Top 10 U.S. Military Gear For Backpackers

The top ten U.S. military gear for backpackers listed in this article are great options for backpackers to consider.

The top ten U.S. military gear for backpackers listed in this article are great options for backpackers to consider. I am acknowledging at the beginning of this article that most backpackers have their gear choices already set. However, military surplus gear is a favorite among many people. The following list is not meant to suggest that every item be substituted for your favorite gear. By contrast, if you are considering some military surplus gear, the following items are a good starting point for adjusting your packing list. U.S. Army surplus gear is durable, reliable, and available in most military surplus stores.

1. The U.S. Air Force Pilot’s Survival Knife (NSN 7340-00-098-4327)

Some backpackers like to carry a fixed-blade knife with them on the trail. If that applies to you then, the U.S. Air Force Pilot’s Survival Knife tops the list of U.S. military gear to consider for your kit. For those with limitations on their spending, the pilot’s survival knife (PSK) is the best high-quality and budget-friendly surplus item for your next hike. Outdoor and survival experts agree that a knife is the most critical tool that you will have at your disposal in a survival situation. You will not go wrong with this knife.

The knife is currently produced by the Ontario Knife Company (OKC) as the 499 Survival Knife. However, the knife is no longer part of the U.S. Government inventory. OKC sells the knife for around $50-60, in most outdoor stores like Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse. If you are interested in more information about this knife, you can read my previous article on the history of the U.S. Air Force Pilot’s Survival Knife.

2. Gerber MP-600 (USA) Multitool (NSN: 5110-01-394-6252)

Backpackers can always use a good multitool. One of the best military-issued multitools is the Gerber Gear MP-600. It is made in the United States and comes with a Berry-Compliant sheath. There are many detractors of Gerber products. However, I was issued one of these multitools before deploying to Iraq in 2006 as part of our Rapid Fielding Issue (RFI) load out. This multitool is still with me today, and it is as useful as ever when I go backpacking. It is size does works well with most of my loadouts

The Gerber MP-600 is designed to be a one-hand opening multitool. Its folded dimension is 4.9 inches in length and 1.5 inches in width. Thus, this multitool is about the size of a 3 x 5 index card when collapsed and in its sheath. There are multiple versions of the MP-600 (USA). I prefer the standard needle-nose pliers version over the blunt-nosed version. Gerber advertises the multitool as having fourteen tool options. However, it actually has nine tools in the handles. Some of these tools have a dual-use, such as the bottle opener with a flat-tip screwdriver head. The other options that Gerber counts as tools are the standard and metric rulers on the handles. The military-issued MP-600 has replaceable wire cutter heads. Additionally, the MP-600 comes in an oxide black or stainless steel option. However, the MP-600 that is issued to the U.S. servicemember is the black oxide version.

The MP-600 has been on the market long enough to find written and video reviews of it online. Thus, if you are looking for another multitool option, the Gerber MP-600 (USA) is a reasonable consideration.

3. 1-Quart Canteen Set

Military canteens are favorite items for most people. They are readily available in most surplus stores. The U.S. military 1-quart canteens (NSN 8465-01-115-0026) that are the most common on the market are made of heavy-duty plastic. It is rare to find a U.S. military canteen that is stainless steel. However, there are some companies producing replicas in stainless steel with a narrow mouth. These military canteens represent World War II and Korea War versions.

The U.S. canteen comes with a stainless steel nesting cup (NSN 8465-01-314-4282), a canteen cup stand used as a stove (NSN 8465-01-250-3632), that fits into a canteen pouch (NSN 8465-01-525-0585). I call this a set; however, each item must be purchased separately. The military does not issue these four items as a complete set. Nevertheless, if you are buying the plastic canteen, I recommend purchasing the canteen cup and stove to make it a complete backpacking-worthy kit.

One disadvantage of plastic canteens is that they are more susceptible to getting mold on the inside. Surplus stores, usually, do not clean the canteens out before they sell them. Therefore, after purchasing one, ensure it is bleached out, washed, and dried before putting drinking water in it.

4. Watch Cap

The military watch cap has been part of the winter clothing for servicemembers for many decades. Watch caps were made of 100% wool. However, in recent times, the bulky wool and acrylic watch caps have been replaced by the synthetic fleece watch cap. I have been issued both types of watch caps during my military service. Both caps are exceptional clothing items to consider as you prepare for your next outdoor adventure. My personal preference is the wool watch cap. However, for those wanting to save space, the fleece watch cap should be your consideration.

