A survival knife is robustly built and can handle a wide range of jobs beyond the expectations of a pure hunting knife. Roger Norling, a Swede who writes intelligently about bushcraft and knives, says that “…survival knives are intentionally not great at anything, but good enough at most things.” I’ll take that.
I’m omitting the combat aspect of survival knifery. I once asked a retired Army colonel who had spent almost all of his career in Special Forces if he knew of any SF troopers who had used a knife in combat. He became extremely agitated, and said, “KNIFE? KNIFE? Are you out of your damned mind?” Let us leave it at that.
Survival knives break down into two categories: big, heavy knives, with blades that run 8 or 9 inches, and standard-sized knives with blades that measure 6 inches or a bit more and weigh less than a jackhammer. If I got into trouble, I’d rather have a big knife. As Lamont Coombs, Jr., the prodigally gifted knifemaker of Bucksport, Maine, says: “You can do little things with a big knife, but you can’t do big things with a little knife.”
1. WK Camp Knife
This is, simply put, the best heavy knife I know of. “Camp knife” is a 19th century term that has come back into favor, and describes a knife that’s bigger than a hunting knife and meant to do the jobs that are beyond the scope of a hunting knife. Winkler Knives, which turns out the WK, is operated by Daniel Winkler, who came to fame as our foremost maker of buckskinner knives, and in designing what he makes, Daniel has spent endless hours studying what worked on the frontier. He also gets considerable input from various scary people who carry his knives in the line of duty.
The WK is forged from 80CrV2 steel, which is given a black oxide no-glare finish. It has a 9 ½-inch blade of ¼-inch stock; a choice of black micarta, maple, or black rubber handle scales; and comes with one of the best sheaths I’ve seen, which is made of lined Kydex. The price is $625, and they’re made to order, although knifeart.com has a number of them ready to go. Just about all of the knives I use I would change in some way. Not this one.
2. Ontario Bushcraft Woodsman
The original Woodsman has a heavy, drop-point, 9-inch blade made of 5160 steel, which is what automobile springs are made of, and which also makes a hell of a good knife blade. It gets very sharp and re-sharpens easily. The drawback to 5160 is that the stuff rusts if you don’t take care of it. Possibly for this reason, the original Buschcraft Woodsman has been replaced by a model made with a 420HC blade. Or it may have been discontinued altogether. Confusion reigneth. The reason I list it here is because apparently, the original models are still available on e-bay, and probably elsewhere, and at half of their original $150 price.
The Woodsman also features a nicely shaped handle that is squarish in cross section and made of laminated walnut. The blade, as I recall, is tempered to around Rc 53-55, which is soft, so it sharpens very easily. And it has very good nylon DeSantis Sheath.
You’re on your own here. If you can find one of the 5160-bladed originals, you have a hell of a knife, and you may get it at a bargain price as well.
What if you can’t? Do I recommend the 420 HC version? Yes. “HC” stands for “high carbon,” and means that it’s the old, detestable 420 stainless but with carbon added. The new alloy is a lot less eager to rust than 5160, sharpens easily, gets very sharp, but does not hold an edge well. On balance, it’s still a good deal.
3. DiamondBlade Knives Model PD1
“PD” stands for “personal defense,” and if you wanted to use it for that, the PD1 would do a fine job. It’s a light, slender knife that will do lots of other useful things, and is also terrifically strong. The PD’s 6-inch, D2 steel, drop-point blade is tempered by DiamondBlade’s unique Friction Forging process, which produces an extremely hard edge that stays sharp forever, and a much softer spine that is impossible to break. In 2006, I watched Charles Allen, whose brainchild Friction Forging is, lock a PD1 in a vise, slip a pipe over the handle for leverage, and bend the knife 90 degrees. (And Charles had to haul like hell to do it.) Then he bent it straight again. The knife had a small ripple near the base of the blade, but was unbroken and perfectly usable.
Aside from that, the PD1 has detachable G-10 handle scales that cover a small storage compartment in which you can keep fishhooks or matches or cyanide pills. The sheath is nylon and highly tactical and way too fussy for me, so I had nice leather one made by Treestump Leather.
I’ve had a PD 1 since 2007 and sharpened it twice since then. Eventually it will lose the razor edge, but to get it dull enough that it won’t cut is nearly impossible.
4. Ranger Puukko M95
This is a high-end, all-purpose knife that is issued to the Finnish Army and was developed by a captain in that army, one J.P. Peltonen. Captain Peltonen, in the course of his military career, was stationed in various parts of the globe, and in his travels was given a Randall knife. Coming from a knife-carrying culture, Captain Peltonen said, “Hoo boy, we could use something nice like that,” or words to that effect, and developed the M95.
The M95 bears a startling resemblance to the PD1, both in its lines and overall size. This is because in the wonderful world of knifery there are only a few designs that really work, so why screw around? The 6-inch drop-point blade is ground from 80 CRV2 steel and is Teflon coated. The non-slip handle is referred to as “tempered rubber,” but I suspect it’s polymer, which is tough stuff.
The sheath is a marvel. It’s heavy leather with a hard liner. It can be worn in all sorts of positions, and the knife is locked in place by a rubber roller that snaps down on the front lip of the handle and keeps the knife from falling out while simultaneously offering instant availability.
The Finnish word for Ranger knife, by the way, is sissiipuukko, in case you want to buy one in Finland. There are variations on the M95, but I like the original, which is priced around $170. There are various sources as well, but I would get mine from Kellam Knives. I’ve dealt with them and they are great people.
5. The Ka-Bar
How could I not include this one? It’s the most successful military knife of all time, and is nothing short of an icon to the Marine Corps. The original was first issued to the Marines in 1942 and has never been out of production. The knife was designated “USMC Mark 2 Combat Knife,” and the first shipment came from Camillus, but demand was so heavy that other manufacturers were called on, including Ka-Bar, and by 1944 the knife was known as the Ka-Bar no matter who made it.
The basic formula is a 7-inch blade with a fuller, or groove, to lessen the weight, a clip point, a thin, slightly curved crossguard, stacked-leather handle, and a steel pommel that’s pinned in place. The Ka-Bar was designed to replace knives that were too fragile, and it succeeded in spades. The blades were made of 1095 steel and were tempered soft so they could take abuse and be resharpened easily. They are now made of an alloy called 1095 Cro-Van that holds an edge much better. The leather sheath is…adequate. Ka-Bar says it’s the most famous fixed-blade knife in the world. They’re probably right.
6. Morakniv Companion Spark
Never mind the cutesy name. The Companion Spark has all sorts of knifely virtues, and one is on my workbench right now. It’s very light (4.5 ounces), comes in an excellent polymer sheath, has a comfortable handle, and its 4-inch stainless clip-point blade can be gotten very sharp and holds an edge extremely well, which is why it’s on my workbench.
The Spark contains a fire-starter in its handle. Give the pommel a twist and out pops a ferro rod that’s good for 3,000 strikes. It works. A lot of these things don’t. You drag the spine of the blade along it and a shower of sparks descends. There’s even a lanyard with a reflective cord running through it.
The best part may be the price, which is $35. If you lose the knife, or a ramp ape steals it out of your duffle bag, you can buy another. Or, if you get lost and then are rescued, you can afford to go to Burger King and blow a bundle. But don’t let the low price fool you. This is a very good knife.
Written by David E. Petzal for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.