May 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm #12454
While I might not agree with everything, it’s worth your time to read.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT SURVIVAL KNIFE by Chris Janowsky
From American Survival Guide July 1996
A few days ago I received a phone call from a lady who not long ago received her “Wake Up Call,” i.e., that all was not right in the world. She asked about survival equipment she should purchase and how to attend one of my classes. Her very first concern other than training was, “What knife do I get?”
It is not uncommon for us at WSI (World Survival Institute) to hear this request. As a matter of fact, it is probably the most frequently asked question I get. This is for good reason. When I teach a class I stress that, other than your brain, the proper survival knife is your most important tool.
Choosing the right survival knife can be a real job for anyone, like walking through a maze. There are thousands of different style knives out there made of different steels, different hardness and other different qualities. To make matters worse, there are individuals out there who will sell you anything just to make a profit. There are many good knives on the market but unfortunately there are many crummy ones.
You certainly don’t want to end up with a bad knife (JUNK). You also don’t want to end up with a pretty good knife. What you should be looking for is a very fine knife that will never let you down. And if we approach the selection of a knife from a survival prospective, we’ve made the “Maze” a lot simpler. Given critical importance of a “survival knife,” your choice must be that EXCELLENT knife that could make the difference between life or death.
Survival knives in general can be broken down into two distinctive categories. There is the urban survival knife and the wilderness survival knife. We will be discussing the latter, although some knives may fit both categories.
The qualities we’re looking for will be the same but the design “shape” of the knives differ.
Let us first look at what style (design) knife we need. This must go hand-in-hand with purpose (what tasks will the knife be required to perform on a daily basis?). Once we’ve established purpose, we have dictated design and are well on our way to that excellent knife.
To design a knife for your needs you will be constantly making tradeoffs. For example, a skinning knife and a filleting knife are radically different in design. Most skinning knives are short with a deep belly and not much of a point. If the skinning knife has a point it is usually a clip point or of a smooth drop point design. The filet knife on the other hand has no belly, and is long and thin. Its blade comes to a very sharp point which is not known for strength.
The skinning knife would make a poor filleting knife and to use a filleting knife as a skinning knife would be disastrous. As you can see neither design would be good for a wilderness survival knife. What we must do is take the essential design of one knife and merge it with the essential design of the other. This is the trade-off we talked about. We no longer have the perfect skinning or filleting knife, but we do have a blade design that can perform both tasks with a reasonable amount of proficiency.
Knives in general fit into two major categories. We have folding knives and fixed blade knives. Both have their purpose in the survival world. We will address each with their advantages and disadvantages. Ideally you should have one of each that is designed for your needs.
Let’s look at the tasks a folding knife should be able to perform in a wilderness survival situation:
” Field dress both big and small game
” Quarter and butcher big and small game
” Gut and or fillet large and small fish
” Cut large diameter rope with a single slice
” Cut and carve hardwoods (Oak, Walnut, Hickory etc.) to improvise tools and shelters
” Drill holes in hardwood with the point
” Small enough to fit in your pocket
” Light weight (5 oz. or less)
” Strong enough to split firewood by pounding on it with another piece of wood.
” Hold an edge sharp enough to shave with
” Large enough for close quarter combat
” Lifetime guarantee
If a folding knife cannot perform these tasks easily and efficiently, it is not the survival knife you need. Remember the bottom line is, your life may well depend on it.
Knife Design – Now that we know what we want the knife to be used for, we can design the blade and the folding/locking mechanism to suit our purposes. To be able to efficiently field dress and skin big game (moose, caribou, deer etc.) we must have a blade with a “belly” of sorts. It must have a point to enter the skin but not so radical that it enters all the way into the entrails. Yet the blade must be long enough to butcher the animal, marrow enough to work its way around the bone, and strong enough to be pounded through bone like the pelvis and sternum.
Usually, one of the easiest food sources to procure in the wilderness is fish. Our knife must be long enough to fillet a large fish and pointed enough to be efficient. We also need a razor-sharp edge that won’t be dulled by the touch, abrasive scales found on many fish.
