Hunting Opinion Self Defense

What Does Uncle Zo Look For in a Survival Knife?

It’s probably safe to assume that most folks who like knives aren’t experts on knives. I’m in that camp. Nevertheless, I’m going to share what I look for in a survival knife based on my opinion (as bad as that may be).

A little while back, I found myself in a discussion about survival knives on social media. A reader started a conversation expressing his astonishment at how expensive knives can get and was looking for fixed bladed suggestions in the sub $200 range to put on a gun belt. I chimed in and as the discourse progressed the reader mentioned that he was looking for a good all-around survival knife and thought the topic might make for a good blog post. So here we are.

To be honest, this is a tough post to write. I’ve made it a point to be more conscientious about the posts I write and the recommendations I publish as the readership grows. I simply don’t want to steer folks the wrong way. The truth is I’m far from a knife expert and I’m certainly not an accomplished survivalist. Most of what I know about knives, more specifically survival knives, is academic with a splash of life experience. I suspect I’m not much different than most folks who have used knives all their lives for food preparation, meal consumption, and opening packages. While I do spend a fair amount of time outdoors hunting and camping, I can’t imagine that those experiences make me any more qualified to speak on the subject. Nevertheless, I like knives and I make it a point to be intentional about the knife or knives I opt to take along wherever I go. As such, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to share what I look for in a knife, especially the knife I may depend on for my own survival.

Now where shall we begin? It never hurts to start with principles. So let’s start there. In a way, knives are like firearms. At least in the sense that they may be relied on as emergency equipment in a survival situation. In that sense, the very best knife for survival is the one you have when you need it. Owning the “Ultimate Survival Knife” does one no good when it is needed but it was left at home. That means that a good survival knife must be portable enough to take along. However, a knife is more often a utilitarian tool than an emergency tool. As such, it should be a knife that can be relied on for regular day to day tasks. This means the knife is likely to get used, perhaps a lot, in non-emergency situations prior to one depending on it for survival.

This begs the question, what does survival really mean? Sure, preservation of life is the obvious answer. But in what context? Urban? Rural? Back country? What’s the environment like? What about the climate? Considering the details can help us infer the types of tasks we are likely to encounter and the conditions they will likely be performed in. All of that plays into the selection process which can get pretty involved when attempting to find the perfect combination of steel, size, shape, grind, handle material, sheath and carry method. If there is a silver bullet, I haven’t found one. There is a reason many blade enthusiasts end up with one or more containers filled with various knives and it’s not just due to aesthetics.

So what do I look for in a survival knife? Well, it depends. That answer should be unsurprising given the lengthy preamble. However, there are some foundational characteristics that I apply universally. So let’s start with those. If it’s a knife that I may need to rely on for survival, then I want it to be a fixed blade with full tang construction. Full tang means that the blade is one solid continuous piece of steel from the tip to the butt. I also want the knife to be field serviceable – which means I want it to be relatively easy to sharpen. I also want the knife to be resistant against chipping and breaking. Those three things are arguably the most important things to me when I think about survival knives.

Before we get too deep into the topic, let’s back up a bit and talk about the top four qualities of blade steel. Blade steel is the foundation of the knife in my opinion. There are certainly other things to consider as I have already mentioned, but the steel is the foundation on which the rest of a knife is built on. There are a lot of different types of steel and the composition of each type of steel changes the way it performs. Performance is measured primarily in four different ways: edge retention, toughness, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening. These four factors are what I am referring to as the four qualities. Excelling in any one of these qualities generally means some form of compromise in the others. For example, steel that has great edge retention is often notoriously difficult to sharpen and more susceptible to chipping or breaking. Which of these qualities are most important are namely dependent on the survival context. For me, in my typical environments and based on how I think a survival scenario is likely to play out, ease of sharpening is the most important quality followed by toughness. That means I’m most often considering fixed blades that are made from CPM MagnaCut (on the high end), AEB-L, H1, 1095, A2, or 420 (on the low end) steel. If I resided on the coast or was going to spend a bit of time there, then I might prioritize corrosion resistance and opt for blades made from CPM MagnaCut (again on the high end), CPM S35VN, H1, or 420 (on the low end). In my opinion, edge retention is more important for utility than survival, but that’s just me. If you want to learn more about blade steels, then check out this guide from Blade HQ.

