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When it comes to skinning and butchering game and livestock, not all knives are up to the task. While the impression may be that someone can do everything with a Bowie style survival knife, the truth is that if you have the choice, there are often better options out there for those that plan on hunting or farming.
What you need depends on what you plan on hunting, raising, and butchering.
For really small animals, a small knife can take care of most needs.
When you start getting into deer, elk, moose, cattle, sheep, and goats, it is a lot better to have a hatchet and a knife or two because it can be hard to crack a rib bone and get the rib cage open with just a small knife.
Personally I think there is a lot to be said for a good hatchet and knife combo so I am going to start out with the one Matt and I have owned for 12 years at this point and it is still going strong.
Gator Combo Axe with 2.7″ Fixed Blade Knife in Handle
Overall length of hatchet:8.75 inches
Hatchet blade length: 2.7 inches
Weight: 23.6 oz
Steel: Forged Steel
Knife overall length: 7.01 inches
Knife blade length: 2.88 inches
Knife Weight: 2 oz
When I bought this combo for Matt, Gerber did not make as many styles or low priced hatchets and knives. After checking on the current price I am happy to say that it is actually lower than what I paid but appears to be the same exact design and materials that have stood up to more than a decade of homesteading and camping use. This was one of the best camping purchases I have made. At the time I had no idea that we would one day use this to process so much meat for the table while getting our piece of North Carolina into better shape.
As this is forged steel, you do have to take care of this to avoid rust. While it is not featured in the pic above, it comes with a nylon sheath that covers the head of the hatchet. The knife stays in the handle of the hatchet well thanks to a magnet.
We have just found it very convenient to have a hatchet that has a knife in the handle like this. You can butcher out just about anything with this hatchet.
Of course you should keep in mind that 12 years have passed since I bought this combo. As far as I can tell it is made of the same materials and meets the same standards. If you have not had a good experience with this combo recently, please let me know in the comments!
Gerber Bear Grylls Survival Hatchet
Overall Length: 9.46 inches
Blade Length: 3.5 inches
Weight: 1 lb 4.8 oz
Steel: 3Cr13MoV Stainless Steel
This is the starter hatchet as far as Gerber goes. It is a decent hatchet but lacks some of the strength and features of some. People seem to either love the Bear Grylls line from Gerber or really dislike it but that is pretty typical when anyone famous puts their name on something.
This is a small hatchet. In fact it may be a little too small for some. At the same time if you are a smaller person or have small hands, you may like something that is a few inches shorter than a lot of the other hatchets on the market today.
Gerber Myth Hatchet
Overall length: 8.5 inches
Blade length: 3.5” inches
Weight: 14.6 oz
Steel: Coated 3cr13 steel
The Myth is more expensive than the Bear Grylls model but for that you get a high carbon blade and better overall craftsmanship. The blade is shaped a bit differently and the cut out allows you to hang the hatchet up with ease and it cuts down on overall weight. At under a 1 lb this is a decent lightweight small hatchet for caring on a belt or attaching to a small bag. This is a very lightweight hatchet and somewhat short.
Schrade SCAXE10 11.1in Full Tang Hatchet
Overall Length: 11.1 inches
Blade Length: 3.6 inches
Weight: 1 lb 5.9 oz
Steel: 3Cr13 Stainless Steel With A Powder Coating
Schrade is a well known company and many people still say the quality is good but like many older knife companies, they are now made in different countries. At the same time this is one reason why you can buy a Schrade for such a low cost.
The handle is made in a hammer style which is comfortable and familiar for a lot of people. The Black TPR Rubber wrapped handle offers a good non slip grip which is always important when butchering due to the slick and wet conditions. There is a lanyard attached but you get a plastic sheath for wearing on a belt or lashing to a bag when needed.
I was very incredulous about the Marttiini brand because the prices seem too good to be true. The truth is that the Marttiini line all hold up to many years of use under difficult conditions. We have owned the smaller Bowie style and the fillet knives and they are still performing well. Matt and I can be particularly hard on a knife. In the past, we used to butcher 800 lb+ hogs on the farm with no one but the two of us to pitch in. When there are just two people to take on duties, it becomes even more critical to have tools that are up to a task.