Cutting rope is easiest with a serrated edge, but a smooth edge is better when working with fish and game. No problem, let’s make a combination edge with the part of the knife closest to the handle serrated and the rest of the blade smooth.
We will want to use the knife as a drill when improvising tools, so we have to have a strong sharp point. If the knife has to be used for close quarter combat, the blade should be approximately 4″ long, razor-sharp and capable of easily penetrating soft body armor.
At this point we’ve pretty much worked out our blade design, so long as we can also carve and whittle with it. Now we have the ideal design for our purposes. Our blade will be approximately 4″ long, nor more than 1″ wide and be 1/8″ thick at the top (back) for strength. Its cutting edge will be both smooth (near the tip), and serrated (near the handle). The width will taper to a razor sharp edge with a point still strong enough to easily penetrate body armor or tin cans.
We don’t want the knife to be heavy, so let’s make the handle lining and locking mechanism out of a lightweight material like Titanium. Titanium is very strong and feather light. It’s also very expensive, so don’t assume it comes in every knife you see. Ideally, the scales (outside covering) should also be lightweight and strong. This is not a beauty contest, so look for something like G-10 High Pressure Laminate. Not very pretty but it will stand up to most any abuse you can dish out.
Last but certainly not least is the steel the blade will be made of. One of the finer, more expensive steels is ATS-34 High Carbon Stainless. This steel is very strong and will hold an edge that seems to last forever. ATS-34 is also fairly rust and stain-resistant. Many professional knife makers consider this steel to be the finest for a folding knife. There are many very good steels out there but in my opinion ATS-34 high carbon stainless would be the best first choice for a folding knife.
Let’s take a look at stainless steel in general. When we hear the words stainless steel we assume that it will not rust, stain or discolor. To the contrary, all stainless still will stain or rust under the right conditions.
Stainless steel is made by adding alloys to carbon steel such as chromium. As chromium is added, the amount of carbon decreases. High carbon steel will take and hold a keen razor sharp edge. As we decrease the carbon content by adding more chromium, we increase the steel’s ability to become rust and stain resistant.
Unfortunately this creates some serious trade-off problems. As the steel becomes more “stainless,” its ability to hold an edge decreases drastically and it becomes harder to sharpen. A good example is the steel called 440C Stainless, which is heavily used by many production knife makers. This steel approaches ideal corrosion resistance, but unfortunately it comes with inherent problems.
To achieve fine edge-holding qualities during the tempering process, the blade will be brittle. If you are willing to sacrifice some of the fine edge-holding qualities, the steel can be made to be touch (malleable) and wear-resistant, but slightly on the soft side of the Rockwell hardness scale. This is a trade-off we can’t get away from when using 440C stainless. If you live in the tropics or near salt water this steel may be a wise choice. If not I would choose another steel like ATS-34, A2 tool steel, AUS-8A or San Mai III.
As you can see, there are major differences in steel. It’s very important that you know exactly what you are getting for that excellent survival knife. Your design may be perfect, but if the steel is wrong for your purposes, you will be disappointed.
The edge of a folding survival knife should be concave, or hollow ground. A hollow grind produces a light and strong blade that takes a very sharp edge easily. As we talk about the steel and the edge, it is very important we know the hardness of that beautifully ground edge.
The edge of a folding survival knife should be from 59 to 61 on the Rockwell hardness scale. The Rockwell scale measures the resistance to indentation on a piece of steel, and rates it with a score from 20 through 68. The higher the number, the harder the sample. Generally, a knife edge should be somewhere between 57 and 64. Values that vary far below or above this range are either too soft or too hard to make a good blade. Many steels cannot be hardened to a 59-61 Rockwell scale score without becoming brittle. However, some of the newer steels, such as ATS-34, love this hardness and do remain tough (not brittle).
