For the most part, integral guards are utilized as a quicker, less expensive way to make knives. Most are simply squared off to give the illusion that they are somehow protecting your index finger/hand. I learned the hard way that such a guard is not meant for hard work. If you are going to use a knife with this type of guard, wear a glove.
Ben Breda won Best Utility Hunter at Blade Show 2019 for his model (photo above) in a 4-inch blade of W2 tool steel with Hamon. The handle is sculpted African blackwood with a bronze “S” collar and the blade is stainless steel. The knife comes with a leather sheath by Breda. Overall length: 8.75″ Ben’s hunter price for a similar knife is $575.00. (SharpByCoop image)
Most custom utility hunters have a single guard with some amount of curve built in to give you a better handle ergonomic. Additionally, it will provide some protection for your index finger/hand. The primary metals used for such guards are brass, nickel silver, and stainless steel. While brass is a favorite among factories and new custom makers, the biggest problem is it is soft. It can be easily nicked or cut, making it uncomfortable to hold. Stainless steel guards provide the best protection and the least amount of maintenance for your knife.
If you are looking for a category of custom knives to collect or use that have diverse handle materials, utility hunting knives lead the way. Synthetics, wood, ivory, bone, antler, mother-of-pearl, and others—you name it, utility hunters have it.
Mike Malosh opts for an elk antler (above photo) with black and maroon Micarta® and stainless steel spacers for the handle of his utility hunter. The 6-inch blade is a W2 tool steel and the guard is stainless steel. Overall length: 10.75″ The knife comes with a leather sheath by Malosh. Mike’s price for a similar hunter is $390.00. (Impress by design image)
When many outdoorsmen dress their knives to impress, they want stag. Unfortunately, stag is experiencing two things simultaneously, and neither is good. Because of lack of supply, the quality is going down and the price is going up to the point that the ancient ivories are now becoming an alternative. After talking with knifemaker Mike Malosh at Blade Show 2021, I have started to order some hunting knives with elk. While not as popular as Sambar Stag, it is a great handle material and has a nice look.
My experience in the field has made me a true believer in synthetic handle materials. The two most popular are Micarta® and G-10. Canvas Micarta is my personal favorite. As the name implies, there are bits of canvas included when the Micarta is made. This gives the handle a little more grip when wet. Westinghouse Micarta is gaining in popularity. Often it’s referred to as “vintage or antique” due to the fact most of it was made before 1960.
Carbon fiber is five times stronger than steel, twice as stiff, and lighter in weight. This gave rise to numerous commercial applications, eventually finding its way into the custom knife market. Initially used by custom makers for scales on folders, you can now find them using it for fixed blade handles, too.
The advantage of synthetics over natural handle materials is synthetics don’t shrink and, for the most part, are impervious to the elements. That said, natural handle materials can dress up a knife.
The custom utility hunting knife will be a workhorse in the field. Consider the factors I have outlined before you maker or buy one. What will you primarily use it for? What size handle is best for your hand? Will you be able to do the maintenance required for the blade steel? Can you sharpen the knife in the field and, if not, will you be able to practice how to do so before you get there?
I prefer a 5-inch blade as my experience has taught me that a big blade can do little knife chores, but not the other way around. As my 7th-grade shop teacher always said, “Use the right tool for the job.” Sage advice!