (“Machete”) or combat (“sword”), and again are not a good choice as your only survival knife.
Requirements for a Fixed Survival Blade
Except for the length and thickness, the fixed knife survival blade has the same requirements as a folding survival knife blade. You want a blade which is fairly wide, for maximum versatility, strength, and slicing ability. And one with a good “belly” (curve between point and straight edge) to facilitate skinning and butchering tasks. And with a flat (V) or saber grind (flat grind starting part way down the blade), for maximum strength; hollow grinds should be avoided due to being less durable and a bit harder to sharpen than the flat grind variants…
Blade steels tend to be either high carbon steel or one of many stainless steel formulas. Usually, high carbon steel blades take a very good edge and are easily sharpened. However, high carbon steel rusts easily, so you need to store it better and maintain it better in order to avoid rust. Stainless steels tend to be rust resistant (NOT rust proof), but may not to take as nice an edge, and are more difficult to sharpen. Either one will do the job if you do your part. Note that some high carbon steel blades are coated or have a finish to increase their rust resistance. One advantage of high carbon steel is you can use the knife to get sparks from flint you find on site.
Avoiding a false edge is less critical for fixed blade knives than for folding knives. The blades are thicker, so the weakening of the tip caused by the false edge is sometimes reduced for a fixed blade knife. Accept or reject knives with false edges on a case by case basis, depending on how thin and narrow the tip ends up being.
Having a “sharp” 90-degree spine is very useful. It can be used for scraping tinder and with your ferrocerium rod. If the knife is otherwise perfect but has rounded edges on the spine, you can “modify” a section of the spine to give you that aggressive 90-degree edge. Make sure you know what you are doing, though, since affecting the heat treatment of the blade must be avoided at all costs.
Unlike with a folding knife, the grip length and shape is completely independent of the blade. So look for a grip which fits your hand well and is long enough. It should be comfortable to hold, in all useful types of grips, and be as non-slip and damage resistant as is practical. Although most grip materials can be made to work, a textured synthetic material is often best. Make sure the grip is strongly fastened to the tang, either by screwing or riveting grip scales (slab sides) through the tang or with a large nut on the threaded end of the tang to hold a one-piece grip firmly between the guard and the nut.
Most fixed blade knives have a “guard” either built-in or added between the grip and the blade. This is often a “half guard” extending below the blade, which keeps the hand from sliding forward onto the blade during use. Obviously, this is an important consideration for a survival knife, so inspect this closely to be sure it is adequate. Some knives have instead, a: “full guard”, where the guard extends both below the blade and above the backstrap. This is of use in a fighting knife, as it can block or trap your opponent’s blade, but it is in the way of some survival knife functions. I would never accept one of these on a bush knife; if I also had a bush knife or a folding knife, I would be happy to have a full guard on my field knife.
If there is not a full guard, then your fingers have good access to the back of the blade, and having some grooves on the back rear of the blade allows you to guide the knife with your forefinger for some tasks and/or prevents the thumb from slipping forward. The length and location of the grooved area determine which of these functions is supported. A small notch (choil) at the end of the straight portion of the blade makes it easier to sharpen the whole blade; the alternative is to have the edge thickness smoothly transition from edge to grip, which is attractive but makes sharpening the last bit of the blade a challenge. A large notch (finger choil) at the rear of the blade allows you to “choke up” on the blade for some tasks. Usually, you have only one type of choil, as it would be unsafe to have the start of the edge with nothing between it and your finger.
As with a folding knife, losing your knife during a disaster would be most unfortunate. It is important that any knife chosen have a place to attach a lanyard. Even better would be if you attach a lanyard to such a point. There are links in Part 1 of the folding knife articles showing how to make your own lanyards from paracord:
It would be handy if the pommel (rear end of the grip) were solid and flat, to allow the knife to provide a bit of a “hammer” function.
Watch this video from Black Scout Survival on how to identify the best survival knife:
The best survival knife can be subjective as survivalists have different needs and personal favorites. But knowing the different kinds of survival knife, their uses, qualities, and specialization will help you choose wisely. We hope this series on survival knives will help you pick the right one for you.
Do you have any other self-sufficiency skills in mind you can add to this set? We would like to know about it in the comments section below!
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 21, 2015, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.