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).

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

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