Survival Knives!

One thing that I’ve found is pretty much universal to all cultures is the love of the knife; aside from Dogs, they’re Man’s best friend. Particularly to Americans, we have a certain myth behind what a knife should be. We all know it too- the Bowie. The reality is, like normal, a little different.

For this reason, we seem to have skewered view of what a “survival” or Field knife is and should be. Most folks, when you ask them what a survival knife is, will give you something like this:


The Rambo Knife- a big, thick, clumsy blade with a useless saw and a hollow handle. While it may look nice in the movies, it’s junk in reality. Knives are first a tool, not a symbol of macho manhood. They must-

  • Last under hard use
  • Stay sharp to continue to cut stuff
  • Be easy to resharpen to continue to cut stuff
  • Be inexpensive enough so that you don’t cry if you lose it

When I say last under hard use, I definitely don’t mean abuse. There’s some out there, especially newcomers in the bushcraft/naturist community that seem to believe a knife should double as an axe, a wedge, a prybar, etc. A knife cuts. That’s its purpose. If you need a wedge, learn to fabricate one from your environment, and if you need an axe, carry one. A knife will not serve these needs as well as dedicated tools will.

There’s also a big difference between tasks- some knives are designed to be weapons, most are tools, and there’s a bunch that try to be somewhere between both. From spending most of my life in agriculture in one way or another, and my years as an Infantryman, my knives have been much more of a dedicated tool in my kit than a weapon.

My MkII. Like all daggers, it’s meant for one thing, and when not in use, it should never be unsheathed.

There’s been times I’ve carried the Gerber Mk II pictured at right on dedicated Long Range Patrols or night snatches. Daggers have one purpose- and really suck at anything but that purpose.

Most often knives in my kit, whether doing farm work, preparing food, or on routine Patrols overseas, are general purpose working tools, simple in design and lacking any frills.

This being said, for the beginner choosing a knife can become a daunting task. There’s a design and a steel for everyone, normally each with a purpose behind the design and an idea based on what the designer likes.

Knife Steel

Knife steels come in two very broad categories- High Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel. High Carbon, or HC, is a very common steel used in working tools which as the name implies has a good amount of carbon in the alloy. Stainless on the other hand, has less carbon and more chrome, adding a measure of corrosion resistance. Any decent knife maker will tell you up front what type of steel they’re using. If they don’t, don’t buy it. It’s that simple.

Stainless is found in knives that are meant to be used near salt water, such as fillet knives.

My Fallkniven S1, an excellent, if expensive, all purpose knife

Many, many knives on the market will be made of Stainless, from Sandvik to 440 to 420, AUS-8, to some of the newer Chinese steels such as 14Cr32 appearing in budget priced knives. They range as you’d guess from piles of crap to very nice, depending largely on the manufacturer. Lots of Scandinavian and Japanese manufacturers use great grades of Stainless steel for their blades, normally all with an intended purpose and environment behind it’s design. One attractive feature is that they’re easy to care for and does well around salt water. Moras, in particular, are very popular due to the ease of maintenance and simplicity of design. One large drawback is that the metal is usually more brittle, having less flex, and is harder to sharpen. They do however generally maintain an edge for a bit longer, and are relatively maintenance free.

High Carbon is the older of the two categories; as the name implies they contain a higher amount of carbon for certain desirable qualities to the steel, such as more flexibility.

A couple Old Hickory Knives from my kitchen

You’ll find tool steel in pretty much all old knives, sawmills, presses, Axes, Mauls, and anywhere steel was used to work. HC steel usually can be found in flavors such as 1075, 1095, A2, D2, etc, and in my opinion, are much better suited to field work in the long run.

One major drawback to HC steels is that they rust much faster than their Stainless counterparts; but one counter to this is adding what’s known as a patina to the blade. A patina is the discoloration of the steel itself, developing a sort of skin on the blade and preventing oxydation(rust). To do this, use the knife a lot like I do, or soak it in vinegar and lime juice for a while. You’ll not have to worry much about rust. Folks in Central and South America make daily use of Machetes made of carbon steel and have no problems in their humid environments; you shouldn’t have too many problems either.

