Way back in the dark ages of the 1960’s, long before the first cutlery magazine was ever published, knife geeks like myself had to be content with an occasional feature in a firearm publication. Naturally, it was every custom knifemaker’s dream to have one of the famous period gun writers promote his blades as the ultimate in true-blue outdoorsman’s equipment. The one problem here was that most experienced hunters picked relatively plain, basic knives that would never really stir an armchair outdoorsman’s soul. Custom knifemakers needed something more exotic to catch the reader’s fancy (or should I say fantasy?).
Bigger is Always Better
Somewhere along the line the legendary magnum handgunner and big bore rifle advocate Elmer Keith was approached to design a hunting knife. For those under 40 or so, Elmer was best known for his belief that bigger was always better when it came to firearms. He was instrumental in Smith and Wesson introducing both the .44 magnum and .41 magnum revolvers. Given that an S&W Model 29 is also a regular companion of my own when I’m working on our tree farm, I owe him a debt of gratitude for that. On the other hand, Elmer held a few other beliefs that were a little more controversial. He was on record as feeling the .270 Winchester was fit for nothing larger than coyotes (I’ve killed more deer with a .270 than any other rifle I’ve used), and that the .30-06 wasn’t even close to being an adequate big game rifle. On the other hand, he promoted the much less powerful .35 Remington as a great round simply because it was a larger caliber and launched a 200-grain slug.
I will also never forget when Elmer wrote in his monthly column that the Army should drop the M16 and issue M1903 Springfields to the troops in Vietnam! Mind you, not even the semi-auto M1 Garand we won World War Two with, but a bolt action rifle of World War One vintage? Statements like that tended to make me seriously question his real world qualifications.
The Keith Hunting Knife
Which brings us back to the hunting knives Keith designed during that period. Apparently, Elmer’s “bigger is better” theories extended to his cutlery, too. I’m not sure which maker was first, but during that period both Gil Hibben and the late Harvey Draper offered an “Elmer Keith Hunting Knife” of a fairly unique style. A number of years ago I acquired a Keith Hunter from Bart Draper, one of Harvey’s sons (Draper Knives was actually a family shop and, from what Bart has told me, the sons made many of the blades including the Keith models).
My custom Keith is ground from 3/8-inch-thick 440C stainless stock on a blade 5 inches long and 1-7/8-inches wide. The 2-inch-long false edge is fully sharpened for use as a “bone chopper.” What makes the design truly unique is the system of wide, curved double guards on both the front and back of the handle. In theory, this allows the user to work with his knife hand, say, pulling the hide from an animal, without laying the blade down. It also greatly restricts how you can hold the knife, something I don’t agree with at all.
Frankly, I can’t imagine myself trying to field dress a deer with this knife. Maybe something really large, like a moose or buffalo, but this is not a knife for fine work by any stretch of the imagination. While it seems to be less common today, 3/8-inch-thick blade stock was once popular for custom knives designed for “hard field use.” After all, you didn’t want that custom to break while you were skinning a 100-pound whitetail like that brand X factory knife did, do you? Or so the standard story in the gun magazines went.
Though Keith suggested this knife would take the place of a hatchet, I have never found it to be very efficient for that use. The wide spine does make for a good place to baton the blade through wood and bone with a club. As for the sharpened false edge, chopping on anything larger than small game and bird bones is going to be pretty difficult.
Early Hibben Models
Checking Gil Hibben’s current website, I found copies of some of his early catalogs posted that included the multiple versions of the Keith knife. One initial model lacked the famous double-guard. While it was still a lot more knife than I would prefer for deer hunting, it appeared to be something I could have lived with. In either version, it was certainly large enough to counterbalance the .44 mag Model 29 on Elmer’s right hip.
Hunting Knife Styles
Hunting knife styles change with the times and the last few decades have been dominated by the lighter Bob Loveless school of fixed blades. Short, thick blades like the Keith have pretty much faded from the scene. So it was a bit of a surprise when I recently noticed that United Cutlery had introduced a Gil Hibben-designed knife called the “HTF (Hunt-Tactical-Field) Recon” that was obviously a variation of the old Keith Hunter.
The HTF Recon offers a 5-1/4-inch long x 1-7/8-inch wide blade of 420 stainless (the knife is made in China so I assume this is actually 420J). The handle is laminated wood and the double handguard stainless steel. I was also pleased to see the blade thickness has been reduced to a much lighter 3/16 inch. All knives come with a heavy-duty leather sheath. Weight in the sheath, 18 ounces (my original Draper weighs 24 ounces). The suggested retail is $97.99.
United’s HTF also lacks the sharpened false edge of the originals but, then, I’m not sure this feature ever had a useful function. Despite the conventional web wisdom that 420J cannot be sharpened, the knife’s factory edge was keen enough to shave my arm without any problem. A few quick passes over a diamond rod brought this up to something I would have to call “surgical sharp” (after all, most medical scalpels are actually ground from 420J stainless too). I did find the basic edge geometry was too thick for testing on manila rope but that is a fairly common problem with combat-type knives designed for hard use.
Military Survival Knife
Given United is promoting this knife as something closer to a military survival knife rather than a pure hunting blade, I felt it was necessary to change my mindset on the design. The thinner blade is quicker in the hand than the original custom version, which would make it better suited to any potential close-combat use. While the double handguard limits its usefulness for working on game, it does give the knife a very secure grip for hand-to-hand tussling. Combat grips would be restricted to the standard saber and ice pick holds, but those are two of the most common anyway. As a utility tool, the HTF is well suited to rough, no-finesse-required kinds of cutting tasks common in military situations.
As a hunting knife, I would have to say the original Keith design was something of a failed project. I still don’t have a clue as to what Elmer was thinking when he designed it, other than to create a knife as heavy as his .44 magnum! United’s version, on the other hand, actually shows more promise!
Way back in the dark ages of the 1960’s, long before the first cutlery magazine…
by Tim Stetzer / May 10, 2009