The Pennsylvania Knife
In every facet of every society, the knife has been and continues to be an incredibly important part of every person’s life. Like fire, you just can’t live well without it. They are so prevalent they are mostly ignored, leaving an enormous knowledge gap that can only exist in a complacent society that thinks close combat is a thing of the past and that a knifes only job is cutting tomatoes.
Funny thing is people still find themselves whittling and cutting toward themselves or working in close quarters and cutting toward their buddy. The knife demands respect and the consequences of disrespect are maiming and death. It’s still a seat belt cutter, still a pry bar and still your last best hope where a gun cannot go.
There are many knives in my social circle, id describe my area as a Kershaw/Kabar kind of place. These wouldn’t be my first choice but they’re stout enough blades for the work we do and typically, your work is the key factor in your knife choices if any true labor is involved. Ninety percent of these knives are dull–with crusty, gritty innards and slippery handles–held lazily and used carelessly with few exceptions.
All tools–especially those you carry–should be maintained as well as your car or gun and should be used with just as much care. This treatise exists to help cure the blind spot in our culture. This is less about martial technique and more just a short work on what a long term relationship with a good tool should look like.
If a Kali or Silat practitioner happens to stumble upon this, keep in mind, we just don’t have that here right now. We have a knife culture, but it’s not an educated one and that needs to change. Many of these people don’t leave themselves the time to commit to learning in person and this may well be the closest some get to understanding how to use a knife in the gravest extremes.
I have over ten years of uninterrupted martial training, first in a Korean strike based system, then in Wing Chun. Before WC, I ran the knife through that Korean system (Shim Gum Do) and now, I run it through the WC system. Even before I trained, I was trying to find these solutions and stumbled across a lot of knife fighting data from then to now. I always had a partner to work the concepts with and after ten plus years of banging my head against a wall; I feel like I know what I’m talking about to the extent of what I’m going to share.
I’ve called this project the PA Knife because this is the result of growing up in PA, having access to tons of knives, but zero schools. This is no more than incredibly important bare bones information. If I had a school, id leave it up to my Sifu, if I could find a school, id just tell people to visit but we just haven’t got it yet. So here we are.
Very few knife smiths are left in the world. You are unlikely to send your knife away for a checkup; it is at once too important to send away and not important enough to spend a third of the cost to keep it in fighting shape. For dependable results, learn to do it yourself.
The first aspect is sharpening and this isn’t exactly something you can just automatically do perfectly. Some of the kits commonly available look impressive and intuitive and my friends who own them have fine results and not a lot of practice. Myself, I only use an oil stone and fine grit sand paper.
Should you choose the more old fashioned method and have no one to teach you, practice on something you don’t like for a while. Also remember that steel is not created equal: 440 tool steel and AUS8A do not sharpen the same: the point of the practice is just to learn to apply the knife to the stone smoothly and consistently, maintaining the same angle throughout.
The next aspect is breakdown: you should be able to convert your knife to a pile of screws and plates with very little difficulty. In the long term, this will mean that screws will need to be replaced as they inevitably strip. The reason for this total breakdown is so that you can oil and clean every little corner of the tool. This might seem silly, but corrosion is measured in months, not minutes and beauty is maintained over time, not something that simply is.
Unless I have a lot of free time, I typically don’t strip my knife until I hear a creak when I open it. This could extend the life of your screws by a little and a little squeaking for a day won’t break anything.
There are some parts of a knife that don’t need to be oiled or cleaned. For these, the smartest solution seems to be putting superglue on the threads of the screws to ensure that nothing loosens over time and then simply never touching them again.
Some damage can’t be fixed by an oil stone: nicks or broken tips need to be ground out with a file. This file needs to be maintained itself with a wire brush to clear the metal shavings. So far, my kit is stone, oil, special screw drivers, extra screws, superglue and now even the wire brush. If I hadn’t inherited this stuff–minus the glue, screws and oil–id have already spent as much on the kit as the blade.
