What’s the Difference Between a Tactical and Survival Knife?

If there is one thing that all preppers love it is debating the merits of various pieces of gear for various purposes. One of the most beloved pieces of prepper gear is the humble knife. Everyone has a favorite, and everyone has an opinion as to which knife should carry you through a SHTF situation. Some people recommend a tactical knife and others recommend a survival knife.

What is the difference between tactical and survival knives? A survival knife is specially designed for tasks like chopping, battening and hammering, and they usually include built-in survival kits or survival supplies, typically hidden in the handle or sheath. Tactical knives on the other hand are typically defense or combat-oriented, usually being weighted and balanced for fighting, as well as various tactical tasks like cutting through webbing or breaking glass.

While it is true that nearly any knife can work if you can, your knife selection should be dictated by your requirements and your environment. In the remainder of this article, we will provide you some tips, explanations and considerations that will help you select the right knife for your particular job.

Knife Selection Matters

Many preppers and survivalists consider one cardinal rule applicable to most any survival situation: simply, you must have a knife. But not all knives are created equal, and using the wrong knife for the task at hand is bound to make the work much, much harder if not more dangerous.

While it is true that you should count your lucky stars if you have a quality blade at all when you need one, you can improve your chances of survival or success even farther by picking the right blade from the outset.

If the task you have at hand includes processing a considerable amount of wood for a fire or shelter creation you will need something much sturdier so your blade that can handle the innate abuse that comes with such a job.

If you need a knife optimized for dealing with two-legged threats in life-threatening hand-to-hand encounters then the knife you choose will probably look quite different from the first one.

What you should do now is take stock of your requirements: What do you anticipate facing in the most likely survival situations?

What kinds of characteristics or features are needed in the knife that will help you negotiate such a trial? Once you start asking the right questions the answer will become clear.

Tactical Knives

  • ☑ useful for self-defense
  • ☑ breaking windows
  • ☑ improved grip

A tactical knife is one that is designed to help the wielder solve “tactical” problems. You might say that problems of this type are of a human-created nature.

These problems might take the form of an attack, necessitating that the knife be used as a self-defense weapon, or it could be some other problem such as a wire obstacle or obstruction, a window that needs breaking, heavy nails or staples holding a crate shut or something else.

Your typical tactical knife usually ranges from a medium to a large build. As a rule they are not extremely thick or extremely heavy, as is typical with survival and other kinds of knives designed for processing a considerable amount of wood.

Survival knives often have secondary tools integrated into them, such as a recessed, crescent-shaped line or webbing cutters that is just the trick for slicing through seat belts or load-bearing vests, or short, sharp conical studs that are perfect for shattering windows with a single blow.

All of these features are intended to help the person using the knife navigate problems that are endemic to tactical environments.

One feature you can generally depend on being present with any tactical knife of any make, model or style is a thin, slick and “snagless” blade design.

Point geometry is often optimized for stabbing, and the rest of the blade designed in such a way that resistance on the withdrawal is minimized. It would not do to thrust a tactical knife home into an enemy or even some inanimate objects that need puncturing only to have it get stuck!

One other feature common on tactical knives is an aggressively sculpted or textured handle that will more or less lock the knife into the user’s hand no matter the conditions and no matter the task.

This often comes at a cost to long-duration use, as such handle or scale designs are likely to cause hot spots and blisters. This is a trade-off, as with all elements of knife design, intended to maximize grip for short-duration, high-intensity periods of use.

Survival knives

  • ☑ useful for batoning wood
  • ☑ serrated spine to saw wood
  • ☑ may have other survival items inside the handle

Survival knives are those that are optimized for, you guessed it, survival. But what does that mean? Typically survival knives are optimized for helping you shelter and sustain yourself in wilderness environments, and particularly in wooded environments.

These knives are, as a general rule, overbuilt with thick, heavy-duty blades and positively chunky, flat spines suitable for batoning through wood.

The edge of a survival knife often places a premium on edge longevity and durability, again to survive repeated chops into tough wood that would quickly dull or ruin the edge of lesser knives.

The choice and design of the point is less important, and can be had in a multitude of styles. Some points are better for scraping while others are better for precision work.

One feature that periodically makes an appearance on survival knives is a partially serrated spine or edge that can help you saw through wood when required.

The handles of survival knives are usually designed to provide a happy medium between a secure grip and a comfortable one.

If you spend a long time processing or batoning wood, your hand will begin to ache something fierce, and any shortcomings in the ergonomics of a knife will readily become apparent as hotspots which will quickly progress to blisters.

The handle of a good survival knife will be designed in such a way that minimizes the occurrence of hot spots and blisters.

The other standout feature of survival knives is their typical inclusion of an integrated survival kit or survival supplies. Most quality and intelligently-designed survival knives will have the goodies stashed on or in the sheath.

Some knives have the supplies placed beneath the scales of an otherwise full tang handle. A few survival knives, typically bad ones, have a hollow, round grip that serves as a container for the survival kit.

With scarce few exceptions these knives are typically of poor quality. Stick to the former and avoid the ladder.


Tactical knives and survival knives can work to nearly any prepper’s advantage, the choice coming down to which problems you anticipate when the time comes to implement your survival plan.

A tactical knife can help you deal with more human-centric problems, whereas a survival knife will give you a leg up on typical shelter and sustainment tasks.

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1 thought on “What’s the Difference Between a Tactical and Survival Knife?”

  1. “A few survival knives, typically bad ones, have a hollow, round grip that serves as a container for the survival kit.” Oh, you mean like a Randall #18?


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