Yet another subject dear to me. The article in SRVKIT.ZIP is about the best I’ve seen on the subject, but I thought I’d add a few things.
Knives are basic because they allow you to do things like clean fish, make deadfalls for game, skin the game you get, make tinder, make tools (a stone-head axe may not be Estwing, but it’s better than trying to butt a tree over with your head,) and so on. There are some folks of my acquaintance who are quite willing to go in the clothes they are standing in, just give them a good knife.
I will say I love good carbon steel knives, but unless you know how to care for them you would do well to get 440C stainless just to avoid the displeasure of seeing them rust. Another problem that will cause rust is a leather sheath. They hold moisture, and a lot of leather these days is «chrome tanned». Potassium Chromate is used in the tanning process, and it’s corrosive stuff, so go with a Cordura nylon sheath.
The criteria for a good survival knife are:
1) Good steel for the blade, that will keep and hold an edge.
2) A grip that fits your hand.
3) A good, versatile blade design.
4a) A folding blade knife should have a lock of some kind for the blade.
4b) A sheath knife should have a full tang (a tang is what is held when the blade is being forged or shaped.) «Full tang» means this metal goes all the way through the handle to the pommel. For best strength, it should not be welded on.
5) A sheath knife should have a solid metal pommel (a.k.a. butt.)
6) A good guard or slip-resistant shape.
Good steel is a relative term. Something with the edge in the Rockwell 55 (+) range is a good compromise of hardness and flexibility. Too soft, it won’t hold an edge, too hard (about Rockwell 60 and up,) the blade is too brittle and will snap. Good stainless steels are 440C, 154CM, and ATS-34. O-1, O-6, and 5140 (used for truck leaf springs) are good carbon steels.
When you grip a sheath knife, your middle finger should just touch the palm of your hand. Much larger, it’s hard to hang on to, much smaller, it’s hard to control. Make sure the grip is long enough. With a folder, hold it in your hand and feel it. It won’t be the best thing you could possibly have — a folder is inherently weaker than a full tang knife, but if it fits your hand well, meets your other criteria, and it’s all you can have, buy it. Shaping and size count here — the closer you can get to the ideal, the better off you are.
Blade design is a bit of a touchy subject. SRVKIT.ZIP calls for a drop point design and nothing but. I’ll say that is a good design — the back of the knife curves down while the edge curves up, resulting in a very good knife for gutting game, plus it has a strong point, making it less prone to snap when you do some prying with it. In general, you want something with a strong point that can be easily controlled as to depth of cut — if the point goes too deep skinning game and you nick the bladder or bowels, you just ruined a lot of meat.
A folding knife needs a locking blade, no two ways about it. It can be a back lock or a liner lock, but you do not want the blade folding over on your fingers.
A lot of cheap sheath knives do not have a full tang. This is real bad, because it makes the connection between the blade and the grip iffy at best — under hard use, the blade could just fall off. A full tang strengthens the grip, and is usually threaded so the pommel screws onto it, holding everything together. Much stronger construction.
A solid metal, preferably steel, pommel allows you use the butt of the knife for a field hammer for things like tent stakes, nuts (as in pecans and such,) and anything else that needs some light bashing.
A sheath knife needs at least a half-guard, preferable a full guard. When you are exerting pressure trying to pry something open, or the handle is slippery, it is no fun to have your hand slip and run down the blade. I haven’t seen a good folder with a guard, so look for a shape that resists slipping.
Daggers and fighting knives are about useless for survival use. The point is weak, and a back edge makes it useless for game. Also ignore the hollow plastic handled «survival knives,» they are too weak to be of any real use. Tanto designs aren’t too bad, they have a strong point, but they are difficult to use with game because the design of the point makes it tend to go deeper into the game than it should. This tendency can be overcome with practice, but practice. Be advised the more «peculiar» the shape of the knife, the more you need to use the knife to learn to use it. A kukri, for example, is a good blade, but the best ways to use it are not obvious.
A serrated blade has its uses, such as cutting strapping, rope, seat belts, and such, but it is not a good choice for a primary blade. Very difficult to whittle with, and few blades with serrated edges have enough weight for any use chopping.
Get a sheath knife that is at least 1/8 inch across the back, and preferably 3/16 to % inch. This knife will be used in some pretty abusive situations, and I don’t care how good the steel is, there needs to be enough of it there to survive things like prying joints on game apart, splitting wood, getting dropped on a rock, etc. Some people even expect a survival knife to be used as a digging tool. In a classic short term survival situation, this makes sense. For longer term use, this is silly. If it comes down to it, use the knife to make a digging stick.
Keep your knife sharp. Contrary to what some people say, a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. You have to force a dull knife to do its work, which increases the chance of slipping and cutting yourself, and a dull knife produces ragged wounds that do not heal well. Learn to sharpen a knife with one of those 50 cent paring knives or some such — you will make mistakes, and there’s no sense wasting money. You don’t need a lot of pressure to sharpen the knife, just enough to keep the edge in firm contact with the stone while you keep the angle constant. You are going for a chisel edge, not a razor edge, because you need a strong edge more than an incredibly sharp one. The difference is hard to explain without a picture, but I’ll try.
Imagine the edge of the knife as a «v». For a razor edge, the v is tall and narrow, maybe 20-25 degrees between the legs. This is real sharp, it can cut you and you won’t feel it (I can testify to this.) Problem is, that’s great for skin and flesh but the narrow edge doesn’t have enough steel supporting it when you have to do things like whittle wood to make a trap. You can literally break small (very small) notches out of the edge, which is a bad way to dull a knife.
Now imagine that «v» as being shorter and wider, about 30-40 degrees from leg to leg. Not as sharp, but there is a lot more steel supporting the edge, so it won’t dull so quickly working in hard materials.
Some people will sharpen to a razor edge, then give it one quick pass on the stone or hone with light pressure at a different (higher) angle to give it a «micro-bevel» for a good working edge. Works for me.
Test an edge the safe way — rest the edge on your fingernail, then pull the knife down your fingernail away from the cuticle. The shallower the angle you can raise a sliver of nail, the sharper the blade. Rubbing your thumb across the edge tells you very little, and running your thumb along the edge, well, don’t cut yourself too deep. Don’t laugh — it’s happened (but not to me.) You can look for nicks by holding the knife edge up to a strong light source and looking down the edge — a sharp edge won’t reflect light.
One thing I will say here, although it really applies more to training, is use your knife. Learn how to sharpen it, learn how to use it. A knife is not an anachronism, but the knowledge of how to handle one safely is not inherent. Remember to cut away from your body, and be aware of where every piece of you is in relation to the motion — real or potential — of the blade.
One thing all the survival books say is to drill a hole in the butt of the knife for a wrist loop, so you don’t drop your knife places you shouldn’t, like in the water if you are near a stream. They forget to tell you that unless the knife has a scale grip (basically two slabs of wood or plastic on either side of the tang,) drill the hole off center. failure to do so will have you cutting the tang in two pieces — it is like cutting the pommel off your knife. Bad idea.
One note about axes and hatchets. Unless you intend to learn use them, DON’T bring one along. There are too many true stories of inexperienced users putting the edge into a foot, a leg, or a hand to make me recommend them. No they aren’t dangerous if you think about it when you use one. Yes, they can be useful. HOWEVER. You >>MUST<< «follow the arc» to see where it goes if you miss, avoid trying to chop wood that is resting at an angle (chance of glancing blow,) and do NOT try to steady the log by holding it with one hand or a foot. Better to pound a couple of wood stakes in the ground and use those to steady the log if it’s prone to rolling, or lash up a couple of X-braces to hold the log.