My fascination with steel and cutlery began as a result of the movie, First Blood. I even received a poor-boy version of a Rambo-style survival knife when I was a kid. Almost, but not quite a toy, the parts were made of some kind of pot metal that were poorly cobbled together, including a bulbous compass at the end of the handle that was as big as a gearshift knob.
Quickly disillusioned, I began my life-long quest to identify and acquire what I believed to be the best “survival” knives available. Of course, it all began with a question. What does a knife need to do or be in order for you to survive? For each person and their respective endeavors, the answer to that question is very different.
A simple knife with a 4-inch blade will suffice quite nicely in most circumstances you encounter, especially if you have other gear on hand. But what about that true survival situation where you are in a location with nothing but a knife? What kind of knife would you want then? You can cut with a large knife but you can’t really chop with a small knife. While Rambo might have preferred the clip-point profile for his up-close wet work, that profile doesn’t work very well for the outdoorsman that uses his blade for batoning firewood.
Then there are other factors to consider like the steel’s ease of sharpening in the field, the steel’s ability to throw sparks to start a fire, or it might come down to what type of edge you prefer, such as whether it’s a flat, Scandi or even a convex grind. Finally, there’s the question of how much you’re willing to spend. Do you go for the latest super steels or do you have to get the best bang for your buck?
The Major Players
During the last 40 years, I’ve had the chance to play with a wide variety of “survival” knives from fantastic makers like Chris Reeve, Ethan Becker and Daniel Winkler. I’ve also enjoyed using superb knives from newer companies and makers like the folks at ESEE Knives, LT Wright Knives, Dark Timber Knives, and Fiddleback Forge. The one thing I’ve learned is that each maker and each customer has their own take on the perfect survival knife, and that’s based on their own particular experience and needs.
If I was going to use the knife only for its intended task of cutting, I would opt for a quality maker’s 4- to 5-inch blade made from CPM S45VN steel because of its excellent corrosion resistance, great edge retention, generally good toughness and relative ease of sharpening. Other steels offer better performance characteristics in specific areas, but S45VN has an outstanding performance-to-price ratio for all criteria.
However, for that one do-it-all knife that had to be used for limbing, chopping and building shelters as well as everything else a knife is used for, I’d go with something in CPM 3V steel with a 7- to 9-inch blade. CPM 3V has a superb toughness rating for shock and impact and can take just about anything you can throw at it. It offers fairly good edge retention, similar to D2, and offers relatively easy sharpening in the field. But these are only my choices and your mileage may vary depending on your specific environment, intended tasks and specific needs.
The user’s choice of blade steel can determine a number of things with a survival knife like ease of sharpening, edge retention and durability. Here’s a list of popular steels used in various survival-style knives and the properties of each.
Relatively low-end, carbon tool steel that is fairly inexpensive. One of the grand-daddy steels, it’s very easy to sharpen in the field and offers decent edge retention. However, it does not have a high toughness rating for impact/shock, and many other steels offer better wear resistance. It’s also prone to corrosion so diligent maintenance is required.
Carbon steel is the most popular steel for outdoor knives and is fairly inexpensive. It is easy to sharpen, takes a very sharp edge, is very durable and tough with good impact resistance, so it’s great for larger blades. Edge retention isn’t the best and 1095 can rust, so some maintenance is required.
Semi-stainless steel offers moderate corrosion resistance and can be hardened to a higher rating than other steels for good edge retention. D2 is not very tough, so it is not highly rated against shock or impact, and it is somewhat hard to sharpen correctly to a fine edge.
Stainless steel with a powder metallurgy improvement over 154 CM gives this material a better toughness and “machineability.” It’s corrosion-resistant with a great balance of edge retention, toughness and ease of sharpening. A more uniform distribution of carbides allows for a “cleaner” steel that offers an outstanding finish.
Powder metallurgy, stainless steel. This is probably the best all-around current generation steel for the money. As the next evolution of S30V, this steel is slightly tougher but easier to machine and sharpen. The introduction of niobium made S35VN around 15% tougher than S30V. It has outstanding edge retention and resistance to chipping. CPM S45VN was introduced later as an improvement over S35VN for corrosion resistance and edge retention with a slight trade-off in toughness.
Latest generation “super steel,” also a powder metallurgy steel and one of the best all-around steels available. It has excellent corrosion resistance and wear resistance and better edge retention than S30V but is easier to sharpen. Elmax is a very, very tough steel but not quite as tough as CPM 3V.
Power metallurgy steel. Very tough tool steel with shock and impact resistance close to S7, making it great for large blades that may see some abuse. Not the best edge retention but still rated better than A2 somewhere around D2’s level of performance. Fair amount of chromium but can still oxidize.
Survival Knife Kit Considerations
As essential as a great knife is to survive in the outdoors, it can’t do everything. Whether your survival knife has a hollow handle or a pocket/loops on the sheath, there are a few things you should absolutely never be without in the great outdoors. You can have a separate and larger kit that has the same items for redundancy, but it’s worth getting a sheath that has a pocket large enough to have these critical items with you at all times.
Items to consider:
- Fire sources such as matches, lighter, ferro rod or flint wheel like an Exotac nanoSPARK
- Firestarter such as tinder tabs, Maya dust, charcloth, or fatwood.
- Small/micro compass
- Water purification tablets like Potable Aqua or Katadyn Micropur tablets.
- Fish hooks and small sinkers
- Fishing line for fishing, first-aid and repairs
- Various sized needles for first-aid and repairs
- Razorblade/mini knife for first aid and repairs
- Mini/micro tweezers
- Safety pins
- Cordage such as Kevlar thread, nylon cord or 50-pound test line
- Twenty-four-gauge wire for repairs and snares
- Small, durable and foldable/collapsible water container—even a Ziplock bag will work
- Small whistle and/or mirror for signaling
- Mini roll of duct tape for first-aid and repairs
If you don’t want to take the time to gather the items for your kit, look at the excellent pocket survival kits from Best Glide ASE, Vigilant Trails, ESEE Knives and Survive Outdoors Longer.
When it comes to survival knives, nothing inspired a generation quite like Rambo. Read all about one of the all-time classics, along with all the guns and gear, in our celebration of the 40th anniversary of First Blood. Get your copy of the June-July 2022 issue of Ballistic Magazine at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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