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In 1955, the U.S. Air Force introduced one of the most rugged and versatile aircraft to ever grace the skies: the C-130 Hercules. If you’ve been in the military over the past six decades and only flown on one aircraft while serving, odds are it was the C-130. The aircraft is the workhorse of the Air Force fleet: Everyone knows it, and unless you’re prone to puking, everyone loves it.
What many may not know, however, is that at about the same time the C-130 came around, the Defense Department also created another icon of the Air Force still in use: the Air Force Survival Knife.
When you think of Air Force weapons and gear, you’d be forgiven for imagining almost exclusively fighters, bombers, and sophisticated drones. Survival knives probably wouldn’t make anyone’s top 10 list of their gear. I know that’s true for me, anyway. I spent 12 years in the Air Force, from headquarters units to flying and security forces squadrons, working with everything from Big Blue fighters to “low and slow” special operations gunships and helicopters. Never once do I recall ever coming across the Ontario Knife Company 499 Air Force Survival Knife.
Now, over a decade after separating from the military, this changed when Task & Purpose sent me one to test.
My first thought was, is this some kind of chuckle-worthy blade, like the Space Force Ka-Bar? Why hadn’t I ever heard of this knife? To figure this out, I started combing through the internet to see where this thing came from. What became quickly apparent is that, while the Air Force Survival Knife has been used for decades, its history of it is surprisingly difficult to put together. Indeed, extensive internet searches turned up little more than discussion forums of folks who had some insights and facts, but little in the way of confirmable details or sources.
Now determined to put together some kind of historical narrative, I reached out to the companies that produced the Air Force Survival Knife over the past six decades, the Ontario Knife Company (OKC) and Camillus Cutlery, who made them starting before the Vietnam War, hoping that they had some kind of documents I could use. Surprisingly, they couldn’t help me. Camillus admitted that, after the company went bankrupt in the mid-2000s, most of the people with that knowledge no longer worked with them. Similarly, OKC also went bankrupt in the mid-2000s and was purchased by another company, and many of the folks who knew their history had retired or moved on.
I wasn’t ready to give up just yet, though. In search of an answer, I visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where I volunteer semi-regularly. I knew that some of the exhibits showed uniforms and gear used over the years, so I walked straight back to the second building, which showcases the wars in Korea and Southeast Asia. Within minutes, I found what I was looking for.
So there it was: the Air Force Survival Knife, very similar to the one I have in my possession. Now I was on a mission to piece together a history.
(For what I have at this point, I owe a big thank you to Major Hyker, an outdoors adventure blog that posted the best narrative history I could find online, as well as Alejandro Villalva and Hoàng Nguyễn, the admins of the Vietnam War Flight Gear Facebook group, and John G. Terino, a member of the Society of Military History who introduced me to them. These men had enough collective knowledge to help me connect some dots and to corroborate some of Major Hyker’s information. I also found a wonderful, albeit impossible to validate without extensive additional research, timeline of the jet pilot survival knife military specifications documents at usmilitaryknives.com.)
The Air Force Survival Knife’s origins can be traced to the time immediately following the Korean War. The Defense Department spelled out survival knife requirements for aircrew as early as October 1953 with the publication of MIL-K-8662 (AER). The idea behind it was twofold: to provide aircrew with the ability to free themselves from an aircraft (to include slicing through the aluminum siding many aircraft were then still made of), and then to give them a tool to help defend themselves and to survive off the land if downed behind enemy lines. Originally intended to have a six-inch blade, the requirement was changed in 1961 to five inches. Of the three companies (Marble Arms Corporation, Camillus Cutlery of New York, and the Ontario Knife Company) who vied for consideration to make the Jet Pilot Survival Knife (JPSK), Camillus was ultimately awarded the contract.