Marttiini Little Classic
Overall length:7.5 inches
Blade length: 3.5 inches
Weight: 1.95 oz
Steel: 420T Stainless Steel
This is a nice size and exceptionally lightweight. I would use this knife for skinning and gutting. If you want something bigger, than look at this next knife in the Marttiini line.
Marttiini Big Game Hunter
Overall length: 10 inches
Blade length: 5 inches
Weight: 4.95 oz
Steel: 420T Stainless Steel
This is the size Marttiini we keep in the kitchen and use for a lot of butchering jobs. We have used it for hogs, sheep, and cattle. I like to use it for portioning out meat to vacuum seal and freeze. The handles on the Marttiini knives are outstanding. I have always felt safe using these knives because of the impressive texture of the handle and the substantial guards that discourage slipping either way.
Marttiini Basic Fillet Green
Overall length: 7.75 inches
Blade length: 4 inches
Weight: 2.3 oz
Steel: 420T Stainless Steel
Marttiini knows what they are doing when it comes to fishing and hunting knives. This fillet knife comes with a plastic sheath which can be really nice for a fillet knife because you can clean it easily and it doesn’t absorb odors like leather can.
This is a lot smaller than the Rada fillet knife discussed in this post. If you tend to process a lot of freshwater fish or small game, this may be a more reasonable choice than the Rada.
CRKT Mossback Bird & Trout Knife
Overall length: 6.562 inches
Blade length: 2.851 inches
Weight: 2 oz
Steel: SK5, 54-56 HRC with a powder coat
You know I cannot do a knife post without putting CRKT in it. This is a great little knife for skinning and dressing small game and fish. It comes with a sturdy nylon sheath and although it is compact, it is comfortable to use. For small animals you really don’t need a lot. I am confident I could dress out squirrels, chickens, ducks, groundhog, and more with this knife. The grip is good, and it is a good sign that CRKT included a decent hand guard even though the knife is on the small side.
Puma SGB Birdknife Jacaranda Wood with Hook Folding Pocket Knife
Overall length: 6.2 inches
Blade length: 2.9 inches
Weight: 2.6 oz
Steel: 1.4116 German cutlery steel manufactured in Solingen Germany
Puma is another go to brand for quality and affordability. This knife has a gut hook and a reasonable sized blade. Like the CRKT, this is all you need for small butcher and gutting jobs. Puma always features German Steel but a lot of their knives are made in Spain even if the steel is German. In my opinion the quality is in no way affected and you get a better deal for your money if you get the Spanish made Puma knives.
I buy a lot of my kitchen knives from Rada. Their steak knives are absolutely amazing and I use them as basic kitchen knives for cutting up veggies all the time. They also have fillet knives and other specialty knives that may be useful for butchering purposes. All Rada is still made in the USA so they are a rarity in the cutlery world, especially when it comes to a kitchen knife.
Rada Cutlery Paring Knife Set
Blade length: 2-1/2”, 3-1/4” and 3-1/4 inches
I really have a hard time understanding how Rada sells their products for the price they do. This paring knife set is just the ticket for small food prep and butchering tasks. No it is not the thickest blade but you don’t need super thick or expensive for smaller duties or just cubing meat for freezing or canning.
Of course, if you just want to try out a single knife you can pick up a paring knife from Rada.
Rada Cutlery Fillet Knife
Overall length: 12.25 inches
Blade length: 7.125 inches
Weight: 4 oz
Steel: 420T Surgical Grade Stainless Steel
This is the fillet knife that Matt and I keep in the kitchen and use for all of our butcher tasks where a thin, sharp blade is required. It is a good choice for slitting the throat of an animal so that they bleed out well. This fillet knife keeps an edge very well and you have to be quite careful with it. The handle is ergonomic and feels natural in your hand. No matter how wet the conditions, this knife never feels slippery.
The sheath is nice because it has a snap closure which is important when you consider how sharp and thin this blade is.
Small game and livestock
I have a little bird hunters knife that I have used to gut and dress as many as 42 chickens in a day. The small blade size makes it easier to avoid puncturing an intestine or worse. Too big of a knife is awkward and basically impossible to use. A small paring knife like that you get with the Gerber hatchet works just fine too.
The art of cracking a rib cage
One of the harder initial parts of dressing out an animal is cracking open the rib cage. While this can be done with a knife, it is hard on you and the knife.
