This is an article I had printed in Black Belt Magazine as I wrote it before it was edited. I think my inclusion of "traditional" names for grips was a mistake because none of my Guro's ever used traditional names for knife grips, instead they usually used forehand grip and reverse grip. However I hope you enjoy the article and if you did read the Black Belt you will see that this article is quite different than what went to print.
I hope everyone enjoys this article.
What’s in a grip?
During a social gathering with some knife fighting practitioners there was a bit of a debate as to whether or not the reverse grip was the grip of the “real knife fighter”. This discussion was sparked by one of the instructor who stated that if a fighter held his knife in the “sabre grip instead of reverse grip usually meant he did not know how to use a knife”.
This is a statement I have heard many times in talking to martial artists but the grip that was the “real knife fighters grip” changed depending on who was giving the instruction. I am not knocking what was taught; it was a very good session taught by a very skilled martial artist. What I am trying to do is help remove some misconceptions about knife fighting and knife handling.
In FMA knife fighting grips are divided into 3 basic types; Dunggab grip, or reverse grip with the edge out, Sak Sak grip or forward grip, and Pikal grip, or edge in reverse grip (pikal supposedly means to rip). Each grip has its merits and its strengths. Of course there are many more variations but I am just working with what is most common.
In military knife fighting history they divided the grips into three basic grips. The forward hammer grip, the reverse hammer grip and the sabre grip (a looser more dexterous version of the forward hammer grip). Up until the 1970’s the reverse grip was derided by the military as the grip of the amateur. In fact early military knife experts such as Colonel Rex Applegate and William Fairburn in their famous books and military manuals stated many times that the reverse grip was the grip of the deranged and the inexperienced. 1950’s knife expert and US Marine hand to hand expert John Styers wrote a knife fighting dissertation for leatherneck magazine that was printed over a hand full of issues in Leatherneck Magazine. The Styers method is influenced by the method taught by Colonel A J Drexel Biddle and was based on using the Bowie knife in much the same manner as a sabre. Today Master at Arms James Albert Keating is a huge proponent of this type of knife use. (The interesting thing is that Styers used a short 18 inch baton in the reverse grip in this same series of articles.) These articles are collected in the classic book Cold Steel.
In the 1970’s with the American fascination with Kung Fu and eastern martial arts suddenly the reverse grip fighting styles began to creep into the military and the western mindset. Michael Echanis was a huge proponent of this type of fighting and was probably the source of the statement that the reverse grip fighting method being the hallmark of the real expert.
So is the reverse grip the hallmark of the superior knife fighter; absolutely not. It is however an excellent grip for certain knife applications. It is great to use if you want to keep your knife hidden until it is buried in your opponent. It is excellent for knives at extreme close range. It is my preferred grip against unarmed opponents. It is well suited for the mindset of defending against longer weapons such as sticks and machetes because it does not give a false impression of range. The reverse grip or Dunggab grip is great for slamming the blade through body armour and bone on downward strokes. Another important thing about the Dunggab grip is that you can put your thumb on the pommel to help keep your hand from slipping down the handle onto the blade on committed stabs.
The reverse grip has a some merit in knife fighting but it does have many weaknesses. You lose a full blade length of range with the knife in reverse grip. You complete throw away the ability to use snap cuts and other long range tactics such as the long range thrust and biomechanical attacks to the arms and legs at long range.
In a down and dirty close range fight the Sak Sak grip allows the dreadful tactic of stabbing the mid-section of an opponent up under the rib cage or the sewing machine attack where you hold the opponent and apply multiple stabs to his midsection. The Filipino knife systems often use footwork, range and timing to work around an opponent and use multiple slashes and stabs to weaken an opponent from long range or “largo” range. Reverse grip knife fighting completely nullifies this tactic but the clinch nullifies this tactic as well.
It is obvious there is no one perfect knife fighting grip or stance, however if you are looking to quickly kill an opponent, then reverse grip knife fighting with the proper tactics can be perfect for this. You can hide the blade and use it very effectively at close range. You can slash and stab with the knife. The reverse grip makes it possible to use the knife as a hook and a lever on an opponent. It lends itself to some interesting tactics, especially in clinching range. This is why the instructor’s method was perfectly suited for military use of the knife and reality base self-defence.
The other thing that is apparent is that neither grips show anything about the skill or knowledge of the knife fighter. What sets a tactical knife fighter apart from an amateur are many things. A skilled knife fighter rarely leads with the knife, except to bate an opponent to make a counter slash, but this is more of a duelling tactic, in real fighting a good knife fighter will usually protect his weapon by having it back and protecting it with his empty hand. Most importantly a real knife fighter will be adaptable and competent in using his knife in many different ways and will be able to move from different grips and stances depending on the situation. Just like there is not just one “real way” to stand when you fight empty hands, there is also no one way to hold a knife when you fight.
Just like empty hand fighting, there are many different ways to use a knife. Just about every culture in the world has a different take on knife fighting. Some have similar tactics, while some will contradict each other. It really does not matter what system you follow, only if it will work for you.
However regardless as to what grip an attacker holds his knife in there is very little likelihood that he or she is a trained knife fighter, but that makes no difference. A knife wielded by any aggressive attacker is very dangerous regardless of training. An untrained emotionally charged lunatic is probably more unpredictable then a trained knife fighter. Knives are lethal weapons and never should be underestimated in a self-defence situation. Regardless of training you will be at a huge disadvantage if you are empty handed and should regard every knife attacker as an expert.