When hunting, whether ducks from a boat in a marsh or deer from a stand in the forest, our hunting knives are amongst the core equipment upon which we rely. Serious hunters know then that the steel that makes up the blades of their hunting knives is a central point of failure for them. Without a functional hunting knife, hunters cannot properly clean their kills or section the meat for transport.
This article addresses some of the different types of steel used for making hunting knives, discussing the pros and cons of each alloy, and then recommends five hunting knives with outstanding steel in the blade.
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Stainless Steel vs Carbon Steel
When it comes to the steel alloys used in making tools and knives, the two basic categories are stainless steel and carbon steel. Stainless steel has a high presence of chromium, which protects a blade by preventing the sort of oxidation that causes rust and the flaking away of parts of the blade. Thus, stainless steel is ideal for high-humidity climates and fishing. On the downside, stainless steel has a shorter period of edge retention, so it must be sharpened more. Carbon steel, conversely, is not as rust resistant as stainless steel.
However, it forms a harder blade, allowing for longer periods of edge retention and perhaps even a sharper blade.
There are over 150 different grades of stainless steel (based on the SAE International standard for steel alloys). These grades are based on the chemical composition of the steel alloy, and vary widely. Similarly, there are hundreds of grades of carbon steel, most of which were designed to provide harder steel. In reality, there are so many different steel alloys that, unless one needs to worry about being in a high-humidity environment, the only factor worth considering is the hardness of a blade (which depends on the way steel is treated as much as it depends on steel’s chemical composition).
Typically, blade hardness is measured using the Rockwell Hardness Scale, with high hardness blades typically earning a value of HRC 56 or higher.
Factors for Steel Alloys
For those looking for a hunting knife, the process of considering whether a knife’s steel is suitable should be based on their individual needs, as focused on the following factors:
- type of game being hunted;
- duration knife will be used without maintenance;
- Environment in which hunting will take place; and,
- desired price range for a knife.
The type of game matters in light of the potential wear and tear on a knife. Splitting the breastbone of a caribou, elk, or deer requires a very different knife (or hatchet) than field dressing a rabbit, fox, or duck. Big game – boar, caribou, deer, elk, and javelina – require sharper and harder blades (having a higher rating on the Rockwell scale) than small game.
The duration of the hunting trip matters because a softer knife may not be able to last the full stretch of a multi-week trip. As for the environmental factors, a hunting trip on the water will make a stainless steel blade more optimal than a carbon steel blade. Finally, price range seems self-evident, but certain steel alloys that have higher concentrations of rare elements may cost significantly more than other alloys.
Popular Alloys for Hunting Knives
The following are popular carbon steel alloys used in hunting knives:
- CPM 3V
- CPM 4V
- CPM 10V
- CPM M4
- CruForge V
The Following are popular stainless steel alloys used in hunting knives:
- CPM S30V
- CPM S35VN
- CPM S90V
- CPM S110V
- CTS 204P
- CTS B75P
- CTS XHP
- Stellite 6K
Best Steel for Hunting Knives
Let’s begin with a Kershaw knife.
Kershaw Diskin Hunter
The Kershaw Diskin Hunter is an outstanding option for those looking for a knife with a high quality steel blade at a low price point. The Diskin Hunter has a four-inch blade made of Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel, which comes with an impressive hardness rating of HRC 55–62 for a knife designed to be corrosion-resistant.
Kershaw designed the Diskin Hunter to have a California Clip Point Blade and a deep finger notch that protect the hands while field dressing game. One unfortunate aspect of the Diskin Hunter is its substandard sheath, which lacks any mechanism to secure the knife (such as a handle snap) and which seems to be made out of low quality leather. As the knife retails at approximately $44.00, however, this is a minor concern.
SOG Huntspoint Boning/Skinning Knives
SOG is well known as a maker of combat knives and multitools, in general, but not widely considered as an option for hunting knives. The Huntspoint, along with the Aura and Revolver hunting knives, is part of a growing number of SOG knives geared towards hunters.
The Huntspoint sports a wide variety of options, first of which is whether the user wants a boning or a skinning knife. The boning model features a thin drop point blade with a full tang. As deboning often involves high torque cutting under slippery conditions, SOG incorporated a ridged choil and finger notch to protect against slipping. The skinning model features a wider blade with a mild drop point, along with the same full tang, ridged choil, and finger notch. SOG also incorporated a second finger notch, so a user could choke up on the blade for more precision while skinning game.
