Assessing Knife Styles
By Peter James

The legacy of thousands of years of edge weapons fighting has resulted in a number of different styles in use throughout the world.  Most of these styles have developed through the various influences from a particular culture, for example the sword and fighting style of the Japanese is different to that of the European renaissance.  This article was written specifically with the knife in mind.  As with all weapons, it has a strong history in all parts of the world, and the interest in the knife from a criminal point of view is rising, therefore the knowledge of the law abiding citizen also needs to rise.  I have drawn together a number of very broad categories of knife use and accept that these are nowhere near comprehensive.  If you have had any contact with the knife, you will recognise the concepts.
The article was not written to represent knife fighting per se, but how can we defend ourselves if we don't know what we are dealing with?  This article is for martial arts schools that restrict their knife defence training to one style of static knife use.  This is not reality.  Knife is as fast, varied and dynamic as any empty-handed martial art style, and immediately takes any encounter to a lethal level.  Therefore, it demands special attention. Contact with knife combatants should be avoided at all cost except your personal safety.  There are no safe empty-hand techniques against a knife.
For purposes of discussion I have created some key measurement categories to compare each style.  It will become clear that any one knife style is not necessarily optimum in every application.  The reader should also bear in mind that it is the user of the weapon and their attitude at the time that makes any system work.  Although I may suggest a style has a strength or weakness in a particular area, that does not mean that a skilled exponent couldn't make it work successfully or a poor exponent handle it badly  never underestimate a knife.  The categories we will be reviewing are:
Deployment of the weapon
Fighting distance
Damage capability
Combat practicality
Attacking lines

Fencing Style
This style of fighting has been much maligned by some writers in the recent past, and unfairly so.  My view, as with reputable knife exponents such as Keating, Cassidy, Janich, Ryan, is that it is very practical.  The mistake that those opposed to the style have made is comparing fencing knife style to modern sports fencing. These people have not considered the original techniques employed in sword fighting.  Modern sports fencing is not combat, however, when the rapier was the chosen weapon for fighting the techniques used were derived from what really worked.  We cannot afford to turn our back on these lessons.  This style of knife fighting is very popular in the USA as applied (in part) to the Bowie knife.  It is also the basis for knife fighting in most of the European systems.
I have deliberately called this a style of knife fighting because the style lends itself very much to two men, both armed engaged in combat.  The weapon is held in sabre grip, this is a natural grip with the thumb along the top of the handle.  The major advantage of this grip is that it affords the users the greatest striking distance.  No other grip puts the tip as far out as sabre.  To deploy a knife to sabre grip means drawing the weapon out of a scabbard and moving it forward. This is slower than the reverse grip.  If the weapon is carried across the body, edge up handle down, it is easier to employ, however reaching across your body is also a dangerous move. Bottom line is that sabre grip is not the quickest position to get into from the draw.
Fencing style fighting is about bringing the weapon to point, employing the weapon in a thrust or stabbing action.  Although it is easy to slash with sabre grip, there are those who believe that to end a fight quickly you need to cause as much damage as possible and that is done through thrusting rather than slashing.  In reality only a slash to the throat will kill instantly, whereas, stabbing opens up a greater number of targets.
Fencing style is designed to cover greater distance.  A knife creates distance between the combatants, and to win the fight you must be able to cover that distance quickly and with the greatest attention to your own safety.  This style allows you to do that.
On the street, this system will allow you an advantage in a knife fight, but is not strong as a defence system.  Close encounters requiring quick deployment of weapon and close protection are not suited to the fencing style.  Footwork and attacking lines for this style tend to be linear, as you would expect in a thrusting stabbing action.
On the street the facts are that someone who pulls a knife is looking for an advantage, if you pull one also their advantage is gone, and the scumbag will back down very quickly.  Very rarely do knife fights occur these days on the street.  However if it does, or you pick up that distance/time advantage initially, fencing style is a definite winner.

Reverse Grip
Reverse grip is using the weapon in an icepick style grip.  This style of fighting is very popular in many of the Asian styles and has gained a great deal of popularity in recent times.  Being attached to Asian styles, the system has had exposure to a large number of Martial artists, and it has a great deal more attached to it in terms of training, such as Kata and step sparring.  These things make a system more appealing for training but not necessarily more practical.
Deploying the weapon in the reverse grip is very easy and very quick.  The natural action of the hand coming forward can pick up the weapon and have it out very quickly.  Most of the time the weapon would be deployed edge out to facilitate outward slashing action, however, Mr. James Keating of Combat Technology is an advocate of deploying the knife with the edge facing back, this will great more damage as the opponent moves away (like a bears claw).
The major disadvantage of this system is distance.  Holding the knife and trying to get the tip as far out as possible won't give you as great a distance as the sabre grip.  In addition trying to stab someone from reverse grip at fighting distance will leave you wide open. 
You should start to see why this is a close quarter fighting style, employing slashes, trapping and fast body movement.  The advantage is delivering a large number of slashes in a very short time, chipping away at you opponents resolve to continue.  Those who use this style against another knife style will find defense simple, but defense alone can't win the fight.
The attacking lines are not straight, but circular, to get the most benefit from the cutting action  and speed of multiple attacks.
This is a very good style for fast defense, but I would be wary of this style against another knife fighter.

