There is probably no more important tool in the outdoors than the knife. Not only for skinning but for a variety of tasks that may crop up from time to time. Unfortunately, the best hunting knives are probably the most contentious and argued topic on the internet.
Finding solid information on what to look for in a hunting knife is incredibly difficult. Especially with the constant bickering about every facet of their construction. The goal of this article is to provide concise information strengths and weaknesses of the various parts of a knife. Hopefully, this will make selection somewhat easier.
I would also recommend some knives of varying styles and uses that should be able to cover any need you may have. Not every knife will work for every person but at least one of the knives should do nearly everything you could need.
While we endeavor to provide you with the best knives possible, we do have to restrict this to production knives. There are many amazing custom knife makers but most of their knives are out of the price range of many people. Even getting your hands on one can be tough!
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- 1 Choosing a Knife for Big-Game Hunting
- 2 10 Best Hunting Knives 2018
- 2.1 1. ESEE Knives 4P – Best of the Best Hunting Knife
- 2.2 2. Cold Steel Recon 1 – Best Folding Knife
- 2.3 3. Buck Knives Vanguard – Best Classic Fixed Blade
- 2.4 4. Gerber Gator Premium – Best Modern Fixed Blade
- 2.5 5. Cold Steel Master Hunter – Best Bang for Your Buck
- 2.6 6. Ka-Bar Full Size – Best Large Hunting Knife
- 2.7 7. Case Medium Skinner – Best Dedicated Skinner
- 2.8 8. Gerber Freeman Guide – Best Budget Folder
- 2.9 9. Morakniv Companion HD – Best Budget Fixed Blade
- 2.10 10. Shrade Old Timer Sharpfinger – Best Budget Fixed Blade
- 3 Frequently Asked Questions
- 4 Conclusion
Choosing a Knife for Big-Game Hunting
From the first stone knives to today’s super-steels, knives have been the go-to tool for everyday tasks around the world. It’s amazing that such a simple item could be so complex. There are so many factors to consider that can be combined in such variety. This makes each knife unique.
Each feature will have some effect on how well the knife performs different tasks.
1. Blade Length
One of the most heated topics in knives is how much blade you need. What you plan to do with the knife will ultimately decide what length will suit you best. Bigger is not always better, sometimes a short blade will do more than a long blade.
For ease of understanding, I break knives down into less than 4 inches, 4 to 6 inches, and greater than 6 inches. The smallest will usually be folding knives, the medium and long knives are all fixed blades.
Knives with less than a 4” blade are fine for skinning and even butchering. I have butchered and jointed many deer with a 3 and a half inch pocket knife. This doesn’t mean they are best for that job. You can do some small tasks with these small blades but for larger tasks or bigger game, you need a bigger knife.
The medium sized knives in the 4-6 inch range are perfect all around knives. They skin decently, can do a variety of camp or woodcraft tasks, and are able to butcher even large game. Most of these knives are not specific to any task so they don’t excel at any task but they are capable of most tasks.
Large knives greater than 6 inches are usually the best knives for efficient butchering. They also perform camp or woodcraft tasks adequately. Fine tasks like skinning small game can be difficult with these knives. Historically speaking, most trappers and hunters carried knives of this length.
2. Blade Geometry
This covers two points, the tip of the blade and how the blade is ground. For skinning and a variety of light tasks, your point geometry is very important. For any cutting tasks as well as for ease of sharpening, the blade grind can have a huge effect.
Tip geometry has been leaning more toward the drop point for the last few years. This is an effective point for skinning and other daily tasks.
Some knives still stick to the clipped point design which is an overall sharper point but can be weaker overall. The same is true of the skinning point on classic skinning knives. Both of these penetrate even thick-skinned animals well but caution must be taken not to pierce internal organs.
Most blades on hunting knives are flat ground or hollow ground. This provides the least amount of cutting friction with the easiest sharpening. They have a small false edge that can be honed easily.
Some knives are trending toward Scandinavian grinds. These are harder to sharpen with a longer primary bevel but have a very strong edge that stays sharp longer.
3. Knife Steel
This is the single most debated topic in the history of knives. There are a huge variety of steels that have different edge retention and edge holding abilities. Some of the steels are very hard to sharpen while some don’t stay sharp for very long.
Rather than try to cover every knife steel, generally, if you buy a quality knife, it will have decent steel. Most of these steels will suit most users well. Modern super-steels are very nice but are overkill for those who use their knives sparingly.
