No hunter is fully prepared without a knife. From skinning an animal to cutting up its meat, the hunting knife is one of the most vital pieces of gear anyone can carry out in the field. And even after centuries of use, hunting knives continue to be a fixture of society.
As with anything that's been around for so long, there are many variations, uses and styles of hunting knives. Because we know it can be overwhelming to wade through the countless options, we've assembled this thorough guide that covers everything you need to know about the hunting knife. Or if you need some help selecting a hunting knife, check out our companion article on the best hunting knives.
Ready to become an expert? Read on.
History of the Hunting Knife
It's impossible to pinpoint exactly when the first hunting knife was conceived, mainly because the knife has been around for millennia. However, the hunting knife may very well be one of the oldest tools ever invented, right after the stone hammer and the club. In the Stone Age, early man fashioned blades from stone, shell or bone for a more deadly weapon during and after hunts.
Ancient Egyptians also used knives while hunting and even created wooden handles for their stone blades. These spears may not be what you picture for modern hunting knives, but they were used for hunting while smaller stone knives were used for skinning and cutting meat.
Except for the game changing birth of metallurgy, the hunting knife went relatively unchanged for thousands of years until one man completely revolutionized the knife: Jim Bowie.
Bowie, a frontiersman and American folk hero, modified a number of knives to meet his very specific needs and took cues from different styles at the time, including Spanish and Finnish hunting knives as well as butcher knives.
The general design of the Bowie knife can be described as a large sheathed knife with characteristics that include a cross guard and a clip point.
After the Sandbar Fight, Bowie's famous brawl, his knife rose in popularity and people began requesting their own version of Bowie's knife.
So what does this have to do with hunting knives? During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bowie knife became increasingly popular with hunters and trappers because of its ability to skin and butcher game. Many hunting knives are still inspired by the Bowie knife.
The next development in the history of the hunting knife was the Swiss Army knife, which helped popularize folding knives for hunters. Hunting knives no longer needed sheaths and were easier to carry around. Instead of being multi-functional, the smaller hunting knives focused more on skinning. More importantly, Buck's Model 110 Hunting Knife exploded with popularity in 1964 and became one of the best-selling knives ever.
The last major development of note was the drop point hunter pioneered by legendary knife maker R.W. Loveless in the mid 20th century. Although the drop point is commonplace these days, it was first popularized by Loveless and has since become the standard for most hunting knives.
The Modern Definition
These days, when we talk about hunting knives, we don't necessarily mean a knife that's used for killing animals. While hunting with knives is still alive and well in wild boar hunting, it's often done with a hunting dagger, which is specifically designed for stabbing.
The modern hunting knife, on the other hand, takes many forms but is optimized for cutting and slicing rather than stabbing. Due to the numerous types of hunting knives, it's impossible to really establish one all-encompassing design for hunting knives.
Uses of Hunting Knives
A typical hunting knife should serve multiple purposes, but it is mainly used for gutting, skinning, boning and butchering. Here's a little more information on each of the uses.
One of the main uses of a modern hunting knife is for field dressing, which is the process of removing the organs of game to preserve meat. When dressing a deer, gutting is the first thing you must do. A hunting knife cuts the animal open to remove its organs. A gut hook simplifies the process, but we'll talk more about that in the gut hook section.
An example of a knife optimized for gutting is the Buck Guthook Knife.
Skinning is another function of the hunting knife because a knife is needed to carefully cut through the animal's skin without tearing muscles or abdominal tissues. As a result, ideal skinning knives have a short, thin blade that's curved.
After a deer is gutted and skinned, it's time to take off the meat. Whenever you remove the meat from the bone, whether a big game or fish, you'll need a hunting knife for assistance.
The next step in the process of field dressing most game is to cut up the meat. Butchering meat can be done with different techniques, but the only real requirement for the knife is that it can make clean cuts.
Bowie knives are solid multi-purpose knives and butcher meat easily. The KA-BAR Bowie Hunter is a great example of a butcher knife.
Caping is the process of skinning the head and neck of an animal like a deer, turkey or bear for the purpose of creating a hunting trophy. When caping an animal, the skin around the shoulder, chest and neck are cut away from the flesh by a knife.
Just because hunting knives are rarely used to actually hunt doesn't mean they aren't. Hog hunting is still a popular way to hunt with knives. However, the modern hunting knife we're mostly covering in this section is not necessarily the best tool for this task.
Instead, you'd want to use a knife that will pierce the heart of an animal.
Types of Hunting Knives
When you think of the classic hunting knife, you're probably thinking of the camp knife. A camp knife is the multi-purpose hunting knife designed in a way that will do most of the tasks of the following specialized hunting knives.
Camp knives typically take some attributes of the other hunting knives, but the general design is a larger drop point knife that can do different things around the campsite.
We've already talked pretty extensively about the Bowie knife, but it's a type of large fighting knife with a clip point blade that also became popular with hunters in the late 19th and 20th centuries. You'll still find many hunting knives modeled after the Bowie knife.
