Survival Blades – Part 1, by R.H.

I have noticed quite a bit of confusion and hype surrounding the subject of survival blades lately. I have also noted people new to survival and prepping often cannot get simple questions answered due to lack of accurate information from sales clerks and others. I have written this so that newcomers can get some balanced information.

Let’s define our terms before we begin. While many readers are preparing for an end of the world scenario, survival situations as I will consider them here happen every day. As I am writing this, most of the nation has been brutalized by a series of terrible winter storms. Even the Deep South is experiencing periods of freezing temperatures lasting weeks, which is highly unusual for us. I am certain many are thankful for their preparations and many were at risk because of the brutal weather.

Survival situations can occur without warning at any time on any day. You may find yourself stuck on the road in a blizzard (I’ve been there) or facing a vehicle malfunction after a weekend of backpacking in the wilderness. That time, I was stuck at a deserted trail head deep in the Arizona mountains over 40 miles from the nearest paved road on a Sunday night. I have spent many a night on the trail that I didn’t expect to. Before I completely trash my credibility, please understand that if you spent as much time out in nature as I have these past fifty years, you’d have stories too.

Since survival situations can happen anytime anywhere, it follows that the best survival knife is the one you have with you rather than the one you were going to buy next month. It’s also not the one you left home because it was too heavy, nor is it the one you left behind because it was illegal or politically unacceptable where you were going. The one you have is “the one you got”. (Pardon the grammar.)

This being the case, most folks understand that some prior thought on this subject would be useful. As I mentioned before, the amount of hype and opinion masquerading as fact concerning survival blades is staggering. This point was brought home to me when an acquaintance of some years decided to begin prepping. Never an outdoorsman, this poor fellow was trying to gather information like a city guy; he was browsing the Internet, reading magazines, et cetera. To say he was confused would be kind. When I stumbled into him, he was being brow beaten into buying a huge Rambo knife, which he obviously did not want. He had asked the salesman about survival knives, and the salesman jumped him like a rabid dog. I don’t usually get between a salesman and his customer, but this guy needed to be saved. Outside, he shared his frustrations and we talked. He knew he needed to talk to people who actually did what he wanted to do, but it’s not like there are prepper clubs at the community college. It’s for guys like him that I am writing this article. If you have been around a while and have practiced your craft, you already know what works for you.

Before we begin the discussion of survival blades, I recommend analyzing your situation. Do you live in your retreat? Do you have to drive a long distance to get to your retreat? Do you anticipate being in wooded terrain or in a desert? Will you be surviving in an urban environment? Do you hike, hunt, camp, or backpack routinely? If so, in what type of terrain? This analysis should lead to at least several potential uses of a survival blade. These issues can affect your choice of blades as much as the functional issues we will discuss in a moment.

For the new folks, let me mention right up front that you will need to learn new skills in your survival and prepping education. You must routinely practice those skills or they will vanish. Hunting, hiking, camping, and backpacking are great activities, where some of these new skills can be practiced. If your family has never been camping and unplugged from the e-world, that experience alone will be like a survival episode for them. The point is that any experience you gain will be very valuable in evaluating what I discuss here and what you read or hear elsewhere. It would be useful to frame the discussion around the potential functions of a survival blade. To simplify the situation, I will focus on these functions when you are away from your home base and out on the trail. I have taken this step because many people confuse these discussions with scenarios occurring at their retreat. For example, at your retreat you should have saws and axes to deal with downed trees and similar situations. When on the trail and limited to a survival blade, chopping down a tree is an entirely different situation.

The subject of survival knives covers a lot of ground. A discussion with some friends and review of several magazines generated a list of potential uses:

  • Chopping- used like an axe for obtaining firewood or saplings for shelter or a litter
  • Hacking- used like a machete for clearing lanes, campsites, or paths
  • Splitting- used like a hatchet for obtaining firewood, building materials, foods, or first aid
  • Sawing- used like a wood saw or bone saw
  • Field surgery- used like a scalpel
  • Fighting and defense- used against people or animals
  • Skinning and processing game
  • Utility cutting- general cutting chores around camp and kitchen
  • Digging
  • Wire cutting
  • Hammering
  • Prying
  • Glass breaking

There are likely other functions someone has required of his knife, but these are enough to begin discussions. A simple scan of the above list should make it clear that no one blade can do all these functions well or even adequately. That has never concerned me, because I do not limit myself to only one blade. I have never understood the question which begins “If you could only have one knife…”. How bad a planner are you? Why would you plan to have only one knife?

Let’s discuss these potential functions of a survival knife and see if they make any sense to your likely situation. First, and my personal favorite whenever it comes up, is field surgery. If you have the skills to consider this subject, then you already know you need an entire field surgery kit, including scalpel handle, multiple blades, hemostats, and suture sets. If you think that any knife is the right answer for surgery, you really need to go get more training.

Digging seems to come up whenever the subject of survival is discussed. There are many reasons why you might have to dig in a survival situation– to get tubers and roots, create a solar still, make a fire pit, and more. These are all good reasons to dig, but why plan to use a knife? This is probably a holdover from the WWII era when there were no suitable alternatives. This is no longer the case. There have been several excellent trowels on the market since the 1970’s designed primarily for backpacking. They are light weight and strong. One, called U-dig-it, is quality steel and folds into a small sheath. Others are high strength plastic. I have several of each and have used them heavily over the past four decades. None has ever failed me. They are light enough to carry hiking or backpacking. Here’s the important point; they all dig far better than any knife. What sense does it make to hone a great edge on a knife and then jam it into the ground repeatedly? In your vehicle, you should carry a shovel or an entrenching tool in case you need to do some serious digging. Your home or retreat should have several full-sized shovels or spades. I don’t plan to dig with any of my knives, and neither do any of my friends.

