A perennial favorite is the annual update on the best deer hunting knives. Here’s that update, with some newbies, tried and tested designs and old favorites.
by Leon Pantenburg
Deer season is here in some areas, and eagerly anticipated in others. As you gather gear, consider this: What’s the best knife – for me – for deer hunting?
Well, my choices probably won’t be yours! And I’m not going to put down your favorite knife. But I legally killed three bucks last year, and that allowed me to try out several new knives.
Before discussing knives, let’s talk about deer. The average harvested whitetail buck in the eastern United States will weigh in at about 135 pounds, and its body will be about 12 inches thick. Western mule deer are larger, but neither animal is routinely going to go much over 200 pounds. The hide is relatively thin, compared to an elk, moose or bear. Chances are, you will be hunting is a semi-civilized area, so the survival aspect of the knife probably won’t be a primary consideration.
To properly take care of this animal once it’s down, you must be able to gut and skin it, and possibly quarter the carcass so it can be packed out to the nearest road. The knife must have a well-designed point for gutting, a good “belly” on the blade for skinning and a reasonable blade length for quartering the animal.
Here are the prejudices I based my choices on.
- No Folders: I carry a pocketknife every day. 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.
- No guthooks: In my opinion, the hook is only good for a couple of cuts, such as the initial incision to open up the body cavity. Otherwise, the guthook looks terrible on a knife blade, dulls quickly and gets fouled up with hair, and can hook on the sheath or your clothing. A guthook limits the use of the knife if you need to baton firewood or use the spine to scrape things. If you want a guthook, get a separate, specialized version that doesn’t permanently screw up your knife.
- 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. I think choils are dangerous.
- 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.
- Proportioned handle: If a handle isn’t at least four inches long, I can’t use it safely for long. Thankfully, several knifemakers are making ergonomic handles that fit us ham-handed hunters.
- Long-enough blade length: A blade between four to six inches is my preference. Now, all sorts of big game can be dressed out with an ordinary pocketknife. But ask a professional butcher what he uses on a daily basis to process carcasses, and he’ll probably recommend a longer blade length.
- Easily sharpened: It doesn’t matter what wonder component the blade is made of. At some point, the blade will need sharpening, and you must be able to do it easily.
Here are some knives I’ve looked at and tested over the past year. As always, I won’t promote any product I wouldn’t use.
Benchmade: Randy Yow, of La Pine, Oregon, and his wife Candy host the popular Extreme Desire hunting program on the outdoor channel. Every year, depending on the harvest, they field dress and process over 20 big game animals.
The Extreme Desire endorsed hunting knife is a Benchmade Steep Country Hunter. The one I checked out has a guthook.
“I don’t like guthooks either,” Randy admitted. “But we wanted to offer a knife with one for those hunters who do like guthooks.”
The knife is also available without the guthook, for hunters with opinions like mine!
Well, Randy Yow knows a LOT more about handling big game animals than I do, so you decide.
From Bark River: KnivesShipFree.com is a sponsor of SurvivalCommonSense.com and has supplied several different knives for testing and review. I am not paid to do reviews, I pay for the knives I keep and all I ever promise anyone is a fair shake. These Bark Rivers have performed magnificently.
Kalahari: I received a prototype last fall, and used it for a variety of bushcraft tasks. This knife was definitely designed by someone in the know about hunting knives. The Kalahari has a unique handle and the upswept, drop point blade.
The Kalahari handle fit my (glove-size) large hands like it was designed for me. I used the Kalahari on a Mississippi buck, and couldn’t have been happier with its performance.
Canadian: The Canadian is an all-around design that works well as a deer hunter. Based on a traditional Canadian bush knife, the BR Canadian is a real workhorse. I love the blade design, but .after trying the knife on several occasions in the field decided I don’t like the handle. But that opinion is no reflection on the quality of the knife, and you may love it.
Drop Point Hunter: This is another proven design. The BR follows very closely the classic Bob Loveless drop point hunter design of the 1970s. The BR differs from the Loveless in that the BR has A2 steel and a convex grind. This should make for an even better hunting knife.
The handle fits my hand really well, and I can do extended whittling sessions with the knife without any hot spots developing in my palm.
I have been impressed with the Loveless design for a long time and always wanted one. I ordered my BR Drop Point Hunter in Cobolo wood. I anticipate a long relationship with this knife.
Sahara: My prototype features the proven Kalahari handle. Featuring a five-inch, clip point blade, this comes very, very close to my idea of the perfect ideal hunting/survival knife. It bears a resemblance to the Cold Steel SRK that I have used extensively for over 20 years.
Gunny Hunter Scandi: Years ago, before I ever heard of Bark River knives, I was chatting at an airport with a deer hunter who was also a guide at a Texas game ranch. We talked knives, naturally, and he said on one occasion he field dressed seven deer with his Gunny, and the knife still didn’t need sharpening.