Fixed Blades – Now let’s take a look at what a fixed blade survival knife must be able to do:
” Field dress big and small game
” Quarter and butcher big and small game
” Sharp enough to gut a fillet fish
” Be able to slice free hanging large diameter hemp rope with a single slice
” Chop and carve hardwood
” Large and heavy enough to replace a hatchet
” Tough and wide enough to dig into the ground
” Strong enough to split large pieces of firewood by striking it with another piece of wood
” Hold an edge sharp enough to shave with
” Large enough for combat
” Lifetime guarantee
The fixed blade survival knife must be a workhorse, born for abuse. In a true wilderness survival situation, it will have to chop like a ax and dig like a shovel. When those chores are over, it must be able to field dress, skin, quarter and butcher game. At this point it must still have its razor sharp edge.
We have to keep these functions in mind as our guide as we design this knife’s blade. My preference is for a blade 7 ½” – 8″ long, at least ¼” thick (for strength), and approximately 1 2/4″ – 2″ wide (for digging).
The shape of the blade is our next concern. It must have a fairly deep belly for skinning and general work with meat. A dropped edge (slightly lower than the handle) will enhance its butchering and chopping capabilities. A dropped point will help with field dressing big game and with digging operations. The weight of this knife should be right around 16 ounces. If the knife is lighter it will not be able to perform many of its duties efficiently, like chopping wood. If the knife is much heavier, you will be carrying extra weight.
Because of the abuse the knife will have to take, the steel of the blade must extend all the way to the butt of the handle (this extended section is known as the “tang”). The steel tang will also need to be the full size, width and shape of the handle.
The grips, (known as the “scales) must also be bomb-proof. They will often be pounded on with a wooden club. I find that G-10 High Pressure Laminate is very touch and will withstand pounding, but on a knife this size Canvas Micarta would be my first choice. Canvas Micarta (known as “the steel of plastics”) has a higher tensile strength than steel and resists temperature extremes as low as – 112 degrees F. and as high as +212 degree F., while retaining its ability to resist enormous amounts of shock and impact.
A-2 Tool Steel is perfect for this type of knife. This industrial grade tool steel was specifically designed for cutting, shearing and stamping out other grades of steel. It is highly prized for its incredible toughness, superior wear resistance, shock resistance, and ease of sharpening. This type of knife should have a hardness of 58-60 on the Rockwell scale.
The edge of this knife should be cannel, or convex ground. This type of edge is the best choice for heavy chopping blades, that will have to hack through items like bone and wood. When ground properly it will hold that edge practically forever.
WSI’s Endorsement – In the 25 years I’ve been testing equipment at WSI, there are only two survival knives I consider to be excellent, I’ve recently given them my endorsement. The two knives are a folding knife made by Benchmade Knife Co. called the Advanced Folding Combat Knife (A.F.C.K. – model #800S), and the fixed blade Steel Heart II made by the Busse Combat Knife Co.
These knives meet all my specifications and are tougher than a “Junk Yard Dog.” I know. I thoroughly tested them. Both of these knives were abused (tested) by me in 1995 at my survival classes in Ohio and here in Alaska at WSI where I could make use of the extreme cold winter temperatures, to further torment these works of cutlery art. During the tests the temperature ranged from -40 degrees to -60 degrees F. This was the actual temperature, without wind chill.
I also tested many other fine knives like a Buck folding knife, a Gerber LM.F. fixed blade knife, Gerber Gator folding knives, a Spyderco folder, A Kershaw fixed blade and a Cold Steel fixed blade, Magnum Tanto II. All of these knives performed satisfactorily, but only the two knives I’ve chosen to endorse met all my requirements. This is not to say that some of the other knives might not meet your own particular requirements perfectly.
A good example would be choosing an urban survival knife. The folding Spyderco with the serrated edge is very useful, easy to conceal and one heck of a tough little rascal. Whenever I travel, the Spyderco goes with me. If you are concerned primarily with stabbing and slashing, you would be hard pressed to find a knife to surpass the Cold Steel, Magnum Tanto II. This knife is very tough, very sharp and made of a very fine laminated steel.
