This is a guest post by JJ Johnson (JJSERE1). JJ is a former USAF Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Instructor and currently runs his own survival blog which can be seen here:http://www.realitysurvival.com. He also has a YouTube Channel with several survival/self-reliance related videos which can be found here: http://www.YouTube.Com/user/RealitySurvival
When Creek offered me the opportunity to do a knife review on the Ontario Air Force Survival Knife I jumped at the chance. It had been about 12 years since I had last used one as a USAF Survival Evasion Reaistance and Escape (S.E.R.E) Instructor at the USAF Survival School at Fairchild AFB. But I had a lot of fond memories of the using the knife in the field, so I figured it would be a good trip down memory lane. The only Air Force Survival Knife I still personally owned at the time was glued to a plaque on the wall in my man cave. But a new acquisition changed that and I was in business! Wow, did using this knife again bring back a ton of memories!
I haven’t done a ton of knife reviews in my short career as a blogger, but I have purchased and used a whole lot of knives over the years. So as I review this knife I will do my best to convey my own process for selecting a knife and determining its strengths and weaknesses.
Knowing what the Air Force Survival Knife was built for immediately gives us some insight into what a few of its strengths ought to be. First, the knife should be relatively maintenance free since it is made to be packed away for several months at a time. And that is true.
The USAF Survival Knife comes with a 1095 carbon steel blade with a Rockwell Hardness of 50-55 according to http://www.ontarioknife.com/catalog/item/11. The blade is treated with a rugged zinc phosphate finish on it to keep it from rusting during storage. The stacked leather ring handle, which is very comfortable and easy to grip even while wearing gloves and wet is also relatively maintenance free. So if you are considering buying a Air Force Survival Knife to put in your Bug Out Bag, 72 Hour Bag, or Get Home Bag you won’t have to worry about constant maintenance and rust precention as you might have to with a non-treated steel blade.
Its also worth noting that the Air Force Survival Knife was intended to be paired with a small four bladed pocket knife. Which was supposed to be able to accomplish the finer cutting tasks that a downed Airman may have to accomplish, such as striking a ferro rod or cutting feather sticks, processing, small game, etc. Primarily the Air Force Survival Knife was made for those brute force type tasks like batoning through a piece of wood, digging a Dakota Hole Fire, digging a seepage well to get water. Or allegedly even sawing its way through the aluminum skin of an aircraft. I’m not sure if that is even possible, but if it were I imagine that would take a considerable amount of time and effort! In any case,there is no doubt that it was built to be a multi-purpose tool, not just a cutting tool. Many people are probably saying to themselves right now “What?… Use a knife for digging or sawing your way through metal”. Well yes…USAF Aircrew Survival kits and vests have to be small and lightweight. As such including a shovel, saw, and axe isn’t an option on most aircraft. So it falls to the Air Force Survival Knife to carry the burden of many tools.
The multi-use design of this knife is at least partially responsible for its softer steel. Some people will claim that any knife with a Rockwell hardness under 57 is junk. While it is generally true that knives with a higher Rockwell rating hold an edge better than those with lower ratings, harder isn’t always better. Again, I go back to intended use. Harder knives are more brittle and prone to breakage under “extreme” circumstances. The edge of a harder blade is also more prone to chip off, making resharpening very difficult. A softer knife is more malleable and is more likely to bend under pressure than break. If you only have one knife to depend on, you don’t want it to break! A bent knife can still be used safely. Since it was designed to be a multi-use tool and not just a cutting tool having a harder steel in this case could be a detriment.
Now, I am not saying that I prefer all of my personal knives to be of a lower Rockwell hardness. I am just pointing out some of the reasons the Air Force Survival Knife is the way it is. Of course as with any government acquisition cost may have also been a factor. One of the obvious downsides to a softer blade is that it will not stay as sharp as long. Which is why the Air Force Survival Knife comes with a sharpening stone attached to the sheath.
My personal preference is to use a three knife system for practicing wilderness survival techniques or during bushcraft trips into the woods, hunting, etc. The first knife in the 3 knife system being a small pocket knife. My favorite is the Victorinox Farmer Silver Alox. The second knife to be something comparable to a Mora MG or Kershaw Antelope Hunter 2, both have thinner blades with a high rockwell hardness and are good at fine cutting tasks. The third knife being a bigger utility knife with at least a 6″ blade, that is tough as nails. So that I can beat on it and abuse it without worry of it breaking. The third knife could be a wide selection of knives but my favorite is a Muela Mirage (not sure if its still made anymore). I have heard that the Ka-bar BK-7 (Becker Combat Utility) and Rat-7 by Ontario are also excellent larger knives, but have not had the opportunity to use those yet.
