The Best Skinning Knife – KnifePlanet’s Complete Guide

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August 13, 2016 Comments Off on The Best Hunting Knife: The Most Complete Guide To Choose One Hunting Knives

The Best Hunting Knife: The Most Complete Guide To Choose One

hunting knife header

Knives were one of the first tools ever fashioned by humans. Archeological evidence suggests that we have been making knives, or knife-like tools for over 2-1/2 million years. The first knives were undoubtedly used for hunting and general utility. The great-great grandaddy of all blades was the hand-axe, sort of a Stone Age Swiss Army Knife. It was used as a hammer, scraper, butchering and skinning knife, and even as a weapon. Later on, early humans learned that different blade shapes and cutting edges were better suited for different tasks, such a trail point for skinning, a drop point for caping, etc… Of course, the stone materials severely limited the size and styles that could be made, but as we learned to work metal, more and more specialized blades became possible. Believe it or not, there has not been a lot of change in the basic designs of knives for quite some time, at least for about 8000 years. Most of the blade styles we know about have been around for several millennia (yes, even the Bowie design).

historic hunting knife

Stone Age Knife-circa 20,000 BC.

In this article, I hope to dispel some of the misconceptions and mis-information about knives that are referred to as ‘hunting knives’. It is a very mis-used term in the modern world, and is about as arbitrary as the modern term, “Assault Weapons”. It really has no set definition, and can be applied to just about any knife, if one were so inclined. I will explain what a ‘hunting knife’ is, and is not, what makes a good hunting knife, and how to care for one. The actual use of a hunting knife is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many good ‘How-Tos’ for skinning, and dressing out game on the internet, and especially on YouTube. I hope you find this article useful. I’ll help you choose the best hunting knife for your needs.

What is A Hunting Knife?

The term ‘hunting knife’ is simply a vague reference to any blade designed, or claimed to be designed, or actually used while in the process of hunting. There is really no single knife that can claim to be a ‘hunting knife’. Hunting requires several different knives, for different purposes.

First, you need a good general purpose knife for odds and ends, like trimming brush, cutting string or cloth, and other general tasks that may be required, especially if you are using muzzleloading firearms, or archery equipment. This can be a sheath knife, like the legendary Puuko of Finland, and the Mora from Sweden, or a folder, like the famous Buck 110.

Dressing game is simply butchering, but it is inconvenient to lug around a complete set of large butcher knives in the field, so smaller versions are available, so you can at least get your harvested animal out of the field, and to the house, where further processing can be completed. These include skinning, caping, and boning knives. These will invariably be sheath knives, because they will get very messy, and folders would have to be completely disassembled to get them completely clean…a task beyond the skills and patience of most people.

I said before that no one knife can do it all, but there is one exception to this. A few companies like Bear Cutlery and Buck Knives make knives that have several interchangeable blades, usually a utility blade, a skinner, and bone saw. My Bear set even has a fillet blade with it. I have used mine on several birds, small game, and even a few deer and wild hogs, and I have to say, it is an outstanding value for the money and the convenience. It does a good job on everything, even fish.

Bear Cutlery Interchangeable Blade Field Dressing Knife set

My Bear Cutlery Interchangeable Blade Field Dressing Knife set. From top to bottom: Skinning Blade, Serrated Blade, Caping Blade. There is a Fillet Blade for fish with this set as well. They all store in one belt sheath.

In the next section, we’ll explore the different parts of a hunting knife.

Parts of a Hunting Knife

Three of the my favorite hunting knives. From top to bottom: the Cold Steel Mini Bushman, the Mora Companion, and the Cold Steel Finn Bear (a modern Puuku...)