HC steel, particularly 1075/1095, is an excellent choice for a field knife due to it’s ease of sharpening, and when heat treated properly, can hold an edge for a long time between sharpenings. Stainless Steel has a tendency to chip, especially in cheaper blades, where HC will usually simply roll and can be sharpened back out. On axes and machetes softer grades of HC steel are the norm due to the ability for the blade to roll if it hits rocks, knots or nails in wood, or anything else you can think of that might damage the blade edge. A stainless blade would break or chip; Carbon steel can be repaired with a file, stone, or anything that has a good amount of grit. You can repair a working edge on a carbon steel knife with just about anything that has grit.

Blade Types

A random assortment of different working knives; a couple Old Hickorys, a Condor general Purpose blade, Condor’s Bushcraft knife and my most-used blade, and two Ontario Airman Survival knives, well known to any Paratrooper or Pilot, along with a magnesium firstarter.

Blade designs, prior to the modern industrial revolution, lacked the ability to be frivolous or gimmicky. They were all business and had a use. The Old Hickory Butcher Knife pictured above one was such example; it’s still the most common knife you’ll find in a kitchen in the rural South. It’s thin, easy to sharpen, and holds an edge for a good long while.

Another knife that’s quickly gaining popularity is the Bushcraft design.

A side view of my most used knife, the Condor Bushlore. 1075 HC steel and a Scandi grind, it makes an excellent workhorse blade.

They’re frequently a spear type blade, full tang(meaning the blade is one continuous piece visibly running through the handle) and ground with a very shallow scandinavian grind making them easy to sharpen. I highly recommend one as a beginner knife.

The most frequent blade design most confuse with a “survival blade” is a tactical knife; or one that has some tactical use implied. The reality is that 99.9999% of the time, you’re not going to be stabbing, cutting the throats, or any other hollywood badassery to envisioned badguys. It’s just not happening.

Avoid spine saws, serrations on the belly of the blade(where you’ll actually do most of your cutting) or not being able to see the full tang running through the handle(Moras are the one exception I make to this rule).

blade grinds
A visual example of the different types of edges. I recommend a convex edge for a working blade due to its strength for a variety of tasks.

While on the topic of spine saws- the original idea came from the need for aviators to cut through cockpit glass in the event of a crash- blade serrations were for cutting through seatbelts. Similarly, the Pilot’s survival knife caught on with the Airborne crowd for these same reasons. The problem is that blade spine saws are useless for really anything else, and blade serrations are impossible to sharpen without a round file. I’ve used them to make notches for traps before, but simply cutting the notch with a sharp blade is more efficient. Rat tail tangs(hidden in the handle) are weaker in design than full tang and can break under hard use. Ka-Bars, Moras, Ontario Pilot’s knives, and most Bowies have rat tail tangs, and while the first three(being a specific Brand and known quantity) are usually well suited to many field tasks, they can and do sometimes break. There’s certainly nothing wrong with choosing one as a general purpose knife in a combat oriented-kit setup, but in my experience, I greatly prefer a simple general purpose, bomb proof design.

Blade Size


When talking about combat knives, every American envisions the knife from Sandbar Fight, today known as the Bowie, named after its user, Jim, and his brother the designer, Rezin. Regardless, since its build it has become the American standard in the minds of most reinforced by many a Hollywood myth.

The design took off from the earlier beefed-up butcher knives that were the fur trader standard.

A modern build of an early Frontier classic- the Hudson Bay knife is not too much different than the original made famous by Bowie(look up the Cephus Ham Bowie knife, one of the earliest designs) and partnered with it’s much older grand daddy. It’s easy to see where the design is rooted.

Knives were in the 6-8in range, and used for everything from digging roots to cleaning game to cutting fuses for muskets(look up the origin of the French “Cartouche” knife or the Kentucky Rifleman’s knife) to fighting once the shot smoke had cleared. These were men whose survival depended on every tool- what worked for them probably will for you too. For me, I have a few knives that fit into this range, like the one pictured at top, above, which serves as my primary meat cutting knife and sees use at least twice a week. A couple of them are for serious use like the ones pictured, but most are simply for display being decorative Bowies(I have a lot of Frontier stuff-it’s the essence of who we are). Personally, I think that a knife much over 8in is too clumsy to use for cutting meat, skinning game or doing finer tasks, but paired with a smaller knife usually make a great option(in lieu of a much larger machete or axe) in the Summer around the Southeast where I live, and since I don’t plan on getting into a knife fight with blue blooded Southern Crooners anytime soon, my larger tools are more oriented to cutting vines, making trails, clearing brush, or breaking briskets on venison in the Fall.

