Monday, February 20, 2017

Teaching Students to Act Correctly to Potentially Lethal Threats

The importance of learning to engage our executive function when under duress is paramount to our overall survival, especially when we are attacked with lethal force. It is crucial when the enemy is shooting at us or assailing us with edged weapons to remain cool and calm under such processing pressure. It is even more important that we remain cool, calm and collected when there is a potential lethal force, but which has not yet expressed itself, least we shoot someone who doesn’t need shot. To merely allow ourselves to knee-jerk to our baser, paleomammalian survival instincts under the potential of a threat, leads to detrimental outcomes that are not situationally accurate and correct (Shelby, 2016).
With proper Stress Exposure Training (SET), the correctly ingrained cognitive skills and the mental attitude well-conditioned for such circumstances, we provide us the skills needed to respond to lethal threats correctly. Through learning engaging such disciplined and conditioned executive cognitive functions, such as target discrimination, moving to cover, offering verbal commands, and utilizing accurate threat assessments, we are less likely to kill innocents and take out the real threats. We don’t have to merely react like hammers to a perceived nail (lethal threat), potentially killing someone who really is no threat at all (Cozolino, 2014, 2010; Driskell, Salas, Johnston & Wollert, 2008; Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Sharps, 2010; Staal, Bolton, Yaroush & Bourne, 2008).
It is irresponsible and very incorrect for professional trainers to excuse away the shootings of people who are not real threats, as something due to uncontrollable and natural human reactions under duress. Law enforcement officers, soldiers and Marines who shoot and kill people who are imagined threats, but who have not been confirmed as such, kill innocent people because of extremely poor preparation and training. These individuals need the best training science and bureaucracies hiring them can afford. Without this proper training, these men and women in these professions will merely default to baser, inappropriate, instinctive paleomammalian survival actions. The untrained and poorly selected military and law enforcement personnel will default to this rapid (50milliseconds from perceived threat to physical, knee-jerk, instinctive reaction because they really do not anything else. Under dire duress of lethal force all humans default to what they know best (Cozolino, 2014; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Shelby, Singleton & Fosi, 2016; Sharps, 2010).
Defaulting to this baser survival mechanism relies on bottom-up processing, where the amygdala perceives information as matching previous information that has been stored as dangerous. Our implicit memories are a woven fabric of many past experience residues that create negatively biased templates for individual survival. This rapid identification process occurs under over consciousness, within 50 milliseconds of threat recognition. If the person simply goes with this and reacts to this potentially perceived threat without verifying that it is a threat, the person’s actions can be catastrophically incorrect. In addition, if the Marine, soldier or LEO is looking for a gun, knife or other weapon, being in the highly aroused sympathetic state, said individual is more likely to identify an object in the hand as that weapon being searched for (Cozolino, 2014; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Selby, et al, 2016; Sharps, 2010).
Memory initially sees what we are looking at, with the executive functioning used to verify what we think we see. In essence, when we are searching for a specific item for which we know how it looks. Being an item of danger—gun or knife, the amygdala also knows. Under threat arousal, when we see something in the hand of our suspect, our immediate assessment from the amygdala may be “Gun!” or “Knife!” or “Club!,” because that is what we are looking for. It is our executive functioning that then looks more closely to discriminate what we are looking at. It is then we can actually see what we are looking at via our long-term memory, “Oh, no, that is not a gun. It is an iPhone,” or “Yes, that is a Glock handgun.” The amygdala sees “GUN!” simply because that is what we are looking for under a threat response. There is something in that subject’s hand—and we are hardwired to see false positives or tigers in the grass when the wind blows (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Selby, et al, 2016).
We must learn to be mindful of ourselves in this potential threat, of what is transpiring and what may happen next. Any soldier, Marine, LEO or human entity properly trained, can engage this mindfulness under the duress of lethal force. And they must if they want to keep their executive functions in control of their actions to potential threats. We want to deliberately focus on the confidence and efficacy of their training, and to remain mindful of what is actually unfolding—both within us and outside our skin. If one feels capable of handling lethal force threats and has properly trained to manage them, he or she will "feel safer," and will respond more accurately to the need of the circumstance (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Staal, et al, 2008).
Self-efficacy, leading to “feeling safer,” can be developed through proper stress exposure training, mindfulness training and correct mind-set training, i.e., how we feel about ourselves in this "battle for our lives." This mindful feeling of "safety under duress," is about the efficacy we have in our own abilities to hand this situation. This "feeling" of efficacy controls the brain's hardwired tendency to look for and over-react to threats in a mindless fashion. This focus of efficacy helps prevent us from knee-jerking into being a blunt hammer, blindly pounding away at imagined slights and dangers over verified threats (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Staal, et al, 2008).
