Knife Fighting Do’s and Dont’s

Scott:What they gotcha teachin’ here, young sergeant?

Jackie Black:Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.

Scott:
Don’t you teach ‘em knife fighting. Teach ’em to kill. That way, they
meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to
hell.

Spartan, 2004

There
really is no right answer to knife fighting, except, perhaps, the above
quote. When you’re setting out to write a scene, it’s best to assess
your priorities first and what your story needs. In the real world,
knife combat comes in many different forms and works as a supplemental
weapon in most military disciplines. It’s a common weapon in
self-defense situations, and can be used both by the aggressor and the
defender.

What is a knife?

Primarily, it’s a tool
and, like all tools, there are situations where it thrives and those
where it dies. It succeeds as an ambush weapon, as a builder on hand to
hand, and when fighting in very tight quarters. Combat with knives is
very quick and very deadly. As an ambush weapon, it is often used to
close the distance or rush a target. Allow the knife wielder to get
close to an opponent wielding a sword or a gun before either can be
drawn and they will have the clear advantage. However, take the knife
out of tight environments and it’s effectiveness will decrease
dramatically. This is why it’s unlikely to be the only weapon in a
character’s arsenal, especially not when you’re writing a professional
combatant.

What kind of fight are you writing?

The
knife is a deadly weapon in the hands of anyone, it doesn’t require any
specialized training to be able to wield it. It’s more user friendly to
killing than even a gun and can require less maintenance. Basic
understanding works fine. You pick it up, you stab, and then you stab
some more. The stabs may all go to one place, often the gut, but five or
six into one place will leave the other character bleeding out on the
sidewalk.

It’s up to you on whether or not you want to (or if
it’s even appropriate to your story) write a scene which is more
sophisticated. Remember, it doesn’t have to be. The basic principle of
the knife is incredibly simple: You’re gonna shank a dude.

So, don’t freak out.

When
it comes to a knife, anywhere on the body is a convenient target.
Anywhere. This is one of the few weapons where you really don’t need to
know much about it to write a scene. The knife is fairly intuitive.
Unless your character needs to get fancy with their martial combat, then
you do need to study. Even then, you still need to pick your martial
art and do your research. Plenty of martial styles have a knife
component, so it’s more a matter of searching through the different
styles to find the one which fits your character and story.

Below
the cut, I’ll discuss some basic theory and suggestions that hopefully
will be enough to get you a jumping off point into the fine art of
shanking. This is no means a comprehensive list, just basic beginner
tips.

Knife
fighting isn’t sword fighting with minis. This is the first, and most
important, lesson. They belong in separate categories. Knives are
supplementary weapons in hand to hand and when included significantly
raise the threat level to what that individual intends. When someone
whips out a knife in combat, they are raising the stakes from “someone
might die” to “I definitely want to kill somebody”.

Knife combat
is very fast and any received injury will be devastating. Someone with a
knife versus someone without one has a significant advantage. Knives
are very dangerous and, if your character isn’t careful, a fight can
easily end with a double suicide when both characters are bleeding their
guts out on the side of a highway.

There are a lot of
different kinds of “knife fighting” out there and many different
techniques available for you to look into for your character. The
question is what kind of knife fighting are they trained in/used to?
Many traditional martial arts all around the globe have their own set or
subset of combat tactics when wielding a knife. Military and Police H2H
do as well, though the techniques employed by Police will focus less on
using a knife and more on disarming/subduing an opponent who carries
one. The knife is a very common weapon for street level criminals and
it’s genuinely viewed as the most dangerous of the weapons one can
encounter in that environment. (Yes, even more dangerous than a gun and
also more common.) Some of the more “militant” or “practical”
self-defense subsets advocate using knives for self-defense.

Whatever
you choose to go with in your story, it’s best to remember this one
simple rule when it comes to knife combat: like all bladed weapons,
knives are for killing. If a character pulls a knife on another
character then they are making an active threat on their life. Their
intentions no longer matter, the threat is “if you don’t give me what I
want, I will kill you” or “I plan to kill you”.
Knives are best
suited to opportunistic combat and tight spaces. In a wide view for the
professional combatant, they are usually the fallback weapon or
situational weapon that gets pulled when the character needs to either
be stealthy/carry an easily concealable weapon, or give them an
advantage within tight/confined spaces where a sword, pole arm, or gun
aren’t practical. Knives are easily concealable, very dangerous in
unarmed/unarmored combat, and often end with someone dead or grievously
injured.

