Reflections On The
French Poultry Killing Knife
(Blood Cups & Brain Sticking Too)

Dateline: 14 September 2015

(click pictures to see enlarged views)

Last month I blogged here about some Vintage Butchering Tools I have acquired, one of which is a 100-year-old French Poultry Killing Knife, made by the G.P. Pilling Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That knife, coupled with the excellent 100-year-old how-to information in the Agriphemera PDF download, How to Kill and Bleed Market Poultry, had me champing at the bit to butcher this year's crop of homegrown chickens. 

The common way to kill and bleed a chicken (or other poultry) these days is to tip them upside down into a killing cone, slice their neck arteries, and let them bleed out. The killing cone restrains the bird, while bleeding them with an artery cut allows the brain and heart to continue working (axe-chopping a bird's head off does not allow the heart to pump the blood out). As blood drains, life ebbs, the animal weakens, and soon dies, with a minimum of pain and trauma.

Unfortunately, many people who thus bleed poultry will unnecessarily (and often inadvertently) sever the bird’s trachea and esophagus when making the neck cut. This causes unnecessary suffering to the animal. Neck-slicing of chickens also results in a bloody head and neck.

One hundred years ago the approach to killing and bleeding poultry for market was much different than it is today. Back then, whole birds were sold with the neck and head intact (this is explained in the Agriphemera download, Dressing and Packing Turkeys For Market). Plucked birds that were sold in the marketplace also had certain feathers left on them. And, amazingly, the bird’s innards were left in. 

Seeing as the head and neck were left intact, a bleeding cut to the outside of the neck was cosmetically unacceptable. Therefore, the birds were killed and bled with the precise slice of a major artery at the back of the mouth. The cut was made with a short, narrow, sharp blade, like the French Poultry Killing Knife.

The 1915 bulletin, How To Kill And Bleed Market Poultry, goes into great detail explaining (and showing) the anatomy of a chicken’s neck and head. It reveals exactly where, at the back of the throat, the main artery can and should be severed for efficient bleeding. You simply will not find a better tutorial on the subject.

And so, with my first chickens in the killing cones, and my vintage French Poultry Killing Knife freshly sharpened for the task, I held a chicken’s head exactly as the illustration in the old bulletin shows, and I inserted the knife into the back of the mouth, exactly where I was supposed to. I made the cut and, to my delight, a steady stream of blood began to flow out the bird’s mouth. 

I bled several chickens this way and the technique worked but it seemed that the birds did not bleed out as quickly as they did when using a neck cut. So I bled some chickens using a neck cut. I did not time and compare how long it took the birds to die, but I’m pretty certain they died more quickly with the neck cut. Though they bled well at first when using the French Poultry Killing Knife through the mouth, the blood tended to clot and the flow slowed down.

I should mention here that, in conjunction with a cut in the back of the mouth, the old-timers also used a poultry blood cup. These cups were weighted receptacles that were hung on the bird’s beak immediately after making the cut through the mouth. They served to keep the head down (and the neck straight) as well as to capture the flowing blood. I believe this weight made a significant difference when it came to facilitating the steady flow of blood.

My search for an antique French Poultry Killing Knife was a long one; they very rarely come up for sale on Ebay. But I’m pretty sure that finding an antique poultry blood cup would be even more difficult. I don't imagine the sons and daughters of the old-timers wanted anything to do with inherited poultry blood cups. And were a few to survive to this century, who would have any idea what they were once used for?

The aforementioned bulletin, Dressing And Packing Turkeys For Market has pictures of a blood cup. This 1913 Article From Country Gentleman Magazine shows a blood cup for chickens. I may fabricate a couple of blood cups of my own design to use next year, come poultry processing time.

It may be that the neck cut is a better approach for this day and age. After all, it's no longer important that the head and neck of the birds we butcher be presentable. They are typically removed when butchering. Times have changed. 

Even still, I'm not going to give up on my French Poultry Killing Knife and the through-the-mouth artery cutting technique until I've fabricated a couple of blood cups and tried them out. That will be a project for next year. If a blood cup does help to keep the blood flowing smoothly, this old technique may be worth reviving for the simple reason that it is far less messy. As anyone who processes chickens knows, blood tends to splatter all over the area as a result of the head-and-neck death spasms of a throat-cut bird. 

In any event, if you butcher your own homegrown poultry, I think it is worth knowing how to bleed a bird through the mouth, as How To Kill And Bleed Market Poultry explains. And even if you decide not to use the technique, the explanations of artery location in a chicken’s head and neck are very useful when it comes to making an efficient outside-the-neck cut. I am now, without a doubt, making better artery cuts from outside the neck after reading the old bulletin and knowing where the arteries are. And I now understand why the blood flows better from one side of the neck than the other.

Brain Sticking

Another topic that is explained in detail in the How To Kill and Bleed Market Poultry bulletin is that of brain sticking to loosen feathers. It so happens that after cutting the artery at the back of the bird’s mouth, the old-timers would stick their knife into the chicken’s brain just-so, and that would loosen the feathers for easy plucking. 

