STEVE EDGERTON WAS pulling his hunting knife toward him, trying to work the tip between the neck vertebrae of the deer he’d shot, when he heard his pants rip. Looking down, he watched the fabric over his thigh turn red. It was then that he realized he had stabbed himself. After he dropped his pants, he saw the deep puncture wound made by his 4-inch blade. “I could die here,” the California hunter remembers thinking. “I knew I was in trouble.”

Like thousands of hunters, Edgerton discovered that when you draw a knife from its sheath, the hard work of hunting can be far from over. He was lucky to survive. Had the blade plunged in 2 inches to the left, it would have severed his femoral artery and he would have died beside his deer.

A nine-year analysis of injuries among Colorado hunters, spearheaded by Dr. Allan Reishus at Memorial Hospital in Craig, Colo., has revealed that lacerations from hunting knives accounted for roughly half of the 725 visits to the emergency room. Most injuries occurred when hunters were field dressing, quartering, and skinning big game. Let’s examine what you can do to stem the flow of blood and, while we’ve got a big-game animal on the ground, discuss some of the other dangers of field dressing.

Stay Sharp
KNIFE SAFETY BEGINS with the blade–the shorter, the safer. A 3- to 4-inch blade is sufficient for field dressing and gives you the best point control. From a safety standpoint, the blade’s design is not as important as its edge. Keep it keen. Sharp blades require less force to cut and are not as likely to slip when pressure is applied.

Most cuts occur to the off hand when the knife hand is inside the body cavity. To avoid this, follow the rule of thumb: Place your thumb on top of the blade’s spine, and keep your thumb between the knife edge and your off hand. That way any blade slippage will occur in a safe direction. Avoid knives that have rounded handles, because if your grip slips you will no longer know where the edge is pointed. An oval handle with finger grooves helps you maintain blade alignment, and a textured, rubbery grip keeps your hand where it belongs much better than those smooth Micarta handles that look pretty on the shelf. Never use a knife that has metal in the handle. Cold hands and cold steel equal hot blood. A hunter with numb hands may not even know he’s cut until he’s already lost a significant amount of blood.

Always work with the blade facing down or away from you. The one exception is when you’re turning the blade over to unzip the skin from sternum to pelvis. Gut hooks simplify this procedure, but they also expose the edge of the blade. Work carefully.

Never straddle an animal and jerk the blade toward you. The result can be horrific if the blade slips out of the cut and stabs you on the inside of the thigh or groin, where the femoral artery pulses close to the skin. Pulling the knife was the mistake that caused Edgerton’s near fatal wound.

Splitting the sternum is most safely done with a saw. If you must use your knife, insert it at an angle so that the spine of the knife is up. That way, the smack of a wood baton drives the cutting edge down through the cartilage into the chest cavity with less chance that it will pop out of the cut. Stand to one side as you work, and sheath your blade when you aren’t using it. Most of the fatalities I discovered in my research were caused when hunters fell on their knives as they walked around holding them–not by accident as they were field dressing game.

Bears, Bacteria, and Blockages
A FEW SEASONS AGO, a Montana hunter was killed by a bear while field dressing an elk on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area. The elk had fallen under the lip of a ridge, and the hunter didn’t notice the sow grizzly, which had followed the elk’s blood trail, until she topped over. She was on him in the time it takes to read this sentence. To a bear, game guts smell like a bacon cheeseburger, and the crack of a rifle is a dinner bell. Drag game to a spot where you can see in all directions before drawing your knife, and keep your gun within reach and your pepper spray holstered and ready.

Other field-dressing hazards include bacterial infections and, possibly, chronic wasting disease. Minimize the odds of infection by keeping your blade clear of rumen and spinal fluids (a good argument for the no-gut method of field dressing) and eliminating nicks to the fingers, which are caused by bone splinters as often as by steel. Wearing elbow-length dishwashing gloves (don’t settle for the cheap gloves included in field-dressing kits) protects your hands, offers a secure grip on a slippery knife handle, and makes deer ticks that carry Lyme disease easier to spot.

Few hunters equate gutting a deer with heart attacks, but a study conducted by Michigan’s Beaumont Hospital that monitored huntersd’ pulse rates showed field dressing to be among the most stressful activities. And the deaths of 16 Montana hunters from heart attacks, five of which were suffered while field dressing, also back up this finding. The lesson here is to work slowly, take breaks, and get help for more strenuous tasks like hanging quarters or wrestling an elk onto its back. Knife safety is important, but when the game goes down, keep in mind that more hunters die from blockage of an artery than they do from cutting one with a blade.