If your character specializes in knife combat, then they
need to be able to accurately assess the appropriate situations where
knife combat is viable and where it is not. Weapons are specialized for
different situations. Accept that bringing a knife to a gun fight or
sword fight is a losing proposition if they try to take them head on.
What makes a character “skilled” is not their ability to face all comers
or overcome the rules by virtue of being awesome, it’s in their ability
to accurately assess a situation and develop a plan of action which
plays to their strengths. While their plan may go sideways (no plans are
ever guaranteed success), it’s the thought that counts.

Do Hang onto Your Knife

This
seems like simple and obvious advice, but your character is not
guaranteed to hold onto their knife throughout the entire fight. The
character’s knife can be just as dangerous to them as their opponent’s
if they fail to keep a firm grip. Without properly applied pressure, the
blade can simply slip free, slide through the hand and cut it open, or
be dropped when filled with adrenaline. Cutting and stabbing another
individual relies on pressure, if the character’s grip is not secure
then they may simply lose the knife.
Characters with little to no
combat experience will be more subject to this law. Even so, mistakes
can happen to anyone regardless of experience level.

Do Avoid the Blade

Knives
are very dangerous weapons, any cut your character suffers during the
fight can potentially be lethal. The reason for this is blood loss. The
more active you are, the more blood your body pumps through your heart,
if there is a hole in your body then the more blood will escape during
the fight. The more holes you get, the more blood escapes and there is
nowhere on your body a knife can hit that won’t draw blood. Your veins
are everywhere. One single hit can lead to a chain of from bad to worse.

Knife
fights happen within very close proximity, even if your character is
armed that won’t protect them from getting cut. A character is going to
want to stay out of range of the knife until they are ready to commit.
Instead of grasping and grappling, you’re going to be looking at a fair
amount of ducking, dodging, and deflecting. It’s not like with basic
hand to hand where you’re characters can simply trade blows. The
fighters want to keep the knives as far from them as humanly possible.
Catch the blade either early in the swing (as the arm draws back) or
late in the swing (after they’ve fully extended) to initiate a counter
attack, or cut under as they swing. Whatever your character does, their
priority is going to be on keeping that knife away from them so the
other person cannot reverse and stab.

Use your characters
“free” (non-weapon carrying) hand for blocking, deflecting, and
controlling. Characters who use the Phillipino martial art escrima may
supplement their free hand with a short stick or a baton. Characters
wielding two knives give up their ability to deflect and control their
opponent. They are trading their defensive options for more stabbing
power.

Do Keep Track of the Blade

This is
more for when you the author are writing, but also a good plan for your
characters. When writing fight scenes, especially when both characters
are armed, there’s a bad habit of writers imagining the sequence like a
video game. The knife is important only so long as it’s there to
establish a threat, once one character gets the upper hand then it’s
immediately forgotten.

Don’t forget it’s there. Even if it
gets knocked free or knocked away in the fight. As the writer, always
know where the weapons are even if the other characters forget about
them. Anything can happen with a free weapon. Any other character can
pick it up, any other character can make off with it, and be waiting
when your victorious protagonist walks around the corner. If the
character still has the knife, then they can still stab your protagonist
even when they are winning. Sometimes, even when they are dying.
Keep track of all weapons in the scene.

Don’t Grab the Blade

Your
hand is full of nerves and important tendons necessary for maintaining a
grip. A blade will slice through all of them and cripple your
character, leaving them bleeding and unable to defend themselves. Your
hand is a mechanical marvel, it is incredibly delicate. When damaged, it
can take a long while to recover, assuming it ever does.

This is
why deflection is so important in knife fights, as well as more risky
blocks that expose lesser parts of the body to injury in exchange for
more important ones. These blocks include using the edge of the forearm,
where the bone is closest to the surface and there are few important
muscles, to attempt to catch or lockup the blade in the bone. This is,
however, incredibly risky. Alternate knife grips, such as a reverse
grip, can avoid this block by slashing under instead of the expected
over and sever the veins and tendons before following up with a stab to
the ribs or gut. If you really, really, really must have your character
do something with their hand then instead of grabbing the blade, ram
their hand through it. It is terrible advice and will do long term
damage to the hand, but if there’s no other way out go that route. Your
character will appear slightly smarter because they attempted to lock
the blade up in the bones inside the hand. Locking up the knife creates
an opening for them to attack. It’s definitely a sacrificial gesture,
but if it’s your hand or your life then go with the hand.

Deflect
at the hand, the wrist, the elbow, and upper arm. Make contact with the
opponent and not the blade itself. If your character must attempt a
disarm (very dangerous), catch the wrist or the hand. Take the hilt,
torque the blade against the thumb (not the fingers) to pop it free. The
other character won’t be able to hold onto the blade. Like with most
martial actions, taking the knife isn’t about strength. It’s about
attacking the weak link (the thumb), forcing the hilt into a position
where the attacker can no longer maintain a grip.

