Hunting Knife Basics

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We have all seen the movies where the main character is carrying a knife with a blade at least a foot long (Bowie or Rambo types). While it looks impressive, it isn’t really very practical. As an experienced hunter, it is always easy for me to spot the newest member of the hunting group who usually has very little experience in the woods. They almost always show up wearing a knife modeled after their favorite action movie star, and, unlike the movies, our new hunter has to live with his or her knife selection for the duration of the hunt.

Knives. How much do we really know about them? As a hunter, I have found a good sheath knife can be a real lifesaver. I cannot make you a knife expert in one small article, but I can give you a few pointers that may assist you in selecting a knife that will work the best for you in the field. Also, keep in mind, there are many different kinds of knives on the market and they are all designed for different uses, but let’s look at the components of a typical sheath knife.

Various sheath knives from left to right: Gerber Freeman, Buck Vanguard, Ka-Bar Warthog, Ka-Bar U.S.M.C #1217

The Blade, is the metal that extends from the handle. The blade has the cutting surface ground onto it. It also comes in various lengths and shapes. Each blade shape is designed for a particular task. Some knife blades are for filleting, skinning, chopping, and so on. Additionally, some blades are made of better steel than others. I won’t get into all the different metals that can be used to make knives, except to say, I prefer a 440C blade. I have found it to hold an edge well, is strong enough for about any task I would require of it, and is a good metal composite. Cheap knife blades will either be impossible to sharpen, or will not hold an edge. Also, at least make sure your knife is made of stainless steel which reduces rusting and corrosion. Other good knife blade materials are 420HC and ATS-34 steel, although they both come at a premium cost.

The Point. I think most readers know this part of the knife. This part is usually used for gutting game, piercing, or stabbing. It is also is the most dangerous part of the knife. It should always be sheathed or covered when not in use. Never walk or run with an uncovered knife in your hands.

The Tip. The forward one fourth of the blade. It does most of the cutting and separating. The tip also includes the point.

The Cutting Edge, well, it is just that. It is the tapered length of the blade that is sharpened and designed to cut. There are many different types of edges available, but I prefer a straight edge. I have found they are better in the field for me because I can sharpen them quickly and keep them sharp with less effort. The type of edge, just like the metal used in the blade, is an individual choice. Serrated cutting edges are nice for cutting cord or other tough surfaces; however sharpening serrated edges takes more time and in some cases special sharpening tools.

The Guard or Bolster tip. This part of the knife protects your hands from the blade in the event your hand should slide on the handle during use. Knife guards come in various shapes, sizes, and designs. Some of them can be too big and actually make the knife more difficult to use. Select a knife with a guard design you find practical, not beautiful.

The Handle. The handle of a knife can be constructed of many different types of material. I have seen them made of wood, plastic, polypropylene, and one even made from an old truck tire (rubber) in Southeast Asia. I avoid metal handles like the plague. I find them too cold to use much in severe winter weather and could actually stick to your hand if it is cold enough. Gutting is a slippery affair and thus you should avoid slick finished handles if you can. A textured handle will be easier to grip when it becomes wet.

The Butt. This is the handle end of the knife, opposite of the tip. It is, for all practical purposes, the ‘end’ of the knife. In some survival knives this may contain a metal cap that can be unscrewed to reveal a hollow storage compartment. Personally, I see no need for the compartment. I carry my survival gear in a survival kit. But, it is an individual preference.

There are other parts to a knife, but these are the most important ones for our discussion. A good quality, well designed, sheath knife will contain all of the parts I have just explained. Please, understand, I am not discussing penknives or jackknives. They are dogs of a different color. I am only talking about sheath knives.

Ok, you have found a knife that is made of a good metal, has all the required components, now what? Simple, pick it up. A well-designed knife should feel natural in your hand. Does it feel balanced? The distribution of weight between the blade and the handle effects the balance a great deal. You do not want a knife with a blade that is too heavy, just like you don’t want a blade that is too light. Spend some time and find a properly balanced knife for your hand.

The knife, if ergonomically designed, will feel like it is one piece, and actually you should not be able to feel the difference in the weight of the blade and handle. It should feel natural, fit the hand normally, and be light enough to use for a prolonged period of time. Avoid knifes that feel too heavy, too wide, or feel “wrong” to your hand. Here again, it is a matter of choice.

Once you see the knife you want, look at the sheath. Is it made of a good quality material? Sheaths can be constructed of metal, plastics, leather, cloth, and the list goes on. I prefer a leather sheath that is re-enforced with rivets. I also make sure all sheaths are double stitched. I once lost a knife I had because the sheath was poorly constructed, so I take extra care in selecting only quality work.

Whether or not the sheath is designed so it can be tied to my leg, attached to my web harness, or secured to my ankle, matters little to me. I prefer a knife sheath that attaches, securely to my web belt. I have found knives that attach to other points of the body either, a) get in my way, b) cannot be reached when I really need them, or c) aren’t in the sheath when I want them.

Ok, once you have a good quality knife with a sheath, that’s all there is to it ... right? Wrong. You also need to know how to sharpen your blade and how to keep the blade in good condition.