You can break steels down into two categories: Carbon and Stainless. Carbon steel knives are usually easier to sharpen and hold an edge longer but rust easier. Stainless stills will rust but are not as likely to. They are harder to sharpen well and usually don’t hold an edge as long.
Some good steels to look for are:
- High Carbon: 1095, 1080, 1075
- Spring Steel: 5160
- Tool Steels: 52100, A2, D2, O1
- CMP Steels: CPM 10V, CPM 3V, CPM 4M
- Stainless Steels: 420, 440, 440A, 440C
- AUS Stainless Steels: AUS6, AUS8, AUS10
- Steels: S30V, VG 10, Damascus
4. Handle Materials
Just like steel, there are a ton of handle materials from synthetic, bone, antler, and wood. Aesthetics and durability are the main differences between handle materials. We all want a knife that looks good but that should be secondary to how well it performs.
Wood handles are the most common and often cheapest option. Wood works well, especially hardwoods, but may get slippery when it gets wet or bloody. Some texturing or contouring helps. Wood does take some care to preserve it.
Bone and antler handles are usually very tough and durable but are worse than wood for getting slick. With a natural or carved texture, these can work very well and require very little maintenance.
Synthetic handles are often best for skinning and butchering tasks. They often have more grip when wet and require the least maintenance. There are dozens of different synthetic handles but most are very similar in their traits. The exception is Micarta that behaves much like wood but requires less care.
5. Fixed or Folding
Fixed blade knives are by far the most popular style of hunting knife. They are robust and capable of doing most any task. However, they are large and intrusive. Depending on where you live, there may be legal restrictions on fixed blade knives.
For skinning, they do work well and are even better at butchering. They do camp tasks better and are much harder to damage or break.
Folding knives are often small and light. They are perfect for carrying in a pocket out of the way and have less legal issues than fixed blade knives. Most tasks will take more work with a folding knife and tasks that require more power may be impossible.
I have skinned and processed all fowl and small game animals with a pocket knife and even beaver, coyote, and deer. This is not to say that I wouldn’t have preferred a larger knife but that they are capable.
10 Best Hunting Knives 2018
1. ESEE Knives 4P – Best of the Best Hunting Knife
Designed by the staff at Randall’s Adventure & Training, this knife is a tool made to perform most any task you need. It can skin, butcher, process, and serve as a survival knife if things go downhill. All around, this is one of the best production knives on the market.
Some people may disparage the 1095 high carbon steel but it takes an amazing edge and holds that edge well. A minimum of maintenance will keep it sharp. 1095 is tough enough to take the abuse a knife should be able to take and keep on going.
Similarly, the handle is full tang with linen micarta scales and is damn near indestructible. Micarta doesn’t split like wood and has more wear resistance than plastic handles. The size and shape give you a good grip on the knife and keep it from slipping no matter the task.
The drop point blade rides easily under the skin when processing animals while the flat ground edge stays sharp. There are no complex sharpening setups needed, just a regular stone will do the job perfectly.
The 4” blade is coated with a rust inhibitor but you will still need to care for the cutting edge to prevent rust. Included is a Kydex sheath with several mounting options. If want an amazing knife that will last forever, this the ESEE.
- Great Quality
- Easy to Maintain
- Somewhat Heavy
2. Cold Steel Recon 1 – Best Folding Knife
Brand new out of the box this is easily the sharpest knife I have ever seen. It’s almost scary sharp! That’s not an unusual trait with cold steel products. They take a lot of pride in making a usable product that will serve you well anywhere you need it.
This may not have been originally designed as a hunting knife but it serves the purpose very, well. The S30V steel is highly durable and holds a keen edge very well. It may take a bit more to sharpen it but you won’t have to sharpen it often.
G10 handles provide a firm grip that doesn’t slide no matter what you get on them. The texture isn’t so aggressive that its uncomfortable but provides the perfect traction. With the added finger grooves, this knife isn’t going anywhere.
The spear point is very underrated in its utility. It rides right under the skin for a perfect cut and can process game far more quickly than most 4” knives. With its patented Tri-Ad lock, its even strong enough for most camp tasks.
With Cold Steel’s DLC coating the blade will remain rust free in most environments and the handles are bomb proof. This is an easy to carry knife that is sharp and up to any task. Made to last a lifetime of hard use doing whatever needs done.
- Incredibly Sharp
- Good Quality
- Good Size
- Hard to Sharpen
- Feels Cheap
3. Buck Knives Vanguard – Best Classic Fixed Blade
Buck is responsible for many of the most popular hunting knives of all time and could provide at least 10 models that would serve well. The Vanguard just happens to be one of the best with a classic look and great construction for a lifetime of use.
