What’s the Difference Between a Tactical Knife and a Survival Knife?
Knives are made differently depending on what you plan on using them for. Tactical knives are different than survival knives.
Tactical knives and survival knives differ in the way that they’re designed. A tactical knife is designed as a hard use utility knife in a military environment and can typically work as an effective weapon. A survival knife is focused on survival and utility tasks first and usually doesn’t consider its combat ability.
Let’s big a little deeper and look at the differences between survival and tactical knives.
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Many companies really push one type of knife or another, but it can be difficult to understand the difference between a survival knife and a tactical knife if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. The major difference between the two types of knives is in the design.
Most of the time, it isn’t one specific design element that makes a knife a survival knife or a tactical knife. It’s usually several small things across the handle, guard, and blade design that add up to make a knife really good at one thing or another.
Appearance-wise, tactical knives normally come in subdued colors and use composites or rubberized grips. Survival knives come in a wide range of colors and use both natural and synthetic grips.
You can find fixed blade and folding knives that can fall into both categories but a full tang fixed blade is the best style of knife for both tactical and survival knives. There are always exceptions to this but a full tang fixed blade is much stronger than other types of tangs or folding knives.
Handles are more or less a personal preference than anything else. There really isn’t one type of handle that specifically fits a tactical knife or a survival knife, but there are some things that make a little better for one or the other.
Handles of tactical knives tend to be made from materials that don’t lose their grip when they’re wet or bloody. They usually have a rougher texture that helps the user grip the knife.
A lot of them will have finger grooves in the handle on top of the texturing to allow for a really firm grip and keep the hand from sliding forward on the blade.
You may also notice that the handles will be oval-shaped (like the handle of a ka-bar) if there aren’t finger grooves. This helps keep the edge aligned in knives that are suitable for slashing.
The handles of survival knives have a lot of the same characteristics as tactical knives, but for different reasons. Survival knives normally have handles that let the user get a good grip on the blade but the texture on them is normally less aggressive than what you’d see on a tactical knife.
A handle that provides a good grip while allowing you to use a variety of grips on the knife is important for the wide range of tasks that a survival knife has to be able to do. This means that you don’t normally find large finger grooves and aggressive texturing that is common on tactical knives.
The handles of survival knives are sometimes completely smooth for this reason.
The guard of a knife does two things. First, it keeps the hand from slipping up onto the blade while you’re using it. Second, it can help protect the fingers and hand. Guard design on knives normally doesn’t really come into play unless you start discussing combat knives, but tactical knives sometimes take this into consideration.
Tactical knives may or may not have a guard. It’s an extra level of protection that helps in a fight.
With tactical knives, you will sometimes have a guard that is larger and designed to stop another knife from sliding down the blade and injuring the hand.
The guard on a survival knife is typically small (or non-existent) since it’s not needed to protect from another blade and it tends to get in the way when doing traditional survival skills.
Blade design is where you really start to see a lot of differences between survival knives and tactical knives. Blade shape, length, width, point, and steel are usually completely different between tactical and survival blades.
The blade of tactical knives needs to designed to be used for utility but it also normally needs to at least be passable as a fighting knife. This sometimes leads to thinner blades that are good at piercing and slashing, but too weak to be used for prying.
The blades of tactical knives are almost always coated to prevent corrosion and eliminate reflections coming from the blade.
Stainless steels are preferred for tactical knives. It gives the knife a hard, corrosion-resistant blade that can hold a sharp edge for a long time and only needs minimum help to keep it sharp.
The exact blade shape and length differ a lot depending on how the knife is intended to be used, but it’s usually balanced closer to the handle and tends to be longer than survival knives.
Survival knives have blades that are designed to do a wide range of things but fighting usually isn’t on that list. This means that they only need to worry about being the best tool possible, which lets them be very strong (although it’s not always the case).
Carbon steels are used a lot in survival knives. They’re softer and don’t usually hold an edge for as long as a stainless steel blade, but they let you easily resharpen the blade which is good when you’re using it for a lot of rough use.
Survival knives tend to not have a coating since they don’t need to be tactical and some coatings can prevent a knife from effectively throwing a spark off of a ferrocerium rod.
The blade of a survival knife doesn’t rely on a specific balance as much as a tactical knife does. This lets designers make knives that have very heavy blades that are good for chopping or very light blades that are good for finer, detailed work like making trap parts and pieces.
Survival knives are used for skinning, processing wood, building shelters, carving and chopping wood and other outdoor activities that can be done with a blade. They’re not restricted to “survival” skills and many people use knives that are labeled as survival knives for all kinds of daily tasks.
I like a blade length of somewhere between 4 and 8 inches for survival knives. Usually around 5 inches.
Other people like something a little larger than that, but that’s getting a little excessive to me unless you’re looking for a knife that’s a really strong chopper. If you go shorter than 5 or 6 inches you’ll probably find that there are a few tasks out there where you want more length.