Simple physical tasks that we can learn to do in response to a fear-startle, will help us keep our mindset in the correct focus. This begins with a simple, forceful exhale when we are startled. This forceful exhale becomes a conditioned response to the "Oh S&%T!” startle we feel. We then allow that forceful exhale to connect to another cue, which becomes a conditioned response, allowing us to relax our eyebrows, lips, shoulders and neck in a wave of action. From this exhale and upper body relaxation, we begin to belly-breathe. We continue to focus on keeping belly breathing, as we are mindful of the fear response within us. Fear is nothing more than our psychophysiology preparing us to manage a danger. If the threat begins shooting at us or attacking us with that blade, we are now better prepared to appropriately counter these lethal assaults immediately and not panic (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Staal, et al, 2008).
It sounds like the above physical skills would take long time to accomplish under duress of a threat. But as conditioned responses, using our top-down executive functioning to control, we can actually learn to cue off of threats within 500 milliseconds of initiation. Granted, it is not as fast and the bottom-up processing time, initiated by the amygdala in 50 milliseconds. But the probability of experiencing a false positive cognitive error in those 50 milliseconds, leading us to kill something that doesn’t need killing, is also much greater (Cozolino, 2008, 2014, 2010, Matthews, 2012; McNeil & Morgan, 2010; Sharps, 2010; Selby, et al, 2016; Staal, et al, 2008).
Individuals in the infantry, SWAT, SpecOps, and law enforcement professions, must learn to properly manage their fear-arousals so as to not simply knee-jerk react out of fear to startle, or to a potential threat, before such threats are actually confirmed as lethal. If such personnel worry more about their person safety than about engaging their daily missions, they do not possess the “right stuff” to perform their dangerous duties. Some people simply have no business in these professions, and when their genetic predisposition and early social development have not instituted a strong ability and correct skills to control their fear-response to potential threats, they would do better to find a different professional occupation (Cozolino, 2014; Mastroianni, Palmer, Penetar & Tepe, 2011).
Our Executive Functions (top-down thinking) improve its circuitry through correct repetitions and training, especially with regular stress exposure training and successful, real world experience. The more correctly conditioned we develop these verified responses to real threats, we start shaving off milliseconds here and there from identification through verification and actions taken. This is why DELTA force and SWAT operators rarely knee jerk to violent chaos, but engage cool, calm, and controlled target discrimination, killing only those who need killed (Cozolino, 2014, 2012; Klein, 2013; Mastroianni et al, 2011).
In emergency situations, such as lethal force encounters, we need to learn to talk to ourselves to remain calm and do what we know to do, in accordance to past, successful experiences, and in tune with our specific SET for such scenarios. Our brain has stored the familiarity templates in our procedural memories, but we need our Executive Functioning to access and use them. We must keep our Executive Functions engaged in order that we cognitively and physically prevail in this vicious and chaotic threat. Being mindful of our very thoughts, of our body, its sensations and tensions, while verifying, all threats correctly, allows us to make the correct decisions and subsequent actions. Individual strength, after all, in combat comes from owning the situationally correct, mental templates of prearranged and established clear cut actions, sustained over time through experience and training. For those who say there is no time for this, have never received the proper training, nor do they understand how the brain works under such duress. There is time, and we must make sure high risk professionals get the training they need or innocents will continue dying, unnecessarily (Cozolino, 2014; Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Driskell, et al, 2008).
The more we can encourage the students who come to use for professional training, to be ever mindful of what they are doing in training, teaching them to engage positive self-talk throughout their drills, guiding them to keep breathing, staying relaxed, sustaining good stances and positions, to see their enemy targets (hard focus), alien their weapons to the threat, aiming with their bodies, letting the gun tell them what it needs in order to keep shooting when we must shoot (Reload? Immediate Action? Malfunctions Clearing?), and then do that, we are teaching them to be less like hammers, and behave more like precision tools attuned to the moment (Driskell, et al, 2008).

Cozolino, L. (2008). The healthy aging brain: Sustaining attachment, attaining wisdom. New York: W.W. Norton.
Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachments and the developing social brain. New York: W.W. Norton.
Cozolino, L. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain. New York: W.W. Norton.
Driskell, J.E., Salas, E., Johnston, J.H. & Wollert, T.N. (2008). Stress exposure training: An event-based approach. In P.A. Hancock & J.L. Szalma (Eds.), Performance under stress (pp. 271–286). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Klein, G. (2013). Seeing what others don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights. New York: Public Affairs.
Mastroianni, G., Palmer, B., Penetar, D. & Tepe, V. (2011). A warrior’s guide to psychology and performance: What you should know about yourself and others. Washington, DC: Potomic Books.
Matthews, M. (2012). Cognitive and non-cognitive factors in soldier performance. In J.H. Laurence & M.D. Matthews (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of military psychology (pp. 197–217). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McNeil, J.A. & Morgan, C.A. (2010). Cognition and decision making in extreme environments. In C.H. Kennedy & J.L. Moore (Eds.), Military neuropsychology (pp. 361–382). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Panksepp, J. & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: W.W. Norton.
