Bug Out / Wilderness Equipment / Supplies

The Truth About Survival Knives

Knives are a hotly debated and popular gear item in the survival community. Choosing the right knife is a personal choice and the purpose of this article is not to sway you to a certain brand or model. However, my goal is to possibly shift your perspective on what a “survival” knife is. 

The Real Origin of the Survival Knife? 

In my opinion, the modern-day knife, known as a survival knife, owes its popularity to a little-known movie from the 1980s: Rambo. Ever heard of it? Sure you have!

In case you are one of the few who haven’t, this is an action movie where a military veteran returns homes and experiences a less than welcoming encounter with a small-town sheriff. Things spiral out of control and Rambo is thrust into a survival situation where he depends on a large bowie knife with saw teeth on the spine and a hollow handle.

Needless to say, I believe the popularity and fantasy of what the public sees as a survival knife was largely born from this movie. Sadly, that was a mistake because such knives are all but useless in a true survival scenario.

Knife Anatomy 101

The first order of business is to look at the basic design of a knife. This will help to give you an idea of what a knife should be used for. There are several parts to the anatomy of a knife, but following are the five main areas that I concentrate on when choosing a knife.

And, while I know that many people reading this are probably experienced outdoorsmen which means that the following details going to sound like “knife anatomy 101,” but please bear with me.

1. Point and Style of the Blade

There are many different blade styles and, while I cannot name them all, here are a few examples.

  • Trailing point
  • Clip point
  • Drop point
  • Dagger
  • Tanto (American or Japanese)
  • Sheepfoot
  • Shorncliffe
  • Kukri

The important thing to remember about the style is that it is indicative of the primary use of the knife. The point of the knife blade is for different penetration tasks. 

2. Belly

The belly is the curved section of the blade that usually begins after the point of the knife. Because the angle of the belly is always changing, it is best suited for slicing through materials, which is what I use it for.

3. Edge

I consider the edge of a knife to be the section that is straight, this usually comes after the belly. I used the edge for cutting and light chopping actions. 

 4. Spine

The spine is the “top” of the knife or the side that is opposite to the cutting edge. The spine shows you the thickness of the metal used in creating the blade. This gives an idea of how strong the knife is and if it should be used for light, medium, or heavy-duty tasks. I will use the spine for light duty scarping task such as creating tinder or for striking a ferrocerium rod.

5. Tang

The tang is the portion of the knife blade that goes into the handle. Again, there are many different types. Partial, hidden, and full, just to name a few. The type of tang is indicative of the strength between the knife blade and the handle, and therefore what the knife should or should not be used for. While I have knives with different types of tangs, my survival knives are almost always full tang and for good reason: they stand up to abuse.

Why The Hollow Handle Knife is Useless 

While I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with a hollow handled knife for around the house, the moment it is chosen to become a survival knife, in my opinion, it becomes little more than a paperweight. 

I know that these knives gained popularity because they looked cool and the hollow handle provided storage for useful items like a fishing kit, compass, matches, and whatever else would fit in there. 

But given that there is zero tang–which is crucial for survival knives–there is minimal strength between the knife blade the handle. This means that the knife cannot realistically survive most outdoor or survival tasks without the risk of snapping in half. I have owned one of these knives and within a week the knife blade had broken away from the handle. I have even had someone try to give me one for free and I turned them down.

Clearly, if a knife is likely to snap when you’re trying to split wood for a fire, for instance, it will do you no good when your survival depends on it.

Avoid Unnecessary Built-In Tools

A good quality knife in of itself is extremely versatile. But some features have been added to knives, mainly for the sake of dubbing it a survival knife, which makes it an unnecessary risk.

Even though I am a fan of certain multi-tools, like the Leatherman Wave, I hold the opinion that knives with extra tools built-in are less than ideal. That is, such tools are seemingly handy to have but will never replace the full-sized tools they attempt to mimic.

Generally, some of the features added to knives that I do not like include:

  • Serrations on the blade (plain edges are best, in most cases)
  • Saw teeth on the spine (weakens the spine and doesn’t saw worth a darn)
  • Holes in the blade to be used for wrenches, pulling nails or any other tool that is cut out of the blade (also weakens the blade)
  • Bottle openers 
  • Gut hooks

To be fair, I have knives with serrations and gut hooks, and I use them from time to time. But I would not want them on a true survival knife because they tend to dull quickly, and might require a special tool for sharpening. By packing as many functions as possible into a knife you are taking away from the overall quality and true function of a knife.

The Torture Tests Are Silly

All too often people expect an outdoor knife to be a “tank killer.” This is, in part, due to marketing campaigns that demonstrate grueling and unnecessary testing methods for a knife. Some of these tests include thrusting a knife through a car door, pounding on the spine with a 2×4, using the side of the blade to hammer nails, and using the blade as a prybar. 

In my mind, tests like these are a bit ridiculous. I have carried a knife for the majority of my life, and never once have I wanted to–nor needed to–use it in the manner demonstrated in such tests. But that is my experience; perhaps yours will differ? 

Even though I can’t say exactly what I would do in every survival situation, uses like this should be avoided at all costs, in my humble opinion. Because a knife is one of the most valuable tools in a survival situation, I cannot fathom why anyone would want to use it in a manner that would damage it or increase the potential of losing it. This is also why I do not advocate fashioning a knife into a spear.

Wrap Up

I understand that the term “survival” has become an additional source of revenue for many companies. And due to that, I caution many people to do proper research into a product and their needs rather than buying something simply because it has the label of a “survival item.”

[Editor’s note: I can 100% attest to that! I’ve bought more than a few items early on in my “prepping career” simply because they were touted as being a “survival” item. Turns out, most of them were useless and, worse, could have put my own survival in jeopardy if I’d chose to rely on them.] 

Any uses outside of the primary design of a knife increase the risk of damaging the most important tool in your arsenal. This is especially important when in an outdoor environment or survival situation because the tools you have on you at that time are all that you have. If you use a knife the way it is intended and take care of it, the knife will take care of you when you need it most. 

[Editor’s note: And if you want a real survival knife–one you can count on–scroll down where you’ll find a dozen quality options, with the Ka-Bar and Morakniv knives being popular favorites.]

Author: Bryan Lynch

Bio: Bryan Lynch grew up in the Midwest and spent every waking moment outdoors. Learning how to hunt, fish, read the land and be self-reliant was part of everyday life. Eventually, he combined his passions for the outdoors, emergency preparedness, and writing. Bryan is a regular contributor at

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4 replies on “The Truth About Survival Knives”

One of the knives you recommend is the OKC Air Force survival knife. I have owned one of these for over 50 years. It is an excellent survival knife that also comprises a very useful sawback. Contrary to your stated opinion, the saw on this knife functions quite well.

Survival equipment should be chosen based on your most likely survival environment.
Both carbon steel and stainless steel knives are available with comparable edge and strength.
In a relatively peaceful survival situation it may not matter which blade material you choose. However, if you contemplate needing to avoid other people in your survival environment, then you should not carry equipment that can inadvertently reflect light, such as bright and shiny stainless steel buttons, brackets, and blades.

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