The word “Survival” means different things to different people, and even different things to the same person at different times. Some folks are survivalists: they like going out into the wild and trying to make it with the bare minimum of equipment and creature comforts. Others think of survival as their behavior during emergencies like a fire or a car accident, or as learning to cope with the trials and tribulations of long-distance travel.
No matter what your definition of survival is, a pocket knife is a necessary tool in any of those scenarios. Whether you need to make feather sticks, or cut your seatbelt off in an accident, or simply want peace of mind when you are travelling alone, there’s a group of knives out there that will meet those needs; we’ll call this group “Survival Knives,” and try and ignore the fact that that is a designation it shares with a whole class of sub-par garbage from companies like Gerber.
We’re looking for a couple of things here. First, we need something that is easy to carry: because you want this knife on your person at all time, and want easy access to it, a good pocket clip and a convenient carry feel are tantamount.
Second, we need a good, ergonomic handle. This is basically requisite on any knife, but on a survival knife maintaining a good grip is key. Third, we want something with a good, reliable steel that can perform well in a variety of very different scenarios.
Below, please use our table to compare a variety of popular pocket knives against one another based on steel, price, blade length and more.
$ = $1 – $30 | $$ = $31 – $60 | $$$ = $61 and above
Pocket Knives Made for Survival
Those are the criteria. Here are the five knives that I feel meet them most fully:
- The Benchmade 940
- The Emerson Mini CQC-7
- The Ontario RAT 1
- The Cold Steel Code 4
- The Spyderco Paramilitary 2
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling pocket knives currently for sale on Amazon:
And now, let’s take a closer look at the 5 aforementioned knives:
The Benchmade 940
The 940 is right up there with the 710 and the Griptilian in terms of iconic Benchmade designs. Warren Osborne, the designer, managed to get so much right with this knife that it has been a constant member of the Benchmade lineup, as well as remain virtually unchanged, since its debut.
The 940 is a medium-sized pocket knife that carries like a much smaller one. The knife is very narrow when closed. Packing that much blade into so small a space is an incredible achievement in design—one that Benchmade, sadly, seems to have largely ignored in newer designs. The handle is just large enough to fit four fingers comfortably, and there is good jimping both on the underside and the top of the blade.
I am not a jimping fiend like many in the knife community are, but I do appreciate it when it allows for good indexing–that is, telling your hand where it is on the knife when you may not be looking at it. As you can see, this would be useful in a survival scenario.
Finally, the steel on the standard 940 is S30V; a common choice on mid- to high-end knives, S30V is not the standard-bearer for super steels it once was, but it offers amazing corrosion resistance and great edge retention. The trade-off is that it is somewhat prone to chipping, and not all that easy to sharpen. It is manageable, however, and, because a razor sharp edge is so important on a survival knife, I am more than happy with it.
The 940 is one of those knives of which almost too much has been said. But the minute you hold it in your hand you see why people are so effusive about it. It costs about $180 and is worth every penny.
The Emerson Mini CQC-7
Emerson Knives Inc. has an earned reputation as a maker of no-nonsense, hard-use tools. One of their blades has to make a list about survival pocket knives.
The Mini CQC-7 is one of the few knives they make at or under 3”. Despite what many people think, a larger blade isn’t more useful in most survival situations: smaller blades are more maneuverable, can accomplish 99% of what larger blades can, and are lighter and easier to carry.
Now, no Emerson knife I’ve ever seen has had a carry anywhere near as elegant as that of, say, the 940, but the Mini CQC-7 is very manageable. The handle is a triumph, and one of my favorites of all time: the bulkiness that makes this knife carry truly optimal, as it fills the hand and facilitates any sort of grip you may need.
The blade steel is 154CM. 154CM isn’t a glamorous steel, but it is a good one: you can sharpen it easily, and it will hold an edge for a decent length of time—not as long as S30V, but it’s also less chippy than that steel.
One other characteristic about the Emerson makes it worthwhile: it features the patented Wave deployment feature. Basically, there’s a small crook at the base of the blade that, when you pull the knife out of your pocket, snags the edge of your pants, deploying the knife automatically. It’s a feature I’m fairly ambivalent towards in day-to-day use, but in an emergency survival situation, it is great to have.