Three of the my favorite hunting knives. From top to bottom: the Cold Steel Mini Bushman, the Mora Companion, and the Cold Steel Finn Bear (a modern Puuku…)

  • Point – Where the blade meets the spine, forming a sharp end that can be used to puncture or rip.
  • Belly – The curvature of the edge. More belly means a more convex curve, giving more cutting length. This is useful when skinning.
  • Edge – The working part of the blade that does the actual cutting.
  • Spine – The back of the blade. This supports the edge and provides stiffness, strength, and heft.
  • Bevel and Secondary Bevel – This is the actual cutting edge angle. Most hunting knives will have a bevel of 22∘- 30∘. Do not confuse the bevel with the sharpening angle, which is usually 1/2 of the bevel. The Secondary Bevel lightens the blade, and allows for a sharper Primary Bevel.
  • Jimping – a roughed up spot on the spine, near the hilt, which provides a nonslip surface for your thumb when you need to choke up on the blade for fine detail work.
  • Choil – An indention on a non-sharpened part of the blade, near the hilt, which allows you to choke up on the blade for fine detail work.
  • Guard (Hilt) – Either a fitted crosspiece, or widened part of the scales that helps to keep your fingers from sliding down on the blade. Many knives do not have a guard, because it can get in the way when you are working inside the body cavity of large animals.
  • Pommel – Not often seen on outdoor knives, it is an enlarged, or reinforced section at the butt end of the scales. Mostly used on combat knives as a pummel, during field-dressing, it can be used to crack bones, skulls, ribs, and other tasks requiring percussive force.

All hunting knives may not have all of these parts. Only you can decide whether or not you need a knife with a specific feature. One thing to keep in mind, though… in the boonies, it’s better to have a part on a knife, and not need it, than to need a part on a knife, and not have it. It’s also one of the reasons why you should always carry several knives with you when you are in the boonies. There may be such a thing as carrying too many knives, but I have never seen it, yet. But I have seen people carry not enough knives, many times.

The Blades Styles You Can Find on Hunting Knives

Four more of my knives. From top bottom: Cold Steel Bowie Bushman. Cold Steel Roach Belly, Cold Steel Canadian Belt Knife, and Meyerco Blackie Collins Lockback.

From top bottom: Cold Steel Bowie Bushman. Cold Steel Roach Belly, Cold Steel Canadian Belt Knife, and Meyerco Blackie Collins Lockback.

Two more of my knives. From top to bottom: Rough Rider Large Trapper, Cold Steel Western Hunter.

From top to bottom: Rough Rider Large Trapper, Cold Steel Western Hunter.

There are lots of blade styles out there, but we will only be discussing those styles suitable for hunting. If you were hoping for info about tanto blades, daggers, dirks, Skean Dus, etc…., you’re out of luck. I’ll leave those to all the Rambo wannabees.

1. Clip Point

The first, and most common blade shape is the clip point. A clip point has a spine that extends from the hilt, 2/3rds of the total blade length, at which point it begins to taper, and recurve to the point, creating a false edge, which can be sharpened into a true secondary cutting edge. The point can be in line with the spine, below it, or at the blades mid-width. As the name suggests, it looks as though the last 1/3 of the blade has been ‘clipped’. The most famous example of this style of blade is the Bowie knife, which is just a large clip point, and in any case, the Bowies did not invent this blade style. It goes all the way back to the late Stone Age, around 9000 BC. Stone knife blades have been found that are unquestionably the clip point design. The advantage of the clip point is it is quick to penetrate, and has acceptable slicing performance. It is a good compromise between the spear point and the roach belly. Clip points are the most popular knife style, and make up the majority of knife blade designs. Other famous clip point knives are the KABAR USMC Combat Knife, the US NAVY M-4 Dive Knife, the US Air Force Survival Knife, the Buck 110 Folding Hunter, and many more.

2. Drop Point

The next most popular blade style is the drop point. The drop point blade is the oldest known style of blade, dating back to 12,000BC or more. It is characterized by a point that is below the spine of the blade, but above the blades mid-line. Drop point blades have good penetration, and offer much more control in slicing. The point is stronger than the clip point. They are ideal for dressing out small game and upland birds. Most professional butcher knife sets include at least one drop point design. A spey point is simply a modified drop point, with very short drop. They are great for dressing small game and even trout, where you want to be careful and not puncture any internal organs, or damage the hide. Famous drop point knives include most models of Spyderco knives, the Cold Steel Canadian Belt Knife (originally designed by Russel Knives), the Loveless Drop Point, many models from Benchmade, and the Green River Knife, and the discontinued Cold Steel Western Hunter Knife.