Selby, N., Singleton, B. & Flosi, E. (2016). In context: Understanding police killings of unarmed civilians. St. Augustine, FL: Contextual Press.
Sharps, M.J. (2010). Processing under pressure: Stress, memory and decision-making in law enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law Publications.

Staal, M.A., Bolton, A.E., Yaroush, R.A. & Bourne, L.E. (2008). Cognitive performance and resilience to stress. In B.J. Lukey & V. Tepe (Eds.), Biobehavioral resilience to stress (pp. 259–299). Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Knife Fighting in Combat Is a Myth

“Knife fighting does not exist in combat…Knife fighting is a duel with two people going at it with each other…”                                                      —Bob Kasper, 2011

Twenty-five years ago, in a friendly sharing of personal details about combat, the subject of “knife fighting” and “fighting knives” came up. We were both long-time Judokas, and were participating as members for a local Yudansha, which is a modern Budo term describing a board of senior black belts, who judge candidates testing for black belt advancement. The testing student was from a local Judo club, working toward his Shodan. There was a break in the testing format as we set up for the self-defense aspect of the testing. We had been seated next to each other, and naturally we began talking about the knife defenses and knife fighting that was sure to creep into this testing curriculum.
My senior colleague (Hanshi to my Kyoshi) with whom I was discussing these matters, was a former, venerated Marine Raider Captain, who served with the 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II as a Rifle Company Commander. This Captain saw direct action throughout the Solomon Islands, which was the United States very first offensive action of the war against Imperial Japan (Alexander, 2001).
The Captain reminisced about how he never used nor saw being deployed, any knife fighting or knife defenses in combat. He spoke about how the Marine issued bayonet (M1905), taken off the end of the Marine Corps’ Springfield ’03 bolt-action rifle, was only good for prying open ammo crates, opening K-ration packets or C-rations if one lost their P-38. He continued to critique how the issued Fairbairn stiletto “fighting knife” made by Camillus Knife Company was worthless (Alexander, 2001).
Cappy continued that attempting to use this relative long, but slender sixteen inch long bayonets, when used as a hand-held weapon, lacked the heft to be an effective combat weapon. A heftier bush knife (14-17 inch blade) that the indigenous used on the islands, would have been a better selection for a battle blade. “We needed a big blade that would facilitate traumatic damage through chopping power, if we wanted to achieve immediate stoppage of an attacking enemy soldier” he recalled (Alexander, 2001; Ripley, 1999).
“The bayonet on the end of the rifle facilitated powerful stabbing actions, which were followed by rifle-butt smashes to face and head,” Cappy declared. Historical records confirm this reality. Marines, since Belleau Wood, had been taught to triple team a single enemy—3 Marines to a single enemy—which made for a quick kill and moving on to the next attacking enemy. A single thrust from one bayonet was rarely enough to put down a determined Japanese soldier who yearned for such hand-to-hand combat (Alexander, 2001; Ripley, 1999).
Cappy reminded me that many Marines didn’t affix their bayonet to their Springfield bolt-action rifles as it messed with its accuracy and made using the rifle unwieldy. The primary 1st Marine Raider fire team was a BAR supported by four other riflemen with the Springfields. Early on in this campaign, only the Army troops had the M-1 Garands (Alexander, 2001).
To clarify, a combat weapon was and remains defined as a tool that will quickly dispatch an enemy with a single hit from the round or weapon, allowing the user to move immediately to the next threat (Alexander, 2001; Ripley, 1999).
Cappy continued to discuss how at the time of his experiences throughout the Solomon’s, his Raiders’ preferred “cold” hand-to-hand combat weapon was the Corpsman’s hatchet or the common E-Tool. Both of these tools were readily available. When these were wielded with strong and aggressive purpose with the proper evasiveness, against a charging Japanese soldier armed with sword or Arisaka rifle and bayonet, such counter-offensive actions with these weapons generated the essential immediate neutralization or incapacitation required for survival (Alexander, 2001).
When we look at the so-called knife cultures throughout the Pacific Theater of WWII and Southeast Asia during Vietnam, such indigenous personnel didn’t carry knives, but short swords, no less than 14 inches in length, hand-forged, differentially heat treated leaf-spring steel. Knives are lousy battle blades, and serve only as a last ditch, tertiary weapon. The Filipino guerrillas and Filipino Infantrymen, serving with the Alamo Scouts carried US made bolos, sporting a cutting serpentine style blade 17 inches in length. I personally never witnessed a Montagnard warrior with a seven inch knife on their person. I even carried one made specifically for me, in exchange for two cartons of US Cigarettes. Their “knives” never had a cutting edge less than 14 inches in length (Alexander, 2009; Mole, 1970; Reinhardt, 2012).
