Air Force Survival Knife: Review & History

It has many names: The “Ontario 499”, the “Jet Pilot Survival Knife”, the “Air Force Survival Knife”. Let’s take a look at one of the most famous fixed blades sanctioned by the U.S. Military.

Table of Contents

Blade Specs

  • Cutting Edge: 4.31″
  • Blade Width: 1.11″
  • Blade Length: 4.98″
  • Edge Thickness: 0.030″
  • Spine Thickness: 0.183″
  • Blade Shape: Clip Point
  • Blade Steel: 1095
  • Edge Grind: Flat Grind

Additional Specs

  • Scales: Stacked Leather
  • Handle Length: 3.46″
  • Overall Length: 9.45″
  • Handle Diameter: 1.06″
  • Weight: 9.87 Oz
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Model: 499

The Air Force Survival Knife: Brief History

My personal, old, mil-spec OKC 499. It’s been through quite a lot, but has held up well.

Fighter jets first took to the skies in the late days of World War II. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the U.S Air Force pursued a jet-powered fleet. Rapid development led to the creation of infamous aircraft like the B-52 bomber, F-102 Delta Dagger, F4D (the precursor to the F4 Phantom), and the F-104 Starfighter.

These jets could fly higher, faster, and further than their piston- and prop-driven predecessors. That meant mission would take place further inside enemy territory. Simultaneously, adversary powers like the Soviet Union produced newer, more capable air defense systems.

These advancements meant one thing: Pilots were more likely to be shot down behind enemy lines.

Recognizing this likelihood, the U.S Department of Defense issued one of its many thousands of “Military Specification” documents, MIL-K-8662. Inside this document, first issued in October 1953, were the specifications that manufacturers would use to develop their versions of an Air Force Survival Knife:

A tool that would help pilots escape downed aircraft, and function as a sheathed hunting knife to aid in a pilot’s survival.

Although refined, Marble’s “Ideal Hunting Knife” is nearly identical to the Air Force Survival Knife’s final design.

The specifications were provided to companies like Marble-Arms Corporation (today known just as Marble‚Äôs), Camillus Cutlery, and the Ontario Knife Company (OKC). Marble submitted their “Ideal Hunting Knife” design in 1957 and won the first contract. Marble refined its knife, adding grooves to the handle and serrations to the spine. It produced several thousand knives for the military between 1957 and 1959.

After winning the military contract, Marble’s sold excess inventory of its final design to the public.

The Department of Defense updated the MIL-K-8662 Document to reflect Marble’s take on the Air Force Knife. Companies like OKC and Camillus would later win the contracts for production of the officially-designated “Jet Pilot Survival Knife,” or JPSK. Camillus produced the knife with a 6″ blade between 1959 and 1961, before the specs were updated to require a 5″ blade.

Camillus continued production until 2006. The company went out of business shortly thereafter, and OKC took over the contract. To this day, Ontario Knife Co. remains the current military supplier, producing the official “499” Air Force Survival Knife under the National Stock Number (NSN) 7340-00-098-4327.

Ontario Air Force Survival Knife Review

The included sharpening stone is silicon carbide and measures 280 grit.

Being a veteran and collector of militaria, it only made sense for me to purchase one of these Air Force Knives. But I don’t put my blades away to collect dust. Over the past 12 years, I’ve found my Ontario 499 to be a trusty camp knife and outdoor companion.

What I like about this knife most is its resiliency and patina. Over the years, it’s worn in well. When I bought it, I coated the leather handle and sheath in oil. Although my Ontario’s “only” a bit over a decade old, it looks as if it could be an original, issued knife from the 50s or 60s.

The Blade

The Air Force Knife’s edge has the widest bevel I’ve ever seen on any knife.

This knife is not a super sharp cutter. It’s purely a hack-chop-and-tear blade, made from relatively soft but resilient 1095 carbon steel, coated in Zinc Phosphate. I’ve read a few interesting reviews while researching the history of this knife. Some folks give this knife a poor rating and complain that its edge is “unacceptably dull”.