3. Spear Point

Next is the Spear Point. It resembles the drop point, but the point is at the blades centerline. Spear point have many of the advantages of the drop point, with an even stronger point. Spear points are only occasionally found on sporting knives, being much more popular on double-edged daggers and stilettos.

4. Trail Point

The trail point has a lot of belly to the blade, with the point ending above the spine. They have a typical scimitar-like appearance, and are the knife of choice for skinning, where preserving the skin is important, such as in tanning. Most serious hunters will have at least one trail point skinner knife. Trail point blades are optimized for slicing, but have a weak point.

5. Roach Belly Point

Lastly the roach belly blade has an honorable pedigree. This style of blade was very popular among the Hudson Bay trappers and fur traders of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It has all the advantages of both the trail point, and the clip point. Why this style of blade has fallen out of favor is beyond me, but rest assured, it is a great all-around sporting blade. It can be used both as a utility, and a skinning knife.

Common Grinds on Hunting Knives

The two different grinds you can find on straight razors.

As far as grinds, there are only two you need be concerned about for hunting purposes. The vast majority of the knives you will come across will be hollow ground, meaning they have a concave taper, equal on both sides, usually around 25- 30 degrees. This is a good compromise between sharpness and durability. The problem with these is that after a few honings, they are no longer hollow-grounds, and the edge angle will have changed. They will eventually lose their ability to take a real keen edge, without being re-ground. The other is the scandi-grind (short for Scandinavian Grind), which starts much higher on the blade and is a much less acute angle, making the edge extremely keen, in fact scary-sharp. The advantage of the scandi-grind, other than extreme sharpness, is that they are super easy to sharpen. No hassles with figuring out the correct angle to hone them at. You simply lay the blade flat on the stone, make sure the edge is touching the surface, and you automatically have the correct angle. Also, scandi blades can be sharpened until the blade is completely worn down, without ever changing the angle of the edge. Good examples of scandi blades are Moras, and puukos. They are outstanding general-purpose outdoor knives.

Common Blade Steels

Lots of steels are used to make knife blades, but only a few are relevant to outdoor knives. If you have read any of my previous articles, you already know of my preference for high-carbon steel. However, dressing game involves coating your knife blade with blood and other corrosive fluids, and carbon steel blades will quickly rust unless you take religious care of them. In this instance, unless you are prepared to devote a lot of time to caring for your knives, stainless steel is probably a better option for you.

For carbon steel blades, I only recommend a few steels; SK-5, which is the replacement for the discontinued Carbon V steel. SK-5 is used on a lot of better-quality American-made knives. XC-90 is used on Opinels carbone blades, and takes a wickedly-sharp edge, UHB 20C, CK95, CK101, used on Moras, and other Nordic blades (unbelievably sharp….), and D-2, used on high-end US knives.

morakniv outdoors

My mora knife.

You have much more option with stainless steels. Most manufacturers have keyed on stainless steel as the preferred blade material, and there are more good varieties available. I would absolutely not recommend using any knife with anything less than 440C. I know, there are people who swear by knives made with 420J, 420HC, etc…, but these people probably never use their knives for anything other than letter-openers. Cheap steel will eventually cause you grief if you ever have to really depend on your blade. High-end steels like SV30, BG 42, and 154CM are good choices. They get reasonably sharp and are tough. AUS 8, and ATS34 are also good steels. One of my favorite stainless steels for outdoor use is 4116 Krupp, from Germany. It takes an excellent edge, and holds it well. I also like 8CR13MOV, from China. There are those that may scoff at Chinese steel, but remember, these are the guys that invented steel in the first place. This steel is the equal of 4116 Krupp, and actually takes a little better edge. My all-time favorite stainless steel is Sandvik 1428CN. This is what Mora uses and this steel takes the sharpest edge of anything I have ever seen, even high-carbon.

