Expert craftsmen give insight on how to find the best hunting knife sheath for the best protection, performance and look.
For the hunter in the field, a dependable and durable hunting knife is indispensable equipment, and it follows that the sheath that holds the knife must be equally up to the task.
Secure carry, protection for the blade and handle, easy access, and the ability to stand up to the elements and hard use are essential. While there is a variety of sheaths available and each one contributes something to the equation, the sheathmakers themselves have come to eye-opening conclusions as to the making and deployment of the correct sheath for the hunting knife. Personal preference is still a prime mover, but the basics make the difference between cooperation and catastrophe in the field.
“The best style for a hunting knife sheath is whatever the hunter wants,” explained veteran sheathmaker Paul Long. “Personal preference is very important. However, the knife that would best be described as a hunter would be best suited in a deep seat pouch with a loop that would carry relatively high on the belt. In most cases the deep pouch would preclude the need for a retention strap. For a double-guard hunter, a drop-loop belt sheath would probably be best with a snap strap for secure retention.”
Depending on the style of the knife, the guard often dictates the best pouch configuration. “I favor the pouch-type sheath, and the hunting knife generally has a single guard as opposed to a double guard,” related sheathmaker Paul Lebatard, who also has found success with his custom knives through the years. “I make a lot of doubles, too. You would have to make a snap-type sheath with a keeper strap, but on hunting knives with single guards the pouch type is always best.”
A sheathmaker for over 50 years, Chris Kravitt zeroes in on the personal preference perspective. “First and foremost, it’s a matter of the configuration of the knife, and then if more than one style will work it becomes a matter of personal preference,” he observed. “My preference is to go with the pouch because it is easier to draw and resheathe the knife without worrying about straps.”
At the same time, Kravitt acknowledges varying hunting knife construction and its influence in sheath form and function. “If a knife has a double guard, it isn’t going to work on a pouch sheath, and if you have a knife with an integral handle, possibly,” he said. “Certain things don’t lend themselves to the traditional style, like when the blade is the widest part of the knife or there is no bolster or ricasso extending beyond the edge.”
Kenny Rowe, owner of Rowe’s Leather in Hope, Arkansas, adds another option on the hunting knife sheath. “Ninety percent of these sheaths would be the pouch type because they cover most of the knife, and with the guard you can make a welt where the knife has some resistance coming in and out,” he noted. “Some sheaths will have a lid that has a snap on it, and that is as secure as you can get with the flap snapping over the front of the sheath.”
The consensus with the pouch sheath makes sense for all the reasons that the hunter encounters in the field. For its toughness and the ability to shape and mold the sheath as desired during the construction process, cowhide reigns supreme among sheath materials. Most sheathmakers use 7-to-9-ounce* vegetable-tanned cowhide.
Sheath Leather Types
The use of exotics such as ostrich, stingray, alligator, crocodile or other hides is a continuing option, though for the most part they are used as accents, often in the form of inlays, rather than adding any performance-related component to the sheath.
“Exotics are very useful in sheathmaking but primarily for aesthetics,” Long explained. “Elephant and shark are two that are tough enough to withstand very hard use and are usually built as an overlay on a vegetable-tanned base sheath. I work with various snakes, lizard, ostrich and many others.”
As Kravitt noted, “The basic sheath is going to be cowhide 99 percent of the time, but for overlays and inlays my favorite is stingray, which is near bulletproof but more expensive and harder to work with—but great stuff. Ostrich leg or shin is very nice, and Malaysian horned frog has a very nice texture to it. Snakeskin is not very durable, but it’s fine when the knife and sheath are for show since it won’t hold up with regular use.”
Tooling and carving also provide style points and may be pleasing to the eye. However, neither actually contributes to the performance of the sheath in field use. “I occasionally do some tooling with stamps, but carving is a talent I don’t have,” Lebatard remarked. “Still, on almost every sheath I’ll put something in keeping with the theme of the knife, like a small deer. Someone might place an order and specify that they just want a bare, plain sheath, or they may want just their initials on it. That’s a good thing about leather. When it is wet it can be molded and stamped, and when it dries it will hold that impression.”
