By Chuck Hawks
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.
Fixed Blade Hunters
A good hunting knife must be made from high quality steel. Carbon and stainless steels are both acceptable if properly alloyed and heat treated. The blade should be tough and hold an edge, but not so hard that it becomes brittle. A knife blade made by a member of the American Bladesmith Society, for example, must pass a test that requires it be bent 90-degrees without snapping. (Of course, this ruins the blade, so don't try it!) A fixed blade hunting knife should have a full length tang that extends through the handle for maximum strength. The best knife blades seem to be made in first world countries, including Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States.
The handle material is less important than the steel. Whatever feels good is fine. Micarta, horn, leather, stag, bone, ivory, wood, aluminum and various plastics have all been used successfully. Personally, I like the feel of a wood or stag handle as well as anything. Whatever the handle material, its shape should be comfortable in your hand. I like a small finger guard; a big one gets in the way.
My favorite hunting knife for field dressing big game is an Olsen, a make that is no longer available, that I've had for over 40 years. It has a 4", slightly hollow-ground blade of mirror polished, high quality carbon steel. It holds an edge well and, because of its shape, it is relatively easy to sharpen. My Olsen's blade is made from approximately 0.20" thick steel stock with a full length tang that tapers continuously from the butt to the tip of the blade.
Buck, Kershaw, Gerber, Case, Camillus, Spyderco and other well-known manufacturers offer good production hunting knives. For those who have the money, inclination and time (orders typically take over four years to fill), a Randall Made hunting knife, still hand made in Orlando, Florida, is hard to beat. (See photo at top of page.) I am convinced that no better knives are made anywhere in the world than here in the U.S. by members of the American Bladesmith Society. Hand forged blades from Master Bladesmiths like Wayne Goddard, Murray Carter and the late W.F. Moran are unbelievably sharp and tough.
The Buck Woodsman (Model 102) is an example of a contemporary production knife suitable for field dressing big game. It features a tough, 4" hollow-ground blade, full length tang and a comfortable handle with a small guard.
Often ignored (until it's too late) is a good sheath. Unfortunately, the sheaths that come with most factory made knives are too flimsy. If you were to inadvertently fall or sit on the sheathed knife it might cut through the sheath and into you! A good sheath should be made from heavy saddle leather, double or triple stitched, and precisely fit the knife. The design of the sheath should incorporate a spline around the sides, so that the point and edge of the blade cannot contact the stitching. Some synthetic sheaths are satisfactory, many are not. If you can feel the knife blade through the sheath, the sheath is inadequate.
The sheath should have some sort of positive retention system. Once you have invested the time and effort to put a fine edge on an expensive hunting knife, you don't want to lose it. The Randall Made website (www.randallknives.com) has a good section about their knife sheaths.
Lock blade, folding hunting knives are convenient to carry and have become very popular. I've used them for over 40 years. The original is the Buck Folding Hunter (Model 110), probably the most copied folding knife in the world. Its 3.75" hollow-ground blade is well shaped for field dressing deer. Gerber, Case, Kershaw, Spyderco and many others offer folding hunting knives. Custom bladesmiths like Wayne Goddard and Michael Vagnino build supremely elegant and efficient folding hunters for the carriage trade.
Due to the hinge pin, no folding knife is as strong as a fixed blade knife. I once broke the hinge pin in a Buck Folding Hunter by (stupidly) hammering on the back of the blade with a piece of wood. Folding knives are not my choice for separating the ribs from the breastbone or splitting the pelvic bone. Otherwise, they are fine and I almost always carry one in the field.
Another folding hunter of note is the Spyderco Wayne Goddard limited edition model. This knife was designed for Spyderco by Wayne Goddard. It is 5-1/8" long when closed and the hollow-ground blade measures 3-5/8". It is about the size of the Buck Folding Hunter, but much lighter. It weighs only 3.3 ounces. Like many Spyderco models, this knife comes with a CLIPIT that allows it to be carried clipped inside the waistband as well as inside a pocket. The CLIPIT keeps the knife flat along the inside of the pocket for comfortable carry despite its relatively large size and eliminates the need for a belt sheath.
An interesting folding hunting knife is the Hunter's Edge from Savage Arms. This is a large, interchangeable blade knife set that comes with four useful blades about 3.5" long. One is a hollow-ground clip point blade, another is a flat-ground fillet/utility blade, a third is a saw blade and the fourth is a gut hook blade. All are of high quality and the sheath (included) holds the knife and all four blades, plus a sharpening steel. I've been carrying a Hunter's Edge on my belt for the last couple of deer seasons.
