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A knife is often said to be the most vital tool for wilderness survival, and while there is a strong argument for an axe being at least as important and possibly even more important, especially for long term survival in boreal forests, nine times out of ten a survival knife is going to be at the top of most experts kit lists for survival.
It is hard to find a better all-around survival knife than the Fallkniven A1. Technical design, ergonomics, quality – it exceeds any expectations you may have and set the standard in the niche.
Making Your Choice
There is a popular saying; “the best survival knife is the knife you have on you” while it is true that in a real-life or death survival situation whatever knife you have with you is going to be the best knife available, even if it’s just a bread knife or a folding Swiss Army knife, that’s because it will probably be the only knife available rather than a good survival knife. As we prepare for a survival situation and practice our survival skills we have the luxury of choosing from a great range of fantastic products that will truly be a good survival knife rather than just something that will do the job.
When you choose a survival knife you will be selecting the knife you WANT to have in an emergency and then it’s up to you to make the relevant preparation to make sure you have it with you when you need it. For this reason, you will see a range of survival knife options in this top ten list from large ‘one tool’ style knives which could be pressed to work normally reserved for an axe or saw, and a few smaller options which may not be as powerful when it comes to chopping tasks but which you might more realistically carry with you and actually have at your disposal in an emergency or survival situation.
How to proceed?
We are going to jump right in and show you the survival knives we selected for our top list. However, if this is your first time buying a survival knife, or if you just want to immerse yourself and make an informed purchase decision we strongly recommend that you jump over to our Survival Knife Buyers Guide and the end of this article. It’s not a short read but is intended to be the ultimate survival knife buyers guide and you’ll be glad you did.
The 10 Best Survival Knives:
The Recon Scout is simply a 7 1/2 inch Bowie. It offers the same blade thickness, blade shape, and handle as Cold Steels Trailmaster Bowie.Unlike other knives, the Recon Scout’s broad clip point is highly resistant to bending or breaking. It’s ideal for long range cutting. Additionally, the blade is equipped with a slightly concave false edge that measures approximately 3 1/2″ long.
The Recon Scout has a slight curve along the entire length of the blade. This curve allows the blade to be used in a draw cut as well as a chopping stroke. Plus, the extra curve near the tip provides plenty of “belly” for emergency field dressing and skinning. The Recon Scout comes complete with a tough Secure-Ex sheath.
|Blade Material:||01 Steel|
|Blade Length (cm):||19.0|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.5|
|Overall Length (cm):||31.8|
secureThe recon scout is a massive knife, certainly big enough for chopping and the largest of survival tasks, the robust O1 steel and polymer handle is strong enough for almost anything. Even the ‘lite’ version of the cold steel knives which are more budget friendly options made with slightly less premium steel are almost indestructible, but the recon scout is one of cold steels flagship products. You can see it in action here:
Even if the people in the videos seem to take themselves a little too seriously the performance and toughness of the knife is clear. This knife certainly falls into the ‘one tool option’ category and can do light chopping duties and is large enough to span even quite large logs to split them with a baton. In this way it takes on some of the duties of an axe and saw.
2. ESEE 5
The ESEE-5 Survival, Escape and Evasion Knife was designed by Military SERE Instructors as a hard-use downed pilots survival knife. The full tang blade is forged from 1095 Carbon steel with a textured powder coating and canvas micarta handle scales. It features thumb jimping on the spine, a glass breaker and bow drill divot. Supplied with a black kydex sheath with paracord, cord lock and clip plate with fixings.
|Blade Material:||1095 Carbon Steel|
|Blade Length (cm):||13.3|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.6|
|Overall Length (cm):||27.3|
|Handle Material:||Canvas Micarta|
|Blade Coating:||Textured Powder Coat|
|Blade Hardness (HRC):||55-57|
|Blade Shape:||Drop Point|
|Sheath:||Black Kydex w/Clip Plate|
|Product Weight (g):||540|
All ESEE knives come with a fantastic lifetime warrantee which might be a factor in your decision to buy one, however consider this, in a survival situation there is not going to be anyone to honour your warrantee agreement if you break the knife! That’s not to say that your ESEE 5 is going to break, they are very robust and the 1095 steel is well heat treated by Rowen manufacturing. The drop point blade style and robust sabre grind of the ESEE 5 makes it perfect for a range of survival tasks including finer wood processing. It’s a much better option than a lot of the other ESEE knives as most feature a large finger choil which is a wasted feature on most knives, the ESEE 5 does not have this feature which makes it a much better and more comfortable all-round knife.
The protruding tang with it’s glass breaker point might not seem all that useful from a backwoods survival perspective but remember that survival situations might occur anywhere, even urban areas, and the ESEE 5 was designed as a survival tool for downed pilots who might have to break their way out of an aircraft through the canopy in an emergency.