Another large knife I use quite a bit in the summer and Fall. It’s normally paired with my Bushlore knife, which is great for skinning or smaller tasks.

A knife between 4-8in serves a multitude of tasks very, very well in multiple environments; for a general purpose blade, that’s where your head needs to be thinking.

As I stated earlier, there’s nothing wrong with large knives but understand that they fill a niche. They’ll be good for large cutting and chopping, but clumsy at finer tasks. For a great single tool option, something in the 4.5-6in range should be what’s sought after.

Some final conclusions

Knives are a very personal topic– and one that generates heated debates, sometimes worse than gun arguments. The bottom line is that they’re tools first and everything else second, with a couple very specific exceptions. The examples I’ve given here, with he exception of the Gerber and Fallkniven, are all reasonably inexpensive. The Old Hickorys can normally be found at any yard sale or thrift shop for next to nothing. Quality doesn’t have to cost a bunch if you know what to look for. My most used tools definitely look the part; while I religiously care for them, they show wear from use and frequent sharpenings. While you can never have too many, you’ll find yourself returning to what works best with the more experience you gain using them.

To the Survivalist, knives should be viewed not from what looks cool in the store but from what’s lasted the longest on Grandpa’s farm, and that’ll give you a good idea of what quality truly is. Every tool has a purpose, and every tool should be of superior quality. Ruggedness and simplicity should always be the aim, avoiding fads or innovations that most often lead to premature failures. If folks are wondering why it looks like you’re using Grandma’s kitchen knife to skin a rabbit, you just might be doing it right. And like everything else Survivalist related- use it daily, and you’ll already have a big leg up on the competition.




30 thoughts on “Survival Knives!

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  3. I use an Old Hickory butcher knife,and an Old Hickory boning knife for butchering deer every year-at one time they were my great grandmother’s knives.
    They can be re-sharpened in seconds,just use a butcher’s steel-a real one,not the 12″ long piece of crap that sits in the wooden knife block on many people’s kitchen counters-an 18″ long professional grade butcher’s steel.
    I pointed out in the class I just taught about food safety/feeding groups of people that the butcher’s steel I’m using was bought in the mid 1980’s,as was the set of 3 Arkansas oilstones I use when knives need completely re-sharpened.
    Dull knives are dangerous-always keep your knives sharp.
    I use an inexpensive Gerber-($25.00 or so)- for my skinning knife-it’s designed for the job,holds an edge well,and isn’t hard to re-sharpen.

    You can still buy Old Hickory knives at a reasonable price directly from Ontario knife company,and get some great deals if you buy the factory seconds.
    $8.00 for the 7″ butcher knife,and $7.50 for the 6″ boning knife.

    About $20.00 including shipping,and you get two knives that will last a lifetime if you take care of them. Plus they’re made in the U.S.

  4. The oldest daughter already claimed the Old Hickory’s,the oilstones and the butcher’s steel-she says her sisters can fight over the Henckels, Wusthofs, diamond hone and diamond stones.

    1. Smart young lady! She’s wise beyond her years(although Wusthofs are seriously nice Chef’s blades)

      I started to add into the post a section on stones and sharpening, but when I realized a few nights ago how long it was getting as is, sharpening deserves it’s own topic altogether to do it justice.

      It really hit me when a friend recently was talking about some new crazy looking TOPS end-all be-all and some other gimmicky looking stuff carrying a ridiculous price tag.

      My Korean War vet Granddads(both of them) would have beat me senseless if they thought I paid some of those prices for essentially useless knives.

