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Back to Basics: The Survival Knife

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Back to Basics: The Survival Knife

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One thing I have learned over the past few years is that that knives are a highly personal thing and that what suits one person, may not be appropriate for another.  Not only that but there are so many types of knives that it would take a lifetime to collect them all.

Think about it.  There are knives that are weapons, knives that are tools, knives that are utensils, and even knives that are religious implements.  There are everyday carry knives and knives used for sport.   And then there are survival knives.

Wikipedia has a good description of the survival knife:

Ontario ASEK (8)“Survival knives are knives intended for survival purposes in a wilderness environment, often in an emergency situation when the user has lost most of his/her main equipment. Military units issue some type of survival knife to pilots in the event their plane may be shot down. Survival knives can be used for trapping, skinning, wood cutting and other uses. Hunters, hikers, and outdoor sport enthusiasts use survival knives. Some survival knives are heavy-bladed and thick; others are lightweight or fold in order to save weight and bulk as part of a larger survival kit. Their functions often include serving as a hunting knife.

Of course these days, every prepper worth their salt will also consider the survival knife as a backup defensive weapon – something that can be used against man or beast in a life or death confrontation.

Attributes of a Basic Survival Knife

As far as I am concerned, a good survival knife should have some basic attributes, regardless of its price. Here are just a few, in no special order:

  • Portable and easily carried on one’s person.
  • Easy to use without the need for any complex process to put it in to action.
  • The blade should hold a sharp edge and it should be easy to sharpen without the need for cumbersome equipment.
  • Should be sturdy and tough so that the blade does not break or bend and the handle does not crack under duress

With this brief introduction, today I am sharing a some thoughts on a a particular type of survival knife, the Aircrew Survival Egress Knife or ASEK.  We recently purchased such a knife and it was put through its paces by my very own Survival Husband.

The Ontario ASEK Survival System

This knife system was recommended to me by a friend whom I have a great amount of respect for when it comes to knives, firearms and knowledge of the outdoors.  Given that, I went ahead and ordered the Ontario ASEK survival knife.  For those of you that are familiar with this type of knife, this particular model was chosen by the Army to be included in the “Air Warrior System”.

The knife has a 5 inch blade with a zinc phosphate finish to inhibit rust which also makes the blade non-reflective. It also has a one piece handle with spear holes.  These spear holes allow you to attach the knife to a pole – and thus build a make-shift spear.  The knife’s butt plate can be used as a hammer and the pointed tip on the butt cap can score and break glass or even Plexiglas.

The knife system also has a tool which contains an anodized aluminum strap cutter which is in a separate pocket of the scabbard.  This strap cutter is designed to cut through a seat belt and is something that emergency responders use daily.

The knife arrived extremely sharp right out of the package and the sheath and strap are nicely made.

Ontario ASEK (7)

The blade itself has a top and a bottom edge with the bottom edge being the knife edge.  The knife edge runs 2 1/2 inches from the tip and back where it ends in a small serrated edge.  The top of the blade has a heavy saw tooth.

I am very impressed with the construction and comfort while holding the knife. As far as keeping the knife with you, it can be carried on your person in a number of ways, including on your belt or in your pack.  It can also be strapped to your body but I did not attempt to try that myself.  I choose to carry it strapped to my calf and find it quite comfortable which is saying a lot given its size.

Ontario ASEK (6)

This knife is amazing.

I chopped through a two and half inch branch with out even trying in less than 10 seconds, and probably could have done this faster if I had wanted to try (and if Gaye was not looking over my shoulder telling me to be careful).  As I was using it along the trail, I kept thinking that this knife system would do anything I needed out in the wild to help sustain myself if I had to bug-out.  Not only that, given how easily it cut through wood, it would surely cut through bone although hopefully I will never need to use it for that purpose.

Ontario ASEK (2) Ontario ASEK (4)

For now, I plan to take this knife system with me in my car so that in an emergency, I can cut away my seatbelt or break the window glass with its butt plate.  Of course I will also take it along with me when I hit the trails for a hike.

In summary, I think my friend under estimated this knife system.  Sure he recommended it but he did not pass on its “wow” factor.  It surpassed every test I gave it and I would recommend this knife system unconditionally for anyone in need of a good survival knife.

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts about the Ontario ASEK with you!

                   Shelly, the Survival Husband

The Final Word

There is no such thing as the perfect survival knife since individual needs and budgets may vary.  My own experience is somewhat limited but it makes sense that when you are just getting started, talk to friend, read some reviews, then pick a knife and go with it.  Use it for awhile and learn what it can do easily and without undue effort.  Once your have mastered your first knife, add a second knife to your collection that will add additional usefulness and functionality.

