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Rifle Magazine
September - October 2004
Volume 2, Number 5
Number 11
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Cover photo by Donald M. Jones.
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The Hunter’s Edge

Although I honestly   came up with this    title on my own, I have to give my friend, the late and most assuredly great Finn Aagaard, credit for first using it. Finn used it on an article he did years ago for the NRA’s American Hunter magazine. Finn had a habit of doing that. I would be out on my trap line, 60 miles from my nearest neighbor, and come up with an idea for a great story. Then, the very next time I flew into town to pick up mail, there would be an article by Finn on the exact subject. Since we held similar views on so many subjects, my article then seemed superfluous, if not redundant. I used to kid him about it, and said it had to be a case of “great minds thinking alike.” Finn said that, knowing us, “fools seldom differ” was most likely the case. But Finn was no fool, and he and his wife, Berit, were both adept with hunting knives.

I also have amassed my share of time behind a blade. Skinning, fleshing, caping and butchering are the primary uses to which a hunter applies his blades, but there are myriads of other camp chores in which knives are utilized. Over    the years, in a search for the mythical, chimerical, “all-around” hunting knife, I have literally worn out dozens of blades. Most were simple, proven, practical blade designs. Although I still keep looking, I have yet to discover the perfect, do-everything blade.

A skilled and determined user can accomplish amazing chores with virtually any sharp edge, but a blade specifically designed for a task makes cutting chores faster, safer and easier. One look in any butcher shop or professional kitchen should convince you of this. But I don’t know of any hunters who would care to pack a roll of butcher’s knives along on a hunt. Most of us choose a knife or two that fit our purpose and make do. I can tell you what has worked for me over the past four decades.

Undoubtedly the first choice everyone makes is whether to carry a fixed blade or folder, and there are strong advocates for both. Arguing over which one is best is like debating whether you prefer pistols or rifles. Like pistols, folding knives have the advantage of portability. By that virtue alone they become indispensable for most of us. Except for when I’m on a commercial airliner, I always have at least one  good pocketknife with me. For hunters who only field dress their game, they are all that is required. For     serious cutting chores, however, the simplicity, strength and durability of a fixed bladed knife is best.

In order to find a useful hunting knife today, you have to wade through all the current fanciful, artistic and “tactical” (whatever that means) blade shapes as well as the hype surrounding each new steel alloy. Contrary to what many custom knifemakers would have you believe, there is no magic involved. Knives are one of man’s oldest tools, and every size and shape imaginable have already been discovered and used.

My friend Kuzan Oda, a revered Japanese master bladesmith, tells a story of attending a large knife show where two famous makers were arguing over who stole whose current design. Finally someone suggested adjourning to a local museum where a thousand-year-old blade, virtually identical to the one they were arguing over, was on display.

Grinding, forging and heat treating steel has also been around for centuries. Still, it’s inevitable that each time a new steel alloy comes on the market, there will be custom makers who make outrageous claims about how, without sharpening their blade, you can skin a herd of animals and still be able to shave the entire world’s Muslim population. Later, after factories adopt the same alloy, they discover another new wonder steel.

I don’t mean to pick on custom makers. Like custom rifle builders, they can give you a unique product specifically tailored for you and your purposes. Nearly half of my using knives are custom built. I once even designed a knife and had John Nash, another knife-building friend, build one for me. The folks at Damascus USA then built me a second one using their beautiful steel. Benchmade currently makes a very similar blade, called the Model 180 Outbounder, which is every bit as useful.

A number of factors – including the alloy, fineness of grain and heat treatment – affect the sharpness, strength, wear resistance, cutting and edge holding ability of a knife. Super hard steels are great until they need to be sharpened in the field. Every blade is a compromise, and I prefer a thin blade that retains a sharp edge yet is reasonably easy to resharpen in the field. Although custom makers who specialize in building a single style may disagree, good blades can be made by forging, casting or grinding.

We can again look to see what professional butchers use. If super steel blades existed, they would be the first to use them. Instead we find them using basic, proven designs built of fine-grained steel treated to a moderate hardness. Stainless steel is common in the food industry although many users (myself included) find plain carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen and longer lasting. Butchers also use thin blades. Thick knives may make good pry bars but are second-rate cutting instruments. Due to the fact that hunting knives are often required to serve multiple tasks, they are typically built of thicker steel than butcher knives.

When I am hunting or guiding, I carry two folding knives at all times. The first, my Swiss Army knife – with can and bottle opener, screwdrivers, awl and a single blade – is always with me. Depending on the size of the quarry, I also carry a second folder capable of most field dressing and daily camp chores. On my belt I also wear a small fixed blade knife that sees the majority of use.

If I am hunting deer-sized game, those are the only blades I carry; but when I’m hunting or guiding for larger game in the wilds of Alaska, I pack more serious cutting tools in my backpack. The first is a folding saw that is both useful for clearing camps as well as sawing bone. I also pack a suitable professional quality butcher or skinning knife. They not only make short work of skinning chores but are also large enough to field butcher the largest moose. Because I also cape and flesh trophies for clients, I carry another small, razor-sharp, locking blade folder and a dozen single-edged razor blades in a small Tupperware container.

I wish I had a dollar for every custom maker who assured me his or her blades would never require sharpening during a hunt. I have yet to find a blade that will stand up to a thick, wet, dirty moose hide. It would dull a laser. So will a large bear hide. I begin each trip with all my blades shaving sharp, yet inevitably I am required to resharpen them during the hunt. For this chore I carry a small carbide scraper as well as a two-sided, diamond-coated stone. They quickly allow me to touch up a dulled edge and wrap up another successful hunt.

Personal Favorites

Often-used knives rapidly become    favorites, and over the years I have developed a number of them. As mentioned in the article, I am never without my Swiss Army knife. I doubt a day passes that I don’t use it in some manner. I have also learned that tried-and-true patterns are typically most useful.

I am partial to the trapper patterns, and Kershaw makes an excellent trapper with a liner lock on both blades and a small stud for one-handed opening. Two other pocket-sized folding patterns I have learned to rely on are the classy Benchmade Osborne and the simple Griptilian. Both offer quick, reliable, one-handed opening and practical, useful blade designs. Cold Steel is another maker of useful patterns, and in its large Voyager series, it has created a virtual folding butcher knife.

While I always carry a good folder or two, I am partial to quality fixed blades. Besides my custom blades, I use a number of excellent factory knives. Over the past 30 years, I have worn out half a dozen little aluminum-handled Gerber mini-magnums, as well as a few full-sized Victorinox skinning knives. I have also become partial to the striking little Benchmade Outbounder for everyday carry.

If forced to name a single, best, “all-around” hunting blade, the 4 1/2-inch bladed Cold Steel Master Hunter would top my list. Like most Cold Steel blades, it is based on a simple, proven design and built of superior materials. The Carbon V steel is easy to sharpen yet holds an edge remarkably well, and the comfortable, rubbery-checkered grip is one of the most secure I have ever used.

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