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Best Knives for Skinning and Field Dressing Deer, Elk and Large Game

By Trent Gander |
Man cutting deer with knife

Hunting elk, deer, or larger animals is very rewarding, especially when you get to take the meat home with you. However, if you can’t harvest that meat efficiently you are wasting a lot of effort. A good knife will make harvesting that meat easier and allow you to get the most off of the animal.

This is where skinning and field dressing knives come in. Tools like these are similar to filet knives, carving knives, and other meat processing blades. This means there is a wide variety available with different benefits. Let’s look at some of the options you have to choose from.

What Makes a Good Skinning and Field Dress Knife?

Hunting is a traditional sport that is handed down from individual to individual. Because of this there is a lot of personal opinion that goes into selecting a knife. For me, as long as the knife is the right size and sharp enough, specialized steels and similar aspects are not important.

Not everyone can afford to hunt, let alone spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a knife they might use once a year if they’re lucky. Big game hunts can also be few and far between, so a good knife that can work in most hunting scenarios is worth more than a highly specialized knife.

However, there’s no denying that certain knives make breaking down an animal a lot easier. So, we’re going to go over some of the parameters that can help you select the right knife.

Blade Length

The length of a blade will determine how easy it will be to remove cuts of meat from an animal. The right length will vary depending on what you’re hunting, so it’s a good idea to have one or two knives of different lengths in order to handle different tasks.

Most of the cutting work a knife will do will be during the field dressing stage. This is focused on removing the entrails, windpipe, and other traditional protein sources. The primary goal is to harvest as much meat as possible and make it ready for transport.

Large game will have more muscle mass and thicker tissue to deal with. This means you’ll have to cut through a lot to remove it from the bone. Cutting through large meat portions is made easier with longer blades. I would use a 5-6 inch blade for processing anything larger than a deer if I was quartering it to get the most out of the animal.

For more general-purpose field dressing, a 2-4 inch blade is the happy medium of blade lengths. Knives in these lengths allow you to get into all the nooks and crannies of the animal’s skeleton and remove even more meat than you would with much larger blades.

When it comes to basic skinning practices most knives will do, especially if you are only using the knife to begin the separation between the hide and the meat. I prefer more primitive skinning methods where the hide is “peeled” or stretched off of the meat. This usually causes less damage to the hide, which is important if you plan on tanning it.

That being said I usually have my standard sized Kabar or my Kabar short when dealing with mosting things in the woods. They are not ideal for this task, it’s just what I’m likely to be carrying with me.

Blade Length & Game Size

5-6 inches Best for larger game or thicker cuts of meat
2-4 inches Best general use lengths, but not as efficient in cutting through large muscle groups.

Knife Edge

For most of your skinning and dressing needs, a plain edge will be the primary option for you. Plain edges make cleaner cuts and cause less waste when processing meat. While serrations can be used to power through tough sinew and joints, this is a task best left to a bone saw.

A thin, narrow edge will handle most of the process. As long as the edge is properly sharpened and maintained, the style of edge doesn’t matter. But if you really want the best edge for cutting meat, a hollow-ground design will provide the sharpest, narrowest edge on a blade.

Edge sharpness is the more important factor. You should consider a knife that can swap out the edge. Replaceable edge knives are becoming more popular since you can change out the blade and focus on processing the meat instead of taking extra time to resharpen your knife in the field.

A removable blade is very useful in bear country, since it allows you to process the animal faster. Which in turn lowers the chance of a bear or other animal being drawn to the smell of fresh blood while you’re in the area.

Edge Type & Benefit

Plain Edge Does most of the cutting tasks, damages the meat the least
Serrated Edge Can power through sinew and joints, but can damage the meat
Combination Edge Unlikely to be seen on a skinning/field dressing knife

Blade Belly

The belly of a blade is the curved area between the tip of the blade and the cutting edge. This is the area where the knife’s cutting power comes from. A long, narrow belly will easily cut through meat and tissue.

When combined with an equally narrow point, these long bellies will allow you to cut most meat off the bone cleanly with less effort. While some larger, wide bellied blades can provide equal or greater cutting ability, they don’t fit into narrow skeletal areas like the spine, pelvis, and skull.

