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Knives 101: When You Must Carry A Blade Instead Of A Gun For Self-Defense

KnifeYou can find a lot of actual wisdom in folk wisdom. One of my favorites is “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” In general this is very sound advice. But, like all great rules, it requires exceptions to prove it.

First, let me just say that going armed is a serious responsibility. It is not cliché at all to say that it is a matter of life and death. It doesn’t matter if it is a knife, a gun or a plastic Spork that you have sharpened into a prison shank, the responsibility is the same. When you carry a deadly weapon, you commit yourself to meeting deadly force in kind, and you shoulder the responsibility of recognizing when restraint should be exercised. Legally and morally speaking, you don’t want to be caught out on the wrong side of a bad decision where deadly force is concerned.

On a personal note, I always feel calmer when armed. It has been said that an armed society is a polite society, and I think it is true. Things that really make me mad when not armed roll off when I am. The possibility of deadly force puts things in perspective, and there are very few things in life that make it worth going there.

So, why might one choose to carry a knife rather than a gun for self-defense? There are some instances where the choice makes sense. If I am going to be banking or frequenting locations that prohibit firearms, I will often opt for a blade rather than a handgun. It is important to note that many state and local laws look at certain knives in the same light as guns in terms of being a concealed weapon; this includes double-edged daggers and fixed blades over a certain length. However, most businesses that prohibit concealed carry specify firearms rather than weapons in general. An edged weapon can be a nice loophole in these instances, but be aware of and in compliance with all applicable laws. I never rely solely on a knife when in a high-threat environment, but realize that in the times we live in there is virtually no such thing as a zero-threat environment.

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A knife, like any other weapon, should never be used as a deterrent. Drawing and brandishing your blade is assault with a deadly weapon if it isn’t justified, and it is only justified if there is a credible threat to life and limb. Presenting any weapon in any other circumstance is a very bad idea. It seldom mediates and often escalates a situation, and it makes you the aggressor. Concealed weapons serve one purpose and one purpose only — to eliminate a threat when all other reasonable means have failed to preserve your own life or the life of other innocents (like your kids). If it’s just about a wallet, let ‘em have it; I have never had enough in my pocket to justify killing or injuring someone, no matter how low that someone may be.

Once you have decided that you are facing a credible threat, actions must be swift and violent. This is even more critical with a knife than with a gun. The last thing you want to get into is a knife fight. Helpful hint: In a knife fight almost everyone gets cut, good guys and bad guys alike. When the blade clears leather, your one goal is to eliminate a threat, quickly and decisively. Warnings at this point only give your adversary a chance to prepare. If the blade is out, conversation has already failed.

Law enforcement has long been taught the “20 foot Rule.” This rule states that if you are facing an assailant with a knife at 20 feet or less, and your weapon is not already drawn and aimed, the guy with the knife stands a good chance of getting to you before you get him. Coincidentally, CCW training generally involves qualifying with a pistol at 7 yards, one foot beyond the magic 20-foot barrier. This is the line in the sand, if you haven’t gotten the bad guy by this mark you might not get him. This is not all bad news. The flip side is that if you are the guy with the knife, you still have a chance of taking out an adversary armed with a gun. Making that charge will take nerves of steel and a level of determination that will only come with a lot of adrenaline and a healthy dose of desperation. This is not something you would do unless you are certain that you or a loved one will be killed otherwise, but the option is there with a chance of success if the need truly arises. This is not something I would do to save a wallet or a car (even a really sweet car!), but definitely would if one of my kids’ life is on the line.

For personal defense, I choose knives with fixed blades. As I have said, when a knife comes out it is time for immediate and violent action. There isn’t a lot of shock and awe in fumbling with the blade of a folding knife. Assisted open knives may be a good option, it has just been my experience that mechanical devices have a tendency to fail at the worst possible time. There is nothing to go wrong with a fixed blade knife.

I have recently taken a shine to Karambits. I am coming to think that this style of knife is uniquely well-suited to personal defense. I am tempted to proclaim the Karambit the perfect defensive blade, but that is a very subjective matter. The perfect knife is a very individual choice. If someone were to tell me that they thought the Kissing Crane Leg knife was the best defensive knife ever I wouldn’t argue the point, although that person has got to be nuts!

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I like the Karambit for several reasons. First and foremost is the finger hole at the end of the handle. With your pinky or index finger through the hole there is very little chance that you will drop your weapon, no matter how sweaty and shaky they become. I also like the curved blade, perfect for broad sweeping cuts. Finally, the Karambits are a lot of knife in a compact package. The shape means you get more edge in less overall length, and these knives are very easy to conceal and carry.