Disarms are
exceedingly dangerous to perform. So, when writing, always try ensure
that the necessary body parts are protected and the blade is redirected
somewhere else. Best if it’s in a position where it can no longer come
at you again.

Don’t Fuck Around

One general
problem many authors have is they assume when someone becomes “good”
then basic threats no longer apply. In game terms, they level past
certain dangers and when they do those dangers no longer apply. Now,
this is a common cliche in many martial arts movies. The trick is
understanding that it’s a failing on the part of the student and their
overconfidence inevitably brings them back down to earth.

It
doesn’t matter how good your character is, combat is always dangerous. A
character’s professionalism is defined by how seriously they take the
threats made on their life and the part where they recognize the
inherent danger present in any situation. What they know will not keep
them safe from danger. It gives them a better chance and that’s all.

You
never level past danger. Whether they’ve seen one battle or a hundred,
treat every threat seriously and end it quickly. The longer a fight goes
on, the greater the chance that something will go wrong.

Don’t Prolong Suffering

It’s
cruel. If your character is in a situation where they must kill, then
killing quickly is kindness. While this should probably go under “Don’t
Fuck Around”, this is deserving of its own topic.

In Dune,
when young Paul Atreides must duel Jamis to secure his position within
Stilgar’s Fremen tribe, he is initially condemned by the other members
of the tribe when he prolongs the fight. The issue for him is that while
he is an exceptionally skilled combatant, he’s never killed before and
is hesitant to take a life. However, his lifetime of training has left
him so skilled that the Fremen see his behavior as cruel. It’s obvious
to anyone with eyes that he is going to win. All his hesitance does is
tease his opponent with false hope and prolong his suffering. There is
no out for Paul, he must kill.

This was an important scene in
the novel because of the way it highlighted the difficulty in the act of
killing another human being even when one has been brought up their
life to do so. It also humanized the Fremen. While their laws are strict
and their culture brutal due to their harsh environment, they won’t
thank any protagonist for prolonging the suffering of someone they care
about.

Holding off doesn’t make your character look like a
decent human being. There is more to the conversation than killing bad,
living good. What Paul does to Jamis is a form of torture. It is
unintentional, but that doesn’t change the end result. When your
characters are in a situation where they are more skilled than their
opponent and you have placed them in a situation where they must kill
then mucking around, prolonging the scene, is cruel.

This
doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The scene I put forward from Dune is
powerful and informative, it serves a purpose. What you should do is
recognize the act for what it is, allow other characters to notice the
same, and condemn the character for it.

Don’t Give the Knife Back

If
someone tries to kill you, don’t give them their weapon back once the
fight is over. In novels, this is treated as “sportsmanlike” behavior. A
sign the character has defeated their enemy and are now proving they
are the bigger person. It’s stupid. There’s nothing stopping them from
burying that knife in your character’s back or their ribs the minute
they turn around. Just defeating someone doesn’t stop them from wanting
to kill you. It also won’t stop them from stabbing someone else.

Lots
of characters do this. If you have a character engaging in this
behavior, and they just might, think about it when you write the
consequences of the decision.

Do Lock Up the Hand (and other body parts)

Attack
the portions of the body they use to fight. Carve up the hand/arm first
to get it out of the way, then go for the main body. Author’s often get
too invested in “kill shots”, they sometimes forget that getting from
Point A to the killing blow has intervening steps, like getting through
their defenses. If the character has the option to go straight in to
take them out of the fight and the situation allows it, then all the
better.

However, sometimes a character is going to have to do a
little extra work than just rushing forward and stabbing the other
character. If the other character has a knife, then 9/10 they’ll just be
running into the other person’s knife. This advice goes hand in hand
with “Avoiding the Blade” and keeping track of the weapon. While the
knife can easily be switched between hands, it’s a good idea to create
openings in their defenses. This can be done using either the
“free”/defensive hand or the knife itself. Where the enemy knife is will
be important to targeting and response. Attacking the arm or wrist
holding the blade can be helpful to ending the knife’s threat.

After
all, if they can’t use the arm then they can’t use the knife. These
kinds of blows are, however, just openers to attack the other more
sensitive parts of the body.

You’re not just attacking veins.
Good slashes will also cut through or damage the muscles and ligaments
necessary for a person to keep fighting. In this respect, it’s best to
think of knife combat as surgical. While on the one hand, it can be
blunt. It can also be incredibly precise and ridiculously fast. This
kind of speed and precision you won’t get from a longer weapon.

Do Study Police Blotters and Medical Files

Knife
injuries will teach you more about knife combat than all the techniques
in the world. Learning what a weapon can do to somebody is part and
parcel to developing a healthy respect for the weapon. When we get right
down to it, knife combat is pretty gruesome.

