(On the Mountain Guerrilla FB page, I posted a question, asking what articles readers would like to see. I got a lot of great suggestions, but the one below already had the notes collated, since I’ve written in passing on the subject before, and it is relevant to another project I’m working on, namely Book Three.
So, while the other article subjects will follow, this one was an easy, quick piece to write. –JM)
There is a lot of fantasy that floats through the preparedness, survivalist, and Liberty movements disguised as fact and Truth. Some of it is pretty harmless, but some of it is so completely erroneous that it puts the lives of well-meaning, but ignorant, innocents, in jeopardy.
Combatives in general—and knife-biased combatives particularly—are one of the most nefarious of the topics that fall into the camp of the fantastic.
Two of the most famous combatives instructors in American history are often held up as exemplars of this particular discipline of training: William Fairbairn and Rex Applegate.
Fairbairn joined the Royal Marines as an underage teenager in 1901, and found himself stationed in Korea, before leaving the service to join the Shanghai Municipal Police force, in 1907. Most of Fairbairn’s notoriety is derived from his—admittedly awesome—exploits during service with SMP. One of the most important claims, regarding the legitimacy of his methods, is that Fairbairn was involved in “over 600 street fights” during his tenure with SMP. There is, of course, a great deal of argument among martial arts historians as to whether Fairbairn was himself involved in 600+ streetfights, or whether it was his units in general involved in that number of fights. I tend towards believing it was his units in general that were involved, not Fairbairn specifically. I also willingly concede however, that it is entirely possible that—given the nature of Shanghai specifically, and seaports like Shanghai generally, at that point in history—Fairbairn was personally involved in a metric shit ton of street fights.
That having been said, using those 600+ street fights as the sine qua non of the perfection of his unarmed and knife-based combatives methods is fatally flawed. We modern Americans tend to view the term “street fight” through the prism of three decades of indoctrination of Asian martial arts influence as synonymous with “unarmed” fights. The reality is significantly different.
A “street fight” especially in Shanghai at that point, was more likely to involve the use of firearms like Mauser Broomhandle pistols, rifles, and even machine guns and artillery pieces (the Boxer Rebellion is an interesting piece of history to read about when it comes to the history of Shanghai and the development of combatives techniques from that city).
The first street fight that Fairbairn was reportedly involved in while in the employ of SMP happened about four months after he arrived in the city. He was attacked by a Chinese gang and stabbed at least a dozen times, before being left for dead, to bleed out in the alley. He didn’t die, which leads one, logically, to question to “extreme lethality” of the knife in close-quarters combatives. I mean, fuck me, a dude was attacked by 12+ people, stabbed repeatedly, and then left to bleed out, AND HE DID NOT DIE…….
Fairbairn would go on to study numerous martial arts, ranging from boxing and wrestling to jujutsu and Kodokan judo. When World War Two began, he was recalled to England, and commissioned in 1941, for service with the British Secret Service. He trained British, Canadian, and Dutch Commandos, as well as the original US “Darby’s” Rangers. Perhaps most famously, he co-developed with Eric Sykes, the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger, and exquisitely designed killing tool, with some significant weaknesses (which would be somewhat overcome in a later redesign when he partnered with American Rex Applegate, that led to the Applegate-Fairbairn dagger).
By the time he arrived back in England, Fairbairn was “reportedly covered in scars across his arms, legs, chest, and abdomen,” leading one to question exactly how lethal the knives that purportedly caused those wounds, actually were.
Oregon-born and raised Rex Applegate was originally commissioned as a Lieutenant of Military Police, before being grabbed up by William “Wild Bill” Donovan for service in the OSS, teaching combatives and CQB to prospective OSS agents. He was sent to study under Fairbairn for some time, before returning to the States in his new post.
The colonel went on to write the seminal American work on unarmed combatives and CQB, “Kill or Get Killed,” in 1943. It was revised and republished in the 1970s, and has been a USMC manual for years.
Having grown up hearing tales of the greatness of both men from my grandfather, who had trained under them, I would not, in ten lifetimes, lower myself to questioning their expertise or their credentials as gentlemen and scholars. However, as important as myth and legend is—and both are, or should be, sacred—there are some serious shortcomings in basing your training on the teachings and tools of these particular legends.
