Expert Tips for Choosing a Hunting Knife

Use these expert tips for choosing a hunting knife so you'll be ready to make the most of any hunting adventure.

by Mark Kayser

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

You’re geared for the hunt and primed for success, but are you sure you’re heading down the trail with the right knives? I’m here to share some expert tips for choosing a hunting knife so you’ll be ready to make the most of any hunting adventure. But first, let’s retreat to this fond memory of elk country …

As I reached to grasp the antlers of the mature bull a wave of emotion overwhelmed me. The hunt was demanding, challenging and draining, but worth it at the sight of the elk resting on the snowy mountainside. I knew his beefy body would feed our family throughout the coming year. And I was glad my pack held proof that I had the right hunting knife for the job. The rack was just a consolation prize for the effort.

After a few minutes of silent reflection, I knew it was time to roll up my sleeves and begin breaking down the bull. Hunting solo and miles from the trailhead, my knife and I were the primary employees for the immense job ahead.

Ready For elk processing

You're miles from nowhere and a backcountry bull is down. Is your hunting knife arsenal up to the task?

Knives play an integral role in daily life, but an even more-critical role during the hunt. Choose the wrong knife for the job and your efficiency could falter. Utilize a knife with a dull edge and you will struggle, or worse yet, injure yourself. Your hunting knife is an essential tool to your hunting success. Hunting Knife Basics

Matt Elliott lives and breathes knives. He must, as the director of marketing for Work Sharp. This unique company specializes in knife sharpeners for the hunter, handyman and culinary kitchen expert. Elliott also has 22 years of fishing and hunting experience that ranges from wilderness backpack hunts to chasing salmon in the Northwest. His enthusiasm for sharp tools follows him from the boardroom to the backcountry. He stresses that having a good knife not only facilitates an effective outdoor experience, but could aid in your survival. And if one knife is good, he believes two knives are even better.

5 Must-See Hunting Knife Sharpeners from Work Sharp
Hunting knives and sharpening systems

Most all hunters can benefit from carrying multiple hunt-focused blades, and owning a few different sharpening systems.


“Outside of food and water, a good knife is the number-one essential of any survival situation,” Elliot said. “That is fundamental to any outdoor adventure, as all adventure has some element of risk. For hunting, specifically, I believe a hunter should carry two knives.”

The 2-Knife Approach

Elliot’s choice for the two hunting knives includes a fixed-blade knife and a folding-blade knife. He feels that carrying two knives allows each to accomplish specific tasks. For tasks that develop at every turn of the trail, like whittling fire tinder or slicing an apple for lunch, he turns to a quality folding knife stashed safely in a pocket. When game hits the ground, he digs out a fixed-blade knife for the major act of field dressing, and breaking down the animal into packable loads.

Sharpening a hunting knife

The ideal angle for a hunting knife falls between 20 and 25 degrees, says Matt Elliott. This provides for a strong edge that holds sharpness for uncomplicated cutting.

“My game-cleaning knife will only cut hide, touch meat and bone. My daily task knife will be used for anything from clearing an archery lane, to cutting paracord, to opening Mountain House [freeze-dried meals], to cleaning my fingernails,” Elliott continued. “If you use one knife for everything, you are more apt to have a dull knife for field-dressing game when you just want to get to work with a sharp one. And more importantly, you have introduced all sorts of contaminants from the field into your meat.”

If You Could Have Just One

If Elliott were forced to carry only one knife, he would choose a fixed blade. He believes they offer a solid option that includes a knife that is “more reliable, ergonomic, stable, rugged and overall easier to clean.” He still recommends a folding knife for quick jobs, but defines the perfect fixed-blade knife as follows.

Skinning a deer

The right, sharp knife makes skinning and butchering a deer easy.

“The ideal, single, hunting knife is a fixed blade that is 3 1/2 inches to 4 inches in blade length, with enough spine thickness to provide some toughness and enough blade height to make for a good slicer,” begins Elliot. “The ideal blade shape is a drop point with a bit of a curve to the edge. That curve is where most of your cutting takes place, and having a bit more radius means the cut is spread across more of the edge, which in turn gives you longer edge retention.”

Best Blade & Handle Makeup

With years of experience in honing edges, he considers hard stainless steel to be the best choice for blade construction. In addition, he’s discovered CPM-S30V as the preeminent steel grade for blade foundation. Moving to the handle, Elliott prefers a textured grip with an “agreeable” feel. In fact, he characterizes the ideal handle would be crafted from a semi-soft durometer material, like Santoprene. When conditions turn to slippery and wet from blood, and environmental conditions, you still have a sure grip. And lastly, he sees no reason not to coat the grip in a high visibility color like blaze orange. How many times have you laid a knife down in the forest duff only to search endlessly for it when needed later?