With a blade made from 420 high carbon stainless, it is the perfect blend of easy sharpening with minimal maintenance. You may need to touch up the blade more often but it will get to shaving sharp in no time. It doesn’t dull easy, just easier than some steels.
The full tang handle with wood scales and brass fittings is a lovely addition and strong enough to stand up to daily use in the field. Wood is a classic handle but can be slippery, however the Vanguard’s deep choil prevent slipping when bloody or wet.
The slightly deeper drop point keeps everything in line with your hand for strong, precise cuts. Skinning is quite easy with little risk of getting into the guts. This was a knife designed for tough work and can process and joint most sized game even with just a 4 inch blade.
Buck offers a lifetime warranty on all of their knives. This speaks volumes for their trust in the quality of the Vanguard and its many brothers. More animals have been skinned with buck knives in the past 50 years than most any other knife.
- Easy to Sharpen
- Great or Skinning
- Good Utilitarian Knife
- Needs Frequent Care
- Wood Handles Lack Durability
- Can be Slippery
4. Gerber Gator Premium – Best Modern Fixed Blade
Gerber has experienced a mixed reputation of late but for years were known to produce some of the most durable tools for the outdoorsman. The Gator should go a long way to restoring their reputation, especially with the premium model knives. These are an outstanding knife all around!
CMP-S30V is an amazingly tough steel that will take a razor edge and hold it through even the toughest use. It can be a little hard to sharpen but with a little care and time, you can get this knife scary sharp!
This is a full tang knife but with a very grippy rubber over molding that keeps your hand firmly in place when using this knife. The material is thick and tough, should be enough to last for years if not decades of hard use. Add in the metal bolster and you couldn’t get this handle wet enough to lose your grip.
The polished steel resists rust and slides through hide and muscle when processing a kill. Available with either a gut hook or drop point configuration, either will do the job of removing hide and breaking down medium and smaller game.
With a perfect four inch blade, full grain leather sheath, and mirror polish, this is a beautiful knife that is quite utilitarian. It resists rust and can be cared for with the absolute minimum of effort.
- Great Quality Steel
- Easy to Grip and Use
- Less Maintenance Needed
- Can be Hard to Sharpen
5. Cold Steel Master Hunter – Best Bang for Your Buck
We had a Cold Steel folder that was quite an amazing knife. The same is true of the fixed blade that comes with all the quality and durability you would expect from a great hunting knife. The care in material selection and design really shows.
The choice of steel is unique, VG-1 San Mai. This provides the best possible edge retention and sharpness with flexibility and durability all in one steel. This is a tough 4.5 inch blade that should cut like a razor, time after time.
The handle is a perfect hand size for most people and constructed of a grippy kray ex rubber. There is not slippage, even with oils, blood or anything else. It seems to be durable and hard wearing for a long life.
This a very shallow drop point blade that is preferred by most hunters for skinning but can easily serve a variety of camp purposes. The point is sharp and pierces easily and the blade makes quick work of hides, muscle, and joints.
For the price, this is an amazing hunting knife. It may be a little hard to sharpen and will need some maintenance to stay at its best. It holds an edge very well but getting there may take a harder stone like diamond or sapphire.
- Comes Razor Sharp
- Easy to Grip and Use
- Very Durable Construction
- Great Steel
- Great Value!
- Can be hard to sharpen
- Cheap Appearance
6. Ka-Bar Full Size – Best Large Hunting Knife
When you think of a hunting knife, the Ka-Bar may not be what comes to mind but the history of the knife would tell you differently. In 1923 a trapper used a Ka-Bar knife to kill and skin a bear after his rifle jammed. The letter he wrote to Union Cutlery was hard to read and the phrase “Kill a Bear” came through as “Ka Bar”.
The design of the Ka-Bar hasn’t changed in over 100 years but the steel has. Modern 1095 Cro-van steel is a premium steel that takes a shaving edge and holds it forever. They can be touchy to sharpen but not as bad as some super-steels. 1095 can be rust probe but the blade coating does a great job at keeping down maintenance.
This particular knife has a rat-tail tang with grooved wooden handle and steel hardware. It may not be perfect for the most abusive tasks but does provide a solid grip. It was designed to be used in any environment without fail and does just that.
A clip point can take a little more skill to skin with but it will do the job. This is a long knife with a 7” blade that makes processing and butchering of even large game a manageable task. The convex edge is perfect for stripping through muscle and tendon with minimal effort.