It was at this time, Cappy chuckled about all the current interest in “knife fighting,” “knife defenses,” and “counter-knife fighting” growing in popular in the commercial martial arts arena. “If only they knew, hey?” I asked him what other “fighting knives” he may have seen in the Solomons, asking about the Ka-Bar. He corrected me and told me that the Ka-Bar never found its way to Marine Raiders until 1943. He continued saying that he knew of none of his own Marine Raiders to use either the Ka-Bar or this stiletto, successfully, in hand-to-hand killing of the Japanese. He had heard rumors of Marines bayoneting Japanese soldiers, and of Marines using their “knives” to kill the Japanese in hand to hand. Cappy reassured me that he was never able to substantiate the claims. He did tell me that one of his own Raiders was killed by a Japanese sword. He was shaking his head as he explained the wound as extending from the Marine’s left shoulder to the Marine’s navel (Alexander, 2001).
A knife with the dimensions of the Ka-Bar, for example, being a sharp, seven inch, clipped-point blade, about twelve inches in overall length, cuts well, but remains too small to induce the degree of trauma necessary for the quick kills needed in combat. The amount of damage and trauma needed to immediately stop a highly resistant and determined adversary, simply cannot be accomplished in this combative context, with such a small tool. It becomes even more difficult when enemy personnel wear helmets, heavy face and neck garments, web gear and magazine chest rigs. Targets for lethal effect become even more limited (Dolinak, Matshes & Lew, 2005; Lurz, “Dubious 1”; Lurz, “Dubious 2”).
An example of using a large tool to kill the enemy quickly and effectively, when multiple enemy troops are present, can be verified when Marine Corporal Clifford Wooldridge (18June2010) wrested an AK from an approaching Taliban fighter during operation Enduring Freedom. Cpl. Wooldridge subsequently bludgeoned to death, the enemy with his own weapon. Wooldridge’s leadership and bravery that day helped him earn the Navy Cross for his actions (Michaels, 2012, November).
A Ka-Bar can be lethal but not in a swift manner needed in combat. To achieve that level of lethal outcome, the amount of injury one must suffer upon the enemy, amounts to wholesale butchery prior to death. This takes time and energy against a resisting enemy. Remember, in combat, peripheral injuries often do not always bleed. The emergency situation of combat causes the body to become flooded with catecholamines, which constrict capillaries within the peripheral circulatory system. Lethal trauma with a seven inch knife must result in deeply lying arteries are severed, with the lungs, liver and heart traumatically punctured in order for blood pressure to drop enough from blood loss, eventually inducing death (Dolinak, et al, 2005; Lurz, “Dubious 1”).
The aforementioned hand-to-hand combat the Captain had often discussed with me in class, consisted of violent motor skills he was taught in “post-graduate training,” when commissioned with the 1st Marine Raiders.  Cappy recalled, “All actions taken were offensive in attitude and execution. We attacked the attacker with brutal and violent attacks, against any target the enemy presented to us. We did not defend ourselves, but strove to neutralize the enemy swiftly, to manage the next enemy troop sure to appear. In hand-to-hand combat, there are multiple enemy troops needing engaged. In that environment, it was very easy to get a bayonet in the back or cleaved by a sword, while battling his comrade hand-to-hand.”
The movements Cappy learned for using any “fighting knife” were powerful thrusts, ramming the blade as hard as possible into several key target areas available. The targets to blast like a mortar, were under the rib cage from the enemy’s right flank and forward positions; driving the blade directly into the bladder region, from the front; thrusting the blade to the hilt, under the left armpit and under the left ear (Alexander, 2001; Alexander, 2009).
In addition, Cappy reflected on the brutal abruptness and viciousness of these actions. Raiders were instructed to strike with and manhandle the enemy into the knife with the free hand. Cappy always remarked, “We were taught not to fight with this knife, but to kill the enemy with the tool” (Alexander, 2001; Alexander, 2009).
Interestingly, the chief instructor sponsoring the Shodan testing, who asked Cappy and I to attend his test, overheard us talking, sharing our war stories. His attitude and response to us was—in all seriousness, “Only cowards use knives to fight other men.” We both refused comments on his statement.
Edged weapons that stab into and slice into living human tissue induce death through five functions. These are exsanguination (massive blood loss), air embolism (air in the bloodstream), asphyxia (suffocating), collapsed lung and infection. None of these events are quick and immediate. Only when an edged weapon is able to completely sever the cervical spinal cord, decapitate the head or cleave the skull and brain in two, will an immediate and quick death result (Amberger, 1999; Dolinak, et al, 2005).
