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Published Oct. 12, 2021

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. Also, check out Spyderco’s OpFocus Professional Purchase Program for a significant discount.

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. The carabiner clip, cord cutter, screwdriver tip, hex head, and carbide-tipped glass breaker add plenty of versatility to exceed the most basic of an EMT’s 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 comes with a reasonable price tag, making it an excellent budget option for both EDC and professional use.

The best rescue knife on today’s market has got to be the Benchmade Triage 916SBK. Ideal for use on land or at sea, this knife 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. 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 “safety hook” belt and strap cutter. The only hangup with the Triage 916SBK is the price tag, which is a bit of a doozy for most.

Best Multitool

If you prefer the flexibility of a multi-tool in your rescue knife, then take a close look at the Victorinox RescueTool. This Swiss Army Knife was made with the professional rescuer in mind. It comes with a long leaf-shaped 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 RescueTool.

Best Tactical

Few knives successfully bridge the gap between EDC, tactical, and rescue applications, but the CRKT M16-14ZLEK does it with style. The partially serrated, tanto blade measures 3.84 inches long and is made with AUS-8 stainless steel. 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 clipper incorporates a belt cutter into its design. The M16-14ZLEK and its twin also come with a liner lock, carbide window breaker, and a four-position pocket clip. The glass-reinforced nylon grip scales and CRKT lifetime warranty round out this excellent (if slightly expensive) tactical rescue knife.

Best Maritime

Spyderco makes excellent knives, so a second appearance on this list is well-earned. Enter the Spyderco Autonomy, a dedicated maritime rescue knife designed in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard. (We see you, Coasties.) This knife comes with a 3.75-inch sheepsfoot blade with an almost fully-serrated edge for slicing through rope and other briny, water-logged hazards. The blade is built with mind-blowingly rust-resistant (dare we say “rust-proof”?!) H1 stainless steel. This knife comes with an assisted opening mechanism and an oversized release button to make blade deployment a breeze with cold, stiff, or gloved hands. The blade’s stainless steel liner incorporates the release button’s spring into its construction to both increase tension and eliminate water storage spots within the knife itself. This Spyderco blade comes with hi-viz orange G-10 scales and a reversible wire pocket clip for maximum blade retention, and the blade lock further improves security, preventing the blade from opening without your consent. Throw in an easy-to-clean, easy-to-dry open construction and Spyderco’s classic finger hole, and the Autonomy proves it can handle more salt than the crustiest Master Chief.

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 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 double-sided blade consists of 420HC stainless steel with straight edges along the tip-half of the blade and serrations along the lower half of one edge 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 cheapest offering on the market, you can’t put a price tag on safety.

Honorable Mention

If you spend your time on or near the sea, the Spyderco Atlantic Salt is the rescue knife for you. Its blade consists of high-end LC200N steel, an extremely corrosion-resistant, 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 deployed, 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. While it is a bit on the expensive side, the Atlantic Salt carries Spyderco’s reputation for quality.

Honorable Mention

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, as only five ounces, this multitool would be just at home resting at the bottom of your pocket as anywhere else.

Honorable Mention

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 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.

Why should you trust us

I’ve been carrying knives since I received an Old Timer pen knife for my eighth birthday, and while I certainly know my limitations, I have spent half my professional life as an aquatic rescuer, gaining valuable training and insight into the world of emergency medical care. If you’re looking for an EDC knife of one kind or another or if you need a tourniquet you can depend on, chances are I’ve covered it.

Different kinds of rescue knives

EMS/EMT knife

EMTs, paramedics, and other professional rescuers rely on knives and multi-tools to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. An EMS/EMT knife is designed to allow quick access to victims and support the administration of care. These knives are tough and durable, and usually include a serrated blade (usually partially serrated), blunt tip, glass breaker, belt or strap cutters, and support for single-handed opening.

Tactical knife

As the name implies, tactical knives provide infantrymen, law enforcement officers, and similarly-oriented professionals with a quality tool to handle the dangers of their work environments. When lead is flying, a tactical knife may be your only option for use in a rescue situation. A tactically-oriented rescue knife is tough, and while it may not have a blunt tip, it will include the other standard features of an EMT knife: easy one-handed opening, a carbide-tipped glass breaker, a strap cutter, and a partially serrated blade.

Water rescue knife

Boating presents its own set of hazards, so an aquatic rescue knife requires its own unique set of features. Even so, a boating knife, such as a rigger or rigging knife, will differ from a river knife, one specifically designed for rafting, kayaking, and other river sports. In maritime environments, rope and saltwater are your rescue knife’s biggest adversaries, so a highly corrosion-resistant knife with a partially or fully serrated blade in a sheepsfoot or Wharncliffe pattern is an absolute must. On the flip side, river knives usually possess blunt tip blades and a more affordable stainless steel makeup.

