A Short History of the Air Force Survival 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 have that characterize 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 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.

jet_marble_rtn800
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
Marbles-233
The Marbles Commercial Pilot Survival Knife

 

 

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

 

on8305-ontario-sp2-air-force-survival-8305
The OKC SP 2 Air Force Survival Knife

Hiking Tip # 1: The Survival Knife

January 28, 2017

survival-knife-comparisonIn the beginning of my hiking and backpacking journey, it became clear that there is a definite controversy surrounding “survival” knives. Despite this, everyone seems to agree that a good survival knife is an essential item for backpackers. There are many good resources to access regarding learning about survival knives.  I have experimented with some of the survival-type knives marketed over the years and for me the key word is versatility and practicality when it comes to carrying fixed-blade knives. The defining question on fixed-blade knives is how such a knife will be used in the field. For me, the term “survival” knife is a definition for a purpose or an application of the knife. That means that the intended purpose of the knife is for it to be the one all-purpose knife that you will rely on exclusively in the field to save your life should you get lost or separated from your gear.[1]  Also, you must understand there are many categories of survival: combat/tactical, wilderness, urban, water/sea, jungle, mountain, desert, medical, emergency, etc. There are knives available for each of these survival categories.

Therefore, a person needs to define what kind of use they want to get out of a fixed-blade knife. Is the knife going to be used primarily around the campsite or bivouac to build shelters, process meat, process wood, build snares or traps, cook, etc.? Will the knife be used for hunting, fishing, camping, or self-defense? While serving in the U.S. Army, I found that there is such a thing as having too much knife (i.e. cumbersome and impractical). Lugging a long-blade knife around your waist and the only chance you get to use it is when you open an MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) is my definition of too much knife. Moreover, there is a big difference between using a knife to survive in a combat environment and using one to get you through the wilderness (i.e. bushcrafting, big game hunting, or a through-hike on the hiking trail). For those who practice wilderness survival and bushcrafting as their primary activity, then the type of fixed-blade knife that they will use and recommend is well defined.  For those less inclined to practice woodsmanship or bushcrafting, then there seems to be more variety of fixed-blade knives from which to choose. To determine what one needs for a survival knife, there are some basic characteristics that are universally accepted by outdoor experts that define a good survival knife.

First, the knife must be full tang. Full Tang means the knife blade and handle tang are formed from a singular piece of steel.  The tang is the part of the knife upon which the handle scales are attached.  The knife tang should extend to the bottom of the handle and not taper into the handle as in a “rat-tail” design.  Some knives marketed as survival knives have a hollow handle molded, bolted, or welded to the blade. This makes the knife vulnerable to cracking and breaking at the joint where the blade and handle meet. When I first learned about this difference, I quickly discovered that you get what you pay for. Most hollow-handle survival knives that are inexpensive fall into this category. However, in recent years, there has been some significant improvements on the hollow-handle knives and some people are starting to recommend them as a useful knife.[2]

The second characteristic of a good survival knife involves blade thickness. A good survival knife needs the blade thickness to be between 3/16 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch. This provides a solid and durable blade that will last if you properly take care of it. Other sources will have additional considerations. However, I found that if you find a knife that meets these first two specifications then the other recommended characteristics for a good survival knife will fall into place.

Some other points of argumentation that one will find in the literature or online concerning survival knives are about the type of metal the blade is made from, the grind of the cutting edge, blade coating, and the edge of the blade spine. Again, this is easily worked out if one has a good idea of what they want the knife to do in the field or on the trail. If you are a hiker or backpacker that likes to do bushcrafting while you are outdoors, then your preference in a survival knife is going to be a bushcrafting knife with all the accepted characteristics (90° blade spine, no serrated edges, Scandinavian grind cutting edge, 5 to 6-inch blade made from 1095 High Carbon Steel with no coatings). If you are a camper or a hiker just out for a couple of hours or spending the night in a prepared bivouac and you are carrying your tent, stove, and food, then there are a variety of options available to you for a good fixed-blade knife.

There is one knife that is the exception to these general considerations.  It is the Morakniv® Bushcraft Survival Knife. Most of the experts agree that this is the best knife to possess if you are on a budget or as a secondary knife in your kit. It is not full-tang and its blade is just under 5 inches; however, it meets the other criteria that bushcrafters and outdoorsman are looking for in a knife. If you are a hiker or backpacker and do not want to spend a lot of money on a knife, but want a good, solid, reliable knife, the experts agree that the Morakniv® Bushcraft series are the best knives.

Finally, a short comment on serrated edges. There is much ado regarding a knife blade with a serrated edge and one without. For me, it is a matter of preference and being able to answer the question that I mentioned earlier, “What is the purpose of your knife”? If you want to cut down on weight in your backpack and are interested in carrying only one knife, then a knife with a serrated edge may be a viable option. The serrated edge provides some versatility with the ability to saw small diameter limbs or materials such as plastic. If you are going to carry a good multi-tool (e.g. Leatherman® Sidekick or Gerber® Diesel), then I do not think you really need a knife with a serrated edge. The multi-tool already gives you the capability to saw things. If you expect to process wood with a saw-type tool, then I would recommend carrying a decent folding limb saw to round out your basic tool needs as a backpacker.[3]

It must be remembered that many of the knives being marketed as survival knives are actually tactical knives designed for military use with some cross over applications in law enforcement. The serrated-edge tactical knives provide soldiers and field medical personnel the ability to cut through MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) gear and armor plate carriers when rescuing or rendering medical aid to an injured or wounded service member.  Commercial stainless steel fine-edge knives are not as efficient at cutting though military-grade Cordura® material as the Berry Compliant tactical knives with serrated edges. Tactical knives are very attractive and inspire confidence, but they have little application in a non-tactical environment. Additionally, most of these tactical knives have the serrated edge near the hilt of the knife which is the most important cutting surface of the blade for notching other carving and cutting tasks that require more hand dexterity and precision. The tasks become more difficult if you are trying use one of these serrated tactical knives to cut notches in limbs or carve out a slot in a small piece of wood for a trap or fire-making kit. So, consider carefully what you are going to need a survival knife to accomplish before purchasing a knife that looks awesome but is useless to meet your needs.

So, have fun, do some shopping, and once you are settled on the knife that meets your needs, exhaust its use.  See you on the trail!

[1] Dave Canterbury, “Knives JMHO”, Wilderness Outfitters, YouTube®, accessed December 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpNQS6CX7FA&index=2&list=PLZLagqylZ3j4VEKfSuM-2jZrwsh689YSs.

[2] Jack Richland, “Rambo Survival Knife”, Black Scout Survival, YouTube®, accessed December 15, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8YR-YmGFiw.

[3] The basic tool needs for backpackers: fixed-blade knife, folding blade knife, multi-tool, and folding saw; a small camp axe is optional.