For cleaning small game, I mostly use a lockback Gerber Magnum LST Jr. pocketknife that has a single 2.7" long, fine edge blade. Actually, you could field dress a deer with this knife and I have. I also use it to clean trout in the field. It is a good, lightweight, general purpose pocketknife. Spyderco and other major manufacturers offer similar models, as do the custom bladesmiths.
Back in the early 1970's, Wayne Goddard made me a utility, lock-back pocketknife with a 2.75" blade (0.10" thick) of this general type. I carried it and used it daily for many years. This was before the major manufacturers had recognized the need for truly pocketable, locking blade knives. We were ahead of the curve with that one.
A skinning knife is quite different from a field dressing or cleaning knife and should have a more curved blade. (Some specialized skinning knives even have semi-circular blades.) The curved blade makes it easier to cut the connecting tissue that attaches the hide without accidentally puncturing either the hide or the meat. You can find skinning knives at almost any sporting goods store.
The Buck Skinner (Model 103) is an example of a conventional skinning knife. This model has a 4" hollow-ground blade with a turned down point to help keep the blade from snagging.
Ceramic (usually zirconium oxide or "zirconia") knife blades have earned a reputation for holding a sharp edge much longer than traditional steel blades. They are very hard and are typically sharpened with a diamond-dust coated sharpener. According to a Wikipedia article, "These knives are usually produced by dry pressing zirconia powder and firing them through solid-state sintering." Typically, ceramic hunting knives can be used to dress and skin multiple big game animals before they require sharpening, a great convenience in the field. A ceramic blade will not rust or pit, so it is great for use in inclement weather. Ceramic blades are also light in weight and non-magnetic.
All ceramic blades are brittle. Be careful not to torque or pry with a ceramic blade and donít drop a ceramic blade on a hard object, such as a rock, or the blade will snap. This means they are not a good choice as a survival knife. To separate bone joints, keep cutting until all of the joint tissue is severed. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Jim and Mary Clary's Guns and Shooting Online review of Stone River Gear Ceramic Knives:
"Jim finally bagged his ibex and the work began. Jim caped the critter in record time, while his guide struggled to get the hide off the hind quarters with a well-known steel blade. Finally, the guide asked Jim if he could use the ceramic knife to finish dressing the animal and then debone it. Jimís guide made quick work of the rest of the hide and began the deboning process. He was absolutely amazed as how easily the blade cut through the joints and cleanly sliced off the meat. The entire process took less than half an hour and the knife was still razor sharp."
"Jim used (his ceramic knife) to cut away prickly pear cactus, mesquite and juniper from around the blinds that he set up each day. Prickly pear cactus cuts easily with any good knife, but cutting the woody stems of mesquite and juniper is another matter. The ceramic blade cut through them like butter. After seven days of cutting things that hunting knives werenít meant to cut, it was still as good as new."
Whatever knife you choose, it must be kept very sharp; literally sharp enough to shave the hair off of your arm. Most hunting knives, which are designed for cutting meat, have a cutting edge sharpened at about a 20-degree angle. This is the angle used by Randall, for instance. I use a Buck knife sharpening kit, which includes medium and fine Arkansas stones and knife sharpening oil. Similar kits are available from other sources; the brand doesn't matter. Follow the directions that are supplied with the sharpening set for proper use.
Sharpening with a stone leaves a smoother, finer edge that stays sharp longer than the other methods I've tried. A sharpening steel, for instance, leaves a rough micro "saw tooth" edge that dulls very quickly and must be touched-up constantly. That may be acceptable in a butcher shop, but it is a hassle in the field.
As an aside, all Buck hunting knives come with hollow-ground blades made of very hard nickel steel (surgical steel). Because of their relatively thick cutting edge and the hard steel, Buck knives hold an edge well. However, they are commensurately hard to sharpen if you make the mistake of letting one get dull. If you choose a Buck knife, touch up the blade frequently to avoid a lengthy sharpening session later. You've been warned.
Let me conclude with this observation: sharp knives are safer than dull knives, as they require much less force to cut. Most accidents come from trying to force a dull knife to cut by using excessive pressure. That is when it is easy to make a mistake and slip, especially if your hands are bloody. Many hunters have seriously cut themselves while field dressing game and miles from help in a remote area is a bad place to be slicing through your arteries and veins. Always be careful and keep your knife sharp!
Copyright 2005, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.