The age-old question, “Which knife is best?” is answered simply, “It’s the one in your hand.” Having said this, some knives are better than others.
As a professional soldier and military contractor, I have carried a number of knives into operations, some have stood the test of time and are featured in this article. Working as a professional hunter and outfitter in Africa for a number of years added to my knife repertoire and survival experience.
This article will aid you in making your choice of a fine blade or two, that will suit both your needs and your pocket.
Knives have been a fundamental part of man’s evolution since the dawn of time, whether a sharpened stick, a razor-edged stone blade or multiple versions of metal blades through the ages.
The evolution of the knife has mirrored man’s mastery of his environment closely. The age of metal brought about significant changes in the manufacture and quality of blades.
That being said, there are a number of factors that will help you making a long-term choice as opposed to the butter knife you may have in your hand at this moment.
Points to consider when making your choice, these will be expanded on in this article:
- Blade size – Not to Big not to Small, Just Right
- Blade shape – Best Profile for The Job
- Blade Edge – The Sharpest Angle for Durability
- Optimal Blade Endurance – Corrosion Resistance and Hardness
- Full Tang – Blade and Handle are the same Size Equals Strength
- Solid Pommel – Crushing and Bashing
- Handle Shape and Material – Best Fit and Dependable Handle Material
Table of Contents
The One Big Purpose of a Survival Knife
Experts debate this point, but almost all agree on functionality. Through history our primary goal has followed the three rules of needs:
Supporting the primary needs of survival, a survival knife will perform a number of vital functions:
- Chopping or batoning wood (where the knife is embedded into a piece of wood and hammered on the spine, the top edge of the blade, with a baton or piece of wood, forcing the blade through the wood to split it) for tinder
- Building a shelter
- Hunting and preparing food
- Clearing a water source or digging open a small well
- Self defense
- First Aid
Considering that the blade has stood the test of time, the development of the blade has given rise to a multitude of blade types. Each blade has a shape, use, size and blade quality. All of us are familiar with the knives in our kitchen, which we use everyday to prepare food and make our lives easier.
From bread knives, pairing knives, deboning knives, the butcher’s knife and meat cleaver, we have probably used one or more at some time in our lives.
Survival knives are just as diverse, with the marketing gurus adding ever more diversity to encourage you to spend your money.
Is clear however from tried and tested utilization over many decades that there are only a few that make the grade.
Here are the primary features to look for when making your choice of a survival knife.
- Blade Tip (Point)
- Blade Cheek
- Blade Edge (Blade Belly)
- The Bevel
- Thumb Grooves
- Finger Guard
- Handle or Scales
- Handle Belly
- Lanyard Hole
Not every blade will have a lanyard hole or a bolster, that will not diminish the blade’s integrity in any way.
Fixed or Folder?
As a rule of thumb, survival knives fall into the fixed blade category. While a quality folder should always be in your pocket, a quality fixed blade is the standard for a survival knife. It is tougher, more durable and has no moving parts that will let you down.
A full tang fixed blade is the strongest version. This is when the blade and the part that the handle attaches to, the tang, are the same or close to the same size. The integral strength of the blade relies on this “completeness” of the blade.
I recommend staying away from a partial tang knife. This tang is about half the length of a full tang and is a point of weakness, especially if you are levering something or chopping.
The handle has to support the rest of the blade and will be damaged, the blade or handle, sometimes both, can break and you are denied a pommel with which is to hammer.
Another to avoid is a narrow tang, usually hidden inside the handle. As the name suggests the tang is worked down into a thin piece of metal at a minimum of two thirds the length of blade.
This blade is weaker even than a partial tang blade. It gives up too much of its integral strength by removing so much metal that supports the blade.
Survival knives with kits hidden in the handle look cool, but are very weak knives. The exception to the rule are blades milled from a single block of metal, called a billet. See Chris Reeves Survival Shadow III knives or a copy made by Schrade SCF1. Even these high-end blades are not on the same playing field as a full tang blade.
If using the blade to pry open something, chop down saplings to create a shelter, carve up and split bone of an antelope, a flimsy construction will not survive rough handling of this sort.
The tang is usually exposed along the spine, the area opposite the cutting edge and will bear the brunt of Batoning, will provide support for your thumb when cutting and support the handle and blade wen prying open a can or any other tough material.
