It can be hard to keep track of all of the new blades that come out each year. One way to make it easier is to understand which brands consistently produce the best knives on the market—and which brands don’t. This article helps people understand what it is about certain brands – and the knives they make – that make these blades so well suited for hunting.
What Makes a Great Hunting Knife?
There are an extraordinary number of knife manufacturers out there, some marketing themselves as makers of all-purpose knives, some marketing themselves as specialists in making hunting knives. Regardless of how the brand markets itself with respect to hunting, a prospective buyer needs to assess whether the knives made by that brand suit their needs in the field.
Five factors should be considered to determine the answer to this question:
- Are the blades made of materials suited to the wear and tear of hard use while hunting?
- Is the brand making blade shapes that are appropriate for field dressing game?
- Will the handles maintain their grip after being covered in rain, blood, or viscera in any temperature?
- Are the knives easy to maintain after being used on game?
- Given the features the brand incorporates into its knives, are their knives reasonably priced?
The following brands stand out as makers of excellent hunting knives, given the five factors mentioned above:
Havalon: Low Cost, Low Maintenance
Havalon could be considered the fast food brand of hunting knives. Havalon, a subsidiary of a company that makes surgical scalpels, makes replaceable blade knives for hunting. These knives utilize disposable stainless steel and carbon steel scalpel blades that are perfect for caping and skinning game (these flexible blades are not well suited for butchering anything bigger than waterfowl, however). While the blades are disposable, they are not low quality blades. These are the same blades used by surgeons as part of replaceable blade scalpels. Similarly, Havalon uses durable, low-cost materials for its handles, such as ABS plastic and stainless steel.
Havalon’s Piranta Edge & Hydra
Havalon’s Piranta line of hunting knives has a variety of handle options available, from bead-blasted stainless steel to polymer composites and ABS plastics. The Havalon Piranta Edge utilizes ABS plastics with rubberized inserts for enhanced grip, making it particularly well-designed given how slippery a knife gets when it comes into contact with the grease and blood that is a part of skinning game.
Both the Piranta Edge and the Hydra use the wide array of replaceable blades made by Havalon, from surgical steel drop point blades to gut hooks and mini-saw blades. As a result, it is easy to select a blade based on the needs of any given hunt and not be forced to rely on that blade later, where it would not work well.
The Piranta Edge is excellent for hunting not only because of its ease of grip but also because it is designed with an open back, meaning it is easy to clean, either by hand with a sanitizing solution or (as some do) by chucking it in a dishwasher after the hunt. The Piranta Edge is also an excellent option for hunters due to its reasonable price, usually retailing for less than forty dollars.
The Havalon Hydra improves on the design of the Piranta Edge by incorporating two blade mounting points in the knife, as well as a carrying case for a wide assortment of disposable blades. Having the ability to mount two different types of blades (or two of the same, so that one can be used until it goes dull and then the other can be used, prolonging changing out blades) makes the Havalon replaceable blade system even more versatile for hunters who may want a knife with a gut hook and a blunted drop point blade or any of the other combinations possible.
Like the Piranta Edge, the Hydra uses ABS plastic with rubberized inserts in a slightly larger handle than in the Piranta Edge. The Hydra’s only downside, compared to the Piranta, is that it is much more expensive, retailing for just under eighty dollars at the time of writing.
I first became familiar with Benchmade knives when in the military. Selected to join a special operations task force, I noticed quickly that this one brand of knife with a butterfly logo was part of the kit taken on target by all of the Green Berets. Notoriously hard on their gear, these Special Forces operators had learned that Benchmade knives could take a beating and still provide peak performance. The reason for this is simple: while Benchmade follows a simple formula for making high quality knives, it does not skimp when it comes to the alloys it uses for its blades, thereby making their knives the best tactical pocket knives.
