How to Buy a Good Hunting Knife

How to Buy a Good Hunting Knife

When I was 11, before I knew what a quality knife was, I bought knives based on their appearance. "That looks cool," I'd say, spending my entire allowance on a knife that would fall apart days later. I learned quickly -- there is no substitute for a good knife. As an outdoorsman, this is the most important information you need before buying a knife.

Many manufacturers alter the names of steel to increase marketing appeal. Ignore that. Only a handful of stainless and carbon steels make quality, long-lasting blades, while still remaining affordable for the average outdoorsman.

Stainless steel is the most common steel used in knife-making. The industry benchmark is 440C -- a high-carbon, high-chromium steel mixed with manganese and molybdenum. Often hardened to 58-60 on the Rockwell Scale of Hardness (HRC), 440C holds an edge well, resharpens easily, resists corrosion, and carries a moderate price tag. Some manufacturers stamp 440 on their blades, but if it doesn't have the C, it isn't what you want. (Aus-8A is an acceptable substitute of similar composition.)

VG-10 is a step above 440C, increasing the molybdenum while adding vanadium and cobalt. Often hardened at or above 60 HRC, VG-10 offers longer edge retention, decreased wear, and increased corrosion resistance.

154CM and ATS-34 -- so close in composition as to be virtually the same alloy -- are the best stainless steels used in knives. With less chromium and an increase in molybdenum, these stainless steels are harder, stronger, and more wear/corrosion-resistant than 440C or VG-10. Often hardened to 62-63 HRC, 154CM/ATS-34 knives offer superior edge retention, corrosion resistance, and can be purchased for less than $100.

Carbon steel is less corrosion-resistant than stainless steel, but can be hardened higher (63-65 HRC) without compromising strength. Sometimes called tool steel, carbon steel has better impact absorption, better resistance to wear, and retains an edge longer than stainless steel. O1, A2, and D2 are all common carbon steels used in knife-making. Carbon steel uses a complex mixture of carbon, manganese, molybdenum, chromium, nickel, vanadium, and tungsten. More expensive than stainless steel, carbon steel makes superior knife blades for all-around function and strength.

Four things determine the function of a knife: blade shape, blade length, handle material/shape, and balance. Everything else is superfluous.

Blade shape is the most eye-catching part of the knife for consumers, but it is also the most important, as it determines the overall practicality. Tanto blades look nice but are virtually useless for outdoor applications (leave these for the tactical guys). The drop-point blade is the most common blade style for outdoor activities. It handles gutting and skinning well, while maintaining practicality around the campfire.

The clip-point blade is a general-purpose blade, although less useful in field-dressing and skinning game, as the narrow tip gives up strength and the sharp point punctures easily. The skinner blade is best for gutting and skinning game. Stronger than a clip-point, the skinner blade gives you more tip to work with than a drop-point and offers a sharper radius where edge and spine meet -- both of which are handy when careful skinning is required. In a pinch, the skinner can work wood. The gut-hook blade is a modified skinner. Inside the hook is a sharpened portion of blade, an easy gutting tool that will not puncture intestines.

Blade length refers to two things: the actual cutting surface, and how far the blade recedes into the handle. Ignore hunting knives with blades longer than four inches -- the knife will be unwieldy and may cause you to cut too deep. Plus, the less edge you have to keep track of near your free hand, the better. Do look for knives where the steel extends -- width and lengthwise -- through the handle. This is called a full-tang blade; the larger the tang, the stronger the knife. (A full-tang knife does not lose its functionality, even with a broken handle.)

With a half-tang, the steel does not recede into the butt of the knife; and the "rat-tail" tang -- long and thin, like those found on inexpensive wood files -- gives up a lot of the blade's strength, putting unnecessary stress on the handle. They are functional but sacrifice raw cutting power and are prone to breakage.

The ergonomics of the handle is the most important part of the knife. Does it fit your hand well? This can only be determined by feel; a poor-fitting knife can cause accidents and fatigue. Beyond the ergonomics of shape, certain handle materials are better than others. Antler or bone, while beautiful, tends to get slippery when wet; however, it is very strong and durable. Wood is a little easier to handle when wet and is also a strong material, but it is prone to cosmetic damage. Plastic is lightweight, grips well in wet weather (provided the surface is textured), and is much less expensive than wood or antler, but may break in rough conditions. Rubber, sometimes used as an insert in plastic handles to improve grip, provides excellent traction for the messiest jobs but is the hardest to replace.