Quality of the Steel
Not all steel is born equal. A high carbon steel or stainless-steel blade will need to be hard enough to deal with chopping of wood and flexible enough not to shatter on impact with a hard surface.
Suffice it to say that we will recommend knives that have been well tested for strength, flexibility and durability.
Blade hardness is critical to the functionality of a knife.
Soft steels will take an edge easily but will not retain sharpness with use. The cutting edge is susceptible to chipping, and the fine edge will roll over with hard work. The blade itself can bend, when prying open things or chopping work is done.
Blades need to be hard, but not to hard. A very hard steel will chip and can even shatter on impact, I have seen “brittle” steel shatter when dropped in on a workshop floor.
Blade hardness is measured on the Rockwell Scale. Softer metals fall into the lower ratings e.g., RC45 and go as high as RC 65. Optimal for survival purposes in RC52 to 56 depending on the steel used and its metallurgical make up. Adding Chrome Vanadium and or Nickle adds to strength and a steel’s anti corrosive features.
Ergonomic design is vital when considering spending your hard-earned cash. The blade will see extensive use, so it must fit your hand comfortably to avoid “hotspots.”
Constant rubbing in the same spot will cause blistering. Blistering can become infected in a survival situation and lead to you losing the use of an appendage.
Considering you may be fighting for your life, don’t put yourself at a disadvantage from the get go.
The handle must fit your hand firmly and maintain its indexing, meaning the blade, when it fits well, the spine follows the angle of your wrist when your hand is closed around the handle. If the fit is bad, the blade will roll over away from the working surface. This can cause injury, serious injury and damage the knife or the material you are working on.
A well finished blade speaks to quality craftmanship, and will be finished to a high standard. The hand guard, cross guard or finger groove or a combination of these three, will provide protection for the fingers if your hand slides forward on the handle. This happens more than you would think.
The handle itself must provide a solid grip, especially when wet. Sweat, water and blood can make handling tricky if the handle doesn’t provide sufficient grip.
A good belly, a bulge in the bottom of the handle where it seats into your palm and the fingers wrap around helps in improving grip.
Handle material can be either wood, rubber, G10 scales or similar and smooth or patterned. The main requirement is that the grip provided is firm and secure.
The back of the handle should have a shaped piece of the tang protruding. This butt piece or pommel on the blade is extremely useful.
Crushing edible nuts, grinding seeds, crushing bark for cordage; your options are as diverse as the edge uses. It will also make a useful hammer and defense tool.
Function and Form
It comes down to the edge at the end of the day. Whether you are drilling holes with the tip, removing thorns or skinning an animal, the cutting edge will define a blade.
A single-edged blade is the preference for ease of handling and durability especially when hammering the blade through a wood log, or batoning.
A smooth edge is preferable to a serrated or partially serrated edge and provides for a more versatile cutting platform. When chopping wood or batoning, serrations hinder rather than assist the splitting process.
Harder blades are more difficult to sharpen. Once sharp, however, they retain their edge for much longer than the softer metals. The blade profile or blade shape, will add to edge retention, with the four most popular being:
- Convex blades
- Hollow ground blades
- Scandi grind blades
- Flat grind blades
There are others, like a saber grind, tanto grind, but the top three are the most common and the most versatile.
The angle at which a blade is sharpened will also define the longevity of a blade edge. The finer the angle the quicker the edge will blunt, the bigger the angle the less sharp a blade will be.
An optimum edge angle is 25 degrees, this will give you a razor-sharp edge that will remain sharp for longer while performing very demanding tasks.
Blade Shape or Blade Profile
Blade shape is important when it comes to functionality and each has its proponents. The main consideration will again be functionality, how well does the blade perform for general use.
Blade shapes have developed to serve many different purposes, their individual characteristics giving the blade the necessary performance to fulfill its given task. This is usually done at the expense of general-purpose applications.
The shape or profile of the blade or point comes in a number of forms. Among survivalists the consensus of opinion is that the most functional for a survival knife are:
- A Clip Point
- A Drop Point
These two are considered the best for functionality and versatility in the survival knife context.
