Your Guide to Knives

Your essential guide to the outdoorsman’s most valuable tool: the knife.

Knife-making is a many-centuries-old craft and I must admit that I have a thing about good knives. Some can be pure works of art and more than likely I own far too many, from quality over-the-counter knives to limited edition models and even a few very highly prized handmade knives. With nothing more than a four-inch drop-point knife I was taught how to break a large bull moose down, bones intact, into nine pieces that I could pack. And while that may seem impossible, I have done it on many an occasion without the aid of either a saw or an axe. Next to my rifle and binoculars, they are frequently the number-three item on the equipment list that I put together for each and every hunt I go on. A good knife is as essential to a hunt as my rifle. Without one not only would field dressing an animal be impossible, but they are essential for a multitude of other tasks as well, from skinning game to cutting the rope to hang it. But what makes a good knife? Let’s have a look at the attributes of a quality hunting-knife as well as the various designs along with some recommendations on selection and on how to care for your knives.

What’s In A Blade

My first hunting knife was a totally misguided purchase. As a nimrod hunter, I bought this massive Bowie style knife with a stag handle — they, it looked great and what was good for Jim Bowie just had to be good for me. What a colossal mistake! That massive blade could not be sharpened and was better suited for chopping kindling than any practical application it may have had as a hunting knife. No matter how impressive a knife may appear aesthetically, if it doesn’t have the right steel for the job, you might as well leave it at home. (Having said that I will qualify this comment by adding that it takes both good steel and craftsmanship to design and build a quality knife.) But I will start with the steel. There are many grades of steel that are manufactured with the use of a number of critical components. These include carbon, chromium, manganese, silicon, vanadium, sulphur, phosphorous, nickel, tungsten and cobalt. They all add their own unique characteristics to the final product. For example, carbon increases edge retention, hardness, strength and abrasion resistance; while chromium improves corrosion resistance and toughness. But it is a fine balancing act to get it all just right, especially for the hunter who not only wants a knife that is strong but one that is easy to sharpen and will retain an edge as well as being corrosion resistant. In other words, we want it all.

Steel can essentially be rated on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the finest quality stainless Damascus Supersteel and 1 being steel primarily made from iron. Needless to say, they are not created equal, so I will briefly look at four for a comparative analysis. At the very top end is premium grade stainless steel, such as BG-42 that offers excellent edge retention, sharpness, corrosion resistance, ease of sharpening and is a great choice for a hunting knife. Midway down the scale is a hard compound steel that offers only reasonable sharpness but has excellent strength and edge retention, which is ideal for a survival knife. Next stop on this descending scale is carbon steel, a rather soft steel that while being easy to sharpen and capable of retaining an edge, it will corrode very easily, so it not a good choice for a hunting knife. Last is standard 420 series stainless steel that is found in dive knives and some cheaper hunting knives. They don’t retain an edge well and, despite being very corrosion resistant, are not good choices for a hunting knife.  After my misguided purchase of the aforementioned Bowie knife, I can assure you I went out and bought the best knife I could afford, a fine fixed-blade Puma with good quality steel that is as good a knife today as it was 40 years ago. Worth every dollar I spent.

However, I can’t leave the discussion of steel without discussing Damascus steel and the Rockwell C scale. Damascus steel is folded and welded steel that forms patterns in the steel from the folding process and, while potentially being quite expensive, in the hands of a craftsman it is often used to create a beautiful work of art as well as a great hunting knife. The Rockwell C scale is simply a method of rating the hardness of steel. For most hunting knives a rating in the mid to high 50s is about ideal. When it comes to steel you get what you pay for, so stick to the better quality steel that offers sharpness, edge retention, ease of sharpening and corrosion resistance.

Blade Styles

In reality there are only a half-dozen blade styles that are of interest to hunters and each has it own niche.

Clip Point: As on the Bowie knife, the clip point is an acceptable blade provided it has a short and straight clip on a robust blade, otherwise the long point can be a weakness especially when looking for an all purpose hunting knife. However, this style of blade can be a very useful in a caping knife where a longer point is required when separating the cape from a horn or antler base.

Drop Point: The sharpened edge on this knife blade curves upward to meet the gentle downward slope of the back edge to form a point somewhat higher than the midpoint of the blades width. This makes for a very strong point and a very good choice for a multipurpose hunting knife and is, in fact, my first choice as a single all-purpose blade.

