The knife you carry in your pocket or pack says a lot about who you are as an outdoorsman or -woman. And these days, there are more knife companies and product offerings than ever.
So we gathered an array of folders, fixed blades, and replaceable blades from well-known knife makers to see how they stacked up against our battery of objective and subjective tests, with the goal of discovering which of these knives deserve to tag along on your next adventure.
We settled on the three basic categories above because they are the most useful to all-around pursuits. The pocket-clip folder has largely replaced the traditional pocketknife or belt-sheath folding knife for everyday carry (EDC). They are usually slim, designed to be opened with one hand, and available in a dizzying array of blade shapes, sizes, and materials. Replaceable-edge knives have become popular because their cutting edges can be razor-thin and thus razor-sharp, and since the blade strength is supplied by the frame. Another benefit, of course, is that no sharpening is required. The trusty fixed-blade knife shines as an all-purpose hunting tool for field dressing, skinning, butchering, and general camp use.
In addition, we also rounded up three great field-dressing tools designed to make breaking down a big-game critter faster and easier. Because each of these tools has a unique design, we didn’t score them against each other. We simply field tested them.
The top knife in each category earned our Editor’s Choice award, and the knife that offered the best overall value earned our Great Buy.
How We Test Knives
A hunting knife has to do more than just cut. It should be easy to carry, comfortable to use, and have the right shape to perform the majority of field dressing, skinning, and quartering tasks.
We evaluated each knife out of the box for appearance, fit and finish, grip, and overall ergonomics. To evaluate performance, we slipped the folding knives in and out of pockets and opened and closed them as designed. Fixed blades went in and out of their sheaths. We tested to see if the sheath held the knife securely, if it could be easily attached to a pack or belt, and if it would protect the user from falling on the blade.
To evaluate cutting ability, we sliced through rope, sticks, leather, meat, paracord, and twine. We also pulled each blade across a 3⁄8-inch-diameter rope, all with consistent tension, until the rope was severed. We counted the number of pulls each knife required, and then repeated the test with paracord.
A folding knife with a clip has replaced the traditional pocketknife for one reason—utility
There’s no doubt that the designers made this knife specifically for the big-game hunter. The 3.5-inch blade and round blade shape make it a great tool for quartering an elk or skinning a whitetail. It’s also sturdy enough for most cutting jobs around camp. Fit and finish were nearly perfect. The knife opened smoothly and locked solidly. Stainless-steel liners support the hunter-orange polymer handles. The over-molded material around the handles is great for a secure grip, but it did make the knife a bit more difficult to pull from a pocket. On the upside, you’d have to go out of your way to lose this knife while you’re hunting. It was one of the top-performing knives in the cutting test and earned the highest versatility score. That performance combined with its solid construction make for a knife we’d all be happy to carry on our next hunt.
Price: $125 • Steel: Sandvik 14C28N • Blade length: 3.4 in.
Kershaw was the first to mass-produce assisted-opening knives, and the Blur is a great expression of that design. The first thing you’ll notice about this knife is its slick appearance. The camo-colored anodized aluminum handles are supported by stainless-steel liners, making for a solid, strong handle. And this knife backs up its good looks with plenty of performance. The assisted-opening feature and high-quality steel make the Blur an ideal EDC knife. The slightly recurved blade can be a bit more difficult to sharpen than a straight edge, but the size and shape made it a standout in the cutting test. Is this a cheap knife? Certainly not. But for the money, you get a well-designed pocket clip, assisted opening, and a blade that’s made in the USA. And even though its listed retail price is $125, you can find it on Amazon for about $60.
This is the little knife that could. The Brouwer—which was the smallest knife in the test—has a wide drop-point blade with the signature Spyderco hole for one-handed opening. The blade opens smoothly and locks solidly. It was one of the sharpest knives out of the box and effortlessly cut through rope, leather, and meat. The handle consists of a titanium locking frame on one side and G10 scale on the other that is supported by a stainless-steel liner. But it’s not all unicorns and rainbows: The handle somewhat obstructs the blade’s opening hole, and the pivot-point fastener was too plain for the high price point. But if you’re willing to spend big cash on a little knife, the Spyderco Brouwer is 6.8 inches of pure utility.
