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How to Process Meat for Survival Situations

Whether it's a deer, cow or anything else, it's important to understand how to process your own meat. Here is a step-by-step guide to butchering meat by yourself.

How to Process Meat for Survival Situations

How to Process Meat for Survival Situations (Firearms News Photo)

In my novel The 14th Reinstated, the protagonist is able to survive after a total economic and social collapse because of many skills. But he is able to thrive because, as a hunter before the troubles started, he processed his own big game. In the new barter society that became a needed skill, and he was able to turn it into a business by processing game and livestock and trading part of the meat for payment. If you live next door to a guy like that, you probably are in good shape. If not, you need to read this.

How to Process Meat for Survival
It is always easier to work on skinning and quartering a deer if you can raise the deer to a comfortable working height. Then you don’t have to bend over. Always cut deer hide from underneath to keep from cutting hair. This keeps loose hair off the meat, which is important for convenience and cleanliness. (Firearms News photo)

Knowing how to process your own game or livestock can be a very important skill. Part of being prepared is being self-­sufficient. Meat may no longer come from the grocery store and it will be up to you to turn game or livestock into food. Forget the USDA charts and “this cut” comes from here mentality. None of it matters, this is an easy way to process meat at home with a minimum
of tools. Let’s start with a deer. If you know how to do a deer, you can also do anything you are willing to eat from a cow to a coon. The anatomy is similar for most four-­legged mammals.

You don’t need a lot of fancy tools or a butcher shop, just a place to hang the deer for skinning and quartering and a kitchen table for the rest. You can even do it without hanging, but hanging makes life much easier. You can process an entire deer with just a hunting knife, but it’s best to also have at least a boning knife and a butcher knife for slicing steaks. A saw is handy and a few meat trays are helpful. You will also need materials to package the meat for storage, assuming you have a freezer and electricity. If not, there are alternatives; but that’s another article.

If you want to advance to making hamburger or sausage, you will need to buy a grinder. But it’s not necessary. I butchered my deer for 30 years before I bought one. As soon as you shoot the deer, gut it and cool the meat. A lot of fuss is made of hanging the carcass to let it age, but that’s often a mistake. If you can control the temperature there may be some benefit to letting the skinned carcass age. But hanging meat in uncontrolled conditions will often do more harm than good and can cause the “gamey” flavor that so many people find objectionable. Skin the deer, being careful not to get a lot of hair on the meat. Then cut the front legs off of the carcass. You can work through the joints with a knife, but a saw is easier and faster. There are lots of saws designed for field work on game, but an inexpensive carpenter’s crosscut saw works great. Use your knife to cut through the meat on the neck close to the head and then cut the bone with the saw to remove the head.

Grab one front leg and pull. It helps to have somebody hold the deer as you do this. Use your knife to cut under the leg and shoulder where it meets the body, staying close to the ribs, until the shoulder comes free from the body. The shoulders are connected only by soft tissue, so there will be no bones to cut through. Place the shoulder on a clean surface. Now, do the same with the other shoulder.

How to Process Meat for Survival
Follow the muscle back to where it appears to merge with the hindquarters and make a cut 90° to the backbone to define the rear edge  of the backstrap. Cutting the backstrap free from a whitetail. The backstrap is widely regarded as the tastiest cut of meat, and should be handled with speed and care. (Firearms News photo)

The backstraps are the long pieces of meat along the top of the backbone. Follow the muscle back to where it appears to merge with the hindquarters and make a cut 90° to the backbone to define the rear of the backstrap. Now use the knife to follow the backbone as you cut the meat free from the ridge on the spine. Turn the blade slightly to the backbone so that the edge rides the bone and leaves little meat attached. Follow this cut forward until you “run out of meat” around the shoulder and neck. This muscle will be well defined and you can locate the other edge easily. Using your knife, separate it from the other tissues, making a parallel cut to the one along the backbone. Go back to the first cut near the hindquarters and pull on the meat, peeling it away from the deer.

As you pull the meat away from the deer, cut it free from the bone along the back side of the meat. Be careful not to leave meat still attached to the spine. There are ridges and valleys in the bone, so don’t let them fool your knife into leaving meat behind. When you are done you will have a long, flat piece of meat. Now, repeat on the other side. There are two much smaller and shorter muscles along the underside of the backbone, inside the “gut” cavity that can be removed the same way. These “tenderloins” are soft and are easy to remove. They are well defined and you simply cut them away from the backbone. Cut the neck free, using a knife to cut through the meat and a saw to cut the spine. If you are going to use the meat in the ribs, use a knife to cut it all free. Simply follow the shape of the ribs with a thin bladed knife like a fillet knife or a boning knife. Or you can use a saw to cut the ribs into sections for bone in ribs.


