The Draw or "Knife-Slingers"

I continue to see thousands of pixels and gallons of ink utilized to describe how to draw a fixed blade knife quickly and, even more so, how to deploy a tactical folder. Questions on which knife is superior for self defense use based upon speed of the draw and deployment abound in the knife and martial arts/self defense press and in knife and self defense forums. Debates are held, and heated arguments are exchanged, over which technique in deployment is superior, whether knife X is too small to be deployed reliably, how knife Z is superior to knife Q, and the like. The speed of the draw seems to be the focus of everything. I am constantly seeing “Mr. or Ms. XYZ draws or deploys the ABC Company WunderCutter 2010 so fast that…” It seems that the unspoken rule is “getting a knife out and ready for action wins a fight/stops an attacker cold/means you can now defend yourself effectively” except, this rule is wrong.

Knife companies have come up with many solutions to deploying a folder quickly. Clips placed on the knives allow them to be accessibly fastened in a pocket or on a waistband or other article of clothing. Spyderco came up with the idea of a hole in the blade to allow one-handed opening of the blade, and many other companies use a similar hole or thumb stud for this purpose. Emerson patented a wave feature that allows for the “wave” on the back of the blade to catch on the clothing of the user as the knife is removed from a pocket, thus opening the blade. Bram Frank, martial artist and knife designer, decided that a ramp on the back of a blade which could be used as a non-lethal striking surface and pressure-point compliance tool should also be capable of deploying the blade when the ramp was struck against an opponent in the correct manner (check out the Gunting or Lapu Lapu knives to see this work, or pick up one of Mr. Frank’s instructional DVDs). In order to increase the speed of the draw and/or ease of access for fixed blades, there are now myriads of “tactical” kydex, concealex, and other sheath systems designed by Blade-Tech (thank you Mr. Wegner for making so many fine sheaths for knives and holsters for firearms), and others. There are inside the waistband and neck knife concealment systems, shoulder holsters, and so forth available for the fixed blade user. Please do not misunderstand me, I applaud the ingenuity and advanced design that went into each and every knife innovation discussed above. I love kydex sheaths, like neck knives, love one handed opening knives, and would fight to keep my Guntings (I own several Guntings and have a Lapu Lapu on order and no, Spyderco collectors, none of my Guntings are now or ever will be for sale). However, the fact remains that deploying the blade is only preparation for a battle, not the battle itself.

Being able to use a knife effectively is a matter of training. Yes, an untrained person with a knife is dangerous, just as is an untrained person with a firearm. If an untrained citizen is carrying a knife or firearm for defense, these armed individuals are not just dangerous to evildoers, but to themselves and to other innocent citizens. Accuracy, with a firearm, has some utility even without speed. You cannot miss fast enough to win a gunfight. Skill in the combative use of the knife has utility even without a speedy draw or deployment of that knife. A fast draw or deployment of the blade does not always equal success in a confrontation, as it might impress or scare some who intend to do you harm, but will not discourage everyone. Do you really want to rely on the possibility of ending a confrontation by impressing someone with a speedy draw, knowing that, if combat does occur, you have little or no skill in the actual use of the blade in combat?

A knife is one of mankind’s earliest and most useful tools. Carrying one as a tool, on an everyday basis, is, in general, a good idea. Having one available for self-defense is not a bad idea. What everyone needs to realize is that, in most self-defense situations, a knife is probably not the best solution. The reason that I say this is threefold:

