Is a full tang survival knife the best knife for survival? Here’s a quick and easy guide to what you need to know when choosing a survival knife.
A good quality survival knife is your primary survival tool. It should be versatile enough to use for multiple purposes. Different survival scenarios lend themselves to different types of knives. Before choosing a knife, determine what you need the knife to do, then choose a knife that will accomplish those things.
For example, a bushcraft survival knife may be used for slashing, chopping, batoning, digging, hammering, using as a drawknife, carving, and signaling (if you choose a knife that has a polished steel blade). Other survival knives may be better suited for hunting, fishing, marine and combat use.
This guide provides a brief overview of the different features of survival knives and the purposes of each. Not all knives are created equal. Choose the knife that will accomplish your goals.
There are four major areas to consider when choosing a survival knife: basic knife structure, type of blade, handle/pommel construction and the sheath.
Fixed Blade vs. Folding Knife
A fixed blade is stronger, sturdier and will stand up to heavier use than a folding knife. If you only have one knife, that knife needs to be as strong and dependable as possible.
While a folding knife may be lighter and easier to store and carry, having a movable joint weakens the knife. With more movable parts and joints, there are more areas that can break down.
It is easy to injure yourself with any type of knife. However, a fixed blade cuts down on the possibility of the knife accidentally closing down on your fingers.
While the strength of a fixed blade is preferred for a basic survival knife, a folding knife or multi-tool knife makes an excellent back-up blade to carry with you or add to your gear.
Size, Weight, Balance
As a general rule of thumb, a survival knife should be no less than 1 ½ times and no more than 2 ½ times the length of your hand when measured from tip to butt of the knife. The most manageable knives usually fall between 7″ – 11″ though many people prefer a knife that is between 8″-9″ long.
Longer knives can be unwieldy when doing close work like carving, while smaller knives are less effective for chopping and batoning. The goal of a survival knife is to be able to do as many necessary jobs as easily and effectively as possible without requiring additional tools.
The weight of the knife is also important. A heavier knife is more efficient because it cuts down on the force you need to apply when cutting. A decent heft to the blade also makes it easier to control. However, a knife that is too heavy not only adds to the weight load you carry but can also tire out the muscles in your hands quicker leading to possible injury or accidents.
When balanced on one finger, the point of balance of a knife should be near or just in front of the guard.
If the blade is too heavy, there is a greater chance that the knife will cause muscle strain when using or slip from your hand. A handle that is heavier than the blade adds extra weight without improving cutting ability.
A well-balanced knife also works well as a throwing knife, not to mention that it feels better in your hand.
Tang refers to the part of the blade that extends into the handle of the knife.
In a full-tang knife, the steel is roughly the same size as the handle itself with the handle plates attached on either side like a sandwich. These are easy to identify because you can usually see the edges of the steel between the handle plates. However, not all full tang knives have exposed edges. These are the strongest type of tang and are most widely recommended for survival knives. They tend to have a heavier handle weight than others and the exposed edges may corrode more easily over time without proper maintenance.
In a rat-tail tang, the steel within the handle is a narrow strip that runs the length of the handle. They are commonly used for decorative handles, such as bone or other solid handle stock materials. A hole is drilled into the handle material. The tang is inserted within and secured with the pommel. This protects the tang from moisture and corrosion and may create a lighter handle.
In a partial tang, the steel extends only partially through the handle. It may be glued or attached with rivets or pins. A partial tang also protects the steel from moisture and corrosion and may result in a lighter handle. This type of tang is considered weaker than the others and is not recommended for a survival knife.
For a survival knife, the recommended blade thickness is 3/16″ – 4/16″ or 4mm. The blade needs to be thick enough to stand up to heavy use (and abuse) but still thin enough to use for finer work such as carving or whittling.
Type of Steel – Stainless Steel vs. High-Carbon Steel
The two main categories of steel used in survival knives are stainless steel and high-carbon steel. Stainless steel is more rust-resistant while high-carbon steel tends to hold an edge longer.
For knives used in and around salt water or areas of high humidity, a stainless steel knife would require less maintenance. However, neither type of steel is rust resistant. Each would require proper care.
Choice of steel tends to be a matter of personal preference. A good quality survival knife may be made with either type of steel.