Some other good knives to consider are the following:

Kershaw Zero Tolerance G10 with Speed Safe
Ka Bar USMC Utility Knife
SOG Seal Team Knife
Cold Steel SRK

And of course, for the budget conscious, you just can not beat the very nice Kershaw OSO Sweet Knife.

Whatever you decide, be sure to become familiar with your knife and use it in a wide variety of situations now.  Become skilled and proficient while time is on your side.

Spotlight Items:  Ontario ASEK-Aircrew Survival Egress Knife (ASEK): This is not the least expensive survival knife out there but it is also not the most expensive. Given that it comes with sheath, the leg strap and the cutting tool, it is actually a pretty decent value.

Smith’s PP1 Pocket Pal Multifunction Sharpener: Don’t forget to get this portable knife sharpener to go with your survival knife. A top seller among Backdoor Survival readers.

Bargain Bin:  One of the best places to seek out survival gear is the outdoor and camping section of your local sporting goods or hardware store.  Here are some basics from Amazon to set you on your way to having the right gear available to do the job without spending a ton of money.  Don’t forget a Rothco Pack to carry it all.

Emergency Fire Starter:  Hugely popular with my readers, this inexpensive magnesium emergency fire starter will do the job.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter:  At only 2 ounces (in weight), the LifeStraw is suitable for a backpack or bug out bag.  It is easy to use and requires no chemicals to remove a  minimum of 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria.

Survival Kit Military Style Can Opener:  This is a no frills P-51 military surplus can opener.

Rothco 550lb. Type III Nylon Paracord:  Pick your poison, color-wise, just be aware that some colors are more expensive than others.  What to do with Paracord?  Read: 44 Really Cool Uses of Paracord for Survival.

SE 7-Inch Hunting Knife with Fire Starter:  Another inexpensive option for a highly rated knife. It has a full-tang stainless-steel tanto blade and  includes a green cord-wrapped handle a belt sheath with a Velcro securing strap, and a magnesium alloy fire starter.

Tinder-Quik Fire Tabs:  There are times when your DIY fire starting materials may not be available.  These fire tabs will fit the bill nicely.

Ka-Bar Black Kukri Machete:  This is on my bucket list (or shall I say the Survival Husband bucket list).  I am still doing some research but this looks like a best in class at the price point.  What is a machete used for?  Chopping brush, clearing a campsite, or cutting small branches come to mind. This Kukri measures 17 inches overall with an 11-1/2-inch blade and it comes with a black leather/Cordura combination sheath.

Chainmate Survival Pocket Chain Saw With Pouch:  This is a survival chain saw that includes a belt loop pouch. Here is what one of the reviewers said: “This thing EATS wood and weighs nothing!! It takes a little bit of effort but you can chew through a hardwood tree half a foot thick in literally a couple minutes; half that if you use two people (one on each end).”

Cyalume SnapLight Industrial Grade Chemical Light Sticks:  You know how I love my light sticks.  Keep them in drawers next to the bed, your kitchen junk drawer, your car, your backpack – everywhere.  Read:  Lighting Your Way With Chemical Lighting.


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17 Responses to “Back to Basics: The Survival Knife”

  1. Love this topic! Survival is so important and it’s equally important not to “penny-pinch” on decent survival gear. Get a decent knife with good steel such as S30V or 154CM. You want it to be resistant to corrosion. Stick to the well known US brands and you can’t go wrong. Stay prepared folks!

  2. Preparedness is such an important concept and I appreciate articles like this to drive the point home. There are so many great survival knives on the market today and it’s astounding what you can get for the money. I prefer knives made in the US which are solid and sturdy. ESEE and SOG have always served me well.

  3. Having a good hunting knife in your survival cache or backpack is absolutely necessary. It is so important to be prepared to do whatever you have to in order to provide for yourself and your family in an emergency situation. This one sure looks like a great option for such a time.

  4. For $40 – $50, you can get the original “Knife, Sheath, Hunting and Survival” by Ontario. Same knife without the serrated edge and a leather washer handle. It also comes with a plain leather metal backed sheath with a pocket for a sharpening stone. One thing it has that the ‘upgraded’ version doesn’t have is a steel pommel for pounding or being pounded on. One was issued to me in the late 90’s, and I’ve used and abused it since then with no issues at all. Well, with the exception that a snap popped out of the retaining strap – a shoemaker fixed it for a couple of bucks.

