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Survival Knife Care: What You Need To Know

It is worth noting that a person does not have to be a Boy Scout to understand the importance of being prepared.  People who enjoy going out to the woods, the forest, the timber or anywhere else that you might end up a few miles from the closest known human needs to have the tools that will assist them if things go wrong.

An important part of that preparation includes a survival knife.  If things go bad, a survival knife can serve as a shovel to move dirt or debris.  It can facilitate the removal of splinters or other debris under the skin.  It can help in the harvest and preparation of potential food sources.  A knife can also help pry and leverage things that otherwise a human could not move.

The value of a knife should indicate that if there is one tool, other than your body, that you need to take care of prior to and after you return from the woods, it is your survival knife.  You need to protect it from rust or anything else that can weaken it or dull it, and you need to do what you can to ensure your knife will last a good long while.

Perhaps the most important survival knife rule:  Clean your knife after you use it.  Your knife can have dirt, blood, hair, and who knows what left on it after a use.  Hold the knife under running water and use some soap to clean the knife.  There are some important things to remember when cleaning your knife this way.

  1. Don’t forget that no matter what; don’t soak the knife to get the debris out.  Soaking will get water into cracks you cannot even see, then rust starts and that is the beginning of the end.
  2. Be extremely careful.  Even a well-used dirty knife that needs cleaned and sharpened can slice you.  If your knife slices you while dirty or bloody, you’re adding to the risk of an infection.  Treat the knife like it was just sharpened at all times and avoid the tip and edge as you clean it.
  3. If your knife is stainless steel, don’t touch the blade if you can avoid it.  Whether it is acid or oil, something form your skin can transfer to stainless steel and stain the blade—forever.  If the blade is carbon steel, you can touch it—carefully—and use baking soda with the water.
  4. Once you believe your knife is free from blood, dirt, or any other debris, dry it as well as you can.  A small terry cloth towel can do a great job of getting water off the handle, off the blade, and everywhere else.  If you’re confident your knife is dry, you can move on to oil and sharpening it.  If you have any doubt, lay it out for a few hours, then look it over carefully to see if water has pooled on the knife.  If it has, let it dry longer.  If it has not, now you’re ready to sharpen and oil.

Take Care of the Sheath

If you have a leather sheath, it also needs to be protected.  One of the first steps is to look inside and make certain no debris from the field has fallen into the sheath.  Then, if the sheath is in otherwise good repair, get a cloth and rub it with neat’s-foot oil. If untreated, the sheath can dry out, crack, and fall apart. If the sheath is not natural leather colored and if the color is fading, give it a coat of leather dye.  Don’t use shoe polish unless you want to run the risk that the color will end up on everything the sheath touches.  Dye will dry and not be transferable to your clothes.  Once the dye is dry, you can cover the sheath with neat’s-foot oil or saddle soap to keep it from drying out.  Saddle soap or mink oil can be used in the place of neat’s-foot oil from the beginning of the cleaning process as it works in much the same way and extends the life of leather.

Take Care of the Handle

Just like the sheath, don’t forget to ensure the handle is well maintained.  If there is one place a rivet can get loose and cause rust, the handle is the most likely culprit.  When you clean the blade under running water, also ensure the handle is clean.  You may need to get a soft bristled tooth brush and rub along where the handle and the metal converge to get dirt out of the handle crevices on the knife.  A good drying is very important before moving on to sharpening and oiling you r blade.

Some advocate putting a thin sheen of oil over the handle of the knife.  That can stain some wooden handles if they were not properly sealed, however there are advantages to putting some oil on the handle as well as the blade.  Oil will repel water, so if you’re out during a snow or rain and your knife is exposed, oil will help repel precipitation.  If you do this, dry the knife as though you’re trying to get all of the oil off the handle.  Some will be left and help protect it.

Once you have completed sharpening your knife, leave a thin coat of oil on the blade.  Even when not in use, condensation from humidity can get between the knife and the sheath and cause rust.  A thin coat of oil helps protect it.

If you don’t take care of your knife, it may not take care of you.  Get to know your knife by taking care of it and by ensuring it is ready if you ever need it.