The following tests were performed on the Benchmade AFCK (800-S) folder and the Busse (Steel Heart II) fixed blade knife. I started in Ohio by carving and hacking on all kinds of hard wood like hickory, walnut or oak. Also hundreds of cuts were made on heavy rope and 550 cord. This went on for weeks and neither of the knives needed sharpening. The large Steel Heart II was also used as a shovel and hoe for many hours.
At this point these two knives were starting to get my attention. These tests were done during warm temperatures, so I was not too excited yet, although I was impressed that they held their edges while most of the other knives at the classes had to be resharpened many times.
Then it was time to get back to Alaska and do some serious cold weather testing. I felt sure that I would destroy these knives like I have so many others, so I started by thoroughly reading the Guarantee policies. They sounded almost too good to be true, like Benchmade’s “stay sharp” guarantee. They’ll sharpen it for free if it ever gets dull. And Jerry Busse, with his guarantee that if you break it, he will replace it. Both guarantee policies are lifetime and cover most anything that could happen to a knife.
As I pondered both companies’ complete guarantees, it seemed like a challenge, and the weather was right for the tests. I started with a free hanging 5/8″ hemp rope and the Steel Heart. One slash and the rope was in two pieces. Nest was the Benchmade #800S with the same results.
Next I tried slicing and chopping a standing frozen green aspen tree. This is sort of like cutting steel. I had no problem with either knife. Next the moose hide and hair test. Moose hide and hear is almost as abrasive as sand paper. Both knives easily cut through the hide and shaved off the hair with no damage to the edges.
This was starting to “Tee” me off and I was gittin’ cold. Next I punched both knives through samples of Kevlar body armor. It was like punching through a sheet of typing paper, with no damage to the edges. I then used the knives as ice picks with, of course, no damage.
At this point I didn’t know whether these knives were friend or foe, but one thing for sure: no more Mister Nice Guy. I took the knives out near my firewood pile and split wood by beating on them with a club to drive them through. The wood split and the knives were just fine. The Benchmade Folding Knife was hit at the point where it is hinged and it should have broken, but it didn’t. This test was repeated several times because I just couldn’t believe that a folding knife could withstand this particular type of abuse.
During the next few days I punched the knives through tin cans, opened tin cans, skinned and butchered one moose and one caribou. To top it off, I filleted two nice sockeye salmon, one for each knife.
At the end of the testing, both knives were sharp but had lost their ultra-sharp factory edges. They would still slice a sheet of paper in a straight line but weren’t quite shaving quality (I wonder if it was the tin cans??).
So I can say with all honest that these knives are the finest I have come across for my purposes as a wilderness survival instructor. They complement each other and will truly last a lifetime. If your life depends on them, they won’t let you down.
The folding #800-S was designed by Mark McWillis of Benchmade Knife Co and Chris Caracci of Gunsite Training Center. The fixed blade Steel Heart II was designed by master customer knife maker Jerry Busse, of the Busse Combat Knife Co.
(Both the Author and ASG have passed on as it were)May 5, 2014 at 11:49 pm #12473
I’m not too sure why the smaller knife should be a folder, seems like a Nessmuk concept to me (which is totally fine btw) but Mr. Janowsky does not mention having multiple blades in his folder. For me, a second fixed blade in a sheath or otherwise attached to your body is adequate. I would also throw in a multitool and a folding saw (both on my person) as well as a medium axe and a crook knife in my pack. Generally a dedicated skinner and/or a fillet knife will also be in my pack depending if I’m in the field or on the water (or both).
That ends up as:
a Large and small fixed blade, saw and multi-tool on my person and
a medium axe, a crook knife a skinner and /or a fillet knife in my pack.
I could perform any chore with what’s on my person if I should lose the pack. However, having the pack makes life easier and more pleasant.
This is similar to the “4 Tools Concept” by NativeSurvival:
Big Bears Don't TreeMay 6, 2014 at 6:03 am #12504
The folder, because it’s always with you, in your pocket unlike the fixed blade.
You’re not always carrying the pack and may need that knife.
Everybody has their own thoughts and preferences on this.
This was a nearly 20 year old idea that still holds true and the information is still worth the read.May 6, 2014 at 6:18 am #12505
Oh yes, that is a good article definitely worth the read and some more discussion.
