Any knife, including all survival knives, regardless of the materials from which they are manufactured, are compound, simple tools, combining a wedge—two inclined planes forced together (the cutting edge), attached to a third class lever. This simple, yet unique design creates a tool-specificity used to efficiently (time) engage work over power/force-transfer. The wedge moves material at ninety-degrees away from its cutting edge, swiftly. The wedge neatly slips through the molecules of the material, separating their physical structure from one another, generating a clean cut (Macaulay, 1988; Suplee, 1998).
As with any tool, the survival knife is made to enhance the process of survival, which would be made more difficult without the tool. Man has been creating this work-efficiency, enhancement device, for 2 million years. Our early ancestors discovered that when one rock impacts another special kind of rock, a clean edge or wedge is produced. This very sharp edge, held with the hand (the arm is a third-class lever) cuts vegetable matter, raw animal hides and flesh effectively and quickly—far better than his own fingernails and teeth could. In time, the processes throughout human expansion, refined making this wedge attached to a third class lever. From stone, to glass, to steel, to refined ceramics and titanium, this compound tool has evolved in substance, but remains a simple, compound tool designed for efficiently separating materials at ninety-degrees to whatever material the wedge is made (Capwell, 2009; Coon, 1971; Reinhardt, 2012; Whittaker, 1994).
Throughout human history, man has carried, chopped, cut and sliced his way, using said tool to assist his survival. Such human survival demanded that this tool was used to aid in preparing fibers for shelter—as in making twine for latching poles together, or even splitting those poles; processing (cutting up, mowing down) vegetable matter for food and thatch; and processing animals (skinning, scrapping and slicing skin, fur and meat) for both food and shelter (clothing is merely a mobile shelter). Even the Copper Age Ozti Iceman (3300BCE) carried an intricately knapped (he carried an antler point to knap the stone sharp again, when dulled from use) and mounted stone blade on a handle with a woven sheath (Fowler, 2001).
In these current, modern times, what would actually account for a survival situation? Let’s presume the worst possible scenario where we are in a deep wilderness setting, unaware of our position in relationship to where we had intended to go and from which we came, and all we have to work with is what we have chosen to carry in our pockets and on our belt.
To knowingly go into a deep wilderness setting, canoeing down an unknown river with rapids may find us overturned and swimming for our life to shore, losing all of our gear to the river. We find we have a military grade lensatic compass, a chapstick, a Bic lighter and a large 12 inch leaf-shaped, 5160 well-tempered steel blade in a well-made, custom leather sheath on our heavy leather belt. Standard fare for this author. Of course, we are smart and humble enough to be wearing a sturdy, military grade life vest as we are in rapids on an unknown river, with a hard helmet. This is all we have to work with as we crawl ashore, exhausted. And that was an expensive fiberglass canoe, too.
Modern times finds a plethora of knife choices, and as many opinions about what is a survival knife or the “best” survival knife. Old-timers who were professional campers—not survival experts—often warned against the folly of carrying a large knife or a knife too large, but doing so within the context of carrying additional camp equipment such as a hatchet, felling axe and buck saw (Jaeger, 1945; Kephart, 1917; Nessmuk, 1920).
Carrying a 12 inch heavy blade could easily be evaluated as excessive when we are also carrying a 2.5 pound hatchet and a 3.5 pound felling axe and buck saw. With such equipment, a simple 4-5 inch “camp” or “utility” knife of well-tempered, 1095 steel is all that is needed. In a survival scenario it would be absolutely ideal to harbor all of these fine tools for our survival scenario.
Survival, however, is stacking the odds in our favor when all we have is what is on our person when the plane crashed, the truck overturns or the canoe gets dumped in the rapids. This is when we make a choice to carry a big blade on our belt over that every day, 4-inch, 1095 utility blade (USAF, 2008).
The military’s Evasion, Resistance and Escape Training during the Vietnam era, sustained the philosophy that a large blade can do everything a small blade can, but the small blade cannot do everything a large blade can. And if all we have is one or the other—not both or additional gear—choose the big blade, first and foremost, as THE survival knife. One never witnessed a Montagnard warrior carrying a small blade. Usually a 14 inch blade, hand-forged from US leaf spring (5160), mounted with a tropical hardwood handle and wooden sheath was standard fare, along with their loincloths (Jiyu Yushi, 2016; Mole, 1970).
There are many different chemical compositions of steels and metals used to produce survival knives. There are many different sized blade profiles (the flat shape of the blade and tang). There are several different distal tappers (tang and blade’s cross-section). And, there a myriad of carry systems for this tool. All of this is more about consumer consumption than efficacy of tool design and user-skills.