Field-dressing a deer

Take time to carefully consider your hunting knife and sharpening system before heading afield, whatever your quarry might be.

Despite all the high qualities of a fixed-blade knife, Elliot does serve praise on folding knives. They provide easy carry, simpler concealment and quick deployment when tasked with a job. The disadvantages include a more-complicated system to access the blade, with possible mechanical failure. The blade storage compartment may also collect field dressing grime with potential to grow bacteria. Nevertheless, despite their flaws, they continue to be America’s go-to knife for daily carry.

Replaceable Blade Styles

Regarding the latest trend in using knives with replaceable blades, Elliott sees them as having a specific purpose, but does not count on them for a truly dependable blade partner.

Choice venison cuts

Make no mistake, proper field-dressing and game meat processing/preparation starts with the right sharp knives.

Elk backstraps on grill

Choose your hunting knives well and keep them sharp, and you will soon be enjoying mouth-watering wild game delicacies such as these elk backstrap steaks.

“If you are doing light-duty work and are not capable of sharpening your own knife (which every hunter should be), then you don’t have to sharpen it. They can be better for small-game chores and caping though, so long as you are using a scalpel-style knife,” notes Elliott.

Don’t Overlook the Sheath

In closing dialogue about knife design, he feels an overlooked aspect of any knife is the sheath. In his opinion, that protective case is disregarded by hunters and manufacturers alike. His definition of a purposeful sheath includes one that tightly secures the knife, provides easy cleaning after the hunt, and gives you effortless access to the knife.

Field Sharpener

All hunters need to be packing some type of in-the-field sharpener. A solid option is the compact and lightweight Work Sharp Guided Field Sharpener.

“I keep my fixed blade in my pack, but it is preferable to have a belt loop on that sheath, as when cleaning game,” Elliott explains. “I will take that knife out and put the sheath on my belt so when I finish a cut, and need to use both hands, I can stow it away quickly and safely, and don’t need to set it on the ground.”

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Working for a company like Work Sharp Sharpeners equals an extra emphasis on knife sharpness for Elliott. Without debate, he knows the edge is the most-significant part of the knife. In addition, it requires attention to ensure the knife continues to perform effectively, and safely. Elliott describes knife sharpness with this basic statement. “A sharp knife is an effective knife and makes the most physically demanding task in hunting easier. A dull knife is a liability.”

Choice Deer Cuts

The right knife can turn wild game into a table delicacy everyone will enjoy.

Why You Need 2 Sharpeners

Learning the skill of sharpening a knife facilitates difficult tasks such as deboning a deer in the field. Or, something as simple as carving up perfect backstrap steaks for a summer grilling session back at home. Elliott suggests investing in two sharpeners. The first sharpener to consider is a benchtop-style sharpener you can set up in your workspace. Work Sharp produces models such as the Benchstone, the Precision Adjust or a power sharpener. Those include the Knife and Tool Sharpener, or the Ken Onion Edition. All take up little space on a work bench. For in-the-field sharpening, the options include the Work Sharp Guided Field Sharpener as a solid choice, or the Guided Pocket Sharpener for a lightweight alternative.

“These devices will allow you to control the edge angles that you want on your knives and help you to more easily maintain, and care for all of your blades, including your kitchen knives,” Elliott said. “Then get yourself a quality field-maintenance tool that matches the angle of your hunting knife, that you applied with your benchtop sharpener. Matching the angle is key to achieving quick results in the field.”

Mule deer heart

A sharp and dependable knife ensures wild game delicacies, like this mule deer heart, make it to the kitchen in fine shape.

The Best Sharpening Angle

The ideal angle for a hunting knife falls between 20 and 25 degrees, says Elliott. This provides for a strong edge that holds sharpness for uncomplicated cutting. You can learn more about achieving the perfect edge on a hunting knife or styles of sharpeners by visiting The Work Sharp Workshop on YouTube.

As for my earlier elk dilemma, I began by organizing my extraction gear on a garbage bag for easy access, and help in not losing any items. Then I went to work. It took me approximately 2 ½ hours of knife work to break the elk down into four loads of meat, plus the head. The fact I could choose the best hunting knife for the job expedited an enormous task. And it propelled me much quicker to my next challenge—the substantial packing mission ahead.

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