In general, the thicker the blade the better when you’re dealing with a survival knife. Thicker blades are stronger and make chopping and batoning wood more effective.
There are some great survival knives out there that go with thinner blades. These knives are perfectly usable as a survival knife, you just need to be aware that the blade isn’t as strong so you need to be more delicate with it when you’re using it.
A lot of survival knives are made of carbon steel. Carbon steel is easier to get sharp after it’s been put through some really hard use and holds an edge well.
The downside is it needs to be maintained more regularly than stainless steel. It needs to be sharpened more often and rusts much faster.
Coming up with the “best” survival folder is hard. I don’t really recommend using a folder as your chosen survival knife, but if you’re looking for something that you can carry every day and still rely on in a survival situation then these knives are worth checking out:
Blue Ridge Knives Avispa – This ESEE style folder has a 3.5″ blade that will easily serve as a survival knife if you’re looking for a folder. It’s also cheap. A good knife for not a lot of money is something that you can’t always find these days.
Ontario Rat 1 – The Ontario Rat 1 makes for a great EDC knife and a passable survival knife. The 3.5″ plain edge blade will work for just about anything you need it for, but you’ll probably have problems processing wood with it. The handle comes in a bunch of different colors and you can find the blade in a black finish as well.
Cold Steel Ultimate Hunter – I’m not really a Cold Steel fanboy but they do make some strong folders. The Cold Steel Ultimate Hunter comes with a 3.5″ plain edge blade and either a black or orange handle. When this thing is open, it’s very much like working with a fixed blade!
There are some amazing survival knives out there! You really can’t go wrong with any of these knives:
KA-BAR Becker BK2 Campanion Fixed Blade – The Becker BK-2 is one of the many great knives in the Ka-Bar Becker series. This one has a 5 1/4″ full-tang blade and comes with a coyote handle and Kydex sheath. It’s built like a tank.
Condor Tool & Knife Bushlore Survival Knife – The Condor Bushlore is a traditional style survival/bushcraft knife. It has a 3.4″ carbon steel full-tang blade and a hardwood handle with leather sheath. The best part is that it’s priced much lower than similar knives so it doesn’t break the bank.
ESEE Knives 4P Fixed Blade – The ESEE 4P has a 4″ full-tang blade that comes in a variety of colors. The coating will come off after some hard use, but this thing is amazing for the price!
Tactical knives are used as hard use utility knives in “military” style environments or any other area where a strong knife is needed to do things like cutting and prying. They also usually double as a fighting knife and have some thought put toward their ability to be used in a fight if needed.
Just like a survival knife, I’m going to suggest that you get a tactical knife between 4 and 8 inches. You can go longer than that if you want, but I find that to be the sweet spot for me.
A blade that is up to 1/4 inch thick is good for a tactical knife. Don’t go too thin (less than 3/16 of an inch or so) or you could end up with a delicate blade that won’t be suited to the hard use that tactical knives are normally subjected to.
Stainless steel blades tend to do the best for a tactical knife. They hold a sharp edge, resist corrosion, and don’t need to be maintained as often as carbon steel blades.
The drawbacks of stainless steel come when it’s time to repair damage other than minor wear and tear. It will take you longer to get them back into cutting shape than a carbon steel blade.
Tactical folding knives are a lot like survival folding knives, they’re just not the best since they introduce a big weak spot in the design, but if you want a folding tactical knife for your EDC, then these will all serve you well:
Cold Steel Recon 1 – The Cold Steel Recon 1 is a hard use folder that’s aimed at EDC and self-defense. It has a 4″ blade black nitride blade that can be found in a clip point, spear point or tanto style point.
Benchmade Griptilian 551 – The Benchmade Griptilian 551 is a great all-around EDC knife that can fill the tactical folder role really well. It has a glass filler handle that is smooth, but not slick and has a 3.45″ half-serrated blade. You can get a bunch of different colors and blade styles.
Fixed blade tactical knives are all the rage these days and it doesn’t look like that trend is dying down any time soon. This means we have a ton of great tactical fixed blades to choose from. These are just a sample of some of the great knives out there:
Gerber Strong-arm Fixed Blade – The Gerber Strong-arm is a great choice if you’re looking for an inexpensive tactical knife. It has a rubberized grip, striking pommel for breaking windows, and a 4.8″ black ceramic coated full-tang blade.
KA-BAR BK7 Combat Utility – The BK7 Combat Utility is probably one of the best all-around fixed blades out there right now. Its overall shape and design are really similar to the original Ka-Bar that so many people love. This version is a true full tang 7″ blade that’s made for hard use and fighting. It does have to compromise a little (like the Ka-Bar did) but it’s a solid design that’s doesn’t cost a lot for what you get.
The difference between tactical and survival knives is sometimes pretty slim, and sometimes they’re night and day. It really comes down to what each of us sees as the ideal knife.
At the end of the day, whatever knife you like is what is going to work for you. So choose something that feels good to you and costs what you want to pay and you’ll be happy.