    One thing to remember, though, is that the original “Knife, Sheath…” is considered an ‘expendable item’ in the supply chain, so if you are expecting a finely manufactured, exquisitely machined and finished piece of cutlery art, forget it. If, on the other hand, you are looking for something that will not let you down cutting, prying, pounding – in short, using it for almost everything you should NOT use a knife for – then this is your tool. Something you can bet your life on.


    PS: If you are thinking about getting one, get only the ONTARIO or Camillus versions – both of these manufacturers are government suppliers and both build to government specs.

    • ugh, the kay bar is not a full tang knife, IT’S A HIDDEN TANG! i am sick and tired of people saying that. you want full tang? look at any knife produced by tops. honestly, people who say the kay bar and knives like it are full tang are doing nought but exposing their ignorance.

  5. The Ontario is a good solid, dependable knife. Pair that with an MX4 Punisher-if those two won’t do it you need 5 foot blade on a chainsaw. And the hand powered chain saw mentioned by another contributor (he is right, and at $25 they are cheap). Those little snap-ring handled wire saws are really last ditch. Better for garroting than cutting anything. The Marine Ka-Bar is a good value also. Tough, strong, nearly unbreakable, and not too hard to sharpen.

    Don’t think cheap on knives folks. That is the way to perdition for sure. Look up Knife Forums and see what’s said there. Most of us are “knife knuts” and would rather eat ramen noodles for a month than let a good knife get away. Knives are one of the areas where “What you pay for is what you get”. Instead of buying a White Hunter for $125 on AGRussell’s “knives for immediate delivery” on “Cutting Edge”, I let what was a $300+ knife get away. So what if it was a little banged up? It was still a better knife than 90% of what is produced today.

    The Puma brand “White Hunter” is probably the most famous large game hunting knife in the world, made in Solingen, and worth every penny. They were highly prized in Viet Nam, and I suppose are in “The Sandbox” of the Middle East too. There is little it can’t or won’t do. Watch for one on e-bay and Amazon. E-bay will generally be right at “used” or “new” retail, but Amazon may have one considerably cheaper. Or you can scrounge around and come up with a Loveless or Lake for $10K-$15K

    Another way to go is the “mid-range” handmades. Guys like Martin and Crotts and a whole bunch of out there. Martin is raising his prices, so if you want it….Vintage Knives website is a good place to look. Or if you want a higher end (not the very top tier of Lake or Loveless caliber) but damned good knives, look at Randall in Orlando Florida. AGRussell usually has some, and if you can let go of another c-note, you can have it in a few months, not the six years standard wait because of backlog.

    Hatchets and axes: Estwing makes a very good hatchet and short axe also. Wetterling and Granfors Bruks are Swedish made and cut like a scalpel. Not $25 cheapies. Every brand I’ve named here will last for generations, properly cared for. I like a wooden handled implement other than on knives-it just may be what you have to build a little Dakota stove and not freeze overnight. And you can carve a new handle with the axe head, eh?

    The knife is the most basic tool other than a stick or rock. It is penny wise and pound foolish to waste your money on what too often is just trash, a waste of metal, really. When your life depends on it, you don’t want it to fail. For $25 I’d buy a 79 cent knife at The General Dollar and forget it. A good quality, well made knife of a “general bush craft” design is the most important tool you can have, and if your life isn’t worth a couple hundred bucks you need to re-think things. With the right natural stone you can sharpen it and if it’s carbon steel you’ll strike sparks with it and hey-we got fire.


    • a good knife does not have to make you eat ramen for months to buy it. the ontario rat 7 costs around $100 and it’s second in line to anything tops makes, while being a fraction of the cost. even the rd6 would do everything a person needs out in the scrub to keep them alive.

      this whole stigma about having to spend a fortune to get a good knife (or this whole “you get what you pay for” bs) is a load of bollocks perpetuated by the commercial sector who WANT you to think you have to spend a lot of money to get something good. the rest of the country have done nothing but jump on the bandwagon in order to fleece the public.

      remember, a hunting knife back in 1850 only cost $1.50 (which ends up being $45 last year after over 100 years of inflation) and it was hammered out by a blacksmith and heated by a coal forge, not made by some grinder jockey standing there at a machine. this $200 and up per knife business is nothing but greed.

  6. I have a timberline that I’ve used since the late 80’s. Very nice knife, no longer made can be found on e-bay in the mid 7s.

  7. Are you really expecting to cut through your seatbelt? If you can get to the knife to cut it, I’m pretty certain you’d be able to get to the buckle to release it.

  8. Seems like a very good knife. Be sure to check your local laws though as this could be construed as a double edged knife and would be illegal to carry in Texas.

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