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Updated Aug 30, 2022 9:18 AM

While driving home, some hotshot cuts you off, forcing you to slam on the brakes and flipping you off as he barrels past. Before you can finish your mental prediction, he clips another car, and they both go careening off the road. You and a couple of nearby motorists pull over and rush to the scene. As you exit your car, you grab your emergency kit and involuntarily slap your pocket, checking to make sure your rescue knife is ready and waiting in its proper place. While someone calls 911 and others approach the minivan, you head toward the speedster. His car has rolled a full 360 degrees, landing upright again, but effectively sealing him inside with a bloody scalp and a smoking engine bay in front of him. You know help is coming, but the kid needs help pronto. He is conscious, so you signal to him what you plan to do. You yank your rescue knife from your pocket, then shatter the window with its carbide tip.

It’s a good thing you were ready.

Best Overall

Few knives serve EMS, SAR, and other rescue professionals like the Spyderco Assist. This purpose-built rescue knife starts things off with a 3.69-inch VG-10 sheepsfoot blade sporting an 80% serrated edge that is ideal for cutting through seatbelts, rope, and thick clothing.

As with all Spyderco knives, this knife includes the trademark thumb hole, yet it also includes a removable “Cobra Hood” as well for super easy opening even with gloves and for preventing hand slippage during use. The tip of the blade is completely blunted to prevent accidental injuries to a victim in an emergency situation. The knife includes a hesitation notch which, when combined with the handle’s finger grooves, makes it a breeze to “scissor cut” rope and cordage.

The FRN handle provides a solid grip while eliminating excess weight, and the tough wire clip is reversible, making this Spyderco fully ambidextrous. The Assist also includes a retractable carbide glass breaker, a secure back lock, and a built-in survival whistle.

No blade is perfect, and the Assist proves that with its high price tag and a blade length that’s a bit too long for legal civilian carry in some jurisdictions. Also, the retractable glass breaker relies on consistent pressure to stay deployed which adds one more thing to keep in mind during a rescue operation.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Blunted sheepsfoot
  • Blade length: 3.69 inches
  • Blade steel: VG-10
  • Blade serrations: 80%
  • Blade opening method: Thumb hole with hood
  • Glass breaker: Yes, retractable
  • Strap/cord cutter: No
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Spyderco Assist is a top-notch versatile rescue blade. It can be opened easily with one hand despite a spring-free design and may be the most patient safety-conscious knife around.
PROS

Versatile, thoughtful design

Very good factory edge

Low maintenance

Limited lifetime warranty

CONS

Expensive

Glass breaker requires consistent pressure to maintain deployment

Blade length prevents legal civilian carry in some jurisdictions

It was a close call, but the Kershaw Funxion EMT beat out its brother, the Kershaw Barricade, for the top spot on our list. This three-inch blade covers all the basics with a couple extras worth your money.

The Funxion EMT’s blade is a unique mashup of the clip point and sheepsfoot blade patterns and employs a partially serrated blade. Made with affordable 8Cr13MoV stainless steel, the blade sports a dark finish and is engineered and constructed to provide excellent edge retention and a high resistance to wear. The thumb stud and flipper on the blade make for quick one-handed deployment, while the liner lock keeps the blade secure while adrenaline is coursing through your veins.

This Kershaw’s carabiner clip, cord cutter, screwdriver tip, hex head, and carbide-tipped glass breaker add plenty of versatility to exceed an EMT’s baseline needs. The glass-filled nylon grip scales with the K-Texture pattern provide a solid purchase on the knife, and the pocket clip is perfect for keeping your blade right where you want it. The Funxion EMT’s budget-friendly price tag makes it an excellent budget rescue knife for both EDC and professional use.

Of course, this knife does have its shortcomings. The blade employs a sharpened tip which demands extra caution when used close to or against a patient’s body. Also, while 8Cr13MoV is far from a cheap steel, nicer knives use steels that do a better job of resisting corrosion and dulling.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Drop point
  • Blade length: 3 inches
  • Blade steel: 8Cr13MoV
  • Blade serrations: 50%
  • Blade opening method: Flipper, dual thumb studs
  • Glass breaker: Yes
  • Strap/cord cutter: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Funxion EMT combines affordability, quality, and function into a single knife. It features an 8Cr13MoV blade and almost enough rescue tools to classify this Kershaw as a rescue multitool.
PROS

Great value

Versatile design

Lightweight

Plenty of extra tools

CONS

Sharpened tip requires extra caution around patients

8Cr13MoV more susceptible to corrosion, dulling than higher-end steels

The best rescue knife on today’s market has got to be the Benchmade Triage 916SBK. This blade is ideal for use on land or at sea thanks to its versatile design, heavy-duty materials, high-quality build, and detail-focused fit and finish.