Although there is plenty of training and technique available for the Karambit, it is a very intuitive weapon to use. With a reverse grip, index finger through the finger hole and blade protruding from the bottom of the fist, if you know how to throw a punch you are good to go. In the standard grip, pinky through the finger hole and blade protruding from the top of the fist, you have a very effective slashing and slicing weapon. In this context, there is no finesse or grace required; you are a horror movie slasher plain and simple. On a more developed tactical note, the Karambit is well-suited to incapacitating the hands. Grasp your opponent’s wrist with your off hand and with your knife in the reversed grip slice through the forearm severing the tendons and ligaments that control the hand and fingers. If you find yourself on the ground the same thing can be done to the Achilles tendon, bringing your adversary down. All of these tactics work with other styles of knife as well, for my tastes though, the Karambit is particularly well-suited to the task.

Whatever knife you choose, realize that it is a tool first. If all goes well you will never need to draw your blade in defense. There are, however, about 150 occasions on the average day where a good knife is needed for a mundane task. In this regard, a knife is a better choice than a gun. If, however, you are going into a high threat situation, go with the gun. You don’t want to show up with a knife at a gun fight but, with a little prep, don’t count yourself out if it should happen.

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18 comments

  1. Is there a particular brand/model or steel you’d recommend? A quick Google search showed alot of choices…what is a good blade for under $100 for example? Good article, I’ve been looking for a blade to carry concealed for awhile now…this article sold me on the Karambit.

    • i wear a neck knife under my shirt you can look at jantz.com they have some good knives made of 1095 steel and neck sheaths also that are very reasonable

      • sorry website is under knifemaking.com for jantz supplies

      • sorry the correct website for jantz supplies is knifemaking.com

      • I like knives and I always have but I definitely agree that it is quite a big RESPONSIBILITY and one that carries with it grave repercussions if you make a bad decision in the heat of the moment. For one thing if you tend to be a hothead then I would say weapons are not good things for you to be carrying. Your impulsiveness could easily lead to life in prison for yourself. The times where you are legally justified to use lethal force are very rare indeed and what looks dire to you in the dark of night may look like excessive force to the man on the street in the light of day. If you don’t carry a weapon I really feel that you have a good chance of never needing one but…..

    • Hickabilly’s comment below concerning knives that have been hand-made from old saw blades reminded me of something cool I saw recently. I refer to the Vanadium Viper. This is a karambit, hand forged from a 3/4 Chrome Vanadium Tool Steel Wrench. Thing is awesome! Unfortunately it does not fall into the under $100 category, and is out of my budget. You can check it out at karambits.com , this site features very upper end karambits, and I use it to find cool stuff that I want to find inexpensive copies of, hoping one day to have the funds to get the real deal!

      I recently picked up an Mtech karambit for under 20 dollars and have been well pleased with it so far. I wear the kydex sheath to the inside of my belt (but outside the waist band) slightly to the right of center at the small of my back. It is very handy in this location and mimics my preferred CCW position making the transition from handgun to knife carry more natural.

      I also made a new discovery about the blade design of the karambit the other day. We had to slaughter a hog that had been misbehaving and I used the Mtech karambit for the gutting phase of the job. The curved blade was perfect for opening the body cavity, worked a lot like a Wyoming Knife. It was, however, completely useless for skinning which was no surprise at all.

  2. Lots of quality knives out the for under $100 Tony, shop around. My two favorites are both handmade knives that were cut from an old sawmill blade. They’re high carbon steel, which will rust fairly easily, but sharpens to a literal razor edge with little effort. Stainless holds up well to the elements and looks good, but is tougher to sharpen.

  3. I am a retired Stagehand. When I was working I wore a toolbelt with what was sold as a EMS pouch on my right side. In an outside pocket I always had a big folder Like a buck
    knife. I had a mag light and other tools too. On the belt a 6″crescent on the left and an 8″
    oversized head crescent on the right. I could deploy any of my tools with one hand. I had to be able to do this because I might be on a short ladder to a 100″ in the air and needed
    the other hand to hang on with. I could pull the knife out of the pouch gripping the open
    part of the blade and just flip it open using the weight of the rest of the knife. I never dropped a knife in the theater. For a stagehand a knife is a tool I used every day. When I left the theater downtown at maybe 2am or later at night, I always kept a sharp eye out and never was accosted by anybody. I am not a small guy helps.

