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Keeping your knife sharp on a hunt

Keeping your knife sharp in the field

Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

Tools in the tool belt. As hunters, we’ve got many of these and, sometimes, too many I might add. One of the items that has remained an iconic tool for us, though, is our knives. As a kid, that was one of the first things I thought about when my dad brought me hunting. I got to carry a knife. I’ll admit it made me feel pretty big and mighty at the time and that knife is still in my collection. It sure isn’t as sharp as it used to be, but it’s still alive. Keeping our knives sharp in the field is essential for a quick and clean job once an animal is down. Doing so will not only cut the time down, but it’s also safer if you ask me. A blade that easily glides right through hide is less likely to slip from applying too much pressure. Basically, the knife should be doing the cutting, not us. How do we ensure that our knives stay sharp in the field, though? Of course, there is the option of replaceable blade knives, but these tend to break easily. There is also an element of danger when changing the blades and all of the gunk from processing is in there. Fortunately, we’ve got a few options.

How to sharpen a hunting knife

Worksharp field knife sharpener

Sharpening knife with Worksharp Pocket Knife sharpener in Wyoming. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Before we get into keeping our knives sharp in the field, I think it’s important to layout how to actually sharpen a knife in the first place. I know that it sounds pretty cut and dry, but there is a process to it if you want to do it right. Here is a quick step by step guide to sharpening a knife properly. We will be talking about what’s best for hunting knives, of course.

Step 1

The first thing we want to do is to reshape the blade. On a dull knife, the edge is usually bent over to one side a bit or some other deformation. You might even be able to see this if the knife blade is held straight up towards a light. If there is a glint coming off of the edge, those are the deformations I mentioned. We want to get rid of those and do that by way of a diamond plate. There are both coarse and fine plates. About five strokes at a 20-degree angle down each side of the blade should remove these imperfections. I usually do this on the coarse plate first, then repeat it on the fine plate. If you run your finger perpendicular across the blade and feel a bur on one of the sides, hit that again with the plate until the bur is gone.

Step 2

The next step in the equation is to finely hone that edge after we’ve reshaped the blade. This is where we can get this thing razor sharp. A ceramic rod is great for this. By running the blade five to 10 strokes at a 20-degree angle down one of these, we can do just that.

Step 3

After really fine-tuning that edge on the ceramic rod, you are good to go. However, if someone wants to take this sharpening to the next level, there is yet another step we can add. That is by way of the leather strop. Unlike with the plates and rods, we want to run our blades down the leather strop with the blade facing towards us and then moving it along the strop away from us. If you were to use this the same way as the plates or rods, you’d just cut the leather. This step is a very fine-tuning process for your blade and polishes it up nice.

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Harder steel

Harder steel

All other photo credits: Josh Kirchner

You may have noticed that there are all different kinds of steel that knives are made of. You hear all of these fancy letter/number combos like S30V, S35VN and S90V. These all are describing the hardness of the steel. The harder the steel, the longer it will hold an edge. This also means that the harder steel will be much harder to sharpen. If the knife gets to the point where it is very dull, one might even have to send it somewhere to get it professionally sharpened. S90V steel is much harder than say S30V. So, if you’ve got a harder steel like S90V, I’d suggest making sure that the knife is razor-sharp before heading into the field. The likelihood of having to sharpen it out there is slim as I’ve never found the need to. Edge maintenance is also key with the harder steels. The pros of steel like S30V and S35VN is that you will be able to actually sharpen them yourself. They are also a bit more flexible, which decreases the chance of them snapping. Everyone has their own flavor, but these are what I’ve preferred.

Sharpening in the field

Now that we know the process of sharpening a knife and what influence different steels have on that process, let’s talk about doing this in the field. One of my fears when starting to use a fixed blade knife was it getting dull while working on an animal and me not being able to get it sharp again for some reason. I know that’s irrational to an extent, but it’s what ran through my head. Here are some fixes for that.

Blister sharpeners (pull-through)

Knives out in the field

These are great; super lightweight and very easy to use. The one that I have is very compact and is about the size of a small stick of gum. A great option is the Outdoor Edge EDGE-X Sharpener. They’re more of an edge maintenance tool rather than a full-on sharpener in my opinion. This is perfect, though, for field use. Just a quick touch up with this and most of the time you’re good to go. I’ve used these several times with success. All that you do is run the blade through the carbide plates five to 10 times until they don’t feel any imperfections in the blade as it moves through.

Guided field sharpener

Tools to have in the field

This right here is the ultimate sharpener for the field! The company WorkSharp came up with this Guided Field Sharpener that literally does everything I lined out above and more. It’s got the diamond plates, ceramic rod (with different coarse), leather strop and, even, a broadhead tool to screw and unscrew broadheads. The ceramic rod has a fish hook sharpener as well. Now, it isn’t as lightweight and compact as the blister sharpener above, but what you get out of this is a whole lot of awesomeness. Note: These WorkSharp sharpeners should be available in goHUNT's Gear Shop shortly.

Closing thoughts

Working in the field with good equipment makes the difference

In my youth, my idea of sharpening a knife was finding a flat rock somewhere and just running the blade aimlessly along it. I probably ruined quite a few knives doing that, but it sure made me feel cool as a youngster. While sharpening a knife isn’t as simple as my rock method as a kid, it also isn’t a complicated process either. If you stick to the basic ideas above, your knives will always be ready for action and thirsty for more. Much like us, right? Can you hear that? The season is tip-toeing it’s way towards us fast. Better get those knives sharp so you can put them to work.

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1 Comment

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Michael M. - posted 2 months ago on 09-10-2019 11:03:18 pm

Not to be too much of a knife nerd, but I have a couple corrections about the blade steel section. The numbers in the CPM series steels (S30V, S35VN, S90V) do correlate to their hardness, but I'm not sure whether that's where they originate from. Also, that only applies to CPM steel, which are high-end and expensive materials that relatively few people use. Many other blade materials have numbers in them which bear no relation to their hardness.

Here are some good sources:

https://www.bladehq.com/cat--Best-Knife-Steel-Guide--3368

https://www.bladehq.com/cat--Steel-Types--332

https://gearjunkie.com/common-knife-blade-steels