Characteristics of a Good Survival Knife

Best survival knives writing fiction

Many knives fit the criteria for a “survival knife,” but I went with the ESEE-5 for one of my projects. (ESEE photo)

TLDR: Forget the bells and whistles. Fixed blade knives built for durability and practicality are the best for getting a character out of a pinch. 

On the surface, a “survival knife” might seem to be any blade within arm’s reach that saves a character’s carcass from certain defeat. But if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know things are never as simple as that. There’s plenty to consider when assigning a character one of these resilient brutes. I even had to gut-check myself with one of my most recent releases, Chase Baker & the Vikings’ Secret.

A Brief History of Survival Knives

There's a reason the knife made the cover. (Image via Amazon)

There’s a reason the knife made the cover. (Image via Amazon)

Survival knives, as a practical matter, have been around since humans started making tools. A person’s survival depended on that knife, and things haven’t changed much since. (Yes, your dinner still depends on one, even if you hire out the grunt work via the grocery store.)

As a distinct category of knife design, survival knives began in earnest in the 1980s with the popularity of the First Blood movie. That’s a whole other story, but know that from that point onward, survival knives were defined by these characteristics:

  • Fixed blade (meaning the blade stays put and doesn’t fold into the handle)
  • Simple yet versatile design
  • Durable and ergonomic construction, such as a full tang and/or jimping

Survival knives aren’t supposed to look pretty. They’re to take abuse, smile and keep going. The steel materials used in the blade usually keep that in mind, but unless you’re interested in metallurgy, that’s not entirely important for writing fiction. If it matches the above, it’s a survival knife.

(Pro tip: For more detail on survival knives, pick up a copy of The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction).

What are Survival Knives Used For?

When it comes time to actually use the knife, I like survival instructor Creek Stewart’s rundown from this Living Ready article:

  • Cutting
  • Hunting
  • Dressing game
  • Hammering shelter anchors
  • Digging
  • Self-defense
  • Splitting/chopping
  • Making fire
  • Carving
  • Building shelter
  • Food preparation

Don’t confuse versatility with complexity. The best survival knives are often the simplest ones. They’re the no-frills tools of the knife world. Maybe the best way to put that into perspective is with an example.

My Pick for Fiction: ESEE-5 Survival Knife

Simpler is better when it comes to survival knives. (ESEE photo)

Simpler is better when it comes to survival knives. (ESEE image)

Now available at all fine e-book retailers, as well as the not-so-fine ones.

Now available at all fine e-book retailers, as well as the not-so-fine ones.

When Vincent Zandri asked me to write a few installments for his Chase Baker adventure novel series, I couldn’t say no. I’d been a fan of his for some time, and the Chase Baker universe is pure fun. Each installment combines the occult mysteries of a Dan Brown novel with the ass-denting action of a Rambo flick.

My first contribution, Chase Baker & the Vikings’ Secret, has the titular character in pursuit of evidence that the Chinese explored the Americas long before Columbus. The geopolitical implications of such a find set the stakes sky high. It’s a helluva fun read that you should pick up right now from Amazon.

Chase finds himself in a desolate part of Minnesota, trapped at the bottom of a huge crater called The Pit. That means he must build a shelter, light a fire, find water, wrangle dinner, dig up an ancient artifact, treat his injured comrades, escape The Pit and fight off gun-toting baddies with nothing but a knife. How does he pull it off? You’ll have to get a copy to find out.

I admit, I went a little hard on Chase, but his time in the military helps him out. So does the knife selection.

I assigned him an ESEE-5, part of a line of excellent survival knives. I’m familiar with the knife through my time at BLADE magazine, but this video review sums it up as well as I could.

For you spec junkies, here’s the technical info. The ESEE-5 is on the beefier side, but Chase needed something that wasn’t going to fail (i.e. break or bend) no matter what.

  • Overall Length: 11.0″
  • Blade Length: 5.25″
  • Thickness: .25″
  • Steel: 1095 Carbon, 55-57 Rc
  • Finish: Textured Powder Coat
  • Blade Width: 1.56″
  • Grind: Saber
  • Weight (Knife Only): 16 Ounces
  • Handles: Canvas Micarta
  • Sheathing: Kydex Sheath W/ Clip Plate
  • Features: Glass Breaker, Bow Drill Divot
  • Spine: Thumb Jimping

Many knives sport similar features to the ESEE-5. Why did I pick this one? Well, Keith Richards, cockroaches and this knife will still be around after the Apocalypse.

I know it came from a reputable knife company specializing in outdoor survival, it’s in the right price range for a freelance adventurer like Chase (around $140), there’s a Micarta handle for a better grip, there’s a sturdy skull crusher on the pommel (i.e. that little piece of metal sticking out of the bottom of the handle), the 1095 steel on the blade is easy to sharpen even with rudimentary methods (although it will rust, which requires some maintenance) and I know it can actually handle the demands of the story given its hefty weight.

What sorts of demands? To keep up with Chase, the knife must be able to take a grenade on the nose in the morning, get shot a few times in the afternoon and still leave for a trip around the world in the evening. I think I nailed it, if I do say so myself.

Other Considerations

Unlike other types, such as switchblades, survival knives are only limited (usually) by legal restrictions on blade length. Because the sheaths they rest in are sometimes concealed when worn, laws may have something to say about hidden weapons.

Speaking of which, don’t forget to think about how the character will wear the sheath. Chase just keeps his on his belt. No need to overthink this.

Check Out a Survival Knife in Action (in Fiction)

Chase Baker and the Vikings Secret Sobieck ZandriHey now, I’m not ashamed to mention this again, because I’m proud of the way this turned out. Chase Baker & the Vikings’ Secret is out now, and it covers every nook and cranny when it comes to survival knives.

Other than kidnapping you in the night, throwing you in a trunk, driving you to a remote location, tossing you into a ditch and leaving you with nothing but a fixed blade, there’s no better way to learn about survival knives on this side of the legal system.

Click here to get Chase Baker & the Vikings’ Secret.

5 thoughts on “Characteristics of a Good Survival Knife

  1. Wow. That video was the perfect compliment to your post. I had no idea about the cutout on the SE3, made for fine cutting. Fascinating info., Ben! I might have to use one of these knives in my WIP. Let me ask you, which one would be better to slice open a corpse, the SE3 or SE5? It needs to be able to gut, similar to the way you’d gut a deer.


    • Thank you, Sue! There’s a lot more to knives than I think most people realize, and that’s what makes choosing one for fiction so much fun. I think between the two you mentioned, the ESEE-3 would be the better choice. It’s better suited for detailed cutting and processing, whereas the ESEE-5 is more of a meathead. Just for perspective, the last deer I dressed and quartered was with a knife similar in dimensions to the ESEE-3:–Benchmade-Nim-Cub-II–3568

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also chose the Esee 5 as an URBAN survival knife because of it’s 1/4″ thickness, making it a kind of sharpened “pry bar”, since in an urban setting you might find yourself in ingress/egress situations, smashing windows, prying doors, etc. I researched for hours before I bought the Esee 5. A very close second was the Tops Punisher, but it was just too big.

    My only gripe with the Esee 5 is that the handle is a bit blocky, and not the most comfortable. I’d recommend paracord wrapping the handle, but then I’m not sure how well it’d fit in a sheath..


    • I suppose that’s the trade off with the beefier knives, no matter the model. You wind up sacrificing comfort for power. How’s that 1095 edge holding up against the rust?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s