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Skills: The Cutting Edge

How to choose the right knife for the job.

By Randy Spradlin

Whether you’re hunting or fishing, camping or cooking over a campfire, you’ll need to carry a good knife or two. The earliest outdoorsmen (and women) knapped flint into a variety of styles for skinning and boning, piercing and slicing.

Darkly swirled Damascus steel dates back thousands of years in the Middle East. Today’s marvels are crafted of seemingly magic metals.

The best knife to carry is the one that best suits your needs, feels comfortable in your hand (and pocket) and fits your personality. Make the best choice by comparing types of blade, style, point and material.

Blade, handle and tang

Most knife blades are made of steel, a mixture of carbon and iron. Several elements can be added to the mix to achieve certain added benefits (though sometimes compromising strengths): carbon, chromium, molybdenum, nickel, vanadium, manganese and more. Finish coatings come in a variety of options as well.

The tang is a solid piece of metal extending into the handle. A full tang extends through the base of the handle, giving the knife strength. Knives with a short tang, which extends slightly into the handle, can break more easily. Tangs can be hidden, pushed or tapered, or have a skeleton design, reducing the weight.

Handle materials include hard rubber, polymer, wood, rock, bone, antler, leather and even metals. Styles include finger grooved, etched, hollow, skeleton and more. The style is limited only by the designer’s imagination.

A smooth pearl or varnished wood finish could be slippery and difficult to grip while processing your game. A textured or finger grip handle from the same material helps you hang on while still retaining its beauty. Bone or wood may stain easily, while a polymer resists fluid penetration.

Multiple blades, tools and gizmos can be added to one handle, creating a multi-tool like the Swiss Army knife.

The Point of it

The famous Bowie knife sports a clip point that looks like a portion of the blade tip has been clipped off. The style allows for quick piercing, but also has a good cutting edge belly used for slicing.

Similar in design to the clip point, the drop point is the most popular style of hunting knife, with the tip of the blade dropping to a point instead of rising to one. The back edge (spine) is unsharpened and runs from the handle to the tip. The drop point offers a strong, sharp, controllable edge for slicing, though it’s less suitable for piercing.

Originally designed for armor piercing, a tanto point is similar in style to some Japanese swords and is popular on tactical knives. The front edge meets the spine (unsharpened) edge at an angle, rather than a curve. This knife is designed to pierce tough materials with its strong tip, but has no sharp belly for slicing and is harder to control.

The spear design dates back 500,000 years. Symmetrical in shape, it features a tip that lines up with the blade’s center. The point provides great strength, but is not well suited for slicing or cutting.

The sheepsfoot is a cutting and slicing machine. Sailors and emergency responders utilize this blade for its ability to cut through lines, ropes, seatbelts and restraints. A long, flat edge with a curved point back allows for cutting without piercing.

Other points include blunt, needle, trailing point, straight back, wharncliffe, spey and more. Multiple types of points can be combined on one knife (like a skinning knife with a gut hook). 


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