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I have purposely avoided using the term “survival knife” because with most people it conjures up thoughts of the knives used in the Rambo films, when in reality a knife that meets the criteria will almost certainly be somewhat less flamboyant. The main uses of such a knife will be the same for everyone, no matter where they are, so why isn’t there just one knife called “The Survival Knife”?
The reason is that everyone is different, the size of their hands, the strength in their wrists and the power in their arms, and all these need to be considered. The way the knife fits your hand is very important. If the fit is poor you will not be able to control the knife properly; this will result in a lower quality of work, tasks taking longer, an increase in energy use and most importantly, reduced safety margins. Your location will also matter when choosing the knife with the best size and blade shape, that’s why many people have more than one knife.
I have used the word “survival” but really this is incorrect as in a true survival situation the chances are that you will have little or no equipment at all; disasters rarely book in advance. More likely, you will be out on a long multi-day trip and need to supplement your food or maybe build a shelter following an equipment failure with something important, such as a tent.
Now we can take a look at the knife itself and what we require from it.
Most importantly the blade material needs to extend in one piece for the total length of the knife. It is known as a through tang or full tang; this ensures maximum strength. The blade thickness should, as a guide be around 4 mm and its length between 100-120 mm. The type and quality of steel along with the subsequent heat treatments used in a knife from a well-known maker such as Buck, Gerber or Eka will be matched to the expected use and blade design; you need not concern yourself further with this.
Don’t think that because the knife you like doesn’t fit your hand that it’s a poor quality knife. This is not the case; it just means that it is not the correct knife for you. It must be comfortable, completely stable when held and the grip must be fastened to the tang strongly. Some manufacturers cater for the female hand in their knives, having a slightly shorter blade to maintain the balance between grip dimensions and blade leverage.
Very few people seem to realise the importance of the sheath. It securely holds and protects the knife from damage but more importantly it protects you from the knife. If you fall over, it should protect you from being injured by the blade. Fortunately manufacturers know this and match the quality of the sheath to the type, quality and expected use of the knife. You will still need to look at the way in which the sheath fastens to your belt to make sure that you can carry the knife in the way that is best for you.
The Cutting Edge
Considering what the intended use will be, it would be unwise to go for a blade design that is hollow ground, has serrations, or both, as these are extremely difficult to refinish in the field to the required standard. In my experience serrations are more trouble than they are worth, a properly finished edge being extremely capable.
Refinishing the Edge
The vast majority of tasks you will expect the knife to perform will involve a razor sharp edge. If it will not shave the hairs from the back of your hand with a single stroke, the edge has not been properly finished and you will find tasks like making feathersticks, manufacturing traps and preparing food extremely difficult. You should if possible try and avoid refinishing the edge in the field unless absolutely necessary because of the lack of angle control, making it almost impossible to get that razor edge.
Some manufacturers make quality finishing kits, D.M.T. being only one. These kits control the angle and have graded diamond finishing plates. This type of refinishing kit guarantees a consistent, professional edge. This will only need finishing with an abrasive compound and a small leather sheet to give an edge others will envy.
A knife is like any other piece of kit, it needs looking after. After your trip, clean and inspect your knife for damage, then refinish the edge so that it’s ready for next time. If the grip is made of wood, treat it periodically with a good quality oil. Check and clean the sheath, giving it the same attention as the knife. If the sheath is made of leather, treat it periodically with a good quality wax to maintain its water resistance. A good tip is to coat the inside of the sheath with linseed oil to give the blade a little extra protection in warm, humid conditions.
All that now remains is for you to find and purchase a knife. Hopefully, the information provided here will help you in making your decision.