There are various others which all have their positive aspects. We list them in order of best to least suitable for a survival type knife:
- Normal Straight
- Spey Point
- Sheepfoot Blade
- Japanese tanto
- American Tanto
- Kukri Point
- Dao Blade
- Wharncliffe Blade
- Spear Point
- Talon Blade
- Trailing Point
- Needle Point
A basic necessity is that the blade has a shape that is suitable for survival applications.
A sharp point, that is easy to use and adaptable. The blade can be attached to a long pole to function as a spear, to defend, hunt and fish.
The sharp point can be used to drill holes in leather, wood, fabric and plastics and still remove splinters and thorns.
It can skin, fillet a fish and carve a spoon or a bowl. Remember why you are buying a survival knife!
Does Size Matter?
It’s a common question and much debated and it comes down to this, “It’s not the size it’s the way you use it.”
“Rambo” type blades may look impressive but they are cumbersome and unwieldy. They may serve well as choppers, but then an argument can be made for carrying an axe or machete instead.
What can be termed a working survival blade must be able to perform delicate tasks as well as the rougher wood notching and chopping. A good size is between 3.5” to 7” inches of blade length. Ideally it will be the blade that best fits you, the user best.
Personally, I regard 5 to 6 inches as an ideal blade length with a spine width of at least 3/16 to ¼ of an inch, that’s 3.5 to 4.5 mm thick.
This will handle batoning of wood well, with the spine being thick enough to absorb the baton blows and the spine long enough to work through 3- to 4-inch-thick logs.
The blade you choose needs to fit well, snuggly up against your thigh. A neat blade that can be concealed, if necessary, doesn’t draw attention and generally falls within legal local and international, (if you travel extensively) parameters.
Please familiarize yourself with your local legal requirements and those of any country you travel too.
A secure, durable sheath to house the blade is an absolute must. There will be nothing more compromising than to lose the blade you are depending on because, “It fell out somewhere.”
Leather is an ancient and reliable sheath material, offering aesthetics and functionality with the added bonus that sheaths can be custom made to your specific requirements.
Leather sheaths can house a ferro rod, a small whetstone and even a compass and fishing gear. Your choice should take comfort and necessity into consideration.
Cordura sheaths are a nylon mix that function the same as leather sheaths, just not as good-looking. They do have the advantage of being fitted with clips and loops to attach the blade to tactical vests and bullet proof rigs.
Kadex sheaths are made of weatherproof plastic molded composite material. They are fitted to the blade and have a multi-securing function which is enhanced by a handle-retaining clip. However, they can be noisy when deploying your blade as the Kadex “snaps” when the blade is withdrawn.
A Few Recommendations
So, with a huge selection of manufactures and their offerings to choose from, where does one begin?
Price is not always the indicator of good quality. Based on what we have outlined for you already let’s take a look at what we recommend that will give you the best bang for your buck.
Quick disclosure: If you visit a link in this article and then you buy something, I may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. You can read my full disclosure here.
The Becker BK series of blades is one of the most budget-friendly. It combines versatility, function and form, with excellent performance and value. It is a high carbon steel with a protective coating but is still susceptible to corrosion and will require oiling and safe storage to prevent rust.
- Ka-Bar Becker Companion BK2 is a 5.5-inch drop point blade that ticks almost all of the survival blade boxes. Blades comes at a reasonable price and will outlive most of their owners. Having carried one of these on deployment on my personal medical bag for a number of years, I can personally vouch for its durability. It has a solid metal backing or pommel which is useful for crushing and hammering or ringing a bad guy’s bell.
- Ka-Bar Becker Combat Utility BK7 is a 7-inch clip point blade for those wanting something bigger. It covers the same bases as the BK2 but with more blade. It is also budget-friendly.
- Then there is the venerable Ka-Bar Ranger. In service since 1942, it has made an indelible impression on the survival world. It’s earned its stripes in combat and in the civilian realm of survival. This 5 to 7-inch, depending on the variant you choose, clip point legend comes with a leather or more modern composite handle. Prices vary from $30 to $100, depending on the manufacturer and the materials used.
The Morakniv range of knives has a deeply entrenched following in the survival community, and rightly so.
Its 400-year-old Scandinavian heritage, combined with modern advances in metallurgy produce an iconic blade that is razor-sharp, holds its edge, is tough and robust. Two standouts are:
- Morakniv Garberg is a 4.2-inch drop point blade. It comes in a blade and sheath only conformation or with a survival kit set up, which includes a ferro rod striker. It falls into the well-priced bracket at $89.99. High carbon steel makes it a serious contender for best deal on the table.