Plastic handles are lightweight, grip well in wet weather (provided the surface is textured), and are much less expensive than wood or antler.

Balance is a combination of blade length/thickness and handle material. Actual balance can only be determined through handling the knife and will vary based on personal preference. I like a knife with a weight-forward balance, choosing a neutral balance second.

Handling a multitude of knives is the only way to find the right one for you. Take the time to research a knife before you shop. It will keep you from a bad impulse purchase and from unknowledgeable salesmen. You never know -- a good knife may one day save your life, so choose wisely.

There are a lot of good knives on the market. Use the above guide to choose and take a look at the following six knives, all of them well-made and fairly priced. The Kershaw Echo ($55) is an inexpensive, fixed-blade knife with a lot of value. The four-inch, drop-point, Aus-8A stainless-steel blade features a full-tang, thumb grooves on the spine, and a lanyard hole; the grips are checkered plastic with a Realtree finish. While it may not look quite as nice as leather, the nylon sheath, also finished in Realtree, secures the knife well.

At three ounces, the Spyderco Bill Moran FB01 ($105) feels like a boning knife. Thanks to VG-10 stainless steel, this fixed-blade knife is strong and offers excellent control. The 37â'„8-inch blade is a modified skinner with an upswept point. Rubber inserts in the top and sides of the fiberglass-reinforced nylon handle im-prove overall grip. The multi-position, molded Kydex sheath secures the knife without adding a lot of weight to your belt or pack. Overlook the hidden tang because the lightweight nature of this knife makes it great as a dedicated skinning and caping knife where brute power is not an issue.

The Gerber Longbow ($70) is a fixed-blade knife worth twice the price. Available in a drop-point or gut-hook blade, the Longbow uses a 4.25-inch, 154CM stainless-steel blade, with a steel finger-guard and pommel, and a leather sheath. A finger cutout in front of and behind the finger-guard, and thumb grooves on the spine, effectively shorten this blade a full inch, giving you additional control on delicate cuts. While the tang is unexposed, a half-inch of steel goes all the way through the knife where the pommel screws into the tang, giving you all the cutting power you could want.

Buck's Folding Alpha Hunter 277 ($102) is strong and rugged, and I never hit the woods without it. At eight ounces, this drop-point knife is a little on the heavy side but features an attractive rosewood handle, a 154CM blade, and a nice leather sheath. The locking liner allows for one-handed operation, and the 3.5-inch blade is great for hunting, fishing, and all outdoor use. The Alpha Hunter is available with several stainless steels, but insist on 154CM for maximum wear-resistance and edge-retention.

1. The point is the piercing part of the blade where spine and edge meet.
2. The tip is the forward portion of the blade, including the point, and is often used for delicate cuts and caping.
3. The edge is the sharp part of the blade used for slicing.
4. The spine is opposite the edge and is the backbone -- the strength -- of all knives.
5. The heel is the portion of the blade where the edge ends and the steel enters the handle/guard.
6. The guard lies above the handle and below the heel. Usually made of brass or integrated into the tang, the guard keeps your hand from contacting the edge.
7. The tang is the unsharpened portion of the blade that connects to the handle.
8. The handle or grip is often held to the tang via rivets or screws and should have some texture to increase its grip. (Also called scales on exposed, full-tang knives.)
9. The pommel or butt of the knife is at the end of the handle. The butt may contain a portion of the blade; the pommel does not.

Knives of Alaska tests all of its knife models under Alaska's harshest conditions prior to production. The Elk Hunter fixed-blade knife ($90), part of the Trekker series of knives, features a 3.25-inch, D2 tool-steel, drop-point blade. The full-tang is accented with an integral finger-guard and thumb grooves on the spine; cutouts in front of and behind the finger-guard aide gripping power, as do the textured, plastic grips, which are available in black and hunter orange. A high-quality, leather sheath keeps the knife secure.

The Benchmade 201 Activator ($130) is an all-around good, fixed-blade hunting and camping knife. The 3.63-inch, drop-point D2 tool-steel blade is hardened to 60-62 HRC. Winewood grips and a leather sheath give this knife an attractive appearance, but the rugged design and construction is all utility. A full-tang makes this knife strong, and generous thumb grooves and a finger cutout keep this knife in your hand.

Manufacturer Contact List

Manufacturer Contact List
•Benchmade, 1-800-800-7427,
•Buck Knives, 1-800-326-2825,
•Gerber, 1-800-950-6161,
•Kershaw Knives,
(503) 682-1966,
•Knives of Alaska, 1-800-572-0980,


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