As even Fairbairn so famously wrote, “Get tough. Get down in the gutter, win at all costs…There’s no fair play, no rules except one: kill or be killed!” If there are shortcomings to the systems these men taught, that decades of more recent experience and research and study can overcome, I would argue that they—of all people—would want us to discover and eradicate those shortcomings, to make winning so much more of a sure bet.
The Knife as a Fighting Weapon
The Fairbairn-Sykes makes a pretty decent assassination knife, by all accounts. The Applegate-Fairbairn, with it’s broader, stronger tip, and oval-shaped handle that lets the wielder know the blade orientation by feel, is reportedly even better. I’ve owned both. I still have a F-S clone on my office desk, as part of a shelf of “nostalgia” items. Having carried a Gerber MKII—like, I suspect, most SOF veterans of a certain age—for some time, until I realized it’s utter uselessness for anything else, I never bothered carrying any other dagger.
The problem with daggers as combat knives is that, while they ARE the ultimate expression of the killing knife, that’s all they are good for. Considering the slim chance that even a moderately prepared person will ever need to shank a motherfucker, and considering the actual inefficiency of the knife as a killing weapon, carrying a sole-purpose tool of that particular nature just doesn’t make a lick of sense. As I’ve said in articles before—and in The Reluctant Partisan, Volume One, to take the opportunity to pimp my books—it’s a lot easier to kill somebody with a Swiss Army knife than it is to cut 550 cord or brush with a dagger.
The use of a knife as a weapon is fundamentally simple. Put the pointy parts in the soft spots. Even the ancient Romans knew that shanking someone was more effective than slicing and dicing and “biomechanical cutting.” As Vegetius wrote, in De ReMilitari, “They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal….this was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans…”
The problem that arises is that, even for the Romans, with their Gladius short sword, so much longer and heavier than a dagger, the fatal wound was not particularly quick. The “death time table” is, in words that Fairbairn himself would understand…”utter, bloody poppycock.” It was hypothetical, at best. It had as much bearing on reality as the “death point meridians” taught by “Dim Mak” masters.
The problem with using a knife as a weapon isn’t the specific techniques used. After all, Fairbairn, Sykes, and Applegate all posited the same stance as the Romans, “stab a fucker!” The problem is that the knife is NOT, contrary to mythology, a particularly effective weapon, outside of the psychological benefits of scaring the ever-loving-shit out of people (see the notes about Fairbairn’s experiences, above….)
The problem with THAT particular theory however, is that it’s a sucker’s bet. If you count on your enemy being a pussy or a coward, you’re kind of retarded yourself. There is a myth in American lore that “bad guys…bullies…are cowards.” While it makes us feel good, it’s complete bullshit. Are there bullies who are bullies because they are cowards? Sure. Are all bullies then, by definition, cowards? Absolutely not. Thinking that is the case, is a good way to get your own shank shoved up your ass. This leads to the theory that showing your enemy your weapon, in an effort to “scare him off” is a pretty goddamned stupid idea.
Experiential training, analysis of historical (even recent historical) examples, and the logic of UW strategy and tactics (surprise, speed, and violence of action, anyone?), tells us that “knife fights,” are fantasy. If you’re in a fair fight, your tactics suck, and your strategy is fatally flawed. If you whip out a knife and brandish it to scare me off, I’m going to shoot you in the dick. Not to kill you, because you’re obviously too stupid to bother killing, but to keep you from breeding and continuing the bad flawed genetic material.
There is another fundamental truth that needs to be considered, in the modern context. While Fairbairn fabricated a homemade, expedient plate carrier, by sewing a sheet of plate steel in to a leather harness—reportedly capable of stopping a Mauser pistol round at point-blank range—neither he nor his men, nor their foes, were facing men regularly equipped with body armor, helmets, and protective “gas” masks, or Kevlar “cut proof” gloves and gauntlets.