Vegetable tanning is essential when the blade meets the sheath leather for an extended period. In contrast to chrome-tanned leather, a vegetable-tanned leather is not known to corrode or stain a blade left in the sheath for any length of time. That old admonition to store the knife itself separately from the sheath will then get a longer look.
“A lot of people say not to store knives in the sheaths, but as long as the sheath is made of good vegetable-tanned leather, I’ve never had a problem,” Lebatard noted. “I made a knife for a friend a few years ago and he didn’t want a sheath. He was going to get someone else to make the sheath for him. Several years later, he brought the knife to me and he had had it in a chrome-tanned leather sheath. It was nearly rusted through. The chrome-tanned leather is very corrosive.”
Kravitt has had similar experiences. “I hear so many people say not to store knives in leather sheaths, but I have kept knives in sheaths for years and never had a problem,” he recalled. “My sheaths are all vegetable tanned as opposed to chrome tanned. Chrome-tanned leather may have salts and other things in it.”
Waterproofing is another essential element, and in the construction itself there are questions surrounding drainage holes and inserts as well.
Most sheathmakers shy away from inserts since contact with the blade may dull the edge. After all, the welt and/or strap should suffice for a snug fit. Inserts in and of themselves may be judged to provide some measure of redundancy, but contribute little to the overall stability of the lockup or in protecting the knife itself. Long says, “Even the best inserts, being rigid, will do more harm to a blade than top grain leather.”
At first glance it might appear that a drainage hole is a good idea to help maintain cleanliness and prevent the buildup of moisture or debris within the sheath. Not so fast!
“I do not ordinarily put a drain hole in my sheaths,” Long asserted. “Nor do I do any waterproofing of the interior of the sheath. Rather, I depend on the normal intelligence of my client to not go swimming with their sheath, and to at least try to clean the blood and guts off the blade before reinsertion.” Rowe agrees.
“I don’t see any sense in it,” he commented. “I can count on one hand the number of sheaths I’ve made with drain holes in them, and I’ve been making sheaths for 35 years at least. The only time I would expect someone to have their sheath in really wet conditions would be if they accidentally rolled into a deep river or their boat sank. I wouldn’t expect someone to haul off into neck deep water with their hunting gear on. For debris, it’s easy enough to take a wire with a little hook in the end and just rake the sheath out, or blow it out with air, or stand it upside down and shake it or tap it on a table.”
Kravitt, on the other hand, will utilize a drain hole and an insert from time to time. Often, the insert itself is fashioned from leather to avoid additional friction against the knife edge. The employment of the drain hole is in direct response to the future use of the gear in the field.
“If I know the sheath will be used in harsher conditions, I think it should have a drain hole,” he remarked, “not just for draining moisture, but also removing debris—especially when the user has spent a lot of time in the woods.”
Sheathmakers do tend to rely on the owner of the product and of the hunting knife to exercise responsibility in the field. “Explain to the client, if they are a novice, about the ‘care and feeding of a leather sheath,’” Long smiled.
Finding The Best Option
The well-crafted sheath is the constant companion of the hunting knife, either in the field or a collector’s cabinet, and the best measure of the sheath’s contribution is its role in that partnership. For the sheath to function properly, owners must remember the fundamentals of hunting knife care. Keep both the knife and sheath clean. Wipe away moisture and other fluids. Maintain the surfaces as needed. Don’t put the knife away wet and expect the sheath to do more than expected.
Adhering to best practices will ensure long life for both the hunting knife and its all-important sheath.
*According to the Montana Leather Co. website (montanaleather.com), leather thickness is typically measured in ounces. For instance, an ounce of leather is equal to 1/64 inch. As a result, 7-to-9 ounce leather will be in the 1/8 inch range, give or take a few millimeters.
Knife Guide Issue features the newest knives and sharpeners, plus knife and axe reviews, knife sheaths, kit knives and a Knife Industry Directory. Get your FREE digital PDF instant download of the annual Knife Guide. No, really! Click Here to Get Your Free Issue