The Detailed Guide to Hunting Knives

“There was never a good knife made of bad steel.” – Benjamin Franklin, (probably).

The first knives made by hominids show up in archeology roughly 2.5 million years ago. They were made of stone and are among the first tools in the Stone Age. Interestingly, fire was not used until 300-400,000 years ago, meaning that we’ve been cutting meat for a lot longer than we’ve been grilling it. What was the first tool made during the bronze age? You guessed it. Roughly 4,000 years ago some clever humans in Britain smelted an alloy, shaped, hardened, and sharpened it, and thus possessed a tool and weapon that would give them a leg up on the rest of the species. Some anthropologists argue that the metal knife was the first critical step toward the eventuality of the British Empire. 

I use a custom game axe for skinning, gutting, and quartering larger animals like elk and moose. The blunt side is great for smashing open bones to get at the marrow.

In 2009, 24 million US households owned a hunting knife. There are an ever-growing number of companies making knives, and blacksmithing is making a fashionable comeback. It can be difficult to wade through the marketing and lingo associated with all these knives so let’s break it down for today’s hunter.

We can reduce the knives I need into a few categories, and I have a favorite knife for each of them. 

First is my everyday carry. That’s going to be the Argali Carbon worn around my neck, and the Benchmade Bugout I carry in my pocket. I can and have processed entire deer, elk, and bear with these two knives, but that only happens when I didn’t know I was going to be working on animals that day. Mostly they exist to open packages, trim fingernails, cut bailing twine, and dig splinters out of my mitts.

When I decided to hike 50 miles of wilderness without food, the Argali Carbon was the knife I brought to survive with. Pictured here next to some brook trout I managed to catch.

For hunting, I use the Argali Serac. Its blade design is more conducive to skinning and has a notch on the back of the blade for scraping a Ferro rod, which is my go-to method for starting fires these days because they work in every temperature and weather, work wet or dry, and can start thousands of fires. I also wear the Kodiak Belt from Argali which has a diamond plate knife sharpener on the back of the buckle, and a leather patch for stropping. I have found that a little maintenance every few minutes of cutting keeps a knife sharp forever, whereas if you let one get dull, you are going to have to dedicate a bunch of time to re-sharpening. The old adage is, “sharpen once, hone forever.” I also use an Outdoor Edge zip blade which has a dull point and a concave blade design. It’s an irreplaceable tool for making long cuts through the hide and for opening up the abdomen while gutting. Once I’m in the butcher shop I end up using inexpensive plastic handled 5-6” semi-flex boning knives for most of my cuts.

The Argali Serac has a Ferro rod groove for helping you start a fire and a blade contour that lends itself towards skinning and field processing. The s35vn steel strikes a good balance between hardness and the ability to be re-sharpened.

I’ve been interested in knives since I was a little guy, and have picked up a few custom knives along the way. These are special to me because I can feel a connection with the man swinging the hammer into the hot steel and leaning into the grinder to bring that steel to an edge. I value these knives the way I value memories. If you want a custom knife from a knife maker,  you need to start with a conversation that describes what you intend to do with the knife. Do you want an all-purpose field knife, a skinner, or something for caping? How hard do you want the steel? This is a major concern for me. I generally prefer soft steels because my habit is to sharpen often, and soft steels become sharp quickly. Once very hard steel becomes dull, you may have to find a grinding wheel or diamond plate to get it sharp again. Conversely, harder steel might be able to make it all the way through the skinning, gutting, and quartering of an elk before it needs to be touched up. How are you planning on carrying the knife? What should the sheath be made from? Today’s thermoplastics like Kydex, which are inexpensive, easy to clean, moldable, and come in an array of colors have all but replaced leather. Talk through what you want the knife to be able to do, how long the blade and handle should be, and how you plan to carry it and you should get a fabulous product that will end up in your will.

This carbon steel skinner came from Armstrong Outdoor Knives, a small veteran-owned business. I skinned three bulls with it this fall, great knife. Note: carbon steel can and will rust almost instantly if you don’t keep a little oil on the blade after cleaning it. The quality is generally higher than most stainless steel, which can and will rust as well.