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Anatomy of a Survival Knife

A survival knife is one of the most important items that you need for any survival situation. Like people, not all survival knives are alike, but they do have the same basic parts. Choosing the right survival knife is a personal decision, so being familiar with the different parts of a knife will help you to choose the right one for you. Every part of a good survival knife serves a purpose, but not all survival knives serve the same purpose. So, knowing the basic anatomy of any survival knife will give you a better understanding of what you are looking for when you decide to buy. Learning the parts of a survival knife will also arm you with the vocabulary you need to impress your friends when talking about the important points of survival knives!

Anatomy of the Blade

The business end of any survival knife is the metal blade portion. Every blade has its own unique features which can serve many different purposes. Looking closely at the anatomy of the blade will give you a better understanding of what that survival knife is designed to do and how it might serve you.

Point or Tip: Obviously, this is the very end of the knife at its sharpest point and is generally used for piercing. The point is sometimes called the tip, and can include the first quarter of the pointed end of the blade.

Spine or Back: As the name suggests, the spine gives the blade its strength. It is the thickest part of the blade and is usually unsharpened. The thickness of the spine determines how much force the blade can take when used in a downward motion. A square spine can also be used as a striker plate or as a scraper.

Belly: On the sharpened side of a blade is the belly. This term is used to describe the curved arc of the blade’s cutting side toward the point.

Edge: The term used to describe the sharpened side of the blade.

Bevel or Grind: The angle at which the blade is sharpened to create the edge is called the bevel or grind.

Serration: Not all survival knives have serration, but if they do, they are usually located closer to the handle for better leverage when cutting. This sawtooth edge of a blade is useful when cutting through rope, canvas, or tissue.

Ricasso: This is the unsharpened, thick part of the blade that is located in the area just before the metal enters the handle material.

Choil: The choil is a cut-out notch in the edge of the blade, just in front of the handle. In larger knives, it can be big enough for a finger to sit, but in smaller knives it is just a small notch that may be used for sharpening.

Plunge Line: This is the part of the blade where the sharpened edge of the blade ends and plunges into the handle portion of the knife.

Tang: The tang is part of the metal, but it is entirely encased in the handle material. A full tang refers to a single piece of steel that forms the entire length of the blade, and it is the preferred style for any survival knife. A skeletonized tang has holes cut out of the steel to reduce the weight of the knife and is suitable for fighting or skinning. Partial tang is fully hidden inside the handle and may not run the full length or width of the handle.

Anatomy of the Handle

The handle portion of any survival knife has many important features that you need to consider. The handle itself can come in a wide variety of materials, including metal, wood, rubber, bone, nylon, leather, hard resin, or molded plastic. The handle material can affect a survival knife’s weight or strength, but it is really just up to personal preference as to which type of handle you desire.

Bolster or Guard: The front bolster is the area between the blade and the handle where the thumb and front finger usually sit. It is meant to protect the hand and gives the blade its strength and handling. Some survival knives also have a rear bolster at the far end of the handle, which can help when pulling the knife out of something.

Quillon or Crossguard: The quillon is usually the part of the handle that extends out from both sides of the knife to keep the hand from sliding onto the blade. These can be very decorative in swords, but are generally just a simple piece of metal that juts out slightly to keep you from cutting your fingers when using the knife.

Butt or Pommel: The butt is the back end of the handle. A pommel is often used to refer to an ornamental piece at the end of the handle, but in a survival knife it is often used for hammering or pounding.

Lanyard Hole: The lanyard hold is just what it sounds like, a hole drilled through the end of the knife where a cord can be fished through and used to secure around the wrist.

Pins or Rivets: These are the bolts that are used to attach the handle to the tang inside.

Every survival knife is different, and even some of the vocabulary used to describe the various parts can vary depending on the manufacturer. However, all survival knives are made up of the same basic parts, and knowing what they are is a first step in deciding what kind is right for you.

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Survival Knife: The Basics

Should you find yourself in genuine outdoor emergency, a survival knife is one of your most reliable lifelines. Survival knives will help you deal with everything from whittling deadfall for shelter and fires, to cleaning fish and game. The question then becomes what to look for when you’re purchasing a survival knife. Here are a few characteristics that are important as well as common differences between a survival knife and other types of knives.

Full Tang vs. Partial Tang

A knife’s “tang” is the back part of the blade that joins to the handle, often with a prong, tongue or other securing apparatus.

