On the top of all new “prepper” lists is a good survival knife. The knife is a low-tech, multipurpose tool that has served humankind since before the dawn of civilization. To these early men, the side of a chipped flint could butcher an animal carcass for food and clothing. To the modern man, however, there is a dizzying array of choices when it comes to knife selection. This article documents my ongoing journey of knife selection, with my own frugal, low budget perspective.
Now, when talking “low budget”, I do not mean cheap. When I first started looking at knives, I came across a pawn shop bin of cheaply made Chinese knives for $2 each. They were small folders with plastic handles. At that price, I grabbed a few to experiment. I found that not only were they cheaply made and subject to breakage but they were dangerous, since they could fail without warning when you are utilizing them. After one such failure and a close call with my hands, all of those knives ended up in the garbage can. Instead, low budget means having a good cost to value ratio, which is more frequently the case with production line knives than custom collector knives. When you are considering a survival tool that may not be subject to easy replacement, such a tool must be able to withstand heavy use.
When starting your search for a knife, examine the various intended uses that you have for the knife. Stated differently, you should understand what you will use your knife for and that the knife you buy should be fit into that role. Youtube reviewer nutnfancy likes to use the term “philosophy of use”; I think that captures the concept well. In my previous entry, Low Budget Firearms Selection for a Novice, I examined different firearms uses under the concept of rule of law, partial rule of law, and without rule of law. Looking at knives, I found that these concepts do not have as much of an impact on knife usage as it does for firearms. Instead, the intended use would govern regardless of the surrounding survival situation. These uses could be roughly broken down into every day carry (EDC) knives, survival knives, and specialty knives.
The first object of my study was the every day carry or EDC knife. When we speak of EDC knives, we are usually referring to a small, folding knife. The more I thought about possible uses for my EDC knife, the more dizzying the choices became. I tried to visualize when I might need a knife on my person and available for immediate use. These would be traditional EDC uses. A concealed pocket knife can be a useful self defense item, secondary to your concealed carry firearm. For close combat, a knife is in some ways superior to a gun in that it does not require reloading and is quiet and reusable. More mundane and common tasks also avail themselves to the every day carry knife. For example, they’re useful for opening cardboard boxes and other packaging. At Christmas, I always sit with a box of assorted batteries, my favorite EDC knife, and a multi-tool while the kids open presents. As the presents are opened, I get to free those over-packaged toys from their containers and load them with batteries to quickly get them working for the kids. An EDC knife is useful for cutting boxes, cardboard, paper, and other utilitarian cutting tasks where a blade is needed at the ready.
An important situation that I imagine would require immediate access to the EDC knife is having to aid someone in a vehicular accident. Like a self defense situation, this situation may never arise in your lifetime. However, if it does, you want immediate access to the right tool. I have personally witnessed several car accidents, but these thankfully did not require passenger extraction. A friend of mine recently conveyed that as a teenager, he was involved in a very serious car accident where he had to be cut free from the car’s seatbelt and pulled away from the burning vehicle. It is easy to visualize a person trapped in a wrecked car. A specialized tool to break tempered glass, cut a seatbelt, or, God forbid, remove a crushed limb to extract a trapped soul as a car burns or sinks, would need to be everyday carried in order to be there when you need it. An EDC knife might be a lifesaving emergency item for cutting a car accident victim out of their seat belt, or breaking tempered glass in a rescue situation. Note that there is a specialized blade for this– the $85 American made Buck Knives TOPS Responder CSAR-T folder. I found this knife to be rather heavy for EDC carry, but it’s fine for placing in your car for emergencies and was reviewed on SurvivalBlog. If the price or weight of the Buck is a deal breaker, a much cheaper and lighter Chinese substitute can be had: the $10 MTECH USA MT-424 Series Tactical Folding Knife. Everyone should have one of these knives in their car in the event of roadside emergency.
An EDC knife can also be carried when hiking or traveling in remote, rural areas. In a worst case scenario, an EDC knife might be used for emergency surgery or some other unforeseeable emergency situation. See Aron Ralston and the movie 127 Hours. My personal favorite “EDC” knife is the $40 Columbia River Knife and Tool K415KXP Ken Onion Ripple-Aluminum Razor Edge Knife. This is a lightweight assisted opening knife that is just the perfect size (and price) for me.