If your looking for more of a two knife system to save weight and cost, the Air Force Survival Knife and a pocket knife is a good combination that can and will help you meet all of your needs. I know this with certainty, because I have personally trained more than 500 Airmen and seen thousands graduate the course who were all using that exact knive combination during the USAF Survival School. Don’t get me wrong they are not indestructible but they are pretty tough and the combination of the two can handle most all tasks required.
Strengths and Weaknesses
In my opinion the Air Force Survival Knife’s biggest strength is in its spine. The tang is a partial tang. It goes fully through the handle, but narrows down to a portion of the blade width to allow the leather stacked rings to go over it. Even so it can take a serious beating. I have seen these knives build thousands of split wood fires without breaking. Literally I mean thousands. We had a supply unit at Fairchild AFB that would supply each new group of students for each new class every week. And while the students changed out; the equipment issued was used over and over. Sure after several years of constant abuse some of the Air Force Survival Knives looked more like the shape of a banana than of a knife, but they still kept going just like the Energizer Bunny.
The biggest weaknesses of the Air Force Survival Knife are probably its ability to do really fine cutting tasks. As well as its lateral strength. Prying hard sideways, as with many knives will result in a bent knife, but it probably won’t break. The bevel right out of the factory is a bit too steep (wide) in my opinion. I think regrinding the bevel to a more narrow bevel helps to make the knife better at making heart wood shavings, feather sticks, etc.
Improvements that you can easily make to the Air Force Survival Knife
Some of the improvements I made to my new Air Force Survival Knife are as follows. I removed the top portion of the finger guard so I can choke up on the knife. I slightly sanded off the outer portion of the rough parkerized finish, so it doesn’t hold so much gunk on the blade. But left enough of the finish on the blade to help protect it from rust. I also filed off a few places to make the knife easier to use with a ferro rod. I also filed down the front two inches or so of the spine where it is sharpened out of the factory, so it doesn’t cut up a baton when doing a split wood fire. I also added a ferro rod and loop to the sheath and swapped out the factory sharpening stone for a 3″ Smith’s Diamond Stone. It sounds like a lot, but it actually took less than an hour to make all of the changes, including regrinding the bevel.
How does this knife rate?
Overall, I think the Air Force Survival Knife is a pretty good option for a Bug Out Bag, or Get Home Bag, personal survival kit, etc. Especially considering that you can get these knives up for around $50.00 (give or take) that’s not bad at all. Ratings are always a bit subjective to people’s personal preference and past experiences, but as a “One Knife Option” I would give this knife an overall rating of 6.5 out of 10. But as a part of a two knife system, I would give this knife an overall rating of an 8 out of 10. That rating may seem a bit high for some knife buffs. But its based on my personal experience of seeing hundreds of students using this knife paired with a pocket knife and being able to consistently meet their needs. It should also be noted that this knife has met the needs of the USAF since circa World War II and it has been used in some pretty extreme wilderness conditions worldwide.
Take a look at the video below to see a montage of me putting my new Air Force Survival Knife to the test in the field over the past couple of months.
Have you used this knife before? If so how let us know how you would rate it, both as a 1 knife option and as a part of a 2 or 3 knife system?
Thanks for reading and commenting! For more survival and bushcraft information, gun, knife and gear reviews please visit http://www.RealitySurvival.Com
This is a guest post by JJ Johnson (JJSERE1). JJ is a former USAF Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Instructor and currently runs his own survival blog which can be seen here:http://www.realitysurvival.com. He also has a YouTube Channel with several survival/self-reliance related videos which can be found here: http://www.YouTube.Com/user/RealitySurvivalAbout Willow Haven Outdoor & Creek StewartCreek Stewart is the Owner and Lead Instructor at Willow Haven Outdoor - a leading Survival and Preparedness Training Facility located on 21-acres in Central Indiana. For more information on Survival Courses and Clinics offered at WHO, click HERE. Creek is also author of Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Disaster Survival Kit and The Unofficial Hunger Games Wilderness Survival Guide. You can contact Creek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.