Like most tools, hunting knives require maintenance. If you don’t take care of your blade, you’ll be one of those hunters who struggles through the process of field dressing and butchering and who turns out sloppily processed game meat. On a recent Montana black bear hunt, Matt Elliott from Benchmade Knife Company walked the MeatEater crew through a handful of do’s and don’ts surrounding knife care in the field. Some of it might seem like common knowledge, but other bits of wisdom caught us by surprise.
First off, when we use the term “hunting knife” we’re talking very specifically about the knife you’ll be using for skinning, gutting, quartering, and butchering animals in the field. Field butchering is best accomplished with a razor-sharp edge and it’s easier to maintain a sharp blade if it’s not being used for anything other than slicing hide and meat. For this reason, it’s a good idea to carry a second folding knife or utility knife, that we use for dozens of other tasks (cutting paracord or rope, sharpening stakes, preparing meals) that come up during a typical hunting trip. As a point of reference, Steve carries a Steep Country in his pack for field butchering but keeps a Griptilian clipped to his pocket for all other uses. But regardless of whether we’re talking about a hunting knife or an everyday carry knife, avoid using any knife for screwdriver-type prying actions which can permanently damage a blade.
A knife becomes dull as the thin, sharp, blade edge is folded or rolled over during the cutting process. More significant dulling occurs if you keep using the knife after the initial dulling, because then you’ll start to break away bits of rolled over steel from the blade’s edge. So how do you know when your hunting blade is beginning to dull? Simply put, it’s dull if it’s not cutting cleanly and quickly through hide and flesh with very little effort on the part of the user. You can also test for sharpness by cutting paper. The blade needs sharpening if the paper tears rather than being cleanly sliced. A better test is to see whether the knife can shave a bit of arm hair. If it can’t, it’s dull.
The catch is that shouldn’t wait until your blade gets dull to sharpen it. This is because the duller a blade becomes, the harder it is to get it back. As Matt Elliott explains, “The difficulty of reshaping a blade increases at a rate that outpaces the rate at which the blade is dulling. In other words, resharpening seems to get more and more difficult even if the blade isn’t that much more dull.” If need be, you should be taking the time to sharpen your knife periodically throughout the butchering process. It’s simply easier to keep a knife sharp if it never has the chance to get overly dull. As soon as you notice the slightest drop in cutting performance, it is time to sharpen the edge.
There are many tools that hunters can use to sharpen their knives in the field and at home, The small handheld gadgets with carbide and ceramic notches for the blade are suitable for a quick tune-up, but precise sharpening is best achieved with sharpening stones. (There are many varieties, ranging from natural stone to diamond impregnated composites.) A good all-purpose sharpening tool for field use is the Benchmade’s Guided Field Sharpener. It’s small enough to pack on backcountry hunts and I keep one at home for my butchering and boning knives. Whether you’re dealing with a completely dull blade or fine-tuning an already sharp edge, this tool has an easy step by step process that sets up the user with the ideal 20-degree (per side) sharpening angle. Once a year, I’ll also send my knives in to Benchmade for a free, professional resharpening.
It’s also important to keep your knife clean, dry and protected. Corrosion can render a high-quality blade useless. Even the best stainless steel blades will become pitted and rusted if they’re left wet and bloody inside the sheath. Take the time to clean your knife after field butchering an animal. At a minimum, wipe it down with a clump of wet grass and rinse it clean with water or snow. Later, back in camp or at home, you can thoroughly clean it with a mild solvent and then apply a thin coat of oil to the blade. When not in use, keep the knife sheathed to protect the edge for your next big field butchering job.
Brody Henderson is a hunter, fly fishing guide, writer, wilderness production assistant for the MeatEater television show and MeatEater‘s editorial contributor