Story and Photos by Michael Janich
In recent years, the karambit has become extremely popular among knife enthusiasts and has developed an almost cult-like following.
It has been featured prominently in movie fight scenes, including John Wick 3, Man from Nowhere, and The Raid 2 and its popularity has spawned countless knife-with-a-ring variants. These include a wide range of folding karambits and even aftermarket rings that can be attached to factory folders to transform them into karambit-like knives.
Just because something is popular, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea—especially when it comes to self-defense. To get a better idea of what karambits are all about and how to separate “function from flash,” let’s take a closer look at karambit history, the characteristics that define karambit design and how those characteristics determine which tactics work and which ones don’t.
The first time I ever heard of a karambit was in the late 1970’s in Donn Draeger’s classic book, Weapons and Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago. Still the most definitive written work on Indonesian martial culture (and currently still in print as The Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia), it provided a very brief description of the knife and drawings of four examples of the breed—two of which included rings at the butt end of the handle and two that didn’t.
In the early 1990’s, when I was living and working in Southeast Asia, I took every opportunity to visit museums to see and learn about the traditional weapons of the region. The first glimpse I got of authentic karambits was at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Although the karambit is closely associated with the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat, and is believed to have originated in West Sumatra, I found it was also prevalent in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.
In its traditional form, the karambit is a fixed-blade knife with a crescent-shaped blade and a ring at the butt end of the handle. Typically sharpened on the concave side of the blade, it could also have a sharp edge or a series of barbs or teeth on the convex side. Both the size of the blade and its amount of curvature varied considerably from region to region.
The karambit was originally created as an agricultural tool and was used for harvesting, digging and similar chores. Since its blade would naturally get dirty or sticky when used, sheathing it without cleaning it first would cause problems.
To get around this, its creators added a ring to the end of the handle. By inserting the little finger or index finger through the handle’s ring, the knife could be allowed to hang from the finger between uses, freeing both hands to do other tasks. A flick of the wrist could then quickly flip the knife back into the hand for use. In modern Western knife culture, this same useful feature is often seen on bird and trout knives.
Like many blades that started as tools, the karambit was also adapted to martial use. It was generally held in a reverse grip (extending from the little-finger side of the hand) with the index finger through the ring. Held in this way, many techniques that appeared to be punches actually represented powerful plowing cuts with the blade.
Later, practitioners of silat also developed tactics that involved swinging the blade forward, spinning it around the index finger to cut or tear with the back of the blade. From this extended grip, the knife can also be pulled back toward the user to cut with the concave edge, or quickly swung back into a full reverse grip.
Although the ring feature of the karambit is widely considered to be a defining characteristic of the design, in reality many traditional karambits did not have rings. Those that did have rings often had extended butts, or even secondary blades, that would make spinning the knife with the ring impossible.
It’s also interesting to note that, on some karambit designs, the convex shape of the back of the handle follows a smooth, continuous arc. On others, the area near the base of the ring curves inward. Sometimes called a “brake,” this concave area is designed to contour around the front face of the middle finger when the blade is extended. This prevents the back of the handle from becoming a fulcrum that could potentially break the middle finger.
Understanding these nuances of design helps a lot in “deciphering” the tactics for which specific karambits are intended.
As a weapon, the “job” of the karambit is to cut and puncture an opponent. Any design characteristic or tactic that compromises those functions limits the knife’s effectiveness and its viability as a self-defense tool. Although questioning the karambit and the more flamboyant aspects of karambit technique may be considered martial arts blasphemy, the bottom line remains the same: if it doesn’t cut and puncture well, it’s not worth carrying.
To sort through the dizzying array of karambits and other knife-with-a-ring spin-offs, I evaluate them based on their ability to cut or puncture when wielded with these tactics:
Many people who train with karambits will claim that they can do all these actions effectively, but there is a huge difference between “going through the motions” of a technique in the air and actually applying enough power to cut a real target.
The easiest way to separate “flash from function” is to start with well-made training karambits and a willing partner. By using the tactics listed above to simulate realistic cuts with the trainer’s edges, you and your partner will immediately feel which actions would produce decisive wounds and which ones are “flash.” If it hurts with a blunt trainer, it will likely cut or puncture with a live blade. If it doesn’t feel like much, it won’t do much.
Equally important, working with trainers will allow you to feel what real pressure feels like when it’s transferred through the knife back to your hand—especially the bones of your middle finger.
Based on this type of evaluation, I divide karambits into several basic categories. The advantages and disadvantages of each are as follows:
Traditional Double-Edged Karambit
The most versatile karambit is the traditional double-edged style with a gently curved blade. In a reverse grip, it cuts with extreme force with the concave edge, but is not prone to catching on bone when cutting limbs.
If the convex edge is sharp, it can also be used for powerful reverse-grip pull cuts or hooking traps with the back of the blade. Its gentle curve does not lend itself well to hammering strikes, but with a slight wrist articulation, they can be transformed into deep, penetrating thrusts.
When spun to extension, this style of karambit has the greatest potential to cut, rip, or strike with the convex surface of the blade. Again, the reason is the gentle curve of the blade’s profile.
Extended sweeping cuts with the concave edge can be somewhat effective with this style of karambit, but only if the ring has a brake. If it doesn’t, the back of the handle applies painful, potentially bone-breaking pressure to the middle finger.
