Design of the Fighting Knife

Design of the Modern Fighting Knife


After my article "How to Survive a Knife Attack" appeared in the July/September (1985) editions of Tae Kwon Do Times, several of my friends in the martial arts, and fellow instructors of the Pacific Northwest suggested I do another article, taking a look at the different types and designs of knife one might encounter in confronting a skilled fighter. They felt once the martial artist understood the rationale behind fighting knives he/she would be able to "think through" the possibilities when practicing technique and ultimately perfect a knife defenses pertinent to every situation, no matter what weapon the opponent has chose.

Originally, it was my intention to give the reader an overview of how the knife evolved as a tool and weapon. Moreover, I hoped to give the reader a firm grasp of two major influences in the design of the "modern" fighting knifes and to show, through use of examples, how these influences continue to manifest in virtually every notable fighting knife on the market.

Origins of the Modern Fighting Knife:

Experts generally agree the knife was one of the earliest, if not the very first, tool used by man. Throughout recorded history, it has been intimately linked with man in his struggle for survival against nature and the elements. When man first learned to shape stone, creating a stone cutting implement soon followed. The blade and the edge were crucial in preparing food, clothing, and even shelter. Most probably, the knife was a fundamental tool in day to day affairs long before its value in combat became established. So fundamental was the link to man, that with each passing state of development, stone, bronze, iron, steel, and alloy, the knife advanced to new levels of functionality as a tool, implement, and weapon.

Even today, it is a natural part of our daily routine. It would be unusual for anyone to dispute they held knives in their hands at least five times any given day. There are a multitude of knives of various types and functions in every household, and at an early age, we understand the fundamental mechanics of using one safely and effectively.

The knife fills several roles in modern lifestyles. These roles can be categorized as functional, life support, ceremonial, survival and self defense. In earliest times, the role of the knife was primarily survival and self defense. A knife was integral to one's ability to exist in a hostile environment, and in primitive societies, it was a valuable item indeed. The knife may have been the first true combat weapon, and paved the way for more sophisticated combat techniques when, with proper construction, it could be thrown effectively; or attached to a staff for use at a distance.

As combat techniques advanced, distancing from the opponent became more important and the greater the distance, the better. Weapons evolved from the club to the spear, to the bow, and then to the gun. With each technological advance, the self defense role of the knife diminished. Prior to the arrival of the 19th century, blade training was an essential part of a gentleman's education. Today's combat strategies have so reduced the possibility of ever having to face an enemy in hand to hand combat, that even in the modern military, knife training is reserved only for those select few whose training in areas of subterfuge require it. Nonetheless, the knife has never lost its identity as a weapon, and for many, it remains the weapon of choice in close combat.

As the survival/self defense roles of the knife fall to specialized segments of our society, it remains top of the list in terms of its ubiquitous presence in modern day assaults and robberies. A cursory glance through any newspaper shows the number of assaults, attacks, robberies, and murders involving the knife far outstrips those involving other weapons. Hence, it is imperative a citizen of the modern world be able to react to the knife confrontation. In a previous article I presented an assortment of viable techniques. Here, we'll study the weapon.

The Bowie Knife and the Dagger:

The modern fighting knife traces its development to two classic knife designs, the Bowie knife, made famous by the American adventurer James Bowie; and the Dagger, resurrected by commandos during World War II, and influential ever since.

The Bowie knife is a classic design by any standard. Conceived and refined in the 19th century, it climaxed the transition period form the long bladed weapon, or sword being the primary individual weapon, to the pistol. With the pistol, the sword met its quick and deserved demise, but the need remained for a well designed "close in" weapon for those situations where the pistol was no longer appropriate (such as when there wasn't ample time to reload the discharged pistol).

The Bowie knife was ideal for the "gentleman" who had already been schooled in the use of the long blade or sword, and in many respects, it preserved enough characteristics of the sword to enable the expert swordsman to become a skilled knife fighter with minimal adjustment. Because of its breakthrough design, as well as the legend of the man whose name it bore, the Bowie was widely established and accepted by the time of the Civil War.

Given modern theories of knife fighting, especially after the influx of innovative knife techniques from the Orient during recent years, the applicability of the Bowie knife has been called into question. Criticism has focused on the traditional single edge blade, the unwieldy weight distribution, and the difficulty employing a reverse hand grip with the traditional design. Valid as these points are, the bottom line is that even with the detractors, world class knife fighters continue to swear by the Bowie knife, and it's here to stay.

The Dagger, or spike, waxed and waned in popularity throughout history. The reincarnation which surfaced during World War II was approximately 11 inches in total length, had an edge on both sides, and was diamond shaped when looking down the length of the knife from the tip. Its smaller size, with a cutting edge on both sides of the blade, revolutionized the offensive techniques of Western knife fighting, opening up new theories of movement, including the use of slashes, and reverse hand movements which would have been impractical with the traditional Bowie design.

Today, virtually all knives are patterned after the Bowie or the Dagger, or attempt to capitalize on the advantages of each design in a "combined" concept. In the following paragraphs, I intend to demonstrate the influence of these designs in fighting knives being produced today, afterwhich I will conclude with those elements of design which I feel are essential in my personal choice for an "ideal" fighting knife.

