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The Ultimate Deer Knife

Is there an undisputed "best" deer knife out there? Here's what needs to be taken into consideration when the debate begins.


The surest way to start a passionate debate in any hunting club in America is to say, “The greatest deer cartridge ever invented is,” and name your favorite. Backs will stiffen, voices will raise and pretty soon it’ll get personal. The next best way is to look at a guy’s knife and say the Crocodile Dundee line, “That’s not a knife; this is a knife,” as you pull your blade. Hunters feel strongly about their knives; in fact, this particular debate has probably been going on since two Cro-Magnon men first compared their flint knives. Nevertheless, the answer to what makes the perfect deer knife isn’t purely testosterone meets steel. Knife makers have come up with some answers. Here’s what a few have to say about picking the ultimate deer knife.

A good deer knife needs to be strong. You don’t want the blade to break off when you use it to split the pelvis on an elk. This is why a full-tang blade is important. The tang of a knife is the portion of the blade that extends down into the handle. A “full-tang” knife means that the metal in the knife’s blade extends in a single piece all the way to the base of the handle. (Obviously this isn’t possible with folding knives. With these knives, you’re looking for a solid locking mechanism that won’t fail in the field.)

A bone-handled knife can look as impressive as a walnut stock can on a high-end shotgun. Most bone-handled knives today use cow bone that is purposely burned slightly, but some use elk and other big-game bones. Bone is elegant, but it is also a trade-off—looks for utility. Wood handles also can be slippery. Hard-rubber and other polymer-handled knives, however, are easier to grip when they’re bloody, making them safer.

Any knife that has a hollow handle for “storing things” doesn’t garner the ultimate-deer-knife label. Though as manly as axes, these knives have serious drawbacks: Their scary-looking serrations were originally intended to allow air crewmen to cut through the metal skin of crashed aircraft—and no, they don’t function as bone saws. Those hollow handles weaken the knives structurally. I once broke one while opening a can of soup—yeah, I forgot the can opener.

Other than that, the size and shape of a grip is a personal decision, as it needs to fit in your hand like an extension of your pointer finger.

Some carbon-steel knives seem like they’ll rust up if you breath on them, but you can sharpen them with a few clean passes on a stone. The trouble with high-carbon steel is that if you’re going on an extended hunt you really have to carry a sharpener. For these reasons most knife makers use stainless steel. Mike Dolmage, the director of product development for Buck Knives, says the best compromise with steel is to get a blade around 58-60 on the Rockwell scale. This is hard enough to hold an edge, but soft enough to sharpen in a few minutes.

Blade Type
As you can see, every part of a knife is a compromise. The blade of a deer knife is designed for cutting rather than stabbing, as we need to control the point when field-dressing, skinning and butchering. For this reason it should also have a single sharpened edge. As a trade-off between being a good skinner and a meat cutter, the blade should be slightly curved. Some hunting knives have a blade that has a curved portion for skinning and a straight portion for slicing meat. Buck Knives’ PakLite Large Skinner and Browning Knives’ Backcountry Hunting Knife are two good examples of blades with the right compromises to be an ultimate deer knife.

Blade Point
A drop-point knife fits the ultimate deer knife category best. It allows you to skin an animal using the entire edge of the knife, rather than just the point. This permits quick skinning and causes little damage to meat. It’s also good for field-dressing and boning big game.

Blade Length
This is where the “that’s not a knife; this is a knife” line will ruin you. The ultimate deer knife needs to balance in your hand. You shouldn’t feel like Jim Bowie when you pick up your knife. You must be able to move it surgically as you reach into a chest cavity for the heart or cape a buck. The size will depend on your hand size, but generally an ultimate deer knife should have a blade in the 3- to 5-inch range. Buck’s Alpha Hunter fits my hand best.

Blade Thickness
Generally, the blade of a deer knife should be about .12-.14 of an inch thick, says Dolmage. You want a knife that is strong enough to be used to separate joints, but you don’t want the knife to be too heavy to carry. If the blade bends, the knife doesn’t qualify.

Guthook or No Guthook?
C.J. Buck prefers the Vanguard 692, a traditional deer knife that has a 41/8-inch blade unencumbered by a guthook. I like having a guthook. It can be used to unzip a deer’s abdomen while preventing an errant knick from puncturing internal organs and possibly affecting meat quality. However, guthooks are hard to keep sharp and are really unnecessary, as an experienced hunter soon learns how to make a small incision and then use two fingers to pull the skin up as the blade cuts down from the breast bone. Also, you can’t sharpen a guthook with a regular flat stone, so you will need to purchase a round file. (Unlike the main blade, the guthook is only sharpened on one side, not two.)

Straight Blade or Folding Knife?
Popularity of sheath knives seems to have faded over the last few decades. Buck Knives actually started this trend in 1963 with its Model 110 folding hunting knife. Buck popularized it to such a degree that the term “buck knife” has become a catch-all. Whether your ultimate deer knife is a folding design or a full-tang sheath knife is your call, but realize each has trade-offs.

