by George Ure and Gaye Levy
December 11, 2011
Modern communication has brought world-wide events more intimately
into our lives than ever before in history.
By its very nature news
focuses on the sensational, and the presentation and implication of
events are so enhanced that a mudslide in Colombia burying a
villages gives us the impression that we will be next.
And it is true. Extreme natural occurrences (earthquakes, volcanoes,
hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) in distant locations seem to be on the
verge of happening outside our very window. All of them remain a
threat - here, now and in the moment.
The threat of a natural disaster seems to be increasing and whether
real or not; our mindset is affected because the effect of such a
disaster threatens our sense of safety and security. As
technological advancements in our modern world make our lives
comfortable our sense of foreboding over a natural disaster
A flick of a switch or a press of a button and we can watch someone
a half a world away make tea.
By pressing another button we can even
talk to them as they heat the water. If we do not want to watch tea
steeping, we press a button and watch lava from a volcano in Hawaii
pouring into the ocean. And if we become bored with that, a turn of
a switch, or press of yet another button and we can be whisked in a
machine to a restaurant downtown, without significant physical
While traveling, we can press more
buttons to listen to music, adjust the ambient temperature, adjust
our seat, and, more incredibly, heat the seat.
At home, a flick of a switch and we have light at night (with
degrees of intensity if we wish). We can adjust the temperature in
our home effortlessly, and sit in a comfortable chair and watch the
forgoing tea making, and lava flowing, and all repetitively if so
desired. All this happening through the medium (and perhaps miracle)
In some paradoxical sense, as our social and personal well-being
increases, so also the anxiety and uncertainty about our life
increases. We contemplate the possible loss of our comforts. The
cataclysmic events that take place throughout the world, from which
people survive and stoically endure and rebuild, may seem
insurmountable and even unbearable to us in our modern world. On our
TV screens we watch how emergency services and government responses
break down quickly, even in those countries we normally associate
with modern technology and resources.
In our own country we have experienced massive calamities that would
destabilize other societies.
Comparatively though, we in America seem to be unique in our
response to catastrophes. For the most part our skill at adaptation,
plus our access to - and movement of - resources and equipment on a
large scale help us cope. This, coupled with our unique ability to
organize and work together decisively to survive and recover often
masks the severity of these events, and as a result we may
marginalize their effect no matter how devastating.
Survival has been a common and successful theme in literature
throughout history. Stories abound about devastation visited upon
the earth and society, and of man’s struggle against calamities
natural and man-made, seemingly beyond his control.
These stories follow a common pattern.
Man is left facing a world devastated, distorted, and degraded; the
environment and society is destroyed, destabilized, or mutated, and
only a small group of survivors remain, reduced to an elemental
state of existence and thrust back, if you will, to a primitive
condition where personal will and basic tools make the difference
between survival, preservation, or extinction.
Cinema has also been effective with this theme; showing us the
possible, probable, and improbable, effects of diabolical technology
run amok, meteoric threats from outer space, and natural disasters
of epic proportions coupled with the fulfillment of ambiguous
prophecies of ancient lore.
Also popular today are movies based on actual experiences of men and
women caught up in survival situations.
All this brings us to a recent interest in survival; that is, the
effort to maintain life when technological functions; electricity,
mechanized transportation, and social services fail. In effect, when
we are suddenly booted back 200 years.
This interest is bolstered by the perception that natural disasters
seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity. And often, these
disasters appear to overwhelm the efforts of modern resources to
quickly reestablish previous conditions and essential services.
Another aspect of survival is when an individual or family are
caught in a situation where they are forced to rely upon whatever
materials or knowledge they possess at that moment in order to
continue to live. We have all heard, seen or read about men and
women who have had to confront survival situations as a result of
extreme weather conditions, sudden natural disasters, or accidents
or injuries while driving, flying, diving, hiking, sailing etc.
The recent movie 127 Hours brings
into sharp relief how easily we can be caught in a survival
situation. There are literally thousands of similar stories from
around the world.
From factual stories to movies, personal survival has a particular
appeal perhaps because it involves man at his or her most basic,
totally dependent upon the application of his intellect, without
recourse to outside guidance to manage his or her situation.
There are hundreds of survival and survival-type movies. Here are a
few we find entertaining if not informative (putting the first Rambo
Now this article is not about movies or
survival, it is about a tool. The tool is not new; in fact it may be
the oldest tool that man has utilized throughout history, and has
not changed significantly over time.
This tool is the knife.
