Every year, folks ask me the “Who is your favorite child?” question when it comes to the best knives for deer hunting.
by Leon Pantenburg
Editor’s note: I have used and blooded all the knives mentioned in this post. They range in price from under $20 to custom cutlery worth several hundred dollars. The only criteria is that the knife works for its intended purpose. If I left out your favorite – sorry about that!
So what do you need in a hunting knife that will be used for deer and possibly elk hunting?
I don’t have a favorite knife. I have at least a dozen.
We’ll start by saying that my favorites may not be yours, and I had to leave out several excellent choices because of space constraints. I review a lot of cutlery and my Top Ten list changes from year to year. I do my best to use any knife in the field conditions they were designed for. There is no knife throwing or batoning firewood involved.
I hunt in Southern swamps and northwestern deserts and mountains. My hunting knife must also be a survival knife, because I may end up ranging widely in rugged territory. My hunts are frequently solos, so my knife must be lightweight, but still capable to gut, skin, quarter and ultimately process a carcass.
We need to be discussing this around a hunting camp campfire, after the guns are safely put away, with a few adult libations. Let’s get the conversation going by reiterating my prejudices.
No Folders: I love pocket knives. For years, a Buck model 317 folder was my go-to knife for southeastern hunting. It was the knife that rode on my hip from Lake Itasca, Minnesota to Venice, Louisiana on my Source-to-Sea canoe voyage of the Mississippi River. I carry a Swiss Army Knife Tinker and a SAK Companion every day.
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 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 own and use many knives, of all sorts of sizes and configurations. None of them have a choil.
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. Eric Addy, the butcher who lets me test knives at his shop, uses a 10 or 12-inch breaking knife for most of his meat processing work.
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.
Do you wear gloves when using a knife or processing an animal? If so, make sure the handle is safe to use with them on.
No gut hook: The gut hook ground into the spine is worthless. The hook is only good for that initial spine down, belly up cut that opens up the abdominal cavity. You can catch your hand or clothing on the hook, and the grind eliminates a useful part of the spine. If you must have a gut hook, buy a cheap, specialized tool. Don’t permanently screw up your knife, for something you don’t need and won’t use much.
In no particular order, here are the Top Ten hunting knives I use and have used, and that I would recommend to hunters.
Cold Steel SRK: This knife made the list because I have used it as a hunting knife for 20-some years with complete satisfaction. The SRK has been used on dozens of deer and several elk. It has been carried on hundreds of miles of backpack, backcountry hunts. Price is not always an accurate indicator of knife quality, and the SRK has never let me down. Here is the SRK review – get yours here.
This is an adendum^^^. I always thought the SRK would be a better knife with a thinner, shorter blade. The SRK Compact (SK-5) is that knife. I have not used it on deer yet, but it is going to hunting camp. Order a SRK Compact SRK Compact review.
Ambush Tundra: This is one of my go-to’s, and a knife I take along as backup when I’m field testing other knives. Review
UP Bravo: I take some (minuscule) ownership of this design (assuming my suggesting, begging, whining and sniveling had something to do with it!) I wanted a knife with a Bravo handle with a Canadian leaf style blade. When the UP Bravo came out on the market, it was even better than I could have imagined. The UP is used extensively, and it always gets kudos around the skinning rack. Review Order a UP Bravo
Bark River Aurora Hunter: Using this knife for the first time in 2014, I could tell it was designed by a hunter. Small details combine to make a better product. Everything about the Aurora Hunter works together to make a superb field knife. Review
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Lon Humphrey Minuteman: My brother, Michael Pantenburg and I have been hunting deer and elk together for decades. I will frequently pass him a knife to try out, and I value his opinion. Mike wrung out the Minuteman on a Mississippi deer hunt, and gave it a six-star rating out of possible five. He got the Minuteman later that year for his birthday. Review
Casstrom Swedish Forest Knife: This knife combines that wonderful Canadian leaf design blade with a generous, long handle. It is lightweight, compact and works really, really well. Review Casstrom Swedish Forest Knife
L.T. Wright Large Hunter: This knife was field tested at a meat market and in the field. It is very comfortable to use for extended periods of time. Review
Carp Knives LP: Hunting knives are specialized tools, and as hard as we look, there is no such thing as the ultimate, do-it-all knife that can do everything well. Kendall Carpenter made this knife to my specifications. To say I like very much is a tremendous understatement! Is it my Grail knife?