While it may seem like I’m giving CPM MagnaCut high praises, which I believe it deserves, it’s not my go to steel for what I would consider a survival knife. This is because it’s an ultra premium steel that is reflected on the price tag and the selection of knives made in that steel is relatively low. As such, my go to steel is 1095. It’s relatively inexpensive (although some 1095 knives can get pricey) and there is a large selection of knives made from 1095 available on the market. Of those 1095 knives that are available, I most often use, carry, and suggest either the Esee 3 or the Esee 4. These two options may not be cream of the crop, but they are a capable, durable, and fairly affordable option that meet my needs most of the time. As such, they make their way into my “get home” bag and hunting pack more often than any other knife I can think of.

Why the Esee 3 or the Esee 4? There are several reasons for this beyond them being serviceable, durable, and affordable knives. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say they are the ultimate survival knives. However, they check off my top priorities while hitting the mark on several other parameters that are important to me most of the time.

What parameters? My typical day consists of being in the suburbs where I occasionally drive into the city and the weekend meanderings to one of the local ranges which are in a rural setting but just outside the city. In all of those cases, I want a knife that can fit easily in a small get home pack without adding much weight and bulk. I also want the knife to be a jack of all trades. I’m far more likely to need to use it as a tool to cut cordage or nylon than anything else. There is a very low chance that I may need it to pry something with it, but that is far more likely that finding myself having to “bush craft” a shelter from the available vegetation. For those more likely tasks, I find a blade with a cutting edge of 3 to 4 inches and little bit of thickness to fit the bill. The flat grind found on the Esee 3 and Esee 4 works well enough for those types of tasks while providing a strong edge that can take a bit of abuse and is relatively easy to service. Folks often point out that the protective coating makes starting a fire with a ferrocerium rod impossible and I’m okay with that. I’m not planning on setting up camp and starting a fire with it. I’ll be using it to help me get home. And that’s only when I don’t end up using it for some other mundane task where the smaller folding knife I keep on my person won’t cut it.

During hunting season, my typical tasks change quite a bit during the hunting trips. I’m still not likely to find myself doing a bit of primitive camping even in an emergency, but I am more likely to do a little woodwork, such as light chopping, splitting wood, or starting a fire, than I am likely to find myself needing to pry something. Also instead of cutting nylon and cordage, I’m going to be processing game animals and doing a fair bit of food prep potentially without the set of kitchen knives I have available at home. I’m also going to be far more remote and as such the small get home pack along with the Esee is left at home and replaced with the hunting pack that contains the Adventure Sworn Guide.

The blade on the Adventure Sworn is made from CPM S35VN, which is one of the steels I mentioned before. It’s about as tough as 1095, but corrosion resistant. That’s important to me here since I will be working with food far more often with this blade. However, it’s not as easy to sharpen as 1095, but it does retain an edge better. The cutting edge is about 0.5″ to 1.5″ longer than the Esee 4 and the Esee 3 respectively and is not as thick as either Esee. It also has a much deeper belly and convex grind which are features that work better for the types of tasks expected to be done with this knife. While I will most likely rely on a Bic lighter to light fires, this knife will throw sparks from a ferrocerium rod like it’s the 4th of July. So there is that.

If there is anything to take away from this is that the context matters. Having a good knife available in an emergency is priority number one. I find that having a tough knife that can be serviced in the field that can also be used for non-emergency tasks and is not likely to be left at home to be pretty important. This is why my gun belts don’t have a knife on them. I have two gun belts. One for competition that I only wear at matches. Another for tactical live action role playing. I’m not likely to have either one of those belts on or around most of the time. As such, they don’t get a knife. So consider what else you may find yourself doing with it, the environment that you will be in, and how you will keep it accessible day in and day out. If you’re unsure where to start or are stuck in analysis paralysis, then I suggest considering an Esee 3 or 4. Ka-Bar Becker and Ontario Knife Company also have some similarly sized options made from 1095 that would, in my opinion, be a good place to start while keeping the cost reasonable. What’s reasonable? I’m thinking about $125 plus or minus $25.

1 comment

  1. I’m a big fan of the Buck Knives 119 Special, I’ve taken it hunting, camping, beaten it to hell on the farm and it’s still in great shape 26 years after I originally bought it.

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