How to Choose the Right Survival Knife




Introduction: How to Choose the Right Survival Knife

This is my guide for how to choose the right survival knife. This is by no means a definitive list, because it depends on your personal tastes and the situations you are likely to be in, but I hope to tell you some of the main features you should consider for a general purpose blade. 

if there is anything incorrect in this instructable, please let me know.
Also, these pictures are from google images to illustrate my points. 

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Step 1: The Law

In the UK, the law is fairly tight. I am not going to go too in depth about it, but my source of knowledge is here if you want to check up on it, or get some examples.  In general:

You may not carry a knife with more than 3" of cutting edge, and it may not lock open. Butterfly knives, flick knives, or other assisted opening knives are also banned; if you are caught with one in public, you will end up in jail. 

Knives over this length may not be carried without good reason. The exception to this is :
1. Knives carried for work
2. Knives carried for religious reasons
3. Knives carried as part of national dress

As for what a public place is:

The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 section 1(4) provides that;

'a public place includes any highway and any other premises to which the public have or are permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise'

This also includes your car (even if it is locked). 

Step 2: Film Knives

Before I start, DO NOT be tempted by knives you see on TV and in films, such as Rambo. This is almost always the least practical knife you can have. it is much to big to be used comfortably and for delicate jobs. It is also the wrong type of tool for bigger jobs. 

Moan over..!!

Step 3: Parts of a Knife

I think the picture below just about covers it. There may also be a pommel, or butt cap at the bottom of the handle, and a guard at the bottom of the blade. There might also be a lanyard hole near the end of the handle. 

Step 4: Type of Knife

For day to day jobs, a small folding pocket knife will suffice, with or without a lock (depending on where you are/the common uses). For general bushcraft and survival, a fixed knife is best, as a hinge provides a weak point. I will be concentrating on fixed knives in this instructable. 

For use in the jungle, i would recommend taking a large machete or axe as well, to cut your way through dense undergrowth. 

Step 5: Size

For the length of the blade, I find between 4" and 6" is the ideal length, short enough to get control for finer jobs, such as carving, and large enough for heavier jobs. 

Step 6: Tang

The tang is the piece of metal attached to the blade that runs inside the handle. The top tang is a a hidden partial tang or push tang. This may be useful if there is a hollow handle with a survival kit in it (a feature I would STRONGLY recommend you do not have, due to the loss of strength). The middle blade has a hidden rat's tail or stick tang. It extends the length of the handle and the handle is pressed or threaded on to it. The bottom blade has a full tang, which conforms to the shape of the handle. 

Having a partial tang may not be a sign of weakness, because it all depends on craftsmanship, but I would recommend getting a knife with a full tang or rat's tail tang. This means that even if your handle breaks, you have something to wrap a cloth around or use instead. 

Step 7: Knife Edge Grinds

There are many different grinds, but there are 6 main ones. 

1. Hollow grind : This has a very sharp edge, and will cut through things very easily, but will not hold its edge well with use. 

2. Flat grind :       The blade tapers from the spine to the edge on both sides. 

3. Saber grind :  Saber grinds hold the edge well, but do not cut as easily as a hollow grind. it is similar to 2, but it starts further down the blade. 

4. Chisel grind : As like a chisel (hence the name), only one side is ground. 

5. Double bevel or compound bevel : The blade is thinner just behind the edge, which improves cutting ability. The actual edge, however, has a wider angle, so lasts longer, but does not cut as well. 

6. Convex grind: This is the opposite of a hollow grind. There is a lot of material behind the edge, so it holds an edge well, and is fairly sharp. it is often used on axes, and tools for heavy use and chopping. 

For a survival knife, I would recommend a saber grind or compound bevel, as these are easiest to sharpen without specialist tools, and hold their edge well. 

Step 8: Blade Shape

As you can see, there are many different shapes. I am going to concentrate on the ones I would want on a general purpose knife. 

1 Clip Point: The clip point blade has a fine tip, so is good for digging and picking. You can also sharpen the curved section above it, to make a lethal hunting weapon. 

