Choosing the Right Knife for Deer Hunting

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.

Guthooks, Gadgets, and Gimmicks

You may have noticed none of the knives in this photo have a guthook built into the back of the blade. This feature has become quite popular in recent years; we’re guessing that more hunting knives are now being sold with guthooks than without them.

In theory, this feature makes it easier for you to slit the abdominal wall and perform certain other field-dressing cuts. It’s also meant to reduce the risk that you’ll accidentally puncture the internal organs during these steps.

In practice, however, the steps during which a guthook would be helpful are relatively easy; when you’re field-dressing a deer, you’ll probably spend more of your time on steps during which a guthook actually makes the job harder.

Later, when you’re working inside the deer’s abdominal cavity, a guthook on the back of the blade would get in your way and make the job more awkward. Plus, guthooks can be awkward to sharpen, and some designs are easily clogged with hair or bits of skin.

For all these reasons, we’re not wild about knives with guthooks. But some hunters swear by them; it’s all a matter of personal preference. If you like, give one a try.

Or, if you’d just like to experiment with the whole concept, you could try one of the separate tools made just for this purpose. Some even come with replaceable blades that you won’t need to sharpen. These inexpensive, utilitarian tools are a lot less exciting than a new knife. But they only weigh a couple ounces, and they offer all the advantages of a guthook with none of the disadvantages. Bring one of these and your knife, and you’ll be set.

There’s one more small tool that we recommend very highly. Again, it’s not expensive or glamorous. But you’ll find that it comes in handy when you’re field-dressing your deer. It’s available from a couple of manufacturers; it’s variously known as a “sternum saw” or a “pelvic saw.”

These small T-handled saws are specially designed for cutting through the pelvis and sternum without puncturing any adjacent organs. (These are both, however, steps you may want to skip anyway; in our chapter on field-dressing, we explain these choices in more detail.)

The handle of these saws is ergonomically designed for this particular purpose. The blade is short, it’s designed to cut on the upward “pull” stroke, and it has a little “bumper” on the end so it won’t puncture the bladder, intestine, or any other internal organs. It’s the right tool for the job.

A sturdy hunting knife can work OK for cutting the sternum and pelvis, but not great—especially when you’re cutting the pelvis. For an older and larger deer, you’ll probably need to hold your knife with one hand while you hammer the butt of the knife with your other hand.

This traditional technique is a good way to injure or cut yourself; at the very least, you can count on bruising the heel of your hand. And because the next steps require a little prying and levering, there’s always the chance you could break the tip off your knife. (Eric tells me he’s done this more than once over the years.)

Another alternative would be to use a small pruning saw that you can fold up and put in your pack. They’re perfect for clearing a shooting lane, but not for cutting through a deer’s sternum or pelvis. Instead, we recommend that you spend around $15 on one of these specialized tools. For the average hunter, it will last a lifetime.

In outdoor shops and catalogs, you’ll see dozens of other gadgets and gimmicks that promise to speed or simplify the whole process of field-dressing, skinning, and butchering. We suggest you save your money.

Instead, use it to buy a good knife, a copy of Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. and the tools you really need. If you still feel like splurging, buy an extra dozen arrows or a few more boxes of ammunition. Then go get in some practice.

The First Rule is…  Bring a Knife

And while you’re at it…  Bring a spare. In the “Gearing Up and Getting Ready” chapter of Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., Eric tells a rather embarrassing story about the first and last time he went hunting and forgot his knife. (Don’t worry, this is the short version.)

“I was in a hurry to get in a little bowhunting during that last hour before dark. Time was short. I’d placed my stand a long ways from the road, so I knew I’d better get going. I quick grabbed my gear, locked my truck, and headed down the trail.

But somehow my knife was still back home. I discovered this just after I’d arrowed a nice buck, and just before the sun went down. I took a moment to consider my options. They weren’t good.

Then I noticed the arrows still in my quiver. Back then, most broadheads were simpler; I was using a two-bladed design that I’d made sure was razor sharp. If I held the shaft of the arrow just right, and if I carefully avoided the other edge of the broadhead…

It worked. Not great, but better than you might think. Still, I’ve never forgotten my knife again. Not once. Plus, I always bring a small folding knife as a backup.”

The moral of the story:  First, always bring a knife. And maybe an extra knife. These days, you can buy a top-quality pocket knife that only weighs a couple ounces. The fact is, you’d never need anything larger.

Second, while a broadhead may not be the perfect tool for the job, small and sharp always beats big and dull. And third, you don’t need to cut through the sternum and pelvis when you’re field-dressing a deer. In some situations, it’s better if you don’t. But if you do, there’s a tool for that.

The Knives You’ll Need Back Home

Back home, you’ll need knives for skinning and butchering. We suggest buying two or three knives with relatively thin, flexible blades around 5” long. You’ll also want a few shorter knives for more precise trimming work.

For skinning, you’ll want a blade with a little curve to it. Specialized skinning knives, however, are much larger and swept back in a more radical curve; that’s not something you really need for skinning deer. Your hunting knife or one of your butcher knives will work just fine.

If you’re just getting started, you may be able to get by with the knives you already own. With your hunting knife, a fillet knife, and a few paring knives and butcher knives from the kitchen, you may already have everything you need.

Keep Your Knives Sharp

So here’s our final shopping advice.  Like we said, beauty is as beauty does. If you’re on a budget, save that custom knife with the mastodon-ivory handle for later. In fact, before you buy any new knife, consider investing in the gear you’ll need to put a new edge on your old knife. Then learn how to use it.  If your new whetstones, ceramic rods, or precision fixtures cost more than your old knife did, it’s OK.

When you’re hunting, and even when you’re back home finishing the job, a sharp knife is your most important tool. Apart from that $15 pelvic saw, it’s pretty much the only tool you’ll need. No saws, no tongs, and no gadgets. But that means a dull knife just won’t cut it.
Dull knives make deer disassembly difficult. A sharp knife is also much safer; with a dull knife you’ll be pushing harder, and you’ll be far more likely to have a mishap.

So keep those knives sharp. In the end, that matters more than which knife you use.

Al Cambronne shares more expert insights in Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison. Click here to purchase the book for 34% off the cover price.

Click here to read part one in this series.

What do you think about Cambronne’s views? Click here to give your take on the forum.