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Knife Knowledge by Jeff Davis

Entered by Gary Howey

Former tournament angler, hunting and fishing guide. Inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing "Hall of Fame" in 2017. Active member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), Past Executive Director (AGLOW). Howey has been an outdoor communicator since 1980 with his award winning syndicated "Of the Outdoors" columns appearing in magazine, newspapers, and tabloids throughout he upper Midwest and nationally.

February 14, 2021



This Gerber Strongarm fixed blade in Coyote Brown is my new favorite large knife. Heavy enough to chop, sharp enough to cut anything, and still not too big to do fine work, this knife comes with a low-maintenance plastic/nylon sheath that can attach to anything.

This is the third, and last, in a series of knife stories. While researching this series, I found volumes of information, and knew as soon as I started that even thinking I could scratch the surface on a topic as broad as knives was a huge oversimplification. But like an over-caffeinated chimp, I kept seeing something sparkling in the distance and finding new things that fascinated me. Here are some of the things I learned while looking up other things.

A Ridiculously Short History of the Knife

A brief (very, very brief) history of the development of the knife has to start with the material with which knives are made. After stone knives (chipped from hard stone like flint and, where available, volcanic stone like obsidian), knives were made from metal, beginning with the introduction of copper knives about 4,500 B.C., followed by the Bronze Age two thousand years later. Iron arrived about 1,500 B.C., with the development of steel very soon after that (Damascus steel was manufactured in India as early as 1,300 B.C.). The modern development of steel started in the mid-1800s when railroads needed massive amounts of high-quality steel, and modern manufacturing processes improved the final output. Early in the 1900s, the electric arc furnace allowed rapid improvements in steel production – in both kind and quantity – resulting in a wide variety of materials used for knives (and other purposes).

For thousands of years, knives were made one at a time by craftsmen, and the designs – both functional and aesthetic – were unique to the societies where they were produced. As raw material evolved from soft metals like copper, to more durable material like iron and steel, the usefulness of the knives increased. The industrial revolution resulted in an explosion of the number, type, and variety of designs produced. In fact, knives (and other edged tools) were the tools that produced many of the other advances in human culture.Knife technology is still advancing, and knives are now being made of ceramic, titanium, layered steel, and new alloys to fit specific needs. In some areas we have come full circle, as there are now knife makers using flint to create custom knives, and obsidian edges are finding new uses in surgical scalpels

.Hunters Need Knives

Like any other piece of hunting gear, having the right tool for the job makes your life much easier. However, the criteria I use to define what is ‘right’ for me can be much different from what my buddy thinks. For many years, the right knife for me was a Buck Model 112, because it was the one I owned. It was a quality knife, very versatile, and at that time in my life, I could not justify the expense of buying multiple knives for different uses.

I’ve had this Buck Model 112 for 41 years, and it’s in better shape than I am after that amount of time. While the Buck 110 is often considered the classic folding knife, I still like the 112 better (and I own several 110s) because its blade is an inch shorter. I’d like to say that I understood the difference at the time I made the purchase, but the reality is, sometimes you just get lucky.

Today, I own a great variety of knives, and since I can now afford to buy ‘just one more’ when I find one that fits a (perceived) need better, I’m constantly on the lookout for a knife that offers a marginal improvement over what I already own.

And yet, I still regularly use that Buck 112 that I bought in 1975 in the PX at Fort Bliss, Texas. It’s on the third sheath, has many dings and scars (just like the owner), but it has never failed me. When I started this series of knife stories, I roamed around the house, gathering my various knives used for hunting, fishing, and camping. When confronted by the growing pile of steel on the table, I felt a little embarrassment. Am I a compulsive shopper, a hoarder, too fickle, unable to make a decision, or what?

My conclusion is that I don’t care. I like knives, I like using quality tools to accomplish a job, and whatever the reason, I’m not going to stop. And I’m OK with that. I remember what former Senator Phil Gramm once said about guns: “I own more than I need, but not as many as I want.” So my quest for the ideal knife continues, knowing full well that it will never end.

Blade Length

When I was young and dumb, I was under the impression that bigger was better. Now that I’m not young anymore, I understand that most often it’s the right-sized tool that is the better choice. With knives, the correct choice is almost always the smallest knife practical for the job. The shorter the blade, the closer it is to your hand and fingers, and the more control you will have. It is difficult to have fine control of a blade nine inches from your hand, but if it is two inches away, it is surprising how precise the movement can be.

For a couple of decades I had one fillet knife, and it had a 6-inch blade. Now, I don’t think that I’ve ever caught a fish that required a 6-inch fillet knife, but that’s what I always used – I was locked into the ‘big knife’ attitude. Looking back, perhaps it wasn’t my lack of skill that resulted in some badly butchered fish; maybe it was because I was using the wrong tool. One day I used a friend’s 4-inch fillet knife to clean our crappies, and it was much easier, faster, and had a much better outcome. Now my standard fillet knife has a 4-inch blade, and I haven’t used the longer knife in years. I may be slow, but I’m not untrainable.