Before purchasing an EDC knife, you should also be aware of the legal aspects of knife ownership and carry in your state. In Florida, where I am from, a knife blade must be under 4″ and folding in order to be defined as a “common pocketknife” and exempt from certain laws. See Section 790.001(13) Florida Statutes; Bunkley v. Florida, 538 U.S. 835, 837 (2003) citing L.B. v. State, 700 So. 2d 370, 372 (Fla. 1997) (Under Florida law, a blade of 3 ¾ inches “plainly falls within the statutory exception to the definition of weapon”.) Thus, in Florida, you should aim for your folder to have a shorter-than-4” blade. You should familiarize yourself with state laws before selecting your concealed carry knife.
A knife has many outdoor and camping uses. For these uses, one thinks of the classic “survival knife”, which is usually a non-folding, full tang blade. “Full tang” means that the blade and the handle are one piece of metal– tip to tip steel. This aids in durability and strength. An outdoor survival knife can be used for woodcraft and wood tool making. It can be used for emergency shelter making. It is useful for skinning and cleaning small or large game or for cleaning fish. As a baton, some of these knives can substitute for an axe when splitting firewood or simply for cutting wood in the outdoors. The survival knife is used for cutting cord/rope. While more in the realm of Crocodile Dundee, a survival knife could be used for shaving and hair cutting or hunting, or it can be crafted into a spear tip. The uses for a quality survival knife are endless. The $70 American made KA-BAR Becker BK2 is a beast of a blade that could handle just about anything in the wild. My personal favorite, in this class, is the classic American made Buck 119BKS Spec Hunting 6″ knife; at $45, this is a steal.
There are many applications for specialty knives. These knives are not required to be on my person at all times, but they have a particular function for which the EDC knife or survival knife would not be the best choice. For example, I have a hobby of leather working. For this, I found a particular blade: the $30 Cold Steel Tuff Lite Plain Edge Folder Knife. Although it is a Taiwan blade, it fulfills the function of cleanly cutting leather perfectly. It’s much better than a cheap razor blade carpet cutter that is often utilized for this job. At home, knives are essential for food preparation. Do not overlook the ceramic blades for food prep! One of my wife’s favorite gifts was the $80 Japanese made Kyocera Revolution ceramic three knife set I bought her for Christmas. Those blades are the sharpest things I have ever seen. Their ability to cut a tomato into paper thin slices is unbelievable. The big disadvantage of the ceramic bladed knife is that they are brittle and thus not appropriate for “survival” use. Additionally, they are very hard, if not impossible, to sharpen, but for sharpness and indoor food prep they cannot be beat, and we have had no problems with them even after years of indoor service. Of course, a knife also has common cutlery and utensil uses: cutting food such as fruits, vegetables, and meats. Multi-tools or machetes might also be categorized here, but those items are a bit outside of what this article contemplates.
Once I identified the intended uses for the knife, I began to browse different web sites. This search confirmed that there are practically an infinite number of choices, when it comes to knives. I also am biased towards American made products, and so I began by looking at some of the more popular American knife companies. This wasn’t a deciding factor, but if two blades rank equally, why not go for the American version? Unfortunately, so much manufacturing has been transferred to China that it is hard to find an affordable blade that is not manufactured there. Even if the knife is actually assembled in the United States, the blade steel is often of foreign manufacture. I am sure I am leaving many great manufacturers out, but here is the list I came up with.
American made only:
Buck Knives – All knives made in Post Falls, Idaho
Benchmade – All knives made in Oregon City, Oregon
Bear OPS – All knives made in Jacksonville, Alabama
Case Knives – All knives made in Pennsylvania
Microtech Knives – All knives made in the USA
Many models American made:
Cold Steel – certain knives made in Ventura, California
Gerber Knives – certain knives made in Tigard, Oregon, Finnish company
Ka-Bar – certain knives made in upstate New York.
Kershaw Knives – certain knives made in Tualatin, Oregon, Japanese company
Ontario Knife Company – certain knives made in upstate New York
Once I identified some possibilities, I looked for local stores that carried these brands. This is important, because the reality of the knife may be way different from the advertisement. Knives can be different than they appear in a photograph. How the handle feels is just impossible to gauge from a picture. There is no substitute for actually trying out the knife you ultimately select. Further, just like supporting American knife manufacturers, you should support local dealers whenever possible. Here is the checklist I came up with for examining the knife at the store.
I am a big believer in the “two is one, one is none” philosophy of redundancy. Lower cost means you are more likely to double up on your purchase. Further, a less expensive blade will allow you to devote your scare resources to other items that may not be as “cool” as a knife but are as essential as your weapons collection. Like gun owners, knife purchases can be clouded by the look and image over the substance of the purchase. I find that a quality knife will usually cost you at least $20. Thus, as a budget conscious consumer, I limited my choices to those blades between $20 and $100.
