8 Knife Skills Every Sportsman Needs to Know
How to use a blade for more than just field dressing
The knife is the most versatile outdoor tool. With a knife you can create the tools to trap and kill fish, birds, and game, and then you can use it to render meat from bone. You can fell saplings to create a shelter and split logs to make a fire. Once you know your way around a blade, you can literally carve a life out of the wilderness. And when you’re not using a knife to save your life (or to do something as mundane as dress a rabbit), well, you can have some fun with it, too. All sportsmen should practice until they are competent enough to perform these knife skills safely.
1. Remove the Hide From a Deer
The traditional skinning knife has an upswept blade and high point, but a drop-point blade will suffice, provided you take care not to puncture the skin with the tip. It’s much easier to skin a deer when the skin is still warm. You can peel most of the hide away from the body by pulling on it, with your blade coming into play only to free the skin from the carcass at sticking points and for making initial cuts along the belly and chest, around the neck and hocks, and on the inside of the legs. Hold the blade so that the edge does not face your off hand, which grips the skin. Use shallow slices, not forceful cuts, to tease at the juncture of skin and carcass.
> Make the cut along the inside leg with the blade facing up, so that it doesn’t cut through hairs, which could get on the meat, where they’re hard to remove.
> Most of your work will be done with your hands. Use the knife sparingly to make small slices when the hide is sticking.
> Place a forefinger or thumb on top of your knife for precision while cutting.
2. Sharpen Your Edge With a Whetstone
Stroking a knife blade against a whetstone is the most traditional sharpening method. With a flat stone—medium grained (300 grit) on one side and fine grained (600 grit) on the other—you can maintain a fair edge on a knife using spit to grease the stone and eyeballing a 20- to 30-degree angle, just the way Grampa did. You’ll get a more even edge by using a good-quality honing oil instead of just water to wet the stone and by wedging a coin under the spine of the blade to help establish the proper angle for sharpening.
> With the whetstone in a vise, place one or two coins under the blade to establish the angle. Then remove the coins and sharpen at that angle. You can damage your stone if you keep the coins under the blade while sharpening.
> Draw the knife across the stone in an arc, using even pressure. Use the same number of strokes on both sides of the knife’s edge.
> To resharpen a dull blade, start with 30 strokes on the stone’s medium-grit side, followed by 100 strokes on the fine-grit side.
RELATED: 12 All-Time Best Survival Knives
3. Clean Your Knife
Fixed-blades need only a quick wipe down with a damp cloth after each use and a light application of honing oil on the blade.
Folders and multitools collect blood and dirt at pivot points and locking mechanisms. If the tool has a plastic handle, immerse it in boiling water for one minute, then put it in a pot of warm water (so that quick cooling doesn’t crack the handle). Scrub nooks and crannies with a toothbrush, working pivot points back and forth, then air-dry the knife before oiling. Use compressed air to blast out gunk.
Wipe away surface rust with an oily cloth or 0000 steel wool. Carbon blades naturally discolor with use. Bring them back to near original luster by rubbing with a cork dipped in cold wood ashes.
4. Fell a Sapling
If you find yourself in need of a shelter, you can gather the wood to construct one by felling a tree. Any green sapling that can be bent over can be cut, but it helps if you bend the trunk back and forth several times to weaken the wood fibers before bringing your knife to bear. To cut a sapling, hold it bent with one hand, then press down on the outside of the curve with your knife blade angled slightly. Rock the blade as you cut, while maintaining steady downward pressure. Support the trunk as you work to keep it from splintering, which would make it difficult for you to finish the cut.
5. Split a Log
A knife is no replacement for an axe when it comes to rendering firewood. Still, you can use a hunting knife to expose the dry interior of a damp log by pounding the back of the blade with a wood baton. First, make several shingles by splitting thin, U-shaped wooden slices from the side of a round of firewood. Angle the edges of the shingles to make wedges, then insert the wedges into an existing lengthwise crack in a log. (If there isn’t one, create one with your blade.) Hammer the wedges with a wood baton to split the log end-to-end and expose more surface for burning.