Fillet knives need to be thin and flexible, but for most of the fish I catch, a 4-inch knife (bottom) works very well. Perhaps I need to start catching bigger fish?

In the same manner, I’ve seen successful hunters try to gut a deer using a big knife, and it seldom ends well. It is more difficult, unnecessarily messy, and the odds of making a major error are almost inevitable.

I once watched a hunter field dress a deer with a knife that I thought was laughably small. While his blade was only 1½ to 2-inches long, and the handle wasn’t even visible when surrounded by his hand, the edge was very sharp, and he had the deer gutted in about the time it would have taken me to unsheath my knife and roll up my sleeves. With the short blade, he was able to put his index finger on the knife’s spine and guide the cutting surface with incredible precision. His wrist, hand, and finger worked as one unit, and he was able to put both hands inside the body cavity to cut the trachea and diaphragm loose without danger of cutting his other hand, because he was in total control of his knife.

The Language of Knives

Would you call this a knife with a money clip, or a money clip with a knife? SOG calls it the Cash Card, and it will ensure you have a blade available in your pocket all the time. (Cash not included with purchase!)

The word knife is attributed to Middle English (knif), Old English (cnÍf), or Old Norse (knífr), with the first documented use sometime before the 12th century.

For a tool that has such an extensive history, and is of such importance to human society, I don’t know many slang term for knives. I’ve come up with shank and shiv, which to me describe homemade knives, usually in a prison setting. Perhaps ‘pig sticker?’ Many other terms actually describe specific types or styles of knives, and are not really descriptive of knives generally. If I had my drop point, fixed-blade hunting knife on the table and asked someone to hand me my bayonet, bolo, bowie, dirk, stiletto, switchblade, or scalpel, they would just be confused.

As I was researching and writing these stories, a question gradually emerged in my mind: why is ‘knives’ the plural of ‘knife,’ but you can just add an ‘s’ to the end of ‘safe’ to create the plural, instead of using ‘saves’? After a wasted half-hour of research the answer is, basically, that’s the way it is – it’s called an ‘irregular plural.’ There is no rule you can apply, and you just need to learn the irregular plurals. (As an aside, I also learned that when ‘knife’ is used as a noun, the correct plural is ‘knives,’ but if it is used a as verb [to knife] then knifes is correctly used as the 3rd person singular. It was at that point I realized that I was spending too much time on this particular point.)

Knives as Symbols

Knives have long been used as symbols, in nearly every society through history. Some of the more interesting (to my mind, at least) superstitions I’ve stumbled across include:

  • Knives used in rite of passage or initiation ceremonies.
  • Sacrifices of animals using ceremonial knives.
  • Including a knife when a person was buried, so they could defend themselves in the afterlife.
  • A knife under the bed of a woman in labor would ease her pain.
  • Ritual suicide with a specific style of knife.
  • A knife in the headboard of a baby’s bed would protect the baby.
  • A knife with a black handle under a pillow would protect the person sleeping above it.

And the only superstition that I have personally experienced: It is sometimes believed that when a knife is given as a gift, the relationship between the recipient and the giver would be severed. To avoid this problem, the recipient needs to provide something – for example, a single penny, pebble, or small seashell – as ‘payment’ for the knife. I have received several knives as gifts where the giver explained this to me, and a penny seemed like a small payment to retain a friend.

This is my grandfather’s sharpening stone, and I can’t imagine how many knives and tools have been sharpened on it, wearing down the center.

Sharpening Knives

Quality knives will provide decades of loyal service with little maintenance, outside of proper sharpening. How often they require sharpening depends completely on how much they are used, and what they have to cut. If all you do is cut a dozen hard-boiled eggs every year at deer camp to make deviled eggs, you may never have to sharpen that knife. If you butcher several deer, and then cut a tractor tire to make a swing for the kids, you may have to sharpen it every day during deer season.

For most of my life, sharpening knives has been a miserable chore, mostly because I have never been good at it. I have my grandfather’s old sharpening stone – it’s well worn, and I can’t imagine how many hours he sat in front of it, listening to that unique sound of steel sliding on the flat stone.

For me, that sound comes in second to my deep sighs after I examine my 15 minutes of sliding a blade back-and-forth, only to realize it’s now less sharp than when I started.

Maybe I’m too old school, but I’ve always thought there are just some things a man should be able to do: drive a stick shift, spit with authority, fish with a fly rod, and sharpen a knife with a stone. Maybe three out of four is enough, because a few years ago I bought a WorkSharp Knife Sharpener, and now I’m OK with being 25% short of manliness.

The Work Sharp knife and tool sharpener lets me keep my blades sharp with little work & no frustration. It will even work for garden tools, axes, hatchets and mower blades.

This sharpener is essentially a small belt sander, and all of my knives are now razor sharp with minimal effort. I can do an entire block of kitchen knives in about 15 minutes, and I get them sharpened as soon as I notice one of them needs it. It has belts of coarse, medium, and fine abrasive, and the only time I’ve used the medium was when I had a knife with a chip in the blade and had to do some extensive work. I’ve also removed the guide that ensures the correct blade angle and used it on garden shears and lawnmower blades.