Wool is an efficient clothing material for field use. It retains its ability to keep you warm even if it is wet and also dries quickly when wet. However, some people have allergies to wool. Consequently, the U.S. Army phased out wool material in favor of synthetics such as acrylic, fleece, and Gore-Tex. Moreover, I have provided two options for the watch cap: 100% wool (NSN 8405-01-006-1074) and synthetic fleece (NSN 8405-01-524-2671).

Additionally, remember that national stock numbers are assigned to different colors and sizes of military-issued clothing items. The stock numbers, here, are for the black watch caps. If you desire to have a different color, then follow the links to the vendors. The stock numbers, here, are just a reference for your further investigation and knowledge.

5. Military Cravat Triangular Bandage (NSN: 6510-00-201-1755)

One of the most versatile gear items issued to the military is the triangular bandage. In Vietnam, the infantrymen of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps called it the “drive-on rag.” Many service members in Vietnam also began to use them as head wraps.

Their dimensions are 37 inches by 37 inches by 52 inches. They come folding in a compact, vacuum-sealed plastic bag that measures 3.5 inches by 3 inches by .75 inches. Two stainless steel safety pins come with each bandage. The size of the folded triangular bandage makes them ideal for backpackers.

The military cravat is primarily a medical first-aid item. However, because it is made of 100% cotton, there are many other survival uses for this item. It has multiple ways it can be utilized as a bandage, head wrap, face mask, camouflage aid, or making charred cloth for making fires. It is larger than a standard bandana. Therefore, it is a better item to carry with you on your next backpacking activity.

6. 3H Lensatic Compass (NSN: 6605-01-196-6971)

Land navigation on the trail is a must to ensure that you arrive home safely. Many backpackers love the Garmin® GPS devices and smartphone applications like All Trails to navigate hiking trails. However, these electronic means of land navigation can fail in the middle of a hike. The analog version for land navigation is a paper map, compass, and map protractor.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps still train using the analog method of land navigation. The compass they use is the 3H Tritium Lensatic Compass produced by Cammenga. The full designation of this compass is the M1950 Lensatic Compass. If you are interested in military compass development, you can read my article on the short history of the military compass. 

The conversation about preferences concerning compasses is varied across the internet. I have found that those who have had a bad experience with the military lensatic compass, usually, do not recommend its use. My spending many hours and days on military land navigation courses reveal that the ex-military people who shy away from the military lensatic compass most likely had a hard time passing the land navigation task using this compass.

However, if you are curious about the use and function of the military lensatic compass, the Cammenga 3H Tritium Compass is one that you should consider for your next backpacking adventure.

7. Gore-Tex Bivy Sack (NSN 8465-01-416-8517)

Another surplus item to consider for your packing list is the Gore-Tex Bivy sack from the military modular sleep system (MSS) produced by Tennier Industries. There are two versions available on the market, woodland camouflage and Army Combat Uniform (Foliage) camouflage. I prefer the woodland camouflage version. However, the camouflage pattern does not matter because the bivys are identical except for the coloring. As of this writing, I am not sure if Tennier is producing an operational combat uniform (OCP/Multicam) version. 

Gore-Tex is an excellent material for the field as it is waterproof, windproof, and abrasion-resistant. That does not mean that it is immune from tearing. It means that it will last a long time before any holes or tears appear with proper use. Furthermore, the bivy can be used as a hasty shelter in an emergency in conjunction with an emergency blanket or bivy. Thus, as a piece of survival gear, you will not be disappointed by the Gore-Tex bivy sack from the military modular sleep system.

8. Military Rain Poncho/Woodland Camouflage (NSN 8405-01-100-0976)

Shelter considerations are a focus for backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The military rain poncho is one that some people have found to be a shelter solution on the trail.

The military rain poncho has been with the U.S. military at least since the U.S. Civil War when they were made of oil-penetrated canvas. However, most people are familiar with the military rain poncho used during the Vietnam War. These ponchos are made of rip-stop nylon. They will fit in the large center pocket of the ALICE rucksack when folded and rolled correctly.