If EDC knives were SUVs, this would be the Hummer H1. It was the largest and heaviest folder in the group. The titanium frame lock saved it from being too heavy, though, and it carried surprisingly well deep inside a front pocket because of the smartly designed clip. The large blade opens smoothly on a ball-bearing-system pivot point via a flipper. To mitigate wear, the Hinderer has a steel insert where it locks against the back of the blade. It performed admirably in the cutting test. This is a durable folder— made from premium materials—that’s ready for the field.
The Prowess, which was designed by legendary knife maker Ken Onion, doesn’t have the latest high-tech materials or features, but it does boast ideal dimensions and shape. The handles are glass-filled polymer over stainless-steel liners. The blade opens via a flipper that also serves as a small hand guard. This system is easy to use and useful in the field. The back spacer has gratuitous ridges that dig into the palm of the hand but don’t add much real grip security. Despite this quibble, this is a well-designed knife with a good drop-point blade shape and stout construction that will serve hunters well.
The US-Assist is intuitive and easy to open with one hand. Steel liners give the knife a solid feel, especially considering its plastic handle, which could benefit from more aggressive texturing. The handle is a little slippery and gets even slicker when wet. The knife had solid cutting performance, and fit and finish were good. But all testers agreed that the plain gray handle was underwhelming. On the upside, the US-Assist received a strong overall score for being the least expensive knife with S30V stainless steel. Plus, it offers features like assisted opening and a safety to keep the blade from flicking open in a pocket.
Some might argue that there’s no way to improve the venerable Buck 110, but this updated version adds some attractive new features while keeping faith with the classic design. New Micarta handles replace the traditional brass frame with wood inserts, making the knife much thinner and lighter. A short pocket clip keeps the knife positioned for an easy draw. The clip-point blade is great for detailed cutting tasks. The Pro is easier to carry and use than the original 110, but it wasn’t designed for one-handed opening, so it still requires significantly more effort to deploy than most other folders in the test.
This knife design has gained in popularity because it offers a razor-blade edge that can be swapped out quickly
Departing from the scalpel design of most replaceable-blade knives, the Outdoor Edge RazorPro has a blade insert shaped more like a traditional hunting drop-point and the frame supports both sides of the insert. The patented system uses proprietary blades with a holding mechanism that does not interfere much with the cutting edge. In other words, you get more edge out of this knife. It has the easiest quick-change system in the test: Simply push a button on the handle, remove the blade, and reinstall a new one. A blaze-orange handle houses the blade and lock-back mechanism. Replaceable-blade knives usually aren’t durable, but the more conventional shape and extra support of the RazorPro’s inserts make it a much more solid and versatile tool. It’s the replaceable-blade knife you want when you’ve got a big critter down and the sun is setting.
Think of this knife as a long scalpel—it has the longest replaceable blade in the test. The fit and finish are good, and it functioned well as a folder, opening smoothly and locking solidly in place. Changing the blade is quick and easy, and it requires no extra tools. The Vital Big Game comes with drop-point and blunt-tip blade inserts, which added to its versatility. And as expected, it cut beautifully. The main flaw was that this knife has an excessive overall length of 11 inches for housing only a 3.7-inch blade. Despite the knife’s extra-large size, the Vital Big Game is a well-thought-out replaceable-blade system.
This is the smallest and handiest knife in this category. A polymer blaze-orange handle with black rubber inserts houses the blade system. It’s comfortable to use, and the small size and light weight make it an ideal choice for when you’re trying to stay light in the backcountry. For replacing the blades, we recommend using a forceps or pliers instead of your fingers. We found that other replaceable scalpel blades work with the Piranta-Edge, which provides interesting options for blade lengths and styles beyond those offered by Havalon.
From gutting a deer to whittling a toothpick, these modern classics will do it all.
Price: $58 • Steel: 420HC • Blade length: 4 in.
The Gator was designed to be an affordable hunting knife. The inner core of the handle is glass-filled nylon with Santoprene elastomer molded over it. This creates a rubberlike grip over a rigid handle with less flex or give than a rubber-only handle. Cutting performance and utility were great from the steel drop-point blade, and ergonomics were superb. The sheath scored a combination of hits and misses. We liked the plastic safety insert and the way the belt loop can be undone to slip over a strap. But the sheath is a little too large for the size of the insert, and the snaps are too easy to pop loose. But for less than $60, who cares?
Price: $220 • Steel: S35VN • Blade length: 4.38 in.