No steel is going to do you any good if you don’t take care of your blades. Stainless steel will rust if not cared for. A more proper name would be Corrosion Resistant Steel, or CRS, which is how the US military designates it. Stainless steels are made by adding things like chromium, vanadium, and other alloys to high-carbon steel to increase their resistance to rusting. The addition of the alloys also makes the blades harder, more brittle, and harder to sharpen. Some of this can be offset by the addition of nitrogen, as in Sandvik 1428CN. As in most things, it’s all a trade-off.

In knives, price is not always an indicator of quality, There are many inexpensive knives, like Moras, Opinels, some models by Cold Steel, Ontario, Camillus, Kabar, Buck, etc… that are outstanding knives, and many expensive knives that are little better than junk. The steel used in the knife is one of the best indicators of it’s quality. Without good steel in the blade, the rest doesn’t matter. Avoid knifes made with ‘mystery steel’, or that just say 440 stainless, or just ‘stainless’. It’s a good bet they are cheap junk. A manufacturer should not be ashamed of the steel in their blades.

Common Scales

Scales are almost as important as the blade style and steel. The scales should fit your hand, be comfortable, and provide a secure grip. They should also facilitate several hand positions. Everyone’s hands are different, so it’s hard to recommend any particular shape. You just have to hold them and decide for yourself.

There are many materials used to make scales. Personally, for general outdoor knives, I love knives with no scales at all, where I can wrap them with paracord, but this is not advisable for a hunting knife. The paracord will absorb blood, and will need to be removed and washed frequently, and will stain and look bad in any case. Scales for a hunting knife need to be made of a non-absorbing material.

Wood is an age-old material for scales. In old times, it was just about all they had. But wood will absorb blood, stain, and also swells when it gets wet, can dry out, crack, and rot. It is not a good material for a hunting knife, unless it is sealed very, very well. On the up side, wood makes a very elegant and attractive handle, especially when made with exotic woods like cocobolo and zebrawood. Wood scales are also more expensive than most other materials.

Horn and bone make excellent scales, and have been used since the Stone Age. They provide a naturally-textured grip, feel great in the hand, and are weather-proof. Horn and bone scales look exquisite. Unfortunately, they can also be hideously expensive. However, it is possible to make your own horn and bone grips, with basic tool skills.

Leather is sometimes used for scales, and looks fabulous. Good examples are the Kabar USMC knife, and the Air Force Pilot’s Knife. The stacked leather rings give a nice non-slip grip. But leather is not a good choice for a hunting knife. It will stain, get slippery with blood, and is not weather resistant.

Micarta was invented by Westinghouse in 1910. At one time, it was the premier material for scales, but has since lost it’s place to other modern polymer materials. One reason is that Micarta scales are very expensive. It is still used on some knives, and they are highly-prized. Micarta is a composite of canvas, linen, paper, carbon fiber, and thermo-plastics. It is very hard, weather resistant, and can be made in just about any shape imaginable. The only downside is that, like wood, bone, and horn, Micarta can be scratched and chipped.

Micarta handle of my bowie knife.

Delrin is a similar material to Micarta, made by DuPont. It can withstand high temperatures, resists chipping and scratching, and is non-absorbant.

G-10 is very similar to Micarta, but is more grippy when dry. Micarta is more grippy when wet, which is why most G-10 handles are textured, rather than polished. G-10 is also considerably harder than Micarta, and is much more resistant to chipping and scratching.

Glass Reinforced Nylon (GRN/FRN) is just what the name suggests, nylon reinforced with fiberglass. It is used under a variety of names just as Zytel, G-10,etc… GRN is lighter than Micarta, almost indestructible, resistant to chemicals, does not expand and contract with temperatures, resists chipping, cracking, and can be made into any shape desired. Since it is injection-molded, rather than cut and shaped, it is much cheaper to produce.

Kraton is the trade name for a synthetic rubber replacement made by Kraton Industries. Kraton scales feel like hard rubber, are very grippy, resist chemicals and weathering, and can resist temperatures as high as 320∘F. It stays grippy even when coated in blood, making it an excellent material for knives used to field-dress game.

