A pocket knife is adequate for a number of outdoor tasks, but if you’re a bona fide survivalist, a serious hunter or a Rambo-enthusiast, you’ll want a bigger, burlier, survival blade. Here’s a look at how the survival knife changed over history and what it represents today.
Survival knife prehistoric history
The survival knife has likely existed in some form for thousands of years. When German hikers discovered Otzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy, he had a flint knife in tow. He likely used that knife to skin animals, start fires, build shelters and defend himself from everything from bears to human attackers.
Jim Bowie, survival knife inventor, fighting machine.
It’s difficult to imagine a historic figure manlier than Jim Bowie. Whether he was operating as a backwoods pirate in the swamps of Louisiana or slaying Mexicans with his back to the wall at the Alamo, Bowie was one of the toughest knife-wielding renegades of the 19th century and a key contributor to the legacy of the survival knife.
In 1930, Bowie designed the most famous version of his Bowie Knife, a monstrous 9.5-inch blade similar to a butcher knife. The knife blade curved at the end, making it especially apt for skinning dead animals; its straighter section was ideal for chopping or cutting smaller items.
However, the most infamous use of the Bowie knife was combat. In 1827, Bowie was a principal at a duel, later termed the sandbar incident, that ended in him being attacked and shot. Bowie defended himself with his Bowie knife, disemboweling one man and nearly slicing off the arm of another.
Survival knives in warfare
During World War II, many U.S. soldiers were issued survival knives. The blades were most commonly given to aircraft personnel, as their likelihood of being trapped behind enemy lines and forced to survive in the wilderness was much higher than other soldiers. U.S. soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were also issued survival knives, which were crucial in jungle combat.
Why carry a survival knife today?
Rambo had one, as did Crocodile Dundee. Bear Grylss rocks one on Man vs. Wild, which you can pick up for a cool $700. But, if you’re not a hardcore survivalist, is there still a point to carrying a survival knife?
Yes, there is.
The survival knife isn’t just applicable in survival situations. It’s a multi-purpose blade that anyone who operates in the outdoors can use, whether they need to cut back brush, slice rope, start a fire, or in a worst-case scenario, provide self-defense from a wild animal or another person.
How to choose a survival knife
If you’re ready to pick out a survival knife, choosing one is a fairly straightforward process, but there are a few important factors to consider:
Four to six inches in the optimal size for a survival knife. Sure, you can go bigger, but a monster blade is awkward and increases the risk of injury.
The tang, which is the area of the knife that affixes to the handle, is important in a survival knife. You’ll want to make sure that any survival knife you buy has a full tang, meaning that the blade doesn’t narrow near the handle. A narrow tang will make the knife flimsy, causing it possibly break when under stress.
When it comes to a survival knife blade, you have two options: smooth or serrated. Serrated blades are more apt for cutting synthetic materials, but don’t chop well and are hard to sharpen while in the wild.
Smooth blades are not only better in most chopping or cutting situations, but can also be sharpened on objects you can find in the wild, such as rocks or stones.
The debate between stainless steel or carbon steel blades is a raging one among survivalists. Here’s what you need to know. A carbon steel knife usually holds a better edge, but can rust over time when exposed to the elements.
Stainless steel blades, on the other hand, are impermeable to weather conditions and virtually indestructible. The only downside to survival knives built with stainless style is that they can lose their edge quickly and are more expensive then carbon-steel knives.
How much should you pay for a survival knife? Cheap models are available for as little as $20, but a quality survival knife usually costs in the ballpark of $50. Fancier models, especially those similar to knives issued to Army Rangers, Navy Seals or other military personnel, can cost hundreds of dollars. One thing to take into account when buying a survival knife is whether or not it comes with a sheath, which is the most convenient way to carry a survival knife.
The bottom line on survival knives
It’s not a blade that you need for opening letters or whittling (although it would be cool to use), but if you’re doing any serious camping or hunting a survival knife is a solid investment. There are few, if any, pieces of equipment that are capable of skinning animals, cutting brush, sparking fires, chopping wood, fighting off wild animals and fending off an attacker. Don’t believe me? The ghost of Jim Bowie would tell you the same.