The Camillus knife, while being tweaked over the 1960s and 1970s, has remained largely unchanged to this day. In June 1974, the DoD published MIL-K-8662E, which contained updated military specifications for a “pilot’s survival, sheathed, hunting knife with a 5-inch blade and a sharpening stone.” Since then, most changes have been quite minor. On February 28, 2008, Camillus Cutlery went out of business, and although the company was purchased later that year by Acme United Corporations, it appears that the Ontario Knife Company subsequently produced the Air Force Survival Knife. However, this point is muddied by the fact that there are clearly OKC Air Force Survival Knives in existence prior to the mid-2000s. I’ve seen pictures of OKC’s version from at least as early as the late 1990s, so when OKC started making these knives is a point I’ve yet to unearth.
As I worked through the history, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this knife was considered quality gear, or if it fell into the category of gear that, once issued, an airman would dispose of it in favor of something that actually works. When I first started my research, I decided to ask a large Air Force veterans group on Facebook if any of them had ever been issued or otherwise acquired one of these knives while in the service. The response was overwhelming. Well over 100 veterans from the Vietnam War and on replied to me, and most of them quite favorably. Nearly all had good things to say, some were ambivalent, and a handful had bad experiences. But what really stuck with me was that quite a few stated that, despite leaving the service decades ago (some in the late 1980s, a few even before that), they were still using their Air Force Survival Knives. So this blade was built to last.
Now it was time to see if OKC’s 499 Air Force Survival Knife is still worthy of this legacy.
- Blade steel: 1095 carbon steel
- Length: 9.5 inches
- Blade length: 5 inches
Effective at bushcraft
Rugged, classic look
OKC delivered the Air Force Survival Knife in a black, 12-inch-long box with “OKC 1889” prominently printed in silver lettering on the top. Inside the box was of course the knife, with the blade protected by a snug cardboard sleeve. With it came the classic leather sheath with a sharpening stone and a length of black cord intended to secure the sheath to your leg or gear.
Befitting a knife with such history, the Air Force Survival Knife looks like something from the past. A full tang knife with a total length of 9.5 inches made of 1095 carbon steel, the 4.5-inch handle is wrapped in natural leather, which appears almost alien when compared to today’s carbon fiber, G-10, and other synthetic materials used by many modern survival knives. The five-inch blade has a serrated top for sawing, as well as fullers on the side of the blade. It’s coated with a zinc phosphate finish to protect against corrosion, which gives the blade it’s dark gray coloring. It’s a nice-looking tool, and I’m excited to see what it can do.
The sheath also looks like a relic from the past. In fact, it looks kind of antiquated. Made of leather, it’s tipped with an aluminum cover on the bottom and the back. Slits on the top back allow for sliding a belt through it. From a style perspective, it’s nice, but I’m not sure as to the functionality. A number of veterans told me that they stained or painted the leather black to make it stand out less, which seems like a good idea when in a jungle setting like Vietnam.
How we tested the Ontario Knife Company 499 Air Force Survival Knife
Testing for the 499 Air Force Survival Knife got off to a bad start. The knife I received was dull — like, butter knife dull. I couldn’t cut a sheet of paper with this thing. I wanted to believe it was intentionally made that way to force the pilot or aircrew member who receives it to learn how to sharpen and make it mission-ready. Not only would that be dumb, but it also contradicts the military specification requirement which outlines what the knife has to be able to do upon receipt. So I contacted OKC about this to ask what’s up. They replied quickly: Something like that would be caused by a mistake at the factory. They offered to replace my knife if I liked. That’s a point in their favor: They owned up to a problem and offered to fix it right away. But I decided to keep what I had, so I could test out sharpening it.
On that, sharpening blades is a skill I’ve needed to hone (ha!) for some time now, and sharpening the Air Force Survival Knife was no easy feat. The small sharpening stone took forever, so I used a larger stone I own. Eventually, I got a decent edge on it, enough to cut paper relatively well. As I finished, I thought back to those veterans who responded to me about their experiences with this knife. Something that stood out was the mix of people who said something to the effect of “it held an edge amazingly well,” as well as plenty who said “it wouldn’t hold an edge at all, but it was easy to sharpen.” Considering the difficulty I had sharpening it, I was keen to see how well it held the edge.
