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 situations 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.
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 Targeting – Contemporary 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.