Besides a gun or bow, a knife is one of the most essential tools of the hunter’s trade. Without it, the game meat would never make it from field to table—and there are a host of other jobs around camp and in the woods that make a knife absolutely essential. But stroll into the sporting goods store to pick out your next blade and you’ll likely be dumbfounded because of an overabundance of choices. There are locking blades or fixed blades, straight or serrated edges and they come in all shapes and sizes.
There’s no right answer as to what the perfect knife is—it really depends on what you plan to use it for—but there are some basic considerations to keep in mind the next time you’re in the market for this vital outdoorsman’s tool.
To start, hunting knives are divided into three basic styles:
Fixed Blade Knives
As the name implies, a fixed blade knife is built as one piece, with the blade always open and exposed, and it is affixed to a sturdy handle. As such it is carried in a sheath to protect you from the blade when it’s not in use. A fixed blade is generally stronger since it’s a single piece with no moving parts to weaken the design. Benefits of the fixed blade, besides its strength, are that they are always open and ready for quick use. Negatives are they are larger and remain extended, which means they can take a little more space in a pack or can get caught up on brush.
An exceptional, all-purpose fixed blade is the Helle Temagami, a Norwegian-made knife that is built to handle the toughest conditions. The Temagami, like all Helle knives, is built to work, and is proudly endorsed by the Survivorman himself, Les Stroud.
There are other options, like carbon steel, or for the collector, Damascus steel, which is a replication of handmade steel from India that features wave-like patterns. Benchmade makes a popular version of this, the Gold Class, which is remarkably sharp and durable.
Folding Blade Knives
These blades are considered the safest to carry because the blade folds compactly into the handle of the knife. They are also more compact, sliding easily into a pocket or pack. Blades are generally held in place when by a locking mechanism, which prevents them from folding up and cutting the user. As a major benefit, this style of knife is compact and safe. On the other hand, they are not as solid for tough jobs like a fixed blade knife would be.
Basically the only difference between these knives and folding knives is that clip knives easily fasten to the inside of a pocket or pants for more convenient carrying and access. As a benefit, clip knives are convenient to carry and great for general use. Negatively, the compact design can make them less sturdy and easier to lose because they can be knocked off the edge of your pants or pocket.
Understanding Blade Materials
This one can be tricky since there are a lot of different materials for making knife blades, all of them delivering varying degrees of strength or ductility (how well the blade can be battered without shattering), the ability to keep an edge and resistance to corrosion. There are others, but these are the three most important characteristics for most sportsmen. Many modern blade materials are simply alloyed stainless steel of varying degrees, designed to deliver a balance of these three qualities.
Basic stainless steel resists corrosion and is tough, but it doesn’t hold an edge for long. Carbon steels, on the other hand, tend to keep a great edge. Negatively, it tends to rust with the slightest amount of moisture. To save time on research, stick with one of the modern stainless steels. You won’t have to put much care in your knife and the blade will hold an edge and sharpen easily.
Understanding Blade Shape
Clip point, drop point, tanto point, sheepsfoot, dagger point, trailing point, spear point and gut hook are among more than a dozen blade shapes available. However, for the sportsman, there are four of particular importance.
Drop Point: A drop point blade boasts a sturdy, thick point for strength. It’s also less prone to puncturing materials, such as hides or vitals when skinning.
Clip Point: A clip point blade has a thinner tip than a drop point and can be used to make initial cuts easier because of the pointier tip. As a downside, it can also break more easily.
Trailing Point: A trailing point blade falls between the clip point and drop point designs. It is stronger than clip point and has a back edge that trails upward, allowing for a larger curve to the cutting edge for more slicing surface. This is a great blade shape for cutting meat.
Gut Hook: More of a convenience than a necessity, the gut hook has a sharpened notch or “hook” cut into the topside of the blade that makes it easier to open an animal or bird’s abdominal cavity when you need to remove the vitals.
Serrated vs. Plain Blades
Serrated blades, with little cuts or teeth in them, have become more popular in recent years and are one more blade consideration a hunter must keep in mind. The traditional straight edged or plain blade allows for better precision and control when cutting. It’s best for push cuts as opposed to slicing cuts, such as cutting apples or potatoes, but I also like them better for precise jobs such as skinning.
Serrated blades work best with slicing cuts since the blade’s teeth help act like a saw and can cut through tough hide and sinew when cleaning game. Because most cuts used when field dressing and butchering game involves slicing cuts over push cuts, the serrated blades are becoming more popular among sportsmen.
Understanding Handle Ergonomics
Knife handles are designed to provide comfort and grip to the user, some boasting contours, checkered surfaces or even a broader front near the blade to prevent your hand from slipping toward the cutting surface.
When choosing a knife, find one that fits your hand well and feels good when you grip it. It’s really just a matter of personal preference. The most important thing is you don’t want one that will slip in your hand when using it.
Does Blade Size Matter?
For most hunters, the ideal blade length should fall between three and six inches. Any longer and the knife can become unwieldy when performing precision cuts—causing cuts where you don’t want them—but any shorter and it can be difficult to maintain a suitable grip and maintain leverage when making cuts.
Think of the most common jobs you plan to use your knife for and consider these six elements and your own personal preferences to select your next perfect hunting knife.