We like to do this with a hatchet most of the time. You have to do short and purposeful strokes until the rib cage yields. After that you will have an animal gutted in little time. The bigger the animal the harder it is to do. Given the choice, many people accomplish this with a meat saw. A hatchet is the next best thing and a less specific tool that you may have, anyway.
You can do a lot with an everyday carry knife and for small game that may be all you need but a hatchet is still awfully nice to have for a variety of other tasks.
My attitude when it comes to knives is that versatility is nice to have on your side, especially when bugging out or just trying to keep it basic at home. Some people are very skilled with a blade so for them it may be a lot easier to use fewer styles of knife. Over time you will gain skill too. Knives are an important part of survival and I don’t think it is a bad idea to have 3 knives and a hatchet to cover major survival needs. With modern day materials, weight is not as significant a factor as it once was. Even very inexpensive knives are designed with a good strength versus weight ratio.
If you have especially small or large hands, then you need to consider that when deciding what knives are best for you. Comfort is a very important thing when you are spending all day butchering.
Safety is another consideration. A knife that is not comfortable to use, or that is too dull can be a safety hazard. With a dull knife the person wielding it tends to work a lot harder and that force can work against you if you slip up and slam a hand into that “dull blade”.
No matter how much you have used a knife, go slow and be careful those first few times you have to butcher out an animal.
It takes time to master the art of butchering. Remember that people make careers out of this. It is more complicated than the average person gives a butcher credit for.
The first time Matt and I butchered chickens together we had no chicken plucker or experience. It took all morning to pluck, gut, and dress 6 chickens! A year later we were doing 42 in less than a full day! So the message here is to not be too hard on yourself and if possible, allow extra time for those first few butcher situations. Everyone needs time to learn.
Knife Brands I Find To Be Reliable
There are so many outstanding knives that are just a few clicks away. It is always difficult for me to just pick a handful to share with you. I wanted to include a list of brands that I have found to be of good quality over the years. If you feel differently, then please let me know in the comments. I realize that some brands have changed over the years and the quality can sometimes reflect that!
A lot of the big knife manufacturers have a version of the knives I have recommended in this post. If you have a brand you have found to be reliable, then you may want to look at further makes and models from them.
Also please make a note that many knife brands have budget lines and higher end lines and that can make a big difference. Sometimes you don’t need the best, you just need something that will function ok in an emergency.
- Hen & Rooster
Invest in a good sharpening stone set and strop
You need to be able to maintain a decent edge on a knife if you want it to continue to be a useful addition to your survival and preparation gear.
If you want a portable sharpening kit, then that will not be hard. There are very small sharpening stones and portable sharpeners that are useful for those that are low on space or want a sharpener for a go or bug out bag.
Please check out my post “Best Pocket Knife Sharpeners” for more info on sharpeners. For those that really value lightweight and basic, here are a few suggestions for keeping your blades keen and ready for action.
Stainless versus Carbon Steel
Stainless is a good choice for those that may have to bug out or that live in corrosive environments. If you live near saltwater or in a region with high annual rainfall, then stainless may be your best choice. The main advantage of carbon steel is that it is easier to sharpen so if you keep it topped off it is hard to beat. The problem is that you have to keep it oiled or protected from moisture and salt water.
Stainless steel is supposed to not rust but in my experience you will still get some rust and pitting if you really abuse a stainless steel knife by doing something like leaving salty substances on it between uses or forgetting it out in the weather. How truly resistant to rust and corrosion a stainless steel knife is will vary based on the actual quality of the steel and the process used.
If you are new to knives and hatchets, you may want to get out the tape measure before ordering anything.
A few inches can make a big difference with a knife or hatchet. In the case of a knife, far less than an inch can make the difference between it being legal to carry or not. Those laws are rarely enforced. The bigger concern is getting a knife or hatchet that is comfortable for you to use.
Conclusion: A hatchet, paring knife, and fillet knife will take care of a lot of butchering tasks. Small game and birds can be processed with a good folding knife or small paring knife. For cutting up meat into cubes or similar, a knife like the Big Hunter from Marttiini will take care of the job.
What you like to use to butcher may be different than what I prefer.
I think my suggestions are a good starting point but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t experiment with various styles of knives, hatchets, and knife blade styles to discover what you personally like best.
Do you have a favorite combo for butchering game and livestock? Is there a knife or hatchet that has failed you? Please share in the comments below.