A Survival Knife is a Key Tool For Any Prepper
It’s common knowledge that any outdoorsman or preparedness-minded person should have a quality knife for survival, but what kind should you buy? After all, there are dozens of brands and styles, and many are designed for specific uses. There are throwing knives, tactical knives, boot knives and neck knives and they all come in different levels of quality and craftsmanship. Heck, you can even make your own with a good kit and some knife making supplies! The aim of this guide is to help you narrow down the field and decide precisely which kind of knife you need for your situation.
The Parts of “Typical” Survival Knives: Folding and Fixed Blade
Before we get into individual types or brands, let’s get a solid grounding in the parts that make up a typical knife. To do that, we’re going to break down all knives into two huge categories: fixed blade knives and folding ones. Owing to the highly customizable nature of knife making it will be impossible to cover every part that could be on a potential knife, but within these two categories we’ll be able to cover the broad majority.
A knife with a fixed blade cannot fold (thus the name) and is usually held in a sheath to protect the metal from wear and the user from cutting himself accidentally. A fixed blade knife generally is more rugged since the entire construction can be designed to withstand force without needing to worry about moving parts. As such, larger survival knives or those meant for specific field/camping uses tend to be designed for a fixed blade. On the negative side, they can be less convenient to carry around and take up more space in a pack. For knives of the same relative size and made out of the same material, most fixed blades will also tend to be slightly heavier.
With that basic description in mind, let’s take a peek at what the “average” fixed blade knife will have:
From Front to Back:
- The Point or Tip. This is the very end of the blade where the metal tapers to a very sharp point. In some cases, a maker or owner may use the word “point” to refer to the very end of the blade and “tip” to refer to the part of the blade where the spine starts to narrow towards the tip. Either way, sticking it in something will tend to hurt!
- The Belly. Part of the sharp edge of the blade, the belly is the point where the blade angles towards the point and creates a larger surface area for cutting. Some blades have very small bellies, while others are designed to make use of oversized bellies with sweeping cuts.
- The Grind. The portion of the knife where the metal has been ground down until it forms an edge at the bottom. There are several varieties of grinds that give your knife a lot of character and also help to determine what it is best used for, so we’ll discuss it in greater detail below.
- The Edge. This is the sharp part of the blade, extending from the point of your knife all the way back to the heel. Some edges are smooth as in this picture, while others have toothlike serrations designed to bite into objects.
- The Spine. The unsharpened back of the blade. Not all knives use spines, and opt for having a double edge instead, but if the back of the knife is dull it has a spine.
- The Guard and Quillon. These help keep your hand from sliding up over the handle and onto the sharp blade. Some knives only have a small guard that offers minor protection and is mainly to help balance the blade, while others extend the metal of the guard into quillons that act like bumpers to assist in stopping the hands.
- The Handle. The part that you use to grab onto the knife safely. This can have a great deal of variety in design depending on the tang for your blade, the task it is made for, and the aesthetics the maker was going for. Occasionally you will see knives with lanyard holes drilled into the handle, which can offer additional methods of carrying it.
- The Butt. The very end of the blade, usually rounded in some fashion. Some knives simply end, while others can include elaborate butt caps or other features depending on the needs of the survival knife in question.
Folding knives are able to collapse into themselves and as noted above tend to take up less space and be lighter for it. Although the moving parts are more delicate than their fixed blade kin, a folding knife can still be durable enough for survival situations if need be. Just reign in your expectations a bit if you plan on using it like a hardcore wilderness knife.
Folding knives have similar features to their fixed blade cousins, so we’ll only be noting features that are different here:
From Front to Back:
- Pins. These help hold the knife together and give the handle some structure when the blade is out and in use. Quality pins can make a folding knife more durable, since loose ones can weaken an otherwise functional blade.
- Lock/Release. This can vary by knife, ranging from a push button on the top of the handle to a button on the side. Not much to say about these, except that you will want to adjust your habits if you’re used to carrying a knife with one style of lock and switch to a new. You wouldn’t want to keep gripping the button and loosening the blade!
Tactical, Throwing, Neck Knife, Boot Knife, What’s the Difference?
Let us be very clear here: each type of knife is not interchangeable, and using the a certain type for the wrong purpose could potentially break the blade and cause injury. As such, use caution and consider which one to buy carefully!
Unlike most knives which are made for practical tasks like cutting rope, throwing knives are made to sail gracefully through the air until they slam into their intended target. There are ones that are already balanced and others that are not, and generally you will want pre-balanced knives as they are more predictable in a survival situation. A throwing knife is almost purely made as a weapon either for self-defense or hunting, though some designs give them a few qualities that could make them nifty backup wilderness knives.