The handle is comfortable although may be a bit on the large size for people with smaller hands and is made from practically indestructible canvas micarta, the handle also features a divot for bow drill firelighting. Friction firelighting with a bow drill is a useful survival skill but handle divots, which have started to appear on lots of knives, are largely a gimmick. If you have found enough material to make a bow drill set in the first place then you have enough to make a bearing block instead of either having to use your knife, unsheathed, very close to your leg while your thrash around with a bow drill, or leave it in it’s sheath and have to detach your sheath from your belt every time you want to use the bow drill divot.
Figure 10; Bow drill friction fire lighting kit, including bearing block on the right.
A combination of new and traditional designs made with high quality materials make these Ka bar knives perform as well as they look. Based on Kabars original USMC knife design. 12 inches Overall, 7 inch edge with black epoxy finish carbon steel blade. Black Kraton handle with black epoxy coated metal guard and butt. Available with plain or part serrated blade, and black leather or Kydex belt sheath.
|Blade Material:||CRO VAN Carbon Steel 1095|
|Blade Length (cm):||17.7|
|Overall Length (cm):||30.5|
One of the most recognisable knives of the 20th Century, manufactured by KA-BAR the Marine Corps knife is almost universally known simply as The KA-BAR despite the fact that the company produces a whole range of other fixed and folding knives.
The modern versions are made from 1095 Chromium Vanadium, normally abbreviated to 1095 Cro-Van steel which offers better rust resistance than standard 1095. The seven inch clip point blade and pronounced guard a clearly the features of a knife designed primarily for combat rather than the more mundane tasks of backwoods survival. Self-defence is a role that survival knives often have to perform as well though and in the KA-BAR you have a knife that will excel at both. It is not so large that it can’t be used for finer tasks such as carving, making traps and processing small game. They are easy to sharpen and although they come with a sabre grind mine has, over several years of use and sharpening, developed more of a scandi style convex grind which is excellent for survival tasks.
One feature which puts some people off the KA-BAR is the tang, it is what’s called a rat tail tang because it gets narrower along the length of the handle, it is however a full tang in that it runs the full length of the handle and you can see it secured through the steel pommel at the end of the handle. There is no chance that it will break, short of a manufacturing defect, even under the most severe conditions. The guard is another potential downfall of this design, perfectly reasonable in a knife designed for fighting it sometime gets in the way during finer backwoods survival tasks. All in all an excellent knife and a fairly budget friendly option for a larger survival knife.
This Schrade Extreme Survival fixed blade knife features a thick 6.4″ 8Cr13MoV high carbon stainless steel full-tang blade with easy-to-grip Kraton handles. The Nylon sheath is lined with Kydex and has a small pocket for storing small items. Extremely heavy-duty, well-made knife at a great price!
Founded by Stewart Taylor in 1975, Taylor Brands has been manufacturing, designing and distributing high-quality stainless steel knives and accessories since its inception.
|Blade Material:||Carbon steel|
|Blade Length (cm):||16.5|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.6|
|Overall Length (cm):||31.2|
Another larger survival knife and a particularly good choice for the budget conscious. Schrades series of survival knives feature hollow grinds which are not my favourite grind for a survival knife as they can be quite fragile especially if you plan on using it for chopping. They are a great grind for meat preparation and processing game that you might have trapped or caught in a survival situation but they are not the most robust grinds. The finger grooves in the handle can also make this knife a little uncomfortable.
However the shrade knives are very robust, I have used several of their frontier range and they are very useful backwoods survival knives. The slight recurve shape of this knife makes it excellent for slicing tasks, although slightly more difficult to sharpen. The heavy point of the knife moves the point of balance forward and makes it useful for light chopping tasks which might be important for shelter building and brush clearance in a survival situation.
Down behind enemy lines? Left to fend for yourself? These are the scenarios that inspired the LMF II. Former military man, Jeff Freeman led the charge to engineer this fearless new 10″ survival knife. And we field-tested with the troops. This knife is as adaptable as the personnel who carry it. Use it to cut through the skin of a fuselage. Or sever a seat belt. Or egress through the Plexiglas of a chopper. Plus, the LMF II does a slick job cutting firewood and building shelter.
The over-molded handle successfully limits blistering. There is complete separation between the tang and butt cap, so the knife absorbs the shocks from hammering and prevents the shocks of electricity. Smartly situated grooves and lashing holes let the LMF II convert to a spear. The low- profile sheath facilitates movement, limits noise, works for parachuting, and attaches to a belt or Molle vest. The patented, integrated sharpener means edge retention in the field.
|Blade Material:||420HC Stainless|
|Blade Length (cm):||12.2|
|Overall Length (cm):||26.9|
|Sheath:||Ballistic nylon with fire retardant coating|
Like the ESEE 5 the Gerber LMF II is designed with the military in mind, it is a very robust knife which has garnered a fantastic reputation amongst those who use it. It features a steel which wouldn’t be my first choice for a knife but I have never had a problem with mine. The serrations make cutting through webbing, rope, cord or even sheetrock and other materials much easier and for military and urban survival situations the serrations are very useful although they wouldn’t normally be something I look for in a knife for wilderness survival.
