Knife fighting... I don't get it...

I have heard explanations of swordplay technique and been to fencing matches; I think I have a basic grasp of the principles of swordfighting. With a sword you can parry the opponent’s attacks. You also get to stand a decent distance apart.

But knife fighting?!? A nasty concept that makes me cringe to even think about it. Most knives are so short you wouldn’t have much to parry with except your arm. I just don’t see how you could really parry a knife with another knife.

And you have to get in awfully close. If you get in close enough to strike, you have no defense that I can think of. Sure, you’re attacking too, but with no defense against a knife, you’re really asking for it.

I suppose you would have to use your free hand to grab the opponent’s knife hand and turn it away. I’m used to the fencing style where the free hand is held behind you. To use it to grab the other guy seems—I don’t know—ungentlemanly. Messy, confused, grappling as in a bar brawl. Where’s the artistry in that? Fencing has a spatial, geometrical beauty to it that’s lost when you start grappling.

I have been told that certain circles actually have cultivated an art of knife fighting. I suppose, out of force of necessity—survival—you might be forced to learn techniques of success in knife fighting. But it’s just hard for me to even think about.

I’m not quite sure what the actual question is, but…

There are a lot of styles to knife fighting. Many of them are based on SE Asian martial arts which transition from empty hand to sticks to knives with the same techniques. Escrima, Arnis, and Kali are typical of these, and they do contain blocking techniques as well as attacks. While these arts typically use longer knives than your basic pocket lockblade, and they often use blades in both hands, there is a lot of subtle art in being able to block with the sides and back of the blade and save the cutting edge for attacks.

There are also knife-fighting techniques which advocate no blocking. They use pass and avoidance techniques in defense and use the knife only for attack. This is relatively effective in the real world because realistic knife attacks are not like the movie portrayal of two opponents squared off at one another with a knife and a stern look. That might look great in West Side Story, but in a real knife fight you are unlikely to even see the blade before it strikes. While I have no direct experience, my training and discussions with very skilled martial artists who train with knives as well as police officers who deal with the aftermath indicates that most situations are closer to a blind-side shanking than a gentlemanly duel.

Keeping your free hand behind you and avoiding anything ungentlemanly may be good for polite fencing contests, but do you think a real life-or-death duel with rapiers would bear any resemblance to what you do with a foil? You can’t compare the rules and etiquette of a sport to the real world, and most people I know who train seriously with knives are firmly rooted in practical application.

Think of knife fighting as unarmed combat with sharp fists.

Look for Balisong and Kali silat in Google - that should get you started.

Aside - anyone know how practical these knife arts would be in a real situation, compared to other martial arts?

Speaking as someone who has never knife fought, or been taught even rudimentary technique:

If you were going to parry an attack with a knife, you would parry the arm of the attacker, not the knife of the attacker.

Obviously, knife fighting is not a gentleman’s sport. The only advantage of a knife over a sword is that it is conceilable and quicker, neither of which are gentlemanly advantages.

What I read in the Anarchist’s Cookbook, or some similar piece of trash:

A man with basic training in fighting with knives will fight with an uneven stance, knife arm forward.

A man with expert training in fighting with knives will fight with an uneven stance, free hand forward.

I assume that the basic tactic is to just try to keep your knife between you and your opponent, and stab anything that comes within range. You would be looking just to wound your opponent badly enough so that he can’t or won’t fight any more.

I assume that the expert tactic is to try to bind the opponent’s knife arm, unbalance the opponent, etc., in order to set up an unobstructed blow with the knife, which would likely be enough to seriously wound or kill the opponent.

In any case, I would guess that knife fighting has far more in common with martial arts than sword fighting.

As with any martial art, it depends on your instructor and the amount of training you do. I know some people who do kali, escrima and arnis who would be extremely effective in a real fight, with or without knives. Some of these styles start with knives and progress to empty hands. Others start with empty hands and progress to knives. In both cases, the same basic techniques are used with empty hands, sticks, and knives, and they are very fast and brutally effective. On the other hand, I’ve seen some knife fighters who couldn’t battle their way out of a paper bag. It’s the artist, not the art.

The way of the Gaucho is not for you, my friend.

The point is that a knife is a far better weapon that a fist, and can be carried in many areas where/when a gun cannot. A knife also has utility, it is not clearly a weapon, it has many uses. I have a huge old folding knife I used for cutting up boxes to recycle, which I sometimes have to do in the alley at night. Thus my “tool” would make an excellent weapon, although my actual reason for it is for cutting cardboard.

