Here’s what to look for in a knife.
You’ve heard it before: a survival knife is the most important piece of gear you have. Well, that’s largely true.
There are a lot of variables that go into choosing a survival knife. Things such as the blade design or type of steel used are important considerations. Others like the handle material or jimping, maybe less important.
As a knife is perhaps the single most personal and most often used tool in your kit, it is also one that has plenty of room for personal expression and taste. But there are, in my opinion, a few areas where the demands of a survival knife should not be compromised.
Here are what I consider to be the top five requirements for a sound survival knife.
1. Full Tang
A knife with a “full tang” means that the handle of the blade is as “full” or complete as is the blade portion of the knife. The scales or handles of the knife do not need to be present for you to get a full purchase on the knife handle. The tang is also usually visible running through the entire length of the knife, with the scales affixed to either side.
In the photo above we see a rat-tail or partial tang knife (top) compared to a full tang knife (bottom).
This full tang, as opposed to partial tang knives (rat-tail or half tang), presents a more robust, stronger knife that is harder to break. This aids in prying (which you should avoid doing if at all possible – full tang knives can break), batoning (using your knife to split wood by batoning it down through the piece of wood) and chopping .
Doing these things with a partial tang knife may loosen the knife from the handle, whereas with a full tang knife the knife part and handle part are virtually one and the same.
A full tang knife automatically leaves out folders as well.
Thickness of the knife blade is also essential to having a robust, strong blade. Generally speaking, 3/16 to 1/4 inch is better than a thinner blade. You do not want a blade with a lot of flex in it, and the thicker the blade, the less flex it will have.
This too helps with such things as batoning or prying (which again, you want to avoid if possible). Also, if you should happen to lose or damage a scale, a thicker knife will continue to be serviceable without the handles than will a thinner knife. You can wrap the tang with paracord or some other material to create a comfortable handle.
3. Size Matters
Too short and you are unable to do some of the things with your knife, like batoning or applying pressure to certain areas of the knife, that you may want to do. Too large and you end up with something unwieldy and closer to a machete that to an ideal, multipurpose survival knife.
You generally want something between ten to twelve inches in length, with a five inch minimum blade length. This will give you plenty of knife to handle both small, intricate tasks and the larger, more robust tasks that your knife may be required to do.
Chances are your knife will most often be called upon to perform more intricate tasks, like getting a splinter from your finger or cleaning a squirrel, than it will be in chopping wood or being lashed to a long stick to create a spear. You don’t need to go bigger.
4. Flat Ground Spine
The spine is the topmost edge, the side opposite of the sharpened edge. You want one side of the blade sharpened and the other side—the spine—ground to a flat, 90-degree angle. Forget about those double-edged blades. They inhibit, in my opinion, the number of things you can do effectively with the knife.
The flat spine helps when applying extra thumb pressure to the blade in carving or other small work, when batoning to split wood, and when using the spine edge with a ferro rod to start a fire.
The sheath for your survival knife can be an overlooked part of the package, but I believe it is an item that can play a significant role in how you carry—or if you carry—your knife, as well as being a survival component all its own.
Many sheaths that come with knives today are serviceable, but they could be better. That’s why we’re seeing a trend where sheaths are custom made for many knives. Kydex sheaths, or some combination of Kydex and leather, have become popular with survival and bushcraft knife owners.
You need a sheath that will secure your knife and secure it to you. A sheath should hold the knife securely whether or not the snap or strap is engaged. The snap that goes over the knife’s handle should be an extra bit of security.
Also, other items can be attached to the sheath. Things such as a ferro rod and/or sharpening stone. Paracord wrappings can be affixed to the sheath. These are things which can increase the “survival” value of your entire survival knife kit.
There you have the top five qualities to consider when choosing a survival knife. Everything else is, in my opinion, secondary to these when choosing a knife.
There are a whole lot of knives out there from which to choose, from custom models to high quality production line models. Half the fun of choosing a knife is the fact that there are so many options. You may find yourself becoming a collector as much as a user.