The online community of knife collectors, A Knife Family Forged in Steel
Part 2 of this blog is dealing with Survival knives, both as an item and a legit category for collecting.
The bone of contention that was vocalized some time ago is that there is no such thing as a tactical knife or a survival knife – rather, these terms are marketing terms to sell more knives. (Tactical knives are discussed in Part 1).
While I have a different opinion on the matter, I can’t throw out the whole argument because some of it is true – many companies and makers do label everything as being tactical or survival (Think Cutlery Corner Network), even if it stretches the terms to fit the product. Let’s face it, owning or carrying a knife in the great outdoors or deep in the urban jungle that is defined as being a Survival knife is very self-assuring and empowering.
Survival by Definition:
According to my Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2000 College edition), Survival is a noun (Person, place, or thing) and is defined as the continuation or existence of life <problems of survival in arctic conditions>.
Today, the largely accepted view and definition of survival knives are knives intended for survival purposes in a wilderness environment, often in an emergency situation when the user has lost most of his/her main equipment (think tool, not status symbol). In other words, a knife designed to be the tool of choice to assist in one’s survival. OK….simple enough.
So then why is there such contention across knife collectors as to the category? The answer is really quite simple – “survival” means different things to different people.
In my humble opinion, the Survival Knife category is probably the worst of all the nebulous categories, because just about any knife can be classified as a survival knife, as easily as one can be considered “tactical”.
So to really hone in on what makes a knife a “survival knife”, we need to take a look at its evolution and the distinct characteristics that define it.
Up until the late 19th century, outdoorsmen, mountain men and military personnel did not use knives that were notably different from those used used by butchers. Serrations appeared on knives in the 19th century for use as a wood saw or fish scaler. Around the turn of the century, Webster L. Marble introduced the modern concept of the "hunting knife." These knives incorporated heavier blades, cross guards, and pommels. Next, Case, Cattaraugus, and other cutlery manufacturers soon introduced similar knives of their own and it is from these that the modern concept of the survival knife is descended. These knives, along with machetes and bolos constituted survival knives as used by military, explorers, and outdoorsmen up through at least the 1930s.
During WWII, survival knives were issued to aircraft crew, as it was a real possibility that these personnel might be shot down over wilderness or behind enemy lines. Lifeboats aboard naval vessels also frequently contained survival kits including knives. These knives varied in design from one branch of the service to another and from one nation to another. The majority of them were simply commercial knives purchased in bulk by the military.
From the Vietnam-era and to present, purpose-built survival knives evolved. One of Randall's designs which became a popular fighting knife for troops in Vietnam was the Number 14 "Attack" Model. During the Vietnam war, Randall received feedback from a Combat Surgeon in the US Army's 94th Medical Detachment named Captain George Ingraham. Ingraham's request was for serrations on the spine to cut through the fuselage of downed aircraft to rescue trapped personnel and a hollow handle to allow storage of survival gear. Randall made the changes and the result was the first of the modern survival knives.
Modern Survival Knife Characteristics
As with the tactical knives, survival knives owe much of their popularity and evolution to some of the great knife makers who were commissioned to design and build purposeful knives for demanding environments. As these makers released their products to a growing knife community, individual features became the hallmarks of what makes a knife a survival tool rather than a utility knife or a combat knife.
Survival knives are designed for work such as setting traps, building shelter, cutting branches and skinning animals. Most survival knives have fixed blades that are 10 cm to 20 cm (3.9 - 7.9 inches) long with a full thick tang. Survival knives made by Aitor, Lile, Parrish, Randall, or Reeve have hollow handles, which allow the user to store additional equipment in the handle. Some of these knives feature a compass in the cap. A hollow handle survival knife will have reduced strength and may break more easily when performing tasks such as chopping or batoning.
On some survival knives, the spine or back of the blade is flat; allowing it to make a good hitting platform when pounding it with a hard stick to aid in splitting wood. Other models such as Lile's and Parrish's feature a serrated spine (see Rambo First Blood) or in the case of Rob Simonich's and Strider Knives, a band breaker (strapping) is added near the tip.
The handle material of survival knives differs from one to the next and is determined primarily by user preference. Handle materials can be hardened rubber, wood, bone (horn), aluminum, polymer, or even metal, such as stainless steel in the case of the Aitor Jungle King I, or tool steel as used in the Chris Reeve One-Piece line. Makers like Lile, Strider, and Parrish often wrap these metal handled knives with cord which can be used in survival situations and in daily use provides a more comfortable and reliable grip.
Present Day Applications:
In more recent years with the introduction of Ebay and other on-line marketing and trading opportunities, both demand and awareness has grown exponentially. So has the opportunity to exploit and create a survival market by those who wouldn't know how to use the pointy end of a survival knife if it poked them.
Large scale production makers and dealers have gone to extremes in defining how their knives are ideal for survival situations in part by creating the survival situation itself. By simply leveraging the popularity of movies and reality shows to create a perceived survival environment, such as “Hunter Games”, “Book of Eli”, and “Man vs. Wild” to name a few, the true survival knife is lost in the flood of specialty knives. And, many think that bigger is better, so if an 8 inch survival knife is good, apparently an 18 inch Rambo IV survival knife is even better!
Then there are those who think themselves as a Les Stroud and want to play “Survivor Man” on the weekend, and so buy a knife to survive the weekend themselves. Sadly, when cost is a factor for many who want to go and explore the great outdoors, small and cheaply made wanna-be’s also flood the market.
Personally, as a ten year Search and Rescue veteran experienced in desert and alpine rescue missions, I know what I want in a survival knife. In fact, for my needs and preferences, it takes two knives to serve my long-term survival needs – a fixed bade and a folder. Between these two tools (and I emphasize the term “tools”), I can build a shelter, stay warm, feed myself, repair my gear, and attend to the needs of anyone else at the same time.
But as stated before – determining what constitutes a survival knife verses a hunting knife or utility knife is by understanding the knife itself. When determining if a knife is a survival knife or not, ask yourself, “what is the design intent from the maker’s perspective, and how am I intending on using it?” Once you come up with your answers, then you will know if that knife is a tool suitable to help you survive or not.
So the door is opened…what are your thoughts on survival knives; is there such a thing and is it a legit category? How do you define a survival knife, and what are some of yours?
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