The Mini CQC-7 costs about $160, although, like most Emerson knives, it goes in and out of production.
The Ontario RAT 1
In compiling a list like this, I always like to include at least one budget option. Not everybody wants to spend $100+ on a survival pocket knife. We are fortunate to live in a time when good survival tools can be had for not a lot of money, and one of the premier examples of such a tool is the Ontario RAT 1 folder.
The RAT 1 is as a straightforward as a knife gets. It is a large knife, with a 3.6” blade, a liner lock, and plastic handle scales. It carries well for a knife of its size, about as good as the Mini CQC-7, even though it is much longer.
The clip is simple and durable, the handle similarly so: no unnecessary grooves to interfere with whatever sort of grip you need to use it in. The blade is made out of AUS-8 steel. AUS-8 is a great user steel: it is not in the same class of performance as 154CM or S30V, but it sharpens easily, and takes a mean edge. It is also more rust resistant than similarly budget-oriented steels like 8Cr13MoV; in fact, I’d say it’s almost comparable to 154CM in this category.
All in all, at about $30, the RAT 1 is a no-brainer. You get so much for so little.
The Cold Steel Code 4
The Cold Steel Code 4 is our mid-priced option—and, in terms of dollar to performance, it is pretty hard to beat.
The Code 4 is very slim, and because it is made out of aluminum it carries well and is easy to extract from the pocket. Cold Steel is not the best clip makers in the business, but the one on the Code 4 is serviceable.
The handle does have the finger grooves that I abhor, but there are only two and so the handle is still very functional without sacrificing too much affordance. Bonus points are given because the aluminum is finished in such a way as to make it fairly grippy.
The primary appeal of the Code 4, however, is the steel. The 2015 models are all made out of CTS-XHP. This is a bonafide super steel, often likened to a stainless D2: this means it gets very sharp, and holds that edge for a very long time. It is also way less chippy than S30V. CTS-XHP is the best blade steel on this list by a fair margin.
I should also mention the Tri-Ad Lock. This lock, developed by Andrew Demko and featured on the Code 4, as well as most other Cold Steel knives, is a variation on the lockback that, quite simply, is without peer for strength and rigidity. In a survival situation, having such a lock provides peace of mind: you can use this knife in the most wanton fashion, and it will hold up. It is supremely reliable.
All of this can be had for $80. The Code 4 is a steal.
There are few “Best Knives” lists that the Paramilitary 2 does not make. I think it’s the best knife Spyderco has ever made, and one the best pocket knife designs in history. Like the 940, the PM2 carries much smaller than it actually is. It isn’t quite as svelte as the 940 (no Spyderco, because of the Spyder Hole, ever will be), but it is pretty excellent.
The ergonomics are out of this world: a long, comfortable handle, and a forward finger choil allows for more control than any other knife on this list is able to give. The steel, on the stock model, is S30V, which I’ve already discussed, but one of the cool things about the PM2 is that there are ton of limited edition Sprint Runs with all sorts of exotic steels, including Elmax, CTS-XHP, and M390.
These Sprint Runs cost a premium on the secondary market, and quite frankly I’m happy with S30V (particularly for the survival applications we’re discussing here), but they are out there if you want them.
Like the Code 4, the PM2 has a proprietary lock–the Compression Lock. This is a very tough, very stable lock. I would not say it’s stronger than the Tri-Ad Lock, because nothing is, but for any reasonable application, and even under extreme use, I’d say it would perform about as well, and certainly better than the liner locks of the RAT 1 and the Mini CQC-7, or the Axis Lock of the 940.
The stock PM2 costs about $125.
No matter your definition of survival, what it essentially comes down to is being prepared. Some people take the “preparedness” thing too far, but carrying a pocket survival knife with you makes sense. Not only can they perform everyday cutting tasks, but during those moments of crisis when you need your tool, they are ready to go. When you start to think about what knife you’d want on you during those moments, consider the ones above, as they are reliable, rugged, and useful.
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