Survival Knife, is there a standard?

Dec 22, 1998
What is the standard make up for a survival knife. What are the magic combination ie. length, cost, color, steel type and so on for this knife category. A couple decades ago I thought the Air Force issue five inch serrated fix blade with the light brown color sleath with sharpening stone/pouch was the way to go. Then fast forward years later to Rambo style knives with removable butt caps and anchor pins. I am all confuse, well that what my wife tells me.

Gotta love mom's kimchee
breakfast, lunch,and oh, God dinner too!
The idea survival knife...well let's see...

7 inch clip point (3" clip)
slight positive included angle
nice curved belly
cut choil
hard chromed blade
selectively tempered tool steel
ergonomic composite handle with single guard
lanyard hole
quality double retention kydex sheath


I like a bigger blade, about 9 in. or so. Bobproof Micarta handles, with a full tang. Kydex sheath, or Kydex lined leather with a place to attach a pocket for survival goodies.
-7 inch to 9.5 inch blade
-1/4 inch thick minimum.
-good tough tempered steel
-full tang or equivalent in strength
-flat or convex grind for strength although flat saber grind is good too
-Oh, and no hard chrome, you'll never see the rust comming
The problem with trying to define a "survival knife" is there are so many different applications. As as example, the Army/Air Force/Navy survival knife mentioned by Endre is a lousy survival knife but is small enough to be mostly unobtrusive to the air crew. It is too short, won't cut plexiglass or sheet metal very well, and butt heavy for anything except pounding--but it is small and doesn't get in your way. Lots of air crew members replace them.

A survival knife you must carry while hiking, hunting, or during military operations can be different than one for operating out of a vehicle or aircraft. Trying to equate a knife with "survival" is like asking which gun is best! Depends on the circumstances. Define the need, and the right knife type will be apparent. You could make a case that a folding shovel, a small saw, or even a hammer and half a pound of nails may be more important survival tools than a fixed blade knife (however, I'm not leaving my knife home!).

...and this statement that, "the best survival knife is the one you have with you" just points to a lack of prior planning.

My choice for a survival knife is the combination of my SOG Power Pliers, my SAK fieldmaster, my Sebenza, and whatever >6" fixed blade knife I happen to be carrying(Randall #25--hunting/hiking/off road motorcycling, Randall #14 or Mad Dog Arizona Hunter--military ops).
While others have described individual qualities that they feel are important to their perceived needs, I want to take a stab (ahem), at the more general question of "Is there a standard for items called 'survival knives'. "

In a nutshell, the answer is NO.
I have more than 3 feet of bookshelf devoted to various survial topics ranging from stuff geared towards military to more specific textbooks geared towards 1st Responders, Search and Rescue professionals and surviving various natural disasters. (Not to mention another similar section of books on various edlible and medicinal flora and fauna.)

It used to really irk the heck out of me that every single one of these books starts with the assumption that one will have a blade with them, but almost NONE of the more serious books ever go into much detail about what that blade should be. The exceptions to that are two wholly excretable works that are basically the laughingstock of professionals everywhere.

One of the problems with placing too much emphasis on the ONE all time greatest survival knife, (whatever that mythical beast might look like), is that the chances of having it with you when you most need it are pretty slim in today's global society. Also the notion of having one's survival mindset dependent upon one single type of knife or equipment leaves one wide open to being unprepared when a situation does present itself and the required tool is nowhere at hand.

What I'm saying is that a SAK, multitool or pocketclip knife of choice, * in your pocket* beats a MadDog left at home any day of the week. It's important to realize that not all human survival situations have anything to do with fantasies about surviving with nothing but some large Rambeaux type knife for months at a time.

I almost can't remember ever hearing or reading of anybody that starved to death for lack of a large knife. What I do read about all the time is folks that are trapped in various vehicles, or accousted by criminals or suffered hypothermia, etc. ad naseum. What most of these folks needed knifewise was nearly any knife and the knowledge and willpower to simply use it as best they could. Just to be clear, I don't mean to suggest that all of life's problems can be handled by some cheap Paki knife, but rather just to suggest that far more often, in real world survival the type of knife present is not necessarily what determines the situation outcome.

My own standards for a 'survival' knife:

1. It has to be with me.
2. It has to be accessable.
3. It has to be useful for as wide a variety of tasks as possible, given the constraint that it has to be with me when I need it.
4. It has to be up to cutting a variety of materials, from rope, to seatbelts to small pieces of wood, to flesh etc. quickly.
5. It has to be field resharpenable on nearly any smooth rock.

Those are pretty simple criteria, yet most of the knives that I see folks mention as survival knives would fail even those simple standards.

I just thought I'd mention all that as food for thought.

My "best" survival knife has been my Marine K-bar that I bought 9 years ago for $30.00. Is has chopped, sliced, diced, skinned, shaved, hacked, been thrown, lashed to poles for use as a spear, and driven into trees to hang my lantern on while fishing. It has done this in Mexico, Canada, and the US. It has been in desert conditions and in swamps. It's light, easy to sharpen, and I have found it to be plenty tough. I have never cut the door off of a crashed car with it to extricate a victim. I have never shot the sharpened edge with a .45 and then sliced tomatoes with it. I don't bend it in a vice, pound it through nails, or cut free hanging manilla rope. (I HAVE cut nylon, manilla, polypropylene, and cotton rope with it. Sometimes the rope was bearing a load, sometimes it wasn't.) I don't use the knife as a heavy axe, prybar, or screwdriver. For those purposes I have an axe, a prybar, and some screwdrivers.