With this knife a new world standard is being set! Technical design, ergonomics, and economy are brought together within the model A1, representing the leading concept available today. The knife meets and exceeds established international standards for strength, personal security and value.
Model A1 is a large all-purpose Fallkniven knife for highly demanding work. The powerful blade is manufactured from hard, resilient special steel that can withstand heavy usage. The knife is excellent for chopping with, but also works well for everyday chores, thanks to the ergonomically well designed handle. Since the blade continues through the handle at almost full width, it is possible, in an emergency, to hammer on the end of the knife without damaging the handle. Together with the Zytel sheath, Model A1 is a completely water- resistant and extremely powerful solution.
The Fallkniven A1 survival knife is available in an all-black design, with the blade coated in Teflon. In addition to reducing the risk of unwanted reflections, the Teflon coating gives further protection against corrosion. If the knife is to be used in salt water environments, we recommend the A1 Black.
|Blade Material:||VG10 Stainless Steel|
|Blade Length (cm):||16.0|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.6|
|Overall Length (cm):||28.0|
|Blade Hardness (HRC):||59 HRC|
|Sheath:||Leather or Zytel™|
|Product Weight (g):||305|
Another larger survival knife, the convex grind of the Fällkniven knife range makes it incredibly robust and suitable for chopping and other heavy tasks. The VG10 steel which is produced for Fällkniven in Japan is very corrosion resistant and is an excellent choice for backwoods survival work. Some people claim that stainless steels are harder to sharpen but I’ve never had a problem with VG10 it responds to sharpening very well in my experience. This is a big knife though and may be difficult to use for smaller work unless you are very well practiced.
The ideal use and abuse knife for the pack or pocket. Mora knives are cheap to buy yet tough in use. They use a tough plastic handle and sheath but really punch above there weight where steel is concerned. The companion uses a carbon steel which is super sharp.
|Blade Material:||Carbon Steel|
|Blade Length (cm):||10.0|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.2|
|Overall Length (cm):||22.3|
Many people would consider the Mora companion to be too small to be a true survival knife but I would argue that it is small enough to be carried at all times while some of the larger options are certainly not something you could have with you in your everyday carry or get home bag at all times. The Mora is the kind of knife you could always have with you in case of a survival situation though. It’s perfect for the fine tasks which come with a survival situation, making traps, prepping game and can be pressed to larger tasks with the use of a baton and can be used to split wood and truncate limbs and fell saplings with the proper technique.
8. Tops B.O.B.
The Fieldcraft Knife was designed by The Brothers of Bushcraft (BOB), a coalition of men across North America focusing on sharing wilderness living skills of all categories. From tracking, to building shelters, the Brothers of Bushcraft make it a point to show the skills to all people, of all ages, from all over. The Fieldcraft Knife is the culmination of their knowledge, combining experiences from; the broad and humid rain forests, the arid and scorpion-littered deserts, and the frigid northern lands that span the Americas.
The knife is 25cm (10″) long in total, with a blade length of 11.5cm (4½”). This makes a compact, but extremely serviceable knife. The Fieldcraft’s blade is 0.47cm (3/16″) thick, and made of 1095 High Carbon steel. The cutting edge is a modified Scandinavian Grind, which is very effective for carving, skinning and other general woods work. With a rockwell hardness of 56-58, the ease of sharpening is astounding. That is if you ever get to sharpen the blade. As the hardness and edge geometry work beautifully together to make a long lasting edge.
The handle is one of the most ergonomic on the market, sporting several useful additions. Although knives with a lot of frills often end up lacking, the additional items found on the Fieldcraft knife were selected from experience and critiqued in every step of design, development and production. Being made of canvas micarta, the handle will never let you down. The bow drill divot on the handle is frictionless and makes starting those primitive fires almost effortless. The “Thumb Scallops”, formed on the hilt of the handle offer more comfort and control when using specialized carving and skinning grips. The pommel of the blade is simply the tang of the knife exposed enough to allow impact from a baton to not affect the handle (though the micarta is definitely tough enough to take such abuse). On the exposed pommel, you will find a scraper specially designed by one of The Brothers of Bushcraft for striking ferro rods in a safe and efficient manner.
The sheath is a strong, durable Kydex, with a steel belt clip. This arrangement allows a safe, secure and comfortable carry on the belt, pack strap, or even around the neck. With a built in Ferro-rod attachment point, the sheath now doubles as a minimalist survival kit.
The Fieldcraft knife has had heavy duty abuse, and testing done in the wilderness of Canada, where local survival experts Mors Kochanski, Dr. Gino Ferri, and many others have deemed her a “Serviceable Field Knife”. These words are exactly what she is meant to be. From carving netting needles and trap triggers, to splitting logs in two, the TOPS Knives/Brothers of BushcraftFieldcraft Knife will do just about any chore that you can throw at her in a wilderness survival scenario.