My serrated knives get sharpened with a Lansky Folding Tapered Diamond Sharpening Rod, which is simply a tapered stick coated with diamond dust, that makes quick work of putting an edge back on the serrations. The taper is very small at the tip, so it works on the tiny serrations on some folding knives, and bigger near the handle to take care of the kitchen bread knife. The handle folds closed to protect the sharpener shaft when not in use. For some reason I have no problem sharpening serrated blades, and I’m convinced that because there are so many curves and angles, that being consistent is not as necessary as with a straight blade. In any event, a couple of times a year it just take a few minutes to touch up my serrated blades.

If I’m doing some extensive cutting work, I also have a Smith’s Edge Pro Pull-Thru sharpener on the counter. It’s got both coarse and fine sharpeners, but since I’m starting out with a very sharp blade, I don’t need the coarse side. I just use the ceramic fine sharpener to keep the blade in top shape as I work. It’s got a handle to keep my fingers away from the blade and a soft plastic bottom that really grips the counter, and with just a couple of strokes, I’m back to business.

Smith’s Edge Pro Pull-Thru sharpener is on the counter whenever I’m doing a lot of cutting. Just a couple of pulls through the ‘Fine’ slot maintains a very sharp edge, no matter how much cutting is going on.

Remember – Safety First

I’m not really a klutz, but I’ve still got a scar on my hand from a sharp axe from 45 years ago at a Boy Scout camp, and I’ve also got an inch-long scar on my belly from last year when I was doing something stupid that involved a sharp knife and some surgical tubing (that’s all I’m going to admit to). Over the years, I’ve collected a big bunch of other scars, from my eyebrow to my foot, from all manner of knives and other assorted blades. Thinking about it now, perhaps I am a klutz.

No matter, listen to me now and believe me later. Be careful! Knives will cut you, and sharp knives will cut you easier. Always have a first aid kit with you. Put it together yourself, or buy a commercial model (I really like Adventure Medical Kits). Make sure you include a good antibiotic and a variety of sterile bandages, and something to stop bleeding.

Three final stories

  • That third antibiotic worked, but every week I see stories about people dying or being seriously maimed from some type of infection. Knives are great tools,
  • but keep them clean, and be careful. Last year I had just finished sharpening the kitchen knives and had to trim up some steaks that were going to be grilled for dinner. The (really sharp) knife surprised me as it smoothly sliced through some fat and softly touched my index finger, and made a small cut. I must have hit an artery, because that small, shallow cut bled for about 45 minutes. I kept direct pressure on it, and every time I took the gauze off, the blood started pouring out again. I have since found a product called Celox, a sterile sheet impregnated with a clotting agent that really works. It comes in different shapes (like for nosebleeds) and are now a standard part of my first aid kits.
  • My brother-in-law got a nasty infection a few years ago when he cut his hand while gutting a feral hog. It was around then that I started to pay attention to infections. I’ve done a lot of reading since then about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and while I consider myself to be a fearless he-man, these microscopic bugs are scaring the bejeebers out of me. I don’t think anyone should be using any of the antibiotic soap products that are out there (that might just be making things worse), but anytime you get a cut or break in the skin, there is the potential for a serious infection.

    • Several years ago I had cellulitis in my right leg, which is a bacterial infection of the tissue under the skin. It did not respond to the first two antibiotics, and the doctor said, “We’ve got one more to try.” When I asked what he meant, he explained that if the third antibiotic didn’t work, we’d have to do IV antibiotics in the hospital, and if that didn’t work, “You might lose the leg.”

    Well, that got my attention!

                         The two knives on the left are from SOG can accomplish the same tasks, but for me, my new Huntspoint skinner (bottom) is the one I’ll be reaching for.   The 3.6-inch blade is shorter and can offer more control in tight areas, and the orange handle provides a solid grip when wet and helps me find it when I  set it down in the field. I’ve had the Woodline (top) for many years (it is now discontinued), and it is very well balanced. The 4.8-inch blade works very well for skinning where I can make long cuts, but the gorgeous wood handle can be slippery.


This trio of Gerber knives will handle almost anything in deer camp, short of splitting log. (Top) The Strongarm is a solid, drop point, full-tang, fixed-blade sheath knife with a 4.8-inch straight blade (also available with partially serrated blade).

(Middle) The Gator Premium is a larger folding knife with a 3.6-inch clip point blade. Large to carry in a pocket, it comes with a sheath, and the rubber overmolded handle provides a very secure grip when cold or wet. (Also available with guthook, fixed blade, or partly serrated options.)

(Bottom) The Order Folding Clip Knife is small enough to keep in your pocket, but rugged enough to handle most cutting chores in camp. The 3.1-inch, ceramic-coated, partially serrated blade makes short work of rope, but there is enough straight blade to cut anything from cheese to deer hide.

Author, Jeff Davis is the Editor of the  Whitetails Unlimited magazine, WTU, founded in 1982 is a national nonprofit organization and one of the nation’s premier conservation organization which has made great strides in the field of conservation, dedicating our resources to the betterment of the white-tailed deer and its environment.

More information on the organization, their auctions and banquet dates is available at








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