When I speak with people who are ordering a custom knife, the most universal question I get asked relates to how to buy a hunting knife. People review my line of custom knives, and then ask: “Gosh, which knife should I get?” The only way I can answer this question is by asking questions in return. To recommend the right custom hunting knife, I ask the following:
- What kinds of outdoor activities do you like to do?
- Is this custom hunting knife going to be used for heavy-duty work or light-duty cutting?
- What is the budget that you are going to spend for a custom hunting knife?
The answers to those 3 questions helps me guide people to buy the right custom hunting knife. For those who’d like to be a more informed consumer, here are the top 5 attributes that combine to make a great custom hunting knife.
How to Buy A Hunting Knife – 4 Main Blade Designs
When buying a custom hunting knife for yourself or someone else, it’s best to choose a blade design that offers the most versatility for your requirements. There are four basic blade designs for sportsman knives.
- Blade Design 1: The first and most versatile is the up-swept blade (aka “skinner”). The main reason is the cutting edge is the longest per inch. The enhanced “belly” of the blade gives a person a bit more control.
- Blade Design 2: The next versatile blade design is the straight-back blade. The cutting edge is only slightly less than the up-swept blade.
- Blade Design 3: The clip blade is one of the most popular blade styles and has been around for more than 100 years. (“Buck” knives use this blade design.) It has a great point but a smaller cutting edge.
- Blade Design 4: Lastly is the drop-point blade. This style has become more popular in recent years. It is a cross between the Clip and the straight back blade. This blade has a more passive point than the other styles and is more in the light-duty blade category.
How to Buy A Hunting Knife – Check the Rockwell Rating of the Blade Metal
An often-overlooked knife component that has a critical role in the functionality of all knives is the hardness of the metal used for the blade. The best way to determine a knife blade’s hardness is by checking its Rockwell rating. The Rockwell rating for knife blades is based on testing the metal to see how the metal indents under specific loads. The greater the indentation in a Rockwell test, the softer the metal. When a knife blade has a higher Rockwell rating, it takes more effort to sharpen the blade, but the good news is that the knife blade stays sharper longer. Here’s a look at what various Rockwell ratings mean:
- Rockwell ratings of 45-54 = a good hunting knife
- Rockwell ratings of 55-58 = a better hunting knife
- Rockwell ratings of 59-62 = the best, most durable hunting knife
How to Buy A Hunting Knife – Choosing the Optimal Blade Length
The optimal length of a custom hunting knife is determined by what you need to cut. The simplest explanation is that you need enough blade length to make whatever you are cutting as easy as possible. The bigger the animal, the bigger the knife blade that’s needed. Some outdoorsmen & women have such massive experience and knowledge of game processing that they can use any size of knife to do the job. But for most folks, it helps to have the right blade length for your outdoor application. Here are some guidelines for how to choose the right blade length:
- Bird & Trout Knives = 3-inch & 4-inch blades
- Big Game Knives = 5-inch & 6-inch blades
How to Buy A Hunting Knife – Choose the Optimal Handle Material
- Natural Knife Handle Materials: Horn, Wood, Cork, Stone, Bone, Leather & Shell.
- Synthetic Knife Handle Materials: Man-made Ivory, Chemical Composites, Mother of Pearl & rubber/silicon.
Based on my 45+ years of experience, here are some guidelines on how these knife handle materials hold up over time.
- Wood & Stone Knife Handles: These two handle materials last the longest and are the most stable.
- Horn, Leather & Bone Knife Handles: These knife handle materials tend to shrink after a number of years.
- Shell Knife Handles: Shell used as a knife handle can crack with heavy use.
- Cork Knife Handles: Cork used as a knife handled dries out and is not as durable as wood.
- Synthetic Knife Handle Materials: These vary in cost but they are chemically enhanced to be more durable and long lasting compared to natural materials.
How to Buy A Hunting Knife – Choosing the Optimal Knife Handle Design
The fit of a knife handle has a lot to do with the size of the user’s hand and the style of grip. A smaller knife handle will be easier to use than an oversized handled knife. (If the grip is too large, it will cause more hand fatigue.) The issue of balance and its placement is a personal choice. Many folks want the balance point to be behind the bolster. Some prefer in front of the bolster. (This is the area where the blade intersects with the handle, and there’s a small area that is not sharpened.) Either will be properly functional.
Proper Cutting Technique When Using A Hunting Knife
It’s also important to talk about the correct cutting technique when using a knife. Chefs and surgeons use the same grips of their cutting tool. They use their thumb and index and middle fingers to grip lightly the intersection of the handle and blade. This results in better control and easier cutting action (moving the blade back and forth). Most people grip the knife handle tightly and tend to push the blade down through the meat. This does more crushing and ripping than cutting. A simple rule of thumb is: the longer the blade, the longer the forward/backward cutting motion can be used.
How to Buy A Hunting Knife – Summary
A comfortable, high-performing sportsman’s knife is a critical tool for hunting and outdoor activities. When you’re planning to buy a hunting knife for yourself or someone else, remember the following tips:
- Choose the right blade design.
- Check the Rockwell number of the blade. The higher the number, the better the blade.
- Choose the right blade length: shorter blades for small animals and longer blades for large animals.
- Choose the appropriate handle material for durability and beauty.
- Make sure the knife handle size & style fit the hand. (A handle that’s too large for the person using the knife will experience more hand fatigue.)
The more you research knives and handle them to get the “feel,” the more you will find a knife that satisfactory for you. Once you procure the ideal knife, be sure to keep it sharp and clean. My preferred tool for sharpening is a ceramic rod. When you buy a hunting knife with the right blend of quality, function, comfort & beauty, it will be an invaluable tool. On a final note, the old adage: “You get what you pay for” applies to knives. High-quality knives will cost more because they are made with better, more durable steel blades.
Rocky Bob Knowles is an expert outdoorsman, fly rod designer & builder, and craftsman making beautiful, functional, high-performing fly rods & custom hunting knives. He has 50+ years of experience in hunting, fishing, orienteering. Rocky Bob’s Fly Fishing Rods & Custom Knives is located in Denver, Colorado USA. He can be reached at: www.RockyBobsFlyFishingRods.com, or 720.810.9763.