The Huntspoint comes in two different variants with respect to blade material: one using the more expensive S30V steel alloy, and another using the lower cost AUS–8 steel alloy. While both are quality stainless steel knives, the S30V models will hold their edge for longer than the AUS–8 models, but are harder to sharpen.
With respect to handles, again, SOG provides two different options: Rosewood or glass-reinforced nylon. This option comes down to a matter of taste and how rough one is on their knives. Rosewood is more attractive, but is also less grippy and durable than glass-reinforced nylon.
Thus, it is less practical in the field. All variants of the Huntspoint come with a leather sheath that includes a snap at the handle to secure the blade. The price of the Huntspoint varies with the different options available, particularly blade materials, as S30V is more expensive than AUS–8.
Klecker Abiqua Hunter
The most comfortable of all the knives reviewed in this article, the Klecker Abiqua Hunter has a 7Cr17MoV steel alloy blade that utilizes vanadium for increased hardness. The Abiqua is made with a removable gut hook that rests in the handle above the full tang, drop point blade, making it possible to carry one less tool to cape game. The Abiqua’s handle is made of G–10, a durable composite, and comes in two variants, one in hunter orange and the other in a convincingly wood-like pattern. It is perfectly molded for the hand, with no sharp angles to create hotspots while field dressing game.
The blade is 3.97 inches long, and is surprisingly thick for a hunting knife (in fact, because of this thickness, I would consider this a hunting knife that could double as a survival knife). While not a thin blade for deboning game, this could be an outstanding option for butchering and skinning. As it retails for approximately $110, this is a somewhat expensive option.
For a variety of reasons, I consider folding knives less than optimal as hunting knives. First, they tend to have less protection for the fingers during field dressing. Second, they tend to be harder to clean than fixed blade knives. Third, their blades tend to be designed more for utilitarian or tactical uses than for hunting purposes. While considered a tactical knife, the CRKT Homefront actually manages to address each of these factors.
The CRKT Homefront’s blade is AUS–8 steel (on the aluminum body model; the glass-reinforced nylon model sports lower quality – and less expensive – 1.4116 stainless steel), and comes with a conical flipper device that acts as a finger guard and is designed to be reminiscent of the bayonet attachment lug used by the US Armed Forces. The use of this finger guard/flipper in the design of the Homefront allows for greater protection when skinning or butchering game.
The Homefront is designed to be “field stripped,” as though it were a military weapon, without the use of tools. By virtue of this, the Homefront is incredibly easy to clean, alleviating the concern of bacteria tainting meat when used in the future. The knife could be completely broken down into its components and washed with soap and water before being lubricated and put back together again.
The design of the Homefront’s blade, with its broad belly and drop point tip, is actually very similar to that of traditional field butchering knives. As such, the blade could be an excellent option when a thin deboning knife is not needed.
The handle on the Homefront could be a point of contention, depending on whether someone wants the enhanced grip of the glass-reinforced nylon, which comes with the lower quality steel blade than the aircraft-grade aluminum handle. Depending on the model, the Homefront costs between approximately $55 to $80 as of the time of writing, making it a middle of the road option in terms of cost.
Benchmade Saddle Mountain Skinner Knife
Benchmade is another knife manufacturer more well-known for its tactical offerings than for its hunting knives, but the Saddle Mountain Skinner is one of its many outstanding options for hunting. The Saddle Mountain Skinner comes in multiple variants to suit different tastes, but all come with a blade made of high-quality CPM-S30V stainless steel. With a hardness of HRC 58–60, this is an outstanding blade. With a 4.17-inch blade length, this is a good all-purpose field dressing and butchering knife.
In terms of blade design, there are two options with the Saddle Mountain Skinner. The first is a drop-point blade with a wide belly very similar to that of the Homefront. The second is nearly identical, but for the gutting hook carved into the top of the blade. In the end, preference determines which is the better blade for hunting, although having the ability to eliminate the need for a gutting hook does weigh in favor of the second of the two options.
The Saddle Mountain Skinner can be made with either a G–10 handle or Dymondwood handle. As G–10 tends to be better for grip than wood, and as the G–10 model comes with a more durable Kydex sheath (the Dymondwood model comes with a soft leather sheath), it seems to be the better option. Benchmade retails the Saddle Mountain Skinner for approximately $155, making it the most expensive option on this list, but that price is accompanied with one of the best hunting knives made in the USA.
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