Welcome to the outdoorsman’s most practical hunting tool: the fixed blade knife. A folding knife will never be as strong nor reliable as a fixed blade. Thankfully, American craftsmen and women forge many of the finest knives available. My enjoyable task is to narrow down the best fixed blades you can buy. Ultimately, what knife is best for you will depend on its intended use, your local environment (wet or dry), hand size, and yes, on your personal preference.
I grew up in the Rockies carrying knives while hunting, horsepacking, and backpacking since childhood. I’ve gone through every knife nut phase from carrying large heavy choppers like the Ontario Kukri to practical lightweights like the Buck 102 Woodsman. I’ve gone from affordable and easy to sharpen carbon steels like 1095 or stainless 420HC to the so called “super steels” with high edge retention like S30V, S35VN, S90V, and my current tougher favorite CPM-3V. I’ve learned that blade geometry, heat treatment, and ultimately your personal preference in blade design are all around more important factors than the steel composition. None of these steels suck regardless of what the armchair warriors claim.
To cut through the marketing BS and subjective bias of forums to truly learn about steels, I suggest taking a look at the ONLY resource I trust on steels which is supported by data: KnifeSteelNerds.com. The site is run by a PhD steel metallurgist and fellow knife nut from Pittsburgh, Larrin Thomas. Don’t allow anyone to persuade you that this or that blade steel sucks, all steels are a compromise between edge retention, toughness, and rust resistance… unless it’s a cheap import with a poor heat treatment, those really do suck. Rather than collect a bunch of cheap knives, I prefer to save my money for the best American made knives I can afford, knives that I will truly be proud to own and use for decades.
I know how hard it is to find honest recommendations and to narrow down American made gear. This is why I started American Gear Guide. I take my recommendations seriously and only recommend the best of the best. Here are a few reasons to trust me.
A deeper look into my favorite knife designs and why I recommend them.
I’m a practical man that appreciates practical tools which is where the Steep Country shines. This knife earns our Best Buy Award for offering a Goldilocks knife experience at an affordable price. First off, the bright ergonomic santoprene handle is comfortable to grip wet or dry and easy to see should it drop into the grass. The no-frills 3.5″ drop point blade in S30V provides a true stainless steel and a long lasting edge before sharpening. For sharpening blades like S30V with high carbide content, I recommend using quality diamond sharpeners like the DMT Diafold. On this latest version of the Steep Country Benchmade thinned out the blade to .12″ for even more efficient slicing. Lastly, the Steep Country comes with a nice Boltaron (better than Kydex) retention sheath.
Blade Length: 3.54″
Blade Steel: CPM-S30V
Blade Hardness: 58-60 HRC
Blade Thickness: .12″
Weight: 3 oz
Last observed price: $110.50
Sometimes knife nuts speak of a holy grail knife, that one knife that is as close to perfection as it gets; for me the Mini Aurora Hunter is that knife. It’s the knife I carry with me most of the time whether its on backpack elk and muley hunts deep in my local Rockies or backcountry skiing in the winter. The contoured handle fills my hand just right (I wear L size gloves) and the matte micarta actually gets tackier and grippier when wet while remaining smooth and comfortable when whittling and wood working. The 3.75″ blade has a great upswept belly for skinning and is enough length to efficiently quarter large game including elk and moose while remaining agile enough for fine detail work. As far as fixed blade steel, I enjoy CPM-3V for the combination of high toughness and great edge retention. However, this steel is only somewhat corrosion resistant unlike the true stainless steels in the knives shown below. For me that’s a non-issue unless you’re next to a salty coast.
Some companies give you a poor quality sheath but not Bark River, they provide a superb leather sheath. I like to form fit my leather sheaths as shown in this video. I also add mineral oil to my leather sheaths to keep them healthy. I should note that Bark River knives come with an excellent convex grind. If you’re unfamiliar with convex sharpening, it’s easy to do as demonstrated here (Knives Ship Free has some of the best youtube tutorials though they’re dated), and it’s very affordable with a cheap mouse pad and wet/dry sandpaper from 1000 grit to 2500. To simplify finding the right tools I’ve included links to exactly what I use, which are inexpensive and made in the USA except for the mouse pad. Furthermore, I like to finish my knives shaving sharp on a leather strop coated with 0-2 micron diamond paste.
Blade Length: 3.75″
Blade Steel: CPM-3V
Blade Hardness: 60 HRC
Blade Thickness: .145″
Weight: 4.5 oz
Last observed price: $217 +
The Buck 119 is as classic as they come, having been introduced back in 1942! Never losing style points for its clip point blade nor functionality, the 119 Special is likely the most popular American hunting knife ever produced. This latest 119 release sports upgraded S35VN “super steel” and high quality canvas micarta handles. S35VN is one of my favorite stainless steels as it tends to hold an edge for a longtime without chipping (good toughness) while remaining fairly easy to sharpen on DMT diamond stones. Buck is a master at hollow grinds which provides a thin shaving sharp edge that excels at slicing effortlessly. Some hunters prefer a large knife like the 119 for processing big game though it may be overkill on smaller deer. I love the solid feel of the 119 though I’ll admit that I tend to pack smaller knives deep into the backcountry. Last but not least, Buck provides a high quality leather sheath. Also note that you can get the original Buck 119 with 420HC steel for a great value.
Blade Length: 5.75″
Blade Steel: CPM-S35VN
Blade Hardness: 59-61 HRC
Blade Thickness: .145″
Weight: 7.62 oz
Last observed price: ~ $190
The ultralight Argali Serac minimizes weight to maximize physical performance. I like to keep things light as I tend to hunt deep into rugged terrain where other hunters won’t go. The Argali Serac achieves an ultralight 2 oz while its 3″ blade remains just stout enough for field dressing elk. The blade consists of all-American CPM-S35VN steel with excellent edge retention. The top of the blade features jimping for control on fine detail work and a groove for sparking fire steels. The 4″ long skeletonized handle is big enough for a sure hold with grippy G10 handle scales. Argali includes a quality kydex sheath with good knife retention.
Blade Length: 3″
Blade Steel: CPM-S35VN
Blade Hardness: 58-60 HRC
Blade Thickness: .100″
Weight: 2 oz
Last observed price: $210
Like the venerable Buck 119, the classic little brother Buck 102 has been around for over 70 years! Some foolish folks might overlook the woodsman for being small but those with more sense will recognize the merits of a nimble 4″ blade that only weighs 2.5 oz for carving up elk in the backcountry. I think of the Woodsman as a budget ultralight hunting knife whose value exceeds its price. The original version of this knife comes with properly BOSS heat treated 420HC stainless steel which holds a good edge, is easy to sharpen and tough (not brittle). If you prefer a really long lasting edge then you can go with the pricier Buck 102 Pro S35VN version. I wouldn’t complain with either version as I like stropping and maintaining my edges. The guards of the smallish 3.75″ handle lock my (L size) hand into place comfortably. Note, if you have really meaty hands then this handle may be small for you. If that’s the case or you just want a bigger knife then go with the slightly larger 5″ Buck 105 or 4″ Buck 103. A good thick leather sheath is included with the Woodsman.
Blade Length: 4″
Blade Steel: 420HC or S35VN with Pro
Blade Hardness: 58 HRC
Blade Thickness: .12″
Weight: 2.5 oz
Last observed price: ~ $53-60
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