2. Spear point: A spear point or drop point is the standard blade shape used in penknives. it has a fair amount of material, so is very durable, and is good for cutting. It is not quite so good for delicate tip work, but is still a very useful blade shape. 

I can't tell you which one is best, it all depends on what you intend to do with the knife. You would use all of the below shapes for different purposes, so think about what you are likely to be doing, and make an educated choice. Personally, I would choose a Clip point, because I do quite a lot of delicate work, but it is up to you. 

If you are likely to be doing much skinning or gutting, then you might want to consider a serrated or wavy blade, which cuts through flesh like butter, but is harder to sharpen in the field. 

Step 9: Blade Hardness

The hardness of the blade is measured using the Rockwell Count scale (RC scale). It is determined by teh heat treating of the blade as it is made. 

High hardness (~ RC 60-65):
This is more brittle, but holds an edge very well. Impacts may cause the blade to chip, so it is suited for small knives and general cutting. 

Medium hardness (~ RC 58-60): 
This is suitable for a wide range of tasks, and is what you would want for a general purpose survival knife. It holds an edge fairly well. 

Low hardness (~ RC 52-58):
This is the least brittle, but does not hold an edge as well. It is used for impact blades, such as meat cleavers and axes. 

Step 10: Handle

Handles are made from a wide range of materials, such as plastic, bone, horn, wood, leather and rubber. Rubber provides good grip, even when wet. Bone and horn are durable, and also provide an aesthetically pleasing finish. Wood and leather have a nice finish and a good grip, but will need some treatment to stop them deteriorating. Plastic is strong and not absorbent. 

The handle should comfortably fit your hand, and not leave blisters with prolonged use. This is down to personal preference. 

A guard between the blade and handle will help protect your hand. A single guard is generally better than a double, because it enables a range of different grips. 

Step 11: Sheath

A knife should have a sheath, to protect both it and you. A sheath should be made from a strong material, such as leather or Kydex, and have a tunnel belt loop. Also, the handle should have a strap to stop it sliding out of the sheath. Some sheaths have a small pocket for a sharpening stone, which is extra weight but could be useful. It is up to you where you where your knife, on you belt or leg or wherever, but the police may not like the idea of a concealed blade! In public places, you should take it off and put it deep into a bag, or better stilll, not carry it unless absolutely necessary. 

Step 12:

I think I have covered everything, if you think of anything else, then tell me. You may have noticed, but there is no perfect survival knife. Nobody can predict exactly what will happen to them, so a knife has to adapt. Finally, be safe when using a knife, I have seen many injuries due to carelessness, but enjoy the outdoors. 

Step 13: Knife Steel Type

There are countless different types of steels, but for a survival knife they fall into two categories - stainless and carbon. Stainless is more rust resistant, and can be more brittle, but does not hold an edge so well and is harder to sharpen. Carbon steel is tougher, easier to sharpen and holds an edge well, but may rust if not cared for. 

I have no experience personally, but i found a list here of some recommended survival knife steels. 

Recommended Stainless Steels

CPM 154 (this is my favorite stainless steel)

Recommended Carbon Steels

A2 (this is my favorite carbon steel)
Carbon V
CPM 154

If you want to do more research, then this link is very good. 

Step 14: Image Sources

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    39 Discussions


    4 years ago

    Good info. I always carry my L.T. Wright around. The sheath it came with has a dangler on it, which i prefer to a belt loop. Because here in Virginia, if any article of clothing covers any part of the knife, it is then considered concealed carry. So the dangler keeps it low enough, to where my shirt doesnt cover the handle. And one pro i have found for a leather sheath, it can be used to strop the edge.


    here in Texas, switchblades were recently legalized and there's not a lot of options besides stilettos (which are illegal), any thoughts?


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I must say you have good post about choosing survival knives. In general we are not carrying knives all the time with us. It is necessary when we use to go for camping or walking in the jungle. So every civilized countries like USA, UK or India have their laws if you are carrying such weapons in the public. Once I have ordered one survival knife from an online store in USA and they shipped and delivered to me in India in time without any fail. Of course only uncivilized people will carry above Rambo knife in public and within minutes they will end up in jail.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Hi :
    Your knife laws suck ! Chop off their hands, so they can do no wrong !!
    Here, in NZ, laws are not perfect, but not that harsh.
    I believe that we should all be held accountable for our actions, but be allowed to make rational decisions regarding knives, that we may wish to make use of.