This knife was made to help pilots egress from downed aircraft. The Department of Defense specifically demanded the Air Force Knife be capable of stabbing and chopping through an aluminum hull. That’s why this blade is serrated and ground with a broad clip point and wide bevel.

The Zinc Phosphate coating is matte and wears easily. But it’s done a great job at preventing rust from building up. That’s another complaint I saw from folks who bought this knife: Of course the coating is going to scratch and fade. It’ll probably show some marks straight out of the box.

Remember, this is a military-issued survival tool, not a dressed up hunting knife for display or “good looks”.

Taking a closer look at the bevel near the ricasso, it’s easy to see how thick the edge is. It measures greater than 0.030″, and it’s not at all made for fine slicing or conventional cutting.

I measured its edge to be around 29 to 31 degrees out of the box. This edge thickness and apex angle basically make the blade function like a small hatchet.

That makes sense considering its intended use.

Since I never anticipated chopping my way out of a plane with this knife, I re-ground its edge to 27 degrees, and it cuts well enough.

The Handle

The stacked leather comes untreated; it’s best to coat it with oil before use.

The leather handle has held up to plenty of hot and cold hiking adventures and campsites. It’s certainly showing its age, though. The leather near the pommel has frayed just a bit.

Everything remains tight, though. The Pommel has no wobble, nor does the leather itself.

The back of the pommel has made a great improvised hammer, though at some point it lost its black lacquer coating from being struck against nails and wood.

You can spy the square tang in the center, which has developed a funky bit of yellow oxidation. I’m happy to say the knife has suffered no actual rust or pitting, thanks to its Phosphate coating.

The grip is generally comfortable, with good control. The stacked leather is smooth, but not slippery. The grooves machined into the leather helps, too.

The Sheath & Sharpening Stone

The leather sheaf has always been reliable. Plenty of thick stitching and rivets have kept it basically like-new, save for the cosmetic patina of the leather.

The metal cap wraps around to the backside of the sheath, helping it keep shape.

A simple belt loop is cut through the flap behind the handle, with a button strap keeping the handle seated.

The stone’s pocket is also perfectly shaped for a Bic lighter.

The included sharpening stone is coarse, measuring 280 grit. It’s a silicon carbide stone, so it should be coated with oil before use. Regular gun oil or water would work well enough in an emergency.

Paired against the Air Force Knife’s relatively soft 1095 steel, the stone makes quick work of fixing up a dull edge.

The knife’s wide, tall bevel makes free-hand sharpening a bit easier, too.

Final Thoughts: Who’s This Knife For?

A lot of folks buy the Ontario 499 Knife thinking they’re getting some super high-quality “Rambo” knife. They expect a wicked blade that’s hard as nails, with a sexy coating, that comes deadly sharp.

This knife ain’t that. It’s a rugged survival tool. There’s a reason it has soft steel, a hammer-like pommel, a serrated spine, and a fat bevel: It’s meant to stab, tear, break, and chop. This blade is meant to take a lot of abuse from tip to heel, and get dull fast doing it — rather than chip or break.

That’s why it comes with a sharpening stone. It isn’t a skinning knife, and you won’t be using it on the daily to cut rope or cardboard. Think of the Air Force Survival Knife as a hatchet that looks like a small Bowie knife.

That’s why I bought mine: I wanted a knife with a bit of unique history behind it. One that would wear in well, look cool after years of use, and function as a relatively cheap but reliable chopper and multi-tool.

The Survival Knife’ Successor: The Ontario ASEK

Although it’s difficult reinventing the wheel, the legendary Air Force Survival Knife is expected to be replaced. The Ontario Aircrew Survival and Egress Knife, or “ASEK,” sports the same blade, made from 1095 carbon with a serrated spine, clip point profile, and Zinc Phosphate coating.

But it also comes with an upgraded handle made from molded rubber. The knife has already been accepted by the military and given National Stock Number 1095-01-530-0833.

Unlike the Air Force Knife, the ASEK has a lanyard loop and glass-breaker machined into the butt plate. The ASEK’s insulated handle is meant to protect pilots from shock, should they need to cut live wires or cables.