The Ka-Bar is probably the most recognizable knife in the world. There are hundreds of copy-cats of this design because of its overall effectiveness. It may be a little long and unwieldy for some but it will do most any job.
- Easy to Sharpen and Maintain
- Long blade makes processing easy
- Overall Great Quality
- Rat Tail tang is weaker than full tang
- Long blade can be hard to use
- Clip point can accidently pierce guts easily
7. Case Medium Skinner – Best Dedicated Skinner
Case may be best known for their classic folding knives but they have a long tradition of making fixed blades as well. In the case of their Skinner, it is a purpose driven knife that makes quick work of even the toughest game animals. Available in many styles for different applications, the dedicated Skinner is probably the most useful.
Being a dedicated skinning knife, Case has chosen a surgical stainless steel for their blade. This provides the absolute best corrosion resistance with almost no maintenance. It can be tricky to sharpen well without practice and the edge may not get quite as sharp as a carbon steel but it will be sharp enough.
The thru-handle design uses Case’s preferred stacked leather design and all steel hardware. Stacked leather provides an amazing grip and is comfortable enough for extended use on big animals. It can wear a little more than other materials but will still last years before you have to use the Case lifetime warranty to get it replaced.
With its dedicated skinning point, this knife pierces and slides through hide like nothing else. The thinner blade profile is great for jointing and quartering large game. The narrow hollow grind was the perfect choice for this knife and is generally an easy profile to sharpen.
These are great knives that were used by a lot of old hunters and still are. The blade is easy to get going on a sharpener but hard to get a final edge on. You may also want to keep it away from the hardest tasks, surgical stainless isn’t as tough as some carbon steels.
- Good Value
- Skins Amazingly
- Very little maintenance needed
- Hard to Sharpen
- Doesn’t take as sharp an edge
8. Gerber Freeman Guide – Best Budget Folder
A second feature from Gerber, this time in a folding knife. I own dozens of folding knives and this is the one of the best budget knives I have found. It makes a nearly perfect folding knife for hunting and is versatile enough to handle a variety of other tasks.
Though there are several models available in different steels, this one uses 440A. This steel provides good durability and a sharp edge without costing a fortune. 440A requires a minimum of maintenance and rarely ever corrodes unless you leave it covered in blood or salt water.
The grip of this knife is all steel with TacHide overlays for a sure grip. The deep finger grooves provide a firm purchase for your hand and a quite comfortable. Long use can put some hot spots on your fingers but not enough to cause blistering or raw spots.
This is somewhere between a spear and drop point design that works quite well for most uses. It pierces and skins very well and can take care of most utility tasks that come up. The light weight and blade alignment make this an agile knife that makes processing animals quite easy.
The thin blade edge on this knife makes it extremely sharp and easy to sharpen. But combined with a hollow grind, it can be a little fragile. As long as you don’t abuse it too much you should be fine and it should cut very well!
- Takes an amazing edge
- Overall low maintenance
- Light and small
- Short Blade
- Hard to Sharpen Well
- Less Comfortable with Long Use
- Blade Edge can be Brittle
9. Morakniv Companion HD – Best Budget Fixed Blade
Price be damned, the Mora Companion is one of the best knives on the market for the price and can do most tasks incredibly well. The Finns use knives like this for most of their hunting and outdoor needs and have done so for generations. If you are on a tight budget, this knife will treat you right.
Mora uses a custom Sandvik carbon steel that is razor sharp and stays razor sharp for a long, long time. When it does dull, getting it back to sharp is easy as far as the steel is concerned. Some people do have issues sharpening knives with Scandinavian edge geometry.
The handles on a Mora are a durable plastic that is slightly oversized and designed for a high-friction grip. Even in the worst conditions, you should get a good grip on this knife every time, especially with the softer over molded rubber.
Some people have trouble getting used to skinning with a straight point knife. There is a learning curve, this is even more true when you have an edge as sharp as a Mora. When you get it down, these knives skin amazingly well and can do most any other task you need.
A Mora knife is a little on the small side for some people and feel tiny in your hand compared to most knives. This doesn’t hurt the cutting ability but some caution should be taken not to torque or bend the blade too far. They can snap but if they do, a replacement is still dirt cheap.
- Very Sharp!
- Very Affordable
- Cuts very well
- Durable and Grippy
- Can be Harder for Skinning
- Blade Needs Regular Care
- Can be Hard to Sharpen
10. Shrade Old Timer Sharpfinger – Best Budget Fixed Blade
This is probably the most ubiquitous skinning knife ever made. They are easily recognizable and have been popular for decades. While not a great all around utility knife they excel at their dedicated purpose of processing animal carcasses.
