For a subsistence hunter, having the right knife for skinning and gutting game is important to ensure that they do not perforate internal organs that would ruin viable cuts of meat. For sport hunters, cleanly skinning a kill without accidental punctures is preferable to having a skin that looks like it was chewed on by a badger.
How do you pick the right knife for the job? This article goes over the key factors that influence whether a knife is right for gutting and skinning game and then provides five recommendations that will help you, the hunter, select the right knife for your budget.
There are certain key factors related to whether a knife is suited for gutting and skinning large game, such as deer or elk.
Blade shape comes into play when one considers the difficulties of separating the hide from the viscera of game. A good tactical knife, with a stabbing point, is not a good gutting knife, precisely because that stabbing point (such as with a tanto blade or a deeply-curving clip point blade) is now piercing the hide you worked so hard to get. A rounded blade tip or blunted tip will make it easier to clean your game without ruining the hide.
Blade material is a factor because of the way you tend to overcompensate for a dull blade, leading to jagged cuts in meat and the potential for injury. A (properly-sharpened) harder blade material will serve you better than a blade that dulls easily, especially when it comes to dealing with spatchcocking the legs of game like deer during the removal of its offal (intestines, colon, and the like).
Blade length is a factor, but contrary to what you expect, bigger is not better. While there are exceptions to the rule, such as the long, flexible fillet knives that are so useful for butchering game, generally speaking, shorter knives are more dextrous. This allows for greater ease in delicate cuts, such as the opening up of the lower torso of deer without accidental puncturing of the intestines.
Handle ergonomics is key considering that for those newer or out-of-practice hunters, field dressing game can be a slow process. You do not want a knife that gives you hot spots on your hands as you work. Additionally, ergonomics is key because of the issue of grip. Working through game of any size can be slippery once the blood starts flowing; a knife with a handle designed for control under such conditions is a safety concern.
Cost – as one of these five factors – is self-explanatory. If the knife is out of your price range, it is not the right knife for you.
The Top Five Gutting Knives
Here’s a list of 5 gutting knives that we really think are a cut above the rest:
The Benchmade Steep Country with Gut Hook
Blade Length: 3.5 inches
Blade Material: CPM-S30V (58–60 HRC)
Handle Material: Santoprene
Pros: Benchmade is well-known for tactical and high-end Everyday Carry knives made in the USA. The Steep Country family of knives is part of an effort by Benchmade to step outside its comfort zone and make a high-end general purpose hunting knife. The Steep Country has a rounded drop point blade, and in the selected variant, a cutaway for a gut hook at the tip of the blade.
One aspect of the Steep Country that shows exceptional design is the jumping at both the base of the blade and the tip of the blade. This allows for greater dexterity in using the knife when field dressing game. The blade itself is made of brutally tough CPM-S30V stainless steel alloy. The Steep Country has a uniquely grippy Santoprene handle, utilizing a rubbery polymer similar in construction to wetsuit neoprene. This ensures the Steep Country is safe even when covered in blood and guts.
Cons: The Benchmade’s primary con is its price tag, retailing for approximately $110. This is not a knife to leave unattended. A secondary con would be the leather and Kydex sheath used for the Steep Country. While designed like a traditional leather sheath with a snapping retention strap, the sheath has been reported to cause problems due to the leather not working well with the screws used to assemble the Kydex.
The Buck Open Season Skinner
Blade Length: 4.5 inches
Blade Material: S30V Steel Alloy
Handle Material: DymaLux Thermoplastic
Pros: The Open Season Skinner comes in two models, one without a gut hook but with S30V steel, and another with a gut hook and far inferior 420HC steel. With the Open Season in S30V steel, one is getting a knife of exceptionally high-quality steel for a fraction of the price one would pay for a Benchmade hunting knife, as the Open Season retails for approximately $70 at the time of writing.
While a narrow drop point blade, this Buck hunting knife is designed with a curved then recurved blade. This curve followed by a recurve allows for easier skinning of deer and elk, while the narrow blade is easier to control for finesse work, particularly given the jimping on the front of the blade.