      Now a Bo Randall…that’s a different story…

      1. Other than Randall,there’s a couple by Knives of Alaska I would like to have…

        The number of people who will spend an insane amount of $$$ on a custom knife,and have no clue how to sharpen it is insane-when I was working for an outfitter/guide in Montana I always ended up sharpening knives that the owners had screwed up so bad by their attempts at sharpening them that they couldn’t have even field dressed an elk with them,and if they had tried to skin an elk,they would have ruined the hide.
        There was a reason I was the one who did the butchering,and every guy who took the hunters to wherever they were hunting for the day did the skinning-there was also a reason I sharpened all our knives.
        If we hadn’t sharpened their knives along with ours,and done the skinning-most of the guys would have ruined the hide,and would have had a lousy looking elk head on their wall when they got the mount from the taxidermist.
        Most of them didn’t bother to bring a map and compass either.

      2. Knives of Alaska are super nice too- I really love that butcher’s knife they make. Absolutely gorgeous knives! Compared to my Fallkniven, not ridiculous on price either for what you’re getting.

        Sharpening is a weak point for many. I kept emphasizing the convex edge for working, which is pretty easy to maintain with almost any kind of grit, and easy for new folks to get the hang of sharpening.

        As far as the folks you’re describing, well, I know the type too πŸ™‚ Did they at least tip well?

      3. I use wood wedges to teach people who are having a hard time to hold the right angle when sharpening-seems to speed up the process for many people.
        Too many people think there’s some cool gadget that’s going to magically make them expert knife sharpeners-practice is what makes a person good at sharpening knives.
        The guys we took elk hunting usually did end up tipping-we should have got extra pay for putting up with the idiots. Usually after about the third day they realize they have no clue what they’re doing-and that elk hunting ain’t anything like deer hunting back east.
        It was usually after about 3 evenings of them playing around trying to sharpen their knives that they would ask me to sharpen them -would have been much easier if the idiots hadn’t ruined whatever edge had been on the knives.
        At least most of them learned a few things during the trip.

      4. Amen! The wedge trick is what taught me. And the best way to learn is to get a cheap carbon knife, a decent wetstone, and get to work.

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  6. What an excellent article.
    In the UK to carry steel for self defence is SOP for many in cities.
    And it’s not just confined to the young.
    It’s simple really.
    When facing a blade the law always arrives too late (if at all).
    Them knowing you may have one too is a deterrent.
    Rather like firearms are. You just never know what the other guy has.

    As for a choice of knife for my purposes i.e. survival / boating?
    On the boat when travelling a knife is always at hand.
    Pure safety and a must have.

    A knife is just a tool to me and as such anything that holds a good hard edge works.
    So there is a little Mora in plain view on the tiller.
    Sharp enough to part 25 mm line with a couple of hard strokes, what else do you require of a blade?
    Having said that, a kukri sits on clips indoors for any heavy stuff.
    As for rust?
    On a boat surrounded by water the whole time? ROTFL.
    A quick smear of Vaseline keeps them shiny.

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

      Moras are hard to beat for a working knife on a boat. And if they go overboard, you’re not out much money.

  7. Anonymous

    Good common sense advice, especially the part about abusing your knife on purpose. Learn the alternatives of how to cut objects without hurting vital equipment.

    A favorite camp knife is the Buck 105 Pathfinder. Doesn’t weigh a on and provides plenty of blade length for my needs. The Moras are a very inexpensive compact knife too. A choice of stainless steel or carbon is provided.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. My first fixed blade knife was the Buck Pathfinder- great knives. A crackhead farmhand stole it while we were getting up hay. But that’s another story.

      As for the abuse some folks give knives on purpose, well, aside from battoning small kindling for cook fires, most of the other stuff is pretty ridiculous.

  8. Fed up

    I have 2 “‘ol Hicks” I found (one in an ally of all places). They are in my kitchen drawer and are my prefered knifes for all my meat carving. When it comes time to carve up my deer they go out to the garage. Working with them cutting up deer is like drawing the cuts of meat you want. Keeping them sharp is essential I keep the tips especially sharp and just draw what I want the meat to look like. The ease of which they work has always amazed me. Trimming sineu from the meat is amazingly easy. My knives have long thin blades that work like “sharpie” pens when working around deboning areas. Thanks for the knife info this was not only enlightening but informative.