This knife is available in both a tan-bladed and black-bladed variant.
|Blade Material:||1095 High Carbon steel|
|Blade Length (cm):||11.5|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.5|
|Overall Length (cm):||25.0|
|Blade Hardness (HRC):||56-58 HRC|
|Sheath:||Kydex with spring steel belt clip and ferro rod|
|Product Weight (g):||375g including sheath|
The TOPS BOB or Brothers of Bushcraft knife has become a standard knife of the bushcraft community and is excellently manufactured in Idaho by TOPS knives. It features a bow drill divot like the ESEE 5 and has a differential heat treat so that the spine is softer than the edge of the blade making it incredibly strong and able to withstand batoning and other rough use. The softer spine means that it is not great for striking a ferrocerium rod, which is often a characteristic people look for in bushcraft and survival knives. Instead the BOB features a notch on the exposed tang of the blade for striking a ferro-rod but I find this uncomfortable to use.
Extrema Ratio produce some of the most distinctive knives being manufactured today. You could pick out an Extrema Ratio in a knife line up without any trouble at all!
The Extrema Ratio Scout 1 knife is their version of a bushcraft, camp, scouting knife but what separates it from all others is the exceptional build quality and pure, functional design.
This version has a stonewashed blade made from N690 stainless steel with full tang construction and Forprene handle. It fits the hand beautifully and the jimping enables comfortable long term use. The handle also features a bowl indent for bow and drill fire starting and a cut out to hang your favourite lanyard.
It is supplied with a nylon sheath with a popper and Molle attachments for various means of carry.
|Blade Material:||N690Co Stainless Steel|
|Blade Length (cm):||10.3|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.49|
|Overall Length (cm):||21.7|
|Blade Shape:||Spear Point|
|Sheath:||MOLLE compatible nylon|
|Product Weight (g):||204|
The Scout is a cross between a tactical ‘backup’ knife and a small wilderness survival knife. It’s the perfect size for most survival tasks and the fully enclosed but still full tang means that is comfortable to use even in the cold. The slightly unusual handle shape is the product of work between Extrema Ratio and the Motor Sciences Department of the University of Perugia in Italy and the result is a knife handle design perfectly suited to the human anatomy. It’s a much skinnier handle than most survival knives but sits in the hand beautifully.
It comes with a tactical nylon MOLLE sheath and is one of the few nylon sheaths I can recommend, it is stiff and robust and doesn’t flap around or feel too big for the knife.
10. Fällkniven F1
With this knife a new world standard is being set! Important factors such as technical design, ergonomy and economy are brought together within the model F1, and represent the foremost concept available today. The knife meets and surpasses by far established international standards for strength, personal security and value for money.
Mod. F1 is the official survival knife for pilots within the Swedish Air Force since 1995.
Mod. F1 represents an entirely new philosophy with respect to knives for survival use. At the same time it combines the experience of generations of knife manufacturing with modern technology. The handy size, the well thought-out design, the incredibly tough laminated steel are only a few of many details making this knife something you can rely on.
Mod. F1 is a handy knife and is tremendously versatile. The safe, pleasant grip together with a very hard yet tough laminated steel, makes the knife very useful for all kind of daily work but also demanding tasks. You can choose from two kinds of sheaths – an all-covering pouch type, which safely houses the entire knife or an extremely tough double-safety, one hand operated zytel sheath.
The Fallkniven F1 Survival knife is available in an all-black design, with the blade coated in black CeraCoat 8H. In addition to reducing the risk of unwanted reflections, the Teflon coating gives further protection against corrosion. If the knife is to be used in salt water environments, we recommend the Teflon coating.
|Blade Material:||Laminated VG10|
|Blade Length (cm):||9.7|
|Blade Thickness (cm):||0.45|
|Overall Length (cm):||21.0|
|Blade Hardness (HRC):||59 HRC|
|Sheath:||Leather or Zytel™|
|Product Weight (g):||150|
A true standard amongst survival knives, the F1 is one of the smallest knives in the list but it offers a very thick blade that is robust enough for any task thanks to it’s laminated construction and harder steel is sandwiched between softer layers giving it a hard sharp edge and a softer spine which is forgiving to and not at all brittle. The fully enclosed tang means this knife is comfortable to use even in the extreme cold, which is what you’d expect from a company based just a few miles from the edge of the Arctic circle.
While you wont be able to chop with this knife like you will with some of the others, combine this tool with a folding saw and the two tools together will still weight less than the Cold Steel Recon Scout.
So taking all the knives listed here and the design criteria and features we’ve considered what knife would you choose? Ultimately which knife you get will be determined by your personal preferences and experience but my ideal survival knife would have these features;
- Full length tang
- A handle which fully encloses the tang so it can be used comfortably in the cold
- A blade edge which starts as close to the handle as possible
- A small sharpening choil but no finger choil
- A handle impervious to moisture; rubber, plastic, stabilised wood or G10
- A blade around four inches in length
- A convex grind for strength
These features lead me to choose from amongst these ten knives the Fällkniven F1, without a doubt there will be people that want a larger knife for survival but the quality and robustness of this knife and it’s pedigree prove it’s quality. Not to mention the hundreds of hours of use I have put my F1 to, I have never had a problem with mine and it has never let me down.