If you are engaged in a fight with a dude kitted out in protective gear, where exactly do you think you’re going to stab him? Kevlar soft-armor may or may not stop a knife stab. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Rifle plates WILL stop a knife. Kevlar helmets will stop a knife stab, more often than not. Most of the parts of a protective mask will stop a stab (Book Three includes photos of tests I’ve conducted with various knives against these mediums, for your educational benefit….). So, we find that we have to resort to the same techniques used in the late medieval period, of trying to thread a point into the “chinks” in the foes’ armor.
There’s a myth that ALL cops, DHS, and other government agents, as the “bad guys,” are fat, lazy fucks that “FreeFor” will easily defeat in valor and fitness. It is—of course—nonsense. There are more fit cops than there are fit “Three Percenters.” There are damned sure more “criminal gang” members who are fit than there are “FreeFor” that are fit. Do you genuinely believe you are going to manage to thread your dagger tip into a tiny chink in the other dude’s armor, before he smokes you in the grape hard enough to knock you the fuck out? That’s okay if you do. I like to masturbate occasionally too.
Historically, we know it’s bullshit. Even the fit, trained, experienced warriors of old couldn’t pull it off reliably. When medieval armor reached a point of development that required such precision, two developments occurred in the arms race. Guns were developed to a level of power and effectiveness that they’d punch through plate armor, of course. Previous to that however, fighting men stopped trying to thread the needle, so to speak, and went back to using clubs, maces, and war hammers, that had enough ass behind them to literally CRUSH the armor, doing lethal damage to the dude underneath.
The simple reality is that, for most purposes, the use of edged weapons to kill people is utter, complete, total fucking masturbatory fantasy. Sure, there are uses. For EDC carry for the underground and auxiliary, a small, concealed knife offers a decent tool to easily access—with training—and cut your way to your concealed pistol, to then shoot a dude. Of course, if you possess the physical and technical ability to fight your way to the knife in the first place, you probably possess the same ability to fight your way to your pistol instead. Mountain Guerrilla combatives tip o’ the day? Guns—even “pop guns” like .22 and .25 caliber pocket guns—are better than knives at killing people. As SFOD-D veteran, SGM (retired) John “Shrek” McPhee likes to point out to people, “I’ve got a pistol, why the Hell would I want to use a knife?”
It’s a popular fantasy, of course, to discuss the use of edged weapons for “sentry neutralization.” If you’re using a Scottish Claymore, like old-school badass “Mad” Jack Churchill, who carried a longbow and a basket-hilted Claymore across Europe with the British Expeditionary Force (and is reputed as carrying out the last longbow wartime kill, when he smoked a German NCO in 1940, with a cloth-yard shaft), and lived by the motto that “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed,” or if you’re carrying a Kukri, then yes, perhaps, cleaving a skull in half, or separating the head from the cervical spine is a pretty damned effective way of smoking a dude with a “knife.” Maybe.
Cutting a throat, or even stabbing someone in the carotid artery or jugular vein, is neither fast, nor silent, by all accounts. Have you ever been elbow deep in someone else’s blood, with more of it spraying in your face, eyes, and mouth, and up your nose? Speaking experientially, from providing medical aid to casualties, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience. There’s nothing romantic or heroic about it.
I’ve had students in TRAINING classes, who were hesitant to get too much FAKE blood on them. In a world where we’re conditioned—somewhat justifiably—to be paranoid about blood-borne pathogens like HIV/AIDS, syphilis, and Hep C (or, as I prefer, HepasyphilgonorheAIDS), this makes sense. The problem arises when people disconnect this from the fantasy about slicing a motherfucker from eyeball to asshole. “I’m not comfortable getting drenched in someone else’s blood” does not translate well to “I’m gonna stab a motherfucker!”
This further ignores the fact that, someone who gets stabbed or cut does not just fall over and die. There’s nothing quiet or stealthy about it.
The Better Alternative
There is another, better alternative however. Smacking a fucker in the brain box, with a ball peen hammer—or better yet, a 2.5# sledge hammer, results in only two sounds: The wet “smack” of the hammer cracking through the skull and into the brain, and then the sound of 150-200+ pounds of unconscious—probably dead—meat falling to the ground. I’ve never killed anyone with a knife. I’ve also never killed anyone with a hammer. I have smoked a dude in the grape with a big fucking rock. I was a teenager at the time, and was in serious danger of getting my ass stomped—I was being a mouthy little shit, and probably had it coming—by a group of guys. The dude I hit fell instantly, doing the “kickin’ chicken,” and, while he didn’t die, he was done with the fight in less than a second. It also served to discourage the rest.