With a deer, there is a lot of fat on this meat, which gives it a poor flavor that most people do not like. But, the meat is excellent for dog food. (Remember, Man’s Best Friend has to eat too! In a survival situation, he is your best alarm system, so keep him healthy.) There are a couple of ways to remove the hindquarters. The quickest and easiest way is to use a saw. Cut through the spine ahead of the hindquarters to remove the backbone and ribcage. Then use the saw to split the hindquarters and then, finally cut the leg off. The other method is to remove the hindquarter with a knife. Free the leg from the gambrel used to hang the deer and pull it away from the carcass. Cut along the bone in the pelvis to free the muscle. As you pull and cut you will eventually reach the large hip socket.

Pull the leg as you work the knife into the socket to cut the ligaments and tendons to free the ball on the end of the leg bone from the hip socket. Then, cut through the remaining meat to free the hindquarter. If you have not already removed the leg, put the hindquarter on a table and cut the leg off. You should now have two hindquarters, two front shoulders, two backstraps and two tenderloins. Also, the neck and rib meat. You may wish to spend a few minutes removing any usable meat still left on the carcass. What’s left on the bones is a dog treat. Raw wild game is actually very good for your dog. As you work, you will create many extra pieces of meat that you aren’t sure what to do with. I like to keep a meat tray handy to toss them into to deal with later. I also keep a large trash can close by to throw away the scraps.




Make sure you use an extra heavy duty contractor’s style bag to line the can. There is nothing as frustrating as trying to pull a flimsy trash bag full of meat and bones out of a trash can. The usual result is a big mess on the floor and the walls echoing with bad words you don’t want your kids to hear. You will need a cutting board. A plastic cutting board is not very expensive, is much easier to clean, more sanitary and frankly looks a lot more professional than plywood. You can process the meat in any order, but I usually start with the backstraps. It is human nature that as you tire you will pay less attention to your work. So, I start with the best and most important cuts of meat and work down from there.

How to Process Meat for Survival
Removing the tenderloin meat from the underside of the backbone. As the name implies, the tenderloin is a very soft cut of meat and removes easily. Using a saw to remove the hindquarters from the backbone. Towsley says there are a lot of specialist saws, but that a carpenter’s saw works fine. (Firearms News photo)

The key is to remove all the silverskin, sinew and fat. Never leave any fat on venison. While fat flavors beef, pork and other meats in a good way, venison fat will wreck the flavor of deer meat. It’s important that you have nothing but clean, lean meat when you are ready to start packaging. Also remember that you are finished with the saw. A saw smears the fat on the meat and if it’s cutting through bone, it smears the marrow on the meat, both will make the meat taste “gamey.” It’s “knives only” from now on. Once you have all the fat and silverskin removed from the backstrap, trim the ends so that you have a long, flat, slightly tapered piece of meat. You can cut the backstraps into chops about one-­half inch thick, or cut them 1½ inches thick like filet mignon.

One of my preferred approaches is to cut each backstrap in half, so when I am done with a deer I have four large pieces of meat. I cook these whole and slice like roast beef. When in doubt, leave them in big pieces and wrap. You can always cut them later. Clean up the tenderloins. If they are messy from gutting the deer or covered with dried blood, wash them or soak them to remove the dried blood. While many hunters love this cut, I really don’t care for them because the texture is too soft. I know it’s sacrilege, but I toss them in the tray collecting the “miscellaneous” meat for stew, sausage or burger. Cut away as much fat as possible from the hindquarters. You will see that there are several clearly defined muscles. Use the knife and your fingers to separate them along the natural boundaries. Work your fingers along the junctions and cut (the meat, not your fingers) where it’s needed, including along the bone.

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How to Process Meat for Survival
Cleaning upa backstrap (top right). Venison meat must be free of all fat, sinew and silverskin. Those are the pieces that give it the famous “gamey” taste. Separate the muscle groups in a whitetail hindquarter. Each muscle must be  cut free and all fat, sinew and silverskin removed for best taste and texture. Once you’ve removed all the waste parts (some make fine dog food), you’re left with seven or eight good pieces of venison from the whitetail hindquarter. (Firearms News photo)

Continue until you have all the muscles separated, off the bone and lying on the table. Clean all the fat, sinew and silverskin from them. The options are wide open, roasts, jerky, steaks, sausage, ground meat, whatever you like, the hindquarter meat is versatile and eager to please. Use a sharp, thin bladed knife to cut the meat from the shoulder bone. There is a raised ridge close to the center of the shoulder blade where I usually start. I cut along both edges of it and then slide the knife between the meat and the bone. Work patiently until all the meat above the first joint is removed. This meat works well for sausage or ground meat. But if you don’t have the equipment for making that, there are other options. For years I tied the shoulder meat up with cotton butcher’s cord to make roasts, or cut it into cubes to use in stew or soup. I have even cut them into steaks on a young and tender deer.