Benchmade’s Steep Country, Hidden Canyon
The Benchmade Steep Country is an incredibly simple knife, but represents thoughtful design and high-value materials. The blade of the Steep Country is a 3.5-inch drop point blade made with high quality S30V steel alloy. The handle is made with a thermoplastic elastomer that maintains grip even under the most austere conditions. Using jimping on the front and back of blade, the Steep Country allows the user to position their hands at multiple spots on the knife during butchering. Retailing at approximately $100 at the time of this writing, the Steep Country is not cheap, which some may consider to be an obstacle.
The Benchmade Hidden Canyon is another well-made fixed blade knife from Benchmade. With a large belly to aid in skinning, the 2.67-inch blade of the Hidden Canyon is made of quality S30V steel alloy, and has similar jimping on the front and back of the spine of the blade. The Hidden Canyon differs from the Steep Country not only in blade shape (the steep country is a more traditional drop point shape) but also in the more traditional-looking materials in the handle scales.
The Hidden Canyon is made with stabilized wood, which is compressed wood particles sealed in resin. While not as easy to grip when wet as the Steep Country, the Hidden Canyon solves the problem of having a hunting knife with a traditional wooden handle that is not subject to water damage. Like the Steep Country, the Hidden Canyon is an expensive knife, and retails for approximately $115.00 Some may balk at this price, but it is natural given the high quality materials used in the Hidden Canyon.
Spyderco first gained notoriety amongst kayakers and first responders (such as emergency medical technicians) who needed knives that were able to cut through seat belts and ropes quickly. Spyderco developed the serrated blade shape that has become extremely popular among those who want a blade that does not require sharpening as often as a plain-edged blade. Spyderco is an excellent brand for hunters because of its willingness to experiment with various blade alloys and shapes. This experimentation has led Spyderco to develop some exceptionally sharp blades and useful designs.
Spyderco’s Bill Moran Drop Point, Enuff Sheepsfoot
To honor Bill Moran, one of the founders of the American Bladesmith Society, Spyderco designed the Bill Moran line of hunting knives. The Bill Moran Drop Point has an ergonomic handle and a 3.875-inch VG10 alloy drop point blade. The graceful curve of the Bill Moran blade is perfect for separating the various cuts of meat from deer. The VG–10 alloy means that the knife will have an exceptionally sharp edge, and will hold that edge well.
Spyderco’s design sense did not end with the knife blade, however, and uses a practical ergonomic design in the handle, which is made of fiberglass-reinforced nylon, and a Kydex sheath that can be worn vertically or horizontally. The Bill Moran Drop Point Knife retails for just under $100.
The Spyderco Enuff Sheepsfoot comes in two variants, one with a VG–10 alloy blade and the other (the Spyderco Enuff Salt model) with an H–1 alloy blade. The Salt model is intended for those that spend a lot of time on the water, such as duck hunters, and need a rustproof blade. The VG–10 alloy blade is a more general purpose model, and will sharpen more easily and maintain an edge longer than the H–1 alloy, but is not rustproof.
The benefit of a sheepsfoot blade is that it is less likely to puncture the hide of a deer or other game being butchered. Spyderco compliments this sheepsfoot blade with textured fiberglass-reinforced nylon to ensure that a hunter does not lose grip on the knife when it is slippery. Both variants of the blade come with an injection-molded “Boltaron” sheath that locks the knife in place and can be worn horizontally or vertically. The Enuff is slightly more expensive than the Bill Moran (and also the Benchmade knives), retailing at just under $125 at the time of this writing.
Whereas Benchmade entered the hunting knife market from the high end tactical market, SOG entered the hunting knife market from the mid-range tactical market. SOG has made a number of quality fixed and folding blade knives, many of which are innovative in how they combine durability with being extremely lightweight. SOG, a Seattle-based company, got its start making lightweight combat knives that were eventually adopted by special operations units.