Features to look for in a rescue knife

Blade construction

No matter whether you are a professional rescuer or simply an ordinary Good Samaritan, you live and operate in a specific environment, and each environment presents unique challenges and requirements. Rescue knives come in a variety of materials, each with its own unique combination of strength, durability, sharpness, ease of sharpening, and other attributes. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of various blade steels can save you plenty of headaches. To get a grasp of each material’s pros and cons, we highly recommend you check out the guides put together by the folks at Blade HQ, Gear Junkie, and Knife Informer.

Blade shape

In addition to its steel, the shape of your rescue knife’s blade is another important consideration. If you plan to work around soft surfaces or easily damaged objects, such as the human body, seriously consider getting a blunt tip blade. If you intend to use your knife as a secondary or multipurpose tool, this guide by Knife Buzz will get you well acquainted with the most common blade profiles on the market, as well as a couple less common options.

Serrated blade

Frequently, emergency situations require rescuers to cut through tough materials in order to administer care to their victims. While rescue tools such as a seat belt cutter work in some situations, others require a tough knife blade with aggressive serrations to cut through rope, safety glass, or other tough barriers between you and your victim.

Grip

When you find yourself making a rescue, you will likely find yourself in less than ideal conditions. Sweat, water, oil, and blood can create slick surfaces, so make sure your rescue knife is capable of handling slippery situations. Specifically, look for grip materials and textures that will provide you with the best possible performance when wet.

Retention system

Pocket, bag, or PFD — no matter where and how you carry your rescue knife, knowing where it is at all times keeps you ready for virtually every situation. This kind of predictability requires a knife with a reliable retention system. While most folding knives rely on a clip and fixed blades that stow safely away inside a sheath, lanyard holes and other retention systems allow you to secure your rescue blade in place for quick, easy, and predictable deployment.

One-handed opening

Emergencies virtually never happen at a time or place of our choosing, and often, they throw plenty of extra curveballs, many of which may make two-handed deployment of a rescue knife truly impossible. Whether you need one hand to protect a victim or your own arm is pinned in place, a knife that enables single-handed opening is a massive advantage and could even make the difference between life and death. Look for a knife with a thumb stud or similar thumb grip on the blade that will provide you with plenty of purchase. If local laws allow, a spring-assisted opening is worthy of your consideration.

Rescue tools

While every emergency has its own unique set of problems to be solved, human invention and behavior result in certain factors one might encounter, thus giving rise to certain tools designed to handle the most common barriers to a successful rescue. As such, many rescue knives possess the proper equipment to overcome these obstacles. Dedicated rescue tools like a carbide-tipped glass breaker, a belt or strap cutter, and a cord cutter can dramatically speed up a rescue, giving victims quicker access to critical care and often significantly improving their chances of a full recovery.

Why do you need a rescue knife?

Professional rescuers, such as EMTs, firefighters, and police officers, make a living facing down dramatic situations which push them to their limits, requiring the use of proper tools and training to save a life. A quality rescue knife will frequently prove its worth in these stressful situations. Even while off duty, a rescue knife may be a daily companion, serving as an EDC tool or sitting at the ready in your own private aid bag.

On the other hand, many of us are not professional rescuers, yet a dedicated rescue knife can be an asset in everyday life. For some, a rescue-oriented EDC knife can handle all the tasks your knife might accomplish in a day while still being ready to handle a worst-case scenario. The Good Samaritan was able to give care because he was prepared, and ready with the equipment he needed to aid another human being.

Pricing ranges for rescue knives

Rescue knives come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their price tags. Thankfully, though, there is a discernible pattern behind it all. For a basic yet reliable folding rescue knife, expect to spend somewhere around $25 to $50. These knives use good quality steel and include features like a partially serrated blade, a carbide window breaker, and a seat belt cutter. Just beware of gimmicks and blades that sound too good to be true. Never compromise on quality. For something with higher-quality materials, greater capabilities, or a bit more specialization, you’ll end up shelling out more cash, generally somewhere between $50 and $125. These blades include fixed blades, folders, and multitools. If they lack extra features, these higher-priced knives will have a higher build quality instead, often opting for very good blade steel and a more specialized blade shape. Anything over $125 is going to be the cream of the crop, specialized tools capable of serving you for decades to come.

How we chose our top picks

When reviewing new gear, we much prefer to go the hands-on route, but sometimes, a lack of resources may thwart our attempts to get our mitts on some cool gear. To make sure we don’t let you down, we take the time to listen to those who have firsthand experience, combing through reviews on Amazon, professional publications, enthusiast blogs, and more to bring you the best intel available. We sift through it all, keep the gold, and toss the rest.

In completing this rescue knife guide, we received plenty of valuable input from Adam Robbins, Blade HQ, EMT Training Station, Gear Junkie, Knife Buzz, Knife Informer, Knife Sharpener Guy, OffGrid, Rafting Magazine, and Survivor’s Fortress.

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