Open Views – Part 2 of 2: Survival Knives

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.

Historical Evolution:

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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Tags: Beginner, Categories, Collecting, Knife, Knives, Open, Survival, Views

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Comment by Lars Ray on March 8, 2015 at 19:12

Ha! Yes...the comb is a very essential piece of gear to have when traipsing around in the desert...and it keeps your hair nice too! 

The best two tools for this kind of tactical warfare is a good comb and a Leatherman / Gerber multitool with pliers.

My razorback Muela is useless with these critters! 

Comment by Ms Data on March 8, 2015 at 7:11
BTW Jeremy, I don't think there is anything wrong with the Bear Grills knife. We both have one. Is a $200 Falkniven going to save your knife any better than a $75 BG. I don't think so. Also, another "survival" knife I forgot to mention earlier, and that's because it's small and lightweight and I almost forget it's in the BOB is the outstanding Mora Companion Heavy. Love it! Highly recommend it.
Comment by J.J. Smith III on March 8, 2015 at 0:22

Personally,  I'm a fan of the, 1950's issue, Camillus Navy Pilots "Survival" Knife.

Comment by Ms Data on March 7, 2015 at 23:20

Excellent point Lars, and I do have a pocket comb in a little Maxpedition Janus that I carry on my belt.  I would not want to run into the tactical attack cactus.

Comment by Lars Ray on March 7, 2015 at 23:13

Great selection Ms. Data! I approve! (as if that mattered). $10 will get you $20 that if you lived anywhere in the lower Arizona deserts, you'd leave that sharpener on the Gerber LMF at home a put a pocket comb in it's place. And if you don't know why, then take a walk and get stapled by a cholla cactus just one time....this too is survival!

Comment by Ms Data on March 7, 2015 at 22:49

We each have different survival knives so that, assuming we are together, we have a back-up for each other.  We also have a multi-tool with a very good blade and a good selection of tools.  I personally think a 6" blade on a survival knife is about right.  Of course it has to be full-tang.  You have to be able to make shelter, fire, and food.  Where we live, the ability to baton is essential since our wood is wet 9 months out of the year.  Our choices are the Gerber Bear Grylls, the Gerber LMF Survival (this is not the same as the LMF Infantry), and the Becker BK-2 Companion which I got the better sheath for when Becker/Ka-Bar came out with the better sheath a few years ago.

Comment by Lars Ray on March 7, 2015 at 20:16

Interesting qualifier that you used Jeremy..."Top of the line". A survival knife is a tool....and if the tool meets the needs and serves the purpose for which it designed, then how much more top of the line can it be?

I often fall back on my own words....that the best knife in the world is the one you carry. So if this BG by Gerber is the one you carry, then by golly it's top of the line! Good for you!

Comment by Jeremy B. Buchanan on March 7, 2015 at 19:15

Here is the Gerber knife that I spoke about in my first response to this blog. It has several features that I believe would assist in surviving in the wilderness. Some of the features are: a ferro rod to be used with the back of the carbon steel blade, a steel pommel, cross hatched for hammering, a diamond sharpener for touching up the blade, a rescue whistle on the lanyard, partially serrated blade and a guide for using hand signals for emergencies. Again I will state that it is not a top of the line survival knife, but I do believe it would be useful in a survival situation vs. no knife at all. I plan to take it on a camping trip or two this year.

Comment by Jan Carter on March 7, 2015 at 19:05

This is a category of knives I should own and dont think I do.  Our to go bag has a good fixed blade of 1095 and it has one of Donnies custom swaybacks in it too.  For me there is a jack and a SAK.  I do think though I am now in the spot I would have gone to if any trouble had happened so I will just hunker down here with a few hundred.

You know as I right this I am thinking I should probably have a knife on my belt these days though

Comment by tim payne on March 7, 2015 at 17:28

I admire your survival knives lars.  can tell you are passionate about them.  learning from your experience.

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