Sunday, February 6, 2022

Survival Knives - Discussion and Recommendations

By Tim Gamble

I have two objectives for this article. First, I want to discuss what a survival knife is, what it needs to be able to do, and what it doesn't need to do, and I want to do so in a way that is understandable even to folks who know nothing about knives. Second, I want to give some suggestions for good-quality, affordable survival knives. 

What makes a survival knife, a survival knife?

Let's be clear on one thing - there is no official definition of a survival knife. It is possible for decent and knowledgeable people to have different opinions on the subject. I say this because we live in an age where many people confuse their opinion with fact, and this leads to a lot of unnecessary discord. It is okay if you have a different opinion than mine, but here is my personal definition of a survival knife.

Survival Knife - a good-quality, rugged, full-tang, fixed-blade knife that can be used for multiple purposes, including self-defense.

Good-quality - a well-made knife with a sharp, easy-to-maintain blade. This excludes the super-cheap $10 "survival" knives you sometimes find at places like Walmart or even Harbor Freight. 

Rugged - a knife that is tough and sturdy, and will hold up to heavy use. For the purposes of a survival knife, this means full-tang and a thick blade. It also means a sharp, but not razor sharp, edge. Razor sharp edges are hard to maintain, and nick and fold too easily under heavy use.

Full-tang - simply put, the blade and handle are one piece, not sperate pieces joined together in some way (welding, screws, rivets, etc.). Separate pieces joined together creates a weak point in the knife, which may be okay for some uses, but not the heavy use of a survival knife. 

Fixed blade - the knife does not fold-up like a pocket knife, but rather is permanently rigid. Typically, a fixed blade is carried in a sheath. 

Multiple purposes - all knives are meant for cutting, but there are many different ways knives can be used - cutting plants, cutting flesh (skinning), cutting other materials, chopping, making finely detailed cuts, fighting, throwing, and so forth. These different purposes determine a knife's size, shape, materials, sharpness, and other design elements. A knife should be judged with its intended purpose in mind. No one knife is perfect for all situations. A survival knife is intended to help you survive in difficult circumstances, which means its uses may include anything from general camp activities to self-defense. A good survival knife won't do everything perfectly, but it will do many things well-enough. 

Self-defense - one purpose of a survival knife is self-defense. Hopefully, you will never need to defend yourself with a knife , but if you do, you are going to need a a few things from the knife. Size matters. Toughness of the blade matters. And it needs to have some good finger guards. Why? In a knife fight, you are likely to hit something hard (armor, bone, a buckle, a wall or a tree, or whatever). The knife will come to a jarring halt. You want the knife to prevent your fingers and hand from slipping forward causing you to slice open your own hand and fingers. If you do that, you lose the fight. Which probably means you die. So, a good grip and finger guards are a necessity in a survival knife.  

By the way, fighting with a knife is not easy, and is always a bad idea if it can be avoided. Defending yourself with a knife is a last resort. It takes skill, which must be learned beforehand. And you cannot learn it watching TV or movies, as 99.98% of what they show is pure fantasy. If you really think you may need to defend yourself with a knife at some point, seek out proper instruction beforehand. 

Also, a fighting knife and a throwing knife are two different things, with different design elements, despite what you see on TV. 

What about straight-edge versus serrations? Many survival knifes come in two variations, straight-edge and serrated-edge (like is found on many steak knives). This is a matter of personal preference, and is entirely up to you. 

What isn't needed in a survival knife? In my opinion, there are two gimmicks that some survival knives offer, that are unnecessary and even harmful to the knife. 

One gimmick is the hollow handle. You have seen these knives at places like Walmart and Harbor Freight. They are advertised as a survival knife, have hollow handles with a screw-on cap, usually with a mini-compass on top. Inside the hollow handle are a few survival supplies like matches and band-aids. I think this design weakens the knife, and creates potential problem spots. Besides, every one of these knives that I have personally seen were cheaply made and not good quality. Avoid them. 

Another gimmick I recommend avoiding is the survival knife that is designed to lash onto a stick in order to turn it into a spear. I question the usefulness of a spear unless you have really trained in using one. But the real reason I dislike these knives is that the additional holes in the handle to allow the knife to be lashed to the stick create a potential weak point on the handle.

Good quality, affordable survival knives:

A survival knife is an important piece of gear, and it is worth spending a bit of money to get a good one. However, most of us, including me, are not independently wealthy, and we only have so much money we can spend on a knife. This list of knives that I consider to be good quality survival knives according to my definition is limited to knives that cost under $100, including tax and shipping (so, no $99.99 knives on the list). There may be other possibilities, but this is my current list of three survival knives I would recommend based on my above criteria and affordability.  

GERBER Prodigy Survival Knife - This is my main survival knife (I have the partially serrated edge version). I've used it for over 10 years. Very good quality, rugged and tough. It has a rubberized no-slip grip with finger guards. Tip of the handle is formed into a glass-breaker, which is a nice addition (wear gloves or wrap your hand and wrist in a shirt or jacket before using the glass breaker). Amazon sells the partially-serrated blade for about $66 currently.  Knife made in the USA, sheath made in China.

KA-BAR  US Marine Corps Fighting Knife - The classic Warrior's Knife, and probably the most famous fixed-blade knife in the world. Bigger than the GERBER Prodigy, this knife has a leather wrapped handle with metal finger guards. No glass breaker. Technically it is a rat-tail tang (meaning full length but not full width) rather than a true full-tang. Amazon sells the straight-edge for about $88 currently, and the serrated-edge for about $84.  Knife made in USA, sheath made in Mexico. 

Ontario Knife Company Air Force Survival Knife - This is the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army issued survival knife. Leather wrapped handle with blood grooves and metal finger guards. Like the KA-BAR, it is technically a rat-tail tang. The leather sheath comes with a pouch and sharpening stone. Amazon sells it for about $48 currently. Knife made in USA, sheath made in China. 

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