Interestingly, there exists only two fundamental manufacturing processes for producing metal survival knives, and these are forging and stock-removal. Often, it is the manufacturing style that creates blade design more than for blade utility—it remains a wedge on a third class lever. Either man or automated machine pounds or stamps out hot metal into the desired profile, or man or machine grinds away excess material to create the desired blade profile. From here the metal blade is heat-treated (or not) and sharpened into that rigid wedge, mounted on a third class lever (handle and arm) (Capwell, 2009; Hrisoulas, 1987; Macaulay, 1988; Reinhardt, 2012).
When we examine the physical structure and makeup of key survival knife designs, specific blade geometry and chemical composition facilitates specific outcomes. Soft edges sharpen easily but dull more quickly. Soft spines are resilient to impact, but may deform. Knives that are too hard, when batoned for splitting wood may snap, especially in cold weather or when torque is added to the blade during removal from the wood. Knives with too narrow of a point profile break off easily, while tips that are too rounded cannot pierce materials, inducing an initial cut needed for say skinning a pelt properly or making toggle holes in a tanned-skinned shirt (Hrisoulas, 1987; USAF, 2008).
It is simply human kinetics and understanding amalgamated to chemistry and physics. None of these factors can be excused away or ignored, especially if one truly wants to understand human survival and the tools made and required to enhance that survival (Bennett, Donahue, Schneider & Voit, 2014; Kelly, 2013; Schmidt & Lee, 2011).
First off, no tool can do everything. Every survival knife is limited by its chemical construction, its physical design and how the wielder decides to use the tool. We could attempt to use a cheap pocket knife to fell a foot thick oak. The probably of success of achieving that goal are very much against the wielder. Remember, much of our very survival depends on our ability to conserve precious energy. And while matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, just transformed, this also means that there are compromises, such that where great force is generated, the distance this force can travel is restricted, and using a pocket knife to fell a tree is wasting energy with the incorrect tool (Capwell, 2009; Lundin, 2003; Macaulay, 1988).
Simply put, blades that can generate great force (axe heads) in separating materials—chopping power—move much more slowly and require greater energy production to control. Blades that move much more swiftly, but cannot separate as much material are also less draining on energy usage. Blades that can pierce effectively through materials, need to generate maximum force into the smallest surface area—like a needle accomplishes or an icepick—but are worthless for chopping or cutting (Macaulay, 1988).
When we inspect the above requirements, we can see why even primitive man made various edged tools for his and her many different survival tasks—e.g. axes to chop wood, needles to sow skins together and sturdy handled blades to skin and cut meat efficiently. Otzi Iceman even had arrows for his bow, a stone knife with sheath and a copper axe, for example (Fowler, 2001; Kelly, 2013).
So, what is a good survival knife that compromises a worthy chemical composition and physical structure in all the areas that it must (chopping, slicing, and piercing) in order to provide a human entity enhanced survival capacity when pressed into a highly stressful and dangerous situation? Is this an acute or a chronic survival situation? That is, is it short-term survival, being momentarily lost in a bad snow storm; or is it about surviving moments on end? Does this matter? Opinions vary. The primary consideration remains one of individual skills and understanding the situation as it dynamically unfolds (USAF, 2008).
Referring back to the task of using a pocket knife to fell the foot thick tree, can a 12 inch, leaf-shaped (profile) 5160, well-tempered steel blade with a full-flat grind, and little to no distal taper of its quarter-inch thick spine, do anything that pocket knife (NOTE: tactical folders are never tactical and mostly worthless in harsh conditions) can do? Sure it can. Can the pocket knife do what the big blade can do? No, it cannot. If the wielder cannot use this big blade to do what any small blade can do, then the wielder is grossly unskilled with any survival knife (Hrisoulas, 1987; Reinhardt, 2012; USAF, 2008).
A good survival knife has heft and length for chopping, composed of well-tempered (differentially heat-treated is the ideal) steel for a balanced toughness and sharpness for smooth cutting and slicing, as well as durability so that it won’t break with hard usage. And, it must possesses a solid and durable protective covering so that the sharp blade can be carried comfortably and safely, for long distances. That is about it. Probably one of the best survival designs and steel compositions out there, currently, is the TOPS Knives’ Power Eagle 12 (https://www.topsknives.com/power-eagle-12).
In spite of the company’s propaganda to sell this tool as a combination of the kukhri and bolo, it is not. This specific leaf-shape design is common through the world since ancient times of bronze casting (Oakeshott, 1996).
The Tausug People (Moros) of the Sulu Archipelago have been utilizing this tool design as a weapon of war, called a barung. The barung was hand forged and used by the Moros since importing true Damascus steel (equivalent to 1060 steel today) from Syria and Arabia during medieval times (Fulton, 2009; Hassan, Ashley & Ashley, 1994). In addition, this leaf-shape design can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece and Europe, during the early Bronze Age, as the principle back-up weapon to spear and shield of the Greek hoplite (Oakeshott, 1996).
