Hunting knives are, as the name implies, tools designed for processing game. Gutting, skinning, fleshing, de-boning; the objective is to reduce an animal to parts usable for food, clothing and shelter. The best hunting knives are neither cumbersome nor are they fragile. They are not ponderous either! They must remain sharp despite long periods of use and should be robust enough to fracture bones and sever joints and still keep a keen edge in order to continue the work at hand.
Most modern hunters don’t do much beyond gutting their quarry. The animal is then transported to a butcher shop where band-saws (designed for larger animals like cows) are used to process the game into steaks, roast, ribs etc. In those cases a decent pocket knife works just fine for gutting. But I only used a butcher on one occasion and was sorely disappointed afterward. Bone fragments abounded. White-tailed deer bones are fragile and when struck by a large band-saw will invariably splinter and fragment into dangerous pieces. A friend of mine accepted a deer steak from an acquaintance and then lost his tooth when a bone chunk split one of his molars. Six thousand dollars later and a painful root canal and my friend still lost his tooth in the end.
For many years I’ve done all the processing myself from gutting to de-boning. So after decades of handling game I’ve developed my own criteria of what works best. What I don’t like are knives made from cheap steel. Years ago I bought a set of Gerber hunting knives. They were stainless steel and though they weren’t cheap I think the steel must have been either 420 or 440A because those knives drove me nuts. They would not hold their edges and during field dressing I was constantly forced to re-sharpen them. The experience with those knives soured me on Gerber products and on any knife made with either 420 or 440A stainless steel. Others have varying opinions and I certainly respect their ideas but when it comes to dressing out game I think I’ve circled the block enough times to know a thing or two.
I recently posted a column about Old Hickory Knives with “Nessmuk” alterations and I still consider those 1095 carbon steel knives some of the best made. They are inexpensive too. If someone wants to go out and process a deer from “on the ground” to “in the freezer” then you can’t go wrong with an Old Hickory knife from Ontario Knife Company. I’ve used the skinning knives—mainly re-profiled to fit my needs—as well as other styles of Old Hickory knives. As mentioned in the previous post these carbon steel knives are tempered down a bit to allow for easy sharpening and they will stain after use. But as far as I’m concerned that’s just adding character to the blade’s appearance. One thing you do have to watch for is rust. All carbon steel knives rust if not properly cleaned. Some years back I gave a Mora 510 knife to someone and he threw the knife into his fishing tackle box and used it frequently but apparently never cleaned it. The result was a rusted-out mess. You’ve got to clean those carbon steel knives! But in my opinion nothing beats quality carbon steel tempered into the 55-58 Rc range for field dressing and de-boning. As to what is the best bevel grind for hunting knives? My vote goes for a shallow convex grind over the Scandinavian grind or any hollow grind or flat grind. My reason is based on the potential fragility of the Scandinavian grind (and the other grinds mentioned) when working through bone. I’ve seen “Scandi” grind blades buckle and fold under that kind of pressure and force. The convex grind on the other hand is stronger and thus, in my opinion, preferred when working meat and especially bone and cartilage.
I enjoy making knives and so, of course, I’ve made a number of dedicated hunting knives. In fact, I’ve got several in various stages of construction as I write this piece and if it ever cools down around here I might get out to the workshop and finish them. But two in particular have been used on more game than I can remember. They were both made from steel mill files with handle scales fashioned from an old fence post I acquired in North Texas that had been in the ground about 80 years. The wood is Osage orange and as many of you know that makes a pretty darn good selfbow. But it also makes good knife scales and even wooden spoons though not as fancy as what you might get from a piece of mesquite or some other Brushland hardwood. Both knives use brass pins to help secure the scales.
Some well-used hunting tools. Two homemade knives and a 40-year old Estwing Ax.
In these years of many memories I tend to approach the subject of hunting with a degree of reverence. Life and death become weighty subjects over time. My game processing talents are more often used in working on somebody else’s kill than my own. With four sons I’ve got that option. I walked those paths years ago and so I understand that innate drive. I just don’t possess the passion to pull the trigger or release the string like I did in the way back once upon a time. Still, a knife is something that awakens the collective unconscious and speaks of an archaic ancestor or perhaps several dozen. In those memories I remember a kid who gutted deer, hogs and other things with broken glass bottles because he didn’t want to get the hunting knife his granddad had given him dirty. The knife was proudly displayed and used at the table in the cabin where woodsmen gathered to feast on venison and other vittles. Now and then it might have been used to fashion a stake for a spring trap or canvas tent. But otherwise, it was too precious a thing to get grimy. Any razor-like glass shard will do the trick. And in that sense maybe the kid was closer to those distant ancestors than he realized.