Editor’s Note: Eric Fromm and Al Cambronne are the authors of Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison. In their chapter on “Gearing Up and Getting Ready,” they write about choosing the right knife for deer hunting. They don’t write about choosing a knife that makes just the right statement when it’s seen on your belt. Instead, they write about choosing a practical tool that gets the job done. In the same chapter, they describe the knives you’ll need back home when it’s time to finish the job.
For this guest article, we asked Al to sum up the practical knife-shopping advice he and Eric offer in Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. See if you agree with their conclusions.
Why Bigger Isn’t Better
For deer hunting, bigger isn’t better. You don’t need a giant, 10-inch bowie knife to quarter an elk or moose, and you definitely don’t need one to field-dress a 100-pound whitetail. The truth is, even Jim Bowie wouldn’t have used a bowie knife to field-dress a deer. Back then, frontiersmen carried a small sheath knife for everyday use. That smaller knife would have been the right tool for the job.
And by the way… The only reason those guys didn’t just carry folding knives is that sturdy, reliable ones didn’t yet exist. If they had, one would have been in every pocket.
If hunters carried a larger knife (and most of them didn’t), it was as a weapon—sort of an emergency back-up they could use after they’d fired their one shot from a muzzleloader. For more utilitarian purposes, they may have also carried a hatchet or a small axe.
Your situation, fortunately, is a little different. Even if you’re hunting with a muzzleloader, and even if you’re bowhunting and almost out of arrows, you’ll probably have time to climb a tree if you’re simultaneously charged by an entire herd of enraged deer.
You don’t need a 10-inch blade; even a five-inch blade is far larger than you’ll need for field-dressing a deer. In fact, you’ll do much better with a blade that’s between 2½” and 3¾” in length. Maybe you’re a little dubious about a 2½” blade like the one on, say, a Buck Mini Alpha. If so, we hope we can at least convince you to stay under 4”.
A smaller blade gives you much more control and precision; that’s one reason why surgeons generally use scalpels rather than bowie knives. Using a larger blade only increases the chance that you’ll cut something you don’t want to cut. Potentially, that includes your own fingers.
A larger blade is also much more difficult to maneuver inside the deer’s body cavity when you’re reaching in to trim the diaphragm free. After that step, you’ll then be reaching even farther up inside the deer to sever its trachea and esophagus. When you do, you won’t be able to see what you’re doing; you’ll be working entirely by feel.
You’ll be working blind, and you’ll probably be completing these steps under less-than-ideal conditions. You could be cold and exhausted, with hands that are numb and slippery. Or, if you’re out hunting when it’s warmer, you could be field-dressing your deer when you’re hot, tired, and thirsty. You may even have a few mosquitoes or deer flies buzzing around your head. (Please… Remember to put down your knife before you swat them away.) Either way, you’ll want all the control and precision you can get.
The advantages to a smaller, lighter knife don’t stop there. When you’re not using your knife, you’ll be carrying it. A small folding knife can fit in your pocket, and a larger one can ride in a belt sheath. Even if you prefer fixed-blade knives, a shorter knife on your belt is less likely to catch on the brush or get in the way when you sit down.
Beauty is as Beauty Does
Knives made from quality steel just seem to take and hold an edge better. They’re easier to sharpen, and easier to keep sharp. They’re worth every penny.
Currently, the best knife steels include S30V, D2, 154CM, ATS-34, and a few others that are even more exotic and expensive. Steels in the next tier down include AUS-8A, 440C, and CR17. If a knife doesn’t say anywhere on the blade what it’s made from, then it’s probably made from a lesser steel that its maker didn’t want to brag about.
And those Rockwell hardness numbers? They only tell part of the story; different steels can be heat-treated to the same hardness number.
Paradoxically, a lesser knife can seem difficult to sharpen but easy to dull. You’re especially likely to encounter this situation with cheap stainless knives of recent vintage. Older knives with low-carbon steel may rust more easily, and they’re generally made from softer steel that won’t retain an edge quite as well. The good news? They’ll take a great edge that’s easy to restore when it does get dull.
A fine custom knife can be a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Even if you’re not wealthy, you can rationalize it as a lifetime purchase. But beware of expensive, elegantly crafted knives with cheap blades made from the most ordinary steel possible. When it’s time to actually use them, you’d be better off with a less expensive knife that’s made of better steel.
We suggest you invest in a quality knife—not necessarily the same thing as an expensive knife—and learn how to keep it sharp. When you consider the money you’ve spent on all your other hunting gear, it doesn’t make sense to rely on a cheap knife—or far worse, an expensive dull knife.