Well, if it was, that means I could stop looking. That’s not going to happen.
Big D Drop Point Kephart: Donovon Phillips is a friend, a custom knife maker and a Bladesports World Champion. He loaned me his personal Drop Point Kephart hunting knife to try out, and it worked incredibly well. Donovon and I both have large hands, and he is both a user and knife maker. It is easy to see his knife designs are based on hands-on experience and skill. Review
Cross Knives Forged Hunter: This is another beautiful knife that can work hard. Mine came with a curly maple handle and a black hilt, and it is drop dead gorgeous. Review
But using it on a whitetail doe proved that the design is solid and useful. The well-designed, five-inch handle allowed me to use the knife safely on a cold, rainy day, wearing cut resistant gloves. The Forged Hunter will make any deer hunter happy. Order a Cross knife.
The top Ten list is for knives that could, by themselves, be used to gut, skin, quarter and process a deer carcass. Here are some specialty knives that are really nice to have along. And I just couldn’t quit with only ten deer hunting knives!
Benchmade Meatcrafter: Sometimes, a long narrow blade is just what is needed for boning out a backstrap or meat between the ribs. That’s when a knife like the Meatcrafter becomes a rock star. Review
Order a Meatcrafter
My Bark River Sportsman excels in the boning category.It has been used for several years for meat processing and filleting fish, and the Sportsman is my most-used knife in the kitchen and at the deer camp. Review Order a Sportsman
Casstrom Safari: This a small skinner that can be invaluable working inside the carcass or for skinning around the neck and shoulders. It is a great small game knife and caper for skinning out a trophy head. Review Order a Safari
Mora Companion: I’ve used Companions for years, ever since our Boy Scout Troop bought 40 of them to issue to the scouts. The troop sold them to the scouts for $8 apiece. One of my hunting buddies, Dr. Pat Simning still carries his Companion on hunts, and he has taken hogs, elk, caribou, deer and moose. Read the post.
Lon Humphrey Tarpon: Don’t let this cute little knife fool you – in addition to good looks, it is also a hard working EDC knife. The Tarpon is handy to carry on your belt, while still being all the knife you need for most tasks. It is a great skinner and small game knife. Review
That’s it for this season. Get a knife that works for you, and that you like carrying and using. That is the best knife for you!
From Tirod: Good discussion and selection. Too many of these articles are just influencer recommendations of the highest bidders in the market – and their choices are too often so far out of whack that a box knife would be a better choice.
What a lot of us want is also difficult, an affordable factory knife that will get the job done. But that’s fraught with the tribalism of Branding and avoiding it isn’t wrong.
Since I don’t get paid for an opinion, and things have changed over the last 45 years, I just recommend features. 3-4″ drop point, flat ground, simple handle. What doesn’t work, clip points – the Bowie was a self defense knife meant for the wrong kind of gutting – or gut hooks – it’s a messy way to accomplish what the drop point does without making it weaker – and any association with tactical. Replaceable blades are proprietary and rarely in stock in a storefront. Unless its a box knife.
A simple field dressing knife is also a decent field knife and useful for camp chores, too, They are around, buried in catalogs and often ignored by the marketers who promote flash-in-pan high profit knives. For someone who plans more than a few years of hunting – I have been pretending to for 45 years – it’s better to get a good knife early on rather than work thru a number of them which all have some annoying flaw.
Shop for specifications, folks not brands or fads.