- Morakniv Companion Spark is a 4.1-inch drop point blade with an integrated fire striker ferro rod. It has all the features of its big brother, using the 12C27 stainless steel, retaining hardness and durability at the budget price of $30. The price point on this little gem makes it worth consideration for those looking for a solid starter blade.
Buck knives have been producing timeless classics for 100 years, in true American heritage style. Here, two standouts should be considered.
- Buck Knives 119 is a blade that has stood the test of time. It’s a 6-inch clip point beast and the best-selling blade in the Buck Knives offering. Field tested over generations; this reliable American-made icon comes in at a respectable $70. It will serve you well in a survival situation as well as around the camp.
- Buck Compadre falls more within the pure survival role and has seen service with many survival practitioners. This blade is a bit more expensive in the $110 to $130 mark, but it is well worth the extra dollar for value and performance.
Moving into the higher price bracket will get you into high grade steel brackets. While the less expensive blades still make the grade, here you are paying not only for expensive steel but a higher degree of fit and finish.
Esee blades have become a well-known and respected survival brand. They have been developed to serve the user in the most extreme of conditions have “cut its teeth” in the Amazon jungle. Its history of military grade reliability is legendary.
- Esee 5P is a 5.25-inch drop point blade with a military pedigree, it was designed with the help of SERE’s instructors to fulfill the needs of any survival and tactical application. Besides the glass breaker in the pommel, the Esee 5P features a fire bow drill divot in the handle. Depending on availability, this very popular blade ranges from $195 and up.
- Esee Laser Strike is a 4.75-inch drop point blade and made of 1090 high carbon steel. It will glide through camp logs for fire with ease and keep its edge well. Not only will it split logs and shave up some kindling, but it will help you start your fire. It has the same fire bow divot in the handle as the Esee 5P and has a fire ferro rod striker with some fire starter wads hidden in the handles. On the sheath is a tethered washer that is used as a flat head screw driver to gain access. At $130 dollars it is a worthy contender in this range.
As an everyday blade carrier, it is important to know what your rights are and when you may or may not carry and or use your blade.
I have carried a blade since I was a boy of 8, my father gifting me first knife, a much-prized Joseph Rogers.
Serving as a soldier, contractor and professional hunter has allowed me access to some of the finest blades available, with no fear of putting them to work. The pleasure of owning and carrying a fine blade is a privilege not afforded to every citizen of the world.
A general rule of thumb is do not draw attention to yourself by flashing a blade or making a display of yourself, it’s not a movie, real life has other risks besides the law, don’t invite trouble.
As others are visitors to your respective countries, so you are in any other. Conduct yourself in a way that reflects how you want to be treated.
I will take you through some of general laws pertaining to countries you are likely to carry a blade in.
US Knife Laws
In the USA states the rule of thumb that would clear you in all states, is the carrying of a two-inch folding knife. Knife Law varies from state to state with some states being more knife friendly than others. California having the strictest laws of all states.
The Federal Law concerning Switchblade ownership and carry and its changes is the only knife law that concerns the USA citizenry.
State Law on the other hand is more restrictive and defined, it is imperative that you familiarize yourself with each state you intend to visit or travel across state lines.
Two outstanding resources are:
Canada Knife Laws
According to the criminal code there is no restriction on carrying blades in sheaths or folding knives in public. Exceptions to the rule are switchblades, automatic knives, gravity or centrifugal opening knives (Butterfly Knives).
However, the rule of law is ambiguous here too. Knives are defined as tools and should be carried for that purpose and utilized in the manner as defined by the job of work. Sound complicated?
If you’re out hunting, the utility, hunting knife or survival knife on your hip is considered a tool for the job at hand. Popping into a pubic bar on the way home to celebrate could find you at cross purposes to the law. The knife on your hip has no purpose in a bar, according to the law.
Be aware of your surroundings. Canadian law focuses on intent and you will be judged according to the reason you are in possession of a blade whether if you had intention or not, even if good or bad.
Useful sites to consider are:
UK Knife Laws
The salient points of UK Law:
- You can legally carry a knife with a blade up to 3 inches in length, but it can still be deemed an offensive weapon.
