My five favorite skinning knives for big game hunting

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What are some of the characteristics of a good big game skinning knife? I have used these knives extensively and they work really well.

by Leon Pantenburg

Disclaimer: Nobody had any input in this post, and I was not paid to write it. This post features photos of some bloody blades, that got that way by being used in legal, lawful big game hunting. Don’t read or view any further if this offends you.

Even if you don’t hunt, and have no plans to start, a prepper/survivalist needs a set of butchering tools. When the shinola hits the fan, you may need to butcher and process a large animal such as a cow, pig, horse, bison, goat etc. With the correct tools and some basic knife skills, this is not a big deal. Without the right knives, that task may become odious and near-impossible drudgery.

Our ancestors skinned mammoths and other very large animals with small, sharp rocks. In an emergency, you could probably skin a large animal with a tiny Swiss Army Knife Classic or a pocket knife. For that matter, a standard box cutter would probably work OK. My Cold Steel SRK survival knife helped skin several deer and elk, and it worked fine. But who wants to just get by?

Among your butchering tools should be a skinning knife. Skinning a large animal merely requires separating the hide from the meat by cutting the membrane that connects them. Generally, the faster you can remove the hide, the quicker the meat cools and the better it will taste.

Every successful hunter has an opinion and here’s what I look for in a skinning knife:

  • Thin blade: The knife is not going to be used for bushcraft, and woodworking is not in the plan. A thin blade is more effective for virtually everything.
  • Pronounced belly: The belly of a blade is that part from the tip to where the edge straightens out. The belly does most of the work, and a skinning knife will have a large belly with a curve.
  • Comfortable handle: A skinner will be used a lot, for extended periods of time. The handle that fits your hand allows you to work comfortably. (Here is how to measure your hand to fit a handle.)
  • Quality steel: This goes without saying. A knife that must frequently be re-sharpened will take more time to use. Also, it will dull quicker, making it an unsafe tool. Best steel
  • Point: A piercing or drop point will work OK for skinning, but the best is an upswept or trailing point. These help extend the belly of the blade.
  • Size: This is a personal choice. I usually take two different-sized skinners in my daypack, because I can. I want a five-to-six inch blade on the larger knife, and a smaller knife with a two-to-three inch blade. These will be used in different parts of carcass.
  • No replaceable blades: Your best chance for getting in a survival situation is when you’re big game hunting. The replaceable blade knives are not sturdy enough to be survival knives – and are you going to pack out the dull blades? I hope so. Invest in a quality knife with good steel, and you won’t need to be resharpening or switching blades while processing a carcass.
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Here are three types of knives I carry for big game hunting in the backcountry.

Obviously, I can’t test every skinner, and there isn’t even enough room to review all the skinning knives I have used over the years. The following skinners have proven themselves at many camp skinning racks. They are listed in a random, disorganized fashion, with no ranking of quality or usefulness.

Grandpa’s butcher knife: My grandfather, Leo Wirth, was a farmer and part-time butcher. One of my earliest childhood memories was watching Leo skin a pig at a butchering. During the Great Depression in the 1930s Leo would travel to other farms and butcher and process cattle, hogs, goats or whatever. He had a full compliment of butchering tools, hand made by his brother, John Wirth, who was a blacksmith in Boone, Iowa. John used the steel from a Model T Ford to craft the implements to Leo’s specifications.

Today, Leo’s knives are distributed among his descendants, and most of the blades are still in use. (Leo’s butchering steel is in my kitchen, and it gets used all the time. The steel ends up at the skinning rack during deer season.) My mom used Leo’s butcher knife for everything, and she maintained the edge with the steel and by honing it on the rim of a crock. At some 90+ years-old, the old butcher knife still has a lot of years of service left.

Russell Green River: A standard of the western fur trade was a do-all utility knife manufactured by J. Russell & Co. and sometimes referred to as a “Green River”. The knives were not called Green Rivers until some time after the heyday of the fur trade.