On the commercial market, you have to answer all the aforementioned questions for yourself, and then start going through the options to find what is going to work for you and your budget. While there are a pile of great knives out there, that are the result of 2.5 million years of progress, I want to go through a handful that I have used and continue to enjoy.

When I am cutting elk, deer, bear, duck, salmon, and whatever else there are a handful of other knives I also employ. One of my favorites is the Benchmade 15500 Meatcrafter. This knife is a bit long for skinning, but after that, it will do every job, from breaking to steaking, and is extremely sharp. Benchmade uses a 14-degree angle on their “select edge” and it cuts like a laser beam. I use this knife a ton in the kitchen also. That brings up the point of multiple use cases— people tend to spend more on their kitchen knives than their field knives. Of all these I’ll talk about today, the MeatCrafter is the best adapted to the field and the counter. Benchmade has several models— the 15500 costs $200. 

At home in the field or kitchen, the MeatCrafter is born and bred for cutting game meat.

If you want a lightweight folding knife then check out the Benchmade 15535 TAGGEDOUT , also $200. This knife is slim in your pocket at less than 1/2” thick but has a 3.5” blade. The whole thing weighs a shade over 2 ounces. I cut bailing twine with mine for a couple of months and while it wasn’t hair-poppingly sharp anymore, it was still plenty sharp for every other task. My main issue with using folding knives on game is they have lots of nooks and hiding spots for chunks of organic tissue to end up in and they are a pain to clean. If you don’t do a good job cleaning, they can start smelling a little wild.

The last Benchmade I want to talk about is the Hidden Canyon skinner. It comes in a classy leather holster and has the best skinning blade contour I’ve ever used. As a general rule, the shorter the blade, the more precise the cut— a surgeon’s scalpel is a good example of this precision. The Hidden Canyon is exactly that— a precision skinning tool. It’s also really good for game birds like ducks, geese, and pheasants.

The Hidden Canyon Skinner, pictured on the left, is a deft and capable skinner.

Josh Smith, a card-carrying Master Bladesmith, has done incredible things in the last couple of years with the Montana Knife Company. I recently got to put my hands on the Stonewall Blackfoot Skinner. This knife comes in at 5.5 ounces, has a G10 handle which is so tough it will someday end up in the fossil record, and has a blade design that can take on about any task you could ask of it. It also uses a steel called MagnaCut which is tougher than any of the steels used in the other knives in this article. Josh grew up in one of my favorite areas of Montana on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I worked near there on a ranch calving out heifers while I was in college and carried a 338 WinMag with me everywhere I went for the number of grizzlies around. If people are a product of their place, then this knife, named after a river and mountain in that region, has both the place and the man as ancestors. The Stonewall is headed to Kansas with me next week and will have a place in my pack on many a hunt in the future.

The MagnaCut Stonewall Blackfoot Stonewall Skinner is a knife that can take to task the most serious undertakings. If I had to skin a hippo or cape buffalo, this is the kind of knife I’d want in hand. The Kydex case increases the usefulness of this knife by making it wearable on the belt or practically any strap on a pack. Simply holding this skinner gives you a sense of balance, sturdiness, and quality. I’m taking it hunting this week and am wearing it on my belt as I write.

The throw-away blade knives hit the scene hard this century and as long as we have folks who don’t know how to sharpen or don’t want to, these will be part of our lives. The two I’ve used the most are the Havalon and the Outdoor Edge. These knives are relatively inexpensive up front and the blades come out of the package extremely sharp. I came within 1” of cutting my own femoral artery with an outdoor edge while skinning the lower legs of a cow elk for a client and barely felt a thing, at first. Extremely sharp and somewhat dull knives tend to be the most prone to severely injuring users. Havalon blades are famous for breaking, with the pieces springing away into who knows where, but hopefully not eyeballs. However, when used correctly they are surgical. I like Havalons for skinning coyote tails, cutting around the preorbital glands on elk and deer, and for removing the claws from bears and mountain lions. Outdoor Edge knives are much less likely to break but they get dull quickly. I cannot make it through an entire elk before the blade gets thrown in the trash. This category of knives is least likely of all to end up being passed along to a future generation.