In an emergency, many different types of stone may be used to sharpen your knife blade, quartz, sandstone, or granite are very good examples. If you use a professional sharpening stone, make sure it has two sides. A good quality professional sharpening stone has both a rough side and a smooth side. Use the rough side first, then the smooth side.

Hold the handle of the knife in your right hand and apply even pressure on the blade with your fingertips. Many experienced hunters have a preferred angle to hold the knife blade (usually 13-16 degrees, or the just about the thickness of your blade), but I suggest you, as a beginner, just work at keeping the angle constant. Remember also to keep the stone wet. You can sharpen your knife by pushing the blade down a wet stone, in a slicing motion, see the illustrations. Then, turn the knife over and pull the blade towards your body. Use caution here to avoid injury. Another way to sharpen you knife blade is to move the blade in a circular motion, as shown in the illustrations. The key to a sharp knife is keeping a constant angle, using a wet stone, and using your fingertips for even pressure.

Your knife can be preserved by wiping it down with vegetable oil after you are finished sharpening it (even stainless steel will rust, it just takes longer). Many folks use other oils, but I prefer to use vegetable oil since it is edible and at some point I may want to eat with the knife; not to mention I use the blade to prepare an animal carcass after a kill. I just feel safer using a vegetable oil.

Additionally, I also feel I should explain some basic knife safety with you.

  • Just like your mom told you, never run with a knife in your hand. It is too easy to fall, or trip, and stick yourself with the tip. If you feel like running, place the knife in the sheath, or drop the knife.
  • Never throw a knife that is not designed for throwing. You can break the blade, bend the blade, or, yep, stick yourself. Keep the knife either in the sheath, or in your hand.
  • Never use the blade as a screwdriver to pry things open with, or to cut metal. Use a knife only for its designed purpose, to stab or cut. Using the blade improperly may cause it to break or cause injury. The last thing you need in the woods is an injury, regardless of how small it may be.
  • Never use the butt of the typical sheath knife as a hammer. It is not designed to hammer with and you may damage your knife. (There are some knives on the market that have a butt designed for hammering, but I don’t trust them). If you need a hammer, then get one. Would you use a hammer to field dress game? A knife is designed for cutting, not hammering. Remember the old military adage, “Use the proper tool for the job.”
  • Never attempt to catch a falling knife! I have seen some nasty injuries as the result of people attempting to do just that. If you drop a knife, let it fall, while making every effort to ensure your feet are not near the impact point. You don’t need an injury.
  • Keep the edge of the blade sharp! A dull blade causes many more injuries than a sharp one. You should never have to apply undue pressure or force a blade to make it cut. Also, you should not have to “saw” with a blade to cut. If you do, you need to sharpen the blade or use a different type of cutting tool (perhaps you need a hatchet or ax and not a knife?). Take care of the edge on your blade and it will take care of you when you need it.

Sheath knives come in all sizes, shapes and designs. I suggest a small or medium blade, easy to maneuver, with a nice even balance. Once more I will hype the 440C blade with a straight edge as my blade choice. When you evaluate a knife ask yourself a very important question, “could I trust my life to the quality of this knife?” In some extreme situations the quality of a good blade could do just that, save your life. There are good knives out there that are not expensive, of good quality, and will last a lifetime if properly cared for.

Now you should have a better idea of how to select the one you want, with the quality and design you need. Remember that most experienced woodsmen carry a penknife or a jackknife in their pockets as well as a sheath knife. I also carry a good quality jackknife in my survival kit.

When you are hunting, or faced with a survival situation, the quality of your gear can make the difference between life and death. As my old sergeant used to say in the military, “carry quality gear, keep it in excellent condition, and it will always work when you need it, as often as you need it.” Once your game is down, or you are isolated, what you have on you may be all you have to work with. I hope to see you in the woods soon. Stay safe.


WesternHunter's picture


Ka-Bar combat knives or any similar USN MkII combat knife makes a very terrible hunting knife in my opinion.  They are good for utility tasks and for hand-to-hand combat, but that's about it. 

Also I always found 420HC stainless steel knives to not really cost a premium, most knives with this midgrade steel are very affordable. 

A good hunting knife could described as having a drop-point blade with a nice sweep of not more that 4" long, a flat grind, and quality handle. 

GooseHunter Jr's picture

Funny I just saw this review

Funny I just saw this review pop up on my facebook page.  I am looking into a new hunting knife for this up coming season.  Glad I came across this helped me alot in narrowing done my chices........thanks!!

I am a Knife fanatic!!!

I am a knife collector and fanatic.  I have all shapes and sizes. It depends on the how I feel and what I plan to accomplish that day before I decide on what to knife to carry.  I do hunt the mountains of Afghanistan right now and will for about 45 more days.  I am a Recon Scout Platoon Sergeant, and I have also been know to carry you really big knife.  No I haven't used it it the business way nor do I ever expect or want to because that means things have gone very bad for us.  But I carry at times, not all the time but at times for a show of force.  Certain cultures have different reactions to different weapons, based mainly on historical events and myths.  There are places I have been to where if you are a guy that walks around with only a pistol per say then you are more respected than the guy who carries the biggest meanest assault rifle.  And there are those places where the knife says alot about you.  Some would say a big knife over compensates for other things in your life.  Better to have and not need than to need and not have.

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