  4. My two favorites are both handmade knives that were cut from an old sawmill blade.

  5. Vincent Victorious

    I worked 16 years in security, so I get some true experience in violent confrontation, even with guerrilla warfare. In those days the weapons was an S&W M19 4″ barrel with 158 grains +P+ solid SWC (no HP allowed) in the holster, a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun with number 4 buckshot ammo or a 9MM mini Uzi sub machine gun in the commander car: no knives. But after a years of experience and several trainings I find that a discret and fast draw knife is best for a very near attack from no where, surrounded of peoples. So I begin to use automatic knives (no law problem in my country) in the front shirt pocket. Not US$100.oo plus expensive ones, but the affordables, so I have now 3 of them: a Boker Kalashnikov 74, a Schrade SC60B and a S&W SW50B. The Boker and S&W open very hard, the Schrade a bit less; all the blades are 3 1/4″ and acceptables SS with 55 to 59 Rockwell hardness, all black finish. I think that the most expensive knife can fail…not so 3 different knives. The most important point: LEARN how to use the knife and have the proper mindset and courage to do that.

  6. The article itself was well written and informative. However many of the comments are frightening. I am not a knife snob, but firmly believe in buying quality. As the old adage goes, “Don’t buy a five dollar knife unless you have five dollar fingers.” Blade steels, lock, and handles can and do fail, especially on cheaper knives. You get what you pay for. Cold Steel makes good affordable knives. The Bark River Knives as seen in the articles photos are excellent, but being carbon steel require regular cleaning and maintenance. Do the research. A knife could save or cost you your life.

  7. A knife for self defense is not a bad idea with a little training. Guns are only good if you have a little distance and a little time time to react. Two things you normally don’t have in a surprise life or death situation. From concealed carry in a surprised state, even a fast draw is a few seconds to draw and aim. A fixed blade or wave knife in reverse grip can be deployed and find it’s mark in under a second. My waved spyderco Endura can go from pocket to 3 in deep with a long slash in 3/4 of a second. Most people I have found can do this with minimal training on a waved knife in reverse grip, not just knife experts. For those of you that don’t think 1 second makes a difference, you should see what someone with a little training and a sharp knife can do to the human body in a second. If someone even knows a little bit about how to use a knife, and gets it out before you get your gun, you will never finish your draw. No matter how fast you think you are, it’s hard to draw a gun when your muscles are no longer attached to your ligaments. Even a $20 knife can do that no problem.

    I love my concealed 9mm, but after taking a few courses with knives, I know for a fact I am no match for a guy with a knife at close distances. When neither of us had a weapon in hand, and the order was given to draw the trainers consistently could deploy a knife and take out your strong arm and neck before anyone in the class could clear the holster at 10 feet. Only took a few minutes to learn how to do that for myself. That’s why I also carry a waved knife or fixed blade in reverse grip. I’m in the fight and seriously wounding them in under 3/4 of a second, that gives me time to get some distance to draw if necessary, time I would not have had without my knife.

    Learn to use both, if you think a gun will protect you from a guy with a knife at 15 feet or less you are dead wrong, don’t find that out the hard way.

    • I agree. You need both tools for differing circumstances. I can draw and shoot from a concealed position in under two seconds but most people cannot. I have seen experts draw from concealed and shoot in under 1 second (guys like Inspector Zero) but I can’t do that. I prefer my gun but in a pinch and close quarters an edged weapon is handy as you said to at least give a chance to get more distance. A sustained knife fight is bad news for both combatants.

  8. My Grandpa successfully defended his life with a knife. In his younger days 2 men jumped off a porch and headed at him aggressively as he walked down the sidewalk in a residential area (overseas on leave during war time and on a date with a local woman). One man had grabbed a improvised weapon. When the first guy came to him grandpa grabbed his 4″ blade, flicked it open and stabbed the man in the leg. He thought it severed tendons by the reaction to the injury. The second guy hauled ass immediately. He said he never even thought of going for his .45 that he carried. When people say knives and low caliber handguns are lethal but lack stopping power I think of grandpa’s surviving a bad situation. I also think of this guy… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHSXZnxLZ0I

  9. A great article, thanks. I really love Doug Marcaida’s work. He did a great video series on knife v gun and how to beat the 21 foot rule. Here is the video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDPlWAq-11I

  10. Pens and even pencils can stab and they are legal everywhere in the world.

  11. I like how you pointed out that no one should use a knife as a deterrent. I think that people should also to make sure to find the right, quality knife. I’m a fan of automatic knives, and I’m trying to find a good one to give to my son’s fiance as a wedding gift.

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