The 916SBK comes with a 3.4-inch, partially serrated blade that features a locking, blunt tip design and is made with corrosion-resistant N680 stainless steel. In addition to being highly rust-resistant, N680 can also be honed to take a very sharp edge, eliminating distractions and concerns in high-stress situations. The tough G10 grip scales are textured for a solid grip and come in both safety orange and black.

The Triage 916SBK is fully ambidextrous and easy to deploy with a single hand thanks to the thumb studs and four-position, deep-carry pocket clip. Of course, it includes critical features, including a carbide-tipped glass breaker and a 440C belt and strap cutter.

The only major hang-ups with the Triage 916SBK are its price tag, which is a bit of a doozy for most, and the exposed glass breaker which can be a real pain. Also, civilians will want to check their local knife laws, as this knife’s blade is a little lengthy.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Blunted drop point
  • Blade length: 3.4 inches
  • Blade steel: N680
  • Blade serrations: 50%
  • Blade opening method: Dual thumb studs
  • Glass breaker: Yes
  • Strap/cord cutter: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • Benchmade Triage 916SBK oozes quality. The blunted N680 blade, easy one-handed opening, and essential rescue tools make it the ideal EMT blade.
PROS

Versatile

Easy to open with gloves

Very corrosion resistant

Can take a very sharp edge

CONS

Expensive

Exposed glass breaker

Blade length prevents legal civilian carry in some jurisdictions

Best Multitool

If you prefer the flexibility of a multi-tool in your rescue knife, then take a close look at the Victorinox Rescue Tool; this multitool clearly was designed and built with the professional rescuer in mind.

The Rescue Tool comes with a long, drop point blade with serrations running from the tip down about two thirds of the blade. It also features a seat belt-cutting blade, a shatterproof glass disc saw (think windshields), a window breaker, two screwdriver tips (Phillips and flat head), a wire stripper, a reamer/punch, and, of course, a toothpick and tweezers. For ease of access, it comes with a nylon sheath, a lanyard ring, and an actual lanyard (who does that anymore?!).

While genuine Swiss Army Knives may not be the most cost-friendly option on the market, it’s hard to go wrong with the Rescue Tool. Yes, it is a little hefty at 5.9 ounces, and it is disappointing that only the main blade is set up for one-handed opening. Still, you will be hard-pressed to find a multitool that can assist professional rescuers better than this Victorinox.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Drop point
  • Blade length: Not listed
  • Blade steel: Not listed (likely 420HC)
  • Blade serrations: 67%
  • Blade opening method: Finger hole, fingernail nicks
  • Glass breaker: Yes
  • Strap/cord cutter: Yes, dedicated blade
Why It Made The Cut
  • Multitools like this Victorinox hold inherent versatility advantages over traditional knives. With eye-catching features like a shatterproof glass saw designed to cut through windshields, the Rescue Tool is a no-brainer.
PROS

Clearly designed with professional rescuers in mind

Practical for admin tasks

Multiple carry options

Includes dedicated seat belt, shatterproof glass saws

CONS

A little pricey

Relatively heavy

Only the main blade is designed for one-handed opening

Best Tactical

Few knives successfully bridge the gap between EDC, tactical, and rescue applications, but the CRKT M16-14ZLEK does it with style. A natural evolution of the original CRKT M16, this blade will likely become a new favorite in the tactical rescue community.

The partially serrated, tanto blade measures 3.84 inches long and is made with AUS-8 stainless steel sporting a black titanium nitride finish. Like others in the M16-14Z line, it comes with both a thumb stud and a blade flipper for easy single-handed deployments, but unlike the others (with the exception of its bright orange twin, the CRKT M16-14ZER), the flipper incorporates a belt cutter into its design.

The solidly built M16-14ZLEK and its high-viz twin also come with a liner lock, lock safety, tungsten carbide window breaker, and a stiff four-position pocket clip. The glass-reinforced nylon grip scales and CRKT lifetime warranty round out this excellent (if slightly expensive) tactical rescue knife.