There are anecdotal reports of SF and SOF guys carrying ball peen hammers in Afghanistan and Iraq carrying ball peen hammers—and even using them—for the anti-personnel role. I cannot confirm or deny these reports. I certainly never saw it, but I wish I had thought of it back then.
The Final Solution
(Yeah, I know…tasteless….)
So, in answer to the original question, on Facebook, the selection of functional knives is contingent upon context. My choices may not even be relevant to your needs, within the specific contexts I will describe here.
1) General field knife.
For a general field knife, I prefer a relatively small, light, but effective, bushcraft knife. I’ve carried everything from a Swedish Mora knife to a Kabar to my current choice, the Becker BK16 Buschcraft knife. I like the Becker, a lot. It’s significantly lighter than the Kabar, it’s got a thinner, narrower blade, which makes pretty much every cutting chore significantly easier. It’s only potential drawback is that it’s a very, very light knife. That’s not a drawback to me. If I need to chop or cut something to big to cut with the bushcraft knife, I can use a saw or an ax. The best “big chopper” knife out there is significantly less effective for chopping than even a shitty, Wal-Mart camping hatchet. I don’t own a Wal-Mart camping hatchet. Like all of my gear, when I invest in gear, I invest in good gear. The axes I carry on my kit include hand-made hand axes and a Swedish Gransfor-Bruchs Scandinativan Forest Ax.
My folding saw is the Bahco Laplander saw. It’s a small, super-lightweight piece of kit that you could—theoretically at least—use to perform a fucking amputation if necessary. They’re relatively inexpensive, but worth every dime.
2) EDC knives.
I tend to follow the reverse-grip, edge-in mode of use that Craig Douglas re-popularized with his ECQC program. Not out of blind loyalty to the methods, but because, through experiential testing during FoF training, combined with logical, rational, critical thinking, it makes sense in the delivery system.
If I’m forced to use a knife in self-defense, it will likely be in the process of trying to escape an overwhelming physical attack, in the process of either escaping the grappling match that Craig refers to as the “Fucked Up Tangle (FUT),” or to gain access to my pistol. I think his Clinch Pick design is probably the essence of that application. Of course, Clinch Picks can be a pain-in-the-ass to get your hands on. Triple Aught Design (https://tripleaughtdesign.com/) carries a Made In China version occasionally, available on a “first come, first serve” basis. They go quick when they come in though, so you’ll have to watch them closely.
The premier custom maker that produces Clinch Picks—and the ONLY one currently authorized to produce Craig’s design—is Ban Tang, out of California (http://bantangknives.com/wordpress/). Do me a solid, if you decide to look at his? Tell him I sent you. Maybe someday, it will get me a good deal on one.
I don’t own a Clinch Pick. Part of that is because I’m poor white trash from Idaho. Partly it’s because the knife, even in EDC is such a remotely tertiary weapon for me, that I can feel comfortable carrying something less optimal for the anti-personnel role, while being significantly more multi-functional. I understand the “spiritual” appeal of a dedicated “fighting” knife, but for me, I’m far more likely to need to cut a box open or cut some rope, or even kindling for a fire, than I am to need to shank someone.
In light of these considerations, I am currently running an ESEE Izula II, carried in the left-side Appendix position, mirroring where I carry my pistol. It’s small, unobtrusive, serves the purpose for combative applications, but more importantly, is an eminently useful little tool for every day use.
Editorial Note: Since posting this on the Forward Observer site (mountainguerrilla.readfomag.com), I’ve managed to actually get one of Ban Tang’s Clinch Picks. I’m still not 100% sold on the knife as a combative weapon of first, or even second choice. That having been said, this has got to be one of the nicest, most well-built little EDC knives I’ve ever had my hands on. It’s worth twice the price. I THOUGHT–until I got one–that my little Izula II was filling the gap well as an alternative. I was wrong.