The J. Russell & Co factory was started in 1832-34 to make butcher and kitchen knives. During the era of the fur trade, close to 60,000 Russell knives per year were shipped to the West. Among the most popular patterns were the scalper, butcher and skinner. These are available today, and are a great low-cost, no-frills working tool. Fur Trade knives

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Bark River Mountain Man: This basic utility knife is a recreation of the old Fur Trade standby. It combines modern steels and materials and a proven design. Mine gets a lot of use. The latest incarnation of this features the latest super steel, Magna-Cut, and an attractive handle made of the material of your choice. Bark River Mountain Man

Bark River Skinner: “Finally!” was my reaction when I saw Bark River had produced a designated skinning knife. Somebody finally produced an upscale, classic design knife for butchering and meat preparation. Bark River Skinner review

Bark River Fingerling: This design is familiar to anyone who has ever used an Old Timer™ Sharp Finger. The shape of the blade is excellent for processing the carcass, but is just as capable as an EDC knife. Read the Fingerling review.

Casstrom Safari: This small knife works very well as a small game knife. It is also valuable as a detail skinner for caping. While it could be used to skin an entire large game carcass, it wouldn’t be my first choice. On the other hand, the Safari is so small and lightweight, it makes a great backup blade in your daypack. Casstrom Safari Review

L.T. Wright Large Northern Hunter

The Northern Hunter is not really classified as a skinner, I guess, but it sure works well. The belly on the blade works efficiently to separate the hide and the handle design makes using the knife easy. Large Northern Hunter review

L.T. Wright Large Pouter

Not a skinner per se, the Large Pouter works well as an over-all hunting knife. The belly on the blade is about right for a skinner, and the knife can do it all on a carcass. Large Pouter review

Bark River JX6

The Grohmann Knives of Nova Scotia, Canada, had definite influence on this JX6 knife design. That design, according to my research, apparently goes back to the original Nessmuk knives. I used the knife on a couple of whitetails and it worked well. I would like a longer handle, but I have to periodically complain about something so people know I’m not writing ad copy!

This is another smaller skinner that is lightweight and handy. It fits well in a hunting daypack.

Honorable mention: These knives are not skinners per se, but they work well as hunting knives that can also be efficient skinners.

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Lon Humphrey Minuteman: I loaned this knife to my brother, Michael Pantenburg, with the instructions to “Wring it out.”

He did that a couple of years ago on a Mississippi deer hunt. My cousin, Marion Fitzgerald, shot a whitetail buck. Mike helped him track the blood trail, and they recovered the animal, naturally, in a deep, weedy ravine. Marion went back to get me and the sled.

When we got back to the downed animal about 15 minutes later Mike had it gutted and ready to haul. We went back to the skinning shed, and Mike continued using the Minuteman to take the hide off. He raved about the Minuteman, and gave it a six-star rating out of a possible five stars.

Good friends, especially hunting friends, need good knives, in case you ever have to borrow one. Mike got the Minuteman for his birthday.

Jesse Hemphill Gator Breaker Bowie knife

Skinning an alligator is like skinning a motorcycle tire. When my neighbor brought home an eight-foot long alligator, I jumped at the chance to wring out some knives. The Hemphill Bowie knife proved to be the best knife for the job. My small knife on this project proved to be my Ambush Tundra.

Ambush Tundra: For several years the Tundra was no go-to hunting/skinning/everything knife, and it was used extensively on deer and elk. I have absolutely no complaints about its performance and could happily use a Tundra for the rest of my hunting days. Tundra review

But. Cutlery nerds are never quite satisfied.

Bark River UP Bravo: I thought the Tundra could be improved for me with that same leaf-style blade and the Bark River Bravo handle. I lobbied for that combination for a couple years, and apparently my suggestions, whining, complaining and begging were a small part of creating the UP Bravo and the UP series.

I’ve got to stop somewhere, so I’ll let it go with this. My personal skinning knife choices are not necessarily going to be yours. What works for me may not be the best choices for you. If you are currently using a favorite skinning knife and are happy with how it performs, there is no reason to go shopping for another knife.

But knife people are always looking for an excuse to acquire another cutlery tool – so here you go!

Bushcraft Basics signed copy ad My five favorite skinning knives for big game hunting

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>