A military rain poncho has several uses in the field. Its primary function is as a piece of wet weather clothing to keep you and your get dry. A secondary role is that it can be used as a tarp shelter or cover after the hood is tied off to prevent leaking. There are many sources of information on using tarps for shelters. These tarp configurations also apply to the military rain poncho. Other options that a military poncho can be used for is a hasty litter, game hauler, or hasty sleeping bag when used with the poncho liner.

9. Military Poncho Liner/Woodland Camouflage (NSN 8405-00-889-3683)

Another versatile piece of military gear for backpackers is the liner for the military rain poncho. The poncho liner is, in essence, a light microfiber-filled blanket. However, it is more than a liner for the rain poncho. It can be used as a liner for your sleeping bag, a hasty shelter, or a blanket. The poncho liner is lightweight and measures around 82 inches by 62 inches. Some poncho liners that you can buy have a zipper that allows you to fold them in half and zip them up for a hasty sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner.

A drawback with the poncho liner is that it does not come with its storage mechanism. Those who want a little more organization to their packs will want to put this in a cinch sack or mesh bag. Another way to store the poncho liner is to roll it up and secure it with a couple of gear straps from Sea-To-Summit or Redpoint. Additionally, the rain poncho also can be stored using a cinch sack or gear straps.

If you are looking for a quality piece of military surplus gear, the military poncho liner is your solution to keeping warm while bivouacking on the trail.

10. M-1966 Jungle Hammock (NSN 8460-00-935-6397)

An interesting military surplus item is the jungle hammock. Many backpackers like to use hammocks. If your shelter and bedding preference is a hammock and tarp, you might want to consider the M-1966 Jungle Hammock. You have to be careful when looking for this item as some people will sell the larger M-1965 Hammock system as the hammock we are discussing in this article. The M-1966 Jungle Hammock is comparable to the Warbonnet Traveler hammock.

It is a little bulky compared to most commercial hammocks, such as those sold by Eno. However, if you are curious about a military hammock, then the M-1966 Jungle Hammock is a great military surplus item.

Final Thoughts

As backpackers, we are all curious about different gear options. Military surplus field gear has been in use for generations. These ten gear options are excellent items to think about substituting in your pack. As mentioned above, these gear recommendations are not intended to swap out any of your preferred items completely. However, if you are looking from some military surplus items to add to your packing list, these surplus items are a place to start thinking through what you want.

Also, when looking for U.S. military surplus make sure that you check it for proper labeling. Genuine issued military surplus gear will have the national stock number and nomenclature on it somewhere, either as a tag or stencil. There are many knock-offs out there on the market. If you want to get the real stuff then you should inspect it before purchasing it.

Remember that you have already purchased U.S. military field gear indirectly through your federal income tax. Part of your federal income tax goes to purchasing this rugged and reliable gear for our military service members. You will not go wrong adding some of this excellent gear into your packing list. It has stood the test of time. It is reliable, practical, and will continue to last if it is properly maintained.

Can These Awesome Items Make A Great Backpack Loadout?

Can these awesome items make a great backpack loadout? Yes they can. Here is my list of recommended equipment should you consider as you restock your kit for the spring hiking and backpacking season.

Can these awesome items make a great backpack loadout? Yes they can. The spring outdoor season is here. The snows are beginning to thaw, temperatures are warming, and the outdoors are exploding with vibrant colors. Spring also brings a time of refreshing and renewal. The traditional spring cleaning period is part of this time of the year. As we ready our gear and load-outs for the season, we sometimes exchange older stuff for the new. Here is my list of recommended equipment should you consider as you restock your kit for the spring hiking and backpacking season.

 

1. Kelty ZYP 48 ($169.95 MSRP)

 

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The Kelty ZYP is the newest line of backpacks from a reputable gear manufacturer. Kelty produces some of the highest quality outdoor gear on the market. The Kelty ZYP line continues that tradition. If you are looking to change out your current pack with something different, a Kelty ZYP could be an option to consider.

Kelty ZYP 28/38/48 Video

2. Morakniv Garberg (Stainless Steel) ($79.99 MSRP)

 

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The Morakniv Garberg (Stainless Steel) is one of the highest quality, yet budget-friendly, fixed blade knives that you can possess. Morakniv manufactures some of the finest cutlery presently on the market. The Garberg is Mora’s contribution to the full tang, fixed blade knife genre. If you are looking for a quality, durability, and practicality, you will not go wrong purchasing the Morakniv Garberg (Stainless Steel).

