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The Value of a Good Hunting Knife

One of my (Greg Wagner’s) preferred hunting knives to use which was custom made by knife maker John Mulcair of Weston, NE.  You’ll notice that John formed the handle of this knife with a couple materials from one of my memorable, successful Nebraska spring wild turkey hunts. Photo by Katie Stacey/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

There is no other piece of equipment or utensil needed to perform as many tasks, in as many ways, under as many conditions, as the knife, especially in hunting.

It can do everything from field dress and skin an animal in the field to cut cord and help spark a fire in a survival situation. There is no single item with a stronger connection to the American experiment than the knife.

A good knife is a quintessential tool for any outdoor enthusiast, but particularly for the hunter.

For those of us who hunt, that knife is an icon, a symbol of its bearer. Ask any hunter and they will tell you about their favorite knife which may even be a keepsake being passed along from one generation to the next. Knives were so valuable to the Lewis and Clark expedition that one man left his behind at a campsite and he went back to get it.

No hunter should be without a good knife! I am never without a good hunting knife in the field.

But, what exactly constitutes a good, all-round knife for the lifestyle of hunting? Truthfully, there is no right or wrong answer. It really depends on the individual hunter and their needs. Fit, form and function all enter into it.

A quality knife for hunting must be adaptable enough to do everything you require. When you’re choosing a knife, it’s important to consider how comfortably it fits your hand, what game you will be hunting, how often you hunt and how you will be using the knife after the harvest.

Fundamentally, the purpose of a hunting knife is to field dress your harvested game and cut the quarry up into manageable sizes for transporting back to the cabin, butcher shed or base camp. This includes skinning and cutting through cartilage as well as bone.

The choices on the market for hunting knives, however, are another story. Constantly in flux with technological advances, the possibilities for purchasing a hunting knife are many and varied. And, trying to pick one, the right one, can be a mind boggling experience.

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A variety of hunting knives displayed. Photo by Katie Stacey/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

So, how do you go about selecting a good hunting knife or set of knives?

Here are some basic considerations to keep in mind from two prominent knife makers in Nebraska I interviewed — the late Dick Turpin of Lincoln, NE and John Mulcair of rural Weston, NE.

Don’t Go Big!

If you think bigger is always better when it comes to hunting knives, you would be incorrect! An oversized knife will make basic tasks in hunting harder, not easier, and increase your chances of cutting yourself!

Legendary hunting knife maker and bladesmith, the late Dick Turpin of Lincoln, NE, always said a good rule of thumb (no pun intended) is to grab the handle of a knife and carefully stick your index finger alongside the blade length. If the point of that knife is roughly even with or slightly shorter than your finger, that knife is the proper size.

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Proper-sized hunting knife. Photo by Katie Stacey/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Another veteran artisan of creating fine knives agrees. Knife maker, John Mulcair of Weston, NE, says you don’t need to go “Rambo” style on the size of a knife for hunting purposes. His guideline on a good hunting knife is one that has a blade about 4 inches in length, unless, he comically adds, you’re hunting dinosaurs or the like.

Variety of Knives and Some History

Depending on what kind of hunting you do, and the game you plan to harvest for the dinner table, you’ll most likely decide that you need more than one knife. Did you know there was no single Bowie knife; American frontiersman, Jim Bowie, actually owned and used a series of knives until he modified one that met his needs. Most American designs of hunting knives are based on smaller versions of the Bowie knives. The next major development in the history of hunting knives was the Swiss Army knife. It helped popularize folding knives for hunters. American knife maker Bob Loveless pioneered styles of all-purpose drop point knives that became very well received by hunters.

With Native American cultures, an array of knives were used for versatility to complete different tasks or functions. They were widely used when it came to hunting, cutting meat and skinning and fleshing animal hides.  The first Native American knives were comprised of sharpened stone like flint, obsidian or chert. Later, bone and antler were used. Native Americans believed that an effective hunting knife should not only be able to gut and skin an animal, but should be able to cape out and cut up an animal as well.

Native American hunters took great personal pride and detail in the making of their knives.

Fixed Blade or Folding Blade?

If you’re a dedicated hunter, a solid fixed blade knife is the way to go, according to both the late Dick Turpin and John Mulcair. They both told me fixed-blade knives offer the best in ruggedness and reliability and are the simplest to clean and maintain. They’re the top choice for heavy-duty work, though they’re not for everybody. Fixed-blades are bulkier and less safe in transport than folding knives, but have no moving parts that can break.

For general-purpose hunting and even for use around the house, a folding hunting knife is most likely plenty strong enough as well as quicker to deploy, plus easier and safer to carry in the field. The folding knife blade is held in place by a locking mechanism, which prevents it from folding up and cutting the user. My Buck 110 Folding Hunter knife with its leather sheath is compact and has served me well through the years when big game hunting. It also doubles as a space-saving survival knife.

