By Todd Swanson
Ask most people what a “hunting knife” is, and they’ll describe Tonto’s long-bladed belt knife. But for cleaning whitetails, even large ones, a long-bladed knife can be as dangerous as it is unnecessary. Most of the job of a whitetail knife is shearing thin tissue to detach organs. Unzipping the shallow belly layers doesn’t require a long blade, and most of the work is downhill from there.
This year I decided to try the Small Fixed Blade (item no. 2044) from the Free Range Hunter series of knives, designed for CRKT (Columbia River Knives and Tools) by knifemaker Russ Kommer. I was drawn to the short blade, finger groove, and rubberized handle.
Go For the Throat
When cleaning a whitetail with any knife, two areas present challenges: The throat and the vent.
Many hunters cut through the sternum, or breastbone, for easier access to the trachea and esophagus – the air and food tubes. Splitting the breastbone does make the job easier, and it helps the meat cool more quickly, but according to butchers, it ruins about a pound of meat. Like many hunters, I hunt more for freezer meat than for trophy antlers, so I choose to not cut through the breastbone.
Instead, I reach under the ribcage where I detach the throat beneath the larynx. This work is tight and blind, achieved entirely by feel. So that I don’t accidentally ‘feel’ the sharp knife edge, I put a forefinger as high up the knife’s spine as my finger will reach. By kinesthetic sense, this will give me a good idea of where the edge is. I then lay the opposite forefinger on the knuckles of the first before I reach up the neck.
But the tip of the blade is usually well beyond my fingertip, adding to the puzzle of guessing where the edge is in relation to my opposite hand, especially once I start cutting. Safety is top priority, and logic says that when you don’t need a long knife, less edge equals less chance of cutting yourself. The solution seemed obvious: Time to try a shorter knife.
My father is always on the hunt for the perfect knife for field-dressing whitetail deer. And because I’m always hunting for the perfect gift for him, so am I.
I already have a Free Range Folder model, and I am pleased with its keen edge, sturdy lock-back construction, and rubberized handle. So after a few messy chores like field dressing, the idea that a fixed blade would be easier to clean nagged at me until I got the model 2044. Besides, I had given the folder to my dad.
What appealed to me about the Small Fixed Blade was the short length of the edge, perfect at just over 3 inches. And after a few frustrating days of whitetail hunting in December, I got to try my new knife on a large doe.
I liked several things about the Small Fixed Blade.
Having done a little knife and utensil design, I recognized that the Small Fixed Blade extends from the handle at a slight downward angle for more comfortable use, eliminating the need for me to torque my wrist quite so unnaturally as blades aligned with the handle sometimes do.
At only 5 ounces in its sheath — 2 ounces without — it doesn’t add any noticeable weight to my kit, and with a handle thickness of just over ½ inch at its widest point, the knife packs away flat.
I also liked the rubberized grips on the double-injection molded handle, non-slip under all conditions, whether wet with rain or deer goop. A forefinger groove provides a measure of protection from slippage with both rubberized grip and a bit of built-in finger guard.
Though this edge wasn’t especially sharp out of the box, the slim hollow grind on my new blade lends itself to razor sharpness. No one will complain about that: Not only will it make the work easier, but a sharp knife is a safe knife. With a little sharpening, this might be just the ticket.
On the blade, I was happy with the jimping in a thumb groove on the back of the knife, over the choil. In addition to providing better traction in some grips, it also helps to keep you oriented to the blade when you can’t see the razor edge.
A Little Name-Dropping
My dad bagged his doe the same day. He tried the Small Fixed Blade and liked the drop-point design, which he prefers over clip points when it comes to cleaning game.
He’s not alone: Puukkos made for hunters, for instance, often feature a drop point while other puukko designs do not. In the late 1800s, George Washington Sears incorporated a drop point into his eponymous Nessmuk knife. In the 1960s drop points really caught on when Bob Loveless broke the mold by dropping the point below the spine in a convex arc. His “dropped hunter” design immediately inspired other classic knives like George Herron’s Model 6. Today’s knifemakers like Bark River, DiamondBlade, and L.T. Wright feature many drop point models.
The reason is that clip-points tend to claw into bone and stab into organs, the contents of which can taint exposed meat. Drop-points, on the other hand, tend to ride over the things you don’t want to cut or pierce, making it easier for hunters to clean game without puncturing the stomach or bladder. Loveless’ pupil Bob Dozier combined a drop-point with a short-blade to create the Loveless model that made the brand famous.
The Small Fixed Blade also features a drop-point and short-blade combination.
If you’re the hunter that cuts through breastbone or pelvis, this thin blade may not be the Free Range Hunter for you. My father, who did open the sternum on his deer, trusted instead to the sturdy, thick-spined folder model for this task.
The Small Fixed Blade is an ambitious amalgam, combining the features of a blade for gutting and a blade for skinning. When I attempted to release the vent I couldn’t make the knife’s wide round belly (well-suited to skinning) negotiate the tight circle around the opening in the pelvis.
For my methods, that wide blade profile also adds a level of guesswork when working blind, because the edge is farther from the spine relative to the length of the blade. Of course the proportions are a personal preference, and I might get used to this over time.
About the Sheath
The blade locks into its rigid nylon sheath with a satisfying click, and a retention strap closes with a metal snap. The nylon sheath is surrounded by a black tactical-style Kydex holster, and these layers appear to be riveted together.
The retention strap is stitched to another Kydex strap that loops through the belt loop, and a paracord leash weaves through the surrounding grommets with the excess dangling below. In front is a small pocket that might fit a compact ferro rod or Bic lighter.
The Right Knife for the Right Outdoorsman
While this wasn’t quite the blade I was seeking for cleaning whitetails, I’m glad to have my CRKT Small Fixed Blade as a viable backup knife. The drop-point fixed blade would be useful for a number of camp tasks like skinning and carving.
Retailing at almost $45.00, the CRKT’s Small Fixed Blade model is the right knife at the right cost for many an outdoorsman.
Overall Length 6.81 inches
Weight 2 ounces
Length 3.10 inches
Thickness .12 inches
Grind Hollow Grind
Style Drop Point
Material Double Injection Mold
Carry System Nylon Sheath
Weight 3.1 ounces