The following appears in the November issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
I was in awe as I stood on the steep incline and looked into the valley deep below.
The boulder-strewn landscape we had just climbed went on forever, blended into the hillside and eventually up into the high peaks where we were. I tried to keep my balance and not fall and was still in shock, especially after taking the animal that lay before me.
I only came back to reality when Andy handed me a knife and said, “Let’s get this done and get off this mountain.”
A HUNTING KNIFE MAY be considered a hunter’s best friend; for many of us, it was the first real hunting tool we received when we were young. Having a dad entrust you with your own knife meant you were one step away from your first gun, and for most of us it was about as important as it got at that age.
Whatever the case or backstory that shaped who you are, no hunter should be without a good knife. You want something that performs in all situations, whether it’s as simple as cutting rope or complicated as skinning a grizzly, or deboning moose quarters or maybe even a goat. A good and reliable knife is a must-have on any hunt.
Choosing a knife once was pretty simple, but with the vast array of options available today, hunters now have to make difficult decisions about what will work best for them.
Here are some guidelines that I recommend you follow before purchasing one of your most important hunting tools.
FIXED BLADE VERSUS FOLDING
Fixed blades are just like they sound: a blade fixed into a handle that usually comes with a sheath. They are, in my opinion, the easiest to use and one of the easiest to clean.
Knives with a fixed blade are very popular; they’re rugged, reliable and are great for heavy-duty work that requires a little more torque. The downside is they are bulkier and harder to transport. They can also be bit more dangerous when it comes to hunting, particularly if you’re hunting/hiking through rough country.
I’ve carried a number of fixed blades, but only a few have performed to my expectations, especially on their second go-around. They work nicely out of the box, but have either been hard to sharpen or just don’t hold an edge. Finding a blade that works consistently on all occasions is the key to a great fixed blade.
Folding knives have also become very popular with many hunters. Their ease of use and storability are the biggest factors, particularly for those hunters who are trying to cut down on weight and want to keep things simple. Most come with a clip and can easily fit into a pocket or attach to the side of your pack. Most folding knives produced today are tough and can handle the most challenging of chores.
Folders basically come in two types: pocketknives and the lock-back. For hunting and safety reasons I recommend the lock-back. The blade folds out and locks into position, creating a rigid blade that can be used as a fixed blade. I find that they’re easy to use and maneuver, plus the ability to stick them anywhere is a huge selling point.
Most lock-back knives come with a thumb spur or a hole that can be easily opened with one hand. This allows you to open the blade in one fluid motion. Spyderco’s Stretch model is a favorite folder of mine. This high-performance drop point is close to 8 inches in length and has a 3½-inch blade weighing in at a measly 3½ ounces – perfect for the sheep or goat hunter.
Pocketknives are a great choice once the heavy work is done. However, I’ve seen a lot of hunters use a small pocketknife to field-dress an entire caribou – and they do work! Tasks such as caping or skinning small game are ideal for the pocket variety, which keeps the chance of cutting yourself to a minimum. There are a wide variety of small pocketknives to choose from, so do your homework to determine what works best.
Like I mentioned earlier, when it comes to using a knife there is nothing better than a good blade that will hold an edge from start to finish. Knife blades were once limited to one or two types, but nowadays there are hundreds of styles to choose from and in a variety of steel types.
If I don’t have my Havalon handy, I like to use a drop-point blade for skinning and just about everything else I do while I’m in the field.
One of my favorite drop-points is the Diskin by Kershaw. It’s made in the U.S. and is ideal for field-dressing and just about any task a hunter will face. It has a slim handle, which provides a comfortable, secure fit into your hand. It’s a combination of function and elegance all rolled into a single knife.
The Bill Moran Drop Point by Spyderco is also a favorite. It has a midsized blade at about 4 inches and is designed for optimal performance. I prefer the black-coated nonreflective model – an excellent choice for skinning and caping. The handle boasts a rubbery texture, which eliminates slipping and keeps the knife secure, even if your hands are wet, cold or gloved.
Another popular type is the clip-point blade. This comes with a concave top and a fine point on the end. This blade is excellent for making small puncture holes or doing delicate work in tight places. Clip points can be used for skinning, but keep in mind that hunters must be careful not to accidentally cut holes in the hide if keeping a cape or skin for other reasons.
Spyderco’s Enuff series are excellent clip-point knives that come with a heavy-duty sheath and are also made in America.
Like choosing different broadheads for bowhunting different types of game, there are knives made specifically for certain purposes. Many knives have gut hooks, which are used to unzip an animal and not puncture the intestines. Certain knives can be purchased with a built-in gut hook located on the topside of the blade; they are ideal for the all-purpose hunter. Kershaw’s Lone rock has a gut hook and also folds up into a nice little package. It’s an ideal option for the hunter who wants the best of all worlds.
One of my all-time favorite special-purpose knives is the Muskrat, made by Knives of Alaska. This caping and fleshing knife is specifically designed for getting into tight spots – specifically around antlers and other delicate areas. It has a sharpened edge extending around the top; once you use it, you’ll wonder how you did without one.
One of the most popular cutting utensils these days is a replaceable blade-type knife, which is more like a surgeon’s scalpel and is crazy-sharp. The Havalon-type folder, with its replaceable-style blade, proves itself again and again on pretty much all big game. It folds and comes in variety of sizes for different applications. It’s become something I trust.
I was a skeptic at first when I tried this type of knife. The small, thin blade looked flimsy, especially if I had a moose down and had to deal with that thick hide and bone structure. But I’ve learned to never knock it until you try it, so I did and it performed flawlessly. It actually made the chore easier and more enjoyable. If you break a blade, just replace it with another, which takes seconds and isn’t too expensive.
Other knives come with saw blades that help the hunter cut through bone and other dense material such as tree limbs or even kindling for the fire. Still more have serrated edges that enable the hunter to saw through thicker material and make cuts that sometimes get pretty difficult.
Probably one of the most overlooked aspects when choosing a knife is the handle. You basically have three types: wood, bone and synthetic. Wood and bone grips are pleasing to look at and can be featured in collections. I have many knives that have never seen blood but look great in my gun safe. If I were to use them, they would probably do fine.
I personally like knives with a synthetic or rubberized textured grip. They feel good in your hand, ensure a better grip and, in some situations, feel warmer to the touch, especially when the thermometer drops. These handles are also cheaper in cost but not on performance.
Also, the color orange has become quite popular since it’s easy to see and will allow you to spend less time trying to figure out where you left your knife after a long day of field-dressing an animal.
HOW MANY KNIVES DO I NEED?
If you’re like me, you have several knives, each one bought for a particular reason; some were great and some ended up stored in a drawer or deposited in the trash. In the end, a couple will make the cut (no pun intended) and become your go-to knives.
As hunters, we want a knife that will perform at all times and is trustworthy when it comes to taking care of business, especially after the last shot has been fired and the next step in the process begins. They become our trusted friend but need to be sharp and stay sharp. Like choosing a particular rifle or bow or even a hunting partner, we must choose our knives carefully, because they must perform in the field and, in some instances, that knife might even save your life. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.