SOG’s the Huntspoint and the Field Knife
The SOG Huntspoint is a knife with a number of variants to suit the different tastes of hunters. First off, it comes in a boning and a skinning model, with the boning model featuring a full-tang drop point blade and the skinning model featuring a wider blade with a mild drop point. SOG designed both blades with the intent that hunters could choke up on the blade and use multiple hand positions in order to make field dressing game easier.
SOG has versions of the Huntspoint using high quality S30V steel alloy and versions using lower cost AUS-8 steel alloy. While the AUS-8 versions of the Huntspoint are cheaper, the S30V versions will hold a sharp edge for a longer period of time.
With respect to handles, again, SOG provides two different options: rosewood or glass-reinforced nylon. While rosewood is more traditional, the glass-reinforced nylon is more practical for field use, particularly in inclement weather. The price of the Huntspoint varies with the different options available, particularly blade materials, as S30V is more expensive than AUS-8.
The SOG Field Knife is a great low cost option for those looking for a quality fixed blade knife that will not “break the bank.” It is a clip point four-inch blade made of 7Cr17MoV steel alloy with a glass-reinforced nylon handle. SOG commonly uses alloys like 7Cr17MoV, which are among the newer stainless steel alloys that maintain a great blade edge. The Field Knife has a full tang that extends beyond the back of the handle, where it becomes a jagged pommel, which could be used for hammering. The handle itself has a deep finger cutout that protects the user from being accidentally cut while field dressing game. The SOG Field Knife retails for less than the cost of the Havalon Piranta, usually, and therefore provides a low cost option for those who dislike the waste of replaceable blade knives.
Buck knives have been around for so long that they have become nearly synonymous with a certain type of knife: a wooden-handled hunting knife, typically with a clip point blade. However, it is worth understanding why it is that Buck has been around so long, and that is that the company makes high quality hunting knives with few bells and whistles. They rarely use the latest technology, and almost never veer from what is known to work. Much like Victorinox with its Swiss Army Knives, Buck knows what works with hunting knives and acts accordingly.
Buck’s Open Season Skinner, 550 Selector 2.0
The Buck Open Season Skinner is a small knife that is misleadingly underwhelming at first. Sporting a modified drop point blade with jimping on the front and rear of the blade, much like the Benchmade Steep Country, the Open Season very quietly makes use of high quality S30V steel alloy and dymondwood composite wood materials to make an excellent hunting knife. The S30V steel blade will hold its edge well, and is resistant to corrosion. Normally, Buck uses 420HC steel, which is a much softer steel. The shape of the Open Season Skinner is well thought out, and handles with much of the same precision as a surgical implement.
The handle of the Open Season appears to be a traditional wood handle, but it is actually a composite of wood and resin that resists rot – both dry and otherwise – much better than a traditional wood or bone handle. Additionally, Buck ships the Open Season with an exceptional leather sheath that is surprisingly durable given the reasonable cost of the Open Season.
The Buck 550 Selector is a great knife for those that like the idea of a replaceable blade knife, but may hate the waste of actually throwing out dull blades or find that they are too rough on knives to use the easy-to-snap Havalon scalpel blades. The 550 Selector is designed to work like a traditional lockblade knife, but, when the knife is opened partially and rocker lever is depressed, the blade can be removed and replaced. The 550 Selector comes with three blades – a gut hook, a partially-serrated drop point, and a drop point skinning knife – and hunters can purchase additional blades, including a hoof pick for those that take horses on the trail with them.
Normally, I would be reluctant to recommend a blade made of 420HC steel, as the 550 Selector is, but due to the fact that the blades can be replaced easily and without tools, I feel comfortable recommending the 550 Selector to someone who would know to bring a back-up blade with them when the first one becomes dull and unsafe to use. Additionally, because these knives can be resharpened, they can be used for a long time before being replaced, unlike the Havalon replaceable blades. As a final point, because of the thickness and grade of the steel, the Buck 550 Selector can be used more aggressively than the scalpel blades of the Havalon knives.
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