Buying a Survival Knife – The Ultimate Guide
Although it seems hard to believe, there was a time when there was no such thing as a “survival knife”. Instead, large pattern Bowie knives and other large, ethnic pattern, knives such as the Hudson Bay knife, the Green River Knife, the Enep, the Barong, the Bolo, and the Parang were all termed “woodsman’s” knives or, were sometimes called “camp knives”.
Thus, when the term “survival knife” first became prominent in knife nomenclature, it was commonly associated with knives that had large, clip point, Bowie style blades with round, knurled, hollow steel tubes for handles with threaded butt caps that enabled access to the compartment inside of the handle. However, now that the art of wilderness survival has evolved from an obscure, arcane, art practiced only by Mountain Men, trappers, and intrepid explorers to one practiced by a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts for a multitude of purposes so too has the concept of a “survival knife”.
A survival knife may be part of a survival kit that includes various tools; such as an axe, saw, and multiple knives to give you a larger option for brush clearance and chopping and a smaller option for food prep and camp craft. Alternatively, a survival knife might be a so-called ‘one tool option’ and need to be large and robust enough to perform some of the tasks normally expected of a tomahawk or an axe while still being useful for smaller tasks.
Some key features to consider no matter what size of survival knife you decide best suit your needs include:
Fixed or Folding Blade
There is a saying that the best survival knife is the one you have on you, while that is true and any knife is certainly better than none, it is not necessarily true that the knife you have on you is the best survival knife. It might be the best that you have to hand but if all you have on you is a folding opinell pocket knife you will not be able to attempt tasks that a more robust knife would allow you to perform.
A folder might be more discreet than a fixed blade, and most places allow the legal carry of folding knives of one description or another and you are therefore almost guaranteed the opportunity to have a pocket knife on you if an emergency was to arise. In your search for a robust survival knife though you should be looking for a fixed blade knife which provides the necessary strength for hard use.
While they are more convenient, and legal, to carry folders are inherently weaker than fixed blades and for this reason, a survival knife always needs to be a fixed blade knife to provide a strong tool for any task and inspire confidence in your tool. Folding knives are inherently weaker than their fixed blade counterparts and there is always a risk that they will fail and fold up on your hand or fingers, or that the knife will break at the hinge. These weaknesses and the slight flexibility of all but the very strongest folding knives do not allow confident use and makes tasks much more difficult. So always go for a fixed blade for your survival knife.
There are many places though which will not allow the legal carry of fixed blade knives in a public place, this means that you often won’t be able to have your survival knife of choice on you at all times although there are smaller fixed blade options that are more discreet and which might be suitable for every day carry. Larger knives are still often a better choice, especially if you want a ‘one tool option’ but they may need to be included in a survival kit which you can grab in an emergency rather than being strapped to your thigh all the time.
The tang is the metal portion of the knife which extends from the blade into the handle of the knife, a survival knife must be robust and able to withstand anything you throw at it so it needs a tang which extends the whole length of the handle. Many would argue that a true full tang extends the whole width of the handle too and instead of the handle being fastened in one piece around the tang the handle is fastened in two pieces sandwiching the tang between the handle slabs.
There is certainly nothing wrong with this type of handle but my personal preference is for a full-length tang that is not full width so the handle can be of one piece. I prefer this because I often use my knife in cold conditions and prefer that my hand isn’t chilled by coming into contact with the steel while I work. A narrow tang is insignificantly weaker than a full-width tang as long as it goes the full length of the handle and will be perfectly robust enough for survival tasks.
A few popular knives used for survival are not full tang but these are in the significant minority although they are very popular and when their limitations are respected they perform excellently. They are of course the Mora range of knives, although they do now also produce the full tang Garberg model.
As a general rule though you should pick a survival knife which has a full tang, at least one which extends the whole length of the handle if not the full width.
There is often fierce debate about which blade steel is best for a survival knife, ultimately it’s the qualities of the steel that are important rather than the kind of steel. If you are unfamiliar with the topic, check out our Beginners Guide to Blade Steel. There are lots of myths that stainless steels can’t be used to strike sparks from a ferrocerium rod and that carbon steels are easier to sharpen and somehow superior for bushcraft and survival knives. Neither of these things is necessarily true and instead of getting carried away with the type of steel instead focus on a few characteristics of the steel as you make your choice of knife.
This refers to how well a knife holds its edge, you want a knife that will not become blunt after only gentle use. This needs to be balanced against the need for a knife to still be relatively easy to sharpen and toughness, ie; a blade that is not brittle. Very hard blades may keep their edge a long time but they may also be brittle and might chip or crack if they are abused.