Obviously, the dimensions of the Ka-Bar make such actions of decapitation and severing the skull virtually impossible. Severing the cervical spine with said blade is only possible if the head and neck are completely immobilized and the enemy well secured. Fighting with the Ka-Bar, in a toe-to-toe contest or duel, will lead to both parties receiving and inflicting multiple slashing and stabbing wounds, but not necessarily result death. Today people survive multiple cuts and stabs from assaults from small knives. In addition, duels with knives often become a defensive dance between opponents, were neither party is willing to close the distance and engage sharp steel (Amberger, 1999; Dolinak, et al, 2005; Reinhardt, 2012).
In the United States, when an individual uses a knife to commit any criminal act, those actions are considered lethal force actions under the Affirmative Defense law. Knives can and do kill human beings, as do screwdrivers, icepicks and barbeque forks. That is not the issue of the article. This article’s goal is to clarify what is “knife fighting” from “knife combat!” “Knife fighting” is more about sparring with, or dueling with knives between two opponents who are potentially equal in skill and attitude, who may or may not have arranged rules of engagement to follow—like drawing first blood or respecting the downed adversary. “Knife combat,” on the other hand is being in a combative situation (warfare, gang assault, violent rape), often surprised when attacked (ambushed), often at the disadvantage in position, and the knife is our last ditch “survival” tool to get us out of this situation. Combat often involves multiple adversaries who seriously want to maim and kill us any way that they can. “Knife combat” is a real ‘do or die’ situation, while “knife fighting” remains a contest between mutually agreed opponents where death may or may not be at stake (Alexander, 2001; Dolinak, et al, 2005; Patrick & Hall, 2010; Remsberg, 1986).
Too often, commercial martial arts establishments and tactical training groups create an elaborate “knife fighting” curricula, with a specially designed “fighting knife,” which is then advertised as an effective training protocol used in and for prevailing in close-quarters killing combat. When these curricula are carefully analyzed for combat effectiveness and efficiency, they are neither. They are exactly what they say they are—elaborate and sophisticated sparring techniques, i.e. “knife fighting skills,” which do not extrapolate well in the brutal butchery that is killing combat (Alexander, 2001; Amberger, 1999; Reinhardt, 2012; Ripley, 1999).
When we inspect the criminal use of an edged weapon, the knife in particular becomes more like a tool used by an assassin, where stealth, surprise and viciousness of attack completely overwhelms the unsuspecting victim. This is true in warfare, prisons and on the mean streets. This is not about fighting with the knife. It is about using some form of an edged weapon as a lethal force enhancer and a threat enhancer (Patrick & Hall, 2010).
  There is nothing wrong wanting to learn how to use a “fighting knife” with specific “knife fighting” motor skills, as long as the person learning said skills is not misled to believe such skills are combat effective and sound skills for self-protection. They are not. Such “knife fighting” skills are nothing more than choreographed moves that develop balance, hand-eye-coordination and kinesthetic rhythm. These last attributes are positive achievements, when kept in their proper place of fun and fitness. They, however, have no place in training and preparing individuals for prevailing in combat, and for an individual to attempt to utilize such skills in a combative context is a recipe for disaster (Amberger, 1999; Dolinak, Matshes & Lew, 2005; Reinhardt, 2012; Ripley, 1999).
Preparing men and women for actual combat is a difficult, expensive and brutal undertaking to do correctly. People die from bad training as well as from no training. And well-meaning instructors must advertise their training protocols and curricula in socially appropriate ways. This leads to the misuse of the terms: “knife fighting” and “fighting knives,” which, in effect lead to misunderstandings of the reality of “knife combat.”
Over the 6 decades I have been active in martial arts and tactical training, it can be hard to find correct semantics to describe what one does, and then offer this to the public for consumption. Most of what is sold as “knife fighting” is not combat effective. Most of what is sold as self-defense against knives is not combat effective against knives being used to butcher the enemy. Most of what is sold as a “fighting knife” is merely a utility or camp knife that could be used in a combative circumstance, against another attacking person. This doesn’t change the fact that such a knife still makes a lousy tool for last ditch combat. That hatchet, with a four inch bit, stuck in the stump over there, would be the better tool for this combative scenario (Reinhardt, 2012).

Alexander, J.H. (2001). Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider battalion in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Alexander, L. (2009). Shadows in the jungle: The Alamo Scouts behind Japanese lines in World War II. New York: NAL Caliber.
Amberger, J.C. (1999). The secret history of the sword: Adventures in ancient martial arts. Burbank, CA: Unique Publications.
Dolinak, D., Matshes, E. & Lew, E.O. (2005). Forensic pathology: Principles and practice. Burlington, MA: Academic Press.
Kasper, B. (2011). Bob Kasper: The lost tapes: Combative knife skills. Boulder, CO. Paladin Press.
Michaels, J. (2012, November). Man-to-man combat still key to military strength. USA Today. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from
Lurz, F. (n.d.). The dubious quick kill: Part 1. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from
Lurz, F. (n.d.). The dubious quick kill: Part 2. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from
Mole, R.L. (1970). The montagnards of South Vietnam: A study of nine tribes. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company.