Cons: I am somewhat concerned at the size of the plastic handle which, combined with a shallow finger guard carved out of the choil, may contribute to an increased risk of cutting yourself while using the Open Season. Additionally, the metal ridges on the knife tend to cause hot spots when utilized for an extended period of time.
The Case Lightweight Hunter
Blade Length: 4 inches
Blade Material: Tru-Sharp Surgical Stainless Steel (a proprietary alloy exclusive to Case knives that appears to be comparable to 425M or 420HC steel)
Handle Material: Zytel
Pros: The Case Lightweight Hunter is an inexpensive (approximately $47 at the time of writing) fixed blade clip point knife with a gut hook carved into the blade. The 4-inch long blade has a sweeping curve that allows for easy skinning of game, and the handle is a rubbery Zytel that maintains its grip even while wet. The knife also has deeply ridged jumping that would allow the user to bear down on the blade while “choking up” on the knife.
Cons: For starters, Case’s Tru-Sharp Surgical Stainless Steel is not the sharpest or most durable material out there. Second, the blade is not a full tang fixed blade, which reduces its durability. Finally, the blade comes with a nylon sheath that is less durable than the Kydex and leather sheaths used on other knives on this list. These are not surprising attributes, however, given how much cheaper the Case Lightweight Hunter is compared to the other knives. With this lower cost, comes lower quality materials.
The Kershaw Lonerock RBK (Replaceable Blade Knife)
Blade Length: 2.8 inches
Blade Material: #60A Scalpel Surgical Stainless Steel
Handle Material: Glass-filled nylon with rubberized grip
Pros: For years, hunters have taken scalpels on the trail with them to help field dress and cape their game. This makes perfect sense: scalpels are proven tools when it comes to precision cutting of muscle and sinew. Recently, knife manufacturers have capitalized on the demand for replaceable surgical blade knives (starting with the Havalon Piranta). The Kershaw Lonerock RBK (as in “replaceable blade knife”) improves on this by creating a replaceable blade knife that has an ergonomic, non-slip grip and an extended choil that keeps the thumb away from the blade.
The blade itself is a drop point surgical steel scalpel, which is exceedingly sharp (perhaps only obsidian could be considered sharper). When the blade does get dull, just remove it and replace it. The handle is made of glass-filled nylon, which means it can take a fair bit of abuse, and it includes a “buddy handle” so that two people can use surgical scalpels to field dress game (although the buddy handle would not be considered the most comfortable blade to use).
Cons: The first con would be that this is a product that requires replenishment. While the knife, retailing at less than $25, does come with 14 replacement blades, additional blades can be purchased for approximately $6. Some may find the additional waste created to be bad from an environmental standpoint, but a coffee can or a razor blade disposal case can be used so that the blades are recycled. Additionally, changing the blade requires the use of pliers (although hunters should be carrying a multitool to be fully prepared anyway). However, for the cost, this is the most economical option on the list.
The Knives of Alaska Muskrat
Blade Length: 2.25 inches
Blade Material: D–2 tool steel
Handle Material: Knives of Alaska does not list the handle materials, but it appears to be a rubber composite.
Pros: The Knives of Alaska Muskrat is designed for precision in skinning game, particularly for caping trophy kills. It has a unique rounded-tip blade that extends from one inch from the top of the choil to approximately 1/16th of an inch from the bottom of the choil, meaning the edge of the knife covers an arc of over 180 degrees from top to bottom of the blade. What this fog of geometry means is that skinning will take less time as you can separate the hide with forward and backward strokes.
Additionally, the rounded tip makes it less likely that the hide will be punctured than it would be if using a stabbing tip. The blade, made of D–2 tool steel, has a Rockwell Hardness rating of 59–61, which is extremely durable. The rubberized grip of the knife maintains friction even when it has been covered in deer guts in sub-zero temperatures. The Muskrat retails for approximately $55, which is a reasonable price for this specialized, full tang knife.
Cons: The Muskrat’s unusual shape, which makes it so excellent for skinning and caping game, also makes it more difficult to sharpen than a traditional linear-edged knife. Additionally, the sheath seems a little loose for the knife, which could be alleviated with 550 cord.
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