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Survival knives

Check out these 12 top knives for deer hunting

Check out these 12 top knives for deer hunting

A perennial reader favorite every fall is the update on the best hunting knives for deer hunters. Here are some blades worth checking out.

by Leon Pantenburg

We’re not looking for the best survival knife or the best bushcraft blade here, but rather a cutlery tool that can do the job of gutting, skinning and quartering a deer. By extension, though, the knife should also work well on elk, bear, hogs, exotics or whatever big game animal is harvested.

The knife should be lightweight, easy to carry and have a reliable sheath. The steel should hold an edge. In a pinch, the knife should be able to handle survival knife jobs, such as whittling, processing tinder and cleaning fish.

I can’t check out every new knife, and I don’t have the time or money  to legally kill enough animals to use every knife in actual field conditions. And although I was lucky enough to legally kill three bucks in 2014, and a bull elk in 2015, there are years when you appreciate why it’s called hunting, and not killing! (Just got an email photo from the rancher who lets me hunt his land. A range fire just took out a lot of prime habitat where I intended to hunt…)

But even during years when I didn’t down an animal, I usually ended up helping process other, luckier hunters’ kills. So take my thoughts for what they’re worth.

Let the campfire discussion begin…

My prejudices:

No Folders: I love pocket knives. For years, a Buck model 317 folder was my go-to knife for southeastern hunting. But any folder’s weak point is the hinge. Break that, and the knife is disabled. A knife that might have to do double duty as a survival tool needs to be sturdy.

buck folder

A Buck 317 worked well for me. 

Blade length: A blade between four-to-six-inches is my preference. Ask any professional butcher what he uses on a daily basis, and he’ll probably recommend a longer blade.

No choil: A choil is a ground out space on the blade, by the handle. Proponents claim the choil allows you to “choke up” on the blade for fine work. The choil eliminates one of the most useful areas of the blade, right next to the guard, IMHO, and reduces the cutting edge.

Safe Handle: A non-slip handle is paramount. Inevitably, the knife will get covered with blood and body fluids during a gutting operation and a slippery handle is dangerous. A well-designed handle, made of micarta or wood, that fits your hand is going to be safer than a soft, rubbery, smushy handle that doesn’t.

In no particular order, here are some good choices for the big game hunter, whose hunting knife might end up doing duty as a survival knife. I tested and reviewed them, or am in the process, and several will be going on big game hunts.

The Tundra makes a great skinning knife.

The Tundra makes a great skinning knife.

Ambush Tundra: Based on the Canadian leaf style blade design, this is the hunting knife I would design for me. Made by Bark River, the Tundra has a generous handle that fits my hands very well.

I liked my original Tundra with the green micarta so much I got another one with a desert ironwood handle. Just because I could, and I wanted it.

Pete Winkler Whitetail

Pete Winkler Whitetail

Cross Whitetail: Pete Winkler is the knifemaker at Cross knives, and he is producing some beauties.

I’m currently checking out his Whitetail model, and am really liking it. With a 3.71-inch A-2 steel blade, the knife features a full-sized handle that fits my hand very well.

The drop point and generous belly on the blade shows a design a deer hunter would approve of. I’m taking this one hunting.

Lon Humphrey Sterling: All Humphrey’s  blades are hand forged from 1095 high carbon steel. The tempering process leaves the steel with an unequaled edge-holding ability.  The Sterling sucked me in immediately when I saw the forge marks and thought how a curly maple handle would so match my flintlock longrifle.

Lon Humphrey Sterling knife with flintlock rifle

The Sterling matches my flintlock rifle so well that it looks like a museum display.

The knife in hand was everything I hoped for. It is scary sharp and I’ll bet it holds an edge forever. The handle is a nice size, and I could safely use it, even with gloves on.

I liked the knife so much I got my brother, Mike, one for his birthday. He’s also a history nerd and blackpowder hunter, and Mike appreciates the craftsmanship and aesthetics of a hand forged blade. Between the two of us, we should blood a Sterling this season.

Bark River Mountain Man: Another classic, the Mountain Man pattern comes from one of the most researched and distributed knives in American history.

This replica of a Hawken rifle and the Mountain Man knife fit together really well.

This Hawken rifle replica and the Mountain Man knife fit together really well.

During the fur trade era, about 1825-ish through the end of the 1830s, barrels of these types of knives were shipped west and sold to natives, trappers and settlers. If there had been a market for a different design, someone would have tapped it. As it is, you’d be hard pressed to find a better user knife.

The Bark River version combines the old design with new materials and super steels. My two are regulars in the kitchen, and they work well for everything.