    8 years ago on Step 6

    Rat tail tangs are spot welded onto the blade. They are also typically 1/4" or thinner thickness. These typically break through any sort of real use. As in break off of the blade. If the handle breaks, this will too.


    Reply 6 years ago on Step 6

    one of my older knives is a rat tail tang, which is forged from the same peice as the blade, my father had it when he was 17 before handing it to me years ago (the knife has probably seen the best part of 40 years of use) I've used it for work, fishing, hunting, camping and more than abused it and it still as good as ever, though the knife I mostly use now for work and bushcraft ect is a full tang and I only use it because the blade is of much better quality.
    but I do agree that most rat tails are bad, especially the more modern ones as they tend to be of poor quality and mostly for show rather than practical use.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 6

    Not so. Look at Sami knives. Stick tangs mostly but one bit of forged metal. Ive never seen a stick tang welded on. Got an example?


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 6

    The Sami knife seems to have a push tang, not a rat tail tang. We may be mixing terminology but a rat tail tang in almost all examples is welded on. Can you show me some examples where the Sami clearly has a rat tail tang? In the few examples that it is not welded on it is still(like most tangs) made with a non-tempered(ie: soft) steel for flexibility. The problem is that compared to any other tang, this presents significant weakness from the distinct lack of material compared to other types of tang. Furthermore, They have a tendency in regards to keeping the handle on and straight as it's only kept on by a bolt or peened into place. While fine for many other uses, these two methods are incapable of holding up to the stresses a knife that is used often go under. Because of the dimensions of a square rat tail tang(it's a square) as well as the fact that it's a cylinder for the screw types, the blade has a bad habit of shifting a in a circular fashion causing the potential for serious injury as it will shift in the middle of using it. In the end, if there's a rat tail tang, the maker was likely going for cheap, not good. Think of how much effort it would take to put in a half push tang or full push tang as opposed to a rat tail. While I stand by what I said about the durability of rat tails, I want to reiterate, nothing is holding a rat tail straight, when you are cutting you are putting a great deal of force on the blade of the knife. Does this make you feel safe?

    As far as examples, any sword under $70) and most fixed blade knives under $30. There are exceptions, not all makers price the same(of course in that price range I wouldn't buy from a maker). Few people advertise a rat tail tang as it's considered undesirable for the reasons mentioned above. This means only honest or the unknowing tell you it's rat tail and that means most people won't tell you if they can help it.

    Last word: Rat tail tangs are cheap and can be dangerous in an often used knife. Most people who have a fixed blade have bought a cheap rat tail and they either found out the hard way or don't use it very often at all. Below are some informational links on rat tails.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I often hear this rhetoric about rat-tails and while it may be an issue with a sword which experiences much greater forces at the pommel, I have never seen a knife blade rotate or slip- with any fixing. If you are using your knife in a controlled and safe manner there should be very little shear force on the joint between the tang and the blade. A person is capable of exerting at most 400N (roughly 40 kilos of force) with a knife blade, if you look at the shear strength of mild steel you will see how little is required for withstanding that. A short knife should be battoned through wood for chopping which exerts almost no force on the pommel (you'll notice the hand holding the handle of your knife does not tire or ache during batoning).
    As a final note, one of the most popular and highly recommended beginner bushcraft knives (which if you are talking survival is the way to go; if you want a fighting knife you are looking at something completely different) is the 'Frost Mora' constructed with a half tang and a very thin blade, look through the reviews on amazon or on any bushcraft/survival forum and see if anyone has managed to break on of those.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I don't disagree with you on half tangs in even a small way. I only disagree with utilizing rat tail tangs in any situation. But as we know, these are two different tangs.

    I have seen slipping and rotating on a rat tail knife. I spose that's one that does and one that does not.

    With regard to the information on shear force, I'm not referring to a solid piece. I'm referring to when the tang is welded on. I believe you can weld a rat tail(or any tang type) on very well, but if you're putting the effort into welding it on well, you're not using a rat tail. This isn't a "it cannot be done" it's a "if [this] than [that]".

