Hunting knife technique: Tips from an expert

There’s a knack to working with a hunting knife. David Barrington Barnes has some top technique tips to avoid a trip to A&E

It all happened so quickly! Our stalker friend – who shall remain nameless – was gralloching two young muntjac in the field when it started to rain. He rushed the first one and then gralloched the second.

In cutting off the last leg of the second beast he sliced into the knuckles of his left hand. He knew at once that the cut in his middle finger was a deep one.

On checking his injured fingers he noticed the tip of the middle finger was locked straight whilst the other fingers were working perfectly although bleeding heavily. He drove home one handed and was then driven to his local hospital, by which time his fingers were very swollen.

Treatment in A&E comprised assessment, wound cleaning under local anaesthetic and then the intravenous administration of antibiotics against infection.

Kept in overnight, our stalker had surgery first thing in the morning to repair the extensor tendon of his middle finger and further cleaning up and stitching. He has been warned that the finger will never be straight again.

In the short term, he has had to take time off work and will be off game stalking for months. More haste, less speed. It was warning for our friend, and indeed one to all stalkers who gralloch in a hurry! This certainly includes experienced stalkers, such as our man, whose competence may cause them to disregard the risk of a self-inflicted injury.

I’ve seen another stalker slitting the brisket skin of a beast whilst his companion held back the skin. The knife, which was a large one, slipped inflicting a serious wound in the helper’s hand. I did not witness this but suspect from the slip of the knife and the gravity of the injury that the knife user may in fact have been trying to split the brisket.

It would have been a case of bad technique; had he only been slitting the skin as this can be achieved from the inside by sliding the blade upwards, along the breast bone.

I’ve also heard tales of sharp knives slipping and embedding themselves deep in a stalkers thigh. As I revisit these words, I go quite cold at the thought of it. We all know there is a certain crucial artery there and should look after it.

Another stalker severed one of his radial arteries and, had he not had a driver nearby, would likely have died before he could get medical attention. “Bleeding out” was a real risk.

This is not an exhaustive list of knife injuries but should be sufficient to focus attention on this particular hazard. Speaking for myself, I shake whilst visualising the injuries described above and am resolved to sharpen up my act in this aspect of deerstalking. 

I have borrowed a few hints from veteran stalker trainer, Major Hugh Rose. Here are a few of his – and other stalkers’ – words of advice:

  • In the field ensure your knife is secure and snug in its sheath. Sheaths can soften and spread with use and fastening straps, buckles and poppers become unfit for their purpose of holding the knife safely and securely.
  • Do not approach a shot beast with an open knife.
  • Do not leave an open knife on the ground, or on a rock or tree stump.
  • Use a medium-sized knife. There’s no need for a monster. You are not hacking out a jungle path.
  • Keep your knife sharp and remember that, although a sharp knife is less likely to injure the user than a blunt one, any injuries it causes may be more serious because it is sharper.
  • Never slash or hack at a beast or carcase with a knife.
  • Never attempt to force the brisket with a knife; use a saw instead! 
  • You should leg a deer before you hang it on a gambrel. If you are right-handed never work the knife upwards when your left hand is above it. If you must detach the front legs whilst the carcase is suspended locate the knob and cut round it with a circular motion.
  • Never apply the knife upwards towards the left hand. (Thoughtful comment here from my stalking partner John Hargreaves. Thanks John!)
  • Take your time and never hurry your knife work. (Our stalker friend had to take months off stalking, so had plenty of time to rue his speedy gralloch.)
  • Check your working area is clear for standing and cutting outside and in the deer larder.
  • Keep other people out of your work space. Remember the rule of one man per carcase.

Should you be tempted to think these precautions are unnecessary, I can say from my own experience that they can be all too relevant. 

I have had a sheath that became slack resulting in the knife blade becoming exposed. One active beast, although grounded, rolled on a tyro stalker’s rifle. Had he been carrying an open knife, the blade could have ended up anywhere.

I saw the large knife – much like a machete mentioned above – that sliced between thumb and forefinger. It should have been sent back to the jungle.

I have to admit to nicking my pinkies and my thumb when I have been hurrying. The worst incident was when I cut my thumb with a slashing stroke that seemed to bounce off bone. As mentioned, trying to to force the brisket is another frequent cause of self-inflicted injuries.

After a successful outing, perhaps involving several stalkers, it’s good to all get in the deer larder and exchange reminiscences whilst working on the deer.

Forget it! Only the stalkers working on the carcases should be in the deer larder, and he or they (as the case may be) should have adequate space in which to work safely.

It would be the height of complacency to suggest that following the hints above will prevent all knife injuries. When men and knives are together there will always be accidents and mistakes.

Obviously few stalkers are going to want to carry full first aid so a basic minimum might, it is suggested, include a couple of field dressings, a roll of fast tape, a tube of antiseptic gel and a tourniquet. I hope never to have to use the latter but, if I do, I know I shall be thankful to have had it in my bag.

Finally a mobile phone with a fully charged battery and the WHAT3WORDS App should ensure timely help can be called for if required. For the non-technical deerstalker WHAT3WORDS is a system for the communication of locations to within three metres.

Downloading this app has saved lives and could save your life. Stay safe.

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