Zoe Crist Santa Fe: My Santa Fe is currently on loan to a friend of mine, Phil Brummett, who is a fly fishing guide and skilled woodsman. He’s also a former Scoutmaster and still active in the outdoor skills training for scouts. He’s on my short list of people I want to go camping with.

This Zoe Crist Santa Fe has real potential as a hunting knife.

This Zoe Crist Santa Fe has real potential as a hunting knife.

Phil’s knife is used to clean fish, whittle sticks, for bushcraft tasks as needed and a multitude of things associated with making a living outdoors.

The only instructions Phil got were to use the knife as he normally would use any knife.

I was attracted to the Santa Fe because of the design, the shape of the blade and the A2 steel in it, and maker’s reputation for quality work.

More on this knife later.

The Feather Stick, top, is based on the time- tested, classic Scandinavian design, exemplified by the Mora 840 Companion

The Feather Stick, top, is based on the time-tested, classic scandi design.

Battle Horse Knives Feather Stick: Based on the classic Scandinavian design, this knife has a time-proven design record of usefulness. One of my hunting buddies, a physician who could easily afford a better knife, has used his $15 Mora 840 Companion on deer, elk, moose and hogs.

When he sees my Feather Stick, he’ll probably upgrade.

Bark River Trakker Companion: I love the blade design, but the handle doesn’t work for me. The four-inch convex grind blade has a drop point and will work very well for gutting and skinning. Why wouldn’t it? It’s a Bark River.

The L.T. Wright Next Gen (top) and Rouge River are great user knives.

The L.T. Wright Next Gen (top) and Rouge River are great user knives.

L.T. Wright Rogue River: The company sent me this knife after I requested they re-grind my GNS into a full convex grind. While I love the GNS as a bushcraft tool, the thick blade with the scandi grind isn’t the best choice for a butchering/skinning knife.

The Rouge River  has a thinner, flat ground four-inch blade with a good belly on it. The well-designed micarta handle and drop point would make this a good hunting knife.

L.T. Wright Next Gen: With a three-inch blade, this wouldn’t be my first choice if I could only take one knife. But the Next Gen has a generous micarta handle that fits me well and it is a proven user.

The thicker blade and scandi grind don't make this the best knife for slicing.

The thicker blade and scandi grind don’t make the Forest Knife the best choice for slicing.

Forest Knife: Made by the American Knife company, this knife is patterned after what survival guru Mors Kochenski recommends for a bushcraft knife. It will work well for processing a deer, but it wouldn’t be my first choice because of the thick blade and scandi grind.

But the Forest Knife might be the best choice for someone who is mainly interested in bushcraft, with an occasional deer hunt thrown in.

The four-inch blade on this Bark River Snowy River worked very well on this elk.

The four-inch blade on this Bark River Snowy River worked very well on a bull elk.

Bark River Snowy River: The aforementioned physician who uses a 840 now has a Snowy River. He helped gut and skin my elk with it, and it was evident he really liked it.

The knife has also been used successfully on wild hogs, and the Elmax steel continues to hold a really sharp edge. I may strop the blade at hunting camp, but that’s mostly because of my obsessive/compulsive need to sharpen every knife around me.

Hall of Fame:

Check out last year’s best deer hunting knives.

You’ll see some of my old favorites and some knives that are worth considering, just because they work so well.

My preferences in deer hunting knives will most likely be different than yours. You’ll see a definite pattern here.

I want a rigid, four-to-five-inch, clip or drop point with a blade of high carbon or tool steel. The handle needs to be at least four inches long, of a material that is durable and non-slip. Within those perimeters, there are a lot of variations.

All of us have opinions, and reasons for those opinions. And that’s why campfires are so much fun!

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View Comments (3)

3 Comments

  1. Izidoro

    09/16/2016 at 21:07

    Please, review your impressions after use your Bark River Hudson Bay Trade Knife.

    Thanks.

  2. Leon

    08/11/2016 at 11:43

    A couple of my elk hunting buddies use Sharp Fingers. It’s a solid knife.

  3. Scott Lindenthal

    08/11/2016 at 08:31

    For a economical knife that has served me very well, I recommend the shrade sharp finger. It works well for gutting, skinning, and quartering. I like a short blade that allows me to work inside an animal with both hands and always know where the blade is. I don’t like cutting myself. Being smart in the use of a knife helps it keep an edge. Don’t cut down through hair, flip the blade over, poke the tip through the hide and cut from the underside. This knife has gutted skinned and quartered elk without sharpening.

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Survival knives

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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