If these are all you plan to bring with you, you’re probably going to be in for a rough time. Too much bending or force exerted on throwing knives in regular use could harm their aerodynamic qualities and they generally don’t have handles that are as useful as a “real” wilderness or tactical knife. They are also generally unsuitable as a pocket knife since the amount of force they take on impact makes it prohibitively expensive to create a folding throwing knife.
If you do plan on using throwing knives in your survival kit, be sure that you train with them often to keep up the skill. You need to learn the proper throwing strength based on distance to the target, as well as hone your muscles to hold, aim, and release the knife properly. In all honesty it is by far easier to use a spear, gun, or even a thrown stone for the untrained user, but if you’re willing to put in the time you may find a useful and unique skill.
Neck and Boot Knives
These are specialty blades and are largely designed for self defense only. In order to fit comfortably and maximize concealment they tend to be rather small, fixed blades. A few have blades that could be used in a limited survival capacity, but most have blades so short that they are largely limited to quick stabbing movements rather than any kind of cutting or sawing motion.
These would be nearly impossible to use as your only knife, but as a complement to other utility blades you would likely find a neck or boot knife to be useful as a last resort.
It seems that these are what everybody wants, since after all why not be tactical when you’re defending yourself? Unfortunately, quite a few of the knives advertised as tactical survival knives are really just average quality pocket knives dressed up in black with a fierce sounding name.
Of course, many people tend to take “tactical” to mean “useful for self-defense”. In that case, there are knives that can be considered tactical even if they don’t use the name. Here are a few features of truly tactical knives:
- Durability. Generally speaking you do not want a flimsy knife when you’re fighting for your life. In the worst case any weapon is better than none, but if you have the choice you would want a strong, durable knife. As such, only the most reinforced of folding knives could qualify as tactical knives, since the sheer force of impacting on bone could damage the locking mechanism. Thankfully, some smaller fixed blades have been designed to fit in a pocket or hang on a belt if need be.
- Legality. Not every survival situation involves a lawless environment, so unfortunately carrying around the biggest, nastiest knife possible isn’t always reasonable. As such, a good tactical knife will fit restrictions on blade length and such in the state/local area you plan on carrying it.
- Simplicity. Linked somewhat to the durability requirement above, you want a knife without a bunch of features and such that serve no defensive purpose. For example, a knife with a small flashlight on it might be useful for doing some light cutting work in the dark, but in a fight it’s more likely to snag on something or break off.
- Comfort/Ergonomics. If you don’t like holding the knife when you’re examining it and deciding whether to buy, you aren’t likely to like it much better when you’re holding it in a death grip and stabbing or slashing for dear life. Make sure that your tactical knife is tactical for you.
These wilderness knives are made for a variety of tasks, but primarily for dealing with hunted game. They tend to have a single smooth edge, with a large enough belly to skin animals but still enough of a straight edge to cut meat into pieces. Some knives also include a “gut hook”, which some hunters find very useful when hunting while others dislike the way they can tend to disrupt easy handling of the tip. Most tend to be fixed blade knives, designed to take a beating for many years in a rugged outdoor environment.
Although primarily useful for cleaning/gutting, many makers have made hunting knives that function more like an all-purpose “camp knife” since most hunters like to be able to use one knife for making homemade snares and traps, shortening strings, and other general camp tasks. This makes them quite durable and flexible in their potential uses, making hunting knives very common in many preparedness kits.
Of interesting note, most American hunting knives are based on designs similar to that of the infamous Bowie knives, and indeed the Bowie Knife was notable for being a decent hunting knife as well as a fighting knife. However, many, many jurisdictions have outright banned the carrying of Bowie knives with extremely ambiguous language that makes using a hunting knife of any kind for self-defense an extremely dubious proposition. Texas, for example, simply bans “Bowie Knives” without any clarification to help an honest citizen to determine what makes a certain hunting knife legal or not.
Common Knife Brands: Gerber, Spyderco, Ka-Bar, Kershaw and Benchmade
When discussing brands, it’s important to note that almost all brands make knives for a variety of purposes and budgets, making the question “what brand is best?” impossible to answer. Much like with cars, you can have fantastic, well-designed product lines as well as low cost, low quality ones under the same overall umbrella because they are made for different customers and different needs. That said, some companies do have well-deserved reputations for quality in certain areas, so we’re going to take a look at the most common brands.
At one time, Gerber was a household name and known for both their impressive quality standards as well as the innovation that went into their knife designs. After the late 1980′s, when Gerber was acquired by Fiskars, they expanded the brand to include several lines of budget pocket knives which diluted the overall impression of high quality somewhat. Further hampering the former dominance of Gerber was the introduction of several other high quality brands such as Spyderco who offer fine knives at comparable prices, making it more difficult for knife enthusiasts to justify paying for the Gerber name.
