Buck Knives for Hunting and General Use
By Gary Zinn
Buck 110 Folding Hunter. Illustration courtesy of Buck Knives, Inc.
Buck Knives makes one of the broader ranges of fixed blade and locking folder knives in the cutlery industry. I began contemplating the question of which, among the many models they make, are the best choices for hunting, field carry and general outdoor use. Not surprisingly, I could not convince myself that one model, or even a very small group of Buck knives, was in any logical sense the best of Buck. I decided to sort the many Buck knives into six categories and then listed a few knives that I feel are the best in each category.
I set certain restrictions on the knives I would consider listing. First, I list no knives that have blades less than 2-1/2 inches long, feeling that any knife with a shorter blade is of only limited usefulness for hunting and general outdoor tasks. Second, I include no knives that are imported. I am reluctant to feature or recommend any low priced imported knife. My experience is that these are inferior, regardless of the brand name under which they are marketed. Third, I also ignored low end made in the USA models, reasoning that these are inferior to higher quality Buck models, some of them only a few dollars more than the domestic budget models.
Another restriction is only a very few of the knives that Buck classifies as survival or tactical knives are mentioned in this article. This is because most of these knives have blade styles, handle designs, or other features that I judge would be irrelevant or counterproductive in the context of hunting or general outdoor use. These may be fine knives for particular situations or tasks, but they do not fit in the hunting/general outdoor knife category.
Detailed reviews of particular knives or explanations of technical features (e.g., the opening assist and locking mechanisms on the Momentum and Marksman knives) are beyond the scope of this article. Links to several relevant reviews are noted.
Given the background and parameters noted, here are my opinions regarding the best Buck knives for the hunter and outdoorsman. The knives listed are from the Buck official website (www.buckknives.com) as of 2016. The number following each model name denotes blade length, in inches.
Classic Lock Back Folders
In 1962, Al Buck, son of Buck Knives founder H.H. (Hoyt) Buck, introduced the Model 110 Folding Hunter knife. This was a truly revolutionary hunting and field knife, which prompted other commercial and custom knife makers to introduce what has become a rich variety of locking folders, including those using back locks, liner locks, frame locks, or other locking mechanisms. Everyone who makes, markets, or uses modern locking folder knives should light a candle to honor the memory of Al Buck.
The handle profiles of all five knives in this group are true to the original Model 110 design, pictured above. (Occasionally Buck makes a run of the Model 110 with a finger grooved handle.) Currently, all models feature 420HC stainless steel blades and back lock mechanisms, with stained Dymondwood handle scales. All except the 503 Prince come with a leather pouch.
420HC is the steel used most extensively throughout the entire Buck line. 420HC is known as a good quality knife and impact tool steel. Tough, hard and strong, it has decent edge holding capabilities and is reasonably easy to resharpen. Buck uses a hollow blade grind on almost all of their knives.
The 110 and 112 have clip point blades and brass bolsters, liners and pins. The 500 series knives use drop point blades with nickel silver bolsters, liners and pins.
I will not describe or critique these knives in more detail here, for Chuck Hawks has done thorough reviews of the Model 110 Folding Hunter and the Model 501 Squire. These reviews, along with the reputation this knife series has gained over time, tell all that anyone needs to know about the quality and utility of these knives.
Classic Fixed Blade Hunters
My respect for Buck hunting knives goes way back. When I was barely twelve years old, an older brother introduced me to deer hunting by letting me shadow him on a hunt. He got a deer on our second day of hunting. He had a Model 102 Woodsman knife and I was immensely impressed with how deftly he field dressed and later skinned and butchered the deer with that knife. The next year, I used the same knife to field dress my first deer.
Previously, I surveyed the family of six Buck Classic Fixed Blade Hunting Knives. This article covered the first four knives listed above, plus the 119 Special and 120 General models, which will be listed below. Here are the key common and distinguishing features of these knives.
The first common feature is the handle style. The metal finger guard, subtly finger grooved handle profile and distinctive pommel are common to all the knives in the family. The handles vary slightly in length and girth among the models. Handles are built around a rattail tang, with the pommel cross pinned through the end of the tang.
There are two versions of each model. The basic version features an aluminum finger guard and pommel, while these parts are brass in the deluxe version. The handle of the basic version is black phenolic resin, while the deluxe handle is Dymondwood, a resin-infused birch laminate with a cocobolo stain. All models feature 420HC stainless steel blades, hollow ground and satin finished. Each knife comes with a well designed, sturdy leather sheath.
One can look at any two of the six models and immediately know that they are siblings, from the handle style and the hollow ground blades. The models vary in blade length, pattern, spine thickness and weight.
The Vanguard and 113 Ranger Skinner knives are not truly part of the classic fixed blade knife family, but I am including them here because they are more like the classic knives than like the contemporary style fixed blade knives I will discuss below. I view the Vanguard as a stylized derivative of the Buck classic fixed blade knife type. The Vanguard has a drop point blade of 420HC steel with a rattail tang. The ergonomically shaped handle is furnished with a finger guard and flush pommel cap, both brass. There are two versions of the handle, one of textured rubber and the other of walnut. The Vanguard with a rubber handle is arguably one of the most sensible all-purpose hunting knives on the market.
The 113 Ranger Skinner would be hard to beat as a dedicated skinning knife and it can double as a small game and everyday carry field knife. It has a full tang 420HC steel blade with walnut handle scales and brass bolsters at the front of the handle.
Besides my early experience with the 102 Woodsman, I did considerable livestock butchering work with the 103 Skinner during my teenage years. I now have a deluxe 105 Pathfinder; I consider it and a Helle Alden to be the co-flagships of the handful of commercial fixed blade hunting knives I own. These Buck classics, along with the Vanguard and the Ranger Skinner, are highly capable knives.
Easy Opening Folders
Once the idea of locking folders took hold, it was inevitable that knife designers would think up ways to make blade deployment easier. The methods that have stood the test of time include mounting thumb studs on the base of the blade, or milling in thumb loops or flipper spurs; these are intended to make opening the blade a one-handed operation. These "easy opening" designs mostly incorporate either a liner lock or back lock to hold the blade open. As the list above indicates, Buck offers several good options in knives of this type.
The Open Season Folding Skinner is a new model. As the name suggests, it has a skinner profile blade. There are two versions, one with 420 HC steel blade and a black thermoplastic handle, the other with S30V steel and a rosewood stained Dymondwood handle. The first version has a thumb hole opening assist and comes with a nylon belt pouch. The second has a thumb stud and a leather belt pouch. Both versions use a liner lock to secure the blade.
S30V is a premium blade steel that Buck is beginning to use in selected knife types. Here is what they say about it on their website:
"We consider this the absolute best blade steel available, and it is made in America. S30V contains carbon as well as high amounts of Chromium, Molybdenum and Vanadium. This steel combines fantastic edge retention and high ductility combined with corrosion resistance."
The Alpha Hunter has been around for some time. It has a drop point blade of 420HC steel with a liner lock. The steel handle frame is overlaid with black rubber grip panels and the knife comes with a nylon belt pouch.
The Omni Folding Hunter comes in two blade sizes, called the 10pt (3") and 12pt (4"). The 420HC steel blades have a drop point profile. A thumb stud assists opening and the blade is secured via a back lock. The handle is coated with Alcryn rubber, either black or with a camo pattern. A nylon belt pouch is included.
The 183 Alpha Crosslock has two blades with thumb studs and liner locks. The primary blade is a modified spear point and the second blade is a combination crosscut saw with a gut hook. Blade steel is 420HC. The Crosslock sports a shadow green or orange anodized aluminum handle over a stainless steel frame. Both a heavy duty nylon belt pouch and pocket clip are included.
Vantage series knives come in two sizes, with several alternative additional features. Common among all of these are a drop point blade style with both a thumb hole and flipper spur, plus a liner lock, pocket clip and stainless steel handle liners.
The differences between the Vantage and Vantage Pro models are the blade steel and handle material. The Vantage has a blade of 420HC and glass-filled nylon handle scales, while the Vantage Pro features high performance S30V steel and G10 handle material. The Vantage Pro, with these upscale materials, could arguably be classified as an extreme duty knife (see below).
The Inertia is the first mechanically assisted opening knife listed thus far. It features a drop point, 420HC steel blade and a black anodized aluminum handle. Both a thumb hole and a flipper are available to initiate the spring-assisted opening function. The blade is secured via a liner lock and a pocket clip is included.
Contemporary Style Fixed Blades
What is the difference between a 1965 Ford Mustang and a 1965 Ford Falcon? The first is a timeless classic to be cherished, while the second is an obsolete relic to be forgotten. To me, classically styled fixed blade hunting knives are like Mustangs, but to others they may be like Falcons. The Buck knives listed here are for those of the latter persuasion.
Buck is obviously putting a large effort into their new Open Season knife line. Besides the Folding Skinner model listed above, they have launched fixed blade models called the Caper (3-1/2"), Small Game (4-1/4"), Skinner (4-1/2") and Boning (6-1/2"). There are two versions of each model, one with 420 HC steel blade, black thermoplastic handle and a nylon sheath; the other features S30V steel, rosewood stained Dymondwood handle and a leather sheath. The knives have full tangs, with handle scales secured via cross bolts.
The 4-1/4" model may be named Small Game, but it sports a versatile drop point blade and a handle design that looks both secure and ergonomic (see image below). This one has potential to be an outstanding all-purpose hunting and outdoor knife. I intend to get one of these in hand for thorough testing and review.
Buck Open Season Small Game knife. Illustration courtesy of Buck Knives, Inc.
The Omni Hunter comes in 3-1/4" and 4" blade lengths, called the 10pt and 12pt. The 420HC steel blades have a drop point profile. The handle is coated with Alcryn rubber, either black or with a camo pattern. A heavy-duty nylon sheath is included. See Buck 392 Omni Hunter 12 PT Knife by the Guns and Shooting Online Staff for a detailed review of this model.
I will cover the Endeavor and Sentry knives together, because they are really the same knife, just dressed differently. Both knives have the same size full tang, clip point and partly serrated blade. Both have molded nylon handle scales and come with nylon sheaths. There appear to be some minor differences in the blade grinds, but the obvious difference is that the Sentry has a black "traction coat" on the blade, while the Endeavor blade is uncoated.
I do not consider these knives to be good hunting knives, in the sense of a knife I would wear all day, anticipating that I might need it to field dress a deer. I say this because the knife is too large for comfortable continuous carry and the blade is not optimal for field dressing chores. It is too large for my taste, plus I do not like serrations on a game dressing knife.
That said, I would not hesitate to include either of these knives in my camping gear box. They are of a size and capability that could come in very handy around a hunting camp, or when building blinds, clearing shooting lanes, etc.
Buck has done more with the one-piece, skeleton knife concept than any other commercial knife maker. The items in the PakLite series reflect this. The set starts with two sizes of skinner pattern knives, plus a long, slender boning knife and small caper blade. The family is rounded out with two sizes of guthook tool. Further, there are two and three piece sets that pool some of these tools.
Each tool is a single piece of 420HC steel, available either uncoated or with black or orange traction coating. Each comes with a nylon sheath and the 2 and 3-piece sets have combination sheaths.
The Guns & Shooting Online Staff has done a review of the Buck 135 PakLite Caper. These minimalist tools merit consideration by anyone for whom the carry weight of a hunting kit or hiking pack is an important consideration.
By the way, I do not endorse hunting knives that have a guthook on the forward spine of the primary blade (e.g., the Buck Zipper). I will not rant about the disadvantages (and dangers) of this misbegotten design here, but will simply say that a separate, specialized guthook tool, such as those in the PakLite series, is much better. I speak from experience. (The guthook on the saw blade of the 183 Alpha Crosslock is okay, though.)
Extreme Duty Knives
I waffled over whether to include this category. I was especially torn over whether to list large, heavy-duty, fixed blade knives. The issue is clearly expressed (including historical perspective) by Chuck Hawks in his article Hunting Knives:
"The big knives associated with the western frontier were carried by pioneers and frontiersmen as emergency weapons in hostile territory. Remember that muzzleloading rifles--and most early cartridge rifles--only shot once before they had to be reloaded. In addition to their big fighting knives, the mountain men and buffalo hunters also carried much smaller knives for cleaning game."
"For field dressing big game I prefer a sheath knife with a strong, rather narrow, 3.5" to 4" blade with a gentle curve toward the tip. Regardless of how impressive they may look, knives with long, wide blades (Bowie knives, for instance) are clumsy tools for field dressing game.
I totally agree with this perspective. Nevertheless, I decided to list the best fixed blade knives that might be embraced by the backcountry adventurer, bushcrafter, or tactical buff. As hunting and field dressing knives, though, these are overkill.
These knives are brutes by any practical standard. The 119 Special and 120 General are the heavyweights of what I call the Buck classic fixed blade knife set. They both have beefy Bowie-style blades of 420HC, plus the other materials and features I described earlier in this article for the 105 Pathfinder.
The Frontiersman is styled much like the Special or General, except that it has a straight blade spine with a subtle swage at the tip. Again, the steel is 420HC, but this knife has Micarta handle material. A heavy leather sheath is included.
The Tops/Buck Nighthawk is clearly a tactical style knife. The two sizes of this knife are identical in features, including the heavy 420HC clip point blade with black oxide finish, a reinforced molded polymer handle with integral finger guard, rubberized finger pad and a heavy duty MOLLE-compatible nylon sheath.
Among extreme duty knives, these locking folders make more sense for practical field carry and hunting use than do the large, heavy and unwieldy fixed blade knives listed just above. The Vantage and Vantage Pro knives were listed earlier. Here, they are joined by the Vantage Force Select and Pro models. Both Vantage Force models have drop point, black oxide coated blades, with either plain or partly serrated edges, all in one blade size only. The blades have a thumb hole, flipper spur and use a liner lock to hold the blade open.
The Vantage Force knives all have stainless steel handle liners and a pocket clip. The Select model is built with 420HC steel and glass-filled nylon handle scales, while the Vantage Force Pro has superior S30V blade steel and G10 handle scales.
The Momentum is a new model, featuring a drop point blade of S30V steel and a black anodized aluminum handle. It is an assisted opening knife, using what Buck calls ASAP opening technology. This is initiated via either a thumb hole or flipper. The knife has a liner lock and a pocket clip.
The Marksman is also an assisted opening, locking folder, with a unique mechanism. This is called the SLS (strong lock system), which is a spring steel bar mounted on the spine of the knife handle. The really novel thing about this bar is that it holds the blade closed, serves as an opening assist (initiated via a short flipper spur on the blade tang) and locks the deployed blade. All this with no extra studs, buttons, or other gizmos!
The Marksman sports a drop point blade of 154CM steel, a solid, black anodized aluminum handle and a pocket clip. This is a full size, locking folder with premium blade steel and a simple, but very solid, opening and locking mechanism. It definitely has extreme duty capability.
Pricing, Warranty, and Factory Service
Good news! One can buy two or three high quality Buck knives without having to get a second mortgage. To get a picture of pricing, I tallied the 2016 MSRPs of the knives listed and grouped the resulting data. (This analysis excludes the PakLite knives, the most expensive individual item of which has a MSRP of $40.)
MSRPs ranged from $39 for the basic Vantage knife model to $200 for the Frontiersman. Ten knives had MSRPs under $70, thirty had prices between $70 and $110 and sixteen had MSRPs of $110 or greater. The bottom line is that slightly over half of the 56 knives have list prices between $70 and $110.
These knives are routinely discount priced in the market. I tallied the actual retail prices for the 56 knives in question, as quoted by two major internet cutlery retailers in December, 2015. The discounts vary among individual knives, of course, but by summarizing the results I found that street prices of all the knives averaged 64 percent of MSRP. In other words, these knives are typically discounted about 36 percent in the retail market.
To illustrate, for the $70 to $110 MSRP range, a Model 500 Duke knife (MSRP = $70) actually sells for about $45 and a Model 105 Pathfinder (MSRP = $109), can be bought for about $70. Discounts will typically be less for knives purchased over the counter.
Buck adds value to their knives after the sale, too. Their Forever Warranty is a simply stated policy of how they deal with a situation in which a Buck knife may be defective, or in need of repair. Here are excerpts from their warranty statement that cover each case:
"We warranty each and every Buck knife to be free of defects in material and workmanship for the life of the knife, and we will repair or replace with a new Buck knife, at our option, any Buck knife that is defective."
"If your knife was damaged due to misuse, our repair department can analyze the damage and repair it for a reasonable fee. If your knife is unable to be repaired, we will extend a one-time courtesy offer, allowing you the option to purchase a new knife for 50% off of our MSRP price listed on the website, excluding any custom knives or web specials."
Finally, the company offers factory sharpening services, if one cannot get their Buck knife to take or hold that just-right edge. This is explained as follows: "We can sharpen your knife for you. Cost is $6.95 per knife and includes return shipping." See the Buck website for further information on warranty claims and repair or sharpening services.
I have owned and used my share of Buck knives over a period spanning more than a half-century. I have never found any of their knives wanting in terms of quality and performance. (I qualify this endorsement by adding that I have stuck with their quality made in the USA products, avoiding the imports and other low end items.) I have never had need to call on their warranty, repair or sharpening services. However, when I buy a Buck knife, I feel confident the company will be there for me, if needed.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.