Using a carbon stainless steel with a very long name, 7cr17mov, a Sharpfinger is indeed sharp. They excel at piercing and stripping hides. Even with a 3” blade, they do a great job of getting through tough muscle and can even get into joints with ease. These knives were made to take an animal apart.
The handles are plain saw cut scales with some texturing but with the deep choil, getting a firm grip isn’t a problem. The Sharpfinger is a nimble knife with a small handle for small cuts and a lot of control. Most people even find them attractive.
Despite the slender blade, these are incredibly durable knives that last for decades. These are purpose made for skinning and processing and do an outstanding job. Though some care needs to be taken with the sharp point not to pierce the guts of smaller animals.
Though rugged, these are not a good knife for utility purposes. They can handle light tasks well but should be kept away from any abusive uses. If you need to take apart a kill, they will do great! If you need to split wood, get a different knife.
- Takes a sharp edge and holds it
- Nimble for easy skinning
- Less Durable Tip
- Very Short Blade
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I care for my Knife?
All knives, even stainless ones, should be oiled every so often and cleaned to prevent rust. All steel rusts, some just rusts slower than others. I use water and detergent for cleaning and oil my knives with mineral oil.
Wood handles will need to be cleaned and oiled as well. I use the same method as cleaning the steel. Just wait till the wood is dry before oiling it.
Leather sheaths should be waxed with a leather wax every so often to keep them from drying out and cracking. If you have to clean them, use a damp cloth and avoid getting them too wet.
Q: How do I sharpen my Knife?
There are hundreds of sharpeners and each uses a different method. You just need to get the right one for you. Anybody can learn to sharpen with time and practice.
There is an art to sharpening on a stone. While it is a great skill to learn, it takes time and dedication to get right. If you aren’t serious about learning that skill consider getting a different sharpener.
I fully recommend the Spyderco Sharpmaker. Anyone can get a shaving edge in just a few minutes on one. They are nearly fool proof and there is no risk of damage to your knife.
Avoid any electric sharpeners. They may ruin your temper and make your knife unusable.
I fully recommend getting a leather strop and stropping compound. I strop my knives every day that I use them and at least once a week if I don’t. I have knives that have not been ‘sharpened’ in over a year with a lot of use.
Q: My knife won’t take an edge, what do I do?
The first thing you should do is get an easier to use sharpener like the one above. If that fails to get a sharp edge, you may have a knife with a cheap steel or one that has a very hard steel. Sometimes it takes time to work an edge down to sharp.
You should also get a leather strop and compound. Sometimes this can remove the burr on your knife edge that makes it feel dull and not cut correctly.
Q: My knife won’t hold an edge, what do I do?
This is usually an issue with a wire edge forming and not getting properly knocked off. This wire edge can feel sharp at first but wears down quickly and can even roll back over the blade edge. This will make it feel dull.
As with the last step, get in the habit of stropping your knives after you sharpen them. That way you get a true edge and not just wire.
Q: What knife is best?
I get this question a lot! I use a lot of knives from mass produced to knives I have made myself. There is no one design that is universally the best knife design for any purpose. There are just too many variables.
If you are asking my favorite, I like a knife with a 4-5 inch blade with a Scandinavian grind made out of O1 tool steel with a spear point. For handles, I like a hardwood with good straight grain.
I use knives like that for most every purpose because they do everything well. But they do nothing great. There are dedicated knives that will do any one task better than that knife will.
Q: Why is ‘X’ knife not on this list?
There are simply too many options to get even a tenth of the good knives on any list that wasn’t hundreds of pages long. These are not the only good hunting knives on the market, they are just a selection of knives that I am familiar with that I know will serve the purpose well.
They are durable, sharp, and an overall good value for the money. That is the best I can do. If you have a favorite knife, go with it! I won’t judge you for not using one of the knives above.
Many cultures used sharpened rocks for processing game. I have replicated this method and I can tell you that even the worst knife works better. Nothing will make you value your knife more.
Even a poor steel can do the job if sharpened and maintained but why buy an inferior product when you don’t have to? A good knife can be had for cheap. A great knife still isn’t all that expensive.
Hopefully this guide as done its job of assisting you in find the best hunting knife for you. Maybe it’s one on our list and maybe it’s not. As long as you spend the time and money to get something high quality, I call this article a success!