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).

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