He sang the praises of the design and quality steel and said other guides saw the knife’s performance and ordered Gunnys for their work knives. He liked the Gunny rampless version, and I do, too.
I’ve used my Gunny hunter extensively, and it excels as a blade to skin around the shoulders and neck of a deer, and under the tail.
Bravo: Last year, at the end of our Oregon deer hunt, I let my brother, Mike Pantenburg, borrow whichever knife he wanted for his upcoming Idaho family deer hunt. Mike, a very experienced big game hunter, chose the Bravo. The Bravo is one of Bark River’s most popular models.
Mike used the knife on a couple of Idaho deer, and when all the meat was cut, packaged, labeled and in the freezer, the Bravo was still shaving sharp. Mike liked the control of the handle and the overall design worked well for him.
Mike mentioned that he would prefer a clip point, so the knife would be a better skinner in the neck and front shoulder areas. I’m debating about sending my Bravo back to Bark River to have that point re-ground.
Bravo EDC: A smaller version of the Bravo, this knife is a really good choice for someone with smaller hands. I used it skinning and butchering deer in Mississippi, and it performed very well.
But for someone with large hands, this may not be the best choice.
L.T.Wright Genesis: Talk about a workhorse – all you have to do is pick this knife up to understand the concept of “solid.” Based on the time-tested Kephart design, the handle fits my hand like it was custom made for me. I’ve been using it regularly, most recently as an instructor at the Redmond, Oregon “Women in the Outdoors” program. I used the Genesis for everything, including harvesting crystallized pine sap and shredding pitchwood for tinder to light the charcoal. The ladies were impressed with the Genesis.
L.T. Wright GNS: The GNS is designed as a bushcraft knife. As such, IMHO, the blade is a little thick. But that’s a minor point. It can handle any survival or hunting task with ease.
L.T. Wright Next Gen: New in 2015, I haven’t had a chance to use this as a hunter. But it should work really well. With a generous, non-slip micarta handle and a spear point, the Next Gen could end up being your favorite everyday carry knife.
As Paul Harvey would comment – here’s “the rest of the story”:
I volunteered to help grill chicken and hotdogs for the 300 or so people who attended the Azure Standard company picnic in late August.
There were 100 pounds of chicken served. Of those, 80 pounds of quarters had to be cut apart. Nobody planned on having to do the extra meatcutting, so nobody had a proper knife.
Except me – I had my L.T. Wright Next Gen. I opened all the boxes, cut open the packages, then (after washing and sterilizing the blade) cut up the chicken. At the end of the several-hour task, that Next Gen was still shaving sharp!!!!
Hess Knives Whitetail: I got a Whitetail because it resembled a Western knife I bought as a kid. Just starting out, I used my Western four-inch hunting knife all through high school and college, and the design worked really well.
The Whitetail is a good choice for a hunting knife, and mine now belongs to my nephew, Kolby Pantenburg. I will enjoy watching him use it.
Lon Humphrey Sterling: I can’t pass up a quality, pretty knife, and the Sterling grabbed me immediately.
The traditional design, generous, ergonomic handle and superior steel already makes this a great knife. And when it’s combined with my flintlock rifle, tomahawk and powder horn, it looks like a museum display. I look forward to using the Sterling during blackpowder season.
Old Favorites: Some of these old reliables deserve mention just because they have served me so well in the past.
Mora: The Mora is included because the knife is so affordable and the design is so useful. A hunting partner of mine has used his 840 on several big game animals, but he’s also a physician and probably has above-average knife handling skills! Check out the Mora review.
Cold Steel SRK: I bought this knife in 1991, and used it exclusively for more than 20 years. My SRK has field dressed at least 50 deer, and has been used on several elk. It rests in honored retirement while the newbies are tested and tried, but there is no replacement in sight for the old SRK.
Cold Steel Master Hunter: For a moderately-priced knife designed for big game hunting, it is hard to beat the Master Hunter. The design, handle and sheath are superior, and the knife will also make a good choice as a survival/bushcraft knife.
Benchmade Griptillian: My son, Dan, is proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Dan made his first knife, a six-inch clip-point, at age 15 as part of a Boy Scout metal working project. His second hand-made knife had a Russell Green River blade with walnut slabs.
I got Dan a Griptillain with an orange handle for utility purposes. My daughter Mary got a Mini Griptillian with a pink handle. Both of these knives have the signature Benchmade quality. The blade locks in with a satisfying “click.”
The Griptillian is also the recommended folder for some search and rescue teams. Some hunters will insist on a folder, and a Griptillian could be a good choice. Here’s the review.
My preferences in deer hunting knives will most likely be different than yours. You’ll see a definite pattern here, and it’s pretty evident that I want a rigid, four-inch, clip or drop point with a blade of high carbon or tool steel. Within those perimeters, there are a lot of variations.
So here’s what I’d suggest. Do some research, then pick a knife you like and will enjoy carrying and using. That is the best deer hunting knife for you!