Knife Fighting Instruction

MacHeath had a jackknife, which he kept out of sight, and used almost poetically if Bobby Darin’s description is any indication. Jim Croce gave Bad Bad Leroy Brown a .32 gun in his pocket for fun and a razor in his shoe, and he didn’t specify what Big Jim Walker carried, but a knife sounds a safe bet.

Leroy Brown, after his encounter, looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone, whereas for Jim, after the cutting was done, only the soles of his feet were not covered in blood. Specifically, he was cut in about 100 places and shot in a couple more.

Knife fighting has long been a romantic concept, bound with ideas of honor and masculinity. After all, there’s heavy symbolism in stabbing the flesh of another with a phallic shaped instrument. As an expression of dominance, it places the recipient in the female role by definition. Makes you wonder what the hell Jim Bowie was overcompensating for.

From where did all this lyrical romanticism derive? Maybe it was because knife fighting is an evolution of the code duello, i.e., an extension to the knife rather than sword. Or maybe it is just a class issue, after all, legendary fighters are usually of common stock, which is not surprising considering that the people relating the tales often had a class tradition of using knives to settle disputes of honor. See the cites at the end for a couple examples.

If you’ve gotten the impression that I dislike knife fighting, well, you’re both right and wrong. I don’t ever want to be in a knife fight, and of the dozens of schools or seminars I’ve been to that have taught knife skills, I don’t especially care for the way any of them train for knife encounters.

In real life, the recipient may not even know he or she is being stabbed until the encounter is over. With the adrenaline pumping, many participants have engaged in fistfights only to figure out after it was all over that the other fella brought a knife to a fistfight and the sneaky son of a bitch didn’t advertise the fact. Another point is that the targets are almost always the abdomen or head, both of which I’d like to keep intact. For more detail on knife encounter studies check out James LaFond’s book. LaFond is another local who enjoys whacking people with sticks.

One of the problems is that pretty much any knife defense is intrinsically false. Scenario training is great, but if you’re training scenarios, you know you are about to be attacked, and you know the knife is potentially a part of the attack at some point. For example, these guys (I saw this link on the blog I mention below, you really only need to watch the first encounter to get the point) do a great job of showing just how tough a committed attack can be to defend, but even so they know the attack is coming and they are also limited as to how and what targets they can attack safely.

Knife on knife sparring, which I have participated in to no end and still quite enjoy, is so ludicrous as to make me wonder if I’m going to break out into song and dance with the Jets and Sharks. The idea that a realistic knife scenario is two people starting with similar weapons yards apart and then fencing makes me wonder who thinks these things up.

I do think it is illuminating that one of my instructor’s who knew him well used to quote Dan Inosanto on the subject of the knife disarms we were taught in FMA. The gist was that he did not recommend them; if you couldn’t get out of the situation, the disarms were the last line of defense, the first being something along the lines of a beer mug, chair, or other improvised weapon. The point of the disarms was that at least it was something to fall back on if your day suddenly got really bad, and at least it gave you something to train.

In that same vein, I did stumble across a promising blog on knife self defense the other day. There is not a lot of content yet, but of the content I read there, I liked. For example, here’s a bit about the “best knife defense”:

When you compare the best knife defense, well hands down, I would recommend using the following, listed by the best ways and if you have the cash.

  • firearm
  • taser
  • long metal stick
  • garbage can lid
  • a chair

As you can well imagine, I was intrigued by such a sensible response.

Here’s the link to the blog that that quote came from: Simple Knife Defense

Here are the articles I mentioned earlier:

Thomas W. Gallant, “Honor, Masculinity, and Ritual Knife Fighting in Nineteenth-Century Greece,” American Historical Review, Vol 105, No. 2 ( April 2000).

Pieter Spierenburg, “Knife Fighting and Popular Codes of Honor in Early Modern Amsterdam,” in Spierenburg, ed., Men and Violence: Gender, Honor and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Columbus, Ohio, 1998).

Butting in the Revolutionary War

For Independence Day, I thought the following account would be an appropriate choice. It is an excerpt from a butting article I am working on (I have collected dozens of these types of accounts) that took place during the Revolutionary War. Butting, in its broadest sense, was headbutting. It was predominantly practiced by African-Americans, and was, I argue, practiced as play, sport, spectacle, and combat.