Do Remember There Are Different Kinds of Knives

There’s the dagger.
Daggers typically possess two edges or are double-sided blades. They
are the traditional variant of the combat knife. Daggers, such as the
parrying dagger from fencing, can also be used as tools or secondary
defensive weapons instead of offensive.

And the knife.
Typically possess a single edge, primarily used for cutting, and are
tools. However, the term also applies to most modern combat knives.

The terms can be used interchangeably.

What
is your character carrying? A tactical knife? A switchblade? A kitchen
knife? These are different and one isn’t a weapon. I mean just look and those are just the modern ones. Also keep in mind that throwing knives are not the same as throwing a knife.
Throwing knives are made for throwing, if your character is throwing a
regular knife then they need to make some adjustments for weight and
balance.

Worth remembering: throwing a regular knife just means
your character has lost theirs. Knife throwing has become a narrative
fast hand for saying that “my character has impressive accuracy” and
often used in cases where it makes very little sense. Knife throwing is a
skill, as throwing anything is a skill. It’s a very nice party trick,
but means almost nothing in regards to combat viability. It’s a lot like
tossing around a baseball or a paper airplane. Anything you throw and
don’t want to lose, you still have to go out and retrieve.

Because
knives are also tools, be prepared to distinguish between the
improvised weapon (such as cutlery or any utility knife) and the actual
weapon such as a combat knife (a weapon designed around the idea of
stabbing another living person). For characters who use knives for
combat will not mix the two unless it’s absolutely necessary as it
damages the knife’s functionality both as a weapon and also as a tool.

Do Use Sensation Appropriate Verbs

Depicting combat in your writing is often about finding the right words that generate the appropriate feel of the motion you’re aiming for. In this case, hard sharp words like cut, thrust, slice, slash, stab, drove, instead of hard but round words implying crushing force like “hit”. “He hit him with the knife.” Does that sound right? When we use the word “hit“ we conjure images of kinetic force, a knockback, and a slight bounce. Words that imply blunt force trauma are out, unless it involves hitting someone with the butt of the knife hilt (though why would you do that? It’s not a sword pommel). Knives and bladed weapons go “in”, they impale. There is driving force behind the edged weapon, but also a sense of smoothness in the action.

Soft words also can work in certain situtations like : slip or slid, like “he slid the blade between his ribs”.

You can also use words like “caught” to convey what happens to the blade when it penetrates the body. “She tried to yank it back, but the blade had caught in Adam’s ribcage.”

I hope these have been helpful to you.

-Michi

Resources:

Stay Safe Media
– This self defense vlog run by edged weapon’s expert Michael Janich is
very helpful for those looking to get quick information about knives
and knife combat. Janich’s predominate focus is on self-defense, but he
puts a primary focus on framing the training through real life
situations. His videos have been very helpful to me and hopefully will
be to some of you as well.

Contemporary Knife TargetingContemporary Knife Targeting
by Michael Janich isn’t really about targeting per say, it’s mainly
about William Fairburn’s Timetable of Death, which is used by Police and
Military to determine how long someone has from resulting knife
injuries and why it’s flawed. This is pretty much why I recommend the
book because it spends a vast majority of it’s time going in depth into a
discussion of how quickly someone will die from which injury. If you
want to write about knife fights, this one is worth a look.

Dune – Frank Herbert’s Dune
has some very well written knife sequences, but also good world
building explanations for certain kinds of behavior. The Fremen culture
is very reactive to what Paul and Jessica do when they join. Paul
must convince them he is what he says. While stories in which the hero
isn’t given carte blanche to do what they like aren’t uncommon,
characters dealing with consequences other than the basic “death is bad”
or “I can’t believe you did that” are slightly more unusual. There are
more kinds of horror and emotional rollercoasters than just easily
grasped indignation.

Spartan
– I linked the above quote at the beginning and while Spartan doesn’t
talk about “knife fighting”, you do see another colder perspective in
the main character. It’s more about attitude than knives, but worth
considering.

U.S. Military, Systema, Israeli Military, Kali and
Escrima from the Philippines, and many other martial systems have a
knife component to their training. It’s up to you to decide what level
of knife combat your character is trained in and find a style which
corresponds accordingly.

As always, keep in mind that combat
constantly changes, evolves, and grows over time. All martial systems
are not created equal, they were developed to deal with specific
challenges faced by the culture in question. While they might not lose
cultural relevance, combat effectiveness changes with the times. A
character who spends his weekends practicing Kendo or Iaido is not the
same as a samurai from 1185. The modern special forces, or even just the
basic soldier, are a better comparison.

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