One other consideration is the surface of the steel itself. If the blade is of polished steel, then it could also serve as a signal mirror. For adventurers looking to maximize the use of their knives, this is something to keep in mind.
There are four major types of knife points seen in survival knives. These are the drop point, clip point, spear point and tanto point.
Most widely recommended for a bushcraft survival knife. In a drop point, the back of the blade is straight for the most part then gradually slants down to the point. The sharpened edge curves up in a wide curve, meeting the point at an area just above the center of the blade. This results in a wide, broad tip that is very strong and versatile.
The clip point has a concave dip from the back of the blade to the point. Depending on how deep the dip and narrow the point is will determine the strength of the tip itself. A wider tip will be stronger than a narrower tip. However, the clip point tip is generally weaker than a drop or spear point tip. With its narrow point, it makes a quick and deep puncture and works well with stabbing motions. (This type of point is recognizable from the Bowie knife.)
This is a double-edged blade with both the top and bottom edge meeting in a point at the centerline of the blade. A spear point knife is most commonly used on throwing knives, fighting knives and marine knives. It is good for piercing and slicing. Having a double-edged blade can be a drawback for a survival knife because it can limit the possible uses of the knife. For example, batoning would damage the blade while carving or whittling could be difficult without being able to press down against the back of the blade.
In a tanto point, the edge of the blade consists of two points in a slanted chisel-like shape. It is modeled after Japanese sword tips. These blades are used for military, emergency and rescue tasks. A tanto point knife is also used on fighting knives and is useful for penetrating hard materials. With two beveled edges, these may be more difficult to sharpen.
Blade Edge – Straight or Serrated?
Which edge is better for a survival knife – straight or serrated? Most knives available today have some type of serrated edge, even if it is only a partial serrated edge. The type of blade to choose depends on how you plan to use it.
Straight Edged Blade
A straight-edged blade is the blade of choice for most bushcraft and wilderness type survival uses. As an all-around practical blade, it is useful for a wide variety of purposes.
- Useful for any type of cutting though it works best with push cuts such as whittling and carving
- Gives a clean cut where a serrated blade leaves a jagged edge
- Slices easier since there are no edges to snag
- Provides better control along with greater precision and accuracy
- Easy to sharpen, even for a beginner
- Putting a coarser edge on the blade can make it more effective in cutting coarser materials, putting it near or on par with a serrated edge
- Useful for food preparation, chopping, and cooking
- Good for skinning and dressing game
- In a defense situation, it is easier to stab and withdraw
- Loses edge quicker than a serrated blade
This is the knife of choice for many marine knives. It is useful for kayaking, sailing, and climbing since it will cut nylon rope and other cording quickly and easily in emergencies where every second counts.
- Useful for ripping and slicing cuts, such as tearing and sawing
- Will cut rope quickly and efficiently, especially larger ropes
- Good for cutting fibrous and man-made materials including seat belts, tow ropes, webbing, plastics, nylon, bamboo, thicker branches, and vines
- Will cut denim jeans quickly, also useful for emergency and first aid situations
- Grips the material being cut and will dig deeper into the surface than a straight edge
- Durable, still useable even when the blade is moderately dull
- Useful for notching bones when cleaning and preparing game
- Good for building shelters, cutting branches, skinning bark
- In a defense situation, it may cause more damage, however, may get stuck after a solid jab
- Harder to control
- Harder to sharpen, it requires a special tool.
- May snag when used for fine work
Partially Serrated Blades
Partially serrated blades have a single edge that is part straight and part serrated. Most survival knives on the market today have this type of blade. It is a way to have the benefits of both types of blades in a single knife.
- Can use the serrated portion for items that would dull the straight edge, leaving the straight edge for more precise work
- Useful when working with ropes and other heavy fibrous materials
- Limits the amount of the blade that can be used for a particular task
Saw Back Blades
To overcome this disadvantage, some knives may have the serrated edge on the back of the blade.
- Provides a longer blade surface for both types of blade
- Creates two knives in one
- Not useful for batoning
- Can make carving or whittling difficult since you cannot press down against the back of the blade
- Cannot use the back of the blade with a Ferro rod to produce sparks
Handles and Grips
Knife handles and grips come in a large variety of different shapes and types. The best handle will feel comfortable in your hand when using the knife for long periods.