  9. ygs

    Nice to the point article. yes, accidental discharge on the pun.
    Would like to add one comment regarding the subject – …’The failure-rate of properly designed stick-tangs is quite low, and the vast majority of catastrophic failures in swords and knives occurs in the blade, not the tang.’
    Consider that for those looking at what, which, how much $$…I went to a tool works garage sale type event and picked up about 5 well worn used ugly knives of various type all with some age on them. about $6 per. cleaned them up and they’ll outlive me. Me being the farm owner, vet (82d ABN, Ranger), retired LEO and PTK student have particular types of knives that suit my needs.

    I suspect my 1967 Kabar is made of better materials vs a current kabar. Same for my airforce survival knife. Both have been with me for quite some time. I’m no expert but would love to see an article comparing a few knives from their beginning of production to current production under the same name. Kind of like your grandads’ kabar to yours type comparison. Knife company’s get sold and bought and manufacturing processes change. So too does the quality. Sometimes it changes several times. Like a 1950 Harley vs a 1975 Harley vs a current Harley.

    1. Awesome comments Brother-

      In regards to the stick tang(rat tail tang) yes, the failure percentage is low for known brands(such as Ka-Bar) but there’s no denying that full tang is indeed stronger. Stick Tangs on unknown knives, like the junk in a Bud-K catalog, likely will break under hard use.

      As for the materials in both the Ka-Bars and Jumpmaster Knife(AF Survival knife), they’re all made from the same 1095 that hasn’t changed; Ka-Bar is actually making John Ek’s knives these days too.

      All the Way Brother!

  10. Doc B

    As a young Joe, I picked up a SOG Tech 2 for about 30 bucks in the Danish PX in Sarajevo. It has served me well for the last 17 years or so. Good steel, and strong enough for what i have done. Only thing I want to do is find a better sheath.

    Brought it into the SOG factory once I found out it was like 45 minutes away from the house. They refurbished it for free and I got to meet the president of the company. Good people.

  11. Good read, thanks. Ancient history, I was once a butcher at an old time, full service, butcher shop. I was fortunate enough to apprentice under an actual certified master butcher, who also owned the shop. We had the usual Henkels and Forschners available, but I preferred my 70’s vintage Gerber Mk. 1, much to the chagrin of the master. Having two edges meant that I could cut in both directions, push and pull, only spent half as much time maintaining the edges, it allowed for a faster starter cut, and made short work of knuckles and joints. Despite his admonishments, and dire warnings, I never did seriously cut myself while using the Mark during my tenure at his shop, and I still use it today for my deer processing at home, (although, never for field dressing, for obvious reasons). Proper sharpening is the first thing you’d learn as an apprentice, you couldn’t earn a spot at the block until that art was mastered. BTW, the Mark cost me $45 in ’72, and it’s still the (best), most expensive knife I own.

    1. Working around Butchers is always a fascinating thing- such a beautiful art. Folks are blessed with such an opportunity.

      As for using a Mk. I for trimming, yeah, that’s definitely unorthodox but not unheard of; Ontario still makes an Old Hickory double edged knife specifically for those reasons you mentioned. Some folks really like them.

      I try as best I can to write everything so that a beginner can get a healthy starting point and most importantly- know why I’m recommending what I do.

      I really appreciate your comments πŸ™‚

  12. Grandpa

    Excellent and informative… but please don’t send everyone to Grandpa’s farm, lol… my sons are already divvying up my tools – and I told them to at least wait ’til I’m dead and done with ’em. Sheesh.

  13. Well thought-through! Enjoed seeing the method “from purpose to tool”.
    Some months (years) ago I suggested folks on a Russian prepper forum a discussion about specific tasks of a knife in a survival situation (meant less s-h-t-f, but rather more an emergency). List was pretty short πŸ™‚ Cut wood and rope while trapping, dressing a game and fish, cooking, makind an improvised shoes, making a tent and rucksack frame, starting a fire and that was barely all.

    P.S. Cant believe that Mtnforge hadn’t posted a comment here πŸ™‚

    1. I’ve been eyeing many of the really neat Russian designs, specifically the Kizlyar knives- more for my collection than anything else, but they have some fantastic looking stuff.

  14. I’ve come to appreciate something with a full-tang, Scandi grind, non-serrated, HC Stainless material, and roughly 4″ of blade. At this point, when I think of “Survival Knife,” I think of something along the lines of that Condor Bushlore you posted.

    As usual, great write up, dude.

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