Tips on Selecting Survival Knives

Knives have been essential tools of humanity for many thousands of years, and it's not hard to see why humans persisted in their dedication to advancing knife technology for all this time. What, after all, is a knife? And why do we need them? A knife is quite simple: It's a tapered piece of hard material which has a thin, sharp edge and sometimes a handle. We use them today as they have been used for millenia - to cut things. There, now that wasn't difficult. A knife is a tool having a sharp edge of hard material with a handle, and we use it to cut things. It appears that cutting things is an activity which humans felt then and still feel is important, even essential to life.

Well, I won't drag this out. We humans are masters at modifying our environment, and for that we need tools, so we have become a culture obsessed with making and mastering tools. A knife allows us to modify things by cutting them: cut one thing into pieces, slice something thin or thick, shave pieces off something larger, scrape, pierce, hollow, incise, mark and so on. A sharp hard edge with a handle is useful beyond description. Plus, it could be used as a weapon for hunting and for battle.

No need to trace the evolution of knife technology for thousands of years. Today, we have materials for knife blades and handles that would make our Stone Age relatives speechless with envy. So, maybe they didn't talk much anyway, but the point is that we have come close to knife 'perfection', with Titanium blades and bone handles. Okay, they probably had bones in the Stone Age, but not Titanium.

The amazing thing for me is that I can pick up a knife catalog from Budk and find a big stainless steel Bowie knife for $12 and folders as low as $2. I know, all from China, so what? I need a good knife. Manufacturing here in the USA is dying, so I look elsewhere to get what I need. There are fewer choices now, and I can't afford those fancy made-in-USA $100 totally-patriotic knives (that probably come from Mexico).

Anyway, the point is, you can find some good, usable knives for little money these days. That may not be true next year, so stock up on essentials while you can. What follows is a dozen or so tips which knife users (all of humanity) might find useful in a survival situation.

Tip 1: Notice the title is plural: Knives. First tip is that, unless your resources are extremely limited, you will probably want more than one knife. I think the minimum is two, but obviously you can survive in some situations with one or none at all. Since we're already talking about the minimum, what would you pick if you could only have one knife?

Hold that thought. First, I think it would help to list some of the main tasks we ask our knives to perform, in order to help us select one that performs all or most of them. I live most of the time 'outside', so I use knives a lot for daily chores. And to be honest, I use a folder for most of them, however, I am not living in a survival situation. I don't cut branches to build shelter, I don't split kindling for fires, and I'm not fighting off threats with my knife. That said, I often take on chores with my folder which could be done better with a larger, fixed blade knife, simply because the folder is all I have with me. What kind of chores?

I often have to clear thorny bushes from my path, and with my folder, I usually get some thorns in my hands and arms. A longer, stronger blade would be better. For cutting rope and cloth, sharpening a stick and all light uses, a folding knife with a 3-4" blade is ideal.

Tip 2: In a bugged-out or survival situation, your knife may have to do more than light stuff, so if you only have one knife, I suggest a fixed blade, full tang, at least 6" in a sheath. I say at least 6", but I prefer an 8+" blade, thick enough - say 3/16" - to do some chopping, maybe even digging and prying. Some hefty 'survival' knives are a full 1/4" thick. I consider 3/16" a minimum thickness. [Average length of a handle is 5", so a knife with an 8" blade is 13"]

Tip 3: If a knife is long enough to do some chopping, as with a machete, your hand position on the handle changes, but more importantly, your hand has new requirements from the handle. The knife is now moving in an up and down manner and closer and farther away, and there is momentum in the blade at the end of the downstroke that 'tends' to pull the knife out of your hand, because it is moving away from you. Good machete handles are shaped to catch your little finger, should the machete start to leave your hand. In fact, the part that ends up against your little finger is the part that allows you to use aggressive and powerful chopping swings without losing the machete.

Tip 4: Larger knives - that is, blades over 6" - will lend themselves to this kind of chopping, so that part of the handle should be made larger. The larger and longer the blade, the more likely it will be used like a machete, and thus the more need there is for its handle to catch your little finger and not fly away. Smooth handles without this 'catch' are okay for small knives, but large knives are more useful with it.