Pyralin, nylon, Pearloid (also known as Mother of Toilet Seat), Ivoriod, and other plastics are junk. They will crack easily, have lousy grip properties, and look cheap. Avoid them.

Sheaths

The sheath is one of the most overlooked parts of a knife system. A sheath does several things, all of them important. First, and most obvious, it provides a safe and secure way to carry your blade. It also protects the blade from the elements, being scratched, and protects the edge from becoming dull, or getting nicked. The type of sheath you keep your knife in is very important.

There are three styles of sheaths, and the style is somewhat dictated by the material the sheath is made of. There are sheaths that are sewn, or stitched together. This is most common on leather and nylon sheaths, and if done well, makes a very good quality sheath. The advantage to this type of sheath is that they can easily re-stitched, if needed. The next style is riveted. Rivets are common on lower-quality sheaths, usually because the sheath material is so low-quality that it will tear if stitched. Riveted sheaths are adequate, for a while anyway. They will usually deteriorate rather quickly, but it is easy to replace them with a better quality sheath, or even custom-make one yourself. The last style is molded, usually of plastic, or other polymer. These are almost bomb-proof, weather-proof and resist weather and some chemicals. However, they can dull your blade every time you pull your knife, and return it to the sheath. Of course, this can be offset just by conscientious sharpening habits. Occasionally, you may run across a knife with a wooden sheath. These look fantastic, but are heavy, and not weather-proof. They will require considerably more care and upkeep. The type of sheath you use is a matter of personal preference.

One feature that you need to look at very closely is the retention system. A knife falling out of its sheath can be very dangerous, in addition to running the risk of losing or damaging it. There are only a few retention systems available. The most common is the strap retainer. This is just a small strap attached to the sheath body that wraps around the handle just behind the hilt, with either a snap, or a velcro closure. The next most common is the molded sheath. These hold the knife only by friction, and they must fit the knife shape perfectly to work. There are a few molded sheaths that have straps, as well. The last is the snap-lock sheath. These will have a protrusion on the inside that fits into a recess either on the blade or handle of the knife, locking the blade into the sheath. Releasing the blade will require either a tug in a particular direction, or pressing the sheath at a certain point.

The last feature to look at on a sheath is the method of carry. Most will have a belt loop, but some have clips that allow you to attach the sheath to a belt, strap, backpack, etc…. Others also have fittings that allow them to attach to buttons on a jacket, on a chain around your neck, horizontal carry, or a shoulder carry. It’s nice to have several carry options.

There are a few choices of materials for sheaths. Leather is a time-proven sheath material, and look incredible. High-quality leather sheaths can be priced almost as much as the knife itself. As long as the leather is properly finished, and normal care is taken, leather sheaths can last several lifetimes. They do require a bit more upkeep than other materials, but they are more than worth it. Nylon sheaths do a good job, but are usually made a lot cheaper than leather sheaths. They can also be re-stiched if needed. Nylon is pretty much maintenance-free. Some nylon sheaths are actually made more like generic pouches, and can accommodate many blade styles. Kydex, Conceal-Ex, and other thermoplastics are usually molded. They are almost indestructible, but are usually friction fit, and can dull your knife. The last material is plastic. It is cheap, will wear out quickly, and can dull your blade.

You should spend some time and check out the sheath that your prospective knife comes with, because that is oftentimes an indicator of the knife quality. Poor sheath = poor knife quality, most of the time. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Some higher end knives come with lower-quality sheaths in order to try and keep the cost down, on the premise that you will probably get a custom sheath for a prized knife anyway.

Choosing The Best Hunting Knife: Why You Need More Than One

As we discussed earlier, the term ‘Hunting Knife’ actually covers a range of knives. There is no one ‘Hunting Knife’. Also, there are many knives that call themselves ‘Hunting Knives’ that are really more into the bushcraft, and survival knife category. Many are ridiculously large and would be more at home on the belt of a Roman Legionnaire. These are marketed to those who fancy themselves able to take on a grizzly bear in hand-to-knife combat…a highly unlikely scenario for anyone in modern times. Hunting knives are designed to do just what the name suggests… facilitate the harvesting and processing of wild game. Nothing more.