[This message has been edited by the4th (edited 24 March 1999).]
I spent some time researching the standard behind a "survival knife" before I bought mine. The following link contains most if not all of the criterion for a wilderness survival environment. I have to agree with mps that it is useless for everyday survival situation. Just try using that to explain to the police why you are carrying a 7" fixed blade. It is a lengthy article but well worth the time to read if you are interested in wilderness survial knives.

Also a lot of the members here are knife nuts, and they obsessed with the edge holding ability of a knife, even if it is difficult to sharpen or easy to rust. You won't find diamond stone or Marine Tuf-Cloth in the wilderness, nor you will have lots and lots of rope to cut. Instead you'll have plenty of time and very good chance of finding smooth natural stone.
mps, good points. The first thought that comes to my mind when "survival" is mentioned, is wilderness survival. If you make it a habit to carry a good blade or blades into the woods, they will become your survival knives if the situation comes up. Of course a good survival class under your belt will be worth alot more than anything you bring with you. If we're talking urban survival? Lets all chant together SEBENZA! Mine is with me whether in the city, or the woods.
I have to take issue with something Bruce wrote.
Bruce said,
..."This statement that "The best survival knife is the one you have with you" just points to a lack of prior planning"...

The problem here Bruce, is this,
Given that you are IN a survival situation, generally indicates a lack of prior planning.
Survival situations are like the closely avoided car accident. We can congradulate ourselves that we "missed" the other guy, but a REALLY good driver, won't get into that situation in the first place.
Now I realize that there are always unforseen circumstances, but that's the point. You can sit all day and plan on what's going to happen. That doesn't mean that's the way it's going to go. If you get into an unforseen "survival" situation and the only knife you have on you is a MINI AFCK, then, THAT is now your survival knife. The really neat Mad Dog or TrailMaster or whatever isn't going to save your skin if it's sitting on the dresser at home next to the nice warm bed that you're not going to be sleeping in that night.
Think in generalities, you can't prepare for ALL events, so prepare for the most likely and if you're wrong, then it's time to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

That, is what I mean the best survival knife is the one you have with you.

I cut it, and I cut it, and it's STILL too short!

The common argument against knives rusting or being hard to sharpen in the wilderness is problematic. First of all, if I can carry a knife I can carry the means to sharpen and protect it. The latter require much less space than the knife.

But even that does not matter. The amount of time it would take for a high quality high carbon steel blade to dull on soft materials like wood and rope, functionally dull not that it doesn't cut anymore, would kill anyone who was that unprepared that they found themselves with only a knife in the wilderness - unless you are in some kind of tropical enviroment and it rusts off - which begs the question why aren't you carrying a protectant for the knife - again if that if your mindset you will be quickly dead anyway. Same thing for a knife getting that damaged by rusting (assuming that you dry it regularly) that it breaks in half.

Besides, you can steel a knife on just about any piece of hardened metal, even the lid of a tin can. You can strop it on your pants or the inner surface or smooth bark or even use very fine dirt as a stropping compound. While it may be very hard to get a Mad Dog for example ultra sharp without a stone it is not difficult to get it functionally sharp where it will still cut.


[This message has been edited by Cliff Stamp (edited 26 March 1999).]
Ken, I can understand your point but I don't think there is ever an excuse for not planning. Why do more amateurs get in trouble than experts? Partly because of their increased skill and experience, and partly because they plan for the unforseen. People who find themselves trapped in an automobile after an accident, with no knife, failed to plan! No, you can't plan for every possible contingency, but good planning will account for 90% of all contingencies. Planning for one possible outcome will often satisfy the requirements of many other possible outcomes. And it doesn't take a lot of planning to realize you should keep a small shovel, a knife, a blanket, some jumper cables, a little dried food, some water, perhaps some money, etc. in your car.

I think you made my point by saying that the mini-AFCK on you is better than the Mad Dog home on your dresser! Why did you leave your Mad Dog home--lack of planning! I don't plan to take my Mad Dog to my office or R&D lab because I have several other knives close at hand that are more appropriate for that environment, but when I head to the hills to hunt or with my military unit, I don't leave it home on the dresser! So I will restate by saying that if the only survival knife you have at hand in a survival situation is less than adequate, you failed to anticipate enough possibilities. I guess the difference between us is, as you stated, you would prepare for generalities, and I would prepare for those generalities and as many specifics as I could think of.

But Ken, when I see you in trouble in the mountains, I will surely loan you my Mad Dog! Be safe.
Because of where you and I live is one of the reasons we try to prerare for as many possibilities as we can. Not to many places where tee-shirt weather in August turns to a snow storm two hours later. That is why survival equipment goes everywhere I do, I don't fear dyin' but I don't want to rush it either.

YES,it is sharp, just keep your fingers out of the way!