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What Defines the Best Custom Utility Hunting Knife? Part 1

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If you are a knife maker wanting to enter a utility hunter for judging at the 2022 Blade Show, you should read this first…


Very popular in his home country of Slovakia, Jan Hafinec outfits his custom utility hunter (shown above) with a 5-inch blade of forged C105 carbon steel sporting a flashy double Hamon. The handle is made of Presentation Desert Ironwood.  Guard and sub hilt: stainless steel  Overall length: 10″  A custom leather sheath by the maker completes the package. Fisher’s price for a similar knife is $699.00 (Impress by design image)

When it comes to custom knives, the best utility hunters have many of the features outlined herein. (Note: There are two parts to this blog.)

Countless articles have been written about hunting knives. Primarily, the stories discussed which knife is best for which game.  The two main features that get the most coverage are the blade style/shape and the length. The knife referred to commonly as the hunter is more than likely a utility hunting knife.
No matter where you are if you are using a guide—hunting or fishing—more than likely your guide is the one doing the dressing of the game. Chances are, he is using a utility hunting knife with some of the following features.

Blade Steel
If you ask 100 people what the best steel is for a hard-use field knife, you probably will get at least 50 different answers. Why? End users are very loyal to steel that has proved itself in the field.

The two primary choices for blade steel are carbon and stainless. Each has its pros and cons. Stainless steel’s biggest advantage is that it is rust-resistant, meaning it will require less maintenance. Stainless is not code for “no maintenance.” Yes, stainless steel will rust.

Carbon steel requires maintenance. Many things will make carbon steel rust, several examples being the blood from the game that is being processed and some types of vegetation, including vegetables. However, the rust can be held to a minimum or eliminated simply by cleaning and oiling the knife after use. Keep in mind that storing your carbon steel knife in a leather sheath can also cause rust, especially on a wet blade, as the tannic acid used to process the leather can cause rust spots.

The winner of Best Utility Hunter at Blade Show 2018, ABS Master Smith Josh Fisher’s hunter (above) has a 4.25″ blade of 1084 carbon steel, a Ringed Gidgee handle, and a guard of brushed Stainless Steel. Overall length: 8.75″ The knife comes with a custom-made leather sheath. Josh’s price for a similar knife is $685.00. At that show, he earned both his ABS Master Smith (MS) stamp and the B.R. Hughes Award for the best knife submitted by an MS applicant.  (Eric Eggly/PointSeven image)

Karis Fisher (above knife photo) is the daughter of ABS Master Smith Josh Fisher. Karis not only earned her ABS journeyman smith (JS) stamp in March, she also won the Joe Keeslar Award for the best knife submitted by a JS applicant. The 4-inch blade is 1084 carbon steel and the handle is Vintage Micarta®. Guard: 416 stainless steel. Overall length: 8.5″ Sheath: custom-made leather.  Karis’ price for a similar hunting knife is $375.00.

While carbon steel can rust, it does have two advantages over stainless steel if the blade is forged. First, several blade smiths forge distal taper into their carbon steel blades. The taper removes weight from the blade, thereby making the knife lighter in weight and thus easier to carry and manipulate. Second, carbon steel blades can be differentially heat treated to give them a hard edge for sharpness and a softer back for malleability. The latter results in a blade with greater flexibility that is much more likely to bend rather than break under high stress.

The steel you choose for your utility hunting knife should be one that can be sharpened in the field and fit the requirements for what you want your knife to accomplish. Remember—it is always best to resharpen your knife before it gets dull!

Ideal Sizes

Having judged custom utility hunters at the Blade Show for over two decades, I can tell you there is no one ideal size. That said, most of the judging competition winners feature a blade between 3 7/8 and 5 inches in length. (For the makers reading this, please do not submit your 10-inch bowie or 2-inch miniature in this category for judging.) Among the accompanying images for this story are three past winners of the category at the Blade Show. Note the differences and similarities of these knives. In addition to dimensions, the importance of handle ergonomics cannot be overstated! Most handles will feature some kind of contouring and generally will be between 4.5 and 5 inches long.

The 5-inch blade of W2 tool steel with Hamon headlines a utility hunter by Jim Crowell. (pictured above) The handle is black canvas Micarta® and the guard is stainless steel. Jim made the leather sheath. Overall length: 10″ This knife was made for the author. Jim’s price for a similar knife is $850.00. (Impress by design image)

Circle back around to our blog for the rest of this 2 part article. Thanks!

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