Morakniv Garberg Video Review

3. Victorinox Swiss Army Huntsman Wood ($68.00 MSRP)

 

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The Swiss Army knives by Victorinox have a long history in the outdoor world. These are some of the most versatile pocket knives on the market. The latest version of their Huntsman pocket knife comes with wood scales. The Huntsman is one of the best pocket knives that one can carry into the field. Although some consider the knife a multitool, it is, in reality, a pocket knife with some added capabilities. There are many great folding knives currently on the market. However, the Swiss Army Huntsman is one of the elites in the pocket knife market.

4. Leatherman® Heritage Rebar® ($69.95 MSRP)

 

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Leatherman® products are favorites among outdoor enthusiasts. The company has built a great heritage of multitools that incorporate quality and durability along with practicality. Recently, Leatherman has re-issued their first favorite multitool, Rebar. It is called the Heritage Rebar. Leatherman’s great multitool that set the industry standard for multitools comes again for another generation of outdoorsman to enjoy.

5. Ontario Knife Company 1-18 Machete ($27.95 MSRP)

 

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The OKC -1-18 Machete is a wood chopping and brush clearing instrument. It was in use with the U.S. military for sixty years. The 1-18 Machete is a versatile and practical tool made of 1095 carbon steel. If you live in areas where an ax is impractical, then the OKC 1-18 Machete may be the solution that you are looking for to tackle your chopping and clearing needs.

OKC 1-18 Machete Video Review

6. Sigma 3 Fire Kit ($62.95 MSRP)

 

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The Sigma 3 Fire Kit is one of the best pre-made fire kits that a backpacker can include in their loadout. It comes with a versatile array of items with which to make fires. It comes in a compact zippered pouch that fits well into any size backpack. If you wish to know more about this product, you can read my review of The Sigma 3 Fire Kit.

7. MSR® 2 Person Mess Kit ($34.95 MSRP)

 

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MSR® products are some of the finest that one can purchase in the mountaineering market. However, many of their products are favorites with hikers and backpackers. One of the more innovative mess kits on the market is the MSR 2 Person Mess Kit. It is an excellent addition to your bag if you are an ultralight backpacker. Moreover, this kit can fit just as well into your pack if you are on a hunting expedition in Alaska. 

MSR 2 Person Mess Video Review

8. Sigma 3 Water Kit ($89.95 MSRP)

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The Sigma 3 Water Kit is another innovative product by the Sigma 3 Survival School. This kit is a one-stop kit to meet your water carrying and processing needs. This kit includes a Sawyer Mini Water Filter kit, Aqua Water Purification tablets, and a 32 ounce single-walled Kleen Kanteen stainless steel water bottle. If you want to know more about this product, you can read my review of the Sigma 3 Water Kit.

9. Warbonnet XLC Hammock ($235 MSRP) and Super Fly Tarp System ($140.00)

 

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The Warbonnet XLC Hammock System is one of the best that you can buy on the market. It offers a wide variety of features. This hammock system has some accompanying options for consideration: closed-mosquito net and hammock quilts. The hammock works well with the Warbonnet Tarp. If you are looking to upgrade your hammock system, you can not go wrong with the Warbonnet XLC Hammock. If you want to know more about this hammock, check out Rob Allen’s review of the Warbonnet XLC Hammock on YouTube.

Warbonnet XLC Hammock System Video Review

10. Survival Emergency Solutions (SES) Survival Compact First Aid Kit ($35.95 MSRP)

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The SES Survival Compact First Aid Kit is one of the best that you can buy to upgrade your personal first aid kit needs. This kit overflows with organization. One drawback with this kit is that it does come with a tourniquet. So, if you are looking for a first aid kit that comes with a tourniquet, then you may have to search the military surplus stores for U.S. Army IFAKs. Otherwise, you will not be disappointed with this kit.

SES Promo Video

Final Observations

The spring outdoor season his here: camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, and boating depending on where you live. The spring also motivates some clearing out of old stuff and making room for new things. Your backpack and outdoor loadout may need a change or upgrade. The items that are listed in this article are a combination of personal use or recommendations from credible sources. The discussion about backpacking gear is one that generates a lot of preferences. For example, some prefer Leatherman® multitools over Gerber® ones. If you want to continue to investigate and research the above items, check out the links throughout this article to help you make better and informed decisions on the gear. Remember to stay safe, stay prepared, and eventually, I want to see you out on the trail.

