What Is The Best Blade Material For A Survival Knife?



What is a survival knife?

Technically speaking, any knife can be a survival knife. Whether it is a mini swiss army knife or a heavy-duty military dagger, as long as it helps to survive, it is a survival knife.

However, there are specific features which make good survival knives different from any other types of knives. These features allow the knife to be used in basically all conditions and to withstand hardcore activities, such as chopping, cross batoning, hammering, and many others.

A survival knife is also different form other knives due to its versatile nature. While other types of knives are usually restrictive in their abilities, a good survival knife is able to perform a multitude of tasks, from woodcarving to firesteel striking, to food processing.


Why do I need a survival knife?

Your knife is always going to be your most important asset out there in the field. It is the ultimate survival tool, able to perform a wide variety of tasks and activities.

In the wild, your survival knife will enable you to:

  • hunt for food, either as a weapon or as a tool to build traps and snares
  • build a shelter to protect yourself from the elements
  • collect firewood
  • light a fire to keep yourself warm
  • open food cans and other containers
  • clean and prepare your food
  • perform essential first aid in emergency cases
  • (Read more about survival knife uses here)

Your survival knife will basically do everything it needs to do to keep you alive.


What features should I look for in a survival knife?

Having a survival knife is already awesome. But having a GOOD survival knife is even awesomer. Hence, it is necessary to make sure that you have the perfect survival knife, adapted both to its activities and to its user (you, in this case).

You want your knife to be adapted to what it will undergo. It needs to be big and strong enough for tough survival activities, but you don’t want a machete, since it would mean neglecting the small tasks that can be performed with a survival knife.

You also want your survival knife to be adapted to you. Not just the handle color or the lanyard material, but you have to make sure that it is the right weight for you, that it gives your hand a strong, stable and safe grip, and that it allows you to do what you need to do easily and safely.

I found that the best survival knives generally contain these features:

  • A fixed blade: In 99% of cases, a fixed-blade knife will always serve you better as a survival knife than a folding knife. Fixed blades are generally much more reliable and durable than folding blades. This is because any kind of joint creates a weak point.
  • Full tang: A good survival knife is always full tang. This indicates that the solid piece of metal that constitutes the blade runs down the handle as well. Full tang knives are much more robust and will always be a better option for all outdoor activities, including batoning, chopping, and levering, where a partial tang knife becomes a hazard.
  • The right size: Personally, I am more comfortable with a 4-6 inch blade. This is generally the right size for an all-purpose utility camp knife. You can pretty much do everything with it. It is important to find a knife that suits you personally since it is what will keep you alive in possibly extreme survival situations.
  • A straight edge and a sharp point: Although serrations can present some advantages like cutting ropes or sawing branches, a straight edge will end up being much more versatile than a serrated blade. You blade also needs a sharp point, for self-defense, food processing, gear repairs, splinters, and many other outdoor activities. It can only make your camping life easier!

Here are what I consider to be the 12 determining features in a survival knife.

But a very important aspect of a survival knife is its blade material. The material of your blade will determine its strength, its flexibility, its precision, and ultimately, its success out in the field.

The most common blade materials out there are Stainless Steel and Carbon Steel. Stainless blades are stronger, more durable, but hard to sharpen, while Carbon blades require more maintenance, but can be made very sharp easily.


What are the different blade materials available?

Over the centuries, steel makers have been developing all kinds of combinations of materials to produce better and better alloys. They have tried not only to make their steel stronger and stronger, but also more durable, lightweight, and corrosion-resistant.

Here are some of the most common types of steel and blade materials in the knife industry.

1095-HC

1095 is a High-Carbon Steel, which means that it can corrode and stain if you don’t store it or maintain it properly. It is a common steel for heavy-duty tools, ranging from choppers to survival knives, because of its durability and its impressive edge retention (how long the edge of the knife stays sharp).

AUS-8

AUS-8 is a Japanese Stainless Steel, with a high Chromium percentage mass. This gives a good balance between durability, sharpness and corrosion-resistance. It can be considered hard to sharpen due to the high amount of Chromium in the blade. However, an appropriate heat-treat during the manufacturing process will make it suitable for most kind of survival activities.

