Because of my profession (survival instructor and author), people often ask me, “What is the best survival knife?”
Rather than recommend a specific knife, I typically choose to describe the qualities of a good survival knife and let them choose one based on that information. Below are six features to look for when searching for your perfect survival knife.
Survival knife feature No. 1: Size
Does size matter? Yes, but when it comes to your survival knife, bigger is not always better. If your blade is too big, you sacrifice the ability to effectively use it for detailed tasks such as dressing small game or carving precision snare sets.
On the flip side, a small blade does not perform well with more rugged tasks such as batoning and chopping. Batoning is when you strike the back of your knife blade with a heavy object to drive the knife through thick or stubborn wood. This allows the blade to be used for splitting wood and cutting through large limbs and trees.
Having used many survival knives, I’ve found the ideal size to be around 9-11 inches in length. For example, my Blackbird SK-5 Survival Knife is 10″ in overall length with a 5-inch blade.
Survival knife feature No. 2: Fixed blade
A fixed blade knife is more durable and reliable than a folding knife. While I love a good folder for everyday carry, a fixed blade has the upper hand when it comes to meeting the demands a survival situation might present.
A joint of any kind is a weakness. Minimize the risk of damaging or losing your key survival resource by choosing a knife that is better suited for pounding, chopping, thrusting, prying and rigorous cutting.
Survival knife feature No. 3: Full tang
Not only should your survival knife be a fixed blade, but it should also be “full tang,” meaning the blade and handle are constructed from one continuous piece of metal. Scales or grips are typically attached to the handle portion for a more comfortable grip. A full tang knife is much more robust than partial tang styles such as the half tang, push tang or rat-tail tang. As you can see in the photo below, the profile of a full tang blade is much more substantial than its rat-tail friend.
Survival knife feature No. 4: Sharp, pointed tip
This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen many “survival knives” with angled, rounded, hooked or straight-cut, flat tips. Despite any contrary argument, there are many compelling reasons why your survival knife should have a sharp, pointed tip. The first is self-defense – against man or beast. Anything other than a sharp spear-point tip compromises your ability to effectively thrust or stab your knife in self defense – especially through thick fur/hide or layered clothing.
Similarly, a spear-point knife can be used as a hunting weapon – either by itself or lashed to a pole to create a longer reaching spear. I keep the Allen wrench (which came with my knife) in my knife sheath pocket at all times. This allows me to remove the scales and lash the full-tang blade almost seamlessly onto a staff as a spear point.
Survival knife feature No. 5: Single-edged blade with flat, ground spine
Your survival knife should not have a double-edged, dagger-style blade. A double-edged blade is just not necessary for the vast majority of (if not all) survival uses. Actually, it can be a disadvantage.
Not only do I recommend a single-edged blade, but I prefer for the back side (spine) of my survival knife to have a flat, 90-degree grind. A flat, ground spine is ideal for striking a fire starting ferro-rod. Rounded or beveled spines make this almost impossible.
I regularly use my survival knife to baton through large pieces of wood. Whether splitting firewood or constructing make-shift shelters, a sharpened back edge would make this function nearly impossible.
Survival knife feature No. 6: Solid pommel
The “pommel” is in the bottom of the handle, also referred to as the butt. I regularly use the pommel on my survival knife for light duty pounding and hammering. It’s perfect for driving in shelter stakes. I’ve also used my knife point to chip out crude ice fishing holes by pounding the pommel with a heavy stick to drive the blade into the ice. Some knives are designed with a rounded or hooked pommel that is not ideal for hammering. I believe in getting the most uses possible from your knife. A well designed and substantial pommel only adds to your list of capabilities.
A survival knife is not a magic wand, nor does it have inherent magical saving powers. The true value is in the skill of the one who wields it. Skill only comes from practice and repetition. You don’t buy a survival knife to decorate your man cave – it is a tool meant to be used. Since the beginning of mankind, the cutting blade helped to shape how our ancestors hunted, fought, built and survived. From early man’s feeblest efforts to a soldier in modern warfare, there will never be a relationship quite like that between a man and his blade. Choose yours wisely.
Remember, it’s not IF but WHEN.