Patrick, U.W. (2010). In defense of self and others: Issues, facts & fallacies—the realities of law enforcement’s use of deadly force. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Reinhardt, H. (2012). Book of knives: A practical and illustrated guide to knife fighting. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing Enterprises.
Remsberg, C. (1986). The tactical edge: Surviving high risk patrol. Northbrook, IL: Calibre Press.

Ripley, T. (1999). Bayonet battle: Bayonet warfare in the twentieth century. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Survival Knives: The History, Science and Utility

Any knife, including all survival knives, regardless of the materials from which they are manufactured, are compound, simple tools, combining a wedge—two inclined planes forced together (the cutting edge), attached to a third class lever. This simple, yet unique design creates a tool-specificity used to efficiently (time) engage work over power/force-transfer. The wedge moves material at ninety-degrees away from its cutting edge, swiftly. The wedge neatly slips through the molecules of the material, separating their physical structure from one another, generating a clean cut (Macaulay, 1988; Suplee, 1998).
As with any tool, the survival knife is made to enhance the process of survival, which would be made more difficult without the tool. Man has been creating this work-efficiency, enhancement device, for 2 million years. Our early ancestors discovered that when one rock impacts another special kind of rock, a clean edge or wedge is produced. This very sharp edge, held with the hand (the arm is a third-class lever) cuts vegetable matter, raw animal hides and flesh effectively and quickly—far better than his own fingernails and teeth could. In time, the processes throughout human expansion, refined making this wedge attached to a third class lever. From stone, to glass, to steel, to refined ceramics and titanium, this compound tool has evolved in substance, but remains a simple, compound tool designed for efficiently separating materials at ninety-degrees to whatever material the wedge is made (Capwell, 2009; Coon, 1971; Reinhardt, 2012; Whittaker, 1994).
Throughout human history, man has carried, chopped, cut and sliced his way, using said tool to assist his survival. Such human survival demanded that this tool was used to aid in preparing fibers for shelter—as in making twine for latching poles together, or even splitting those poles; processing (cutting up, mowing down) vegetable matter for food and thatch; and processing animals (skinning, scrapping and slicing skin, fur and meat) for both food and shelter (clothing is merely a mobile shelter). Even the Copper Age Ozti Iceman (3300BCE) carried an intricately knapped (he carried an antler point to knap the stone sharp again, when dulled from use) and mounted stone blade on a handle with a woven sheath (Fowler, 2001).
In these current, modern times, what would actually account for a survival situation? Let’s presume the worst possible scenario where we are in a deep wilderness setting, unaware of our position in relationship to where we had intended to go and from which we came, and all we have to work with is what we have chosen to carry in our pockets and on our belt.
To knowingly go into a deep wilderness setting, canoeing down an unknown river with rapids may find us overturned and swimming for our life to shore, losing all of our gear to the river. We find we have a military grade lensatic compass, a chapstick, a Bic lighter and a large 12 inch leaf-shaped, 5160 well-tempered steel blade in a well-made, custom leather sheath on our heavy leather belt. Standard fare for this author. Of course, we are smart and humble enough to be wearing a sturdy, military grade life vest as we are in rapids on an unknown river, with a hard helmet. This is all we have to work with as we crawl ashore, exhausted. And that was an expensive fiberglass canoe, too.
Modern times finds a plethora of knife choices, and as many opinions about what is a survival knife or the “best” survival knife. Old-timers who were professional campers—not survival experts—often warned against the folly of carrying a large knife or a knife too large, but doing so within the context of carrying additional camp equipment such as a hatchet, felling axe and buck saw (Jaeger, 1945; Kephart, 1917; Nessmuk, 1920).
Carrying a 12 inch heavy blade could easily be evaluated as excessive when we are also carrying a 2.5 pound hatchet and a 3.5 pound felling axe and buck saw. With such equipment, a simple 4-5 inch “camp” or “utility” knife of well-tempered, 1095 steel is all that is needed. In a survival scenario it would be absolutely ideal to harbor all of these fine tools for our survival scenario.
Survival, however, is stacking the odds in our favor when all we have is what is on our person when the plane crashed, the truck overturns or the canoe gets dumped in the rapids. This is when we make a choice to carry a big blade on our belt over that every day, 4-inch, 1095 utility blade (USAF, 2008).
The military’s Evasion, Resistance and Escape Training during the Vietnam era, sustained the philosophy that a large blade can do everything a small blade can, but the small blade cannot do everything a large blade can. And if all we have is one or the other—not both or additional gear—choose the big blade, first and foremost, as THE survival knife. One never witnessed a Montagnard warrior carrying a small blade. Usually a 14 inch blade, hand-forged from US leaf spring (5160), mounted with a tropical hardwood handle and wooden sheath was standard fare, along with their loincloths (Jiyu Yushi, 2016; Mole, 1970).