The design of the Camp Creek is loosely based on an old knife style called a Nessmuk, where the curved tip of the blade is wider than the heel. The unconventional shape and flat blade grind from edge to spine are efficient and earned the top score in cutting performance. The knife’s multicolor G10 laminate scales are attractive—like a laminate rifle stock. Even though the handles have minimal texture, the finger grooves provide a secure grip. The handle is slightly upswept, which allows you to get more range out of the blade while cutting on a flat surface such as a cutting board. This is a stylish, sturdy knife that cuts exceptionally well. A hunter could not ask for more.
Purists may scoff at calling this knife a puukko, but the size and shape definitely originate from that classic Scandinavian design. The construction is simple, with a Santoprene handle molded directly over the CPM 3V steel full-tang blade. Devoid of any finger grooves, the aggressively and attractively textured handle is easy to grip and comfortable to use. The blade has plenty of straight cutting edge and is relatively narrow from top to bottom, which makes it versatile. It comes with a well-made pouch-style leather sheath that can be worn on a belt loop or pack strap, or dangled from the leather strap in the traditional puukko manner.
We didn’t chop down trees, build shelters, or kill wild hogs with the SOG Pillar, but we could have. At almost 10 inches in overall length, with a 5-inch blade, this was the longest and thickest knife in this category. The Pillar is attractive and has excellent fit and finish. The black-and-gray canvas micarta handle scales are fastened directly to a full-tang blade. The clip-point blade isn’t optimal for field dressing, but it’s not too aggressive. The sheath is outstanding. This was a solid all-around knife, but we would love to see a version with a 4-inch blade.
The Bucklite Max II Large is not a flashy knife, but it has the size, shape, and price to appeal to the pragmatist in all of us. With a high-durometer rubber handle molded directly onto the full-tang drop-point blade, this knife has an efficient design that’s light for its size and comfortable to use. Its cutting-test performance was marginal, but that could be corrected easily enough with some careful sharpening. The sheath is clumsy and leaves a bit to be desired. The belt loop is too tight and will be difficult to attach to all but the narrowest pack belts. When the knife is sheathed properly, it rides safely and securely.
CRKT Pack Axe
Price: $90 •Steel: 1060 carbon steel • Blade length: 2.93 in.
Even if you don’t use a pack axe for breaking down a big-game animal, you’ll need one in camp for driving tent stakes, splitting kindling, clearing shooting lanes, and fighting off charging bears. The CRKT Pack Axe is a classically styled embodiment of what the packable axe should be. It sports a relatively long handle, so it will offer a decent swing radius, but it’s still portable. The head is well designed, with a straight top, a cutting edge that curves in toward the bottom, and a wide flat back for hammering. The cutting edge wasn’t sharp enough to use for skinning, but you could get it there with some time at the stone. The hickory handle is attractive and has good ergonomics. There’s no sheath included, so you’ll have to fashion your own—ideally out of bear hide.
Price: $27 • Steel: 7Cr17 stainless • Blade length: 3.5 in.
The blade on the Zip Pro has a dull tip and curved cutting edge made for slipping under an animal’s hide while gutting or skinning. This lets the blade cut from the inside out without puncturing what’s underneath, all while keeping hair out of the cutting area. The Zip Pro has a conventional-looking frame-lock handle, but the blade rotates out from the top, orienting the edge up in relation to the handle. This is so you can grip the knife handle as you normally would while using the blade to make cuts with an up-and-away motion. The frame lock is blackened stainless steel, while the other side is blaze-orange G10. It weighs just over 3 ounces, making it an easy tool to stow in a pack. It would be an ideal knife for teaching inexperienced hunters the basics of gutting.
Price: $15 • Steel: surgical stainless • Blade length: 1.7 in. (exposed cutting edge)
Resembling a seat-belt cutter, the Gerber Vital Zip has a single purpose for hunters: opening the abdominal cavity of big game without piercing the guts. A standard box-cutter utility blade, housed in a handle that covers the sharp points on each end, provides the cutting edge. Made from blaze-orange ABS plastic with black rubber over-molding, the handle offers a lot of grip and is quite comfortable. Designed to cut while pulling through material, the Vital Zip worked well in our testing. It’s lightweight but bulky for a single-purpose tool. If you’re not counting ounces and inches on a backpack hunt, this would make for a good partner to your hunting knife. Can the field dressing be done with just a knife? Sure. But where’s the fun in that?