Due to its straighter profile, hammering and thrusting are basically the same motion with this blade.
This style of karambit has a pronounced hook shape to the blade and the point of the blade is typically almost perpendicular to the handle’s centerline.
When wielded with reverse-grip cuts, its concave edge cuts with extreme force. Punching motions aimed slightly off-target can impact with the blade’s point to create a combination thrust/cut that literally “plows” through soft tissue. Longer blades of this style, however, can easily snag on bone, especially when applied against an attacker’s limbs.
The hooked shape allows the back of the blade to deliver powerful hammerfist-style strikes and, if sharpened, deep, shearing hammer-style cuts.
Extended sweeping cuts with this style of blade bite deeply but transfer a lot of energy back through the ring, so a brake helps a lot. Without a brake, this type of karambit excels at draw cuts—pulling the blade straight back toward you. These cuts are also less prone to snagging on bone since the point “rides” around the bone’s circumference.
Where this style of karambit really falls short is in spinning extension cuts with the convex edge. The reason is that the arc of that edge literally defines the outside radius of the knife’s cutting circumference when it is swung. As such, it’s almost impossible for it to cut with any real force with an extension cut. And unless you’re cutting with enough force to cause real damage, you’re not doing anything to really stop your attacker.
The Folding Karambit
The folding karambit is a modern innovation that supposedly combines the convenience of a folding knife with the design and performance characteristics of a traditional karambit. Unfortunately, although the fact that it folds makes it convenient and generally legal to carry, it also severely limits its functionality with many karambit tactics.
In order to fold and be carried safely in the pocket, a karambit folder cannot have a sharpened convex edge. Without this feature, spinning the karambit to execute an extension cut obviously won’t accomplish much. While some will argue that striking with the unsharpened blade is still a valid tactic, it really doesn’t accomplish much and is very hard on the knife’s lock mechanism.
The lack of a sharpened convex edge obviously rules out pulling cuts with the back of the blade. While hammering strikes might work, they also place extreme stress on the lock and can cause it to close like a guillotine on your fingers.
Depending upon the amount of curve in the blade and the convex edge, a folding karambit can still be used for effective pull cuts with the primary edge. If the handle includes a brake, it can also be used for extended cuts with the concave edge while minimizing the risk of breaking your own fingers.
No matter how you slice it, the ultimate measure of the performance of any karambit is its ability to cut and puncture key parts of an attacker’s anatomy, effectively enough to stop him from killing you.
In my approach to knife tactics, this means severing the muscles, tendons, nerves and, to a much lesser degree, the arteries of an assailant’s arms and legs. That translates to the ability to cut through typical clothing and underlying soft tissue to a depth of at least 1.5-2.0 inches—ideally deeper.
If you ascribe to the exsanguination (bleeding out) approach to knife tactics, you’d still need to cut that deep to reach key vessels like the femoral and carotid arteries. Using that as a baseline for minimum effective performance, it’s actually relatively easy to determine which karambit tactics are valid fight stoppers and which are martial artistry.
The flesh analog I use to do this is a target I call “pork man.” It consists of a 3-5-pound pork roast or tenderloin that is butterflied (split lengthwise) and wrapped around a wooden dowel that simulates bone. The meat is secured to the dowel with butcher’s twine to simulate connective tissue and then wrapped with 20-30 layers of plastic wrap to replicate skin.
The resulting target is roughly the same size as a human upper arm or forearm, or the lower section of the thigh. It also comes close to replicating the girth of the neck. Best of all, the wooden dowel accurately represents underlying bone and the challenges of snagging on it with a sharply hooked karambit.
In simple terms, the better you can stabilize the karambit in your hand, the more pressure you can apply and the deeper the blade will cut. Cuts powered by a full grip on the handle are most effective and produce deep, debilitating wounds. Pull cuts with sharply hooked blades are the next most effective, particularly if you stabilize the karambit’s ring by capping it with your thumb.
Sweeping cuts in the extended grip are not particularly powerful, and increasing the pressure of the hand to try to make them so is very uncomfortable—especially if the ring does not have a brake.
Spinning cuts with the convex edge of the blade are by far the least powerful and often fail to penetrate even light clothing. Even against a bare cutting target, they did not cut deeply enough to generate a disabling wound.
Karambit design has a tremendous impact on its effectiveness and practicality as a weapon—especially when it comes to modern self-defense.
Karambits are not all created equal and though some can be applied with the full scope of karambit technique, many—including virtually all folding karambits—cannot. Like any other weapon you plan to bet your life on, don’t settle for theory or flashy technique that looks impressive but won’t stop a determined attacker.
The proof is in the cutting. K&G
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Martial Blade Conceptswww.MartialBladeConcepts.com
Nine-year veteran of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Michael Janich also served a 3-year tour at the National Security Agency. Highly decorated, Michael is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute and served around the world in intelligence and investigative capacities for many years. Utilizing his extensive training in various martial arts and military/LE combatives, he established Paladin Press’ Video Production Department in 1994, running all aspects of video production for 10 years – personally recruiting some of Paladin’s most popular authors and being selected to work with the late Col. Rex Applegate as the producer of his landmark instructional videos on handgun point shooting. Published book and magazine author, Michael has been featured on various television programs and designed knives for many different knife companies throughout the industry. Michael is the founder and lead instructor of his signature knife defense program, Martial Blade Concepts.
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