Gear Review: The Buck Knives Omni Hunter 10 Pt Fixed Blade Knife

The Buck Knives® Omni Hunter™ 10pt knife is an ideal fixed-blade knife for hikers and backpackers. Let’s see why.

The Buck Knives® Omni Hunter™ 10pt knife is an ideal fixed-blade knife for hikers and backpackers. I was searching for a budget-friendly, fixed-blade knife that was more practical for backpacking rather than for bushcrafting, hunting, or tactical applications. Many kinds of knives function well on the trail. The Morakniv® Bushcrafter™ and Garberg™ are examples of such knives. However, I desired to find an American-made knife that has the characteristics that are useful to hiking or backpacking.

My searching for a good knife useful for hiking or backpacking led to a knife meeting specific criteria. The knife had to have the following features. The blade has to be one that is fixed and full-tang. The blade grind needs to be flat, scandi, or hollow. The blade material 420 HC stainless steel or better. The blade length can be no longer than 5.5 inches. The handle or scales must be durable in all kinds of terrain and weather. Additionally, the knife should be able to fit a belt-worn or MOLLE compatible sheath. Why should a knife have these criteria to make it compatible for backpacking?

Backpacking Knife Criteria

These knife features are best for hiking and backpacking due to personal field experience and the way knives are used on the trail. A fixed-blade and full-tang blade is the standard configuration for a field knife. There are many good reasons for this kind of knife configuration. Yet, for backpacking the main concern is safety. A fixed-blade knife does not have a locking mechanism that may fail under pressure like happens, at times, with a folding-blade knife. The blade grids are the easiest to keep sharp in the field with a pocket sharpener. A stainless steel blade does not rust under wet or humid conditions. Furthermore, this kind of knife is user-friendly to the recreational hiker or backpacker. Those serious about bushcraft, hunting, fishing, or survival preparedness will use more sophisticated and expensive knives.

General Description

The Buck Knives® Omni Hunter™ 10pt knife is listed by the manufacturer as a hunting knife. Its retail price is $48 on the company’s website. This price puts the knife in a category that is competitive with the Morakniv® and Ontario Knife Company® products. The total length of this knife is roughly 7 ¾ inches. It also comes with its own nylon sheath that can be worn on trouser belts two inches wide or less. What are the features of the Omni Hunter™ 10pt knife?

The Blade 

Measurements

The blade length on this knife is 3⅜ inches in a centerline measurement from point to handle. Buck Knives® lists the blade length as 3¼ inches. This is the measurement of the cutting edge of the blade. The blade is ⅛ of an inch thick and 1⅝ inches wide. The knife is small for many in the outdoor community.

Blade Shape

Blade shape of the knife is a drop point. The drop point style gives a knife blade more strength. It allows for heavier tasks like picking or prying. The form enables the knife to function effectively for general work applications, such as making feather sticks or notching tasks. The drop point helps to lower the risk of making accidental punctures when processing small or medium game. This blade is full bellied with a robust and thick point for more intense tasks.

Blade Material

Blade material for this knife is the 420HC stainless steel. 420HC is high carbon (HC) stainless steel that has excellent corrosion resistance and durability. One can easily sharpen the blade in the field. The edge stays reasonably well once sharpened. The blade is hardened to a Rockwell hardness of RC 58.

Blade Grind

The blade grind for this knife is a hollow grind with a secondary bevel. This is the most common knife grind. The hollow grind on a knife blade is best suited for cutting flesh and soft woods. Since this knife is categorized as a hunting knife by the manufacturer, it is understood that the primary purpose for this knife is processing game. However, for a weekend backpacker or hiker, it is adequate for cutting cordage or textile materials, processing fish, processing fire tinder, or making small game traps (e.g., figure four or snare trap).

Blade Spine

This knife has a unique blade spine. The blade has a curved 90° flat ground spine. The curve is shallow enough that it can be used to scrape a ferrocerium rod to make sparks for starting a campfire. The best place on the spine for striking sparks from a ferrocerium rod is just in front of the jimping. This is the technique that I use, and it works pretty consistently on the ferrocerium rod. The spine also has ¾ of an inch of jimping (notches) that start at the base of the handle. The spine notches enable holding the knife steady when doing carving tasks.