This specific design has a center of gravity about two inches distal its hilt, with the two “sweet spots” of the blade—power points—being about four inches proximal from the tip and about four inches distal from the hilt. The centerline of this design makes for strong thrusting lines and well as for superb, balanced chopping lines. In effect, this blade incorporates both thrusting lines and cutting lines extraordinarily well, without too much compromise against each action (Oakeshott, 1996; Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012).
This is ideal for numerous survival chores of manufacturing shelter, cut and splitting wood for fire, heavy butchering chores, and shaving bark, to name a few. It can also pierce, strip, skin and slit with the forward aspect of this blade nicely, when small-knife chores are required (choke up on the blade using a simple blade guard) (Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012; USAF, 2008).
Since personal protection is also an essential skill for personal survival, what attributes make a survival knife an effective and efficient weapon for personal protection? Here again, we must refer back to the wielder’s abilities and skills, the chemical composition of the steel and the physical properties of the tool (Hrisoulas, 1987).
In spite of what is portrayed in Hollywood, it is all myth, showing the actor taking a Marine Ka-Bar knife and running it along the throat of an enemy, quickly killing the soldier. This is so far from the reality, it does the knife a disservice as being an efficient killing tool, which it is not. One can effectively kill a human with a ka-bar with great effort and personal danger to self, and why knives are considered lethal force. Knives, however, are not efficient at killing a resistive human enemy. They are very slow at killing a human (Dolinak, Matshes & Lew, 2005; Oakeshott, 1996; Reinhardt, 2012).
In all actuality that seven-inch ka-bar blade is NOT an effective and efficient killing tool, unless the cervical spine is severed, completely, at C-4. This tool cuts well and stabs well and maims well. Human psychophysiology, however, takes a while to bleed out and lose consciousness from even multiple knife wounds. In today’s modern battlefield and mean streets, most knife wounds are survived. Swords, for example, are very effective man killers and man stoppers. They are able to sever heads and limbs in one fell swoop. And this is why swords were invented (Dolinak, et al, 2005; Oakeshott, 1996; Reinhardt, 2012).
In personal protection, bigger blades are better, as they impact harder and create more permanent and lethal damage than smaller blades. However, the downside is that they move much more slowly than a smaller blade, yet require more strength, power and energy to use effectively. The trade off, then becomes one of a bigger blade being more lethal, with greater impacts ending the conflict more quickly versus a smaller blade moving much faster, cutting more often, but with much less effective and thorough wounding of the enemy in the same amount of time (Dolinak, et al, 2006; Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012).
The bottom line with a knife as weapon depends solely on the man or woman’s attitude to close with the enemy, attacking the attacker, and engage that enemy viciously, brutally and with ruthless abandon. This is extremely difficult for most modern humans to muster. With a large blade as mentioned above, closing the gap viciously, splitting skulls for quick kills, and lobbing off hands and kneecaps for immediate stoppage of the enemy are available to the determined and skilled defender using that heavy blade for personal protection against a would be attack (Jiyu Yushi, 2016; Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012).
Survival knives are tools used to survive in any eventuality, most we are unable to foresee. From what we can see about the history, how the structure and the function of the survival knife is so task-specific, and how the chemical composition is so important, what it boils down to is choosing the biggest, toughest, most durable blade that can comfortably be carried for extended periods of time, while the wielder possesses the physical and mental skills to effectively and efficiently use that big blade in all the survival skills that specific survival situation imposes upon the individual.
A hand-forged, elongated, 12 inch leaf-shaped 5160 steel blade, differentially heat-treated with a light-straw-colored edge reaching up for an index finger width, extending into a dark straw upward into peacock, purple and blue quarter inch thick spine, is ideal for a tough, strong, durable and functional survival blade. Add some good micarta scales for the 12.5 inch to 6 inch handle, full tang, full-flat grind profile, with a secondary edge bevel, we now possess a good survival knife. Add a well-made leather sheath and we own a great blade/carry system for survival needs (Hrisoulas, 1987).
If we are going to own redundancy, and carry a second blade, we will then carry a second blade identical to what we just read described, fulfilling SERE’s ideology of “…one is none and two is one,” survival philosophy. If we cannot do all of our essential survival tasks with this one survival blade, then we had better learn some better skills, from different instructors, as we are not really ready or prepared to survive. We are equipment dependent, which is not surviving at all. This big survival blade will manufacture all the other tools we will need for either short-term or long term survival (DOA, 2002; USAF, 2008).
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