A full tang survival knife is the strongest kind, because the blade is one solid piece running the length and width of the handle, with the handle secured to the blade with pins, one on each side.

Partial-tang survival knives, often used for folding knives and other specialty survival knives, include the half tang, which goes all the way down the handle, but only halfway across. Skeletonized tangs are used to accommodate a handle with holes in it, for specialized gripping. A push tang is characterized by being attached to the handle with glue instead of more secure pins. Other types of partial tangs include the encapsulated tang, with the tang “stuffed inside” the handle, and the rat tail tang, which gets narrower toward the bottom of the handle, where it is secured by a bolt.

But while partial tang survival knives have all manner of designs for different situations, experts agree that the full tang is the best bet for survival situations. The sturdy design means that it is less likely to break under pressure. It also gives you more power for a variety of tasks.

Fixed-Blade Survival Knife vs. Folding Survival Knife

As their names suggests, a folding blade fits inside its own handle when not in use. A fixed blade does not have this function, and does not move from where it is jointed to the handle.

For those who prefer a folding blade survival knife, its portability makes up for the fact that it is less durable than a fixed-blade type. The tuck-away blade function has the obvious advantage of being safer and lighter to carry in your pants pocket or tackle box.

The folding survival knife’s disadvantages start with the fact that it’s more likely to break when sawing branches and splitting slender logs. If you’re determined to use a folding blade as your primary survival knife, invest in one with a strong locking mechanism to keep it fully extended when in use, and keep the interior section well-maintained to prevent rust build-up.

A subcategory of the folding survival knife, the pocket survival knife, differs from a “Swiss Army” type in that it has a much larger, more powerful blade. Like other folding knives, a survival pocket knife doesn’t weigh much and is portable. It is often constructed partially of plastic, in order to be more lightweight. Look for a survival pocket knife which you can open with one hand, that is well-made with a straight blade, that isn’t held together with glue, and that has a reliable locking mechanism.

The convenience of the folding survival knife aside, fixed-blade knives are generally preferred when you have room for only one survival knife. Fixed blade survival knives are simply stronger, more powerful, and able to handle a wider variety of tasks more easily than folding knives.

Hunting Knives vs. Survival Knives

All survival knives should be able to act as hunting knives — but not all hunting knives make good survival knives. In other words, a hunting knife only has the one job of processing freshly-killed animals.

Therefore, if you mostly need a knife for skinning and cutting up the meat, it’s better to look for a classic hunting knife, one that is not much longer than 4 inches, rather than an actual survival knife. Hunting knives often have extra features that basic survival types may lack, such as a gut hook, as well as a blade with one curved side, designed for preserving valuable skins.

If you’re looking for an all-purpose survival knife that can also handle basic hunting-related chores, however, look for one with a 5-inch blade — not too long for simple field dressing, but not too short to handle other wilderness survival tasks, like chopping wood and even digging holes.

Tactical Knives vs. Survival Knives

Officially, tactical knives — sometimes known interchangeably as combat or military knives — are fixed-blade, dagger-style knives with handles that provide a more powerful thrust for close-range combat situations.

It’s helpful to ask questions when someone refers to a tactical knife, however, because over the years many manufacturers added utility features to their military-style tactical design, often incorporating folding functions.

But while a tactical knife will do in a pinch — especially if it has fighting-plus-utility design, a tactical knife often doesn’t offer the versatility and durability of the classic fixed blade, full tang survival knife.

Specialty Survival Knives

A bushcraft knife is considered “a cut above” other survival knives, simply because it is meant to withstand long-term wilderness trips, as opposed to short-term emergencies. Therefore, the blades are engineered to stay sharper longer, with a  sophisticated overall design that’s versatile enough to handle hunting and tactical situations, as well as frequent fire and shelter-making tasks.

Rescue survival knives are folding-types designed specifically to be able to free yourself or someone else from a trapped situation, whether it’s a post-crash seatbelt, a tangled climbing line or some fallen brush. Many rescue knives also come with extra features. These multi-tool survival knives not only provide different types of blades and cutters that fold out from inside a hollow handle, but also provide such tools as can openers, scissors, wire cutters, tweezers, saws and screwdrivers.