154CM

154CM is considered a high-end American Stainless Steel, manufactured by the Crucible Company. It is used a lot by brands such as Benchmade and Emerson, and has earned its reputation by having advantages of both Carbon-Steel knives and Stainless Steel. It is durable, holds and edge well, and is easy to sharpen. However, it requires more maintenance than other Stainless blades.

D2

D2 is, like 1095, a High-Carbon Steel. Though it is more prone to chipping and breaking than 1095, it is more resistant to corrosion and can still hold an edge well. This makes D2 suitable for small folding blades, but not really for heavy-duty choppers or machetes.

8Cr3MoV

This is basically the Chinese version of the AUS-8. It is a high-chromium Stainless Steel. Though it might lack the edge retention and toughness of higher-end steels, it is still tough enough and corrosion-resistant. It is also a very good material for the money and is common in EDC knives under $50.

The hardness of Steel types is measured on the Rockwell Scale (HRC). The greater the number, the harder the blade.


Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel?

The big divide in types of blade steel is that between Carbon steel and Stainless steel. Most types of blade steels can be classified as being either Stainless or Carbon steel.

Both have advantages and disadvantages, in terms of durability, safety, and care. This divide hence calls for an informed choice when you are looking to purchase a knife.

Carbon Steel

As the name suggests, Carbon Steel is steel with additional carbon. Many steels can contain different metal alloys. However, it is the percentage of carbon making up the blade that plays the main role here.

Usually, Carbon Steel blades contain between 0.5% and 1.5% carbon. This makes the blade very strong and durable. Carbon Steel is thus a favourite for experts as it makes very good survival knives.

Other advantages of Carbon-Steel include its price. It is usually much cheaper than Stainless Steel. Carbon-Steel is also usually more effective at producing sparks with a firesteel. However, any good steel should be able to give you sparks, even if it is not Carbon-Steel.

However, a Carbon Steel blade calls for a conscientious maintenance of the blade. This is because it is more prone to corrosion than Stainless Steel. It will rust more easily, and, if no taken decent care of, will be completely useless in the field.

But if you sharpen, hone and oil your Carbon-Steel knife regularly, and store it in an appropriate place, it will be hard to beat!

Most common types of Carbon Steel include CPM 154 and 1095-HC. These are usually the go-to Carbon Steels for survival knives, as they are very durable and sharp.

Stainless Steel

The name “Stainless Steel” usually leads to confusion. A blade labelled “Stainless” will corrode and stain. However, it will do so much slower than a non-Stainless blade.

Stainless Steel blade contain Chromium, which usually makes up between 12.5% and 13.5% of the blade. This creates a strong oxide layer on the surface of the blade, which prevents the steel from further oxidation. As a result, the corrosion of the blade is slowed down, which is why the steel is called” Stainless”.

Hence, Stainless Steel knives are a good choice for corrosive environments, such as the sea.

A main drawback of Stainless Steel knives compared to Carbon Steel is sharpening. While Carbon Steel is easy to sharpen in the field, you night encounter some difficulty with a Carbon-Steel blade, mainly due to the strong oxide layer on the surface of the blade.

Stainless Steel blades are also usually more expensive than Carbon-Steel, since the insertion of Chromium or Nickel into the steel requires additional steps in the manufacturing process.

Good Stainless Steels for survival knives include 8Cr3MoV, 154CM and AUS-8.

So which one is better?