Skinning Knife: This wide blade has a specifically designed upturned point with a fine edge for skinning big game. Not practical for other uses.

Boning Knife: This blade is longer, thinner and semi flexible, so designed to move and flex around bone allowing the hunter to remove all the meat right down to the bone.

Multi Purpose Blades: There are many styles on the market these days. They are usually designed to carry out a number of tasks with a single blade. Some include a gut hook or a serrated edge on the back for robust cutting. My particular favourite, however, is a swing blade from Outdoor Edge Cutlery that allows a single blade to rotate through the handle offering both a gutting blade and a drop point blade all in one.

Multi Blade Knives: A number of manufactures have introduced knives with multiple blades of both fixed  and folding blade designs. Most encompass a standard knife blade, such as a drop point, and an additional blade or two that frequently include a serrated saw blade with a gut hook. This is a very useful idea and one that Buck Knives employed in a folding knife that I have frequently used. It has two blades, one an excellent three-inch drop point and the other a serrated saw with a gut hook of the same length. This is a great knife — although I did find one drawback as the surface on the handle is hard metal with a very smooth finish and when it gets wet it becomes slippery in my hand. (Another design element to consider when knife-shopping.)

Knife Design & Size

I must begin with a very brief discussion of folding versus fixed blade knives.  I like both fixed and folding blades for different reasons. For most of my hunting I now use folding knives simply because of their portability and compact nature. A four-inch folding knife usually equates to a total length of about five inches whereas a fixed blade of the same blade length would be approximately double that length.  But on the down side, for the heavy work they are not nearly as strong or as comfortable in the hand. On many a hunt I will often use both, a folding knife on my belt and a fixed blade in my pack for the heavy work such as hide and cape removal, particularly on larger game such as moose. As to blade length, I prefer a blade of about four inches in all but a few instances, such as a boning knife where a longer blade is essential.

Which leads me directly to a discussion on handles, the backbone of a hunting knife. Here is where knife makers can get very creative in both their design or in the material they use. It is all but limitless, from rare wood, horn, antler to a wide variety of modern synthetic materials. But much beyond the aesthetic appeal, handles form a very vital component of each and every knife. They are your contact with the knife and must be comfortable and safe to hold under some potentially difficult circumstances. Let’s face it, if you can’t properly hold a knife due to bloody hands or other slippery elements, a nasty cut can result, something to be avoided especially on a remote hunt. This is where a fixed blade can outshine a folding blade. Handles can be very ergonomically designed to fit the user’s hand and to be of sufficient size to feel very comfortable. Most fixed blade handles also have a hilt of some type to protect the hand from slipping down onto the blade. I also like a handle to be large enough that when in my hand, there is a small gap on either side for both safety and ease of extended use. Beyond the visual appeal of any handle, be sure you are happy with the fit and feel before you lay out your hard earned bucks. A good handle can just make a difficult job that much easier.

Sharpening & Maintenance

I’m sure you have all heard the old cliché, but it bears repeating: “dull knives cause more injuries than sharp ones.” I’m actually all but a fanatic about keeping my knives sharp, in fact razor sharp, to the point that they will shave the hair off my arm. A sharp knife just makes any job, whether field dressing or skinning your game, that much easier. So spend the time prior to each and every hunt and sharpen your knives. I, in fact, make it a habit to thoroughly clean my knives and sharpen them after every hunt. That way they are ready at a moments notice should an unexpected hunt present itself. I purchased a wonderful sharpening steel from Buck Knives some 35 years ago that does a splendid job. It is compact enough to take into the field as part of my daypack and is good enough to use as my main sharpening device at home. It has a coarse side designed for heavy or rough edges and a fine side for finishing off the knife. But there are a multitude of fine knife sharpening devices or kits out there, so my advice here is to buy a quality sharpening device or kit and follow the manufacture’s advice on how to use it properly.  Last, store your knives dry with a light film of protection on them. I often rub a small amount of cooking oil on the blade as a final protective coating. I also never store my knives in their sheath,  particularly if it is leather, as they are prone to retain moisture. And remember your knife could save your life one day, so take care of it and it will take care of you.

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