Best Hunting Knife: 7 Things You Must Know

"What should I get for a hunting knife?" People often ask me.  When you're a freelance hunting writer, it comes with the territory.  I often give the safe answer, "Well, it depends."

It does depend.  Before you slap money down on the first sharp pointy thing you run across in the Cabela's catalogue, you need to ask yourself some questions.

What game animals will you hunt?

Hunting cutlery comes in a wide variety these days, but not all knives are suitable for all game types.  A basic rule is: the bigger the critter, the bigger the steel you will need.

Buck knife with gut hook
Small game such as squirrel, rabbit, and upland birds require small blades with pointed tips.  Also, if you want the pelt in good shape, small blades get the little guys out of their jammies without major gashes.  For gutting, a hobby knife is a great choice; light, compact and sharp.  For skinning, select a small, maneuverable blade, two to three inches long with a nice, upward swept tip.

Sagen Safety Saw
Medium sized game; antelope, deer, etc., are the next step up.  A four to five inch skinning blade with a gut hook on the spine works great.  This will let you field dress, and if necessary skin, at the kill site.  Gutting will go easier if you add a Sagen Safety Saw™ to your kit.  The Sagen lets you split the pelvis without rupturing the intestines or colon.  Also, it will split the rib cage, and--in a pinch--separate the hind quarters.

Wyoming saw
When you move up to elk and moose, go large or go home, as they say.  In addition to the medium game items just mentioned, add a large bone saw such as the Wyoming saw which breaks down into a compact carry case, and a big survival type knife.  It is almost inevitable you will have to quarter these weighty beasts, so the bigger saw is imperative.  The survival knife is handy if you need to bone out the carcass since it drives much deeper into large muscles than the smaller skinner whose gut hook will also get caught when you try to pull it free from the meat.

Super-sized critters like bison require the nuclear option: large bow saws, cleavers or an axe, and Rambo sized knives.  Some people even use small chain saws!  Oh, and bring your friends.

Where will you Hunt?

The hunting environment makes a big difference in blade selection.  Stainless steel is best for wet climates like coastal Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the South-Eastern U.S..  It doesn't hold as good an edge as carbon steel, or for as long, but its corrosion resistance makes up for those short comings.  If you're headed to South Africa or the desert southwest, then carbon steel is fine.

How will you hunt?

Face it, steel is heavy.  The more rugged the terrain, or the more you time you'll spend on foot, the less weight you want to carry.  If you're on horseback or in a vehicle, weight becomes less important.  Here's where modern technology helps.  The market is filled with ultra light-weight knives with skeletonized or titanium blades--perfect for a DIY bighorn sheep hunt in Colorado's San Juan Mountains or a week-long foot excursion on Kodiak Island.  Watch out for those carbon fiber handles, though (see Handles, below).

Will you need to preserve a trophy?

Disassembling an animal for its meat is a straightforward process and doesn't require much finesse.  However, preserving a hard-won trophy is something else.  Add a caping knife to your kit if you anticipate preserving the head and neck for later taxidermy.  A caping knife can also serve double duty as your small game knife since its blade is narrow and maneuverable.

How much time do you have for knife maintenance?

Knives, like guns, need proper care if you want them to last.  In addition to the blades, you'll invest in sharpeners and preservatives.  At a minimum, a hunter should have two sharpeners: a small hand held one for use in the field, and a whet stone at home base to maintain a high-quality edge between excursions.  A file set, from fine to coarse, is also a good idea in case you need to repair a damaged edge.
Pocket-sized knife sharpener

Stainless steel, of course, needs little protection from the elements, but if it will be stored a long time, put a light oil or beeswax coating on it just for insurance.

You must keep carbon steel clean and protected at all times.  Always remove all animal issue and blood from the blade as soon as possible since they are salt water based and very corrosive.  After cleaning with a mild dish detergent, dry the steel completely, and apply oil which will work into the blade's pores.  Synthetic motor oil is a good choice and less expensive than specialized knife oils.  It is designed to cling to internal engine parts and maintain its film over large temperature variations.  Beeswax has been used since the Middle-Ages to preserve steel and is a great choice for long-term storage.  In a pinch, olive oil is a good mineral oil substitute--another trick from our Medieval ancestors.

If you don't have the time or patience for detailed knife maintenance, go with stainless steel.

Handles

Since metal knives were developed four thousand years ago, or so, people have put just about every material imaginable on the grip area.  Knife handles serve two purposes: make it easy to grip the knife, and ornamentation.  The first purpose is the most important, and for hunting knives really the only one which counts.  Avoid any handle material which is smooth.  You will have blood up to your elbows or better when you dress a game animal and blood is slippery--real slippery.  If you have never gutted an animal but want to see the effect, take a butter knife and coat the handle with motor oil, you'll get the idea.
The Gerber BMF survival knife has a grippy synthetic handle

While antler and checkered wood served as non-slip knife handle material a century ago, today's knives are available with checkered rubber handles which surround the knife's tang.  They won't win any beauty contests, but they will keep your knife from squirting from your hand and landing blade first in your leg in the middle of Nowhere, Montana, or Dunnblost, Alaska some day.  Bottom line: get something you can hold onto with a blood soaked hand at ten-below zero.

Folder or fixed blade?

Avoid folders for hunting
There are many nice folding hunting knives on the market, but I don't recommend them.  It is well nigh impossible to clean animal tissue from the hinge.  I like to keep game meat as clean as possible both in the field and when processing at home, and just can't stand the idea that old, rotted tallow and blood lurk in my cutlery.  If space in your hunting kit is so compromised you can't fit an average sized, fix-blade knife and a small Sagen saw in it, you need to rethink your equipment load out.

The Final Word

You don't need to spend big money on hunting steel, unless you just can't stop yourself.  All the mass-production knife companies offer good, serviceable blades at reasonable prices, which, with proper care, will last a lifetime.  Go simple, go affordable, and then go hunting.


-- LJ Bonham