I have a nice knife ($15 in a survival shop) - at least the blade is nice - the blade is 8.5", but the handle, though nice hardwood and 'pretty' to look at, is smooth and not optimized in either shape or texture for staying in my hand. It's not my first knife with a good blade and a less-than-great handle. I have bought many kitchen knives at thrift shops, really cheap, and later removed the small, impractical handles and made new ones or enlarged the existing one by wrapping it with resin-soaked cord. This nice knife I mentioned will soon get a handle upgrade, so that it can be used like a machete, when needed. Update: It now has a new PVC handle.

Tip 5: Let's now consider the other extreme. We talked about one extreme: only one knife, so make sure it can do it all. The other extreme is you can carry whatever you want. So what do you want, or need, to carry? This is more subjective than the first extreme and takes into consideration what environment you are in, what tasks you are doing, your skills, what you need edged tools for and so on. So I won't pretend that there is some ideal combination of tools for everyone. Here, simply, are some things to consider.

My environment is the desert of the southwest, mostly cactus, few trees and they can be handled with small tools, as they are soft. If you are in the woods or jungle, your environment will present different challenges. There, you could probably make good use of a large machete. My machete of choice for the desert has a narrow (1 1/8" tapers to 3/4") 11" blade - some Bowie knives are longer than that. But for the brush and small, soft trees in the desert, this mini-machete works well and is easier to carry than a jungle model. I can probably take care of all chores with my 3.5" folder blade and my mini-machete. Or even the folder and the 8.5" knife which will soon have a machete handle. Your mileage may vary. You may need larger blades, possibly an axe/hatchet or such.

Tip 6: If you ever have to use your knife as a weapon, you're going to need something that can perform as a weapon. Sure, a folder is better than nothing, but just the fact that the blade folds is two strikes against it as a weapon. The pivot and stop pins are small and probably not something you would choose to depend on to save your life. They can fail. If one knife has to do all your chores, and one of your chores might be defending your life, you won't want a folder as your only knife. Similarly, a folder is unsuited to chopping, digging and prying, tasks you may have to demand from your survival knife.

My choice? If I only had one knife to do everything, it would be the one I mentioned with the nice 8.5" blade and full-tang hardwood handle that I will replace. A large fixed blade knife like this is not as useful for light tasks as a shorter blade, but it can be made to work, whereas the short blade knife cannot be made to do jobs that only large fixed blade knives can do. The compromise is having a large knife that can do everything, though some things less efficiently, rather than a small knife that does some things well but cannot perform others at all.

Lastly, you may carry a firearm, perhaps a pistol on your belt, so you may suppose that your knife will not be needed in a self-defense situation. Ever wonder why soldiers put bayonets on rifles? I mean, why get close enough to stab someone if you can shoot him from a safe distance? Ah, the reality of battle, how inconvenient. Rifles in battle are known to jam, run out of ammo and break, even get stolen or lost. Pistols, too. God forbid your pistol abandons you or runs out of food or fails and forces you to grab your knife for defense. Since history is a far better teacher than either imagination or supposition, if you should ever reach for your knife for close combat, which would you prefer to be carrying: a 4-inch folder or a 9-inch Bowie? (See tip 11 below about throwing knives)

Tip 7: Which brings up another tip. Have backups for as many of your critical tools as possible and practical. A 'backup' is another one, a second, in case the first is broken, lost, stolen, whatever. Critical tools are those things you have and maybe carry that make possible what you do. Read that again: these tools make possible what you do. Practical means to have backups for all those things, but only if they don't burden you beyond what you consider safe. A second knife isn't much weight, but if you have backups for a lot of other tools, it gets heavy.

Police and other armed professionals often carry a backup pistol, in case their primary firearm fails or whatever. Same with a primary knife, have a backup. These tools make possible what you do. A separate issue is what you can do with a gun versus with a knife. Never confuse them - don't bring a knife to a gunfight. You could lose your knife.

Tip 8: You can make your own handles. If you have a good solid knife but don't like the handle, and if you have a full tang or close to it, you can cheaply and easily make a handle that fits your hand perfectly. Look on YouTube for videos on making Micarta from resin and cloth, and it makes good handles. If you are skilled, you can use wood, leather discs, PVC and other common materials for handles.

