We hear all the time about how a survival knife is a must have for any survivalist or prepper, but how do you choose the best survival knife for your needs? The best survival knife does not necessarily mean the most expensive, the best knife is one that fits your budget and needs.
You are going to see a lot of sites and read a lot of articles that focus on getting you to buy a knife that everyone else likes. You are going to be the one buying and using the knife, so instead of buying a knife because Dave Canterbury uses it, buy one because you know what knife you want and need.
Picking the best survival knife whether it is fixed blade or folding blade is like picking the best gun, everyone is going to have their own personal preference and what works for them might not work as well for you.
If you are more educated about the purchase you make, you are less likely to end up with something that just sits in your garage, or even worse, fails when you need it most. There are plenty of knock offs and even though two knives might look the same, they are not.
Just remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. On the flip side of the coin, just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s a good knife.
If you have no idea what survival knife you might need, follow the steps in this article and buy a low cost survival knife that looks like the expensive one you like and test it out. Don’t expect these to be all that durable though, you are testing the weight, balance, grip and overall feel of it when you are performing certain tasks like chopping, slicing, batoning or whittling etc…
After you have given the knife a good test drive you will have a better idea about what you want, and you can use the knife as a backup or even a hand me down.
If this is a self-defense knife that hopefully never gets used you might be able to get away with a low cost sturdy knife with lower quality steel, that doesn’t need to hold its edge as well as the more expensive brands.
Anatomy of a Knife
Before we can choose a good survival knife we need to know the anatomy of a knife. A knife is more than just a blade and a handle, each knife has little differences that make more suitable for certain jobs.
Here is a list a few of the parts of a knife that we hear all the time…
The Tang: When it comes to a good survival knife a full tang is a must. A full tang runs the entire length of the handle and is sandwiched between the 2 peices of the handle, while a half tang (hidden or partial) does not. A partial or hidden tang runs the full length of the knife, but is not the full width of the handle.
A full tang will be much more durable even with a lower quality knife, and if the knife handle comes off or gets ruined the knife can still be used, whereas a partial or hidden tang knife will be unusable or very dangerous to use.
Blade Style: There are a few different styles of knife blade to choose from, you have the drop point, the tonto blade, the spear point and a clip point. Watch this video to get an idea about what the benefits of each style are.
Blade Style Infographic
Source: Smoking Barrel USA – Knives
Handle Material: There are quite a few materials that are used for the handle of the knife, the most popular are Micarta, rubber, bone and antler. I prefer Micarta because it is lightweight and strong, but the blade is far more important than the handle.
Thumb Rise: A thumb rise is basically what it sounds like, it is located between the spine and the handle of the knife and gives you a more stable grip on the knife. These can also sometimes be part of the handle.
Spine: The spine of the knife is the unsharpened edge of the blade, or top of the blade. These can sometimes be rounded or sharpened, but I prefer a flat spine because it is better for batoning and striking flint to get a spark.
Bolster: This is sometimes referred to as a guard and can be part of the blade of an added thick piece of metal between the handle and blade.
Ricasso: This is the transition area between the blade and the handle. Not all knives have a Ricasso, but most do.
Pommel: Sometimes referred to as the butt of the knife the pommel is the end of a knife on the handle end. Some pommels are smaller, and some are larger and can be used for hammering or pounding.
Choil: A choil is a cut-out out of the blade (on the edge side) were the tang starts right in front of the handle. These are usually made to fit a finger when you are choking up on the blade but not always.
A choil that is made to fit your pointer finger is used for finer woodworking tasks and is not a make or break part of a knife, but it is one of those things that you don’t notice how much you use it until it’s gone.
Quillon: a quillon is part of the handle that keeps your hand from sliding onto the blade. On some knives there are front quillons and rear quillons, stopping the hand from going into the blade or off the heel of the handle.
Picking the Right Survival Knife
Now let’s get into the meat and potatoes of this article, choosing the survival knife that fits your needs. Think about the tools and supplies you have with you when deciding on the best survival knife.
If you plan on having an axe or hatchet with you then you might not need a large knife, you might need something for smaller tasks and lighter in weight, or a tonto blade might be ideal for slicing tasks because of its design.
Folding vs fixed blade: A folding knife would not be considered a “survival knife” in the typical sense of the word, a folding knife has a joint, and a joint is a point of weakness. The more stress you put on that joint, the more likely the knife is to fail.
Folding knives do have their place though, but they are in addition to a fixed blade knife, not instead of. Folding knives are also great for smaller tasks like feathering wood, and everyone should have one as an EDC item.
Steel Quality: This could very well be the most important part of a good survival knife, and it is what separates the $50 knife from the $200 knife. That’s not to say you can’t find a good quality knife for under $100, but just about every high quality knife will be made from Carbon Steel.
There are too many types of steel used in knife making to mention them all here, but this article is a good guide to all the different types of steel used and their quality characteristics.
Most knives you come across will be made from 1095 carbon steel or 440 stainless. Both have their pluses and minuses but carbon steel is almost always better because it holds an edge better, and sharpens much easier than low quality stainless steel.
Stainless steel will be easier to maintain because it will not rust, but the quality of the stainless steel will determine the quality of the knife. You will find that most knives are made from 440 stainless steel, but don’t be fooled, 440 comes in 3 different grades, 440A, 440B and 440C. 440A is the lowest grade (the cheapest.)
If a knife maker doesn’t state 440 A,B or C always assume it’s A, because if someone uses 440C (the best) they are probably going to want to tell you.
Knife Quality: When you purchase a knife don’t assume that because it’s a Gerber or an SOG that it is a good knife, all knife makers have cheap knives and good knives. Use the information in this article and do your research and you will be able to see the differences fairly easily.
Serrated vs full blade: This is all a matter of personal preference, some people like a partially serrated knife, some people like a top serrated knife and some people prefer a full cutting blade. Again, this all depends on how and what you plan on using the knife for.
Blade Length: Yet again this all depends on your needs. I prefer to have a blade that is no longer than 6 inches but no less than 4 because I want it to be big enough to complete large tasks like batoning, but small enough to feather wood to start a fire.
Knife Tasks: All of this is great right, but what tasks can you expect to be using your knife for in a survival situation? The short answer is more than you think, here are a few examples…
- First Aid
- Tool Making
- Fire Making
- Shelter Making
Knowledge is Key
In this article from Creek Stewart he states the following about the most important part of a survival knife:
“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.”
The best and most expensive survival knife in the world is only as good as the hand that it is in. If you are just learning to drive you don’t need a Ferrari, and if you are just learning how to build a survival shelter there is no reason to break the bank on the latest and greatest survival knife until the need arises.
In my opinion the only thing more important in a survival situation than a knife is the knowledge in your head. You can literally make anything you might need in a survival situation with a knife…but only if you know how.
What survival knife do you like the best? Leave a comment below and let us know why?