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Let’s face it: Hunting, done correctly, is not easy.
For most serious hunters, there are hours upon hours of preparation leading up to the hunt. You could spend potentially marriage-ending amounts of time scouting terrain, mastering a bow and arrow, rifle, or shotgun, acquiring the proper attire, erecting treestands or hunting blinds, clearing firing lanes, gaining proficiency in animal calls, researching supplementary gear (binos, rangefinders, etc), deodorizing clothes, and even spraying deer pee on the ground and maybe on your boots. Then there’s the patience — the long wait for your prey to arrive, validating your obsession. It can be painful sometimes, but you wait and that big buck finally walks in. The stars align and you get a shot. Your practice pays off, and the deer drops after a short run. You kneel down and stroke the animal’s fur, feeling a twist of emotions. You thank the animal for its sacrifice and for the meat it will provide you and your family. Now comes the unpleasant task of field dressing and skinning the animal. You retrieve the dull, Swiss Army knock-off you’ve been carrying since fourth grade and start stabbing away. Right?
For a hobby of immense preparation, many people lose focus on the tasks required after the point of impact. We put so much thought into how to get the animal, we don’t think a lot about what’s required afterward — and a quality skinning knife can be the difference between a good day and a great day when you’re out in the field with a buck at your feet. Technically, any knife can be a skinning knife, but some knives are better suited than others and it only makes sense you’d want to carry the best.
In this buying guide, we’ll break down our choices for the best skinning knives available, why we choose them, and how they’re best utilized. In addition, we’ll talk about the key features important to you, as a hunter, and how to make your decision based on your specific hunting needs. Let the hunt begin!
When preparing to write this buying guide, one of the first things I did was to question the fellow hunters in my life to see what knives everyone carried. The Havalon Piranta-Edge came up multiple times, including with my brother, who has used it to field dress two elk and several whitetails, and my best friend, who uses it for whitetail each season. Both listed the same features as their reasons for loving the knife: its thin, but durable, razor-sharp blade and its lightweight composite handle.
The Havalon Piranta-Edge’s 2.75-inch blade is made of stainless steel and holds a razor-sharp edge through multiple uses. The thinner and shorter blade allows for more precise strokes to avoid meat-wasting cuts or nicks to a prized hide, though it will take a few more strokes to get the same amount of work done. The blades are thin, so you may not want to use this knife for excessive prying, but even if a blade snaps, the Havalon Piranta-Edge comes with 12 replacement blades. This knife comes with its own blade-changing tool and is surprisingly simple to do, though my brother indicated a broken blade is harder to change, so you might need a good multi-tool in that circumstance.
The handle of the Havalon Piranta-Edge is made from a lightweight, durable ABS plastic and features two rubberized grip pads to prevent your hands from slipping when the going gets bloody. The handle is 4.5 inches long, making it a comfortable hold even for larger hands and giving it a nice balance.
- Blade length: 2.75 inches
- Overall length: 7.25 inches
- Blade material: Stainless steel
- Handle material: ABS Plastic
Razor-sharp, replaceable blades
Shorter blade (requires more strokes)
Thin blades may snap if prying at joints
This is not the first time the Morakniv Companion has made one of the Task & Purpose lists of best knives, as it previously appeared on our list of the best survival knives. And with good reason: The Companion is an excellently crafted fixed-blade knife, made even more impressive considering its low price of only $18.
The blade of this Swedish knife is made of Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel, which boasts exceptional edge performance, razor sharpness, corrosion resistance, and extreme durability. The blade length measures 4.1 inches and sits in a 4.5 inch TPE rubber handle. The handle is lightly textured to create just the right amount of friction and prevent the blade from slipping, an exceptionally valuable feature if you’re using the knife when your hands are wet with blood.
One of the main draws of this knife is its quality to simplicity ratio. The knife doesn’t boast any flashy features or added extras that would make it harder to maintain. It’s simply a good knife, set in a sturdy handle, with minimal creases and crevices, making it easy to clean and maintain.
There’s no doubt this is a great knife: With over 24,000 global ratings on Amazon, it still maintains an overall average of 4.8 stars.
To further test the knife’s quality, I purchased one for myself and have been using it in the evenings to prep meat for dinner. You can take from that what you will, but the knife has performed perfectly, which should be a relief for all you frozen-chicken-thigh hunters out there.