- Knives with a blade longer than 3 inches (whether fixed blade or folders) are illegal to carry.
What it comes down to, is you can carry a small folding knife that has no locking mechanism. Even this blade may be deemed as an “Offensive weapon” if any member of the public deemed it to be so. The British police are extremely unforgiving, so exercise extreme caution.
The law is ambiguous and where it may allow the carrying of various blades which fall outside of the prescribed length and non-locking mechanism specifications, the person in possession of the blade or multitool may still fall foul of the law.
Stopping at a fuel station to top up their vehicle, on their way to work, sport, outdoor activity or camping may see them arrested for possession.
To be safe, don’t. With the current “zero tolerance” policy to knife crime, knife possession will definitely and inevitability get you in trouble with the law.
For a more definitive read on the law please see this.
African Knife Laws
Africa is seen as the bastion of Big Game Hunting, The Safari and a wild and dangerous continent as a whole and individually.
As a well-traveled African specialist, as a military professional and as a professional hunter, knives form an integral part of gear and kit.
The rule of thumb in Africa as in any other part of the world is “Do not draw attention to yourself with extravagant behaviors, aggressive displays or wanton antagonism of individuals, groups or the authorities.”
In Africa, very few people every day carry (EDC) a knife as a rule. In South Africa and some of the Anglophone countries, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe etc. are an exception the rule.
- Blades under 10 cm or 3.9 inches are considered legal carry, either fixed or folding.
- Carrying a blade for work, recreation and specific tasks is legal.
- No blades may be carried at public gatherings.
- Open carry of spears, machetes, axes, swords may be carried for religious rituals,
specific work tasks and as traditional dress.
The police use “discretionary” judgement in many circumstances, and you will be in trouble if you attract attention, whether your blade falls within defined legal parameters or not.
Africa is intensely bureaucratic, red tape is the key to earning an extra dollar.
Practice situational awareness and avoidance, a friendly disposition will get you much further than aggressive, confrontational behavior. This goes for any place you may find yourself.
- http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1727-37812013000400010 (Provides a legal summery of the Dangerous Weapons Act of 2013, including the act itself)
Australian Knife Laws
Knife laws in Australia are notoriously tough, with policing being strict on the implementation and interpretation of the law.
The legal statute in New South Wales Australia sums up the law nicely, under the Summary of Offences Act 1988, Section 11C:
“A person must not, without reasonable excuse (proof of which lies on the person), have in his or her custody a knife in a public place or a school.”
As with the USA, the various Australian states have different or similar laws pertaining to knife carry, possession and ownership.
The rule of thumb is, if you are found carrying a knife anywhere in any of these states you better have a very good reason for being in possession of a “blade.”
Useful resource here.
European Knife Laws
The law in Europe varies widely from country to country. A folder under 2 inches is generally not frowned upon if used judiciously and kept out of sight.
When a blade is applied for work, recreation, hunting, religious and tradition events, the person in possession can at least provide a credible reason to have it on their person.
I have personally carried a folder to a number of different countries in Europe without issue in my check-in luggage. In public your knife is for a time of need. You won’t score any points with the public if you behave in an aggressive, flashy way.
For a general summery of most European countries please see this.
Whichever survival knife you choose to go with, work with your knife as much as possible and train your skills. This is the beginning of your journey and you will find that you will be enticed to explore the world of blades.
As a rule, I carry two blades that fit the survival knife profile, a smaller and larger blade to perform a range of tasks. Most of knives are older than the ones here, and have seen extended action in a variety of applications.
A piggy back, sheath system can be used which keeps both blades within easy reach. Bear in mind if you lose your sheath, you lose both and any critical kit you may have secured in the sheath i.e. ferro rod etc.
This follows the rule of redundancy, so have more than one secured somewhere else. A Military maxim I picked up along the way: ” Two is One, One is None.”
I also carry a folder, which while not ideal as a survival knife as discussed earlier, but is, in a pinch the best knife to have when no other is available.
Get out into nature and enjoy using your blade, remember there is no substitute for training or experience.
Harrison Caine was pretty much born in the woods and raised by wolves! He’s an expert in hand-to-hand combat, tactical weapon use and staying alive in the face of certain demise.
He can fly a plane, sail a yacht, ride a horse, drive security vehicles at high speed… and change a diaper. He is a writer and has authored two books on his adventures.