    Thinking on it again, I still don't understand where the comment about a half tang knife came into this, genuinely.. The Frost Mora has a 2.5 mm thick blade and tang. Also, the tang is half tang, it doesn't seem to apply to this conversation.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Loving the advice! I will be changing up the way I sharpen all my blades now!
    I have been working in the USA for a number of years up in the white mountains, so I have accumulated a couple nice pocket knives, one of them being the same gerber as pictured above.
    However, reading the law, as the bit you have posted in the article, I am not permitted to have this on my person anywhere in the UK...
    Does this law prevent me from using this utility pocket knife, out on the trail? I am prepping for a late spring trek (c2c)
    What about a leatherman? length wise its just within the 3" cutting edge limit, but they all lock open!
    Sometimes these rules and regs of the UK can be such a pain in the butt!


    6 years ago on Step 12

    Very well done and researched. I used to sell survival knives to the military. Let me tell you what the "pros" use. First, there is no one knife that does everything....thats why there are so many knife collectors who collect the many variations...then you have different makers...etc.
    Pilots carried an assortment of knifes. The first is a pocket knife. The Mil-k-818 spec knife is a flat sided, stainless steel "campers type" knife. It has a 3 inch blade, a can opener, a bottle opener and an awl. It has a bail so you can attach a line on it so that you don't loose it. Several companies used to make these....Camillus ( now out of business)...I belive the Ontario knife company still makes it. It retails for about $40...sometimes you can buy them surplus for less. The next knife I sold was the pilots knife. There are several....One USAF knife has a Parkerized blade about 5" has a saw tooth blade on the top of the knife. IT has leather washer handle in a leather sheath. Most useful is a sharpening stone. Between the blade and the grip is a square hilt with two holes on it. These holes are to lash the knife to a pole or stick to use as a spear. There is a hammer type but cap to use as a ....what else...a hammer. Altho this styke has been around since has a lot going for it....full hilt thru the grip.... the sharpening stone and lash able holes. The Kabar knife is excellent...but is a bit big. I don't think you should have s survival knife with a blade 7" or over. IF you want a machete...carry a machete....Stay away form the Movie knives as mentioned in this excellent article. I also believe you should stick with carbon steel as it is easier to sharpen. All u need do to protect the knife from rust is to oil the blade from time to time......Look at used bayonets, even from wW2. The steel and design is good....just get one with a reasonable blade length ...less than 7" and a grip that is comfortable for your hands, There are a lot of Russian bayonets coming into the country for about $20-30....with a sheath. IF the bayonet has any large fittings to attach to a rifle these can be removed or ground off...I know that custom knives cost hundreds of dollars...but if you have a good knife that meets many of the above criteria, should have a good tool...weapon..... be wary of a knife that is too cheap...the steel may be inferior ...or the handle may break...not what you want in a survival situation...again...the military knifes have passed a specification which calls out the quality of the materials and the testing criteria...they are pretty tuff...


    7 years ago on Step 14

    A very well thought out and written piece. Lots of good info on steel types, this often gets overlooked in favour of the image the knife portrays.
    If I might suggest a good cheap starting point, a sort of easy way into the survival knife choice, the Hultafors heavy duty knife is a good all rounder while the blade is a bit on the short side it's an ideal camp knife. It is available for £6 at Jan 2013. Carbon steel, large plastic handle and a plastic sheath.
    I found it to be an excellent "starter" knife to get you into caring for your blades and at the price it won't matter too much if you mess it up.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    most think this is overkill its a 8" blade with a compartment in the handle and a saw in the spine

    knife 1.jpg

    8 years ago on Introduction

    what about this one? its 9 inch with 4.5 inch blade and full tang


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Unless you need to take down an enemy soldier, a double sided blade is unnecessary. It stops you using your thumb on the back of the blade, and means you can't baton so well.

    black hole
    black hole

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    True, but it also means that you have twice as many edges, which means you have a backup edge, as it were.
    Also, what do you think of the Gerber LMF II ASEK as a survial knife?