- Blade length: 4.1 inches
- Overall length: 8.6 inches
- Blade material: Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel
- Handle material: TPE rubber
Razor-sharp and corrosion-resistant blade
Fixed blade makes it easier to clean
Comes with a sheath of mediocre quality
If you really want good insight into the quality of a blade, ask a professional. Until this last year, my uncle owned a deer processing business here in Michigan. Every hunting season, he would skin and butcher hundreds of deer for local hunters, processing the meat into steaks, roasts, filets, burgers, and his infamous jalapeno cheddar brats. His skinning knife of choice? The Outdoor Edge 3.5” RazorLite EDC. In fact, as I was writing this review, he informed me he was going to the sporting goods store to pick up another one for an upcoming bear hunt in Canada.
The Outdoor Edge 3.5” RazorLite EDC is another folding knife that utilizes replaceable blades. The blades are made with Japanese 420J2 stainless steel and are heat-treated to ensure excellent edge retention. The blades are easily changed out, locking into place on a sturdy 420J2 Stainless Steel blade holder that gives it the strength of a more traditional knife. Say goodbye to sharpening your knife in the field, because six replacement blades are included with the purchase.
The blade and blade holder is supported by a sturdy fiberglass/nylon polymer handle inlaid with rubber pads to provide a sturdy grip even when things get messy. The knife also features a stainless steel pocket clip for easy belt wear and accessibility.
- Blade length: 3.5 inches (also comes in a 3-inch option)
- Overall length: 8 inches
- Blade material: Japanese 420J2 stainless steel
- Handle material: Molded TPR (Thermoplastic Rubber)
Excellent edge retention
TPR texturized hand grips
Easy to change, replaceable blades
Folding knives can be harder to clean
With more moving parts, comes more opportunity for malfunction
The ESEE Ashley Game Knife is a knife for big game hunters designed by a big game hunter. When ESEE Knives began their foray into hunting knives, they employed the expertise of hunter and hunting guide Ashley Emerson, who has hunted over multiple continents and gone after a huge range of game “from squirrels to buffalo.” The ESEE AGK features a 3.5-inch inch, 1095 carbon steel blade with a flat grind, designed for rough and rugged use. With that said, this type of steel is prone to rust and staining under hard use, so proper blade maintenance is a priority for a knife like this. This isn’t a huge deal, but it does mean you’ll want to keep the blade clean and properly lubricated when not in use.
The handle of the ESEE Knives AGK is completely removable, making it possible for more in-depth cleaning. The handle itself is made from a canvas micarta, which is essentially just canvas material set in a thermosetting plastic. The ridges of the canvas fabric give the handle a good texture for a solid, non-slip grip and the thermosetting plastic makes it easy to clean and very durable. The handle measures 4.75 inches long and features a deep finger groove behind the blade to further prevent slippage when working hard on particularly large animals.
The ESEE Knives AGK comes with its own leather sheath and the whole product is made right here in the U.S.A.
- Blade Length: 3.5 inches
- Overall length: 8.75 inches
- Blade material: 1095 carbon steel
- Handle material: Canvas Micarta
Extremely durable blade
Removable handle for thorough cleaning
Steel type requires more maintenance
Longer knives can be bulky to carry
If you’re looking for a cost-friendly knife for big game, look no further than the Mossy Oak Fixed Blade Gut Hook Knife (I know, it’s a mouthful). Primarily known for their camouflage apparel, Mossy Oak also produces a wide range of other hunting gear, including hunting knives. This knife is on the bigger side, with a 4.5-inch blade made of 3CR13 stainless steel. The top of the blade features a gut hook, which is meant to make the process of gutting and field dressing an animal more efficient.
The knife’s full tang is sandwiched between attractive walnut handle pieces and topped off with a brass pommel to prevent the user’s fingers from slipping up to the blade. The handle is a full five inches long, allowing for a nice firm grip, plenty of leverage, and making it easy to grab out of the leather belt sheath that comes with the purchase.
A note on gut hooks: There are a lot of mixed reviews on gut hooks in general. Though their design makes sense, I don’t actually know a lot of people who use them for their intended purpose. Most seem to find the gut hook is harder to control, opting for more precise cuts with the main blade. Multiple reports I’ve read, however, indicate the gut hooks are good for popping the tops off beer bottles, so there’s that, I suppose.