Why would you want meat from there? Well it makes great filler for ground venison and produces less waste than leaving it behind. While you could just choke up on a longer blade to provide a smaller edge and belly, it’s safer to have a smaller knife to use instead.

Belly Style & Benefit

Narrow Belly Fits easier into hard to reach areas
Wide Belly More cutting power, less versatility
Long Belly Makes cuts and slicing easier
Short Belly Makes the point work more, requires an extremely sharp blade

The Handle/Grip

Field dressing an animal is very bloody, messy work. This means we have to have a secure grip on the knife in a variety of conditions or we’ll run the risk of hurting ourselves in the process. A friend of mine learned this the hard way when his folder cut a huge gash on his thumb one year.

We’re looking to avoid a similar incident so a handle should be slip resistant and/or have some means of keeping our hand from running up on the blade. This can be achieved with finger knurls, rubberized grips, guards, or blade projections. The surer methods put a physical barrier between your hand and the blade, which can make the knife harder to carry.

A lot of hunters like to slim down their equipment so it doesn’t snag on bushes or trees, this means overly large guards create a greater footprint to snag twigs and branches. This is why we see a lot of traditional hunting knives be very narrow blades or folding knives. It just makes it easier to carry.

Handle Style & Benefit

Rubberized Non-slip design, great for wet or bloody conditions, can be paired with other styles
Finger knurl/Finger groove Helps keep the hand from slipping, performance varies from design and depth of knurl/groove
Guard or blade projection Places a physical barrier between you and the blade, most secure form

Additional Considerations

There are always a few extra items that we need to consider when it comes down to selecting a knife, but in terms of a skinning knife and field dressing knives we have a lot of leeway. But some people are looking for specifics on the blades they should buy.

For blade shape, most knives in this category are going to have a trailing point, a drop point, or a clip point style blade. These are very similar to camping knives in this regard. I like clip points predominantly but as long as I can get the knife where I need it, the blade style doesn’t really matter.

Another consideration is the gut hook. Some knives come with them and they make opening the stomach cavity easier. If that interests you, you should definitely have it on your knife. It’s not a “must have” feature, but it does make life easier. I don’t go out of my way to have them, since they significantly widen the blade profile.

Blade steel is something else to be mindful of. Carbon steels tend to cut better, but rust very easily. This means they take more effort to care for than stainless steel. A lot of modern blades will have some sort of protective coating on the steel itself, with some companies going as far as to create new steel blends that are more resistant to rust while still maintaining a good edge.

If you like sharpening your own knives, some modern steels can be very hard. This makes a durable edge, but it is much harder to sharpen the knife when it does get dull. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an easily sharpened knife might not hold an edge very well. Most knives on the market today will be in the middle ground of edge retention and ease of sharpening.

Best 7 Skinning/Field Dress Knives

1. Best Processing Knife for Large Game: Benchmade Meatcrafter

Benchmade MeatCrafter 6 inch Fixed Blade
Benchmade MeatCrafter 6 inch Fixed Blade
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If I was going to be a professional hunter or just someone who dealt with a lot of meat on a monthly basis, this would be the knife I would have. It is specifically designed for processing large game.

The hollow ground edge, trailing point, and rubberized handle blend into a well rounded design. It is for working on meat. This means it won’t double as a camp or a general-use knife.

Another drawback is the price. I own some fairly expensive knives, but the closer they get to the $200 price range is when I start to question my purchasing habits. Unless you are absolutely sure you are going to be using this regularly, there are better things to spend your money on.

If you are a professional hunter or trail guide, this would be a good investment to add to your field kitchen or camp equipment.

2. Most Affordable Skinner: Old Timer Sharpfinger

Old Timer Sharpfinger 3.5 inch Fixed Blade Knife
Old Timer Sharpfinger 3.5 inch Fixed Blade Knife
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This is honestly one of my favorite budget style blades. The Sharpfinger design is extremely well balanced. It can cut like a much larger blade, but it doesn’t take up that much space. If you need something that can double as a skinner and an EDC knife, this blade fits the bill.

The Old Timer Sharpfinger is a better investment, since you are more likely to be using it daily or weekly rather than just on a hunting trip. I’m a big fan of versatility when it comes to my knives, especially if I’m going to be using them regularly.