Let’s take a look at what a hunting knife really is.

1. General Purpose Knives

General purpose hunting knife.

General purpose hunting knife.

General utility knives are a compromise between the other different types of blades. There may be times when it is not feasible to carry several knives, and you may need your knife for other purposes, such as cutting wood to start a fire, make a shelter, modify equipment, clothing, etc… You may have to use that knife both to skin, and dress out a large animal. Utility knives can function in all of those capacities, although not nearly as well as one made for those purposes.

A utility hunting knife is generally a little larger than other types, and will usually either be a clip, or drop point blade.

The blade can be 4″ to 5″ long, usually have a little belly for skinning, an acute point for fine detail work, and a strong spine for heavy-duty cutting. Many refer to this type of blade as a Bowie Knife, but that is really a misnomer. The most famous Bowie Knife (Jim Bowie had several different designs made over many years), which was the one he was carrying at the Battle of the Alamo, was simply a large clip point. Clip points have been around since the Stone Age, and are the most popular blade style in the world.

Some general-purpose hunting knives have drop points instead of clip points, but they are similar in all other respects. Many find the drop point blade to be more versatile, especially for hunting. Drop points make it easier to poke and slice through skin without damaging the meat and internal organs underneath. Damaging internal organs can ruin the meat and make it inedible to humans. But, a drop point does not allow the delicacy of the acute tip of the clip point.

For serious hunting tasks, most hunters find the general purpose blades to be too large for proper field dressing of game and birds. They are carried mostly for last-ditch emergency use, and because…well, they are just cool… There is a certain feeling of security that comes with having a little weight hanging from your belt.

2. Field Dressing Knives

Field dressing is just the process of preparing an animal for transport from the woods to your home for further processing (or a processor, if you don’t want to do it yourself). In many states, it is illegal to do anything other than field dressing to an animal until it has been checked in at a field ranger station, and the tags recorded.

The good thing is that field dressing is actually quite easy, and doesn’t take a lot of time. It can even be done with a pocket knife in a pinch. Your task is to protect the meat from contamination. Depending on the type of animal., there are many things that can ruin the meat. On larger game such as deer, internal organs and musk glands can contaminate the meat, so they must be removed. First, without touching them with your hands, remove the musk glands at the back of the rar knees. Then, simply open the body cavity, free the organs and intestines, all the way to the neck, saving the heart and liver (if you like them), and remove them. Be careful not to rupture the bowels or bladder, or it will ruin the meat. Most people bury them, but you can also place them in a plastic trash bag and dispose of them at home. Next, salt the body cavity well to dry it and slow down bacterial action. Then place the whole carcass in a game bag, leaving the head out so the rangers can identify the sex, and proceed to the check-out station.

General purpose hunting knives are OK for field dressing, because it doesn’t require a lot of detail or critical cutting, as in skinning and dressing out. However, if you are small game hunting, upland bird hunting, hunting turkeys, or waterfowl, or if you are on an extending hunting trip, where you may be in the field for several days to several weeks, or on a wilderness hunting trip, and may have to eat what you harvest immediately, you are going to need a few more knives other than a general purpose blade.

3. Skinning Knives

Skinning knife with gut hook.

Skinning knife with gut hook.

There are times when you may want to preserve the hides of animals you harvest. Tanning your own leather and hides is a lot of fun, as well as very useful. Besides, you should always try to use everything that can be used from any animal you harvest. Some processors may offer tanning services as well. Skinning takes a lot of concentration and patience (and sometimes, maybe even a sense of humor…), and will involve a lot of fine detail cutting in tight places. One slip of the blade can ruin a hide. To this end, special skinning blades have evolved, and are very efficient.

A good skinning knife blade will be around 3″ to 3-1/2″. Anything longer will be unwieldy inside the tight confines of a body cavity, and will not be maneuverable enough. It will be a drop point, or trail point, with plenty of belly for delicate slicing. Non-slip scales are a definite plus, because your hands will get slippery while skinning.