- Blade length: 4.5 inches
- Overall length: 9.5 inches
- Blade material: 3CR13 stainless steel
- Handle material: Walnut with brass pommel
Full tang provides extra strength and durability
Wood handle gives it a classic look
Has gut hook (if you’re into that sort of thing)
Heavy knife at .44 lbs
Blade is thick (3.3 mm) making more precise cuts difficult
Is there any hunting/skinning knife more iconic than the Buck Knife? I’d argue there isn’t. That’s why I felt it would be unwise to put together a list of great skinning knives without including the Buck Knives 113 Ranger.
This classic-looking knife sports a 3.125-inch, 420HC stainless steel blade. The wide, curved edge of the blade allows for long controlled strokes, making it easier to move through the skinning process faster.
The full-tang blade is set inside an ebony handle with a brass bolster. The handle is 4.125 inches, making a comfortable, ergonomic grip, while not making the knife overly long and cumbersome. All Buck knives are backed by a lifetime warranty and made in the U.S.A.
- Blade Length: 3.125 inches
- Overall Length: 7.25 inches
- Blade material: 420HC stainless steel
- Handle material: Ebony with brass bolster
Full tang enclosed in quality wood handle
Curved sweeping blade
You might find it too pretty to use in the field
If you’re in the mindset to “treat yourself,” I offer for your consideration the Winkler Knives Blue Ridge Hunter. This is just a beautiful knife, and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty liar. The four-inch blade is made of 80CrV2 carbon steel, which is known to be a “workhorse of steel,” and has been given a black oxide finish to help make the blade rust-resistant.
The Blue Ridge Hunter employs a skeletonized tang, which runs the full length of the handle and provides the rigid support of a full-tang knife while cutting down on overall weight. The tang is sandwiched into a beautiful maple handle (also four inches). This is a knife you’ll want to take special care of, so be sure you keep it clean, keep it oiled, and keep it close.
As cool as this knife is, Winkler Knives’ backstory is even cooler, as it has provided custom-made blades, combat axes, and tomahawks to some of America’s most elite special operations units since as far back as Desert Storm. Its story is a good one and can be found here.
- Blade length: 4 inches
- Overall length: 8 inches
- Blade material: 80CrV2 carbon steel
- Handle material: Maple
Skeletonized tang to reduce weight
High-quality maple handle
Higher price for higher quality
Why you should trust us
I grew up in a hunting household and I don’t remember many late autumns/early winters where there wasn’t at least one whitetail deer hanging from the rafters of my parents’ garage. My dad did all his own skinning and butchering, so I’m no stranger to the process or the tools of the trade. As a hunter myself, I understand well the attributes that make up a quality skinning knife.
Types of skinning knives
Though more cumbersome to carry than their folding counterparts, fixed-blade skinning knives are very popular among hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. This popularity seems to rise from the blade’s simplicity, low maintenance requirements, and reliability. Without joints and locking mechanisms, fixed blade knives are easy to clean and maintain and don’t come with the added worry that a part might fail, resulting in injury. The cleaning piece is especially important to hunters as the knife is sure to get covered in blood, hair, fat, and skin in the aftermath of a successful hunt. After all, the last thing you want is all that gore getting worked into the inner workings of the knife.
Now that I’ve just finished dumping on folding blade knives for being dirty-birds, here is why they often do make good skinning knives. Folding blades are much more compact and can be easily stowed in pockets and backpacks or clipped to belts. Most are light and take up limited space. Typically, knives with replaceable blades are commonly folding knives and this is a feature that seems to be a growing trend. Turns out, people don’t like sharpening their knives in the field. As for the cleaning part, folding blades will require a bit more attention, but this alone shouldn’t be a deterrent to looking into some rather great knives.
Gut hook blade
Gut hook blades feature a small hooked blade on the upper end of the knife. The thought process behind the gut hook is that it can be inserted under the skin and the hook can be dragged quickly along to expedite field dressing. In actuality, it doesn’t seem like a lot of hunters utilize the gut hook due to the lack of control and prefer to use a regular blade to ensure a more precise cut is made.
Key features of skinning knives
There are a lot of different steels out there and it can be difficult to understand which is which and where they fall in the scale of hardness, edge retention, etc. For me, the biggest thing to know was the difference between carbon steel blades and stainless steel blades. Unlike carbon steel, stainless steel contains at least 10.5 percent chromium, which makes the blade more resistant to corrosion and rust. The trade-off is that the stainless steel blades are not quite as strong as carbon steel blades and are harder to sharpen. While carbon steel knives are stronger and can be sharpened to a finer edge, they require more maintenance in the way of consistent cleaning and lubrication of the steel.