The ‘hardness’ of a blade is measured on the Rockwell Scale, which measures hardness by applying first a small load and then a larger load to the steel and measuring the difference between the indentations. When testing knife steel the Rockwell hardness is denoted by the letters ‘HRC’ and the indentations are made with a 120° spheroconical diamond indenter.
Knives will generally have an HRC of between 55 and 65, the higher the number the harder the steel, but my recommendation for a survival knife is the 58-60 range. Much harder than that and although the edge will be very hard and won’t dull quickly it will be more likely to chip under hard use. Much softer and rather than chipping it may roll and blunt very quickly. Knowing the Rockwell hardness of a knife is important so you can pick a knife that is in this ‘sweet spot’ to avoid picking a knife that blunts too fast and or is too hard to sharpen in the field or that is so hard it chips.
Ease of Sharpening
Remember that although sharpening at home using large bench stones is relatively easy even with hard steels you will be maintaining the edge of a survival knife in the field with easily portable sharpening equipment such as a Fällkniven CC4 sharpening stone or a Lansky BladeMedic or even an improvised sharpener, so selecting a knife that is not too hard is important.
If a knife is too soft it will blunt more quickly and mean that you have to sharpen it too often. A knife that is too hard may be brittle and although the edge will stay sharp for a long time it might chip, a chipped blade is much more difficult to repair than a blunt blade as the edge of a blunt or rolled blade can quickly be realigned and sharpened, even with basic equipment in the field while a chipped blade has to be ground down to remove the chips and re-sharpened from there. While you do need to select a knife that is robust and which carefully treads that line between having good edge retention and being easy to sharpen the grind of a knife is an important contributing factor in this too.
With these factors considered you can make your choice of blade steel but remember that most blade steels used by reputable manufacturers will be absolutely fine in a survival knife as long as the criteria for hardness, ease of sharpening, and edge retention have been met. I have a few favorite steels for knives but can recommend any of the following blade steels;
- O1 tool steel
- N690Co steel
- D2 tool steel
- Sandvick stainless or carbon steel
- 440C stainless steel
- A2 tools steel
- 1095 chromium-vanadium steel
Although visually you can’t tell anything about the heat treat from looking at a knife it is important that your survival knife has been properly heat treated. Heat treatment or tempering is the process of hardening the steel of a blade and removing the brittleness, steel is often annealed (softened by heating and allowing it to cool very slowly) to be ground to shape and then hardened once finished. This hardening process should bring the blade to a condition where it is strong but not brittle.
Some blades have what is called a differential heat treat, where the edge of the blade is harder than the spine so the edge can be very sharp with good edge retention while the spine is a little softer and more forgiving to allow the knife to stand up to more abuse. Most makers will tempers a blade so the tang is softer than the handle so the tang is less likely to break when the knife is abused.
Some knife manufacturers will provide details of the heat treat of their knives, TOPS for example often mention the differential heat treat of their blades and ESEE knives are made by a company called Rowen Manufacturing who are so proud of their heat treat, quite rightly as they are excellent, and assembly of ESEE knives that their name is etched on the blades.
The grind of a knife blade is the cross-sectional shape of the knife edge, the way that the blade steel bevels towards the edge of the blade, to fully understand this you need to understand the anatomy of a knife.
The bevel of a knife is the part of the knife blade that slopes from the flat part of the blade to the sharp edge. The knife pictured above has what is called a Scandinavian grind or scandi-grind, which is a single angle normally starting anywhere from a quarter to a third of the way up the blade to the edge. This grind is preferred for working wood and is often found on specialist wood carving knives and light use bushcraft knives.
Other popular knife grinds which you might find on a survival knife are the sabre grind, convex grind, hollow grind and full flat grind. Most of these feature what is normally referred to as a secondary bevel or a secondary ‘v’ edge. These secondary edges are added for strength and sometimes a secondary edge is even added to a scandi-grind as they can be fragile if they are abused.
A sabre grind features a flat portion of the blade before the first bevel begins and then a secondary bevel at the edge for strength, this secondary bevel is important on a sabre ground knife as a Casström Roger Harrington design woods knife rind starting that high would be too thin and fragile if it went directly to a sharp edge like a scandi-grind.
A full flat grind has no flat portion and instead bevels all the way from the spine to a final secondary bevel at the edge. I like a flat grind for carving and woodwork but for survival tasks it is not as good as a sabre or scandi-grind for splitting wood apart with a baton for kindling.
The slightly steeper angle and flat portions on the blade of a scandi or sabre ground blade act as a better wedge for splitting wood. Be aware if you are going to use you knife in this manner though that it really is an abuse of your knife, although modern knives are strong enough for the task an axe is really the tool for the job.
