If you are anything close to my age, you probably got your first impression of what a survival should be from Sly Stallone in one of the Rambo movies. As a teenage boy, and already an avid outdoorsman I became infatuated with Johnny Rambo’s blade. And then the next movie came out, and John had a new knife, and in the next movie a new knife… and when Rambo Part 17 comes out in 2018, there will probably be another knife.
So, it seems that even action heroes have a hard time settling in on the perfect survival knife, or they are always seeking new marketing opportunities. To my way of thinking (many years and a lot of knife work removed from First Blood), Rambo missed it by a mile every time.
For one thing, the Rambo knives are generally too large. They might be great for chopping down Giant Sequoias, but they lose a lot of utility for finer tasks by virtue of their sheer massiveness. The second flaw in my eyes is the hollow handle. The utility of a storage compartment is offset by the weakness inherent in a blade and handle that are joined rather than continuous. In my book full tang is the only option, I can keep my matches in my pocket. Other than these glaring and major flaws I have to admit that a Rambo Knife is still pretty cool, but it probably shouldn’t be your primary survival blade.
For day to day, camp, and survival settings, I like knives of the Bush craft type. In general terms this means a fixed blade in the four to six inch range with full tang construction. Blades should be heavy and thick, 1/8 inch or more, in order to stand up to rough use, and should be made of a good grade of stainless or high carbon steel with a rust preventive coating. Blade styles tend to be drop or clip point, but there are some tantos in the mix. A secure grip is mandatory, so handles should be textured or rubberized to avoid slips at inopportune times.
Survival knives need to be tough, but they also need to be versatile. In the course of a day your knife could be called upon for tasks as diverse as chopping brush, cutting paracord, dressing a rabbit, or warding off an attacker. Your knife must be able to function effectively as both a tool (a whole tool box really) and a weapon, and must be rugged enough to tolerate abuses you wouldn’t normally inflict on an expensive piece of equipment.
There are many great options out there, covering a wide range of prices. While you can find perfectly good knives in the under $50 category you can also find them selling for hundreds. I tend to be in a $50 and under budget range but this hasn’t impacted my ability to acquire good quality, highly functional knives.
It is hard to pick a favorite and impossible to identify a perfect survival knife.
1. Fabled Ka-Bar USMC fighting knife.
One excellent choice is the Fabled Ka-Bar USMC fighting knife. This knife meets all the criteria of a good survival knife. It is well built with a full tang and the distinctive stacked leather handle for a sure grip. The Ka-bar is as tough as they get, strong enough for heavy camp chores, handy enough for field dressing game, and designed to be a fighter should the need arise. If the traditional seven inch blade seems too much, it also comes in a short version with a 5 1/4 inch blade. If you ever doubt the Ka-Bar, try taking one away from a Marine.
2. Schrade Extreme Survival Knife
Another fine choice is the Schrade Extreme Survival Knife. This is another full tanged beast built for heavy work. It has a 6.4 inch drop point blade and an overall length of about a foot, and weighs in at almost a pound. The heft of this blade makes it well suited for the toughest tasks, but it is still sized right for some fine work as well. It is well suited for fighting and defense too.The price is the big surprise, for what you get this is a very inexpensive knife, but anything but cheap!
We could list knives all day, but I think you get the points. Good steel, full tang construction, heavy blade, sure grip handle, big enough but not too big. Beyond these qualities, look for a knife that is comfortable for you, ergonomically and financially, make sure it has a good sheath, one that holds a whet stone and/or ferrocerium fire steel if you can find it.
Aside from the Bush Craft style, there are a few other knives to consider for survival purposes.
I have recently gotten into Karambits. This is the traditional personal knife of Indonesia and the Philippines. These make an excellent camp and utility knife, suited to most tasks. Due to the hooked shape of the blade however, it is not suited for skinning or chopping. The upside of this blade shape is that it is a phenomenal personal defense weapon. The Karambit is a fearsome cutting and slashing blade and is arguably the best style of blade for close in fighting. My Karambit has a 5 inch full tang blade, a G10 handle, a kydex sheath, and is 9 inches overall. I love it so far.
If you opt for a Karambit or a lighter sheath knife that isn’t well suited for chopping tasks, a machete is a good addition to your kit. I like traditional types, and I am quite fond of the Parang.
The Parang is a fine companion to the Karambit for their shared geographical origins as well as for their complimentary uses. Parangs are more heavily built than standard machetes, and are well suited for heavy camp chores and for heavy personal defense. My pick is the 24 inch Condor Tool and Knife Parang. Condor has put together a beefy full tang construction blade with hardwood handle and a leather sheath, as beautiful as it is functional.
I am all for gizmos and gadgets in many areas, but when it comes to survival blades simple and rugged are the watch words. Johnny Rambo has done some amazing things with his giant hollow-handled blades over the years, but most of us should look to something scaled to be useful for a wider range of tasks from the rugged to the fine. Knife selection has a lot to do with personal preference. The most useful knife will be the knife you actually use, so choose wisely. As with all survival skills, learn and practice your blade work before you need it, survival should never be left for on the job training.