Nothing is casual about this: I didn’t choose it casually, don’t carry it casually and I don’t maintain it casually. Each tool comes with its own needs which you will come to know over time if you don’t already: a knife can last forever if you just act like it’s your only one and I do believe that it’s worthwhile, even rewarding to do so.
Efficiency and Safety
It is my considered opinion that when the knife is in the forward position, the support hand should be floating somewhere in between your solar plexus and throat to provide a barrier to your vitals, but also to create a safe place for your support hand to be.
By generally resolving never to use the support hand offensively unless immediately preceding or following a thrust or a cut to the outside (not crossing your body in a way that blocks your support hand) you can create reasonably safe conditions to use a fighting knife in. They will rotate: the empty hand falling back to guard the neck and the weapon hand falling back to full retention when they aren’t striking.
Stand up and fire a low elbow toward your six o’clock. If your hand is over your floating ribs, this is what I mean by full retention. From this position, it’s most likely your support hand will be fully extended in the classic “stay back buddy” position.
Now imagine those trading places. The weapon comes up from the midsection as the empty hand pulls back to the neck. Now the imaginary knife is extended fully in a thrust with the support hand guarding in the rear. They trade places again: knife dropping back to full retention as the empty hand strikes the face.
This is the standard response you will always be racing back to. A parry, cover, stop hit or suppress will open space for the Standard Response. It is a design dependent technique: the blade must be in its most forward position; punch knives being the perfect example.
The edge must not face your support hand. Collision is a reality in solo training as well as in contact. If the frame work for your training is not safe, neither are your thumbs or radial artery.
This is a mode of thinking more than anything; something I figured out during my training as an EMT. The medical community is filled with acronyms, my favorite being K.I.S.S. as in; keep it simple stupid. S.A.S.C. will be your framework for knife application during drill.
Structural, airway, sensory and circulation: each a necessary part of a working body. Breaking the structure in an arm or leg would be severing a tendon. Maiming the limb would qualify as sensory if it puts the opponent into shock or circulatory damage if they bleed out. Airway should be obvious enough: the trachea, with the carotid arteries on each side is your favored target regardless of what you are or aren’t armed with.
This is all meaningless without an objective and your objective is largely based on context. As a civilian, your best bet is to evade after contact and let the police handle the rest. In order to evade you have to make your opponent do something: fall down. S.A.S.C. should be used with the overall intent to destroy your opponents balance. Drive back the weak points of balance: things shoulder and above, things hips and below.
One ingredient cannot be done without in any type of conflict. You must rapidly advance in order to win. Any free time your opponent has will hurt you: give them no breathing space, no moving space and no thinking space.
Two Hands, One Leg/Inside Entry
This is the name of the last dummy form in the Wing Chun lineage that I happen to be standing in. I’ve always found it to be the perfect means of assessing risk with violent humans. If you engage the opponent head on, you are risking coming in contact with two hands and one leg that could hit anywhere.
Outside entry is the only reasonable entry. If you happen to find yourself inside, in range of three weapons; fall back to the Standard Response. Stomp forward and take ground, not stopping until the opponent falls over.
One can never truly know where the lethal strike in a string of three will land, on occasion, just covering what you want to keep is the smartest thing to do. Cover your face, throat and solar plexus; it’s typically where the knife is going.
At the earliest point of convince, retake ground and attack again.
Center of Gravity
In order to resist any force meaningfully, you will need a low center of gravity. In the knife context however, you will need to balance that with mobility. You must be capable of moving in all directions and you also need a consistently low center of gravity, preferably lower than your opponents.
This comes with time and training; understanding how to take on force is not something that can be done from the arm chair.
The shortest distance between two points is almost always a straight line. Though I was shocked to see situations that made this premise false, it’s still true nine times out of ten. If you slash at your opponent while he thrusts and you’ve both left your positions at the same time, he will hit first. If you both cut, you may have to reposition and reengage when you could have been escaping the scene.
Again, fall back on the Standard Response: take ground, thrust, hit, thrust until your opponent is grounded. This is economy of motion at its best.
Disruption of Balance
Balance is weak in several parts of the body: where the head moves, the body follows is a classic point to draw upon and it is this concept that is the most important part of the Standard Response. Balance is also weak in the lower aspects of the body: shots to the groin can cripple a low center of gravity, as will severing the tendons behind the knee or inner thigh.
The “advanced” application of the Standard Response should include a throw, reap or severe damage to the knee. Any martial system can be applied to knife work: wrestling may seem like the last thing you want to do, but gift wrapping an opponent or applying a double leg takedown applies the concept well enough.
You will discover what doesn’t work in training: eliminate the fallacies and all that will remain is truth.
Sphere of Influence
This is an area of no recovery if you do not attack. The SOI is defined as the space you can affect without moving: arms reach or weapons reach. Once in contact at this range, you will not be able to outmaneuver your opponent, nor see what techniques he may try to employ.
Attack, attack, attack and continue moving forward. Once here, there is no Aikido, Karate or even a bob and weave: strike or be struck.
Line in the Sand
This area is one of choice and thought to a small degree. It’s the space you can affect after taking one big step. This big step—when taken by your opponent—gives you all the data you need to get outside (take the opponents back) or even to catch the weapon hand in the case of the very skilled meeting the very unskilled.
Resetting the psychological dynamic of an altercation is the most important first step. When someone moves aggressively toward you, they count on you not exceeding—let alone meeting–that energy.
Just taking little steps toward their back while they advance can be unnerving enough to end the confrontation there. Moving first can also suppress weapons that aren’t yet in play.
Consider two bodies moving in relation to each other: if a body turns to face and I move offline, they must reset. Every time they reset, they need a new plan or at least to edit an old one. This is a confidence robber and gives you time to inflict a new tool or tactic to the situation.
If you can talk, do so. Forcing the enemy to think and respond to commands distracts from their ability to respond physically. Questions are ideal, but commands are realistic. Make your wishes known in the form of edicts: “get back!” or “make space, I’m leaving!”
Being on the receiving end will raise your heart rate and make you less useful. Replace his questions with your commands and never lose control of the conversation.
After you’ve spoken first, move first. Do as much as you can ethically first. Once a knife comes into play, being second and being dead is often the same thing.
High, Low. Low, High
When the mind is bent on attacking a high lying target, it often becomes blind to those low targets. When someone tries to take your head off, they often forget that they leave their knees and groin completely open.
Should the opponent cut low and you have the space and time to articulate a wise move, cutting their face is likely the best choice. Things tend to collide in the low lines and your priority—in a standing altercation—will always be to hit the computer before the weapon when possible.
When the opponent comes in high, cuts to the groin and femoral artery will be your cheapest attacks. Greeting the force head on is the most expensive. While both these choices can have terrifying outcomes attached to them, only one is guaranteed to leave you with severe lacerations.
Outside and Inside Entry
The simplest way to understand entries is to match them with the word “reach.” Inside entry implies that I am facing my opponent and that he can reach me with one of the previously mentioned three weapons available to a human at any given time.
Outside entry implies that he cannot reach me at all: that I have circled toward his back and am out of range of his weapons. Outside entry is easiest to attain from the Line in the Sand: a place where you can calculate your opponent’s movement to decide how he must attack.
Crawl Before Sprint
Last and most important: take your training slowly. This exists to benefit you and your training partner. Injury will not benefit you, neither will death. Nothing can substitute expert instruction and quality sparring gear.
There is no legal advice here either, so crawling through your local law books could be a great next step. Lethal force is not cut and dry: you are far more likely to use a blade against an unarmed group rather than a similarly armed opponent.
Consider also that there is likely to be a large gap of time where you haven’t gotten to your knife yet: grappling occurs here, boxing occurs here. In order to ever apply your knife, you must be competent in an unarmed skill set.
Think your training through carefully so that you can act quickly when it counts: always seek a second opinion; doubt even this.