Covex ground blades are some of the strongest grinds available as they are basically two curves starting at the spine and meeting at the edge. The shape of this grind means that there is a greater thickness of metal behind the edge than on the finer edges of some of the other grinds. This makes a convex ground knife extremely strong and less likely to chip or blunt even after heavy use. For this reason convex grinds are often chosen for knives designed for chopping. Convex grinds are however difficult to produce to a high standard and I wouldn’t rust all manufacturers when it comes to convex grinds, you are safe with Fällkniven and Bark River when it comes to convex grinds though. Because convex grinds are so robust they can be tempered to a higher Rockwell hardness without too much risk of them chipping or breaking.
Hollow grinds are featured on a very few survival knives, normally budget knives, and while these grinds are excellent for some tasks, particularly slicing and processing meat they are not very robust. A hollow grind should have a secondary bevel on the edge to make it stronger but it still has less metal behind the edge than any of the other grind options making it less robust for heavy tasks such as chopping or batoning. Because of its relative fragility hollow ground blades should not be tempered to too high a Rockwell hardness to avoid chipping the relatively fragile edge.
There are a few other grinds styles but they are very specialist and I’m not aware of any production survival knives which feature any of these more unusual grinds such as chisel grinds or asymmetric grinds such as the ‘yakut’ style grind from Russia which features a convex grind on one side and a flat grind with a large fuller on the other.
While grind is an important consideration when you select your survival knife blade style is less important, not irrelevant but less important than other factors. Much of it is down to personal preference although there are a few useful features to look for in a blade;
The ricasso is an unsharpened portion of the blade between the handle and the edge, I prefer that this is as small as possible or even better completely omitted from my knives. It puts distance between your hand and the sharp edge of the knife and reduces the control that you have over the blade for fine carving and meat processing work.
A choil is a notch between the blade edge and ricasso or handle, the primary reason for these is to allow the edge of the blade to be sharpened along it’s entire length. An edge which starts directly from the ricasso or handle is impossible to sharpen because you can’t reach that last portion of the blade with a sharpening stone. A sharpening choil takes away that problem and is a very useful feature to look for in a knife. Some knives feature an oversized choil large enough for you index finger, the idea behind this feature is to move the weight of the cutting edge out to the front of the knife and allow you to have a full grip on the handle for chopping while allowing you to coke up on the blade and bring you hand closer to the edge using the finger choil for finer work.
Finger choils have become quite popular on larger knives but I personally wouldn’t recommend them, they bring your finger too close to the edge of the blade and are generally very uncomfortable to hold. The reason for having a handle on a knife is to allow you to grip it comfortably and use it for long periods of time, bringing your hand forward onto a section of the knife without a handle for finer work such as carving and making feather sticks is very uncomfortable.
Serrations are featured on some knives and while they do present advantages for cutting rope their uses other than that are fairly limited. They are also difficult to sharpen and useless when it comes to working wood or processing game and food, two particularly important tasks in a survival situation.
There a multitude of blade shapes to choose from but a few which are particularly useful for a survival knife. Drop point, spear point, clip point and strait backed blades are the most common types featured on survival knives. Other blade shapes such as wharcliffe, tanto and trailing point blades are useful for the tasks they were designed for but are fairly specialist and don’t feature on any popular survival knives. Another aspect of blade shape to consider is the angle of the spine of the blade, some knives feature nicely rounded, smooth, aesthetically pleasing spines but this is not always a desirable feature, a sharp 90°spine is sometimes useful for scraping things, either to produce fine shavings of wood or bark for fire lighting and to strike sparks from a ferocerium rod.
Another feature of the spine of a knife is often something called ‘jimping’ or ‘knurling’, that is texturing which potentially provides better grip on the blade. While it does provide better grip when holding the knife in some positions it can also cause discomfort if it is too heavily textured.
Above all a knife handle must be comfortable and strong, popular materials include micarta which is a composite material made of fabric saturated with epoxy resin and then hardened, it can be made from a range of materials but popular options include canvas, linen and paper. G10 is a similar material which uses fibreglass as a base material. These modern handle materials have become at least as popular as traditional wood and bone handles and offer significant advantages in certain areas, particular in that they are non-absorbent so they don’t soak up moisture, blood or other contaminants. Wood has been ‘modernised’ in recent years though and is often stabilised with resin and cured in a kiln which makes it as hard and impermeable as micarta and G10.
Other knife handle materials include various plastic and rubber compounds which offer great grip and are impervious to moisture. Traditional antler and bone handles are of course still an option but bone can be fragile and sometimes the texture of an antler handle can be uncomfortable. A few knives have metal handles which are very robust but can be very uncomfortable to use in the cold.
A sheath is a part of the ‘package’ when you buy a knife and you will need to consider the best option for your survival knife, either because you want to pick a knife that comes with a good sheath or because you may need to consider having an alternative sheath made for a knife with an unsuitable sheath. Leather is the traditional choice but does absorb moisture and can retain water and promote rusting of some blades if they are stored in a wet sheath. Plastics such as kydex are a great modern option which can be formed and fitted to a blade and which provide safe and moisture resistant storage for your knife. Nylon sheaths are very hit and miss, some are excellent but others are very poor and offer no security in retaining the knife in it’s sheath, others are sloppily secured with Velcro and are noisy or are much too large for the knife.
