The Difference Between Survival Knives and Tactical Knives: What you should know

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.

The Difference Between Survival and Tactical Knives

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.

Handle Design

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.

Guard Design

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

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

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.

How long should a survival knife be?

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.

How thick should a survival knife be?

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.

What is the best steel for survival knives?

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.

What is the best survival pocket knife?

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:

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 ON8848OD-BRK Rat-1
  • Category name: locking-knives
  • Country of origin: taiwan
  • Brand name: Ontario

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 3.5" S35VN Razor-Sharp Blade 5" G-10 Easy-to-Grip Orange Handle Hunting Folding Knife with Tri-Ad Locking Mechanism
  • PREMIUM MATERIALS - Crafted from high-quality American S35VN Steel, the Ultimate Hunter folding...
  • COMFORTABLE GRIP - The knife's handle is CNC machined from G-10 material and heavily bead blasted...
  • VERSATILE DESIGN - Designed as a hunting and outdoor blade, the Ultimate Hunter also excels as an...
  • TRI-AD LOCK - Engineered with Cold Steel's robust Tri-Ad locking mechanism, the Ultimate Hunter...
  • SPECS - Weight: 4.9 oz (138.9 g); Blade Thickness: 3.5 mm; Blade Length: 3.5"; Blade Steel: S35VN...

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!

What is the best fixed blade survival knife?

There are some amazing survival knives out there! You really can’t go wrong with any of these knives:

Ka Bar BK2FDE BK2 Becker Campanion FDE Handle Hard Black Sheath, Brown
  • Full Tang heavy duty field knife suited for camping chores
  • Limited Edition
  • Blade length 5.25"
  • Overall Length 10.5"
  • 1095 Cro-Van Steel

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 Bushlore Knife | Bushcraft Knife | High Carbon Steel | Walnut Handle | Scandi Grind | Small Fixed Blade Knives | Hand Crafted Leather Sheath | Camp Knife | 3mm Thick | 4.3in Blade | 6.1oz
  • DURABILITY: The razor-sharp blade of these camp knives are made from high carbon steel, renowned for...
  • WALNUT HANDLE: The grained walnut handle is a blend of aesthetics and ergonomics providing a...
  • HANDCRAFTED WELTED LEATHER SHEATH: Handcrafted with attention to detail and a traditional aesthetic,...
  • AUTHENTICITY: The camping fixed blade knives showcase the craftsman's expertise and are a tribute to...
  • VERSATILITY: The scandi grind is a deliberate design choice that makes this bushcraft tool suitable...

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, ESEE-4, Sharpened Clip Point Plain Edge, Coyote Brown Sheath, Clip Plate
  • Blade Length: 4. 50"
  • Cutting Edge: 4. 06"
  • Blade Material: 1095 Carbon Steel

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

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.

How long should a tactical knife be?

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.

How thick should a tactical knife be?

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.

What is the best steel for tactical knives?

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.

What is the best tactical pocket knife?

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 EDC Tactical Folding Pocket Knife, Recon
  • The Cold Steel Recon is a strong, durable, and effective mainstay in the world of tactical pocket...
  • The steel blade features DLC coating for long-wearing use. The coating is black, rough to the touch,...
  • Cold Steel's innovation is the safest folding knife locking system on the market, holding 800 lbs of...
  • Folding knife with ambidextrous pocket and belt clip for both right- and left-handed draws. Thin...
  • A great everyday carry option for self-defense, battooning, stabbing, etc. The scales on the handle...

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 551SBK-S30V EDC Knife with Black Handle (551SBK-S30V)
  • HIGH-QUALITY: The CPM-S30V stainless steel blade is extremely well-balanced, offering superb edge...
  • WELL-DESIGNED: Benchmade's AXIS lock is exceptionally strong and fully ambidextrous. The Griptilian...
  • COMFORTABLE: The 551's lightweight design and handle grips make it comfortable to hold and use. The...
  • VERSATILE: The Griptilian 551's drop-point utility blade style and all-around functionality make it...

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.

What is the best fixed blade tactical knife?

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 Gear Strongarm - Fixed Blade Tactical Knife for Survival Gear - Coyote Brown, Serrated Edge
  • Tactical Knife: The Strongarm knife features a coyote brown handle and a serrated edge, full-tang...
  • Survival Knife: This durable knife has ceramic blade coating and rubberized diamond texture grip
  • Survival Gear: This survival tool can break through hard surfaces in emergencies with the striking...
  • Multiple Mounting Options: 4 mounting pieces and sheath can be used for mounting on MOLLE, belt or...
  • Gerber Guarantee: As a testament to our unrelenting commitment to quality and service, Gerber is...

The Gerber Strong-arm is a great choice if you’re looking for an inexpensive tactical knife. It has a rubberized grip, a striking pommel for breaking windows, and a 4.8″ black ceramic coated full-tang blade.

KA-BAR BKR7-BRK Combat Utility , Black, 7-Inch
  • Combat utility
  • Category name: knives
  • Made in USA or imported
  • Sturdy, lightweight all-purpose utility knife
  • Easy-to-sharpen 1095 Cor-Van steel blade

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.