Some blades will have an integral ‘Gut Hook’, which is nothing of the kind. It is not used to pull entrails, but rather to make it easy to open the body cavity without damaging and internal organs. A gut hook is not necessary, but nice to have. You just insert the tip of the gut hook, and pull the blade backwards, sort of like unzipping a jacket. It will make a clean shallow slice along the animals belly without cutting anything underneath.

Once you have the animal open, make slices along the inside of the legs, and around the neck. Now, you just work the blade along the inside of the skin, being careful not to tear, or poke any holes in it, a little at a time, and free it from the underlying connective tissue. You may have to use the point around small areas, and some areas you may have to actually pull loose with your hands. The trick is just to go slow, and do a little at a time. Once you have the hide free, salt it down well, then fold it tightly, and place it in a plastic bag, until you get it home and are ready to tan it. Salted hides can be kept in the freezer indefinitely, with no damage to them at all.

Believe it or not, skinning is the same for all animals, whether is is a trophy moose, or a squirrel. The only difference is how much time it takes, and how big a bag you need for the hide. The same knife you use for skinning deer will work fine for opossums, and other small game.

As you can probably tell, it is very important that your knife be very sharp. You can sharpen the inside of the gut hook with a sharpening stick.

Anyone who plans to hunt should consider carrying a skinning knife with them. They actually function quite well as a general purpose hunting knife for all but the most extreme tasks.

4. Caping Knives

Caping Knife.

Caping Knife.

Caping is the process of removing the head, face and shoulder skin of an animal, relatively intact, so that it can be used to create a trophy mount. Personally, I don’t do trophies, but I have found caping knives to be very useful for many other tasks, as well, especially on difficult animals, and anywhere super-precision is required. A good caping knife is definitely an asset to have with you in the field.

A caping knife is just a small bladed skinning knife, with choils to allow you to choke up on the blade for fine precision cuts. In fact, a caping knife is capable of surgical precision in skilled hands. Caping blades are from 1-1/2″ to 2-1/2″ long, with some belly, and a drop point.

Obviously, non-slip scales are a plus. One slip while caping can spell disaster. A mangled cape cannot be repaired, no matter how good your taxidermist is. This is one area where Kraton scales shine. Their rubbery grip is very secure, even with slippery hands.

One reason precision is so important is that you will be loosening skin around the eyes, ears, and lips. These are very delicate areas, and a steady hand is needed.

Caping knives are also great to use as a breasting blade for upland birds. Although just about any small blade will work as a breasting blade, caping knives work better than any other blade I have used. If you are wondering what a breasting blade is, upland birds, such as quail, doves, partridge, etc…, are small, and all that is really usable is the breast (unless you tie fishing flies, in which case you will want the feathers as well…). To dress an upland bird, all you do is slice the skin between the pectoral muscles, pull the skin apart, insert the blade behind the breastbone, and carefully pry the breastbone, and pectoral muscles loose. That’s all there is to it.

I said earlier that caping knives are great for other things besides caping. They are great for cleaning trout, and similar fish, and can even be used as a skinning knife for small game. I have used a caping knife to cut patches for my inflatable kayaks, make extra holes in a leather belt, cutting string, paracord, and even as a paring knife for peeling onions.

A good caping knife is handy tool to have with you in the field.

How To Choose The Right One: Some Tips

With all of the choices available, choosing the right hunting knife for you can seem like a daunting task. A lot will depend on what you plan to use it for, and what you like.

The first thing is to decide how much you want to spend. There is no sense in looking at a lot of expensive knives you can’t afford. Next, decide if you want a new knife, or if a used knife will work for you just as well. As a rule, you can get a better-quality used knife for the same money as lesser new knife.

Will you be using this knife in inclement weather, or near salt water? If so, then stainless steel is the only reasonable choice for a blade. I absolutely would not consider any knife with less than AUS 8 steel, or it’s equivalent. If you are going to put money in a knife, put it in the steel.