Sure, a serious black belt in martial arts- one who HAS seen “real action”- would be able to disarm me, even though I know how to knife fight. But there aren’t many of those (most dudes who take some martial arts would simply “freeze up” at the sight of that large piece of sharp steel, and I’d win easily). And a dude with a gun would win 99% of the time- and 90% if he had a nightstick and knew how to use it.

Thus, in my situation, where my only “weapon” might be a knife- learning how to knife fight is a good idea.

<Ted Cassidy>
Rules? In a knife fight??? No rules!
</Ted Cassidy>

Actually, that’s probably not true. A lot of martial arts teach knife defense and disarm techniques, but most of these do not also teach knife attacks, so they always practice their techniques against poor or idealized attacks. I’ve seen a number of cases where a karate/kung fu/aikido/jujutsu student was an expert at performing that style’s anti-knife techniques and could do so flawlessly against one of their fellow students, but when paired with a trained knife fighter, say a kali or escrima student, the disarms would fail miserably. I’m not talking about pairing a kali expert against a poor aikido student, but take anyone with even a little dedicated knife training and put them against someone who has trained anti-knife techniques in a non-knife art, and I’ll put my money on the blade.

That’s not to say that disarms and unarmed knife defense techniques are worthless, only that many are not realistically trained and many martial artists who think they have these skills could not actually use them in a real situation (which is true of many martial arts skills). You can get rubber practice knives with paint strips on them so they leave a mark when they cut, and demos with these can be very illuminating for people who think their martial art has taught them to disarm a knife attack. Often they’ll get their disarm or joint lock only to find ink marks across their chest and both arms.

What’s the deal with the reverse grip you see in the movies. Is that just for show like holding a gun sideways?

No, despite a lot of talk you hear that a reverse grip is never used by a real knife fighter, the reverse grip is actually used in some techniques.

The link below discusses the basic grips, specifically the myth that the reverse grip is better/worse:
Other articles on the same site discuss the basics of knife fighting and some legal issues.

Thank goodness.

I once had a jiu jitsu instructor who said that if an attacker holds a knife in the reverse grip, run like hell. IIRC, it makes the movements far more compact and therefore much more difficult to get inside of.

I’ve never had to use a knife in a real world situation, (damn glad about that!),
but one of my earliest instructors taught me to hold all short, (less than 4inches blade length), single edged knives in a reverse grip, cutting edge outboard. This turns your fist into a lethal slashing instrument on an outward strike, and a lethal stabbing instrument on the backstroke.
This grip also has the added benefit of making the weapon easier to conceal from your enemy…with a slight twist of your wrist you can move the blade behind and parallel to your forearm.


I am NOT advocating reverse grip as the “ONLY” way to grip, there are just too many different scenarios in the real world to throw out some blanket statement about how “real men only use the forward, or reverse, grip”

Situation dictates.


our resident Czech Republic doper, sorry I think the name is close to Tomndeb, is a escrima guy. Sure he’s got some comments.

The Stranger, that’s a kenpo move, which starts out with empty hands and then after a few years those that are so inclined tend to play with weapons as an extension of the hand. Anyhoo, hold the knife haft in your hand with the blade back along the forearm cutting edge out, strike the sternum with the pommel, slice up across the pects and then bring it back down into the neck or clavical area.

Ed Parker for those that know who he is used to tell a story of a kreal life nife fighter in LA that favored a linoleum knife. In training, the guy took out a lot of Ed’s black belts, but big Ed noticed the technique was flawless except for the guy’s empty hand was a little over extended. Ed got him by that arm. Ed was glad he didn’t have to do that little number in real life.

Author/actor Edward Bunker (Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs) who spent his adolescence and much of his adult life in prison, witnessed a knife fight as a youth. He describes it in his autobiography. It’s pretty much as the OP describes - nasty, violent, and fatal to both the loser and the “winner”. Bunker goes on to cite this as the reason why, despite having led a fairly violent life himself, he never carried a knife.

I was told, or read, that the reason for using “sticks” in some martial arts was that peasants weren’t allowed swords. Thus, the sticks looked harmless but could be used to break or damage the wrist/forearm of a swordsman. Thus damaged, the swordsman was helpless (assuming no other training than sword fighting). Is this true? Would it work against a knife fighter?

I agree the most martial arts training against knives is meant to disarm the un-trained attacker, not a weapons-trained martial artist.