Friday, November 14, 2008

Knife Grips

Mostly, this post is for Filipino and Indo-Malay Martial Artists. Anyone not interested in a deep dissertation about combat knife gripping should probably mosey on over to one of he many insightful, if less cerebral blogs in the sidebar to the right.

Chuck and Terry, this one is particularly for you.

The photos are of me holding Catfang.

Knife Grip

Many books on the Filipino Martial Arts have addressed the issue of knife grip, and a search on any random FMA forum will be rife with what I like to call “the great grip controversy”. Ask any 20 martial arts masters about this, and you’ll get 20 different answers. Put them in the same room, and in five minutes you’ll have a bloodbath.

Although the token answer “in your hand” has some merit, it really doesn’t paint a clear picture as to why this subject is so important. In short, everything you do with a knife in combat is rooted in THE GRIP. If the grip is too tight, your movements will be tense and slow. Too loose, and you can kiss it goodbye the moment it meets resistance & goes flying off into the next state. I will give a few examples here of my use of knife grips, and I would recommend the practitioner become proficient in both forward and reverse grip, and try not to favor one over the other. This will add to your dexterity & response reflex, and realistically you probably won’t have time to decide such things as which grip you should use in a fight. When it comes down, you just draw and move.

There are three actions occurring simultaneously whenever you hold a knife in this grip: The palm provides a stable base to set the weapon on, the fingers provide the clamp to hold the weapon in place and the thumb provides stability and reinforcement for the clamp (fingers). If the equation is missing any one of these elements, the grip is weakened severely. This is particularly true of the thumb, as it is always the strongest digit on the hand, and acts as a barricade for pressure from the other fingers.

So, with that said, on to the various styles of grip.

Forward Grip


This is your standard grip, as far as I’m concerned. The overall reach, 360 degree range of motion and versatility makes this by far the most favored grip of my knife fighting system. Many more angles are accessible for attack and counter with a wider variety of combinations available, as well as a split-second ability to change from one direction to it’s polar opposite. Saber also allows greater control of the tip of the knife for thrusting and surgical cutting, especially where the “Under-Thumb” method is employed.

Reverse Grip


This is a close range grip, and is typically reactionary due to its limited range. It’s good for exploiting the offensive actions of an opponent, but not as an initiated tactic, or a maneuver that requires reach. This is not to say that such can’t be accomplished, but you must expose more of your body and weapon arm, as well as extend your reach further to achieve it. You can employ this one blade facing either way, as long as you are knowledgeable in the usues and limitations of both. Icepick acts mainly as a defensive grip, working in concert with the empty hand as a hook, check or monitor. There are a number of things you can do with it that can’t be done with the forward grip, but there are some very specialized hand skills you need to develop before you can think about fighting in the range where this grip comes into play

Under Thumb Grip

In this grip, the weak side is made even weaker by lack of resistive pressure against the handle. The strongest digit is pushing in a different direction than the other four, leaving a gap between the fingers and palm. This grip allows for finer tip control at the expense of decreased weapon stability, dexterity and security. This grip is all but useless in stick fighting.

Cancer Grip

“The Name Says It All”

I'll probably get lambasted from the more conventional FMA groups for this. So be it. I regret nothing.

The cancer grip is one of the weakest of all grips, and I especially hate it. Born of the concept that the Earth is flat and things like gravity don’t exist, cancer grip is similar to the under-thumb grip, except the thumb and index finger are completely removed from the handle itself.

The idea behind cancer grip is to trap your opponent’s hand, fingers or weapon while simultaneously cutting him. This concept has far too little merit to it to be of any real use, as it can only work under an extremely narrow set of unrealistic circumstances at a slowed tempo. While the under-thumb method allows for greater tip control, the cancer grip is a combat hazard due to the absolute lack of reinforcement from the thumb, a critical stress point for ANY grip.

When examined, the cancer grip doesn’t really qualify as a grip at all, because it offers nothing in the sense of weapon retention. With the two strongest digits contributing nothing to holding the knife, the three weaker digits are left to hold the line with only the flat of the palm for reinforcement. There is nothing to add stability to the knife for almost one half of the grip, and if anything collides with the blade or it receives pressure from an unexpected angle, you will lose the knife altogether. Therefore you must sacrifice grip security, cutting and thrusting support, as well as augmented resistance to collisions and contact to gain the sole advantage of perhaps trapping your opponent’s blade, a risky maneuver at best. And non-threatening, since the only direction such a trap would be strong (the backbone of the knife) doesn’t have an edge on it. The pincer-like grip of the fingers is far too weak to maintain any degree of control over the “trapped” hand, nor can they keep both the hand and the knife they’re holding if the opponent fights the trap.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for this grip is that it has a sexy look, the appearance of the blade jutting out between two fingers gives the illusion of a formidable fighter. This is where the similarity ends, for the cancer grip doesn’t work under actual combat conditions, where it is subject to disarm by misadventure more than anything else. Collisions, impact tremors, just about any forceful contact will send the knife flying at combat speeds. Sparring with a knife in this grip will lead you to this conclusion pretty quickly. The absolute certainty of the blades clashing together in a fight defeat this grip at every turn, not to mention the impossibility of stabbing anything more solid than air. Or a jello-filled balloon man.