My Buck 110 Folding Hunter knife with leather sheath. It has stood the test of time! Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The Handle

The handle is a key component of any knife. Wood, leather, antler and bone handles tend to be warmer to the touch than metal, and are neat looking. But, these handles sometimes come with metal trim that can certainly feel cold on a winter day. Brilliantly engineered synthetic (carbon fiber, phelonic) hunting knife handles are on the market today as well. Dick Turpin said an effective hunting knife handle must provide good grip, warmth and durability. Whatever you choose, Turpin recommended staying away from thin handles that do not allow a hunter to get the proper angle with the knife in skinning. That’s why he liked the rounded ones.

Above everything, the handle of the knife must comfortably fit your hand!

The Blade

Inventor, scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin once was quoted as saying: “There was never a good knife made of bad steel.” And he was right! Turpin was and Mulcair is a huge fan of high carbon steel knife blades for hunting. Why? Carbon steel blades and stain-free high-carbon steel blades are stronger with better performance than stainless steel knives. High carbon steel knives hold an edge well and sharpening is done a lot less. The downside of carbon steel is that with no chromium in the blade, it is not as rust resistant as stainless steel knives are, so it should be treated. Dick Turpin gave me one of his high carbon steel-bladed knives that field dressed 8 deer and did not require resharpening! He formed his custom-made knives out of old saw blades made of high-quality carbon steel.

A stamp on a hunting knife with stain-free, high-carbon steel. Photo by Katie Stacey.
A stamp on a much-used, quality hunting knife with stain-free, high-carbon steel. Photo by Katie Stacey/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Interestingly, for the blades of his custom knives, John Mulcair acquires 100 year-old butter knives that contain a mix of nickel and silver, and hold a great, sharp edge.

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A close up of the blade on a John Mulcair-made knife he made for me. I have used this knife a great deal in the field. Photo by Katie Stacey/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Professional bladesmiths are also fans of forged Damascus steel hunting knives which are extremely durable and hold a razor sharp edge after repeated uses.

Stainless steel blades on knives are still the most popular choice among hunters, even if they’re a little bit harder to sharpen and they don’t keep an edge as well as a carbon or Damascus steel does, but they are generally adequate enough to get the job done.

A large number of hunters today still prefer thinner blades over thicker versions when it comes to knives.

Every hunting knife should have what is called “correct edge geometry,” meaning they have the right cutting angle for the game being harvested, are able to be sharpened in the field and possess a blade that is not too thick. Looking back in history, most of the knives used by mountain men and those on the American frontier actually contained blades that had correct edge geometry.

Specialty Features

A few features of hunting knife blades you may want to consider are the gut hook, serrated edge or saw.

Probably 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 more convenient to open an animal or bird’s abdominal cavity when you need to remove the vital organs. With the gut hook, the hunter makes an incision with a standard blade, then uses the gut hook to extend the incision without puncturing any of the game animal’s entrails. This can be a useful tool when field-dressing big game such as deer.

Also, a partially serrated blade edge can work well, primarily when cutting through cartilage, tendons and bone. A knife with a saw blade, like some folding knives have, can be a handy tool, too, most notably for sawing through bone, cutting kindling around camp or trimming branches from near your tree stand.

The Blade Styles and Variations

Today there are dozens of styles and variations of knife blade shapes. Clip point, drop point, tanto point, spey, pen,  sheepsfoot, dagger point, trailing point and spear point are among more the numerous blade shapes available. However, for the hunter, there are three main styles or variations to be considered.

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 vital organs when skinning. This is a very popular knife blade shape for hunting and always an excellent selection.

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 an efficient blade shape for cutting meat.

The Sheath

Often ignored is a good sheath for your quality hunting knife. A decent sheath should be lightweight and made from durable leather, stitched well, and precisely fit the knife, according to John Mulcair, who prides himself on creating top-notch knife sheaths. Mulcair points out that the design of the sheath should not allow the point and edge of the blade to come in contact with the stitching. If the knife blade can be felt through the sheath, it is inadequate, he stresses.

Synthetic knife sheaths (e.g., thermofabrications) may also be used.

Just remember that any knife sheath needs to be comfortable, stand up to abuse and, most importantly, securely hold the knife while in motion. Additionally, any knife sheath should have some sort of positive retention system (snap-strap) for safety and give adequate protection from the elements of nature.

These are the essentials in choosing the best knife for hunting. The remainder is up to you, it all rests with your personal preference. Just don’t forget, as with buying any piece of gear for outdoor activities, you will “get what you pay for.”

The hunting knife in today’s world will continue to be a handy, valued tool for anyone who enjoys spending a lot of time outdoors, and will be kept proudly to be handed down to future generations, if properly maintained.

After all, we owe it to the animals we take to do our best work possible with a good, sharp knife in maximizing their yield.

This is a Jim Hammond Cruiser clip point stainless folding pocket knife with a textured Zytel handle –  one of my favorite all-purpose pocketknives for small game and upland game hunting. It has solid components and is reasonably priced. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Communications and Marketing Specialist and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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