When choosing a knife, the best thing you can do is to try out the grip before you buy it. Even if you plan to wear gloves, it is always better to try out a handle with your bare hands.
First, make sure it fits your hand. The handle should be long enough that your fingers fit comfortably between the guard and the pommel.
Grip the handle tightly.
You hand should be able to close over the handle securely but without your fingernails cutting into your palm. If they do, the handle is not wide enough. A small handle can cause additional strain on the muscles in your hand and cause cramps and blistering.
If your hand is not able to close, the handle may be too wide and the knife may slip from your grasp under actual use. However, one that is slightly bigger is better than one that is too small.
Try out different grips – forehand, backhand, and a fist or hammer grip. It should be easy to hold in a variety of ways. Handles with heavy finger grooves that limit possible positions also limit the usefulness of a knife.
The best handle is comfortable, rugged and easy to hold onto. Avoid hard or sharp edges. A blunt oval-shaped handle is usually more comfortable than a rectangular or rounded handle.
Handles come in a variety of materials from bone, antler, and wood to rubber and phenolic laminate. Covered handles are usually preferred over bare metal because metal can become very hot or very cold depending on the weather or other circumstances. Whatever material you choose should be slip resistant and comfortable in your hand in any type of weather.
Pommel or Butt of Knife
A flat or square end on the pommel of a knife is useful for pounding or hammering. Most also come with a hole for a wrist lanyard. This comes in handy when using the knife near water or in other areas where it may slip from your hand.
Some survival knives have a removable cap on the butt of the knife with a hollow handle to store supplies. In many cases, the cap includes a built-in compass. There are two drawbacks to these type of knives. A hollow handle is not as strong as a full tang. In addition, you cannot use the butt of the knife as a striking edge.
A good survival knife will usually come with a sheath. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to buy a great knife and then have to buy a new sheath to do it justice. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a sheath.
A good sheath should be able to hold a knife securely even when upside down. For added security, a crossover strap will anchor the handle to the sheath. There are also molded sheaths that will hold a hold a knife securely.
At the same time, you should be able to insert and remove the knife easily.
One of the main purposes of a sheath, other than to carry the knife, is to protect you from it.
In case of a fall, the last thing you want to do is to fall on your knife. However, if you do, you want a sheath that will prevent possible injury.
- A strong sheath will protect from the cutting edge of the blade.
- Cords at the tip end to tie to a leg or pack strap will keep the knife anchored flat against your body and prevent the knife from impaling you in a fall.
- Most sheaths carry the knife below the belt. This prevents the pommel from damaging ribs or internal organs in case of a fall.
Basic Survival Knife Safety
Whenever you use a knife, always keep safety in mind – the safety of yourself and others. One slip of a knife can cause serious injury. Even a small injury can lead to infection and other complications. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when working with knives.
- If you drop a knife, let it fall. Do not try to catch it.
- Plan the cut before you make it.
- Notice what is in the arc of the cut. Be aware of what you may strike if the knife slips.
- Keep your arms and legs (and other people) away from the arc of the cut.
- Always cut away from your body.
- Cut with the grain.
- Once you start a cut, always follow through.
- When cutting, use smooth, steady cuts.
- Take your time and focus on what you are doing.
- When you are finished cutting, immediately wipe off your blade and return it to your sheath.
Care and Cleaning
Proper care and cleaning will keep your knife in good condition. After use, wipe off or rinse and wipe dry. If needed, wash with a little soap and water, washing the handle, too, if necessary. Dry it thoroughly and wipe off any fingerprints. Oils from your hands can affect the blade.
In a camping or wilderness situation, a quick and easy way to clean a blade is to stab it into the ground until clean. Then wipe off and make sure it is dry before returning it to the sheath.
If you will be storing the knife, you may want to apply a very thin layer of WD-40 or 3inOne household oil (never use motor oil) to the blade only. Remember to clean it off later before using it for any type of food preparation.
Never soak a knife and never use any abrasives on it. This may damage the surface of the steel.
Choosing A Survival Knife
The type of survival knife you choose will depend on how you intend to use it.
For basic bushcraft and wilderness survival, a fixed blade, full tang, drop point knife with a straight blade is the usual knife of choice. However, different scenarios call for different knives. Choose the best survival knife for whatever crisis confronts you.