  1. Bladed weapons require much higher levels of training than do firearms. Law enforcement academies and private shooting schools can take a person who has never handled a handgun before and turn that person into an adequate self defense or “combat” shooter in the period of a couple of months. It takes years to be a good swordsman or truly proficient knife fighter. The firearm has the advantage of range, in that a person with a firearm can engage a target at a distance and the advantage, as described above, of ease of use. The blade has a few advantages as well: blades do not run out of ammunition (as long as you have the energy and will to cut and thrust with the blade, it is still a capable weapon system) and it does not jam (unless you lodge it in bone, etc.). In general, at a journeyman level of proficiency, the blade fighter is often not as deadly as the gunfighter, due to the depth of penetration and damage to vital internal organs and tissue that will take place when a bullet (of sufficient caliber and velocity) hits a target versus the relative lack of penetration into vital areas (from any but the largest blades or those wielded with the best of skill) from a knife. For example, a 230 grain .45 caliber projectile moving at around 800 feet per second can penetrate a human abdomen, continue traveling to the spine, shatter the spine and exit the body. A 4-inch bladed pocketknife is not going to get that kind of penetration or do that kind of damage. With the correct training and tactics the knife can be as deadly (more deadly at close quarters in my opinion) as the firearm, but the learning curve is steeper and the training time invested is significant.
  2. Most confrontations do not escalate to the level where lethal force, and deploying a blade and attempting to use it to cut or stab someone is going to be considered lethal force, is appropriate. Employing lethal or potentially lethal force in this kind of situation can result in some significant legal problems, and jail time, for the defensive knife carrier. Even displaying a knife can often get you into a lot of legal trouble. Often, in those rare cases when lethal force is appropriate, the situation has deteriorated so unexpectedly or events unfolded so rapidly that, no matter how fast you can draw a knife, you are behind the power curve and are reacting to a deadly attack and the half second to draw your blade is a luxury that you do not have if you want to save your life.

Absent significant training, during the stress of a real do-or-die situation, knives present a problem. You can cut or stab yourself while attempting to fend off an attacker, in part due to the close proximity to the attacker which must be maintained if the weapon (the knife) is to be effective. The advantage that a fighter with a gun has in this situation is distance. You can attempt to move away from an attacker while shooting, while, with a knife, if you move away from the attacker, your knife will be ineffective once only a little distance has been gained.

I believe that the person who carries a knife for self defense should learn from the person who carries a handgun for self defense. Yes, hand gunners do practice their draws quite a bit. However, I don’t know of anyone who recommends that people practice quick drawing and deployment techniques prior to practicing the fundamentals of shooting and learning how to hit a target. Those who carry a knife for defense should first practice gripping the knife and engaging in various cuts and thrusts with the weapon, at slow speed at first, and preferably mostly with a trainer or drone blade, prior to worrying about a quick draw. After some minimum competency is acquired, then the draw of the knife should be practiced, and continued practice of footwork, movement of the blade, trapping, and the draw should then be undertaken. Footwork looms positively huge in the practice scenarios, as, in a knife, stick or empty hand confrontation, distance equals time. Why most people want to stand static and practice a quick draw is beyond me. I would rather move my feet, step out of the way, and not get cut or struck.

The good thing about training with a knife is that the footwork can be used for unarmed combatives, and elbow strikes, open hand blows, and some fist strikes can be substituted for the blade, allowing the hand movements used in fighting with the blade to be used in unarmed confrontations. The mythical average person in America is much more likely to need a little skill in empty hand techniques and footwork than in knife fighting or combat shooting. For example, if an intoxicated person or beggar invades your “personal space” or touches you, are you going to cut or shoot them, or move away while checking their arm and removing it from your person? I recommend that anyone who carries a knife for self-defense seek instruction from a qualified instructor. If none are available in your area, get some instruction in boxing or some other martial art to get some footwork skills and knowledge of empty hand fighting and look for books and DVDs on knife work. Focus on those instructional manuals that will show empty hand and knife skills, not just skill with the blade. Consider the use of the pocket knife as an impact tool, such as when a folder is used closed (Bram Frank has some excellent ideas and training regarding this). If you have no idea where to start, email me and I’ll try to give you some suggestions, as I will do what I can to help good people stay safe. I stated above that it takes years to become a very proficient knife or empty hand fighter, and this is true. It only takes a few months of diligent practice in knife and empty hand combatives to get you to a level where you can handle most situations. Less training is required with the handgun, but, there is a difference between merely “competent” and “excellent.” Those who carry handguns or knives should strive for “excellent,” which means a high level of commitment to training and practice. If your life is ever on the line, it is far better to have bought the best equipment that you could afford and spent lots of time practicing than to have bought the cheapest thing you could find and begin carrying it, hoping that you could use it if the need arose. Trust me on this one, as I speak from experience, when people are trying to kill you, you will not regret one dollar that was spent on good gear or one hour that was spent in good training.

Keep safe, and I hope to see you in a training course soon.

Tuhan Holloway
June 2007

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