In a departure from reviewing rifles, Byron Pace revisits the important subject of knife selection
You can tell a lot about a man (or woman) by the type of rifle he or she uses. I so often see hunting forums littered with pictures of giant scopes and tactical stocks, proudly displayed after a successful stalk. That tells me that form is more important than function, or that the hunter has only one rifle and likes to long-range target shoot as well as stalk. It is a setup which is not ideal for either, but a compromise is obviously understandable. The choice cannot of course have had optimal performance as the primary criteria, because such a rifle described doesn’t make a great deal of practical stalking sense over normal hunting distance. It is unlikely to be the choice of the professional stalker – more the wannabe sniper.
The same can also be said for the choice of hunting knife. Interestingly, the very first article I ever wrote for this magazine was on the subject of choosing a suitable blade for stalking, many years back now. I thought it was about time we revisited the subject, and to take a look at some of today’s options. Not a lot has changed in my view, and time has served to reinforce my opinion.
There should be two distinct categories of knife for use in the field. The first is purely practical, where function and price are the only criteria required. Knives do take abuse, and for many hunters it is simply a disposable tool with a limited lifespan. With that in mind you don’t want to be using a knife worth hundreds. On the other hand, many hunters have an obsession with blades. I do appreciate a well-made and engineered knife, with a number of fine examples in my cupboard. For those who appreciate the finer aspects, it is nice to be able to use your favourite sabre. For me it enhances the experience and memory. After all, they are designed to be used, and no greater respect can be shown to fine craftsmanship than to use a tool for the job it was intended.
Personally speaking, I switch between the two. For day-to-day tasks I have taken to using the excellent Mora Companion in high-vis orange, which is a cheap (around £10), replaceable knife capable of doing every activity I could possibly think of. They also make excellent larder knives and are available from www.forestandhill.co.uk. With the knife and sheath easily sterilised, I would not be without a couple in the house, stashed as spares in game bags and roe sacks. The only real criticism is that the sheaths are not all that secure, although I am yet to lose a knife.
Of course, since I own some nice knives, there are plenty of occasions when they come out to play. This tends to be when I am purposely going hunting as opposed to any of the other activities knives are used for. Every time I head to Africa, or make a trip somewhere unusual, I am sure to carry a blade that has a little more history and, importantly, soul.
The biggest mistake people make is to choose a knife with a blade that is too long or too thick, or both. The primary reason we carry a knife to the field is for use after the shot has been taken – we will not be delivering the fatal blow with our slither of steel, and nor will we be using it to cut down a tree or for self-defence (well, unlikely in the UK at any rate). The blade needs to be long enough to successfully stick a beast for bleeding, and thin enough to aid dexterity when taking the essential internal cuts. A blade in the region of 110mm in length with a maximum width of 25mm, give or take, is ideal.
This is also a consideration when it comes to making incisions – a wide blade requires more force than a thin one. It can be useful, depending on your skill level and practice, to be able to slip the blade through the atlas joint of an animal that hasn’t passed. Too wide, and you won’t be able to do this. A thinner blade also makes cutting around the tailpipe a much easier task than a big, wide wedge of metal.
Thickness of the blade is also important, as this partly determines the strength and flex of your tool. Remember though: this is not a camp knife, which calls for reinforced strength along the spine. Blade design is something that could be discussed for many pages, but my personal preference is for a simple and strong drop point, although a clipped-point blade would also do. These two are the most common.
It is also worth considering the grind of your blade, as this dictates strength and ease of sharpening. As good as the Mora Companion it is manufactured with the simplest and cheapest method involving a flat grind. Although strong, it means every time the edge is sharpened the cross sectional area becomes thicker. Eventually it will become hard to get a good edge. The most appropriate for our use is a hollow grind, which is the most complicated and time-consuming to achieve. By reducing the thickness of metal behind the edge, it won’t be as strong, but means the knife can continue to be sharpened without a detrimental effect to the edge by a thickening cross section. This tends to be found on more expensive knives.
Blade material is another discussion that could run to thousands of words. All I will say is that a stainless steel blade will most likely serve your purposes just fine and, importantly, won’t rust. What we are looking for is steel that is hard enough to hold a good edge with use, but not so hard that sharpening becomes a mission. If you really want to be sure there is a mountain of online resources listing specific steel types and their characteristics for knife blades. If in doubt, Google it and see if it fits the bill.
The array of knives available is colossal, and most of these have little place at the side of a stalker. It is often assumed that folding blades would fit into this category, and strictly speaking, in terms of optimal performance I would agree. I do, however, use one or two excellent folding blades from time to time and, assuming they are of good quality and fulfil the sensible dimension requirements, there lie only two issues. The first is they involve the use of a moving component, and this means greater potential for failure, leaving you without a safe knife to use. This is fairly uncommon, so you would have to be quite unlucky. The second comes down to the ability to correctly and fully sterilise the knife after use. Inevitably the handle slot that houses the blade will have dust, dirt or other debris stuck in before use, and certainly after. One notable hybrid that should be mentioned here is the EKA swing blade. Fitted with a rotating single piece of Sandvik steel, one side offers a standard drop point, while the other forms a curved, snub-nosed gut opener. Although not having used one much myself, a number of friends swear by them, and having seen them in use, would say it is definitely worthy of note. I would not however endorse a blade fitted with a gut hook, as these are far more of a hindrance than they are of any use.
This leaves fixed blades. Apart from that which has already been mentioned, the knife should have a suitable handle, large enough to easily grasp, with a finish or texture that inhibits slipping. For meat processing and hygiene reasons it should be made from some form of synthetic material, or at least be sealed to prevent blood soaking into the material. The sheath too should ideally be washable, although I have to admit I really do appreciate a well-constructed leather sheath. Those made by Richard Eadon are hard to beat. A gifted leather worker, he also produces custom knives, with his own Muntjac stalker knife offering everything you could need. Already owning one Richard Eadon knife, the muntjac is on my list of additions.
As I stated at the start of this article the Mora Companion is an excellent knife, and ticks almost all the boxes. Taking into account value for money and function, it is hard to look past it for an off-the-shelf fixed blade. Although not strictly a folder, the EKA is also up there and a serious rival with increased functionality.
For those hunters who appreciate a well-constructed, balanced and designed knife from start to finish, I have to mention a custom blade from Stuart Mitchell of Sheffield, designed and sold by John Robson of Yorkshire Deer Stalking. I saw this knife only recently, a while after I had first drafted this article. A discussion with John on the subject of knife selection had him send his own, initial prototype for me to look at (it hasn’t changed a great deal). In every way it ticked all the boxes, even down to the versatile, easy clean, firmly securing Kydex sheath. A slim, nicely proportioned grip made from a layered fibreglass resin compound called G10, provides ample grip even in wet conditions, and in a way which still offers an aesthetically pleasing finish similar to Micarta. Flared towards the shoulder, the crafted handle holds a full tang blade of SF100 high carbon stainless steel, normally seeing use in the manufacturer of razor blades. If I had to draw what I had described previously, this would have been it. So taken was I that my next message to John was “How much and can I have one?” With a retail at £295 plus postage, it will likely require some deliberation before committing. Coming in a choice of blaze orange or black handles, a lanyard hole is optional, with custom engraving of your choice. This this will be a special knife. As much as I endorse the cheap, replaceable alternatives such as the Mora, there is something nice about using an everyday item that really is well made. There are a few pieces of equipment I have had for most of my hunting career, and it gives me great satisfaction to remember the places they have been with me. Make your knife choice an informed decision, and think about the job it’s required for.