The only time this grip is successful is if the opponent allows you to get close enough to trap his hands with a knife in the first place, and kindly holds still for you while you apply it.

Another theory I often hear touted is that you must open and close your fingers around the knife, depending on where you are in relation to your opponent and a flush cutting surface. Such finite motor control under combat stress is difficult when employing a full grip, and damn near impossible with the cancer grip. If your opponent is any good, he will likely recognize the shortcomings of your grip and plan out his attack pattern based on how he believes you will fight. If that happens, you will be eyeball-deep in a cusinart before you realize you have been snookered. And then it will be too late.

Lastly, the protruding thumb makes an excellent target, and often as not by accident. As an experiment, try holding a stick or a machete with the same grip; Can’t be done. The heft of the weapon alone shows the fallacy in this immediately, but the point is made much clear at the tip of the weapon: If it hits anything, even lightly, you will loose the stick. If you can’t deliver a powerful shot, or withstand a forceful attack, how do you expect to survive a fight? Apply that logic one step further; If the knife can’t stab or cut anything without you losing it, what good is it?


Richard Sackville said...

Hi Bobbe, as part of my family education, in which I was taught how to kill, prep and cook things my dad sent me to work at a Butchers for a weekend.

The skills I learned should be taught in school and were very useful when I was in the military.

I leaned to carve meat etc.
One thing I noticed the butchers used the first two hand grips you show. The last two, just don’t work, no matter how sharp your knife for the reasons you note i.e. you will drop your knife.

I would think any butcher would agree with you and they cut meat all day long and they do it very fast.

The other tip I got was never ever try to catch a falling knife!

Regards Richard aka our man in London.

B said...

Thanks. I've never seen the "Cancer" grip w/ both fingers off though I have seen alot of people use the floating thumb to "trap the limb".

A fun one to play with is "mountain man" in western Bowie styles, it's the saber edge up. It's very fun since western guys will us "back cuts" which is basically a florette to reverse their cut direction.

Anyways my two cents in the crowded field of "knife fighting" grips de jour.

Steve Perry said...

Catfang? Hmm. Sounds familiar ...

Michael B. said...

Excellent blog Bobbe and I concur on the cancer grip. I use all three but in all honesty prefer the under the thumb grip. For me it has more dexterity and I have never had it jarred free even when hitting something...I use my old Kabar and train rubber tires as well as hanging up some tough ass meet and doing test cuts never once have I dislodged it. I used my blade in combat with that grip and it cut like butter and it was firm as a fake booby. I believe a lot has to do with your grip strengh. How many people train that? Personally speaking I work grip strenght via kettlebells, squeezing tennis balls and pinch gripping 45 lb weights to make my grip strong..not only for wielding weaponry but also to be able to rip the ever living crap out of someone when I grab them.

I agree with you not prefer one thing over another , learn to function and flow within every facet of your game...peace


Dan Gambiera said...

Add to the weaknesses of the cancer grip that you are absolutely guaranteed to catch your finger or thumb on something and jam it painfully enough to drop the knife.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

I got the name from an Asimov book.

Or was it Heinlein? Hard to remember...

Jay said...

tell me that is not rust around Chuck's logo?

Steve Perry said...

What happens when you use your knife to open Nazi beer -- splashes onto the steel and causes immediate oxidation, by which time you are too soused to polish the stain off -- if you even notice it ...

Rust never sleeps.

Worg said...

It was my understanding that "cancer grip" was itself a MISunderstanding, that someone took the transitory grip during knife-trapping, and just decided to roll like that all the time.

At least that's what Hockheim claims, and since he coined the term "cancer grip," I imagine he would know. Personally, I've had knives knocked out of my hands way too many times, and I've had hematomas way too many times, to want my finger and thumb anywhere but safe and secure against the handle of the knife and behind whatever little structural guard there might be...

Chuck said...

Bobbe...thankyou for the insight. I enjoyed talking with you last week on this topic and definitely enjoyed reading your article.

Now, if I give you my address again, would you be willing to send me Catfang for some *ahem* grooming?

In a state where Mold is the state flower, making sure there is a nice finish of oil on the blade is extremely important. I'd be happy to repolish it for you and ship it back oiled...I refuse to believe that YOU don't have any oil in the house. ;-P (yes...door is left open...)


Dragan Milojevic said...

With regards to the tension of the grip, if you'd like to see what happens when it's too loose, check out the beginning of the baraw sparing video I have uploaded on the martialmatrix web site.

In forward grip I do use both saber and thumb under as you call them, and in reverse I sometimes like to have my thumb on the butt of the knife, depending on the size of the handle.

Dan said...

Great post, thank you Bobbie!

The movies seem to be in love with the reverse grip, and it makes me crazy! Not having any authority in grips I remained silent, but now I can finally write that letter to Segal for his fight scene with Tommy Lee Jones.

I'd love to see a similar post using a Karambit, I would imagine the loop and curve of the blake would change some aspects of what you've described above.