Tip 9: For sharpening my knives and machetes, I prefer sandpaper, the good kind that is waterproof, usually black and lasts a long time. Lay it on a flat surface and you have a large sharpening 'stone' for your knives. Grits 250 and finer work well - experiment to find what you like. I use medium grits like 300 for coarse work, 500 to 800 for the edge.

Tip 10: A sharp knife always cuts when you want it to. A dull knife cuts when you don't want it to. I've noticed there are two kinds of people: The majority keep a kitchen full of dull knives, and their pocket knives are dull as well. There is a small minority who keep all edged tools razor sharp. Knives, chisels, saws - all are ready for work. Dull knives tend to train people that knives are always dull, and so require much effort to make them cut. When such people get their hands on a sharp knife, they sometimes get hurt. "Wow, I didn't know it was so sharp." Also, as dull knives and other edged tools require more effort, accidents sometimes result from forcing a blade to do work. Anyone who has worked with both a dull and a sharp chisel knows this. Ever use a dull saw?

I used to try to educate people about why sharp knives are safer - they always cut, whereas dull knives sometimes cut when you don't want them to. I would even sharpen their kitchen knives for them and show them how easy it is now to cut things. But later I heard that they cut themselves, because they were not accustomed to their knives cutting so easily. I stopped sharpening knives for others.

Tip 11: Full-tang knives are often balanced, so they can be used for throwing. I've never seen a balanced folder - the blade is always lighter than the handle. Fixed blade knives are often made with good balance - the blade and handle are the same weight. This is not absolutely necessary for throwing, but it makes throwing the knife easier and more consistent.

Tip 12: You can make a sheath for a knife. YouTube again - several good videos on making sheaths from leather, wood, Kydex, Micarta and even PVC pipe. Sometimes good knives come with horrible sheaths or none at all. My nice knife mentioned above came with a 'lefty' sheath of poor quality. A good sheath is important, because...

You want to carry the knife on your belt or body or gear where it can be quickly accessed; you want to protect the blade; you want to protect yourself and other things from the blade.

Tip 13: I have often made temporary sheaths for knives from cardboard, the kind cereal boxes are made from. I cut a piece 1/4" longer than the blade and long enough to be wrapped a few times around it. I lay the blade on the cardboard and fold some over the blade edge about 3/4 its width, then fold it around the back of the blade, then again around the edge (now covered with one layer of cardboard), again around the back, again around the edge and finish on the side, trimming at the back. While holding this wrapping, I begin adding scotch or other tape, spiraling around from top to tip, then cut. The result is a protective sheath which is not pretty but quite usable. I still have some I made ten years ago, so I suppose 'temporary' is not accurate.

Tip 14: You can make a knife from natural materials, in case you don't have one or lose it. Four or five natural materials have been used for many thousands of years for some of the tasks for which we use metal knives. The obvious one is stone - remember the Stone Age? There are books and videos which describe the technique of cracking and chipping stones made from obsidian, flint and other kinds of rock to create sharp edges for cutting, arrow and spear points, and so on.

Animal bones are not as hard as stone, but usable knives can be made from them, especially the leg bones of large herbivores. Stones can be used to shape the bone after splitting into workable pieces. Horn and antler are softer than bone but can also be used.

Wood of some trees is extremely hard and can be shaped using stones into knives and spears. Bamboo, actually giant grass, if it grows in your area, can be heated in fire to make it even harder.

Shells of sea animals are not as hard as stone but could make usable knives in an emergency.

Teeth of large animals. I made my first knife by grinding down a file - it also ground down the grinder, because files are quite hard. I was living on the beach in a part of California where elephant seals come to mate - the only place on the coast of the USA where they do this. Anyway, a friend had found a tooth on the sand, probably a canine, from an elephant seal, and I used the whole tooth as the handle. I ground notches in the file's tang and then embedded it, using small nails to lock into the notches, with boat resin, filling the cavity inside the tooth (it was not solid). I capped the tooth with a piece of bone - the blade protruded from the cap.

Anyway, teeth are harder than bone, so I suppose you could shape them with stone to create a blade, not just a handle. It would have to be a large animal, possibly a crocodile, to have teeth large enough to make a knife.