 There are many different chemical compositions of steels and metals used to produce survival knives. There are many different sized blade profiles (the flat shape of the blade and tang). There are several different distal tappers (tang and blade’s cross-section). And, there a myriad of carry systems for this tool. All of this is more about consumer consumption than efficacy of tool design and user-skills.
Interestingly, there exists only two fundamental manufacturing processes for producing metal survival knives, and these are forging and stock-removal. Often, it is the manufacturing style that creates blade design more than for blade utility—it remains a wedge on a third class lever. Either man or automated machine pounds or stamps out hot metal into the desired profile, or man or machine grinds away excess material to create the desired blade profile. From here the metal blade is heat-treated (or not) and sharpened into that rigid wedge, mounted on a third class lever (handle and arm) (Capwell, 2009; Hrisoulas, 1987; Macaulay, 1988; Reinhardt, 2012).
When we examine the physical structure and makeup of key survival knife designs, specific blade geometry and chemical composition facilitates specific outcomes. Soft edges sharpen easily but dull more quickly. Soft spines are resilient to impact, but may deform. Knives that are too hard, when batoned for splitting wood may snap, especially in cold weather or when torque is added to the blade during removal from the wood. Knives with too narrow of a point profile break off easily, while tips that are too rounded cannot pierce materials, inducing an initial cut needed for say skinning a pelt properly or making toggle holes in a tanned-skinned shirt (Hrisoulas, 1987; USAF, 2008).
It is simply human kinetics and understanding amalgamated to chemistry and physics. None of these factors can be excused away or ignored, especially if one truly wants to understand human survival and the tools made and required to enhance that survival (Bennett, Donahue, Schneider & Voit, 2014; Kelly, 2013; Schmidt & Lee, 2011).
First off, no tool can do everything. Every survival knife is limited by its chemical construction, its physical design and how the wielder decides to use the tool. We could attempt to use a cheap pocket knife to fell a foot thick oak. The probably of success of achieving that goal are very much against the wielder. Remember, much of our very survival depends on our ability to conserve precious energy. And while matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, just transformed, this also means that there are compromises, such that where great force is generated, the distance this force can travel is restricted, and using a pocket knife to fell a tree is wasting energy with the incorrect tool (Capwell, 2009; Lundin, 2003; Macaulay, 1988).
Simply put, blades that can generate great force (axe heads) in separating materials—chopping power—move much more slowly and require greater energy production to control. Blades that move much more swiftly, but cannot separate as much material are also less draining on energy usage. Blades that can pierce effectively through materials, need to generate maximum force into the smallest surface area—like a needle accomplishes or an icepick—but are worthless for chopping or cutting (Macaulay, 1988).
When we inspect the above requirements, we can see why even primitive man made various edged tools for his and her many different survival tasks—e.g. axes to chop wood, needles to sow skins together and sturdy handled blades to skin and cut meat efficiently. Otzi Iceman even had arrows for his bow, a stone knife with sheath and a copper axe, for example (Fowler, 2001; Kelly, 2013).
So, what is a good survival knife that compromises a worthy chemical composition and physical structure in all the areas that it must (chopping, slicing, and piercing) in order to provide a human entity enhanced survival capacity when pressed into a highly stressful and dangerous situation? Is this an acute or a chronic survival situation? That is, is it short-term survival, being momentarily lost in a bad snow storm; or is it about surviving moments on end? Does this matter? Opinions vary. The primary consideration remains one of individual skills and understanding the situation as it dynamically unfolds (USAF, 2008).
Referring back to the task of using a pocket knife to fell the foot thick tree, can a 12 inch, leaf-shaped (profile) 5160, well-tempered steel blade with a full-flat grind, and little to no distal taper of its quarter-inch thick spine, do anything that pocket knife (NOTE: tactical folders are never tactical and mostly worthless in harsh conditions) can do? Sure it can. Can the pocket knife do what the big blade can do? No, it cannot. If the wielder cannot use this big blade to do what any small blade can do, then the wielder is grossly unskilled with any survival knife (Hrisoulas, 1987; Reinhardt, 2012; USAF, 2008).
A good survival knife has heft and length for chopping, composed of well-tempered (differentially heat-treated is the ideal) steel for a balanced toughness and sharpness for smooth cutting and slicing, as well as durability so that it won’t break with hard usage. And, it must possesses a solid and durable protective covering so that the sharp blade can be carried comfortably and safely, for long distances. That is about it. Probably one of the best survival designs and steel compositions out there, currently, is the TOPS Knives’ Power Eagle 12 (
In spite of the company’s propaganda to sell this tool as a combination of the kukhri and bolo, it is not. This specific leaf-shape design is common through the world since ancient times of bronze casting (Oakeshott, 1996).
