Which knife to choose
by Thomas Tabor
Choosing the right knife is a bit like choosing a mate. Everyone has a different opinion of what characteristics are most important. If you don’t choose wisely you could wind up battling your way through life.
There is virtually an endless array of styles and types of knives to choose from. There are knives with fold-up or fixed blades; there are serrated blade styles, skinners, flayers, drop points and some even have a built-in gut hook to make big game field dressing a bit easier. Some blades are made from thick, heavy metal and others have blades that are thin and wispy. In some cases, high carbon steel is used for blades and others are made from much softer steel. Some manufacturers, like Gerber Legendary Blades, chrome-plate many of their knife blades to improve the appearance and to harden the surface.
Knife handles can be made from a wide variety of materials. Some manufacturers concentrate heavily on the use of rare and attractive species of hardwood; others use more common woods like walnut, oak or hickory. Some handles are made from horn, antler or bone; in some cases, even types of metal. Some handles are made in a composite manner, consisting of very thin slices of wood layered with resin. In the case of some more moderately priced knives, the handles are made entirely of plastic.
Like selecting a mate, personal preference always comes into play with knife selection. I prefer to carry a fixed-blade knife for hunting purposes. I generally carry these knives in a sheath on my belt but sometimes I will opt to place them inside my daypack. I carry a small folding-style pocket knife virtually all the time and have been doing so since I was five years old. Unless our freedoms are eroded to the point that we are prohibited from carrying a pocket knife, I will probably meet my maker with it in my pocket.
Many fellow hunters wouldn’t think of carrying a fixed-blade knife while hunting. They prefer to use a folding-style. In reality, both fixed-blade and folding-style knives work equally well for most outdoor activities. You should go with the style that you personally prefer.
If you decide on a folding-style there are a couple of things you should consider. I always shudder to think about the damage a razor-sharp knife blade could do to your hand if the blade should accidentally fold up while it is being used. For this reason it is never a good idea to use a knife in the field that doesn’t have a built-in locking mechanism. Most of the locking-blade knives latch automatically as the blade is opened. When it comes time to put the knife away, you must push or slide the latch catch to release the blade. This is a great safety design feature and worth careful consideration. The second characteristic that works against a folder is they are often more difficult to clean. Gutting and dressing game is a dirty business and often the blade channel of the knife winds up collecting blood and tissue. This area can sometimes be a real challenge to get clean. Challenge or not, it is extremely important to thoroughly clean and disinfect the entire knife after each use. Any material left in the blade channel will eventually begin to decay and turn rancid.
Generally a fixed-blade knife is a bit easier to keep clean than a folder. But the same basic rules apply here as well. Sometimes a hunter is tempted to return their fixed-blade knife to its sheath without properly cleaning the blade first. This results in contaminating the inside of the sheath. If you thought the blade channel of a folder difficult to clean - try cleaning and disinfecting the inside of a leather sheath.
Size is a monumental consider- ation when choosing a knife. Years ago knife manufacturers seemed to have the philosophy that bigger was always better. Huge Bowie knives were quite common in those days, like the one Paul Hogan carried in his Crocodile Dundee movies. The enormous, shiny blades look pretty impressive, but in reality they are almost worthless. Such knives are far too big and cumbersome to be useful for hunting purposes and they even fall short when it comes to chopping down brush in the outback.
I once witnessed a man clean an entire bull elk that weighed about 450kg using only a tiny 11-12cm long folding pocket knife. He did the whole job, including quartering the animal, in about ten minutes. While this is an extreme case, it does emphasis how ‘small’ size isn’t always a major impediment when it comes to doing ‘big’ jobs.
When a hunter is faced with the job of field dressing and gutting an animal, some of the knife work must be done inside the body cavity, totally out of sight. The diaphragm must be cut, releasing the stomach and other organs so they can be removed. If you are using a large knife to do this ‘blind’ cutting work, an accident is just waiting to happen. Your hands are bloody, the knife is slippery and you can’t see what you are doing. A small knife in this type of situation is much easier to control and you are less likely to cut yourself in the process. In this situation you certainly don’t want a knife with a smooth, slippery handle. A much better choice would be a knife that has some form of non-slip texture to it. While rough handles may be a more difficult to clean - they are less prone to accidents. In addition, knives having notched finger positions, either at the base of the blade or cut into the handle, are also less likely to slip. Knives with a guard separating the blade from the grip are also good for this purpose.
Some knives are made from very hard high carbon steel and others have their blades hardened by chrome-plating. These blades will certainly hold their edge longer than blades fabricated from softer steel, but there is a downside. When these hardened steel blades get dull - it takes a great deal of work to bring the edge back to an acceptable degree of sharpness.
No matter what type of knife you use, it is always a good idea to keep them razor sharp. In the case of high carbon steel knives, this rule is even more important. If your hard steel knife becomes severely dulled, there is a good chance it will need to be reground by a professional. Knives made of softer steel will always lose their edge quicker, but they are easier to sharpen and straighten out.
Most butchers use fairly soft steel knives, but they also sharpen them frequently using a metal or ceramic steel. In many cases the steel conveniently hangs from the butcher’s belt so it’s always easily accessible. These professionals understand that it is much easier to keep a blade sharp than it is to sharpen one once it becomes dull.
Often the knife’s edge becomes ‘rolled over’, making it seem dull. By frequently working the blade with a steel, the edge can be properly maintained without the need to remove any metal. It is only in extreme cases that any metal should be removed in the sharpening process. If the edge has been severely damaged, it may be necessary to have the blade edge reground. Another alternative is to straighten out the damaged surface by using a coarse stone, an impregnated diamond sharpener, or a carbide sharpener. These methods should only be used in extreme cases.
Knives will get dull no matter how they are being used. Coming in contact with bone and other hard surfaces can result in damaging a knife’s edge, but cutting through hair is also exceptionally hard on an edge. Some varieties of animal hair are worse than others, but all hair takes its toll on the sharpness of a knife blade. For this reason, a hunter should always have a steel close at hand when cutting through the hide of an animal.
Successful hunters are often faced with the job of skinning game. It is pretty difficult to conduct a skinning operation with a pointed, dagger-style knife or even drop-point knives. The best knife should possess a significant degree of upward curvature in its blade. You don’t necessarily need a knife specifically designed for skinning, but you should have a blade that lends itself to this type of task. Knives designed specifically for skinning can sometimes look pretty bizarre and may be totally useless for anything but its purpose. Other designs may work well for duel purposes. These knives may possess the well-pronounced upward blade curvature required for skinning, but also have a well-defined point. Such knives are a good choice for big game hunters because they are multi-purpose.
Often when you purchase a knife it will be for life, or longer in some cases. When properly cared for, a knife has the capability to last through many generations of constant usage. Select a knife that fits your needs and enjoy the benefits of this hardy tool.