Practical Knife Skills

(Updated from the original article of the same title, published in Kungfu magazine, Fall 1995, pp.20-24.)

For most of us, the chances of being involved in a knife against knife fight are only slightly better than the odds against your singlehandedly foiling an airline hijacking attempt using only the plastic knife you received with your in-flight meal. But while your chances of actually being in a knife-against-knife fight are practically nonexistent, the chances of being assaulted by a knife-wielding thug (or terrorist) are not. Because the possibility of such an assault is realistic, civilian martial artists should learn practical knife skills.

The operative words here are practical and civilian. Practical combat skill of any kind requires, among other things, a thorough knowledge of the combat environment, the weapons available to the combatants, and the tactics employed by aggressor and defender alike. The word "civilian" limits our focus to what is practical for most of us today (urban-dwelling nonmilitary citizens). What is practical for the military and for law enforcement is usually impractical for (or completely off limits to) the general population.

Combat Environment and Available Weapons
Census figures show that most of us live in urban population centers. This, along with other socioeconomic factors, means that the combat environment in the United States today is overwhelmingly urban. (Far fewer people are mugged or assaulted while in the woods or in rural areas.) Training in the woods then, with the kind of edged weapon a survivalist might carry, is generally unrealistic because neither the environment nor the weapon are the norm for the urban martial artist.

When it comes to personal protection, the instrument of choice is a firearm. However, securing a permit to carry a concealed firearm ranges from difficult to impossible in most urban jurisdictions. And carrying Rambo- or Bowie-type knives is impractical for obvious reasons. (Even if you can legally carry an uncovered Rambo- or Bowie-type knife around, you will most likely be stopped by every police officer who crosses your path.) This leaves the urban-dwelling civilian martial artist with only two practical weapons: the cane or walking-stick1 and the knife (even if you carry a handgun, proficiency with other weapons is wise because it gives you many more self-protection options). Without some medical reason for using a cane or walking stick, few are comfortable carrying that otherwise very practical weapon with them. What remains then, is the knife. (Click here for a look at my choice in practical self-defense folders.)

Without some
medical reason
for using a cane
or walking stick,
few are comfortable
carrying that
otherwise very
practical weapon
with them.
What remains then,
is the knife.

The Blade
Many cultures are highly skilled in the use of edged weapons, but few can equal the skill of Filipino fighters. Of the edged weapons in the Filipino arsenal, the balisong comes the closest to meeting the modern civilian martial artist's needs. The weapon's quick, single-hand opening capability makes it ideal for the urban environment. However, in some municipalities, that quick, single-hand opening capability also makes the weapon illegal. This means that although the criminal may still carry one, the law-abiding civilian martial artist may not.

Few of us have ready access to large edged weapons (knives with blades measuring six inches or greater length) in our day-to-day lives. It is true that we usually have large butcher knives in our kitchens, but most of the cutlery in our homes consists of small-handled knives with blades measuring less than six inches. Double-edged weapons and knives with hand-guards are even scarcer. Again, the criminal may have such a weapon, but the law-abiding citizen usually does not.

The urban martial artist, if he has a blade on him, usually has a folding knife with a blade length of between two and four inches; an office worker's "penknife" often has an edge closer to two inches in length. Further, civilian knives usually have short handles (a folding knife with a two and one-half-inch blade usually has a three- to three and one-half-inch handle). Contemporary knife and knife-defense training must reflect this reality.

Training Knives
Although the size of the attacker's knife is important, the size of the defender's is more so. Since most of us have ready access to knives that have short handles and blades measuring three inches or less in length, our training knives must, with minor adjustments, mirror that reality. I use a training knife that has a three and one-half-inch handle, and a four-inch blade. The short handle mirrors the handle length of the real knife I will most likely have to use in a fight. A longer blade provides a margin for error.

The margin is not for training, but for combat. In a fight, everything compresses – time, reaction, and distance. But the critical element here is distance. If you train with a knife that accurately resembles the blade length of your real one, your reflexes and reactions adjust to that knife. If you train with a three-inch blade, you adjust to that length. This means that your support hand develops an automatic margin for error of only millimeters. In combat, however, everything compresses, and that margin compresses as well. Defensive maneuvers where your support or checking hand passes close to your blade, become extremely dangerous. For this reason, your training knife should have a blade that is a little longer than the one you expect to have to use in a self-defense situation.

Training Drills
Sombrada-range (shadow-range) training drills are basic to many Filipino fighting arts. They are performed with swords, sticks, and knives, and are basic "flow" exercises. (A flow exercise is a two-man, continuous routine that develops combination-type reactions to an opponent's attacks.) This practice helps develop the skills necessary to deal with a variety of knife, stick, and hand attacks. Sombrada-range drills allow both partners to act and react continuously to each other's attacks and strikes. This develops a flexibility in the practitioner that enables him to adapt to changing situations (i.e., fight dynamics).

In such drills,
the "feel" of the attack
is much more important
than the visual perception.
The continuous nature of such drills allows both partners to sustain practice for an extended period, thereby getting in many more repetitions than they would with, for example, one-step techniques. This nonstop repetition allows the students to monitor and correct their errors on each successive iteration and to get the feel of doing it right. (In such drills, the "feel" of the attack is much more important than the visual perception.)

Unlike sombrada-range stick drills that focus on strikes to bony targets like the hands, lower wrists, elbows, collar bones, and head, knife drills focus on the meatier parts of the body. Instead of attacking bony targets, like the knuckles and lower wrist, knife strikes are directed primarily to the meatier forearm, biceps, and triceps muscles. Cutting these targets "defangs the snake," without necessarily killing him (at least immediately). Unlike most empty-hand martial arts, the primary targets in knife fighting are the extremities.

Scratching the Surface
Although your chances of actually being in a knife-against-knife fight are probably well below those of being struck by lightening, your chances of being assaulted by a knife-wielding thug are not. Therefore, knowing how to use a knife helps the martial artist better defend against one (even if he does not carry one) and while knife fighting drills focus primarily on knife-against-knife, the lines of movement are, with minor modifications, very applicable to empty-hand defense against a knife, a stick, or a punch.

Time prohibits addressing every detail of even the most basic of these drills. When taught by a knowledgable instructor, each movement is accompanied by body positioning and angling around the lines of attack. In advanced stages of training, leg strikes are also incorporated, none of which was covered here. What was covered, however, should be enough to convince you of the value of good knife training.


  1. For excellent walking canes and sticks, check out They produce "Worlds Finest Custom Made Walking Stiks."
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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.