I would always recommend leather or kydex for a good sheath but with the qualifier that a knife intended primarily for hunting and meat processing have a plastic sheath so it can be properly sanitised and cleaned after use. Leather can harbour bacteria but for a survival knife where game preparation will be a small part of its job this is not so important.
From top to bottom:
- CRKT Saker: Walnut handle, leather sheath, high Scandinavian grind, 1095 carbon steel blade and spear point.
- Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft Knife; Aluminium handle, leather sheath, full flat grind, Bähler N695 steel and clip point.
- Handmade Bushcraft Knife: Bone handle, leather sheath, standard scandi-grind, O1 steel and drop point.
- Camilus Bushcraft Knife; micarta handle, leather sheath, standard scandi-grind, 1095 steel and ‘nessmuk’ style modified trailing point blade.
- TOPS C.U.B; micarta handle, featuring a divot for bow drill fire lighting, nylon sheath (an example of a very bad nylon sheath), scandi-grind with secondary bevel, 1095 steel and clip point.
- Real Steel Bushcraft Knife; Micarta handle, kydex sheath, standard scandi-grind, D2 steel, drop point blade.
- EKA W12 Knife; G10 handle, kydex and leather sheath, scandi-grind with secondary bevel, drop point blade.
- Mora Companion; plastic handle, plastic sheath, scandi-grind, Sandvik stainless steel, slight clip point.
- Steel Will 205 Mini Druid; Rubberised plastic handle, leather sheath, sabre grind, 9Cr18MoV stainless steel, clip point.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to the size of your survival knife, between four and six inches is commonly accepted as a good size. Some would disagree and say that survival knives don’t start below six inches and that the larger knives are a definite requirement so they can be used for splitting larger logs for firewood and for heavy duty chopping tasks. My preference is for a knife around four inches in length which is more nimble and useful for fine tasks and I would either select the material of the right size for the smaller knife and couple it with an axe and saw for heavier work.
Blades much shorter than four inches are generally not large enough to be versatile survival knives, another dimension to consider is the thickness of a blade as well as its length, although blades designed for skinning game and filleting fish are designed to be thin, this is particularly important in a filleting knife as a degree of flexibility is desirable but a good survival knife will need a robust blade and I would recommend a thickness of at least 3mm and if you are planning on doing much batoning with it 4mm is preferable. Blade thickness is also often measured in fractions of an inch with some very robust blades featuring 1/4inch (6.35mm) thick blades. As long as you use a knife within its design capabilities though the thickness is less important, Mora companions are among the most popular knives in the world and feature blades of about 2mm in thickness and are capable of a wide range of tasks and are very useful knives for survival.
Some manufacturers coat their blades, there are a number of reasons for this generally, blades for tactical applications are often coated, blued or blackened to avoid reflection in a situation where that glare might give away your presence. Some survival knives are designed with escape and evasion and military applications in mind and so do have a non-reflective coating, generally though your priority in a survival situation is to be found and rescued so unless you are a member of the armed forces and are looking for a survival knife your probably don’t need a non-reflective coating.
Another reason to coat a blade is to prevent rust and corrosion, some blade steels such as 1095 are very susceptible to rust and might benefit from a coating to prevent this. However very rough coatings especially if they come all the way to an edge can really hamper the ability of a knife to carve and slice and I prefer not to have them at all. Stainless steel blades suffer less from rust, although they aren’t immune to it, but even a carbon steel blade if properly maintained can be kept free of rust with regular use and proper care including oiling it and sharpening it. So from a maintenance perspective coatings are not vital but often useful to prevent rust.
I use a lanyard to keep my pocket knife from being lost if it drops out of my pocket, a lot of fixed blade knives also have a hole in the handle for a lanyard but I tend not to make use of this feature unless I am carrying a knife in a very deep carry sheath and then I add as small lanyard to help me grip the knife and draw it. I don’t like wrist loop lanyards, people often use them when they are chopping with larger knives so the knife doesn’t fly off if it slips out of their hand or to give a bit of extra purchase on a knife if they are gripping the back of the handle for more effective chopping. The danger of this is that if a knife does fly out of your hand and is attached to your wrist it will bounce back and swing around, potentially with some force, and probably injure you.
This one tool approach to survival is quite popular nowadays and many knives are marketed at a one tool solution to a survival situation. However in a real emergency, unless you carry your knife with you at all times, you are no more likely to have your survival knife on you than you are an entire survival kit.
Yet, the philosophy of a one tool option, and the assumption that you will have that tool on you when you really need it, is somewhat flawed. For this reason, it is just as important to consider smaller survival knives that you are more likely to have on you at all times compared to larger knives which might be too heavy, uncomfortable, or illegal to carry with you as a matter of routine.
It is hard to find a better all-around survival knife than the Fallkniven A1. Technical design, ergonomics, quality – it exceeds any expectations you may have and set the standard in the niche.