Caping refers to removing the shoulder skin of an animal and cutting away the head. This keeps the ‘cape’, as one intact unit. This is the proper procedure to ensure a good trophy mount. The taxidermist’s job is made easier, or impossible, depending on how well caping is performed. For large animals like elk, caping also allows easier transport from the field. It is one way to ‘part out’ game into sizes that can be carried.
Why a Special Knife?
Unlike a skinning knife, which is meant simply to separate the hide layer from the underlying meat, a caping knife is designed not just to slice, but also to cut neck muscle and other tissues. A regular skinning knife can be fragile and doesn’t require a long handle to generate force at the cutting edge. The caping knife, on the other hand, is required to not only do a decent job skinning around the shoulders, but also has to be robust enough to handle cutting off the head of the animal. The blade is a balance between a heavier cutting/chopping style and the thinner, slicing style of a skinning knife.
The dual function of a caping knife is met by having a thicker, short blade with a drop point end. Most of the actual skinning is accomplished with the curved tip of the knife blade. Blades are short (because there is often delicate work) but long enough to reach deeper when necessary. The handle is also longer than you might expect because a strong grip is needed for deeper cuts. There is no need for a blade guard on these knives.
Caping hunting knives can be carried as a general purpose knife, and their smaller size makes them a nice belt knife. They are smaller than normal hunting knives and for this reason are popular with backpackers as an all around camp knife. Primarily, they are meant for use in the field when hunting bigger game.
A key consideration is whether or not a cape can be obtained without having to resharpen the knife. Caping hunting knives use an excellent quality steel for this reason. The blade has to be thicker, to handle the higher stress (higher than a skinning knife) and it has to hold a good edge long enough to cape a large animal.
Experienced hunters understand the lesson above and will cape by first skinning the shoulders of the animal, while the blade is at its sharpest, and only afterward attempt to cut underlying flesh.