The 14ZLEK does have a few drawbacks with its 6.2-ounce heft leading off, but the included rescue tools also contribute here as well. Carrying the knife in a tip-up position keeps the sharp window breaker exposed to the elements and potential contact with your hand. Also, some may find the large flipper/strap cutter to be more obtrusive than they prefer.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Tanto
  • Blade length: 3.84 inches
  • Blade steel: AUS-8
  • Blade serrations: 33%
  • Blade opening method: Flipper, dual thumb studs
  • Glass breaker: Yes
  • Strap/cord cutter: Yes
PROS

Solid build

Very secure four-position pocket clip

Liner lock safety turns knife into virtual fixed blade

Limited lifetime warranty

CONS

Window breaker position may discourage tip-up carry

Flipper/strap cutter sticks out more than traditional flipper

Heavy

Best Maritime

If you spend your time on or near the sea, the Spyderco Atlantic Salt (SpyderEdge) is the rescue knife for you. Its blade consists of high-end LC200N steel, an extremely corrosion-resistant (arguably rustproof!), martensitic steel enriched with nitrogen and capable of withstanding some of the world’s harshest environments.

The 3.68-inch sheepsfoot blade is fully serrated and features Spyderco’s famous thumb hole design for fast deployment with a single hand. The combination is ideal for slicing through ropes and other maritime materials, making it the perfect EDC knife for sailors and waterborne first responders.

The two-position pocket clip allows for ambidextrous tip-up carry for whichever location best suits your needs. Once the blade deploys, the back lock and fiberglass-reinforced nylon grip scales provide security and safety for your fingers, even when the swells underfoot throw you for a loop.

As with a few other knives on this list, the Atlantic Salt’s blade length may not jive with knife laws in certain jurisdictions. Also, LC200N steel may be one of the toughest in the world, but edge retention and price aren’t its strengths. While it is a bit on the expensive side, the Atlantic Salt does live up to Spyderco’s reputation for quality.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Sheepsfoot
  • Blade length: 3.68 inches
  • Blade steel: LC200N
  • Blade serrations: 100% (SpyderEdge)
  • Blade opening method: Thumb hole
  • Glass breaker: No
  • Strap/cord cutter: No
Why It Made The Cut
  • When Spyderco discontinued the made-for-USCG Autonomy, the Atlantic Salt was its logical successor to the maritime throne. This knife does everything just as well but in a smaller, spring-free package.
PROS

Extremely durable, corrosion resistant

Easy to open with gloves

Lightweight

High-quality construction

CONS

Expensive

Not the greatest edge retention

Blade length prevents legal civilian carry in some jurisdictions

Best River

Whitewater rafting and other river travel can be quite an adventure, but should your downstream excursion ever turn sour, you’ll be glad you invested in the versatile NRS Pilot Knife. This blade is perfect for use on soft-bottom rafts and in rough waters thanks to its blunted tip (which doubles as a screwdriver head).

The blade consists of 420HC stainless steel with straight edges along the tip-half of the blade (one sharpened, one blunted) and serrations along the lower half of the sharpened side and a smooth resting place for your thumb on the opposing side. While the tip is indeed blunt, it is sharp enough to penetrate soft-bottomed rafts with enough force should an emergency occur.

The Pilot Knife comes with a rope-cutting hook, rubberized TPR handle (available in multiple colors), glass breaker, and bottle opener. The low-profile glass-reinforced nylon sheath attaches securely and out of the way on your PFD lash tab. Though the Pilot Knife may not be the absolute cheapest offering on the market, it’s still quite affordable, but even if it weren’t, you can’t put a price tag on safety.

While the Pilot Knife is affordable, it comes at the cost of lower-quality materials. 420HC is a tough, affordable steel, but it comes with the downside of generally not retaining an edge particularly well. The knife’s design also has the drawback of preventing most of the rescue tools from being used with the knife still in its sheath, a potential safety hazard in some situations.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Blunted spear
  • Blade length: 3 inches
  • Blade steel: 420HC
  • Blade serrations: 60%
  • Blade opening method: N/A
  • Glass breaker: Yes
  • Strap/cord cutter: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • The NRS Pilot Knife is an affordable, versatile blade with multiple rescue tools integrated into its single-piece design. Its blunted tip and PFD-friendly sheath make it perfect for rafting trips.
PROS

Affordable

Versatile design

Convenient extras

Securely attaches to PFD lash tabs

CONS

Most rescue tools cannot be used when knife is sheathed

Not the greatest edge retention

Best Minimalist Multitool

Looking for a lightweight rescue-oriented multitool? Then look no further than the Leatherman Skeletool RX. This top-tier offering from Leatherman provides everything you need and nothing you don’t.