The Knife As a
From Folsom points, to obsidian blades sharper than a razor, to
bronze, iron, and steel, the knife even more that its relatives the
sword, the spear, or the axe, has been the essential implement or
tool most intimately associated with man.
In fact, optimistic anthropologists estimate the existence of knives
to extend 2 million years into the past.
The basic form of the knife has not changed meaningfully over time.
Its primary function to pierce or cut (slice) remains the same; that
in itself is extraordinary given man’s tendency to want to change,
adapt, modify or rearrange any contrivance, device or utensil he can
get his hands on.
Myriad survival books have been written, and the implement most
commonly recommended for survival is a good knife. Same thing in
movies. For example, the climber in the movie 127 Hours, uses his
knife to free himself from the stone that has fallen and trapped
Since this article is about survival knives it seems appropriate to
start by looking at some factors that make a knife a useful
To quickly name a few attributes:
A knife is small compared to a
saw, axe, sword, spear, etc. and therefore more easily
carried on one’s person or in a portable container.
The shape and function of the
knife is simple and does not require any complex process to
put it into action.
Maintenance of the knife is
easy, does not require elaborate care or complex or
A knife possesses some
versatility; it can perform a limited variety of tasks
without changing its basic form.
For our needs, we are interested in a
knife with a shape, size, and design that is more geared toward
survival or emergency situations.
There are hundreds of brands of knives
and knife manufacturers, all producing knives which they label
“Survival Knives”. In fact there are so many brands and styles that
the average person who simply wants a knife that is sharp, easy to
operate and maintain without getting into the esoteric science of
types of steel, handle material, and manufacturing process, can
become discouraged looking at the range of options.
So how does one choose the right survival knife?
We want to make the best choice possible, without paying an
outrageous amount for what is basically a piece of metal with
minimum moving parts, if any. We want a knife that can perform one
or two basic functions and their variations.
And of course, in a survival-type knife
we want a sturdy implement that will hold up under some degree of
In order to make a somewhat educated evaluation of the type of knife
we want, it is worthwhile to acquire some knowledge about the
variety and manufacturing of knives.
Essentially, there are two styles of knifes:
Folding blades, or pocket knives, are
knives where one or more blades are folded inside the handle. Fixed
blades are knives such as hunting knives, daggers, etc. These knives
are large, consist of one piece, with the cutting blade at one end
and the handle at the other end.
Multi-purpose knives are generally folding knives and contain
various blades and modifications, such as the well-known Swiss Army
knife. The more modifications a knife has the more it is compromised
in performing a knife function to its fullest.
Nevertheless these knives are useful and
For our survival knife, an important requirement is toughness:
the blade should not break easily,
it should hold a sharp edge, and it should be large and massive
enough to perform tasks normally beyond its basic capability,
i.e. chopping, prying, twisting.
It has been said that a Survival Knife
is the single most important item in a survival inventory!
Before we get into selecting a survival-type knife we should know a
little about their construction.
The fixed blade knife consists of the following:
Blade: the working part of the
knife. The blade may be plain or serrated, or partially
Tang: The tang is the part of
the knife that forms the handle. There are 3 types of tangs.
A stick tang is a narrow nail-looking protrusion at the end
of the knife where the handle is attached. This is a common
and cheap way to manufacture the handle. It is not strong
and is subject breaking or bending when significant stress
is placed on the blade.
A partial tang is where the tang
is the approximate width of the blade but only extends part
way into the handle. A drawback of this type of blade is the
handle has a tendency to break above the end of the tang.
A full tang is where the tang is
approximately the same width and thickness as the blade and
runs the full length of the handle. The advantage to this is
readily apparent. The handle and the blade are strong and
essentially one piece when in operation.
Edge: The cutting surface of the
Grind: Grind is that part of the
blade that is shaped or beveled down to the edge, the
cross-section of the blade.
Spine: The spine is the back of
the blade, the thickest part of the blade. It provides the
strength to the blade.
Ricasso: The flat section of the
blade at the junction of the blade and the knife guard.
Choil: Where the blade is
unsharpened and indented where the blade meets the handle
(at the ricasso).
Guard: A barrier between the
blade and the handle. The are two common types of guards: a
partial guard that extends down to protect the hand from
sliding onto the blade, commonly found on hunting knives.
Full guard extends out from the handle on both sides,
commonly found on combat knives to protect the hand from an
opponent’s blade; also found on survival-type knives.
Fuller: A groove along each side
of the blade where stock is removed by grinding, commonly
referred to as a blood groove, but its real purpose is the
lighten the weight of the blade.
Blade Profile: The shape of the
blade, how it is ground and the form of the blade.
