There’s something about a good knife that is so satisfying. Most guys my age received their first knife as a boy, usually from their dad or grandfather. We would never venture out of the house without at least a pocket knife in tow. That included school, church or even baseball practice. There were so many vital chores that required a knife. Carving a whistle from a willow branch, whittling a makeshift bow and arrow, amputating the foot and tendons from the dead bird that the neighbor’s cat killed, so you could scare girls by tugging on the tendons to make the foot open and close. Maybe skinning the squirrel that your aunt Ruth ran over with her old Chrysler. We almost never engaged in knife fights. Most disputes were settled with a game of mumbly peg, and almost no one ever lost a toe……if a teacher needed a box to be opened, or a switch to be fashioned for corporal punishment, she’d call on one of the boys in the class. “Johnny, take your knife and go fashion a switch for me so I can beat you and Jimmy for all of your shenanigans”…..When your parents found out they wouldn’t sue the school district, they’d apologize to the teacher, bake her banana bread and then give you the switch when you got home….Dad would say, “well, you’ve learned your lesson. Good thing you had your pocket knife to fashion a switch for me”……ah the good old days.
I can’t imagine kids doing any of those things nowadays…at least, not without being sent off to a “re-education” camp, ball and chain in tow, for a stint of hard labor, but it’s how we rolled in the old days. Almost none of us ever went to jail…..very often.
I still love knives and I’m always searching for the perfect one. Perfect is defined by what you’re using the knife for. A small, light folding knife is perfect in the spring when the chance of finding morels or wild asparagus is likely, and it’ll serve double duty for dressing game birds or trout. A great fillet knife speaks for itself. Kitchen knives are a subject unto themselves and I’ll leave that for another day but suffice it to say, that’s a whole different obsession if, like me you’re a wannabe chef.
Hunting knives are the most interesting and their designs are the most impactful in their practical use and effectiveness. The job they perform is substantial and as such, any defects in form or function will be quickly apparent. A poor design can mean 30-40 minutes of labor to dress a deer where a proper knife can perform the task effortlessly in less than 10, user skill being equal.
In my opinion the perfect knife for deer hunting has the following traits. It should be 9″ long overall. It shouldn’t have a large tang or guard. Just something relatively streamlined but effective. The blade should be 4.5″ long, between 3/4-7/8″ wide from back to edge. It should be about 1/8″ thick. The handle should clean easily and plastic is fine as long as it provides a good grip when wet. It should have a slight drop point. I like stainless but an argument can be made for carbon because it can throw a spark from a fire steel when you need to get a fire lit quickly. (I’ll carry two knives when packing into the backcountry. One will be a bigger camp knife made of carbon steel for this reason). Finally the edge has to be razor sharp and for me it has to have a “Sandvik” grind, which means that the edge tapers from about the center of the blade, in a constant angle, right to the edge. Blades don’t get any sharper, easier to re-sharpen or long lasting. There’s a reason for every feature as listed. The length is necessary to reach deep enough into the pelvic region when dressing a deer, as is true for reaching into the chest cavity to sever the top of the heart/lung/trachea. The width is just right, and not too wide like most knives, to allow for the circular cut inside the perimeter of the pelvis region. A wider blade doesn’t make the turning motion well. The thickness is sturdy enough to cut through the sternum of a deer with a firm lifting motion. The razor edge allows for all the fine work to be executed in surgical fashion and with little effort making for a neat operation and clean meat. Just about all of these features are common with a Scandinavian style “Puuko” knife, though there are many variants and sizes.
I own many knives, many of which are Puuko style, but there’s one that I cherish above all the rest. It has all the features mentioned, and I’ve never found its exact equal or twin. I bought it in a small town hardware store when I was 15 or 16 for $7.00, and its like, can still be had for not much more today, though the exact features might differ slightly. It is a puuko style knife made by Mora of Sweden who is famous for very good, cheap knives with fantastic edges. Back when I found my original, Moras were most often found on commercial fishing vessels and were uncommon in my neck of the woods. They are becoming more common now, but for decades they were very hard to find. Thankfully the internet changed that and demand in the US has brought them back to our shores once again.
My “hardware store” knife came with a cheap plastic sheath that rattled in the woods so I quickly replaced it with a home made sheath from a piece of found leather. 38 years later I still have the knife and sheath, the latter a virtual record of every deer I’ve taken with bow and arrow. To date there are 58 notches in the edge of that old sheath, each signifying a deer taken with an arrow and dressed with that puuko knife. It’s always in the backpack that houses my archery gear. It seldom gets used for gun hunting, as that is a different backpack, and it has its own, very similar puuko knife, and in any event I’ve never kept track of game taken with a rifle, so there wouldn’t be any reason for notches in the sheath anyway.
I’m not one to loose things often but even so, the fact that I still have this knife is due to a slightly OCD habit of guarding it like it’s made of solid gold. It doesn’t travel by plane because there’s always the chance of lost luggage. I don’t ever loan it to anyone because I don’t want some Neanderthal to misuse it..even if said Neanderthal is my best friend. I’d rather dress their deer myself, a habit that more than one friend has caught on to, and I’ve heard “I left my knife back at camp” more often than I care to mention, but I don’t care, I don’t want to chance a nick in the edge of my baby. As I’ve taken care of it so lovingly, it’s typical that I can dress two or three deer before it needs a light wipe on a leather strop to regain shaving sharpness. I literally want to be buried with it when I go to the happy hunting grounds. The memories associated with this knife are priceless. I have many other beautiful knives that’ll be passed on as heirlooms in the event that anyone wants any of my junk, (my 6 year old daughter, my only heir, hasn’t shown an affinity for knives yet….thankfully), but this $7 knife will stay with me in the great beyond.
I recently found another puuko knife. It was pricy but it’s an almost perfectly scaled up version of my old timer. It’s made of carbon steel and is about 30% bigger in most dimensions. Like the smaller version, it is razor sharp, but with a through tang and a blade that is almost 1/4″ thick, it’s a beast that can literally chop down small trees. It’s the perfect “big” knife for bigger game. It’ll be perfect for moose, Cape buffalo or the like. It came right from Helsinki (without a sheath or cushioned packaging…!?!, in a box big enough to hold a couple of cats. The box was without any packing and there were stab marks everywhere from the knife sliding around inside, all the way across the Atlantic. Amazingly the knife was unscathed). The brand name of the knife escapes me but there were about 23 letters, random dots, backwards letters and it was unpronounceable Finnish anyway.
I’ve got some other cheap puukos, and some fancy ones too, and many many other knives as a result of my obsession with perfect things and perfect tools. Life is too short to use tools that offer no aesthetic value or utility. Life is also too short to ever stop looking. As with so many other things the hunt is half the fun. (The black handled Puuko, with the old homemade sheath, in the center of the photo, is the author’s perfect knife).
By Brandon Vaughan
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.