Using the original Skeletool design, this multitool includes seven critical tools, including many traditional Leatherman staples: standard pliers, needle nose pliers, traditional wire cutters, hard-wire cutters, and two double-sided, removable tool bits (mostly screwdriver bits). What makes the RX unique is its 2.6-inch locking, 154CM serrated blade and a carbide-tipped glass breaker on one of the included bits. The blade includes a Spyderco-like finger hole for one-handed opening, and the glass breaker/screwdriver bit is nicely shielded by dual body flanges.

The Skeletool RX also includes a pocket clip, a carabiner that doubles as a bottle opener, and an optional black nylon sheath for versatility of carry options. Of course, at only five ounces, this multitool would be just at home resting at the bottom of your pocket as anywhere else.

As with any Leatherman, the RX isn’t the cheapest multitool on the block, but then again, quality trumps price. Also, the blade is a bit short compared to others on this list, but this has the added benefit of being legal to carry in most locales.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Modified sheepsfoot
  • Blade length: 2.6 inches
  • Blade steel: 154CM
  • Blade serrations: 90%
  • Blade opening method: Thumb hole
  • Glass breaker: Yes
  • Strap/cord cutter: No
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Skeletool RX features a minimalistic, low-weight design that covers all the rescue tool bases. It also boasts 154CM blade steel, which gives it better edge retention than competing multitools.
PROS

Versatile

Compact, relatively lightweight

Well-rounded blade steel

Relatively easy one-handed opening

CONS

A little pricey

Relatively short blade

Best Heavy-Duty

While most rescue knives are geared toward work in a civilized setting, the Ka-Bar Becker Tac Tool breaks the mold in more ways than one.

Constructed with tough 1095 Cro-Van steel, this fixed-blade knife measures a whopping 12.5 inches long with a massive seven-inch blade and a glass-reinforced nylon handle. The Becker Tac Tool features a combination edge with plenty of serrations toward the handle, and the blade sports an odd yet functional shape, thanks to its aborted tanto styling. The spine of the blade features a handy cord and wire cutter for both rescue and camp-related tasks, and the blade’s odd shape combined with its durable carbon steel composition makes for the perfect pry (or smash) tool in a variety of settings.

This hefty, American-made Ka-Bar weighs in at 1.3 pounds, signaling its ability to absorb tons of abuse time and time again. The Becker Tac Tool comes with a hard plastic sheath with plenty of lash points and MOLLE attachment points.

The Becker Tac Tool’s brutish build obviously relegate it to a secondary tool destined to far somewhere between your primary knife and the Jaws of Life. This blade is quite heavy at 1.3 pounds (!), and its price tag is equally hefty.

Product Specs
  • Blade shape: Modified tanto
  • Blade length: 7 inches
  • Blade steel: 1095 Cro-Van
  • Blade serrations: 25%
  • Blade opening method: N/A
  • Glass breaker: No
  • Strap/cord cutter: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This Ka-Bar succeeds where other rescue knives fail. Its thick, utilitarian blade helps rescuers chop, smash, pry, or otherwise break through any barrier standing between them and those in need.
PROS

Designed for heavy-duty rescue tasks

Tough, versatile design

Includes MOLLE-compatible sheath

Made in America

CONS

Very expensive

Very heavy

Not a primary rescue knife

Things to consider before buying a rescue knife

Reasons to buy a rescue knife

Professional rescuers, such as EMTs, firefighters, and police officers, make a living facing down life-or-death situations which push them, their training, and their gear to the limit. Whether used on and off duty, quality rescue knives frequently prove their worth in both high-stakes situations and mindless tasks. For the good neighbors among us, a dedicated rescue knife can be an asset in everyday life. An EDC rescue knife can handle all your everyday blade tasks while still being ready to handle a worst-case scenario. The Good Samaritan was able to give care, because he carried the gear he needed to aid another human being.