SOG—known for its survival knives—has thought about its sheaths. Many of SOG’s knives come with sheaths that have straps, belt loops and lanyards. The handle strap should be ergonomic—you should be able to open it without thinking. The belt loop should keep it snug to your belt or pack. A lanyard might be necessary, especially if you choose a larger knife. The sheath will affect how you carry and draw your knife, so before purchasing one, try it.

Sheath materials vary from traditional leather to plastic. Leather can be hard to clean blood from and needs to be treated after each season. I prefer the retro look of leather, but realize a nylon sheath wears better on backcountry adventures.

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10 Responses to The Ultimate Deer Knife

Brett wrote:
April 28, 2014

Good info provided but seems more like a marketing add for Buck and Browning than a real report.

Arthur Koscielski wrote:
March 10, 2014

One thing missed in this article is that a sheath and knife must be silent at all times while hunting. A sheath with a plastic insert that rattles when you move is bad for your deer hunting. Also splitting the pelvis with a knife is just asking for it to fail. Bring a saw or small axe if you feel its necessary. If you must use your knife for this chore better make darn sure you have a backup. When younger I used to always split the pelvis. Eventually I shattered two blades this way so never again.

William B wrote:
August 07, 2013

I love a sharp knife. Joe, those comments about the Old Hickory or Mora are so incredibly practical it is clear you have cleaned your share of critters. Of some 30+ elk over the years I've only tried to split a pelvis once, then never again. Now I just carry a matched pair of quality lightweight folders with 3' blades - one skins, the other surgically disassembles said elk. Works every time. But, I do have a collection of nice others at home 'just because'. If one decides to do their own butchering back at the house an inexpensive option are the chef knives available at Sams Club which include a 4-pack of paring knives. The steel sharpens well, holds up unless hacking bones, and cleand up quickly.

hugh wrote:
November 20, 2012

The long discontinued buck 116 fixed blade knife to me is the ultimate field dressing knife. the blade is short, drop pointed and sturdy. you can get up in the carcass to do all your cutting without worry of cutting yourself. the handle is large enough to hold onto. the knife is perfect for delicate caping work and also good for skinning. i have an old combo set with the 116 paired with the buck 103 skinner. buck still makes the 103 and i cant figure out why they ever quit on the 116. these are true deer hunters knives in their truest form. it seems the knives sold today are all about looking modern and cheap materials. ivefound most newer knives to be impractical junk.

lamar wrote:
October 15, 2012

The knife in the picture is a Buck Alfa Hunter, with the guthook and rubber handle.

Andrew Breckenridge wrote:
October 12, 2012

What knife is that in the picture? I have a Buck 119 special but the 6 inch blade can be kinda cumbersome when im cleaning smaller game. Im looking for a fixed blade but something smaller than the 119, something i can fit in my pocket and carry if i dont want to have it on my belt.

Joe Faultroy wrote:
August 16, 2012

I certainly don't want to be a party pooper, but I completely disagree wth this article. For example the article says that you want the knife to be strong enough to cut a pelvis. No you don't. You want a knife to do the job. And unless you really enjoy spending time sharpening knives, you are much better off with a thin bladed knife than you are with a thick blade--they are easier to maintain and sharpen. I've been playing with knives for 50 years, and the more experience I have with them the more I am drifting to cheap inexpensive knives like kitchen knives. Most of us that are into survival use either Old Hickory knives or Mora knives. The Moras sell for around $15.00 and the Old Hickory knives sell for about $8.00. Both of these knives will do the same thing as a $500.00 knife does--and just as well. If you need to split a pelvis, either buy a small hand axe, or use a folding saw--it's cheaper, more efficient and safer. If you want to purchase a stainless steel knife, I would go with a small kitchen blade like a Victorinox/Forschner or a Henckels or a Wustoff if you really want to go high class. There is a reason they are designed the way they are--because professionals like them that way!!! 90% of what you read does not work efficiently in the field. And you couldn't pay me to use a gut-hooked knife--there is no reason to own one and they are pain to sharpen. They are a solution to a problem that does not exist.

The Fusss wrote:
July 27, 2012

Yes,but the point is ONE knife!!!

Jim Sanuk wrote:
June 18, 2012

Yes leather is retro but works when the sheath is hanging on the belt from a loop. That allows it to hang near the lower edge of the jacket/coat and gives quick access. Also the way the sheath hangs allows it to flex when seated thus it doesn't stick into your hip. I use a short folding knife for cutting and skinning deer. I keep a longer straight knife for serious survival situations in my backpack. Side note: on moose I use a large replaceable blade boxcutter. With bloody hands and greasy blade it is quicker to change out the box cutter blades. I run thru three blades gutting out moose. A stone for sharpening just gets gummed up with animal fat.

Josh Dahlke wrote:
June 11, 2012

Great post.