The Handle

The Omni Hunter™ 10pt does not have handle scales. The knife handle is encased in thick Alcryn® Rubber. The handle material reduces slipping when in use in rainy conditions. The handle has an ergonomic curve that fits well in your hand. It also has notches on the underside handle curve for added grip. The knife handle also has a lanyard hole if one chooses to put in a lanyard.

Additional Thoughts

This fixed-blade knife is outstanding for backpacking and hiking applications. It is not too large or too small for most people. People that wear large or extra-large gloves will have trouble with this knife. The Omni Hunter™ 12pt may be a better option for those will larger hands. However, it is perfect for those who wear small or medium size gloves.
Moreover, you may want to use another sheath than the one that comes with the knife, such as a custom Kydex® sheath. Overall, this knife is one the best suited for backpacking and hiking. Those that prefer the Morakniv® products might enjoy putting this knife to test. As with any knife, the Omni Hunter™ 10pt is not for everyone. Yet, this knife is for you if you are looking for an American-made fixed-blade knife that can compete with your trusted Morakniv®.

A Short History of the Air Force Survival Knife

The genesis of the Air Force Survival Knife goes back to the 1950s at the dawn of the jet age. Here is the basic history of this knife.

June 21, 2018

Many of us have been exposed to the fixed blade knife known popularly as the Air Force Survival Knife. We have seen it in outfitter stores, marketed on the internet, and may even have owned one. Possibly, some may have had one issued to them while serving in the military. This knife has been around for many years. It used to be a standard piece of gear for anyone, including backpackers, who was a serious outdoorsman and wilderness adventurers back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Rambo movies made popular the Rambo-type survival knife. I became curious about the background and history of this knife about a year ago. It was enlightening to discover that there is very little information available on the background and origins of this knife. Most of the information that I have collected about the knife comes from blogs and knife forums on the internet. After vetting the information against the published government standards for this knife and the government procurement process, what emerged was a unique story of an iconic knife that has found its way from the military to the civilian outdoor world and into the hearts of many owners and users.

Origins Of A New Survival Knife for Military Aircrews

Robin Olds Survival Knife2The genesis of the Air Force Survival Knife goes back to the 1950s at the dawn of the jet age. The U.S. Defense Department published to private industry requirements for a standardized fixed blade knife to issue to pilots and aircrews of the various service branches. Before this requirement, knives of several types were procured by the individual branches of the military and dispensed to their members. By contrast, the current DoD procurement process is much more refined and regulated. Thus, the current standards, methods, and procedures were not necessarily applicable to the procurement process that brought this knife into existence. As such, finding a definitive history of the development and procurement of this knife is difficult to reconstruct. It is assumed that such information resides in the archives of the companies that have manufactured the knife as well as the files of the DoD. However, based on the information that I have collected, vetted, and coupled with my own experience with the DoD procurement and testing process, here is the basic history of this knife.

The story of this knife seems to begin in 1953, when the DoD announced to private industry their specifications for a standardized survival knife for pilots to interested vendors in Military Specification MIL-K-8662 (16 October 1953). Companies interested in gaining the government contract received these requirements and submitted proposals for consideration based on those requirements. As the development and testing process began to take shape, updates to the original specification documents were published. The 1954 update calls for the knife to have a sharpened clip point blade and an additional rivet to the sheath. That same year, the Marble-Arms Corporation (now known as Marble’s®) began work on designing their prototype for the survival knife based on the government specifications. In 1957, the Marble-Arms Corporation submitted to the U.S. government a design based on their Ideal Hunting Knife design. This design was accepted, and the military specifications documents were updated to reflect Marble’s concept in MIL-K-8662A (04 November 1957). This military specification document would become the standard for further improvements and changes to the pilot survival knife throughout the years.

Marble produced several thousand knives for field testing and delivered them to the U.S. Air Force between 1957-1959. After the completion of testing and bidding competition between Marble, Camillus Cutlery, and the Ontario Knife Company (OKC), Camillus was awarded the contract to supply the new Jet Pilot Survival Knife (JPSK) to the Department of Defense instead of Marble. Camillus produced the knife with a 6-inch blade from 1959-1961. In 1961, updates to the military specifications called for a 5-inch blade. Camillus produced the Jet Pilot Survival Knife with a 5-inch blade from 1961-2006. It appears that in 2006, Ontario Knife Company became the current vendor to the DoD of the Jet Pilot Survival Knife under the National Stock Number (NSN): 7340-00-098-4327. The Ontario Knife Company identifies this knife as the 499 Air Force Survival Knife on their website. Additionally, OKC is the only company selling this knife commercially.

