If you go to the big box stores or look at knife catalogs, you could develop the belief that a big game hunter requires a knife befitting Rambo. There are many knives for sale that have blades that are wide, thick and 5, 6 or 7 inches long. Their sheaths have attachment points that allow for mounting the knife on backpack straps and low mounted and strapped to your leg. It is my assertion that most of these knives may be decent “camp” knives or “survival” knives, but they would be very poor hunting knives.
So what makes a good big game hunting knife?
A big game hunting knife should have a blade 2.5 – 4“in length. The blade should be sturdy, but not overly thick. Remember, a hunting knife is used for cutting and needs to be razor sharp and should not be used for chopping or prying. If you need to chop, you should use hatchets and saws. The blade should have some “belly” (an up-swept blade) and a sharp point. Blades longer than 4” are unwieldy and can increase the odds the user cuts him/her self when reaching into the body cavity to loosen the heart, lungs, diaphragm and esophagus.
A big game hunting knife should have a comfortable handle that provides a secure grip, even when wet, for at least three fingers (and preferably four) and protects the forefinger from slipping forward and being cut by the blade. The extension of the blade, called the “tang” should extend back through handle to make the knife sturdy.
There are two main types of hunting knives: folding knives and fixed blade knives. Each type is serviceable as a hunting knife and each type has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The Buck 110 Folding Hunter was developed in 1963 and was one of the first folding knives to be designed for hunters. It is of lock blade design, which is a very important safety feature as the blade cannot close on the user’s fingers. It has a 3.75” blade of the clip point design. It is a classic general purpose knife. As with all folders, the blade folds into the handle, reducing the length of the knife and ensuring that the blade can do no harm to the sheath or user while in transit. The main weakness of a folder is the increased effort required to clean the knife after use on a carcass. It can be difficult to clean blood and fat from the blade slot. An old toothbrush can certainly be of assistance in cleaning the blade slot. Today, there are many manufacturers that make countless numbers of suitable folding hunting knives.
BUCK Model 110 Folding Hunter. 3.75” clip point blade. https://www.buckknives.com/product/110-folding-hunter-knife/0110FAM01/
A fixed blade knife may be the quintessential hunting knife. Rugged and easy to clean after use, a fixed blade knife is a great tool. There are so many variations that they can’t all be covered here. Instead, I will point out a family of knives that I have come to appreciate. The Cold Steel Pendleton Hunter and the Cold Steel Pendleton Mini Hunter are my two favorite knives. The blades are of the drop point design, with a good useful belly. They have checkered rubber handles that provide an excellent grip, even when wet. The Hunter has a deep 3.5” blade and the Mini Hunter has a shallower 3” blade.
Pendelton Mini Hunter (above) and Pendleton Hunter (below)
We were hunting mule deer in an area of rugged river breaks, when we drove to an overlook. Rifles were slung over our shoulders while we glassed the draw. Finding no deer, it was a short walk to the next draw and the next and the next…. until we were a long way from the truck. Finally we found some does that we could use our Antlerless Mule Deer tags on. It was only upon my brother and I dropping two does in the draw that I realized I had left the fanny pack containing my knife in the truck. Remember, we were just going to glass the first draw! Darkness was only about 45 minutes away and we had to get these deer gutted and up out of the draw before dark. No time to go back for my knife. I was comptemplating using my 1.5” dull pocket knife, when my brother came over with his folding knife that rode on his belt. In exchange for him gutting my deer, I had to drag his deer out. We got out before dark, barely. The moral of this story, is that the best knife in the world, is worthless to you if you don’t have it with you!
It was shortly after this escapade that I found the Pendleton Mini Hunter. It is small enough that it fit in a pocket of my overalls as if it was made for it. At first viewed as a knife for emergencies like the previous story, or as a caping knife, I soon realized that it was much more useful than that. While it is small, it can be used as both a gutting knife and a skinning knife. I am no longer ever without this knife while hunting. It even travels with me overseas where I am not allowed to process the animal. The outfitter’s staff does all the grunt work. It is just comforting to have this knife with me while hunting.
A word of caution about fixed blade knives. One of my college buddies was out hunting with his family. He was crossing a fence when he placed his right hand on top of the fence post. As he dropped to the ground, the point of his hunting knife, which was in a vertical leather sheath on his belt, caught on top of his hand which was on the fence post. The handle of the knife caught on his upper body and his body weight drove the sharp blade through the web of his hand, nearly severing his thumb from his hand. It is a lesson I have never forgotten. I am extremely hesitant to wear a fixed blade knife in a vertical belt sheath. Horizontal, yes. In a pocket or fanny pack, yes. YMMV.
It is at this point in time that I will advise the reader that there is no one “perfect” big game hunting knife for all purposes. While I may like the Pendleton Mini Hunter for deer and antelope, I admit it is a little small for elk and moose. For elk and moose I would go up in size and use the Pendleton Hunter. If I lived in the Northern Territory of Australia and routinely hunted water buffalo, I would contemplate an even bigger model, the Cold Steel Master Hunter.
Is that all the knives that a big game hunter could use? No. If you routinely wish to cape out the heads for taxidermy, then a caping knife would be in order. For boning out the meat, a 5-7” fillet or slightly flexible boning knife works great. There are specialty knives that are used to open up the abdomen without puncturing the entrails. For those who like a sharp knife, but don’t care for sharpening, many manufacturers have emulated Havalon and now offer knives that have replaceable blades. These knives can always be kept sharp by just replacing the blade.
I have used the Outdoor Edge Razor Pro; https://www.outdooredge.com/products/razor-pro and it works as advertised. The blades are easy to safely exchange. The second blade is an example of a specialty blade for opening an abdomen.
Outdoor Edge Razor Pro
To wrap up, a big game hunter can live with one knife. I would suggest that a 2.5-4” properly designed blade is all a big game hunter needs. It is their choice as to whether a folding knife or a fixed blade knife best suits them. With experience, some big game hunters are going to expand their cutlery collection to include various sized knives, a caping knife, a boning knife. The list is endless. The knife manufacturers are always bringing out new models to entice hunters to part with their money. Collecting knives can be quite addictive!
Whatever your knife choice is, be safe! Keep your blade sharp and always cut away from yourself.