6. Open a Beer Bottle
With practice, you can open a beer bottle by slicing off the neck with a single blow from a cleaver, but here’s an easier and much safer method. Hold the neck of the bottle tightly, with the top of your hand just under the bottom of the cap. Place the back of your knife blade across the top of the third knuckle of your index finger, and wedge it under the edge of the cap. Pry up.
7. Whittle a Whistle Out of a Stick
Cut and peel the bark from a finger-length section of any stick with a soft pith, such as elder. Next, use a thin twig to bore out this pith, leaving a hollow cylinder. Cut a notch near one end. Whittle a smaller piece of wood that will fit snugly into the notch end, then slice a little off the top of that plug to allow for the passage of air. Fit the plug into the cylinder, trimming the end to shape. Place your finger in the other end and blow into the mouthpiece to force the air over the notch in the top of the whistle. If you get a clear whistle, permanently plug the end with a short piece of wood.
8. Throw Your Knife at a Target
Throwing a knife isn’t difficult once you learn how to gauge the speed of rotation. Special throwing knives are unsharpened and have metal handles, but with practice—and caution—you can throw a hunting knife. Three tips: (1) Keep your wrist stiff; (2) use the same speed and motion for each throw; and (3) step toward or away from the target until you find the distance where the rotation turns the knife point-first. Experts can accurately gauge up to seven rotations, but start with one and a half. This will result in a point-first direction with about a 4-yard throw.
Holding the Knife > Hold the knife by the back of its blade, with the edge facing out, so that you don’t cut your hand. Keep your wrist stiff throughout the throwing motion.
→ KNIFE SAFETY
> Before bringing your knife to bear, ask yourself where the blade will go if it slips out of the cut.
> Work your knife away from your body.
> Never use your leg as a brace when you’re carving wood. If you’re pressing with the knife point, never hold the wood in your hand.
> Never pull a knife toward your body when dressing game. If it slips and cuts your femoral artery, you’re dead.
> Wrap your thumb around the knife handle when you need to apply downward pressure to the blade. A thumb-ontop position is less powerful, upping the chances that you’ll force the cut—and see your knife slip.
→ FOUR KNIFE NEVERS
> Never store a knife in a leather sheath. It can cause rusting or discoloration.
> Never use water to clean a horn handle. Horn absorbs moisture and can splinter.
> Never use hot water to clean a wood handle. If the wood is cracked or dried, rub it with olive oil.
> Never touch the blade or metal parts after oiling. This can leave behind salt and acids, which can cause oxidation.
→ THE FOUR ESSENTIAL KNIVES
A survival knife is any blade you have handy when the chips are down. Any knife is better than none in an emergency—and let’s define emergency as anything from a blizzard to a pile of crappies on a cutting board—but there’s usually one blade that’s the best tool for a job. Here are the four knives every sportsman needs.
> Survival/Hunting Knife (1) The basic knife favored by hunters and trappers who take their living from the land is a fixed-blade bushcraft design with a 4-inch blade. It should have an integral tang for strength and a cutting edge that smoothly curves from knife guard to tip. If the tip slightly drops from the spine of the knife—called a drop-point design—the point will be less likely to puncture the rumen when you’re field dressing game, but there’s still enough upsweep for skinning.
> Boat Knife (2) A boat knife should have a fully or partially serrated blade; both cut hard rope far more quickly than a smooth edge. Where you keep it is as important as its design. When you need one—say, to detach a bite leader before it cuts off your finger when it gets tangled lining a wahoo—you need it right now. Mates often holster their boat knives in the middle of their backs, a spot that allows quick access with either hand.
> Multitool (3) Multitools come in two basic configurations: the Leatherman type and the Swiss Army knife. The latter is more comfortable in the hand, and its sharp little scissors are dandy for everything from trimming up dry flies to clipping your nose hair. Larger Swiss Army models offer saws that are entirely adequate for splitting the sternum and pelvis of a deer. If you need powerful pliers, though, nothing beats a Leatherman.
> Fillet Knife (4) To address that pile of crappies, you need a knife with a thin, flexible, stainless-steel blade. Fillet knives usually have an 8- to 10-inch blade, longer being better for larger fish. Boning knives used for slicing and butchering game have a similar design with a shorter, stouter blade. A knife with a 6- to 8-inch, slightly flexible blade offers a good compromise for surf-and-turf duties.