Obviously, the knife’s primary function is to cut. A knife should be sharp right out of the box. If they are dull new, then that is a finish issue and you should not consider that model. There are too many choices for you to overlook this first, most important attribute. I found Case and Buck knives to be generally the sharpest right out of the box. I am no expert on blade steels or types, but you should just realize that there are many different types of blades. There are serrated edges, non-serrated edges, a mixed edge. The tips can be pointed for stabbing, or angled for cutting. The back of the blade can have place to hold your thumb to better control the blade. While there is a lot of terminology and jargon surrounding this area, what is important is that you visualize the intended use for your knife, and apply this to the blade you are looking at. Is the form suited to your intended function?
Is the knife easily concealed? This applies mainly to your EDC knife. When thinking about an EDC knife, you should think about how it will be carried. EDC knives can be carried in a sheath, on a clip in the pocket, on a neck lanyard, or in some other concealed place, such as in a boot or under the belt. When shopping for your EDC knife, place that knife in the location where you would expect it to be carried. If it is uncomfortable in that position, then rethink that knife choice.
Is the knife durable? Durability is a must, especially in a survival situation. This is a hard question to answer when looking at a new knife. This is where quality really shows itself. There are the obvious aesthetic judgements, such as does it feel “cheap”, but whether a blade will hold up over time must be regarded as subject to error. This is a good place to focus your research. Look for long-term reviews from people who have used the knife over time in high stress environments.
This, of course, depends on the immediacy of need. There are fancy, automatic knives that open and close at the touch of a button. Some of the best are manufactured in the United States by Benchmade. These “switchblades” are not legal in all states, and they also carry a hefty price tag. My thinking is that quick, one-handed deployment is the more desired feature. Being able to deploy the blade with one hand makes sense when you are in the middle of something. After you are finished with the job, it is more likely that I would have both hands free to close it. Many folding knives have a lug on the side of the blade that you work with your thumb that is combined with a wrist flip to open the knife. My favorites, though, have an assisted opening feature that does not require the wrist flip. Both the $40, Chinese bladed CRKT K415KXP Ken Onion Ripple – Aluminum Knife and the $30, Chinese bladed Kershaw 1605 Clash Folding Knife with SpeedSafe are examples of affordable, assisted opening knives.
For example, Case knives are not only razor sharp but collectable and beautiful. Are you paying a premium for this? On the one hand, your investment will be more likely to retain its value over time, and it could even become an heirloom object for your family. On the other hand, paying extra for beauty or collectability is something you need to seriously ponder before parting with limited cash. Ultimately, this is an ephemeral factor that each individual must consider and place into their hierarchy of importance.
Weight should not be a deciding factor on some categories of knife selection, but that can have an impact on EDC “everyday carry” knives and backpacking where weight is a factor. For example, I found that while I love the opening mechanism of the $30 Chinese bladed Kershaw 1605 Clash knife, I found that it was a little too wide and heavy for my pocket. Similarly, the $30 Taiwan bladed Ontario 8848 RAT Folding Knife is just a tad too big, and it’s not as spry as the assisted opening Ripple in deployment. My $40 Ken Onion Ripple was hardly felt in my pocket, thus I always defaulted to the Ripple.
The purpose of a handle is to be able to grip and control the blade. The handle must be comfortable in your hand rather than some other reviewer’s. This is why it is invaluable to visit a store that sells quality knives, so that you can evaluate them in relation to your physical attributes. Some questions when evaluating the handle are as follows:
- Does the handle feel comfortable in your hand, size wise?
- Does knife feel balanced in your hand?
- Do you have fears when using knife, such as knife slippage?
- Is it “grippy” when sweat, blood, or moisture is in hand?
I have always liked the American made KA-BAR Becker BK Series knives for their handles, not to mention their full tang durability, but some critics say that the smooth handles loose grip when your hands sweat. The $70, Chinese bladed CRKT 2125KV Ultima Knife is an interesting design that greatly improves grip in muddy and wet situations.
I am in no way a knife expert, rather I am simply a consumer attempting to understand the myriad of choices when confronting a knife purchasing decision. There are just so many options out there that there is really no way for one person to say that this is “the best knife” made. I am sure that the long-time readers of Survivalblog will have their own opinions and advice. In fact, this very website is a great information source for knife reviews; just search the archives. There are lots of good articles on the subject of knife selection. When you identify what you want, it is always good to look for critical reviews that pinpoint weaknesses and impartially assess what you are thinking about purchasing. Ultimately though, it is your choice, and you must be happy with your final purchase. I hope that my experience will help you in finding the perfect knife for your application.