Some say the perfect survival knife is the one you’re carrying. This may be true, but it’s also true that we do our best work when we have the right tools. In the unpredictable realm of survival, how can we know which knife we will need when our future remains uncertain? As we rundown the 10 most popular groups of survival knives, decide which is best for you. It may turn out you need multiples, and that’s OK, because you can never be too prepared.
1. Survival Knives
Survival knives are the embodiment of self-preservation and self-reliance. Whether they were designed for military applications or civilian use, these robust blades generally offer more features than just a cutting edge. Saw-back spines are a common feature, as are serrated sections on the blades. Sheaths may have a pocket, pouches or integrated sharpening tools and other survival equipment (like spark rods). You’ll still even see the old style of hollow handled knives (for storing your survival gear). While this looks cool and sounds like a good idea (thanks, Rambo), keep in mind that this creates a poor mechanical connection between the handle and the blade. You might want to skip this hollow-handle feature in favor of a full tang knife and a separate pouch for the survival gear.
2. EDC Folders
In general, fixed-blade knives are stronger than folders, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore this valuable group of blades. These “pocketknives” may be a life-saving backup weapon during a brutal attack, or they may simply slice through restrains, obstructions or your peanut butter sandwich at lunch. An every day carry knife is often on the smaller side, discrete and off-the-radar of the people that surround you. Pick one that feels good in your hand, has reputable edge retention, and sturdy construction. Your life may depend on it.
3. Special Use Knives
Sometimes survival boils down to having exactly the right tool at the right time. Jump knives and dive knives are two great examples of this concept. Jump knives are used on an aircraft, and often kept in reach by the jump master. The odd scalloped edge of this knife is perfectly designed to slice through cords, ropes, straps and webbing, something that may need to happen quickly to save a life. Similarly, dive knives are often carried by divers. These corrosion-resistant blades are meant to cut through nets, lines and other materials that may ensnare a diver. They are also meant to fight off denizens of the deep, like sharks and other predators. Sure, a knife is a knife, and in most cases, it doesn’t matter what you can use to cut something. But in those rare situations, the right tool can make all the difference.
4. Bowie Knives
Recognizable world-wide, the Bowie knife is a piece of frontier history that is still relevant today. The blade is named after James Bowie, a 19th-century American pioneer who fought in the Texas Revolution and later died at the Battle of the Alamo. While some of the stories of this bombastic frontiersman may have been fiction, Bowie is still an iconic figure in Texas history and viewed as an American hero. His famous knife didn’t begin as we see it today (a huge hunting knife with Spanish design influence). Bowie wasn’t even the knife maker. Yet, the blade went through several design upgrades, requested by Bowie over the years. The original is recounted as “a large butcher knife” with a straight spine by eyewitnesses, though today, it is replicated in the familiar fighting knife style with a clip point and an easily identified profile. Suitable for both camp chores and self-defense, the Bowie knife could be a life-saving weapon under the right circumstances.
5. Bushcraft Blades
I love bushcraft blades. They carve and slice with ease, and even stand up to abusive work. Whatever their make and model, a bushcraft blade is designed for camp tasks and wood carving, and it’s the ultimate wilderness companion. When you need to carve a bow drill kit, make deadfall traps, or slice your way through a pile of kindling, a good bushcraft knife can handle the workload. From slender wood carvers, like Morakniv Companion, to more robust bushcraft knives, many of these share a wood-gobbling edge—the Scandi grind. This seemingly simple flat grind creates an edge that is easy to sharpen in the field and cuts through wood like a pack of starved beavers. Whether high end or affordably priced, make sure you have a bushcraft to cover the myriad of camp chores you’ll face on the next backcountry adventure.
Many multi-tools are affordably priced and have great warranties, but they are not always the most effective. In order to cram a knife, a saw, some scissors, a toothpick, a screwdriver and a bunch of other tools into one sleek package, each function must suffer a little. The scissors are wimpy, the saw is too short, and the blade often has a terrible edge. Don’t get me wrong, a good contemporary multi-tool (like a Leatherman) has overcome many of these stumbling blocks, but there’s no way to have the absolute best of each tool type on just one tool. The upside: When you need to do unexpected firearm repairs, hotwire a car, or fix your walkie-talkie, the multi-tool gives you all of the tools you’d have otherwise left in the garage. It really is like having a tool chest in your pocket. In the right setting, it might just be the tool that saves the day.
Heritage tools like parangs, kukris, bolo knives and their cousins are great examples of choppers. These are often descended from field tools, such as sickles and machete-like tools that were designed to do work on farms and in forests. Today, modern hybrid weapons like competition choppers and tactical cleavers show their roots with a squared-off profile and hatchet-like edge. Most of these tools are at home chopping down trees and splitting the wood into kindling. With proper edge maintenance, they can still be sharp enough for all your daily cutting tasks and finer carving work.
You won’t be hacking down vegetation or cutting firewood with this delicate blade. The dagger is an ancient knife design that serves one major purpose–stabbing. Some of the world’s first daggers were crafted in Neolithic times from ivory, bone, and stone; and while archeologists have dug up plenty of rough versions of this weapon, don’t assume they were all crude. The famous “Danish daggers” of Scandinavia were made from flint around 4,000 years ago. These intricately flaked stone tools had straight edges, an integrated stone handle, and are some of the most sophisticated stone tools ever produced (still sharp to this day, as they sit behind museum glass). Metal daggers followed their stone forerunners as the early Bronze Age spread new weapon technologies throughout the Old World. Today, daggers are still used as back-up weapons, with carrying systems that are designed to transport them on your belt or in your boot.
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9. Hunting Knives
Even before the fur trade took off, hunting knives were necessary tools for gutting animals, processing meat and removing hides, from both wild game and domesticated animals. Gently curving edges, along with clip point or drop point profiles, are common traits of hunting knives designed for gutting (as this keeps the point out of the way of the innards better than knives with a straight spine or a point that curves upward). For more dedicated skinners, the points and profile may curve slightly or significantly, which makes the blade easier to use when skinning out difficult hides. Whatever the profile, hunting knives are typically fixed-blade knives that are just as useful around your hunting camp as they are when you’re making meat.
10. Specialty Fighters
The Karambit is an excellent example of a specialty fighting knife. While some historians believe that this weapon has its roots in agrarian tools, such as the sickles that were once used to cut rice grass, others believe this weapon is the result of humans imitating nature (and reproducing the vicious claws of the tiger). Whichever is true, the karambit is just one of the strange and unique weapons to come from the islands of Indonesia. Other specialty fighting knives, like the Chinese deer horn knives, balisongs (butterfly knives), the wavy-edged kris knife, and the African kpinga (a three-bladed throwing knife) are just a few of the creative blade designs that have survived into modern times. While some of these are unwieldy as tools (like the kpinga) or are legally restricted in many places (like balisongs), these weapons still make interesting training companions in your martial arts systems.