Since I have a Whizbang Plucker, I did not try the brain-sticking technique. But it’s one of those intriguing old skills that would be good to know how to do if the need arises. As I understand it, a properly placed brain stick loosens the feathers so well that most of them can be easily wiped off the bird’s carcass… without the need for scalding. Imagine that!

Here are a couple more poultry killing knives from the G.P. Pilling & Son Catalog of 1914..

I am skeptical of the claims made for this instrument.
Cutting the jugular vein, is plausible. But severing 

the spinal cord to loosen feathers does not
correspond with the old how-to instructions I've read.


Unknown said...

Hmmm. I am assuming (despite the caution against such a thing) that the birds are still upside down in a cone when you are cutting the mouth blood vessel.
I will definitely have to check out the instructions as we would like to improve our neck cutting.
We have noticed that the knife dulls quickly and my husband re-sharpens it after 2 or 3 birds. The cut in the neck is where I cut the head off once it's been plucked. Literally, the head is the only thing we don't use other than the lungs and intestines. We use the liver, heart, gizzard and kidneys and of course, the feet. Oh, and I guess the feathers. The entrails, feathers and heads go in to compost.
We should be harvesting our meat chickens and turkeys either this Saturday or the next. Depends on the weather. I have to get going on cleaning out one of the freezers for room.

So from an animal perspective, or as close as you can approximate, which is less painful/gruesome/uncomfortable?
Not that I am anthropomorphizing, but for humans, sticking something in the mouth, especially to cease it's life functions, is generally considered more personal. I wonder how that translates to livestock or if it translates.
These are just some thoughts, no need to respond. I know how busy you are.

Anonymous said...

The first time we did broiler chickens we did brain sticking, using a sharp filet knife and directions in the Story Press chicken book (yellow cover). It worked very well, BUT you have to get it right. We were never able to duplicate our success (lost the book) so we reverted to the throat-slitting approach, which I find much grislier.
Thank you for your work.
PS: I'm not a robot. Most days.

Tucanae Services said...

The technique you have described was done for a purpose. In the markets of NYC, Philly, Boston, etc fowl was generally offered feathers on or neck feathers on only. It was a selling point not to have blood on the bird on display. The throat cut eliminated most of the blood getting on the feathers.

Troy Maki from Goodland, MN said...

I did the research before I ever raised my first batch of broilers. By the way my second batch of broilers used the Whizbang Chicken Plucker I built for the 2008 season.

Simply put, since my first bird I have used pails w/head holes hung on hooks, a brain stick-n-twist method for the kill and feather release, and two quick slices on the neck to bleed out. It takes practice but I've been very happy with the results.

I'm a busy guy so my stories are short. If you'd like to discuss more you can email me at

Jewell said...

I researched the 18/1900's poultry processing a few years back. The reason for the way they were sold - head on, entrails intact, aka "New York Style", was keeping time. Because there was no incision into the body cavity, there was no risk of releasing bacterial from the entrails and bacteria from the outside could not enter. Supposedly the birds would 'keep' at refrigerator temperatures for six days whereas a fully drawn bird was only safe for three. Because the poultry was being brought in from outside the city, often via horse & wagon, the extra time was very important. (Country neighbors all had their own chickens, cities were the only selling market before grocery stores and farmers' markets)
There were also 'cultural expectations' among the ethnic & religious groups in the cities that comprised the main markets, most likely that's why the various feathers were left on.

I'm planning on buying the mentioned publications from you today as additional research - because I prefer to pluck my turkeys dry to ensure a perfect carcass, I'm determined to learn the pithing (brain-stick)technique. Been working on it for two years now, but anything I can find is still of interest! (Because we raise free-range heritage turkeys on organic feed, I can't risk torn skin or a broken bone at the necessary prices.)

Chickens are a little different - although I can go from 'hello, birdie' to ice bath in twenty minutes, it's still not efficient, and I have a washer sitting here awaiting dis-assembly to become a 'whizbang' plucker. Bought your book through amazon last fall, but didn't have a lightening strike to fry the circuit boards in the washer until summer. Now i need a winter to build it, but I'm confident nature will provide!

exasperated said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
exasperated said...

Hi - Unless you're stunning your bird before bleeding, the bird does sense the pain until unconsciousness is arrived 3-4 after arteries are cut. Bleeding an animal without stunning to consciousness is considered an inhumane technique by many professional poultry associations as well as health dept regulations in U.S. and E.U. I've been stunning with a sharp blow to the head with the bird head down in a killing cone. I have very little blood mess because my cones are large and deep enough to contain the entire bird - the bird does not come unlodged. I also use a scalpel which seems most efficient in cutting arteries. I'm thinking the size of the scalpel blade would make it suitable to insert into the mouth penetrating into the brain and drawing along the roofline of the mouth as described in the pdf. I'm interested in the brain sticking along with artery cuts. It would seem death would be quick, less mess and fast bleed out. Has anyone done both?

sintawiranata said...

Very good article, this is useful. I love folding knives, this makes it easy for me when we do traveling. A versatile knife that can be used in an emergency, I have some good collections.