People were not the only participants in butting encounters; both animals and certain inanimate objects ended up on the business end of butting heads. Butting’s closest brush with fame came with the Revolutionary War heroics of slave Jack Sisson. On the night of July 9, 1777, a daring raid, consisting of an all-volunteer commando or forty-one men, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Barton, made its way in whaling boats through enemy waters to land on the northern end of Rhode Island. The group proceeded to the Overing House, which British Major General Richard Prescott used as his headquarters, and subdued the sentry at the gate.

Accounts differ, but either the front door or the general’s bedroom door was locked and, on the second try, the smallish Sisson butted through the door panel with his head and the door was opened. The general was quickly captured and rushed out of the house in a state of undress. The group captured the general, his aide-de-camp, and the sentry, and slipped back to their own lines. (Field, Edward (ed.). State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History, Vol I)

The ignominious elements of Prescott’s capture were immortalized in a ballad that circulated after the affair:

A tawney son of Afric’s race
Them through the ravine led,
And entering then the Overing house,
They found him in his bed.

But to get in they had no means
Except poor Cuffee’s head,
Who beat the door down, then rushed in,
And seized him in his bed.

Stop, let me put my breeches on,
The general then did pray.
Your breeches, massa, I will take,
For dress we cannot stay.

(Kaplan, Sydney. Black Presence in Era of American Revolution).

Unfortunately for Sisson, the one thing he continued to regret, according to Barton biographer Catherine Williams, was that his name never appeared in any accounts of the action. (Kaplan). As well as being unnamed, he has been variously called Jack Sisson, Tack Sisson, Prince, Quaco (a different person altogether), and as seen in the ballad above, Cuffee.

Barton’s own account neglected mention of the butting completely, but Sisson’s obituary finally included an account of the incident. (Providence Gazette, November 3, 1821).

Paper Bludgeon: the Millwall Brick

The other day I read a post on Boing Boing about constructing the Millwall Brick, which is the first I had heard of it. The Millwall (or Chelsea) Brick is an improvised weapon constructed out of rolled and folded newspaper.

The history behind the Milwall Brick is that football (soccer) hooligans, frisked at the gates, were limited in the types of weapons they could smuggle into the matches. The innocuous newspaper allowed them a quickly accessible weapon at their disposal should the fistic festivities kick off.

Instructions for making one can be found here, but the photo sequence they show pretty much covers it:

Millwall brick assembly

Now, I’m all for improvised weapons, but this looks almost like more trouble than it’s worth. It seems to me a rolled-up magazine used as a thrusting weapon would be far more useful, not to mention quicker to implement.

Then again, the South Londoners know what they’re about when it comes to football violence, so I guess I need to make one and do a couple test whacks with it to really understand it. At first glance, it just looks too short to do anything worthwhile. Maybe that’s part of the fun: you can have a less-lethal weapon that will save your fists in a punch up and not land you in the chokey for attempted murder.

“You say the defendant then viciously attacked you with a newspaper? The defense rests, your honor.”

William Ewart Fairbairn: The Legendary Instructor

Combatives researcher Phil Mathews has put together another excellent biographical article on yet another combatives pioneer. This time the subject is none other than William Ewart Fairbairn, possibly the biggest name in the field.

Fairbairn spent time in the Royal Marines in the 1900s, the Shanghai Municipal Police in the 1920s, then taught combatives at Camp X in Canada and in America during WWII. During that time he studied judo, jujutsu, chinese boxing and various other arts which he synthesized into his own style of dirty fighting that he taught to law enforcement and soldiers.

How dirty was Fairbairn’s dirty fighting? My favorite line from Phil’s article is the quote from a Fairbairn student: “Within 15 seconds, I came to realize that my private parts were in constant jeopardy!”

The article fills in some gaps and clears up some misconceptions about what “everybody knows” about Fairbairn’s life and work. To read it in full, see William Ewart Fairbairn: The Legendary Instructor

Phil also recommends Peter Robins’ book The Legend of W.E. Fairbairn, Gentleman and Warrior: The Shanghai Years:

For more on the 1920s Shanghai Municipal Police, also check out Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai: