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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.