Carbon Steel Stainless Steel
  • (-) Prone to corrosion
  • (+) Takes and keeps an edge well
  • (-) Requires careful maintenance
  • (+) Usually cheaper
  • (+) Easy to sharpen in the field
  • (+) Good for striking a firesteel
  • (+) A good steel for survival knives
  • (+) Corrosion-resistant
  • (+) Is very strong and durable
  • (+) Requires less maintenance
  • (-) Usually more expensive
  • (-) Can be harder to sharpen
  • (+) Suitable for striking a firesteel
  • (+) Also a good choice for survival knives
Carbon Steel
  • (-) Prone to corrosion
  • (+) Takes and keeps an edge well
  • (-) Requires careful maintenance
  • (+) Usually cheaper
  • (+) Easy to sharpen in the field
  • (+) Good for striking a firesteel
  • (+) A good steel for survival knives
Stainless Steel
  • (+) Corrosion-resistant
  • (+) Is very strong and durable
  • (+) Requires less maintenance
  • (-) Usually more expensive
  • (-) Can be harder to sharpen
  • (+) Suitable for striking a firesteel
  • (+) Also a good choice for survival knives

Blade finishes and coatings

In the knife manufacturing process, the last stage often involves a certain coating or treatment of the blade, to improve its quality, its durability, or its aesthetic appeal. Here are some of the most common blade finishes.

1) Black Oxide

Blackening, or black oxide, is a coating that is commonly used on knife blades to add extra corrosion resistance and for general aesthetic appeal. This is not to be confused with simple black paint, which is often considered the lowest quality blade coating and has a high chance of scratching.

Example: ESEE 6P-B

2) Bead-blasting

Bead blasting is a method of coating that involves blasting the surface of the blade with various materials such as sand or beads (hence the name). This is done to produce a non-reflective, rougher surface, which is more prone to corrosion.

Example: Spyderco Bushcraft

3) Titanium Nitride

Titanium Nitride coating (often abbreviated as TiNi) is one of the more high-end, technological types of coating that can be applied to a knife. Black Titanium Nitride finishes often increase the durability of the blade. A TiNi-coated knife would be much more resistant to scratching and peeling, unlike some cheaper coating materials.

Example: CRKT Ultima Survival Knife

4) DLC Coating

DLC coating is another type of Titanium coating. It is known to be one of the strongest coatings available in the knife industry. This results in high quality, durable knives that can keep their sharp edge for a long time without sharpening. However, this also means that they are usually priced much higher than other knives.

Example: Cold Steel 3V SRK

5) Mirror Polish

Similarly to the Titanium Nitride coating, this is more of a high-end type of blade treatment. The steel blade is polished and polished in the manufacturing process producing a highly reflective blade. Mirror-polished knives are more resistant to corrosion than other blades. Of course, another advantage of this type of finish is that it is very visually appealing.

Example: Buck 119 Special

6) Satin Finish

This type of blade finish can be said to fall halfway between bead-blasting and mirror polish. Satin finish is by far the most popular treatment for knife blades.

Example: Fallkniven A1

7) Ceramic coating

This isn’t the ceramic of your coffee mug. These knives are usually coated with zirconium oxide, which is significantly stronger than steel, and very lightweight. This makes the blade very sharp and durable, and gives the knife a very good edge retention.

Example: Gerber Strong Arm Military


Conclusion

Wherever you go, you are going to find that the most common blade materials out there are Stainless Steel and Carbon Steel.

Stainless Steel blades are stronger on the Rockwell Scale (which determines the hardness of a blade), and therefore are harder to sharpen. However, when sharpened properly, Stainless Steel blade will keep their sharpness much longer than other blades.

Carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen and durable, but are prone to corrosion. Carbon Steel blades require much more care and maintenance than Stainless Steel.

Due to their usefulness in the field, I would recommend carbon-steel blades, provided that you know how to care for it and maintain it in good condition.

Remember that a manufacturer should always show the type of steel on a package or on the blade. If not, it means that the manufacturer isn’t really interested in proving the quality of the blade, and that it’s not really a serious survival knife.

However, it is also important to note that blade material is only a fraction of what makes a good survival blade. Other factors such as heat treatment, coatings, and finishes will also greatly influence the quality of your knife.

Read more about the features that make a good survival knife by reading our 12 Determining Factors When Choosing Your Survival Knife. You can also check out our 21 Favourite Survival Knives.


Let us know in the comments below if you found this article helpful, or if you have any comments or suggestions. We look forward to hearing from you!

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