Story and Photos by Michael Janich
Any time you use a hand-held weapon, the way you grip that weapon has a profound effect on how effectively you can employ it. If you can’t hold a weapon well, you have little hope in doing much good with it.
Much has been written about knife fighting grips and their significance to both the offensive and defensive use of the knife. Ultimately, however, a good combative knife grip means a functional knife grip. The best way to learn what that entails is to observe skilled knife players in action and validate various grip options in full-force training.
If we look beyond culture, tradition, and martial misinformation, a functional combative knife grip must accomplish three things:
Criteria 1 and 2 are pretty much self-explanatory. Criterion number 3 means that a good knife grip must enable you to manage the shock of full-force impact without suffering damage to your own hand.
For example, even if you thrust at soft tissue, the possibility of hitting something hard like a bone, cell phone, or belt buckle still exists. And if this happens, the force of your thrust, as well as the force of his forward momentum, will converge on the grip that you have on your knife. If that grip isn’t strong, the odds of you either dropping your knife or damaging your own hand are pretty high.
When considering knife grip—or any weapon grip—it is important to understand how the muscles of the forearm provide strength and dexterity to the hand. The strongest muscles of the forearm are the ones that power the middle, ring, and little fingers. The index finger and thumb rely on different muscles that are designed primarily for dexterity.
This is exactly why your “master grip” on a handgun focuses on the last three fingers, leaving the index finger and thumb free to work independently to operate triggers and safeties.
With these three criteria in mind, let’s take a hard look at the pros and cons of different knife grips. Note that all descriptions are based on a right-handed grip.
This term was coined by the late Col. Rex Applegate in his classic work Kill or Get Killed.
To assume this grip, simply make a fist around the handle of the knife with the blade extending from the thumb side of the hand. Curl the thumb down and squeeze the hand tight.
The hammer grip is very strong and creates lots of surface contact of the hand on the handle of the knife. It’s great for weapon retention and impact-shock management and many knife practitioners use it exclusively.
However, its focus on strength can sometimes compromise speed and accuracy. As such, it is best utilized with heavy-bladed knives—suited for chopping and hacking tactics—or as a momentary convulsive grip at the moment of impact. Proponents of reverse-edge or “edge-in” tactics also prefer the hammer grip.
The saber grip is so named because it resembles the traditional grip taken on a fencing saber.
With the plane of the blade held vertically, the fingers are curled around the handle and the thumb is pressed against the upper quillon of the crossguard (if the knife has one) or anchored to the thumb ramp at the front of the handle. The wrist is also turned downward to aim the point of the knife at the opponent.
This grip provides much better maneuverability and accuracy than the hammer grip but is not nearly as secure. During strong thrusts, the thumb can impact painfully against the guard or thumb ramp. If these aren’t present, the hand may slide onto the blade itself. The canted wrist position also makes wrist sprains possible during powerful thrusts.
The saber grip is best suited for large knives with crossguards, that actually handle like a saber (e.g. Bowies). To protect the thumb from impact, it can be held slightly away from the guard or to the left side of it. This latter position is sometimes called the quarter-saber grip.
The foil grip came to us from fencing and was the grip recommended by WWII-era combatives authorities W.E. Fairbairn and Col. Rex Applegate.
It is very similar to the saber grip, except that the plane of the blade is held horizontally, with the edge to the left (if the knife is single edged). In this position, the thumb rides on the left side of the handle.
This grip provides good speed and mobility for inward and downward slashes but is less functional for backhand cutting and thrusting. It is best suited for short-handled, double-edged knives and other small knives, like neck knives, that do not offer enough handle area for other grip styles.
This is a term that I coined after years of observing skilled practitioners of the Filipino martial arts in action. I later learned that this grip is also very similar to the traditional grip of Japanese tantojutsu knife fighting.
To assume this grip, lay the handle of the knife across your palm, at the base of your fingers. Curl the little, ring, and middle fingers tightly around the lower portion of the handle and make this tension the focus of your grip. Extend your thumb straight along the back of the blade (or top of the guard if the knife is so equipped) and curl your index finger in to complete the grip.
The primary advantage of the Filipino grip is that the position of the thumb allows it to be used as a natural, almost instinctive, guide for the blade. Think of ringing a doorbell. You don’t have to close one eye and carefully aim your thumb at the button; you just do it. By placing the thumb on the spine of the blade, this innate accuracy is easily transferred to the cutting edge and point, and the knife becomes a natural extension of the hand.
The Filipino grip uses the strength of the last three fingers to anchor the knife’s handle securely to the base of the palm—the portion of the hand best suited to absorbing impact shock. Unlike the saber grip, it also allows the wrist to remain straight and strong and the extended thumb allows greater surface-area contact between the hand and the handle.
In the traditional Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), there are two other variations of this grip that are commonly seen. The first has the thumb extended a couple of inches above and parallel to the back of the blade. This grip is used to trap and control an opponent by catching his limb or his weapon between the thumb and the back of the blade.
A second variation has both the thumb and the index finger extended and the entire focus of the grip on the last three fingers of the hand. This provides a good index for thrusting, since the blade bisects the angle of the thumb and fingers. Just reach for the target as if grasping it and your thrust will be on target.
Both of these variations do compromise the strength of your grip and are not recommended as primary fighting grips.
This grip is often seen in the Indonesian martial arts because of their preference for the kris and similar pistol grip-style knives.
To assume this grip, place the butt of the handle against the base of the palm and curl the thumb and last three fingers of the hand around the handle to anchor it in place. Extend the index finger along the handle and the flat of the blade so it points right down the centerline of the blade. Some systems, like kuntao, place the index and middle fingers alongside the blade.
Like the thumb in the Filipino grip, the extended finger(s) make the knife a natural extension of the hand. Just think of poking the target with your fingertip and your thrust will be right on the mark.
Unfortunately, this grip doesn’t work well for cutting. Because there is no support in line with the blade’s edge, truly forceful cuts can easily dislodge the knife.
Sometimes also called a “scalpel” grip, this grip is particularly suited to hawkbill knives and very short blades.
The handle of the knife is again held against the palm, with the last three fingers of the hand, but the index finger is placed right on the back of the blade. This transforms the index finger into a lethal talon that can be used almost instinctively for slashing and clawing movements. Unfortunately, this grip is poorly suited to thrusting and offers marginal weapon retention potential.
This grip can be assumed exactly like the hammer or Filipino grips, with the exception that the blade extends from the little-finger side of the hand. Although the hammer grip-style is stronger, the Filipino grip is more flexible and provides a better index. By “capping” the butt of the handle with the extended thumb, you can virtually eliminate the possibility of the hand sliding onto the blade during impact.
The reverse grip does not work well at long range because it requires excessive wrist movement to cut effectively. At close range, however, it allows powerful upward cuts and devastating backhand and downward thrusts. It also enables the user to employ a variety of unique hooking, trapping and redirecting tactics. The reverse grip can also be used with reverse-edge tactics in which the cutting edge faces back toward the ulnar side of the user’s forearm.
This category includes any grip style that is specific to a unique or unusual handle design. A perfect example of this would be the index-finger hole of Fred Perrin’s La Griffe, which provides outstanding grip security, but requires a grip specific to its design.
Ultimately, your choice of combative knife grip will depend upon your hand size, your choice of knife, and your tactical needs.
To find out which grips work best for you, get some realistic training knives and do some full power cutting impact on resilient training targets. Evaluate accuracy, control, and the ability to manage impact shock and then make an educated decision.
Since it’s your life on the line, it should also be your choice. If the grip you choose works for you, it works. 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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