by Robert Dewey
Among other highly skilled knife users such as chefs, meat workers, butchers and deckhands hunters stand alone as having no definitive description of the tools of their trade.
The food preparation industry trains future chefs and cooks principally through TAFE and the Secondary Schools’ hospitality courses where they list the items of equipment needed to be mastered as skills are developed. A trainee chef needs a ‘starter’ kit consisting of an 8” cook’s knife, 4” paring knife and a 6” straight back boning knife, all with honing steel and sharpening stone or diamond steel or stone.
A full understanding of the scope, care and use of the kit is considered an underpinning skill of the chef. The kit is always kept in an hygienic box, brought to every training session. New students are given a description of the equipment they will require and are allowed to choose it with consideration to the price and quality only of each item. From my experience in this area, the keen and eager future chefs go for the quality choice in the same way that apprentice mechanics are always advised to purchase tools that will have a long lifespan.
While formal training programs for hunters are few and far between, the knives that a hunter requires is often raised as a topic of debate. This article aims to provide recommendations about what a walkabout hunter’s basic kit should contain to meet a variety of needs in the field.
Based on both experience and discussion, over the years, with many hunters at field days and gun/knife shows like the SSAA SHOT Expo, there is general acceptance that a three-knife kit is an essential requirement ‑ a general purpose heavy duty knife, a dedicated skinner and a folder, together with the means of keeping them sharp enough to be safely used.
The general purpose heavy duty knife
The general purpose knife should be made to be virtually indestructible. Its uses would include breaking down larger game animals, minor wood cutting chores or perhaps even digging duties. The blade should be shaped and edged to be suitable for catching and preparing food as well, as this will be a significant part of its use.
The cutting edge must not chip and the blade must not fracture. It will hold its edge for days on end without the need to resharpen in the field and it can be carried on the belt.
Specifically, the knife would have:
●A cutting edge between 100 and 150mm in length.
●Flat ground bevels.
●Thickness behind the cutting edge approximately ¼mm.
●Blade thickness between 3.5 and 4.5mm.
●Spear or drop point shape.
●An integral finger guard.
●Scales of hardwood or antler, pinned and glued.
●A lanyard opening.
●A full tang.
●Blade steel of D2, 440C or other steel with similar proven wear down rates.
●Hardened and tempered within the range 54 to 56 HRC (Rockwell).
Occasionally the general purpose knife might be required as a survival knife, which our specification recognise.. In this regard, testing by the Australian Military has shown that serrations and hooks on the back of a blade are useless features and will eventually lead to blade fracture.
The knife should be devoid of all unnecessary features, that is, it should be utterly plain.
The dedicated skinning knife
One of the main tasks involved in the breaking down of game animals is skinning. Skinning is a skill that requires focus and persistence to master, especially if the skin itself is to be taken as part of the catch. The skinning knife is a dedicated tool and as such must be kept sharp, clean and stored in an appropriate cover. A quality skinning knife must be seriously sharp and able to hold that edge with a minimum of maintenance.
It has been shown that such a skinning knife, at one session, can skin and remove the usable meat from two Asiatic buffaloes and three wild boars without the need for touch ups.
With this target in mind, my specification is:
●A cutting edge between 100 and 150mm in length.
●Blade thickness between 2.5 and 3.5mm.
●Flat ground bevels.
●Bevels to meet at a point of zero thickness prior to honing the cutting edge vee.
●Drop point shape.
●Steel ‑ can be 12C27 or a fine grain steel with an equivalent wear down rate, or D2, 440C or other coarse grain steel of similar quality. These latter steels are coarse grained but give the best outcome for holding an edge. The choice here is between extreme sharpness or edge holding ability. Both contribute to a quality knife.
●Hardened and tempered within the range HRC 54-56.
The folding knife
The folding knife can be of either single or double blade construction. The purpose is to provide backup, or utility when either of the other knives in the kit are too cumbersome for smaller jobs.
A double-bladed folder is an ideal carry knife for fishing and small game hunting where larger knives are not required.
In attempting to develop a definitive description of the preferred folder to include in our kit, I looked at my own experience and that of a renowned and respected hunter.
In my case, knowledge is totally related to a two-blade IXL folder (pictured) now 70 years old. It removes splinters with ease, opens up blisters and including whittling during lazy days sitting in the shade it has done everything asked of it. It is a light knife with the main blade 2mm thick.
On the other hand, my experienced colleague carries an Uncle Henry two-blade folder (pictured), a significantly heavier/bigger knife than the IXL. The Henry has a 3mm blade thickness and has performed brilliantly over many years of hunting, both in Australia and overseas.
Clearly, either knife is an acceptable item in our kit yet difficult to list a detailed specification.
However, we can suggest a range of recommendations that can help guide your choice:
●A cutting edge 50-100 mm length.
●Flat ground bevels.
●Blade thickness 2-3mm.
●A plain knife with no features that can let you down in the field.
●12C27 stainless steel or equivalent.
●Easy to open and clean.
●A lanyard opening – this arises from anecdotal evidence that the Australian bush is carpeted with lost folders.
We have all been in that situation where we asked to borrow a knife and were handed something that was blunt and often chipped. You struggled to cut anything with it and the damage to the blade meant that the cut was ragged. It is recommended that the kit includes the equipment to maintain the edge and condition and a storage system.
The addition of a hand-held hone/stone 600 grit will give a fine edge, though is still coarse enough to clean up minor dings and nicks and maintain the cutting edge vee. The use of a diamond sharpener removes the need to carry sharpening oils and their associated oily rags.
Readers should remember that with coarse grain steels (for example D2 and 440C), extra sharpness is not achievable over and above use of 600 grit. However, 12C27 benefits from 1000/1200 grit.
Some hunters have stated that they find sharpening knives made from D2 and other coarse grain steels difficult. Our experience with the use of diamond sharpeners is such that they will put a fine edge, with ease, on any knife made by man. Go the extra step and include a diamond sharpener in your field kit.
To round out the usefulness of offering the new hunter a kit which so far gives substance to four items only, it is suggested that a simple first aid package and other essential safety and survival items be added.
With the kit outlined here and a sound understanding of how to use and maintain its contents, the hunter is “ready for anything” in the field.
In the field, each knife should be carried in its own sheath to protect it and its owner from damage. Some hunters like to carry a knife on their belt, others prefer to have their knives stowed in the bottom of a day pack.
When travelling or in camp the knife kit should be kept in a storage box for protection from the elements and other tools (see photo). It is important that the box can be dried easily in the event that water does find a way into it during rain or during the cleaning process.
Some food for thought
In my opinion, a knife should not be offered for sale unless all the relevant factors involved in describing the knife come as part of the sales package. This information would include certainty that the blade steel was hardened and tempered correctly or professionally carried out.
Readers would be aware that Dewey knives are hardened and tempered within the range 54 to 56 Rockwell. It is my view that the preferred level is 54 HRC. This level comes directly from our work with German cutlers where their entire range of food preparation knives is hardened and tempered to 54 HRC, backed by 200 years of experience.
I would recommend that the hunting/cutlery industry should follow the principles involved in the chef’s training program, agree on a kit for hunters and give thought to the development of a training program.