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A Guide to Choosing the Proper Knife(s) for the Outdoorsman

By: Tom Claycomb

I like to do it all. Fresh water fish, fish saltwater, flyfish, backpack, bowhunt, rifle hunt, fourwheel, whatever. So consequently, I can’t claim to be an expert on anything. But I do a lot with knives.

I’ve been sponsored by Knives of Alaska and Diamond Blades, on pro-staff for Smith Consumer Products, field -staff with Buck Knives, pro-staff with Havalon, pro-staff with Steel Will, pro-staff with Puma, and tested knives for nearly all of the other top knife companies. And worked for three of the top four beef packing plants for the last 42 years and am consulting and helping one as we type. So I took what I learned in the packing plant world and applied it in my outdoor world.

You’d think I knew something about knives, but I still learn something every week. I don’t know, maybe you just don’t ever learn it all? But I have learned a couple of things. And here is what puzzles me: if a company goes into the knife business, wouldn’t you think they’d talk to the outdoorsmen and ask them what they like? I remember quite a few years ago I got asked to the unveiling of a new knife company at the SHOT Show under the umbrella of a well-known outdoors company that if I told you their name, you’d recognize automatically.

The guy they had to make their knives seemed to make quality knives, but the designs he made were dysfunctional. I talked to them about designs we used in the outdoors, but they told me they had it all covered. Ok.

I do knife related seminars from Texas to Vegas on up to Alaska. In January, I had two seminars in Dallas at the DSC Convention, five in Vegas at the SHOT, four in Reno at SCI and one in Boise at the CC wild game feed. I say this just to say I see a lot of knives.

I’ve conducted seminars at Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shop, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and other stores. While conducting these, I look at knives in their display counters. Wow, there are some dysfunctional designs. I mean a lot of them! After a seminar, people will ask me about this knife or that, if it is a good one. Now, instead of just doing knife sharpening seminars, I now do knife sharpening/choosing the proper knife seminars.

here are really only five designs the outdoorsman should consider (granted, on the West Coast they do use a few other weird designs for filleting halibut). And I’m sure if you’re boning out an elephant you may need a couple of more designs, but I’ve never boned an elephant so I can’t say. But if you want to take me elephant hunting, I will go and see what works best! So let’s go over the designs that you should look for.

First, choose a company that makes a well-made knife. It can be a well-designed knife but of low quality. On the other hand, there are some companies that make a good quality knife, but they are dysfunctionally designed. So I say the first step in choosing a knife is to determine a few quality knife companies. The second step is to only pick knives out of their line-up that are well designed (the designs I’m about to list).

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Diamond Blade knives was smart in that they made their Traditional Hunter that is a drop point knife but since they ground down the spine it also doubles as a clip point so you can cut the pattern. The bottom knife is a clip point, the Traditional Hunter is in the middle and a conventional drop point is on top.

You or I can fly over to China right now and start our own knife company. All we have to do is to choose what design we want out of a hundred designs on their wall.

With that said, I know everyone is on a budget. So choose the best quality you can afford, and you’ll never be sorry. If you’re on a super tight budget, buy a Smith’s Consumer Products knife. If you have a little more, buy a Knives of Alaska. If you have more to spend, buy a Diamond Blades, they are the ultimate, design and quality wise.

Let’s go over the five designs that you could justify buying for your outdoors needs:

  1. Skinning knife. You need a clip point knife to cut the pattern. A clip point allows you to mark the pattern. This is the H-design you cut at the first. The cut down the midline and the four cuts out to each hoof. You will need a pointed or clip point knife to make this cut.

  2. To finish the skinning, a lot of people prefer a drop point knife. With a drop point knife, you can skin faster without worry of cutting through the hide. Can you skin your whole animal with just a clip point knife? Of course. I’ve skinned more than a hundred deer with a clip point folder. It’s just that you can skin faster and not be as careful if you’re using a drop point. Here’s where a knife like the Traditional Hunter made by Diamond Blades excels. The spine on the last bit of the tip is ground down so it has a sharp point, but it is still a drop point design. It is the ultimate design on the market. That way it can function as two knives in one, a clip point and a drop point.

  3. Caping knife. If you want to save the cape to mount your deer or elk or save the hide on a bear and be able to skin out the head around the eyes and lip and feet/toes, then you need to have a caping knife. Preferably it has a 2 ¼” narrow, pointed blade.

  4. Boning knife. Smith’s just came out this year with a great designed boning knife. You want an upswept 6” blade. This is what we use in beef plants. Trust me, if there were a better design, we would have come up with it by now.

  5. To slice your steaks and trim fat, for instance on briskets, using an eight-inch breaking knife results in smoother cuts. Can you do these cuts with a six-inch knife? Yes, it just won’t look as professional.

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Do you always have to carry all of these knives? No! I usually just carry one or two. But to complete all of our task when processing big game here are the ones you'll need. Bottom to Top-Clip point, drop point, caping knife, six-inch boning knife, eight or 10-inch breaking knife.

So there you have it, the five designs I think you need for your outdoor tasks. Granted, to fillet halibut they use some super flexible long bladed knives, and for salmon and steelhead a lot of people prefer a KOA or Smith’s eight-inch knife (or even longer). But for 99% of our outdoor needs, the above five will suffice.

Now to host a multitude of angry emails telling me how you skinned your first deer with your great, great-grandfathers 2 ½-inch knife. Yes, you may have done so. But realize, it may have a lot of sentimental value. It may have skinned your first deer. It may mean a lot to you. But that doesn’t mean that it is the best design.

Tom Claycomb III is a product tester for outdoor manufacturers, hunter, and outdoor writer, writing from Idaho.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.