Tip 15: A 'baton' can help a small blade do the work of a larger blade. A baton is simply a straight stick of wood, harder is better, maybe a foot or two long and an inch or two in diameter. Place the small blade where you want it to cut, on a tree branch or whatever, then strike it with the baton once, see what happens, twice, keep watching, and keep hitting it until the blade does what you want. So instead of hitting the tree branch with, say a machete or large knife, you hit the back of your small knife blade with the baton to get the same force.

Conclusion: A strong knife is often considered the main tool of a survivalist, something for which he or she would readily trade other critical tools. In the time before a crisis or emergency, we tend not to take seriously the importance of preparation, and yet in that time we have everything available, things which some would later fight over, due to scarcity. Two is one, one is none. A common saying among preppers, it means that one of anything can become none in a heartbeat, so have two, have a backup. Preppers and survivalists not only know the meaning of intentional redundancy, they live it. Ask a prepper or survivalist how many knives he or she owns. Or how many flashlights. If it's a dozen, he or she practices this principle. If it's a hundred, he or she is a collector.

Preppers, survivalists and responsible people preparing for possible emergencies don't need knife collections, they need good, solid tools that work and don't break. They need backups. They need them now, while these tools are still available and inexpensive. Which bring up fabrication.

Making a knife is an enjoyable and educational experience, and if you feel inclined to make the knife of your dreams, there hasn't been a better time for thousands of years to make that dream a reality. However, don't think that you have to make a knife from scratch to have a good knife. It takes many hours to take a file or a leaf spring or whatever and whittle it down to a finished knife blade. Your time might be better spent making a good handle for an existing knife.

There are web sites dedicated to knife making. There are parts you can assemble and so many other options to get a good knife. Since the blade is the more difficult of the two main parts to make, and since you can buy finished and relatively usable knives for under $30, it might be a better use of your time and resources to make a custom handle for a blade or make a custom sheath for a knife or both. Start with what you like that's already made and just finish it. Working with handle and sheath materials is far easier and requires fewer tools than working with hard steel. Handles and sheaths you can make on the kitchen table, the steel requires a small workshop.

Okay, exaggeration, a small one. I work often on the tailgate of my pickup, using an angle grinder on steel, and I am currently planning and designing the handle for that nice knife mentioned earlier. That will involve removing the existing hardwood handle and brass pins, grinding the tang a bit to allow a deeper grip for the little finger - to catch on - and making a grip from scratch, probably from Micarta, which is just layered cotton cloth saturated with resin. Want to know now how to make one of the best knife/tool handle materials? Watch the videos on YouTube, but here it is in a nutshell.

Tip 16: Micarta for knife handles is layered and resembles wood grain. Tape down a piece of wax paper and lightly oil the surface (release agent). Cut two dozen pieces of cloth longer than your tang and more than twice as wide as the handle you want. Jeans fabric is perfec, but even a bed sheet will work. Wear disposable gloves. Mix the resin components in a plastic cup. Have a disposable paintbrush handy, or a paint stir stick or so. Put a piece of cloth down, then apply resin with the brush/stick - saturate it so all the air leaves. Lay another piece of cloth on top, apply resin, then another and so on until you have a stack of saturated cloth. Oil another wax sheet and lay it on top of the stack. On this place a flat board to make the top flat. Place heavy objects on all four sides of the board to prevent it from sliding off, and a small weight on top of the board. YouTube videos stress pressure, and they end up with a lot of resin oozing out of the stack. Ask yourself if the Micarta will be better or stronger with the cloth layers pressed together. I don't think so, they just waste a lot of resin. The finished micarta will be plenty strong with that resin left in the stack, spacing the cloth layers a bit more, big deal. I don't think these people really understand the technology or the physics of the material. We're making knife handles, not wings for the Space Shuttle. When the resin is cured and hard, remove the top board and wax papers. Cut in half to get two pieces for your handle. Shaping Micarta for a knife handle is just like working with wood. Carving into it reveals layers and adds charm. If you want it to resemble wood, use brown and light yellow cloth, and lay one or two brown (winter tree growth) thensix or eight yellow (summer growth) then repeat. In a nutshell, that's all there is to it. Easy, peezy, nothing cheesy.

I wish you success in your quest for the blades you need to survive and thrive.

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