A knife in a sheath is always with you as well as a folder. Also it can be stronger and better shaped to better handle things like batonning, prying and being used as a chisel.
Nessmuk carried a folder as sort of a predecessor to a multi-tool so he could carry more task-specific blades in one package.
Be separating out some requirements of a small knife into a second fixed blade which is securely attached to your person as is the larger fixed blade referenced in Mr Janowsky’s article, you can have a better package in your pocket ie. a multi-tool.
Now, since you have the second fixed blade on your belt, the multi-tool is not as likely to be needed for batonning or heavy prying and can be designed to add even more capabilities to your kit such as pliers, screwdrivers, etc.
In the same manner, a folding saw is better suited to making certain precise cuts such as fitting wood for joints and trap triggers.
The point of NativeSurvival’s video is to improve on from the NessMuk concept and carry more modern tools. We seem to have lost the double-bladed hatchet from Nessmuk’s kit and added a slightly larger axe instead (at least I could not find a modern example of the Nessmuk hatchet). But we have improved on the other tools, not just in the materials but in the design. I feel that, if Nessmuk could have had a folding saw and a multi-tool, he would have carried both of these items … perhaps instead of a folding knife.
Big Bears Don't TreeMay 6, 2014 at 10:04 am #12516
Great article, sound advice. I like to carry a bigger knife like the Cold Steel Bushman and then a lighter knife like my Mora for the small stuff.
An axe is amazing, I love how much time it can save you when setting up camp or building primitive shelters but I usually skip it because of the weight and take a folding saw. Im a bit picky about weight though because I want to move quickly (also when I go hiking).
Alea iacta est ("The die has been cast")May 6, 2014 at 4:43 pm #12582
Not all of us can carry a belt knife 24/7.
Hence the folders.
In the field, or post SHTF, sure but right now?
Gonna get some looks at the grocery store.
We recently spent the weekend at some local cabins.
Not taking my truck also, cramming all the kids into one vehicle I left some gear behind.
My hatchet, shingling hammer and Ontario “Spec-Plus” Machete were all some 55 miles away.
Luckily there was ample firewood both inside and stacked outside the cabins.
But it was firewood, not a scrap of tinder or kindling to be found, and it was snowing, everything was moist or wet.
The boys were requested to make a fire, they quickly had a pile of smouldering sawdust but not much more.
Me, I’m off to the side making fuzz sticks and shavings with my belt knife. Then I started batoning some kindling out of a split log. Pretty soon they gave up and went to start fires in the three cabin stoves. I had the fire going within minutes with a mere two matches (could have used one but I like insurance). The boys had again gotten a smouldering mess going in the girls cabin, so it’s more shavings and tinder, more batoning.
Looks like it’s time for a refresher fire starting night.
I keep a number of knives handy, both folders and fixed blades.
On me always, a SAK and Kershaw Leek.
Most of the time, an old Gerber Bolt-Action folder in it’s belt pouch.
In the war bag right next to the survival gear and the spare ammo/mags, the Benchmade Nimravus.
And in my ‘gear bag’, my belt knife.
It’s a James Largent custom with a 5.5″ blade, I picked up a number of his knives before I had kids and was a bit more flush.
Worth every penny, I don’t travel anywhere without it.
Every knife got used that weekend, the SAK for cutting string (scissors and the 9yo), the Leek for opening some food packages, the Bolt-Action in the kitchen when the wife needed a good sharp knife, and the Largent for everything else.
I subscribe to the different tools for different jobs theory.
The Leek has been used to cut fine trap/snare triggers, the SAK everything.
The Bigger knives? Bigger jobs.
After that weekend, some rearranging was done, the “machete” and shingling hammer went into the wife’s vehicle, the Gerber Aussie Bowie in mine to go with the hatchet.
Janowsky’s folder (800S) is a single blade model. Not a multi-tool, stockman style or SAK.