While knives might be the most over-thought piece of gear in your kit, they are also one of the most valuable. When it comes down to it, a knife may be even more important than fire for your survival, especially since you can more easily make a fire with a knife than you can a knife with fire. The knife you have is probably good enough for the task ahead, but if you want something better, these are some great options to check out. If you want a referral to some good custom knife makers reach out to me @6ranchoutfitters and I’ll point you in a good direction.

I’ll leave you with a tradition. If someone gives you a knife, give them a coin in return. This goes back to Roman times and has been practiced in many cultures. Some believe this prevents the knife from cutting the friendship. Others believe it makes the whole affair more transactional and limits the power offset. A pro move as the giver is to tape a coin to the package containing the knife, in case the recipient doesn’t have a coin on them. Traditions are worth keeping alive and it’s a good conversation starter.

About the author: James Nash is an outfitter, professional hunter and cattle rancher from NE Oregon where he resides as the fifth generation of his family to raise cattle, hunt, and fish on the 6 Ranch. He studied history at Adolf Øien Videregående in Trondheim, Norway where he also competed on the Norwegian National Greco-Roman wrestling team, then studied Literature and Writing at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Montana. Afterwards, Nash served as an Armor Officer and platoon commander in the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank in the US Marine Corps for five years. Nash was wounded in Afghanistan and received two Purple Heart Medals and after a period of convalescence was subsequently retired. He returned to the 6 Ranch and resumed guiding and outfitting, with a focus on other combat wounded veterans. Nash has guided salt and freshwater fly and gear fishing, all kinds of hunting, and back country wilderness trips since age 14. He hosts the 6 Ranch Podcast, and you can learn more about him on instagram @6ranchoutfitters.

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  • Stan d. Upnow December 16, 2022, 11:04 am

    Regarding Mr. Nash’s comment concerning so-called “carbon steel” (more properly called non-stainless steel) knives that “quality is generally higher than most stainless steel, which can and will rust as well.”

    That’s an erroneous statement if I ever heard one. The “quality” of steel, any steel, is dependent on the grade of raw materials used and the manufacturing processes, not whether it happens to be a type of so-called carbon steel or stainless steel. He is correct in saying stainless steels can rust, though there are quite a few that are almost corrosion-free.

    With the huge advances in stainless steels over the past years, I find knives made from them to be superior in most categories to the so-called carbon steel knives, which are generally considered to be “tougher.” But, how much toughness is needed in a hunting or skinning knife? That’s a quality that’s Way over-emphasized, imo.

  • Carl Childers December 6, 2022, 10:21 am

    Saw some small 4” blade knives at the Knoxville TN gunshow this weekend. Priced at $230 each made me appreciate my $30 uzi made in China. It also needs sharpened frequently but does so quickly and effectively.
    My point is, you can buy a decent knife for 10% the cost of an expensive knife with 90% of the quality and effectiveness.

    • Local December 16, 2022, 5:49 am

      Sounds like you’re not too far from me, I’m on the backside of the tourist trap the next county over.

      Be glad you don’t have the knife bug. I don’t care for any of the knives mentioned in this article, but I do have a small assortment of users and safe queens.

    • Stan d. Upnow December 16, 2022, 11:17 am

      Guess it depends on your knife expectations and usage as to what you’re willing to spend on one.
      But, your statement that “ can buy a decent knife for 10% the cost of an expensive knife with 90% of the quality and effectiveness” is only your unsupported opinion. I’ve had both kinds, and can say that you get what you pay for, if considering quality & performance. Cheap Chinese knock-offs are just that. They have their place in the market, but aren’t worthy of consideration by anyone serious about their knives, unless you just want a “beater” knife.

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