One of my favorite “beater knives” is very similar to the Sharpfinger. It didn’t cost me a lot, and it handles everything I throw at it. The Sharpfinger will do the same and you won’t be risking a high dollar knife. The blade shape allows for a lot of careful cuts, making it the perfect option for hunting on a budget.

3. Best Folding Skinner: Outdoor Edge Razor 3.5 inch Folding Knife

Outdoor Edge Razor Blaze 3.5 inch Folding Knife
Outdoor Edge Razor Blaze 3.5 inch Folding Knife
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Sometimes you just want convenience with your knife. The Outdoor Edge Razor offers that in a pretty sturdy package. It locks out securely, comes with its own carrying case, and can easily swap out blades when the current edge gets dull.

This model has a wider belly than I would prefer but there is no denying that it will speed up the skinning process. When you’re short on time, a dull blade is going to make your work a struggle and you’ll damage the meat.

This is definitely the middle-of-the-road, “I hunt regularly” option. But it isn’t overly expensive for the performance that it brings. The rubberized handle and quick release latch are great benefits when your primary concern is getting back to camp.

4. Best Replaceable-Blade Skinner: Outdoor Edge RazorMax 3.5 inch Fixed Blade Knife

Outdoor Edge RazorMax 3.5 inch Fixed Blade Knife - Orange
Outdoor Edge RazorMax 3.5 inch Fixed Blade Knife - Orange
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This one is a little subjective. It offers similar performance to its folding sibling, but I prefer the safety that a fixed blade offers. The more moving parts you have, the more things can go wrong in a given system. The RazorMax lessens the number of moving parts, while still allowing you to swap out the blade.

Another great feature is that it comes with multiple edge shapes, so you almost have two different knives in one package. You can get a set of replacement blades and swap out the different belly lengths to meet the requirements you have while skinning and processing.

If I was going to get a new dedicated skinning knife, this would be the one I would choose.

5. Best Multi-use Skinning Knife: Morakniv Companion 4.1 inch Fixed Blade Knife

Morakniv Companion 4.1 inch Fixed Blade Knife
Morakniv Companion 4.1 inch Fixed Blade Knife
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If I was going to have one knife to bring with me, I would choose this one. Morakniv knives are great, affordable options that can serve as a bushcraft knife, a processing/skinning knife, and a general use knife.

This model offers a 4 inch blade which will handle most tasks well. It also has a scandi grind design which is a durable, easily sharpened edge geometry. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone complain about their scandi ground edge.

It’s going to take a little longer to process an animal with this one. But you will really only need one knife to do so. The rubber grip and finger knurls mean this knife will be locked into your hand while you’re working with it.

6. Best Processing Kit: Outdoor Edge WildLite Knife Set

Outdoor Edge WildLite Knife Set
Outdoor Edge WildLite Knife Set
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This is a good knife set for trying out different styles of knife or for having multiple knives for different processing tasks.

It comes with an easy-to-use sharpening tool, gloves, and three different blade types ranging from boning to caping to skinning. What that all means is there is a knife in this kit perfect for getting very close to the bone, removing hide, and general processing.

This makes a great gift for someone who is just getting into hunting or for your long-term hunter who needs a new set of knives.

I’d keep this in my hunting gear or cabin (if I had one) so it would always come on the trip with me. It’s self-contained and has almost everything I needed to prep the current season of jerky.

7. Best Starter Kit: Ruko 2 Piece Skinning Knife Set

Ruko 2 Piece Skinning Knife Set
Ruko 2 Piece Skinning Knife Set
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If you are just getting into hunting, but aren't sure if it’s for you yet, this is the option I’d recommend. It’s not too expensive, the handles and blades are “good enough”, and they come with their own sheath.

Keeping spares on hand is a good practice. This set will allow you to stash some backup knives in your vehicle or loan it out to someone without giving them your more expensive gear. This set would be a good starting point for a lot of hunters so they don’t get “gear fever” and buy the most expensive option out there without the experience to guide their decision.

While I do prefer to keep my gear streamlined, this option would allow me to just throw the set in a pack and keep it there, without worrying about losing them.