The Tausug People (Moros) of the Sulu Archipelago have been utilizing this tool design as a weapon of war, called a barung. The barung was hand forged and used by the Moros since importing true Damascus steel (equivalent to 1060 steel today) from Syria and Arabia during medieval times (Fulton, 2009; Hassan, Ashley & Ashley, 1994). In addition, this leaf-shape design can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece and Europe, during the early Bronze Age, as the principle back-up weapon to spear and shield of the Greek hoplite (Oakeshott, 1996).
This specific design has a center of gravity about two inches distal its hilt, with the two “sweet spots” of the blade—power points—being about four inches proximal from the tip and about four inches distal from the hilt. The centerline of this design makes for strong thrusting lines and well as for superb, balanced chopping lines. In effect, this blade incorporates both thrusting lines and cutting lines extraordinarily well, without too much compromise against each action (Oakeshott, 1996; Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012).
This is ideal for numerous survival chores of manufacturing shelter, cut and splitting wood for fire, heavy butchering chores, and shaving bark, to name a few. It can also pierce, strip, skin and slit with the forward aspect of this blade nicely, when small-knife chores are required (choke up on the blade using a simple blade guard) (Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012; USAF, 2008).
Since personal protection is also an essential skill for personal survival, what attributes make a survival knife an effective and efficient weapon for personal protection? Here again, we must refer back to the wielder’s abilities and skills, the chemical composition of the steel and the physical properties of the tool (Hrisoulas, 1987).
In spite of what is portrayed in Hollywood, it is all myth, showing the actor taking a Marine Ka-Bar knife and running it along the throat of an enemy, quickly killing the soldier. This is so far from the reality, it does the knife a disservice as being an efficient killing tool, which it is not. One can effectively kill a human with a ka-bar with great effort and personal danger to self, and why knives are considered lethal force. Knives, however, are not efficient at killing a resistive human enemy. They are very slow at killing a human (Dolinak, Matshes & Lew, 2005; Oakeshott, 1996; Reinhardt, 2012).
In all actuality that seven-inch ka-bar blade is NOT an effective and efficient killing tool, unless the cervical spine is severed, completely, at C-4. This tool cuts well and stabs well and maims well. Human psychophysiology, however, takes a while to bleed out and lose consciousness from even multiple knife wounds. In today’s modern battlefield and mean streets, most knife wounds are survived. Swords, for example, are very effective man killers and man stoppers. They are able to sever heads and limbs in one fell swoop. And this is why swords were invented (Dolinak, et al, 2005; Oakeshott, 1996; Reinhardt, 2012).
In personal protection, bigger blades are better, as they impact harder and create more permanent and lethal damage than smaller blades. However, the downside is that they move much more slowly than a smaller blade, yet require more strength, power and energy to use effectively. The trade off, then becomes one of a bigger blade being more lethal, with greater impacts ending the conflict more quickly versus a smaller blade moving much faster, cutting more often, but with much less effective and thorough wounding of the enemy in the same amount of time (Dolinak, et al, 2006; Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012).
The bottom line with a knife as weapon depends solely on the man or woman’s attitude to close with the enemy, attacking the attacker, and engage that enemy viciously, brutally and with ruthless abandon. This is extremely difficult for most modern humans to muster. With a large blade as mentioned above, closing the gap viciously, splitting skulls for quick kills, and lobbing off hands and kneecaps for immediate stoppage of the enemy are available to the determined and skilled defender using that heavy blade for personal protection against a would be attack (Jiyu Yushi, 2016; Reinhardt, 2009; Reinhardt, 2012).
Survival knives are tools used to survive in any eventuality, most we are unable to foresee. From what we can see about the history, how the structure and the function of the survival knife is so task-specific, and how the chemical composition is so important, what it boils down to is choosing the biggest, toughest, most durable blade that can comfortably be carried for extended periods of time, while the wielder possesses the physical and mental skills to effectively and efficiently use that big blade in all the survival skills that specific survival situation imposes upon the individual.
A hand-forged, elongated, 12 inch leaf-shaped 5160 steel blade, differentially heat-treated with a light-straw-colored edge reaching up for an index finger width, extending into a dark straw upward into peacock, purple and blue quarter inch thick spine, is ideal for a tough, strong, durable and functional survival blade. Add some good micarta scales for the 12.5 inch to 6 inch handle, full tang, full-flat grind profile, with a secondary edge bevel, we now possess a good survival knife. Add a well-made leather sheath and we own a great blade/carry system for survival needs (Hrisoulas, 1987).
If we are going to own redundancy, and carry a second blade, we will then carry a second blade identical to what we just read described, fulfilling SERE’s ideology of “…one is none and two is one,” survival philosophy. If we cannot do all of our essential survival tasks with this one survival blade, then we had better learn some better skills, from different instructors, as we are not really ready or prepared to survive. We are equipment dependent, which is not surviving at all. This big survival blade will manufacture all the other tools we will need for either short-term or long term survival (DOA, 2002; USAF, 2008).

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