That said, Gerber still produces many fine lines of knives for a variety of purposes. In the low-end market (AKA the stuff you’re likely to find at Wal-Mart on the cheap) their offerings are often made in places like Taiwan or China and have a certain roughness as a result, but they are not bad or non-functional knives by any stretch. Those knives are simply made for the average homeowner rather than a dedicated prepper who wants his life to depend on a knife, and are made more cheaply according to those expectations.
Their greatest strength is probably the middle-of-the-pack offerings, where their lines start coming from quality manufacturing in the US and they compete well with other brands in that area. As you move up to the upper tier Gerber can still make some very impressive offerings, but it can come down to your own needs regarding quality, steel alloy etc vs. the cost of other comparable brands.
Kershaw is one of the primary competitors with Gerber which is hardly surprising considering that the founder of the company Pete Kershaw was originally an employee of Gerber! They have a very robust reputation for customer service which, while rather useless in a true disaster situation, gives you a little more assurance when purchasing. In the lower-end price bracket they have a few quality USA made offerings, which has led some to claim that for the low-end a Kershaw is one of the best bang for your buck brands possible.
They are primarily known for their AO (assisted opening) models which circumvent laws against switchblades by requiring the user to open the blade manually a little bit before a lever or flipper can open it the rest of the way. For a pocket knife or a folding tactical knife this could make them excellent choices. They also sell a few fixed blade knives, though some argue about the virtues of ergonomics on some Kershaw knives vs. Spyderco and Benchmade which could affect your decision there.
Overall, Kershaw is one of the “Big Three” along with Spyderco and Benchmade to many, and as such you can certainly find quality products in most areas of their lines. Like any manufacturer you will get the quality of knife that you pay for, but even amongst their cheaper offerings you will tend to find at least one high value line.
Ka-Bar has an almost legendary reputation with some owing to its presence with the Marines during WWII, and honestly there may be something to the legend. If one word describes the Ka-Bar brand, it would be durability, owing to the sheer amount of punishment most of their knives are designed to take. Although some of their cheaper folding blades are lacking in ruggedness, many of the fixed blades have been used as makeshift pry bars with minimal injury to the knife! The larger blades (including their much loved USMC line) have been used as makeshift camp tools of many sorts, including hatchets when the need arose.
Of particular note, the Becker line of Ka-Bar knives are well-known as high quality and some have found them very useful for more “rough and tumble” wilderness living use. Although other knives might have better edges/sharpening, better ergonomics on the handle etc. few will beat the Becker line for sheer durability even among the other Ka-Bar knives.
These are the upper echelon of knives for many, and are known for being very high quality blades. Spyderco has worked for years perfecting the ergonomic design and simplicity of their models, giving a clean, functional feel to many of them. These practices have endeared the company to those who rely on their knives in survival situations or emergencies such as members of the military, law enforcement, and even some emergency medical teams.
The primary barrier to many with Spyderco is naturally the price, but they do have a number of budget offerings that do not skimp on overall quality. They even make several bushcrafting knives designed specifically for survival! Overall, Spyderco competes very well particularly in the high-end spectrum of knifemaking and is comparable (or even superior to some) to Benchmade and Kershaw knives.
These knives are definitely comparable to any Spyderco or Kershaw, and the company puts a great deal of time into making their blades simple and rugged. Although it is nigh impossible to find a truly budget knife from this company (though you can find plenty of low-quality counterfeits pretending to be budget Benchmades!) you get what you pay for in terms of the quality of the knife and the service you receive.
Choosing between Benchmades and Spydercos at the highest level of quality often comes down to individual feel regarding ergonomic design and whether you prefer the unique Axis lock of Benchmade over the locking mechanisms of the Spyderco knives. Kershaw often competes well as you drop a bit in price, but again it often comes down to personal preference. One thing that can be said for Benchmade over the other two is their simplistic and rugged design, which many feel gives them a better value over the more esoteric designs of the other brands. They’re high priced workhorses, to be sure, but quality workhorses as a result!
Finding the proper survival knife isn’t easy and requires a lot of research as well as some trial and error, but in the end the sheer utility of having even several survival knives available could mean the difference between life and death during an emergency. Even now while things are stable, there are dozens of uses for a quality knife. Take the time and spare the money to acquire a quality knife that suits your needs!
Do you have a favorite brand or type of knife that you use? Any other tips for selecting a good survival knife? Let us know in the comments below!
This article first appeared at Prepared For That: Survival Knives: Finding the Best Throwing, Tactical, or Hunting Knife For You