If you’re a whitetail hunter, that also means you’re a knife owner. Some kind of blade has been the deer hunter’s sidekick since before man even invented a belt to hang it on or a pocket to slide it into.
But despite thousands of years of refinement in knife making and hunting, untold numbers of sportsmen still don’t have a clue what separates a good blade from a bad one. They carry knives, all right, but in many cases they’re not only dull but also fundamentally unsuited to the task.
In the world of cutlery, to be ideal for one job is to be at least somewhat ill-suited for another. Each knife is a compromise. A big knife provides more leverage, while a small one gets into tighter spots and provides a more delicate touch. Extremely hard steel wards off bone and other obstacles longer before dulling, but softer steel is easier for most folks to sharpen. A flimsy blade is great for working around bone, but it’s of little use when forcing your way through an old buck’s pelvis or even rib cartilage. Everything is a tradeoff.
Now, factor in this reality: In the long run, most hunting knives spend less of their working lives slicing game than performing other tasks. A hunter often finds himself needing to trim a small branch hanging over a trail, slice a section of pull-up rope or even open rations at camp (because somebody once again forgot the can opener). The list of potential needs for a knife is almost endless. If you don’t believe that, try leaving yours at home.
One solution might be something that doesn’t exist: a magnum version of the old Swiss Army knife. But make this tool big enough to do serious work in the deer woods and you’d practically need your very own Sherpa to lug it around for you. Fortunately, you don’t need every kind of knife with you when you’re in the field. You just need to have access to a given knife, in good working condition, when you reach the part of the venison-preparation process for which it’s best suited. Much of that overall process occurs far from the woodlot where you gut your buck.
So do you want a single utilitarian knife for whitetail hunting, or would you prefer having a number of specialty blades? Not everyone will answer in the same way, because not all are equally involved in the process of turning a deer into dinner. Those who simply want to eviscerate the animal before turning it over to a professional meat cutter or Uncle Gary to process have simpler knife needs than do those engaged throughout the process.
With all of this in mind, let’s look at some solid variations on the general concept of a deer knife. These definitely aren’t the only good ones out there, but they’ve all proved themselves worthy of continued use by many whitetailers across the land.
Before I get into fixed blade knives that work well in the deer woods, let me point out some obvious ones that don’t. That list begins with grossly oversized blades, including those of the legendary Bowie design. Will they get the entrails out of a deer? Sure. Do they work well? Not really. For whitetails, a blade much longer than 4 inches tends to be more of a problem than a solution. Leave the really big knives to the movie prop guys in Hollywood. Same goes for many survival knives.
For field dressing deer, one of the problems with many big knives—knives of all sizes, in fact—is they feature a clip point blade design. The sharp, thin tip lies above the spine, making it literally the first point of contact with the target. This almost invites you to nick some part of the digestive tract behind the diaphragm as you open the body cavity. Plus, a deer dead for even an hour—perhaps sooner in hot weather—often has significant gas pressure in its paunch. There’s little to no gap in which to operate, so it doesn’t take much of a slip to make a mess.
The so-called drop point blade minimizes this problem. Wherever you choose to make the initial cut on the deer’s belly, a drop point blade greatly reduces the chance of accidentally pushing through both the skin and the surface of the organs beneath. A drop point blade isn’t quite as sharp on the tip, but you really don’t need a sharp-tipped knife for dressing out a deer. Plus, thin tips simply aren’t as strong as thicker ones.
Today, almost every knife company has multiple drop point models in its line. Pick one with a good blade, about 2 to 4 inches long, and you’ll be able to eviscerate any whitetail on earth. If you want a specific suggestion, look a few proven models below.
I’ve always liked a folding knife. My dad—a meat cutter and cowboy by vocation, and hunter by avocation—never went anywhere without his Schrade in the right front pocket of his jeans. Daddy and Schrade both have been gone for nearly a decade now, but what they both found appealing about the concept of a folding knife still applies. If you don’t mind the minor hassle of cleaning the blood, fat, meat and hair out of a folder—especially one with multiple blades—once the gutting is done, they can be handy in the deer woods.
A Word on Gut Hooks
I wonder, on occasion, if some hunters like gut hooks because blades of this type look like something they’d hand you when you walk into a biker bar. My own ambivalence about gut hooks has nothing to do with image. When a gut hook is part of a knife’s main blade, sometimes I find it simply gets in my way.
A standard gut hook can be hard to sharpen once it dulls. That said, for the specific task of unzipping the belly of a deer without busting a gut, this feature can be a huge help. One of the best products out there is the Wyoming Knife, which is detailed in the gallery below.
Boning It Out
Once a deer is skinned and ready for final processing, another specialized knife design rises to the top of the list: the boning knife. More like a filet knife for fish than what most sportsmen would call a hunting knife, the boning knife has a flexible blade that makes it quite handy for removing meat from a carcass.
All that being said, be sure to take a look at the best deer hunting knives right now: