Cutting implements were among the first tools human beings ever created. Throughout history, we’ve created an impressive number of blade shapes fashioned from bone, stone, and steel.
A whole lot of blade shapes have been created over the past few thousand years in particular — some for specific tasks and some for general utility. After literally millennia, you’d think we’d have knife blades all figured with nothing left to perfect, but you’d be wrong. People will argue about the best blade shape the way they argue over a 9 mm vs. a .45 Automatic Colt Pistol. It’s never-ending.
While knife companies, which naturally always want to sell more knives, introduce weird new blade shapes every year — many of questionable utility — there is a set list of mostly agreed-upon blade shapes. The exact definitions of those shapes tend to vary slightly, and there exist many variations within those types. Plus, some blade shapes are hybrids. It can get confusing, fast.
Some would argue that we did, in fact, figure out what the best outdoor blade shape is a good while ago. Bob Loveless created what many regard as the perfect blueprint for hunting and outdoor knives back in the 1950s when he pioneered the use of full-tang, hollow-ground, drop-point blades, and plenty have followed in his footsteps since.
I recently talked blade shapes with Josh Smith, the youngest man ever to earn a Master Smith rating from the American Bladesmith Society. He’s been making knives by hand since he was about 11 years old, and as far as he’s concerned, Loveless indeed had it right more than a half-century ago.
“I think it’s just hard to beat the old-school drop-point knife,” Smith said. “When you look at the knives our grandfathers and great-grandfathers used, and at the Loveless-style skinning knives, and at a lot of knives from the old days, the drop-point hunter was a really prominent design.”
He is the owner and operator of both Josh Smith Knives, which produces high-end, handmade custom knives to order in the $1,000 to $20,000 range, and Montana Knife Co. (MKC), which makes consumer-grade production knives in the US that are affordable for the average outdoors enthusiast.
“With a drop point, you’ve got a good point on the blade, but you’ve got enough belly to do some work,” he said. “When I make an old-school drop-point hunter, it’s amazing how crazy people go over it. It seems like there’s been a resurgence of interest there.”
When Smith launched MKC, the first knife he introduced was what he called a semi-drop-point hunter.
“I thought back to where I grew up here in Montana where you can fish, hunt upland birds; you can hunt deer, elk, bear, moose — just a huge variety of game,” Smith said. “That’s why I came up with the Blackfoot knife. I call it a semi-drop point: I don’t consider it a full-on drop-point hunter since it has more of a tip than a typical drop point.”
The Blackfoot is a do-everything knife, with not only enough of a tip to get in around an animal’s horns or antlers if you have to cape it out but also enough of a belly and cutting edge to bone out a whole moose, Smith said.
Everyone who seeks adventure in the outdoors has an opinion on what the ideal knife is for various reasons, and there’s clearly room for a variety of blade shapes. Regardless of the knife you choose as your go-to multipurpose outdoor blade, Smith agreed that it’s all but useless without knowing how to use the knife correctly. A knife is just a knife, but the skill set built around it generates its true utility.
Here’s a quick guide to five common outdoor knife-blade shapes and the skinny on each to make your choices a little clearer.
What It Is: This blade has an arrow-straight spine along its entire length and an edge that begins curving up somewhere along the way to meet the spine and create a tip.
What It’s Good For: This is a versatile outdoor blade shape ideal for heavy use, especially on a thicker, fixed-blade knife. The tip is extremely strong; the long, straight spine makes it good for batoning; and the nice belly makes larger straight-back knives great choppers.
Drawbacks: While the tip is strong, it’s not very pointy and not so great at stabbing or piercing, though it can handle having a lot of force behind it. If the edge begins to curve upward closer to the tang, the tip will be pointier but slightly weaker, and the blade’s belly will be shallower.
What It Is: The spine of this common blade shape extends straight from the tang, and at some point along the way, begins to slope downward toward the edge to create a point. The blade may feature a beveled false edge along the drop to create a more defined point and to shave off some weight. The severity of the slope-angle varies, as does its length.
What It’s Good For: This is a very versatile blade shape. It offers a tip that’s sharper than a straight-back knife’s while still being robust and generally better for stabbing and piercing tasks. It’s capable of processing game, large and small, and is adept at various camp chores.
Drawbacks: The tip isn’t quite as strong as that of a straight-back blade and is not quite as pointy as that of a clip-point blade.
What It Is: This blade looks like someone took a straight back and cut a concave section into the spine to create a more pronounced tip, and that’s exactly what it is. Like a drop point’s, the spine of the clipped portion will often be beveled or even sharpened. While the spine is straight, the edge doesn’t need to be and will sometimes dip down to create more of a belly. The exact shape of the tip is dictated by the size and shape of the clip.
What It’s Good For: The clip point has been a classic hunting-knife shape for many years, as the point is ideal for piercing animal hides to start cuts, and the blade can still have plenty of belly for dressing and processing tasks. It also makes for an excellent stabbing blade — many fighting knives have a variation of the clip point.
Drawbacks: While the sharpness of a clip point’s tip means it pierces material easily, it’s narrow and has less steel behind it than the straight back and drop point’s tips and is more likely to snap off if torqued. The more severe the clip, the weaker the tip. Some also find a clip point too pointy for working inside the body cavity of an animal.
What It Is: The edge and spine of this symmetrical blade shape slope to meet each other, creating a tip that is perfectly aligned with the center of the blade. The slopes of the edge and spine can begin at any point along the blade’s length and can even flare out before coming back to meet at the point.
What It’s Good For: In short, piercing and thrusting. The strongest part of the blade is directly aligned with the tip, so the spear point is a particularly strong stabber. However, less exaggerated spear points make for extremely versatile blades and are found on many pocket, bushcraft, and utility knives. They are useful for various carving tasks, and some users prefer them to other blade shapes for tasks such as drilling holes for fire boards and chiseling.
Drawbacks: The tip of a short spear point is very strong, but there’s not much belly to the blade, making it inferior to other blade shapes for slicing tasks. Exaggerated spear-point blades — like those found on throwing knives — can be impractical and difficult to sharpen, making them good only for stabbing things.
What It Is: The spine of a trailing point blade curves upward to create a tip that’s higher than the highest point of the tang and the handle. This produces a large belly and a pointy tip. Sabers were shaped this way, as they were used to slice forcefully from horseback.
What It’s Good For: The big belly on this kind of blade makes it great for slicing, skinning, and filleting, while the sharp tip is great for starting holes in animal hide. That’s why it is the shape of a classic butcher’s knife and has been a popular blade shape among hunters for a long time.
Drawbacks: The tip is sharp, but it’s narrow and more prone to breaking than the tips of the other blade shapes. Because of their geometry, these knives are not very good at stabbing with any force. While adept at processing animals, a trailing point is less versatile than the other blade shapes overall. It can be difficult or impossible to use for many bushcraft and woodworking tasks. The shape of the spine makes it difficult to use with a baton, and the backswept tip is not well suited to carving or drilling.