The KA-BAR Bowie Knife is a popular Bowie knife.
When creating an animal trophy, you'll want to make sure the neck is preserved, which is why a caping knife has an upturned point on a smaller blade. Even though caping knives specialize in caping, they can be used for various tasks.
The best example of a caping knife is the Buck Ergohunter Caping Knife.
Because a skinning knife needs to carefully cut along the skin without tearing the hide, a skinning knife typically has a short, thin blade that curves. The blades also need to be razor sharp out of the box and hold an edge after repeated uses. A grippy, non-slip handle is essential.
A boning knife is another specialized version of the hunting knife that makes it easy to remove meat from a carcass. Knives that specialize in deboning have a narrow blade that's usually flexible. It's similar to a fillet knife, but the fillet knife is also meant to remove skin, especially from fish. We didn't give the fillet knife its own category here because you'll often find combo boning/fillet knives.
A buck knife is the generic term for a knife style popularized by Buck Knives in the 1960s. More specifically, this is a knife modeled after the Buck Model 110 Hunting Knife, which is a large folding knife perfect for hunting. These knives typically have clip points, but some of the off-brand buck knives may not. The buck knife was originally designed for hunters, but it's now commonly used as an all-around pocket knife.
A hunting knife, better known as a hunting dagger, is specifically meant to kill, but as we discussed earlier, this isn't the use of a traditional hunting knife. A true hunting knife, which is mostly used in hog hunting these days, has a sharp blade and is usually long since the goal is to pierce the hog through its heart.
The Buck 120 General has a long 7.5-inch blade that's been used to stick pigs successfully in the past.
Although this isn't a single type of knife, the hunting set is a great option for those who really enjoy specialized tools to make the job of dressing or caping an animal easier. Some sets come with a caping knife, skinner, boning/fillet knife, butcher knife, bone saw and more.
Optional Features of Hunting Knives
A major optional features on a hunting knife is the gut hook. A gut hook is a special type of blade often used by hunters for field dressing.
There is a sharpened semi-circle ground into the spine that allows for hunters to essentially 'unzip' the skin of an animal to clean it out.
We've already discussed the pros and cons of a gut hook in our Picking the Best Hunting Knife Guide, so we won't retread the discussion here, but a gut hook is a matter of preference and you can usually find the same model with and without it.
Even though some people find a gut hook convenient, most hunting knives already have the capability to easily open up the belly of an animal.
The type of blade style you choose is also a matter of preference, but there are three main types of blade points you'll find on a hunting knife: clip point, drop point and skinning blade.
The clip point has been around for centuries and was used prominently on hunting knives based on the Bowie knife. A clip point is so named because it looks like part of the blade is clipped off. The blade comes to a point that's ideal for puncturing and is considered a great all-purpose style. With that puncturing ability comes some risk of unintentionally rupturing a gut sack while field dressing. A perfect example of a clip point knife is the classic Buck Model 110 Hunter.
Unlike the clip point, the drop point was not widely used until Bob Loveless used it in his designs. The drop point runs from the spine to the tip in a curved manner that creates a lower point. This offers more control and durability. With a larger belly great for slicing and a more controllable tip to prevent nicks, the drop point is the standard of hunting knife blade styles.
Another style that many consider perfect for hunting knives is the modified semi-skinner, also popularized by Loveless. It has a spine that curves upward and then back down toward the point.
Fixed vs. Folding
I covered this topic more thoroughly in our companion guide, but a fixed blade is not a necessity. Although the lack of moving parts does make the knife more durable and significantly easier to clean, a folder takes up far less space and can include several blades for different tasks. However, folders are not as common.
A good example of a folding hunting knife is the KA-BAR Dozier Folding Hunter.
Another feature frequently found in hunting knives is a hand guard due to the fact that conditions can get awfully slippery when dressing an animal. A nice guard, like those commonly found on a Bowie knife, will prevent your hand from slipping onto the blade and giving yourself a gnarly wound.
The Schrade Uncle Henry Pro Hunter is a great example of a hand guard on a hunting knife inspired by the Bowie knife.
An ergonomic and non-slip handle is more of an essential feature found in nearly every hunting knife because an uncomfortable handle that keeps slipping when wet is a recipe for disaster. An ergonomic handle has the added benefit of making dressing game more comfortable and secure.
Handle material varies widely on hunting knives and includes everything from bone to synthetic materials.
Although it's rare to see serrations on a hunting knife, it's not completely unheard of. A knife like the Gerber Gator Clip Point Combo Edge version has serrations, despite the fact that they have the tendency to inhibit aspects of field dressing certain animals.
Hunting Knife Sheath
The final optional feature of a hunting knife is the sheath. Sheaths are not necessary with folding hunters, but they're important for fixed blade knives. Sheaths protect the knife from the elements and allow for easy carry.
Some of the most recommended hunting knife sheaths are made out of leather or Kydex, which is impervious to weather.