Choosing your next deer skinning knife should be a fairly painless process. While the number of different designs and features available is often overwhelming, a great skinner only requires a few different things to make it extremely functional.
The shape of skinning knives vary a good bit, but the most viable ones have a nice thin point with a more rounded base. The ovular shape is a mechanism of efficiency, and it maximizes the surface area available for use while minimizing the amount of motion required to skin a deer. Some knives really emphasis this shape, and they are very distinguished in appearance.
The exact shape chosen is really a matter of preference. A moderate oval is just fine so long as the blade comes to a fine point—but some folks prefer really exaggerated oval shape designs. Some modern skinners also use a narrow, sharp point without the oval shaping. The narrow blades are really handy for detail work and taxidermy precision cuts, but the additional surface of a wider blade is handy for scraping and skinning the big sections of a deer or elk.
A knife blade in the 2.5-4.5 inch range is normal. A non-corrosive material that sharpens nicely like stainless steel or carbon hardened steel is standard. Any highly corrosive blades made from cheap materials should be skipped over simply because they will not last long.
Folding Models, Fixed Blade, or Disposable Blade
This is really the big debate when choosing knives for skinning and processing game. A fixed blade is the most stable option and is the best choice for most hunters. The folding blade remains a valuable option, however—especially for hunters with limited space availability. If you hunt deep in the backcountry with only the things you carry on your back, a folding blade may save a little space.
The third option is relatively new. Disposable-bladed knives do not fold, but you can easily transport one with the blades separate from the handle. In that sense, it stores in a more compact manner than fixed blades. These disposable blades are thin but sturdy and designed for single-use purposes. Take one of these into the backcountry with two or three of their lightweight blades and you will never need to sharpen the knife. This also eliminates the need for a sharpening stone, saving potentially more space.
For all practical purposes, the fixed blade knife is rigid, strong, and durable. A fixed blade is easy to sharpen and it has no moving parts that may break or trap moisture. Consider when and where you will most often use the knife and choose based on this pretext. If you are unsure, consider buying a trusted fixed handle knife and learn how to keep a sharp edge.
Many of the knives you see will have a hook built into the blade. This is a gut hook designed to assist with the skinning process. The hook is sharp and you use it to make skinning cuts along the gut without piercing the intestines. The design is effective, especially when the hook is sharpened.
Many hunters prefer skinning knives without the gut hook, however. You can effectively skin an entire deer, elk, or other animal without ever using a gut hook. The incorporation of the hook is not necessary unless you actually intend to use the function. If not, skip the gut hook models entirely. Otherwise, the hook may prove useful when skinning out your next deer. Using a hook is completely a matter of personal preference.
Personal Preference on Grip
The last element of a knife besides the sheath is the grip. A nice synthetic grip with some rubberized traction is great for stability and durability. Synthetic grips are also really easy to clean after field dressing and skinning out a deer. You can scrub them down and use normal detergents to wash away the hair, blood, and grime.
Wood grips tend to carry less traction but they are lightweight, attractive, and nostalgic. The wood grip is a common choice just for their general visual appeal. That said, a wood grip with a clear finish will clean up easily and it can feel really nice in your hand.
Also, consider the color of the grip. Skinning in the field is difficult and the transition between positioning and different blades often means your knife is placed on the ground. A blaze orange or highly visible grip makes the knife easy to locate while working on the animal. You can stick the knife blade in a piece of flesh or a section of soft ground and the bright colored handle prevents it from becoming lost. Losing sight of a knife while skinning is surprisingly common and it leads to wasted time while searching for the blade.