Micarta and polished wood scales look great, but they will get slippery, and hard to hang on to while dressing out animals. Textured and grippy scales will make your life a lot easier in the boonies. The traditional scale material for hunting knives is bone and antler. They look great, are textured, but can be costly. Kraton is also a good choice.

I would avoid Kydex, and plastic sheaths because they are noisy (the blade will rattle around in them), and will dull your blade. I also do not trust friction-fit sheaths, especially when I might have to climb trees, or maneuver through dense brush. Cordura nylon is OK, and so is leather. Regardless of what material your sheath is, pay special attention to the stitching. Is it tight? Is it made with good-quality thread? Are there any loose or broken stitches? If it has rivets, are they tight? Are any rusted? If it is a friction-fit sheath, does the blade fit the sheath tightly? Check the fit and lock by turning the sheath upside down, with the knife in it, in a safe place, and shake it. Does the knife stay in the sheath? If not, keep looking.

If you really like the knife, but hate the sheath, don’t give up on it. You can always make a custom sheath for the knife.

Stick with well-known brands, and avoid ‘bargain’ quality knives. If you are not sure about a specific knife, go to ecommerce sites, and YouTube, and check out the customer reviews on that model, and the manufacturer. Remember, people on YouTube, like Nutnfancy and others, do not work for any knife companies, and have no stake in falsely promoting a junk knife. Many, like the one I just mentioned, are actually quite brutal in their evaluations, and very honest and straight-forward with their opinions.

By taking a little extra time when looking for a knife to carry into the unknown with you, you can wind up with an heirloom that you will treasure for many years to come, as well as a trusted companion in the woods.

Care and Feeding of Hunting Knives

Hunting knives require the same care as any other knife. The best hunting knife in the world is useless if it is not properly cared for. No matter what type of knife you carry, there is always the chance that your life may depend on how that knife performs…or fails to perform. And you’ll only get one chance at it…

It goes without saying that your blades need to be kept sharp at all times. If you don’t already have one, get a good set of honing stones. Those quick sharpeners are OK for touch-ups, but your blades need to be honed on real stones periodically. There are many great instructional videos on YouTube on how to properly sharpen a knife. Watch them and learn. I will share an old trick with you on how to keep your blades as sharp as they can be in the field. Roll your car window down about halfway. Now, run your knife blade back and forth across the top of the window a few times, at the proper angle. This will hone your blade to unbelievable sharpness.

Your blades need to have a thin coat of food-grade mineral oil on them. Always examine your blades for any spots, stains, or signs of rust. Spots and small areas of rust can be polished out with extra fine steel wool. Another trick is to make a paste with Bar Keeper’s Friend scouring powder and water. Rub this over the blade and it will usually remove most rust spots and stains. Be sure to dry and oil the blade afterwards.

Kraton, Grivory, G-10, Micarta, and plastic scales are maintenance-free. Just keep them wiped off and clean. Wood, and bone need to be moisturized once in a while. Murphy’s Oil Soap works great for both cleaning, and moisturizing them all in one step. Check the pins, rivets, etc… that hold the scales on the tang often. Tighten any that are loose.

Leather sheaths will need to be cleaned with saddle soap once in a while, and it doesn’t hurt to treat them with a little Neatsfoot or mink oil once a year. Check the stitches and re-stitch when needed. All other sheath materials require no maintenance.

Make sure you store your knives in a dry place when not in use. Just throwing them in a drawer is not a good idea, unless they are in the sheaths. They will get scratched and dull.

Knives are one of humankind’s greatest tools. Give them the respect and care they deserve…

Conclusion: It’s Your Turn To Choose

We’ve covered all the aspects of hunting knives. Now, you should know enough to make informed decisions as to what knives you need for the field. But this is just a basic guide. Don’t stop here. Continue to do research, and keep updated on new developments and trends.

No matter how expensive, or good your knife is, whether it is made from obsidian, or one of the new super-steels, whether it has G-10, or plain wood scales…any knife is only as good as the person using it. You should practice knife skills at home, and become as proficient as possible. The field is not the place to be learning how to use your knife.

I hope you find some of this information helpful, and that you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it. Check back often for more great information on knives, and related subjects.

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