Next up, I used MIL-K-8662E for inspiration to test the knife. Section 4.5.6 states that “The knife shall be inspected for cutting performance by cutting at least 10 shavings, not less than 1/16 inch thick and 1/2 inch wide, from a strip of seasoned oak or other wood of similar hardness. In cutting the shavings, the blade shall enter into the wood at an angle of not less than 30 degrees. After 10 shavings have been cut, the blade shall be examined for turning over and for breaking of the cutting edge.” I happen to do a little woodwork for a hobby, and although I didn’t have any scrap seasoned oak lying around, I did have a couple of pieces of red oak and cherry wood, both of which are pretty friggin’ hard. So I took the knife and started shaving. It was tough. My shavings were not ½ inch wide because I was using a small, 1×2 scrap that was difficult to handle, but I was able to get 10 good 1/16 inch shavings. For good measure, I also shaved some softer pinewood too, just to see if it could after tackling the hardwood. No problems there. The shavings were just as deep but wider. Afterward, I inspected the blade and found no deformities.
I also followed this up with a paper cut test again. While it did cut paper, the knife had definitely lost some of its sharpness. Not too much, but noticeable. Immediately after this, I started cutting some 550 cord. I was glad to see it cut through fine. After cutting 10 lengths, I went back to the paper test. No change. Overall, it was holding its edge pretty well.
Next, I moved on to test the blade against flesh. During my research into this knife, I came across AFH 10-644 Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) Operations, an Air Force Handbook published in 2017 that not only emphasizes the need for a good survival knife but also has detailed instructions on how to prepare game for consumption out in the wild using one.
I did not do this. As usual, rather than fresh game, I just cut up some steak. I was pretty pleased that, despite having gone through the wood shaving and 550 cord cutting exercises, the knife sliced through New York strip and sirloin meats with ease.
What we like about the Ontario Knife Company 499 Air Force Survival Knife
The 499 Air Force Survival Knife is a great knife. The classic rugged look and the feel of the leather handle are gratifying. Carrying it made me feel like I had a connection to airmen who served decades before I ever did. All other positive features aside, it’s simply a cool knife.
The blade is tough and clearly made to do real work. The serrated edge on the top is handy as well. I tried it when I did the follow-up shaving test on pinewood. It cut nicely and effectively into the 1×4, which could be a big help in cutting through some stubborn branches out in the field.
What we don’t like about the Ontario Knife Company 499 Air Force Survival Knife
The sheath is a relic. I’m a big fan of tradition, but the leather doesn’t really offer up much more than style as far as I can tell. Modern sheaths often have Velcro or snaps that allow some flexibility in where and how to carry a knife. For this one, if I decide to wear it on my belt loop, I have to undo my belt to remove the sheath. Plus, the snap button leather fastener that secures the handle in the sheath is a really tight fit. It’ll take some time to break it in so that fastening the blade isn’t slow and aggravating.
I love the OKC 499 Air Force Survival Knife, flaws and all. Yes, I received a dull knife. But what I learned from the point I first started to sharpen it is that this knife, like the venerable C-130, has been in service for 60 years for a reason. It’s tough and made to be used. It won’t eclipse the high-end knives available on the market today, but it’s a serious tool and worthy to be a part of your collection.
I mentioned a couple of times how the edge of the knife was dull straight from the factory. As I did my due diligence in researching the knife, I saw a few other customers had similar experiences. Just like me, they usually indicated that once sharpened, it was great, but clearly, it’s not a great thing to receive a brand new knife that’s not sharp. Contact OKC like I did, if this happens. They don’t want you to get a dull knife any more than you want to receive one.
FAQs about the Ontario Knife Company 499 Air Force Survival Knife
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the Ontario Knife Company 499 Air Force Survival Knife cost?
A. You can purchase it from a variety of places, like Amazon, for as much as $55.
Q. Where is the Ontario Knife Company 499 Air Force Survival Knife made?
A. In the good ol’ USA.
Q. Does the Air Force actually have an “official” knife?
A. Sort of. It does in that the 499 Air Force Survival Knife was specifically built to meet DoD specifications and requirements. However, there are a number of knives with National Stockpile Numbers (NSNs), and so long as an item has that, the U.S. military can order whatever they want.