The meat on the lower legs is very tough and full of sinew which tends to clog up a grinder. It’s tough even in small chunks for stew. I use it for dog food. They don’t mind chewing as much as we do. The neck can be used as a roast. Simply remove the windpipe, bone and all the fat you can. But, to be honest it’s not my favorite cut. I would rather cut the meat into small pieces and add them to the other meat in the tray to use for stew, ground meat or sausage. Go through the scraps you collected in the tray and remove all the fat, sinew and silverskin. Again, strive for clean, lean meat. This takes a lot of time and work, but it’s worth the effort. The resulting meat can be cut up for stew meat or used in sausage or ground meat. The scraps are dog food or waste.

Double wrap the meat tightly with high quality freezer paper and it will keep for at least a year in the freezer. I like to use the “butcher wrap” method and am generous with the length of the paper. This approach leaves several layers of paper around the meat so it keeps well. The key is to remove all the air from the package. Make sure you label every package or you will be eating a lot of “mystery meat” in the months ahead. Clean up the mess, mop the floor, heat up the frying pan and get ready for some good eating!

How To Sharpen Your Knives for Processing

Any knife is only as good as its edge, and one of the most useful skills anybody can develop is the ability to properly sharpen a knife. A dull knife will make any job difficult and frustrating and can actually be dangerous. The key to sharpening a knife is in maintaining a constant angle between the knife and the abrasive sharpening medium. Some craftsmen can do this by hand on a bench stone, but for the most part sharpening a knife freehand is a lost art. It's easier and will produce a much better result if you use a kit that includes a clamp that will hold the knife blade and guide the matching sharpening stone to maintain a constant angle. Those I know best are Lansky, Gatco and DMT.

Clamp the knife securely in the fixture and do not remove it until the sharpening job is complete. Select the angle best suited for the way the knife will be used. The higher the angle number the stronger the edge will be, while the lower the number, the longer the knife will stay sharp. For most hunting knives, about 25° is a good choice. A butcher knife might use 20° and a boning knife even 15°. Select the coarsest stone available, and using plenty of pressure, stroke it on the knife blade, moving the stone in and out perpendicular to the blade's edge. Move up and down the blade edge to cover the full length. Overlap your work as you move along the blade by about a third of the stone's width.

How to Process Meat for Survival
Start with the coarsest grit and move up to extra fine for a razor-sharp edge. Don’t attempt to skip grits. Always use them all for the best results. (Firearms News photo)

Continue until you can feel a defined burr on the other side of the knife edge along the entire length of the blade. This indicates that the stone is contacting the edge of the blade and has rolled it over. Once you have a defined burr along the entire blade, the angle is properly cut on that side of the knife. Flip the knife over and work the other side until you raise a burr. Remember; never remove the knife from the fixture before the job is complete.

After both edge angles are properly cut, switch to a medium grit stone. Work the side with the burr first, starting with moderate pressure and stroking the stone 90° to the edge, moving up and down the blade while overlapping the area you are working. Each "pass" will include many strokes of the stone. Work one side, then the other, using the same pressure. As you complete the second side and flip the knife over to work the side you started on, decrease the pressure. Continue this for at least three complete passes on each side, ending with light pressure on the stone as you polish the edge.

The type of steel will determine how many strokes and passes are needed. Carbon steel sharpens easily while some types of stainless steel are much tougher and may require several passes. Now switch to a fine grit stone and repeat for at least three passes of multiple strokes on each side, decreasing the pressure with each pass. It is possible to create a sharp edge with a "fine" grit stone, but for the best edge switch to an ultra-fine stone and continue. Remember, you are working a very delicate edge on the knife blade, so use some finesse and a light touch for the final passes. The goal is to simply polish the blade to a very fine edge. If you use too much pressure, it can roll the edge over, which will ruin your sharpening job.

One trick to shortcut the end process is to move the ultra-fine stone up in the clamp to the next higher angle. For example, if you are sharpening at 20°, move to the 25° slot. Then polish the edge carefully. This "dual angle" approach results in a faster edge that is very sharp. But use a delicate touch, as it becomes even easier to roll the edge and ruin all your work when you increase the angle. I believe that a knife is truly sharp when it will cause the hair on my arm to "pop" off as the edge contacts it and the knife will shave my arm smooth in one pass. But I can't recommend this dangerous test. Cut a piece of paper on edge to test the edge.

When using the knife in the field, the edge will become dull. It can be brought back with a steel or ceramic sharpener. But each time you do that, it moves the edge back a little further into the angle, and sooner or later you will find it very difficult to get the knife sharp. That's when it's time to clamp the knife in a fixture and repeat this process.


This article was originally published in Book of the AK-47. You can find the original magazine on the OSG Newsstand. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.

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