The blade length can play a big role in your experience with a skinning knife. You should generally select a knife length based on the type of game you’re most regularly after. For animals in the small game category, the suggested blade length is from 2.5 to 3.5 inches. For larger game, like deer, elk, and bear, it is suggested to have a blade from 3.5 to five inches (blades five inches or more will get the job done and make the skinning go faster, but it won’t be pretty). Generally speaking, a 3.5-inch blade is a good, safe spot to encompass pretty much any game you could potentially go after.
Handle material and build
The handle material really boils down to preference, and you really just want to make sure whatever you’re getting has a sturdy build. Skinning an animal is pretty easy until it’s not, and it can require quite a bit of force when you start working on separating joints. The last thing you want is for the handle of your knife to snap and your hand to sink into the blade. There is a wide range of plastic, steel, and wood handles out there, all of which get slicked up when you’re covered with blood. Be sure to get something with a good grip and maybe some added texture to prevent slippage. If you’re looking at a knife with a smooth handle, I’d recommend you get something with a good finger guard to keep your digits attached.
Benefits of skinning knives
You’re two miles out in a national forest and you’ve just taken the bull elk of a lifetime. The sun is getting low and wolves are baying in the distance. If you don’t get it out tonight, there might not be much left in the morning. While any knife can technically be used to field dress an animal, a good skinning knife will help you make quicker work of the project, so you can get your animal skinned, quartered, and your meat hiked out as quickly as possible, leaving only bones and a gut pile for the greedy scavengers.
Whether you’re looking to cape out a beautiful buck for a wall mount or you’re just very concerned with keeping every last scrap of meat, a good skinning tool can give you the precision cuts you need to make use of every part of the animal. For precision cutting, it’s a good idea to go for a shorter blade that is as thin as possible. While this will increase the overall time you’ll spend skinning your kill, it will drastically improve the final product.
Just like every knife can be a skinning knife (even though they shouldn’t), every skinning knife can be used for general purposes as well. However, this thought process should only be applied in a pinch. To serve its original purpose, you want your skinning knife to remain as sharp as possible until it’s needed for its intended use. Using your blade to sharpen sticks or sword fight other hunters encroaching on your territory can severely degrade the sharpness and readiness of your blade.
Pricing considerations of skinning knives
Most of the skinning knives under $25 tend to be fixed blade knives with blades made of stainless steel. There are a few folding knives at the top of this category, most of which utilize replaceable blades. While some people might turn their nose up at inexpensive knives, I’d rather lose an $18 knife than a $200 knife while I’m trudging through the underbrush looking for a deer.
Between $25 and $100, you’ll find a lot of the higher-rated folding knives with replaceable blades. As you start to approach the higher end of this range, you’ll see fixed-blade knives from more reputable brands such as Gerber and Buck. Oddly enough, in the middle range of this bracket (around $50 to $60), there are a lot of fixed-blade knives featuring Damascus Steel, though I haven’t come across a whole lot of evidence for or against the use of Damascus Steel. I guess it looks cool, though.
Looking above $100, you start to see some of the higher-end brands of fixed-blade knives, many of which utilize carbon steel blades. Remember though, with great cost, comes great responsibility (for maintenance). I think Spider-Man said that or something. Most of the blades here will also boast a durable, well-constructed handle and a decent sheath to boot.
How we chose our top picks
As I mentioned earlier, one of the first things I did when I started researching skinning knives for this review was to ask those who would know best: the hunters. Being from a fairly rural part of West Michigan, I have a lot of hunters in my life, all of whom have no hesitation in sharing their feelings on the pieces of gear they love and those they don’t. Taking these first-hand reports, I cross-referenced them with many other online reviews of skinning knives, as well as my own first-hand experience, to put together this list of top recommendations.
FAQs on skinning knives
You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.
Q: How sharp should a skinning knife be?
A: As sharp as you can get it. Hides, tendons, and muscles can be tough to cut and your blades will dull over time. The sharper you start, the farther they’ll go.
Q: What is the difference between a hunting knife and a skinning knife?
A: Skinning knives are, technically, hunting knives, but are more specialized for the skinning of animals as opposed to the less delicate work of chopping and quartering. A skinning knife tends to be smaller than most hunting knives and often has more curvature to the underside of the blade to allow a longer stroke.
Q: Do skinning knives need to be curved?
A: Skinning knives don’t need to be curved, but it does help. An elongated curve allows for a longer stroke of the shorter blade.
Q: Can you use any knife for skinning?
A: You can. Hell, you could use a butter knife, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy or smart.