A simple but elegant folder, his model is the half serrated model of this:May 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm #12586
Very nice knife
For me I almost always have a bush-crafting knife. Lately it’s been a BRK Bushcrafter in CPM3v, I got that one because it has a less ‘military’ style than my last carry knife. I also carry a Gerber box-cutter to preserve the knife’s edge from tasks like opening boxes and containers. I generally have at least a small multi-tool and many times a large one.
When circumstances do not allow me to carry the fixed blade then I do carry one or two folders. Always a small general-purpose folder and a larger one for self-defense purposes. I still carry the multi-tools. On these occasions the fixed blade and a folding saw are in my get home bag in my vehicle along with survival and first aid items and my carry weapon and ammo.
Big Bears Don't TreeMay 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm #12597
This is a very informative post. Learned a lot–thanks!
I carry a Ken Onion folder everywhere in my jeans pocket (except the Co Courthouse when I applied for my CCW ). Lightweight, 4″ smooth+serrated blade, not the ideal survival knife, but good. Also, carry a small knife sharpener in my purse–about 2″x2″. Might put it on a keychain so it’s always on my person. Thanks for everyone who mentioned “on your person” in their posts. Nothing is useful if it’s not available.
But, any good knife is useful if you have the space. While we were in Alaska, I skinned two moose (and deboned them) with a little Cutco paring knife. It was the sharpest in the cabin at the time… Didn’t cut through bone, just the joints.
Heard the saying about an old-timer asked what the most important tool was. “A good knife”. The second? “Something to sharpen it with, of course.” This was a great post, thanks again.May 6, 2014 at 6:21 pm #12600
Darn you …. prompted by your post I looked up Jim Largent knives … and now I’m in love
Big Bears Don't TreeMay 6, 2014 at 6:23 pm #12601
And she’s got a friend
Big Bears Don't TreeMay 6, 2014 at 7:50 pm #12606
<div class=”d4p-bbp-quote-title”>SharpDog wrote:</div>Darn you …. prompted by your post I looked up Jim Largent knives … and now I’m in love
Love, no comment.
Let’s just say I really like his products.May 8, 2015 at 11:11 pm #40833
I was searching through the form and I found this topic. Long behold, I found a topic of a skill(wood crafting) I was researching for a while and getting no luck, until now. All the input within this topic has helped me a lot. I had no idea that the last knife in the youtube video was a spoon knife. I know this is not the topic for it but if anyone knows how to carve wooden spoons or anything like that, I’m all ears.May 9, 2015 at 1:09 am #40838
Vim6, there is video of carving spoons on the site, it’s a link to ??? It will take a few trys to find it.
This is one way to go about it.May 9, 2015 at 3:56 am #40843
There are times you want a little more distance than a ten inch knife can offer. I was looking at the SOG spirit 2 and wondering if I could make it a bit more useful. The threaded handle has the capability of turning it into a spear. The problem is carrying it with the massively long plastic handle they gave it. So I discarded it and used the knife by the short stub to see if it was sufficient as a survival knife. Not to bad. You want to chop get an axe. But then I had another inspiration. Why not make it have a more gripable surface, so it was wrapped with Rescue Tape. This tape is great. The silicone rubber made softer to the hand and added friction. Its ability to bond to itself is extremely useful. Its sold as a plumbing tape to wrap leaking pipes.
Not quite done yet. The sheath was just too big. I cut it in half and discovered an odd fact about the sog sheath. It forms two separate compartments. The front one where the Spitit 2 went originally I inserted a DMT mini sharp diamond sharpener and in the back compartment inserted the spirit knife. It was a nice fit without the big belt loop cluttering up things. The rivets on the sheath gave it holes for a cord attachment and the overall decrease in size gave it more concealability.
The wood shaft to make it into a spear depends on whats available. One could have Spirit 1 and Spirit 2 and switch as the need arose. Spirit 1 being The older spear point double edge design. There is a small hole to use a pin like the viking spears in both knives. The metal ferule on certain sticks is somewhat easier to thread the knife onto. Aluminum poles are for sale as painters extensions. Wood is by far the most common and nicest to handle.May 9, 2015 at 4:00 am #40846
Bru, I think you should post a few pictures.
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