Straight: The blade is straight
along the spine from handle to point without a curve.
Clipped point: The point of the
blade is curved at the spine to give a dagger-like point.
False Edge or Reverse Edge:
Where the forward top edge of the blade (spine) is thinned
and left unsharpened.
Now we would like our survival knife to
be sharp and to stay sharp as long as possible during work.
The process that distinguishes the sharpness of a blade is called
tempering. Tempering is a science, an art and a skill.
The detailed chemical and forging
factors that are involved in making the ideal blade are beyond the
scope of this article; nevertheless, we want to have some idea of
the type of blade and its capabilities when we examine our survival
Alloys affect the durability, sharpness, strength and toughness of
knife steel. Here are some important steel alloys.
Carbon: Knife edge steel should
contain >5% carbon.
Chromium: Increases wear
resistance, corrosion resistance. Stainless steel.
brittleness, maintains steels strength at high temperatures.
Nickel: Adds toughness
Tungsten: Increases wear
Vanadium: Contributes to
hardness, and wear resistance, allows blade to take a very
Blade Steel: Blade steel is the
type of steel used in the manufacture of a knife, sword,
axe, hatchet, etc.
Blades are made from a variety and
mixture of materials, most common carbon steel, stainless steel,
tool steel and alloy steel.
Some additional terms:
Carbides: Hard particles formed
in steel when carbon bonds with iron. Carbide types
influence wear resistance, and toughness in steel.
Edge stability: Ability to hold
a thin highly polished edge. Finer carbide structure
increases the ability of the steel to hold sharpness with
acute highly polished edges.
Grain size: Steel is made up of
grains, decreasing grain size means increased toughness and
Strength: Different steels have different strengths,
measured by a calculation called Rockwell hardness (Rc.)
Toughness: Ability to resist
chipping or breakage.
Wear Resistance: Ability to
resist abrasive wear. Important for slicing and cutting,
especially items like rope, cardboard. Generally greater
wear resistance means the steel is more difficult to
sharpen, so less wear resistance may be preferred.
Steel: All steel rusts.
The type of steel your survival knife is
made of is sometimes etched or stamped into the blade. Often
however, there will not be a code and the most you may know is
whether or not you knife is made of stainless steel.
Stainless steel is popular for knife blades because it resists rust
and staining. In addition. Here are a few compositions of steels
used in quality knives.
The numeric codes are too numerous to
include, however here are some principle ones used today.
400 series: the most popular
choices for knife makers because it is easy to sharpen and
420HC is used extensively by
knife makers. HC stands for High Carbon.
440A is used primarily in
inexpensive stainless steel.
440C is considered a high-end
stainless steel, one of the most common alloys used for
A2 is air hardening tool steel,
frequent choice for combat knives.
1095 most popular for knives,
5160 popular with forgers,
generally used in bigger blades that need more toughness.
Finally, there are some considerations
to take in to account as we select our survival knife, mainly, what
kind of survival are we contemplating for use with our knife?
Typically we will want an emergency tool to cut our way out of our
automobile, a knife to cut firewood, skin game, build shelters, and
more of what we like to call “rough” work.
So, for rough work and general survival
here are some suggestions.
Look for a full tang knife.
Avoid hollow handles.
Survival knives generally come
in two types of steel, stainless or carbon. Stainless steel
resists corrosion, and some say it does not hold an edge
well, however, 440C, 440HC, are high-end stainless steels
and popular for knife making. Carbon steel, excellent
qualities but rusts and requires maintenance. Steels such as
Muela knives contain Vanadium, are excellent quality steel.
Nevertheless, steels vary by manufacturer.
Blade (length): Most survival
knives are between 6 to 12 inches, with 7 to 9 inches the
most versatile. Any bigger and we are talking Rambo, and the
knife becomes unwieldy to handle.
Blade (Thickness): A good
general rule is about 3/16 - 4/16 of an inch thickness. You
do not want a survival knife that is “ whippy” or has a lot
of flex to the blade. You need a knife that can withstand
wood chopping or prying.
Sheath: A belt loop, a lower
attachment or hole in the bottom of the sheath for strapping
the knife to your leg and permit drainage of moisture from
the sheath. The strap that closes around the knife. A
cross-strap, where the handle meet the sheath is considered
Some Knives to
And finally here are some great knives to consider for your survival
There is no such thing as the perfect survival knife since
individual needs and budgets may vary.
Our best advice is to pick a knife, use
it for awhile, then add a second knife to add functionality and
additional usefulness. Whatever you decide, be sure to use your
knife in various situations now. Become skilled and proficient while
time is on your side.