The Air Force Survival Knife Introduced to the Commercial Market

The Air Force Survival Knife was introduced to the commercial market by Marble after not being awarded the DoD contract to supply the new survival knife to the military. The reason behind Marble selling their knife to the general public was due, in part, to pre-maturely manufacturing several thousand knife blades and parts in advance of learning who would be awarded the government contract to supply the knives to the military. To recuperate some of the money that they had spent producing blades and knife components, Marble offered a civilian version of the knife to the public in 1961. Their commercial version of the survival knife had a polished blade instead of a subdued or blued blade, brass guard, and polished pommel. These knives became popular with outdoorsman. Later, after service members began returning from Vietnam, the military-grade issued knives began to be seen on the market. Currently, the military-grade Air Force Survival Knife is only manufactured and sold by the Ontario Knife Company.

Design Features for the Air Force Survival Knife

The primary document that describes the various features of the Air Force Survival Knife is Military Specification MIL-K-8662 (16 October 1953). Over the decades, this document has been updated. The current edition of this document is Aerospace Standard SAE-AS-8662. However, the essential features of the knife have remained constant throughout the life of the knife. What are the unique features of the Air Force Survival Knife, as outlined in the U.S. Government specifications?

Basic Description:

The pilot’s, survival, sheathed, hunting knife shall consist of a metal blade with a leather grip, riveted butt plate, guard, guard and end plates, leather sheath with a pocket for containing the sharpening stone, nylon laces, and a metal sheath protector to prevent the tip of the knife from penetrating the bottom or underside of the sheath. The intended use of the knife is for pilots as required in survival situations.

The Blade:

  • The blade is to be a “through tang” blade blanked from AISI 1095 steel conforming to MIL-S-8665 Steel Bars, Carbon, AISI 1095, Aircraft Quality.
  • The blade will be tempered to a Rockwell Hardness of C50-C55
  • The cutting blade is to be 5 1/8 inches long and 3/16 inches thick.

The Sheath:

  • The sheath shall be made of leather in compliance with Federal Standard KK-L-271 Leather, Cattlehide, Strap, Vegetable Tanned.
  • The sheath leather shall be 8/64-inch-thick
  • The sheath welt shall be 3/8-inch-thick and 2 ½ inches in length.

The Handle Grip:

  • The grip will be made of leather in compliance with Federal Standard KK-L-165 Leather, Cattlehide, Vegetable Tanned and Chrome Retanned; Impregnated and Soles.
  • The leather for the grip will be cut into washers, 1/8 inch in thickness.
  • The leather will be treated with para-nitrophenol fungicide.
    • Paranitrophenol fungicide:
      Paranitrophenol was first registered in the United States in 1963 as a fungicide incorporated into leather products and hides as a preservative. A second fungicidal product was registered in 1967. Both products contained a second active ingredient, salicylanilide. However, the registrations for all registered products containing salicylanilide as an active ingredient have been canceled. Currently, one pesticide product is registered to contain para-nitrophenol as an active ingredient. This registration, granted in 1980, is for use of paranitrophenol as a fungicide incorporated into leather for military use, at a concentration not to exceed 0.7% on the basis of dry finished leather weight. In 1983, this registration was amended to add the use of the product for incorporation into cork insulation for military use.

The Sharpening Stone:

  • The sharpening stone shall be fabricated from silicon carbide, grain size 280, hardness P, vitrified bond.
  • The sharpening stone size shall be 3 inches long, 7/8-inch-wide, and 1/4 inch thick.

Some Comments on the Design Features of the Air Force Survival Knife

The Air Force Survival Knife was designed to meet a particular requirement for the military. As such, this knife was not intended as a frontiersman or bushcraft knife, per se. The design features for this knife came about through various inputs from servicemembers, survivability researchers, and training developers. Moreover, the requirement for having a standard survival knife for pilots and aircrews across the DoD was due to economic considerations and budgeting constraints at the time which fostered standardization across the military services. Furthermore, standardization of equipment reduces costs upon the logistical system. These influences upon the procurement system tempered the DoD design features of the knife.

