While the focus of a hunt normally falls on the chase itself – and the gun at hand – what happens when that animal is on the ground? Out comes the hunting knife. Every hunter worth his or her salt has a trusted hunting knife…or three.
Yet, there are so many types of blades out there. Which do you really need? One for small game and one for big game? Do you need a gut hook, drop point, sawback? Whether it’s for the first-time hunter or those learning about the butchering process, we’ll walk you through the different types of hunting knives. Let’s look at where each one excels and show off some of our favorites.
Hunting Knife Basics
While many hunters are also knife aficionados – current company included – our aim here is to provide a better understanding of the basics for those who have not yet been fully immersed in cleaning field game and butchery.
There are two major subsets of hunting knives that we can generally lump blades into: fixed blades and folding knives. While this is familiar to most hunters, all knife variants essentially stem from this duo. So let’s get a clear understanding of the two and their various offspring.
Fixed blades are just like the name suggests – a single-piece, non-folding knife with handles or scales attached to one piece of steel. Field knives fall into this category, along with the majority of hunting knives. Fixed blades are revered for their simplicity and strength, though custom bladesmithing elevates fixed blades beyond mere practicality. Many, in fact, are works of art as well.
Just like the fixed blade, the folding knife works exactly like its name suggests – It folds in half, with the blade collapsing into the handle. This makes it more compact to carry afield and often lighter as well. The blade is also safely stored inside the handle, which makes these knives popular for everyday carry. But that shapeshifting size can sacrifice overall strength with more moving parts. Still, many folding knives are highly capable workhorses.
Knife blades can have dozens of different designs, each culminating in a point type at the business end of the blade. For hunting purposes, perhaps the two most common are the clip point and drop point. Some specialty point designs serve more specific purposes for hunters, as seen below.
We can further break down the knife designs into blade types and point styles, each with specific uses. To further complicate matters, there are also game-specific knives, so let’s run through some brief definitions for each.
A gut hook is a feature that actually sits atop a knife’s blade and is popular among big-game hunters. The full process of the hunt is not over until the animal is in the freezer. Field dressing involves opening the body cavity. Doing that as neatly as possible is more pleasant for all involved. A sharp gut hook essentially zips through the hide without damaging the internals. A gut hook makes that easier because the style prevents accidentally cutting into the entrails.
A skinning, or caping, knife is generally a more rounded blade without a wildly projecting tip. It is designed to work behind the hide, loosening the skin from the carcass and protecting the hide from accidental punctures. This makes quick work of the skinning process. Some great options are the Outdoor Edge Caper Lite and the HME Skinner.
This design is found on the back of many survival blades, field knives, and some hunting blades as well. A sawback blade refers to the toothy edge on the spine of some knives. Sawbacks are used for exactly what the name suggests, cutting through small branches, brush, or even bone on a game animal.
While most of our hunting talk centers around big-game animals, those who pursue small game like squirrels and rabbits – as well as upland bird hunters and even trout fishermen – will want a quality bird-and-trout knife. These knives are smaller overall with a shorter blade and sharp point for processing smaller critters. They’re usually of the fixed-blade variety, fairly light, and carried in a leather belt sheath. Two great options are the Ka-Bar Little Finn and the CRKT Hunt‘N Fisch.
Replaceable Blade Knives
Knives with replaceable blades are some of the most rapidly growing styles of knife in the world. While knife aficionados revel in metallurgy and the sharpening process, others simply want a sharp blade all the time without the extra work. Instead of sharpening, the dulled blade is discarded and a new one is attached.
Knives like many from Outdoor Edge and Havalon are of this type. Taking this one step farther is the Outdoor Edge Razor Pro, which uses both a replaceable main blade, as well as a “swing-blade” secondary gutting edge. The Havalon Talon offers similar razor-sharp performance.
Field Dressing Kits
While some hunters can get the job done with one trusty old hunting knife, those who plan to process from start to finish will likely appreciate one of the many field dressing kits on the market. They don’t generally feature the high-end blades, but they are packed with multiples knives and tools in a variety of styles designed to gut, cape, butcher, and generally get that big game from field to freezer.
In addition to knives, most include a sharpener and other items like a rib spreader, gloves, bone saw, meat shears, and even a small hatchet. They can come packed in a hard or soft case, but the name of the game here is all-in-one portability. The HME Deluxe Field Dressing Kit and Outdoor Edge Outfitter both meet your needs in the field.
Stepping outside the realm of hunting knives, we should address what are commonly called “camp tools.” These are tools any hunter will want to have in their pack when traveling into rugged country. They are great for setting up a hunting camp or preparing for time in the wilderness. We wouldn’t go afield for any length of time without some kind of chopper or machete.
Not only will it clear brush, help build blinds, cut shooting lanes, and aid in survival situations, but a heavy-duty chopper can also be used to split larger bones while quartering big game. When more bone cutting is required, a dedicated bone saw is lightweight, inexpensive, and indispensable. Some of our favorites are the Kershaw Camp, HME Saw, and HME Bone Saw.
Must-Haves for Any Big-Game Hunter
While we can simply carry our small game or upland bird harvests home to clean, hunting big game means some level of gutting, skinning, quartering, or field butchery. Having the right tools at the ready makes the process quicker, cleaner, and more efficient.
At the very least, hunters should have one quality-built hunting knife. For most tasks, we prefer a full-tang fixed blade option. As a backup, a nice folder carries easily and can be pressed into service. For big game in backcountry hunting where space may be a premium, choosing one of the following is always important: camp chopper, bone saw, or hatchet for breaking down the animal and other field tasks. Where access to a vehicle or base camp is easier, a more complete butchery kit is ideal, including specific blades for gutting, skinning, major butchery, and sharpening.
Regardless of your choice, revel in the fact that you’ve made the responsible, ethical choice not only to harvest your own game but to honor and process it as well.