I’ve been playing around a bit lately with making my own knives. In doing so, I’m obviously thinking of knives for survival. So, I had to sit down and really think through what a good survival knife needs, rather than what my personal preferences are. I found that my preferences are not necessarily what they need to be, but rather, more focused on aesthetics; not the best survival criteria.
Considering that the knife is your most important piece of survival gear, it’s important to pick a good knife. This is one place where you don’t want to skimp on quality, even if it means going above your originally budgeted amount. Save a little longer or sacrifice elsewhere, but pick out a really good knife.
So, what makes a good survival knife?
To start with, we really need to understand what makes a good knife, and that’s the steel the knife is made of. Most knives today are made of stainless steel, in order to prevent them from rusting. One of the variants of 420 or 440 stainless is the most common. But, while stainless steel is great for preventing a knife blade from rusting, it’s not the best for holding an edge. For that, you need high carbon steel.
There are a couple of high carbon stainless steels out there, but they are rather hard to find. Of them, your chances are best of finding 420 HC, but AUS 8A is higher carbon and lower chromium, which means it holds an edge better, although it isn’t as well protected from rusting as some other steels.
Many people today are touting Damascus steel blades for survival knives, with whole businesses focused on making these knives for the survival market. While I have to say that Damascus steel is great stuff, the manufacturers are usually focused more on the beauty of the blade, than its utility. So, from a utilitarian point of view, you may not actually get as much as what you’re paying for.
Even more important than the steel selected, is the blade geometry. There are two parts to this; shape and tang. The tang is the part of the blade that extends through the handle. Cheap knives have a very short tang, which means that it is extremely easy for the knife to break loose from the handle. You don’t want to consider any knife that isn’t “full tang,” meaning that the tang extends all the way through the handle.
This clearly rules out any sort of folding knife for survival. However, you may want to pick out a good folding knife as a backup. I always carry at least two knives with me, because they are so essential to survival.
The other important factor in blade geometry is the blade’s shape, which deals more with the type of point the blade has, than anything else. This is one place I found my personal preferences lacking. My favorite is what is known as a “clip point.” This has the back of the blade scooped out, making for a very sharp point. But in the process, it weakens the point, the most vulnerable part of any knife to breakage.
For survival, you’re better off with a knife blade that has more steel at the point, which means you won’t have as sharp a point. But this is supposed to be a knife, not an awl. While you might not be able to make holes in buckskin as easy with a thicker point, you probably won’t be making all that many buckskin jackets in most survival situations.
Probably the best blade styles for provide a lot of strength at the point are the “drop point” and the “tanto point.” A drop point blade is shaped something like a spear point, but only sharpened along one edge. A tanto point looks like a drop point, except that the point has been clipped off at an angle. This is about as strong as the drop point. But you don’t find many fixed-blade tanto knives. This style is more used in folding knives.
Avoid overly long knives. While a 12” Bowie might be extremely cool, you’ll find that it’s extremely hard to work with. I have a 5-1/2” long knife as my main knife, and that’s actually too long. Something between 3-1/2” to 4-1/2” gives you the best length for most tasks.
Blade thickness is an important factor as well. Thicker blades are less likely to break, which is a very important consideration if that’s the only knife you’re going to have. However, thicker blades are usually harder to cut with, and they really don’t work well for a serrated saw section on a blade.
I’m not personally in favor of serrations on a knife blade, even though it’s fairly common. To me, the serrations steal some of the blade, meaning that your 4” knife blade only has about 2” of usable blade. The 2” of serrations aren’t very effective as a saw, even though people talk about it that way. Somebody should start making knives where the backside of the blade is serrated; that would provide a much more useful tool.
Compared to the blade, the rest of the knife really doesn’t matter. The handle material and configuration isn’t anywhere near as important as the blade. Granted, you want t knife that’s comfortable in your hand, but they all seem to do this pretty well.
Watch out for knives that have a lot of built-in goodies. These gimmick survival knives might seem like a great idea, giving you extra stuff that you can use for survival, but they do that by skimping on quality, especially blade quality. So, while you might have a compass, fire starter, light, honing stone and even slingshot built into the knife handle and sheath, the knife itself isn’t all that great.
I’ve had a couple of these knives; and while having all the gadgets on them was cool, the knife wouldn’t hold an edge. But isn’t that the most important thing for a knife to do?
So, get yourself a good knife and then, like with all your survival gear, keep it close at hand. Oh, and… keep your powder dry as well.