AS OLD AS MAN
THE HUNTING KNIFE IS DEEPLY ROOTED IN THE HISTORY OF EDGED TOOLS
million years. That’s how far back records of man—and knives —go.
That’s also how long man has attempted to perfect the cutting edge in order to secure an advantage in the age-old profession of hunting. It has only been in the last 100 years that man has perfected the materials which allow the finest knives in our long history to be put into the hands of hunters.
In this story, we will delve deeper into how the hunting knife has changed and how it has affected the way we hunt throughout the millennia.
A Deep History
Historians prefer written accounts over oral history and Nimrod was the first recorded hunter in the Bible. He was the great grandson of Noah and the book of Genesis states he was “a mighty hunter in the eyes of the Lord.” Knowing that we were not processing steel at that point in our history, it is fair to guess that he would have used an obsidian knife to process his game.
A couple of millennia later, Egyptian Pharaohs and other nobles took great excursions to hunt desert game along the Nile valley with Bronze Age weapons and knives. However, over time, they were phased out and the Romans had conquered most of Europe and the Middle Eastern countries, ushering in crude forms of steel used for blades—vastly improving the cutting ability of knives.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, European nobility seized all lands and
all game animals therein, legislating the death sentence to prevent the common folk from hunting. During this period, the long-bladed hunting dagger, or short sword, was the knife of the noble hunter, used mainly to dispatch wounded game—while the butchering was delegated to the peasant game keeper. It was not until the
Europeans discovered and colonized the Americas, with its rich abundance of game, that the common man could again hunt with impunity.
Hunting in Early America
The historical records of men like Boone and Crockett are recognized by historians as an indication of hunting practices during these times. The long hunters and mountain men carried blades locally forged from worn files, scythes and plowshares. The Sheffield-made knives, imported by the thousands, were collectively referred to as Butchers—whether of the true butcher pattern or the more popular scalper pattern. By the latter half of the 19th century, common men had more leisure time and sport hunting was becoming popular. The Bowie knife became known as American Pattern Hunting Knife, with market hunters and sport hunters both purchasing them to process game.
Hunting journalists came to light around this time, with the first being John Palliser of Irish nobility who came to the Americas explicitly to hunt. In his 1848 book “Solitary Rambles,” he recommended a long-handled butcher knife as all the cutlery required of the sport hunter in the American West. Around this time, George Sears, who wrote “Camping and Woodcraft,” promoted what has become known as the Nessmuk trio—a 5- to 6-inch blade butcher pattern, a two-bladed pocket knife and a two-bladed hatchet. He condemned the American Pattern Hunting Knife as better suited to the belt of Billy the Kid. However, in 1880, G.O. Shields, whose nom de plume was Coquina, wrote his book “Camping and Camp Outfits” for hunters headed to the Rocky Mountains and suggested they utilize a knife with a blade of no less than 8-inches, a full ¼-inch at the spine with a stout buck horn handle, supported by a thin-bladed knife, wider toward the tip and a stout jack knife.
By 1897, Colorado fruit grower Dall Deweese became one of the first American sport hunters to journey to the new state of Alaska. The founder and first editor of “Outdoor Life Magazine,” J.A. Mcguire, called Deweese “the greatest big game hunter in the country.” In an 1897 letter home, which Mcguire printed in the very first edition of his magazine in January 1898, Deweese introduced the American reader to the gigantic Alaska Yukon Moose and the diminutive 6.5 Mannlicher rifle. Deweese recommended a guardless, slab-handled knife with a 4-inch blade as the minimum requirement of the big game hunter. Because of his success as a hunter, many sportsmen wanted a knife like his. Webster Marble who revolutionized the sporting knife industry, starting in the late 1800s, offered the Deweese pattern knife from 1906 until the 1930s, as well as a hunter’s knife set named Coquina after G.O. Shields, illustrating the influence of the sport writer.
“THE HISTORICAL RECORDS OF MEN LIKE BOONE AND CROCKETT ARE RECOGNIZED BY HISTORIANS AS AN INDICATION OF HUNTING PRACTICES DURING THESE TIMES.”
A Continued Tradition
After WWII, the writings of Colonel Townshend Whelen, Jack O’connor, Elmer Keith and Ted Trueblood kept the American sportsman up to date on the latest locations to hunt and the best gear to buy. The long debate between O’connor and Keith over small and large caliber spread into
their choice of knives. Jack stated the only knife required by a hunter was a two-bladed jack knife, while Elmer had the Keith Pattern Knife produced with a long, wide, fixed blade and extensions of the guard and hilt,
which locked the hunter’s hand to the handle. Whelen and Trueblood also supported the folding knife argument but each had a butcher type knife— Whelen’s, a Russell Green River called Seedskadee and Trueblood’s was forged of razor steel by Idaho’s Boise King Mine blacksmith.
In the years between WWI and WWII, American cutlers began to offer one-man shop-made knives to the American Sportsman. William Wales Scagel forged knives in his Fruitvale, Michigan smithy, selling them through the famed outfitter Abercrombie and Fitch of New York, as well as inspiring Bo Randall to make the very first Randall Made Knife. Rudy Ruana (a Finn), Harry Morseth (from Norway) and Californian, Hoyt Buck produced high-quality knives by hand and were the founding fathers of the handmade knife phenomenon we enjoy today.
Carried on Today
As we look back at such a rich history of the hunting knife, it is almost humbling to think that we get to witness and take part in a true leap forward in quality materials and processes, making knives that not only have stunning aesthetics, but also perform like nothing seen in even a fairly recent past. When you look at some of the custom makers of today, as demonstrated in these knives by John Bartlow, D’alton Holder, Stephan
Fowler, Ricardo Romano Bernardes and TK Steingass, you get a true sense of the pride and tradition carried on in the historical world of hunting cutlery. It is truly a great time to be alive, and even better if you are a hunter. KI