By Chuck Hawks
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.
The big knives associated with the western frontier were carried by pioneers and frontiersmen as emergency weapons in a 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.
A good hunting knife must be made from high quality steel. Carbon and stainless steels are both acceptable if properly alloyed. The blade should be tough and hold an edge, but not so hard that it becomes brittle. It should have a full length tang that extends through the handle for maximum strength.
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 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.
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 well cut through the sheath and into you! A good sheath should be made from extra heavy leather, double or triple stitched, and precisely fit the knife. The design of the sheath must be such 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.
My favorite hunting knife for field dressing big game is an Olsen, a make that is no longer available, that I've had for some 35 years. It has a 4" flat-ground blade of very high quality carbon steel. It holds an edge well, and because of its design it is relatively easy to sharpen. My Olsen's blade is made from 1/8" steel stock, strong enough to be driven through a pelvic bone with a rock if necessary.
Buck, Randall, Gerber, Case, Western, Spyderco and other well-known manufacturers offer perfectly adequate hunting knives. For those who have the money and the inclination, 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 of the basic type that I prefer for field dressing big game. It features a tough 4" hollow-ground blade, full length tang, and a comfortable handle with a small guard.
Lock blade folding hunting knives are convenient to carry and have become very popular. I've used them for 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, Western, Spyderco and many others also offer folding hunting knives. Custom bladesmiths like Wayne Goddard and Michael Vagnino build supremely elegant and efficient folding hunters for the carriage trade.
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 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. I recently purchased a Spyderco Wayne Goddard knife from Wayne Goddard himself, and I will be carrying it in the field this year.
A new and 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 more on the Hunter's Edge, read the review on the Outdoor Accessories Page.
For cleaning small game, I mostly use a lockback Gerber Magnum LST Jr. pocketknife that has a single 2.7" long, fine edge, flat-ground 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 general purpose knife. 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 folding knife of this general type, and I still have it. This was before the major manufacturers had recognized the need for truly pocketable lock blade knives. We were ahead of the power curve with that one.
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.
A skinning knife is quite different from a field dressing or cleaning knife, and should have a very 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 below. 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.
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--a function of the hollow ground blade form--and the hard steel, Buck knives hold an edge pretty well. But 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.
Whatever knife you choose, it must be kept very sharp--literally sharp enough to shave the hair off of your arm. I use a Buck knife sharpening kit, which includes medium and hard Arkansas stones and knife sharpening oil. Similar kits are available from other sources--the brand doesn't really 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.
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 extremely careful--and keep your knife sharp!
Copyright 2005, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.