Wire cutting is a two-part issue, the difference being the strength of the wire. Soft wire, like copper electrical wire, can be cut with a knife, if you absolutely had to, although I’d prefer a multi-tool or cutting pliers of some sort. Hard wire, meaning anything with steel filaments, cannot be cut with a knife unless you have one of those bayonet rigs where the knife and sheath combine to make a cutter. This means everything from Army commo wire to fence wire and barbed wire is off limits for a knife. If you anticipate the requirement to cut steel wire, you should get a real cutter designed for the task and probably one with compound leverage. Don’t expect a pair of diagonal cutters from your tool box to cut steel wire either. Check out your local hardware or farm supply store for fencing tools. I have one at home, but I don’t carry it, because I don’t anticipate the requirement when on the trail. If you do, get the right tool.

Hammering is another function, which probably dates from the WWII era, since the old aircrew survival knife and the Ka-bar both had “hammerheads” on them. I have never needed to hammer anything in any of the survival situations in which I found myself. While in the field with the Army I did use my knife to hammer nails and fence staples, but it is more dangerous than you think.

Consider this situation: You need to hammer a fence staple into a tree in order to anchor something. So, you draw your knife and hammer with the butt. Great, but wait, where is that razor sharp blade? It is probably bouncing within inches of your face or other body parts. That’s NOT safe! This may sound stupid, but many people have injured themselves in just this manner. Hammering is best done with… wait for it… a hammer or at least the hammer end of a tool like a shingle hatchet or tomahawk. Frankly, hammering with any tool with a blade on the back side is dangerous, but hatchets and tomahawks are far safer than using a knife. I do not expect to need to hammer while on the trail, so my hammers are at home and in my vehicles. If you expect to need one, please use something safer and more efficient than a knife.

Sawing is a function that often arises in discussions of survival because it is immensely more efficient than chopping. That being said, I have personally been very disappointed in the saw-back knives I have tried. A saw is a very high-tech tool. Its teeth are often bent outwards from the blade. The teeth are sharpened individually, often on both sides to get cutting action on both the push and the pull stroke. The teeth are usually heat treated differently than the saw blade itself. None of this is typically found on a knife blade with saw teeth. You may certainly have had different experience than me, but I view saw teeth on the back of a knife blade as solid evidence that the knife is of poor quality and I dismiss it immediately. However, there are two exceptions– the old aircrew survival knife has a functional, if not efficient, saw on the blade. It probably works because of the quality of the steel and the heat treating. The second exception is a custom-made knife from a reputable maker, like Randall. I have not handled one myself, but I trust those guys to do a good job. My Randall had a regular blade. I have noted several knife manufacturers recently market saw-back knives. They should know how to make a good saw, but I have no direct experience with them, nor do any of my friends. Not to worry though, several good options exist. The saw on my Wenger Swiss Army knife is absolutely excellent. I routinely saw two inch branches and saplings with it and it’s great on PVC. It is my go to saw on the trail. Another good option is one of the many wire saws on the market. Very light weight and easily packed, wire saws have the advantage of being able to cut very large timber, if you need to. I recommend rigging it like a bow saw rather than holding it in two hands. My two-hand technique must be bad, because the saw always gets stuck. Finally, folding saws have become very popular with hunters today. Several I have tried are good, solid saws; they’re light weight and very reasonably priced. At home, consider a quality bow saw and a quality pruning saw. I found a pruning saw almost as old as I am at a flea market for a buck. After a bath in naval jelly and some sanding to remove the rust, I was amazed at how well it cut. I still have a chain saw, but this could do the job after the gas is gone.

A note to the new folks: The serrations found on the cutting edge of some knives is not intended as a saw. These serrations are intended to allow more efficient cutting of fibrous materials, like rope and seat belt webbing. Personally, I do not see the increased functionality, but several of my friends do, and they are in a position to know. I think the serrations complicate sharpening the blade, but if you think the extra effort is justified then go for it. An option would be to have a folding knife with a serrated blade, as there are many good ones on the market, and leave the fixed blade simple and sharp.

Prying is an inevitable task, which will arise more often than you think. I have seen several knife manufacturers advertise how strong their knives are by prying heavy weights or standing on the handle of a knife in a vise. New guys, please read the fine print and disclaimers on these videos. All have a statement to the effect “Don’t do this. It will void your warranty.” I have seen good knives completely destroyed, because someone thought they could use them like a crow bar. Here’s the only practical answer I can give you, because every situation will be different: Whenever you are faced with a prying situation, ask yourself, “Is this important enough to chip the edge or bend the blade?” If the answer is “yes”, then good luck with it. Buy a Ka-bar or the best knife you can. Generally speaking, I avoid prying with any of my blades. There have been several tools designed specifically for this issue; the Tac Tool on the Ka-Bar website being the most recent. Divers have had several knife-like pry bars for years. Of course, don’t forget actual crow bars and gorilla bars from the hardware stores. While discussing this subject with a few friends, it occurred to us that survival in an urban area would likely require a lot more prying than hacking. Our conclusion was that in an urban environment, an actual pry bar (like the Estwing I-beam from the hardware store) would make much more sense to carry than a machete or tomahawk, like we do in our more wooded environment. If you are planning to escape the city or suburb in which you live and evac to a rural retreat, a solution might be a good pry bar in your vehicle. Certainly, you should have several of different sizes in your retreat.