Additionally, the jet age in military aviation increased the number of gear pilots and aircrews had to carry on their flights. Thus, finding ways of reducing the bulk of the Aviation Life Support Equipment (ALSE) assisted in the overall weight considerations for flying. Consequently, the knife blade being reduced from six inches to five inches allowed it to retain some of the qualities necessary to carry out survival tasks, but small enough that it could be easily stowed on an aircrewman’s vest without causing interference for aircrews trying to carry out their duties while flying.

In particular, some questions that arise with this knife are those regarding two specific features of the knife: the saw-toothed spine and the two holes in the handguard. The serrated spine on this knife is part of the functional requirements for this knife. One of the tasks that this knife was designed to accomplish was helping pilots and aircrews egress their downed aircraft or to help first responders extract them from their downed aircraft. The serrated spine was designed to cut through the aluminum skin surrounding the airframes of Korean and Vietnam War-era aircraft. The sharpened clip point on the blade allows the pilot to punch a hole in the aluminum then use the knife spine as a hasty saw to cut through the aircraft skin during an aircraft egress situation.

Additionally, synthetic composite materials like Kevlar had not been fully integrated into aircraft construction until the late 1970s and 1980s. Thus, this knife became obsolete for its original intended use when the majority of military aircraft incorporated composite materials. However, it was still adequate for survival situations and therefore remained in the Federal Supply System.

The second question that arises concerning some of the features of this knife is the purpose of the two holes in the blade guard. As best as can be ascertained, the two holes are used as lashing points for cordage for survival tasks in the field, such as creating a hasty spear. However, there is not enough information in the literature to determine with certainty the purpose of the holes. As with many uses of military equipment, service members use considerable ingenuity in the field when employing their equipment and therefore, the use of the holes in the blade guard for cordage lashing points may have been a field expedient use of the knife rather than as an intentionally designed purpose. So, as stated earlier, the archives of Marble or the DoD may reveal conclusively if the reason for the holes in the handguard.

Further Developments of the Air Force Survival Knife

In the early 2000s, the U.S. Army published requirements to private industry for an aviation survival knife to replace the aging Air Force Survival Knife. As a result, the Ontario Knife Company developed a prototype based on the 1957 design that was first submitted by Marble. Ontario’s model became the Aircrew Survival and Egress Knife, System (ASEK) based on the published requirements by the U.S. Army. Ontario’s knife became procured by the U.S. Army and was issued a National Stock Number, NSN: 1095-01-530-0833 within the Federal Supply System. However, this was not the end of the aging Air Force Survival Knife. It is currently still in inventory with the DoD through the GSA. As a further development on the Air Force Survival Knife, the Ontario Knife Company offers a second-generation civilian version of the knife in its Special Purpose SP® series of knives. It is the SP 2, Survival Knife.

Some Concluding Thoughts

The Air Force Survival Knife has had a storied, yet obscure, history. The knife has been in continuous service with the Department of Defense for over sixty years. The iconic design features of the knife, that have characterized its look, have remained unchanged since its inception. This is a testimony to the ingenuity of the design team that developed the knife at the Marble’s company. As well, it must be remembered that this knife was designed to address a specific need for the U.S. military and was not intended to be used outside of that context. However, because of Marble’s premature manufacturing of the knife before it was awarded a government contract, the rest of the world gained the privilege to own this knife.

The Air Force Survival Knife will be around for a very long time. Even if the Ontario Knife Company discontinues their production and the DoD phases them out of their inventories, the knife will be around for commercial purchase. Surplus stores will purchase them in bulk through U.S. Government auctions, collectors will buy them at auctions, military museums will display them, and they will continue to be available for purchase on the internet. It is also suspected that knife makers will begin to find ways to improve the knife and manufacture their versions of the knife similar to what knife companies are doing with other legacy knife designs.

The journey of this iconic knife has been exciting to discover. I own one as a backup knife for my backpacking, outdoor, and emergency needs. The Air Force Survival Knife is an excellent knife. Those who do not currently own one should purchase one. It will not be long before you are won over by the versatility and practicality of the Air Force Survival Knife.

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The Original Design Proposal Submitted by Marble for a Pilot’s Survival Knife

 

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Advertisement for the Camillus Air Force Survival Knife
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The Marbles Commercial Pilot Survival Knife

 

 

QN-ASEK
The OKC Aircrew Survival and Egress Knife (ASEK) System

 

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The OKC SP 2 Air Force Survival Knife