5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Survival Knife
A survival knife is a highly versatile tool that you can use in many situations. These knives are part of many everyday carry kits because of their versatility and universal usefulness.
However, the features you’ll need in a survival knife primarily depend on your needs and intended applications. Consider the knife style, blade shape, materials, and tang to determine which survival knife can serve you best in a survival situation.
1) Knife Style
Everyday carry knives come in two varieties: Fixed-blade knives, which require a sheath, and folding knives, which can have blades that retract into the handle when not needed.
Although folding knives are typically more compact and convenient than fixed-blade alternatives, they are not recommended in survival situations. Folding knives are more mechanically complex because they have more parts, some of which are moving parts.
A fixed-blade knife has no moving parts, making it a more reliable and durable basic design.
Folding knives can be difficult to fold and unfold in adverse conditions. Due to the open-ended nature of the handle, they are also less comfortable to hold and grip for extended periods. On the other hand, a fixed-blade knife is always ready, requiring only sheathing to make it safe, and comes with a comfortable full-size handle.
2) Blade Tang
The tang of a knife is the element that fits into the handle. The length of a knife tang is critical to determine its strength and ability to withstand impacts, vital factors in survival situations. Most knife tangs fall into one of five size categories: Full tang, partial tang, skeletonized tang, narrowing tang, and stick tang.
This tang type is the entire length and width of the handle. In some minimalistic knife models, such as neck knives, the tang serves as the handle, featuring no grip material.
Full tangs are the strongest and heaviest knife tangs, ideal for survival knives.
Although they appear similar to full tangs, some material is removed from the middle section as a weight-saving measure, giving them a skeletonized appearance. They are typically as strong and durable as classic full tangs.
Also called half tang, this tang type is narrow (about ½ the width of the grip) and only extends to about half the grip’s length. Partial tang knives are the least durable and least suited for survival knives.
This tang type is narrow and tapered, extending to about ¾ down the grip. Although slightly stronger than partial tangs, they still lack the durability needed in survival knives.
Stick tangs resemble narrowing tangs but extend down the entire length of the handle. They offer a compromise of weight and strength as they are lighter than a skeletonized tang but stronger than partial or narrowing.
3) Blade Material
Another critical consideration when choosing a survival knife is the material used for the knife blade. Most modern survival blades use stainless steel or carbon steel in their construction.
Although there are minute differences between each alloy, most blades within a given category feature similar levels of hardness, toughness, resistance to rust and corrosion, and edge retention.
Stainless steel knives are treated with chromium to protect the blade against rust and corrosion. This material is typically shiny and silver in color, giving the blades a visually distinctive appearance.
The primary advantage of a stainless steel knife is its extreme resistance to the elements. You should choose a stainless steel knife if you want the blade to resist any type of exposure to water and humidity, including underwater.
However, they are more challenging to re-sharpen, especially on the field. Although it is sharp enough for most activities, this material may not be the best choice if you want maximum durability and sharpness.
Carbon steel knives are treated with carbon (1.5% to 2.5%) to increase the blade’s hardness and stiffness. This makes them ideal for use as heavy-duty tools or as weapons.
The main advantage of carbon steel blades lies in their sharpness and hardness. Not only do they hold a razor-sharp edge for longer, but they are also easier to re-sharpen in the field.
However, carbon steel lacks the rustproofing of stainless blades, making them vulnerable to rust and corrosion. Even mild exposure to light acids, such as food or fruit juice, can lead to rust. The best way to prevent rust from forming is to thoroughly clean, dry, and oil the blade before re-sheathing.
4) Blade Shape
Knife blades come in many shapes and forms. Each blade shape has its pros and cons, depending on the activities and applications.
Five of the most common survival knife blade shapes are drop-point, tanto, clip-point, trailing-point, and kukri.
Drop-point blades are the most popular. The blade belly and spine start flat but gradually slope towards the point, centered with the knife’s axis. Drop-point blades are balanced, versatile, and suitable for any application, including cutting, sawing, slashing, and stabbing.
Modern Tanto blades are inspired by Japanese knives, recognizable by their angular shape and extra-strong knifepoint. They excel at stabbing and thrusting, making them ideal for combat and self-defense, but they are less useful for chopping, hacking, or bushcraft than other types.
Clip-point blades are used in Bowie knives, with a flat spine transitioning to a sharp convex curve, meeting the point and belly. They are excellent for chopping, stabbing, and batoning firewood, making them versatile for survival use.
These blades are easily recognizable by their curved, upswept shape, with the knifepoint rising above the back of the spine. Although the point is not the strongest, this blade shape is ideal for slicing, skinning, and chopping applications, such as fileting or field dressing.
Kukri blades are patterned after the traditional Nepalese kukri, recognizable by their long, broad, downward-curving shape. Kukris are ideal for chopping and hacking. However, they are heavy and require significant practice to use effectively, making them unsuitable for beginners.
5) Plain vs. Serrated Edge
Many knives marketed for survival feature serrations, either on the blade’s belly or the spine. Serrations offer pros and cons; whether your blade should be serrated depends on your intended applications.
Pros of serrations
A serrated blade allows you to cut through softer materials with more ease than a plain blade because the serrations can bite more effectively into the surface. They are also excellent for sawing through tough and rigid objects, such as fabric, wood, rope, or thin metal like stranded wire.
Serrations hold an edge for long periods and continue working even if sharpened infrequently, making them convenient.
Cons of serrations
What you gain in sawing ability, you lose in sharpness, cutting, and slashing capabilities. They produce rough, jagged cuts, with a tendency to chew up some materials as you try to cut through them.
If the entirety of your blade is serrated, you also lose the ability to make clean, precise cuts, making your knife less versatile for field dressing and fileting. Additionally, serrations are very difficult to re-sharpen if they lose their edge, making them hard to maintain.
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