Filipino Style
A very comprehensive style of knife fighting from a culture that has been using knives, literally, on the street for the last 300 years.  Exponents use elements of the fencing style (from Spanish conquerors), reverse grip and other styles blending them into a quick and effective system.  Rather than coming to point, this style employ's multiple slashing techniques from reverse or forward grips.  Exponents of the style use exercises to develop a close infighting style , but this may not suit all people. 
Weapon deployment is highly varied depending on what style of knife is being used, but you can assured it will be quick and effective (Filipino knives are many and varied, the Balisong is just one type).  Despite what you see in the movies, deploying the Balisong is not as quick as a fixed blade. Flashing it around may impress the novice, but will only get you killed against a trained fighter.
The Filipino system likes to employ fast multiple slashes usually starting from the outer and moving in finishing with a coup de grace if they want to make the encounter terminal.  Practitioners have specific targets in mind as they move in:
De-fang the snake  take out the knife or knife hand
Take out the vision  Cut or blood the eyes
Take out mobility  - move to damage the legs
Closely following this sequence makes the encounter less than lethal, but very effective at stopping the fight.  Bringing the protagonist to a 'negotiating position' is a good way to stay out of jail yourself.
Because this system demands close in work, the footwork is fast and precise; not for the novice.  Stylists train for many years using 26 inch long sticks before moving to knives.  The attacking lines are always off centre working at 45degree angles out and in.
Basically, this is an excellent style of knife fighting, comprehensive, knife dedicated and effective, employing good offensive and defensive technique.  A style that needs to be studied if you have any interest in the knife, but it isn't 'the be all and end all' as many would have you believe.
To bring it back to reality again, a Filipino knife Maestro told me recently that he teaches his students to defend themselves against a knife attack throughout their training. This is done in conjunction with knife and stick fighting.  When they have learnt all the exercises he tells them to forget it all, using empty hands against a knife exponent is a waste of time.  Consider this admonishment.

No Style
This style comes from those who have no martial arts or knife fighting training but find themselves in such a situation where they feel the need to use a knife.  It could be out of raw hate, natural nasty aggression, or it could be generated through fear for their own lives.  This style can be employed by anyone; women are killing men, kids are killing cops and men are killing each other using the knife.  In every case people who lash out with a knife under these circumstances are quick, aggressive and committed, a hard combination for even the seasoned knife fighter or martial artist to handle.
The weapon is usually deployed before you know it, to get the drop. It may even be in the assailant's hands already, a screwdriver, kitchen knife, fork or even a pen.  Their commitment means distance and footwork are not an issue, there are no attacking lines and the worst part of all, many people who use a knife under extreme circumstances do not usually care about themselves, which makes the danger to you even more extreme.  Your fighting an assassin bent on your destruction, to the exclusion of their own safety.
There is no defensive component of this style, it is all attack and their object is the quick kill.  Watch for that first move, if you can handle that you have a fighting chance, lose at that microsecond and you lose for good.
Your best defense against this type of style is quickly control the situation early.  These perpetrators are not knife fighters but knife killers.  Taking control of the situation and giving them some fear back will level the encounter and start to swing the pendulum your way.  Rely on your training, don't get caught up in their heads.

Martial Arts Style.
I have deliberately left this style until last.  It is for all of those who believe that a classical empty handed  martial art becomes a weapon martial art simply by adding a knife.  For those who think what you can do with a protagonist who hasn't got a weapon in the Dojo is what you can do with someone with a knife in the street.  This is very wrong. Karate, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do or whatever do not translate directly to knife fighting.  Teaching students otherwise is very irresponsible it gives them false confidence, unrealistic expectations and no real knowledge
Empty-handed martial arts don't teach quick deployment of the weapon. They don't take into account the additional distances required to fight knives, they don't consider the damage a knife can do with just a touch (a razor sharp knife doesn't need to be used with power to kill).  Defense systems leave themselves open to fast flashing steel, and an attitude of self preservation is missing as exponents rush into encounters without information or knowledge about the weapon, it capabilities or the capabilities of the user.  The one thing any martial art teaches you is mental conditioning.  Take this from your empty handed martial art and use it as a spring-board to find out about the realities of the knife.  Until then question everything you see, drop the ego and avoid knife encounters, and stay safe.

In conclusion, horses for courses, but a warning; indulge yourself in them all and take the best.  Even the most basic martial arts will give you the mental discipline, but get your knife techniques from someone who knows what they're talking about.  Not each style will suit everyone, but it pays to know what's out there and knowledge is your best friend, 'the antidote for fear' (Ralph Waldo Emerson).  Knife work is not a game or a sport, you can lose for good.  Take no chances, question it all and remember 'its not whether you could or you couldn't, it's whether you would or you wouldn't'.

Many thanks to Colin Wride and Pat Wight for their assistance in preparing this article.

This page was last updated on: February 13, 2009
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