Types of rescue knives

Despite their wide array of shapes and sizes, rescue knives often fall into one of three categories: EMS/EMT, tactical, and water rescue. EMS/EMT knives are tough, durable blades designed to facilitate quick administration of emergency care, usually offering a (partially) serrated edge, blunt tip, glass breaker, belt or strap cutters, and single-handed opening for maximum effectiveness. Other than a sharp tip and subdued coloring, tactical rescue knives are little different from EMS knives. Water rescue knives, however, are quite unique. In maritime environments, rope and saltwater are your rescue knife’s biggest adversaries, so a highly corrosion-resistant knife with a serrated blade in a sheepsfoot or Wharncliffe pattern is an absolute must. Rafting knives, however, usually possess blunted spear tip blades and a more affordable stainless steel construction.

Key features of a rescue knife

Unlike some knives, a true rescue knife must include very specific features. To start, look for the right blade shape and edge combination. In most emergency situations, a blunted blade with a serrated edge is the safest bet to assist a victim. The blade steel you choose also matters as understanding the strengths and weaknesses of various materials can save you plenty of headaches. (We highly recommend you check out the blade steel guides put together by the folks at Blade HQ, Gear Junkie, and Knife Informer.) Your blade’s grip texture and material determine whether or not you can actually save a life, while the knife’s retention system (clip, sheath, etc.) keeps it secure until needed. A reliable single-handed opening can increase your focus when adrenaline is running high but be aware of local knife laws regarding spring-assisted opening. Many rescue knives (and all multitools) include valuable tools to handle unique emergency needs, so pay attention to add-ons like carbide-tipped glass breakers and belt/strap/cord cutters.

Rescue knife pricing

Rescue knives come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their price tags. Basic rescue folders usually come in around $25 to $50. Reliable blades feature good quality blade steel, a partially (or fully) serrated edge, a carbide window breaker, and a seat belt cutter, but beware of gimmicks at this price point. For something with higher quality or specialization, you’ll end up shelling out somewhere between $50 and $125. These knives run the gamut of fixed blades, folders, and multitools. When they skip the extras, these knives instead opt for high-end blade steel and specialized blade profiles. Anything over $125 will be the cream of the crop.

FAQs about rescue knives

Q: What is the best steel for rescue knives?

A: Most rescuers will want to go with something mainstream, such as 420HC, 8Cr13MoV, VG-10, or CPM S30V. If you expect to work in and around salt water, then H1 and LC200N are all excellent choices due to their corrosion resistance. Just keep a sharpener handy.

Q: Where should I carry my rescue knife?

A: Your rescue knife’s storage location will depend on your activities while carrying and what position(s) you are likely to be in while responding to an emergency. For example, Coast Guard rescue swimmers usually have a dedicated pouch for their blades, while EMT’s are more likely to have a bag or pants with appropriate exterior pockets.

Q: Are there discount programs for rescue knives?

A: A good handful of reputable manufacturers offer discount programs for their rescue knives and multitools. Offhand, we can point you to Benchmade’s Pro Deals, Leatherman’s Discount Programs, Microtech’s Service Personnel Program, and Spyderco’s OpFocus Professional Purchase Program, but other manufacturers also offer discounts.

Final thoughts

As more and more knifemakers produce high-end rescue knives, the Spyderco Assist still sets the standard against which all others must be measured. The long rescue-ready blade uses high-end steel to achieve maximum dependability in high-stress emergencies, and the retractable glass breaker stays out of the way until needed. Best of all, the blade can easily be deployed with one hand without using spring-assisted or automatic opening features, legal black sheep in North America. While it does run a bit on the expensive side, very few knives can beat the Assist’s combination of features, reliability, and cost.

Methodology 

I’ve been carrying knives since I received an Old Timer for my eighth birthday, and I have spent much of my professional life as an aquatic rescuer, gaining valuable training and insight into the world of emergency medical care. I have covered IFAKs, tourniquets, trauma shears, first aid kits, and how to build your own first aid kit. If you’re looking for an EDC knife of one kind or another or any other emergency medical equipment you can depend on, chances are I’ve covered it. (When covering medical care topics beyond the scope of my training, I will directly reference authorities with appropriate training.)

At The Gear Locker, we pride ourselves on arming you with the intel you need to make a well-informed purchase. While we go the hands-on route whenever possible, our attempts to test top-notch gear are thwarted at times, so to bring you the best intel available, we listen to those who have firsthand experience with the gear you want. For this guide, Adam Robbins, Blade HQ, EMT Training Station, Gear Junkie, Knife Buzz, Knife Informer, Knife Sharpener Guy, OffGrid, Rafting Magazine, Reviews4 More, and our own Scott Murdock have earned my deep gratitude for their assistance.