The Bowie Influence

The SAS (Special Air Services):

The SAS nicely demonstrates the "highlights" inherent in the Bowie Design. Visible on first glance are the Bowie "look," demonstrating the unique proportion between handle and blade, the ever present hand guard, and the classic Bowie blade, which can run up to 12 inches in length in a modern knife.

The SAS, while preserving the integral concept, has incorporated some significant modifications to circumvent the inherent weaknesses of the traditional design.

Photograph 1a: The Bowie influence on this weapon is readily apparent. The special shape of the handgrip and guard allows for maximum grip efficiency, and comfortable placement of the thumb for enhanced control. Note the razor sharp edge on both sides of the blade, and the optional "notch" or "blade snapper," preferred by some fighters.

Photograph 1b: Careful use of the "notch" can snare, control, and perhaps even snap an opponent's blade.


Photographs 1c-e: The unique contour of the SAS hand guard allows for a comfortable reverse hand grip, opening up counters not normally available with the Bowie design.

The sample shown has a unique handle, and taper to the hand guard, allowing a very comfortable, and effective reverse hand grab. The top of the blade does have a razor sharp edge, opening up an array of slashes and reverse cuts not feasible with the traditional design. Lastly, the unique cut in the blade at the hand guard allows the hand guard to "catch" the opponent's blade when executing blocks, and according to the designer, a skilled fighter might even apply this design to "snap" the opponent's blade, while executing a blocking technique.


The Rezin Bowie:

Photograph 2:  The Rezin Bowie

The Rezin Bowie demonstrates the traditional Bowie "size." Looking at this particular version, it is easy to understand why a "gentleman" trained in the sword, found it an easy transition to adapt to the Bowie. The Rezin Bowie also incorporates some modern concepts as offsets to weaknesses in the traditional design. The handle presents a "tailored" grip, thereby form fitting the knife to the shape of the owner's hand, enabling him to more efficiently control and maneuver the blade in a fight. Also the blade presents a more symmetrical look than the traditional design, which in conjunction with the sharpened edge, almost gives the weapon the appearance of an overgrown dagger.

The Combat Survivor:

Photograph 3a:  The Combat Survivor

Photograph 3b: Close-up of the unique hand guard and custom grip of the combat survivor.

This descendant of the Bowie concept is notable for its enhanced hand guard, and a tailored handle grip. As the accompanying photographs show, the careful design of the handgrip and hand guard allow for maximum combat efficiency even when using a reverse grip with the unique design.

Photographs 3c-e: The specially designed hand grip on the Combat Survivor is comfortable with virtually all grips.

The Dagger Influence

The Raider:

Photograph 4a: The Raider

Photograph 4b: Optional thumb notches can be carved at the base of the Raider's handle for improved grip.

Photograph 4c: The Raider's blade consists of two major edges, and two minor edges, all razor sharp.

All of the elements of the classical dagger design are immediately evident in the Raider. The weapon is a carefully shaped bar of steel, perfectly weighted, with two razor sharp cutting edges, and a unique handle design, allowing maximum control, quick maneuverability, and strong action when necessary. Incorporated in this design are some modern improvements on the original concept. The blade preserves the original diamond shape, but capitalizes on that shape by creating two additional edges on the minor aspects of the diamond. In hand to hand combat, the Raider can deliver a major cut from virtually any direction. Another modification is the thumb notch at the apex of the handle. These allow enhanced thumb control for the fighter who prefers vertical or diagonal slashing attacks. Similarly, the Raider provides a flat thumb platform at the top of the handle to maximize grip and thumb control for the fighter who favors the side to side, or angular slash. All told, the Raider is the weapon for someone who is serious about his knife fighting. In terms of concealability, portability, and versatility it would be hard to come up with a more effective design.

The Raider II:


Photographs 5a-b: The Raider II...two versions.

Photograph 5c: The extended handle of the Raider II is a weapon in its own right.


Photograph 5d: Closeup of the thumb notch carved into the handle platform of the Raider II.

This modification of the original Raider design is a favorite among military commandos because of its non glare/ non reflective construction. Important for secondary fighting tactics is the length of the handle, allowing it to serve as an additional, blunt end striking/or controlling surface. Nicely visible in the photographs is the unique "thumb notch," inserted to enhance the grip control for the fighter who favors the side to side slash.




Modern Concepts

Though it is difficult to find any modern knife design that drifts far from the influence of either the Bowie or the Dagger, it is nonetheless true to state that modern knife makers are forever searching for that ultimate combination of design and technology leading to the yet undiscovered perfect design. Currently two major trends are evident in the trade. First, as was clear throughout this article, knife makers continue to study, research, and refine the classical Bowie/Dagger designs, gradually weaning away drawbacks inherent in the traditional concepts, and attempting to incorporate the best features into hybrid designs for the future. Second, some designers are evolving entirely new approaches, based upon careful study of the anatomy and modern breakthroughs in knife fighting tactics. Below, we will look at two examples which epitomize the current trends in knife design.


Photograph 6a-e:

 The Kopf Jager...A merger of the traditional Bowie and Dagger influences. The contour of the rear hand guard of the Kopf Jager provides a comfortable fit for the fighter's thumb, increasing leverage in vertical slashes.

The thumb notch carved into the handle of the Kopf Jager allows for superior grip in sideways movements and straight in thrusts.

The Kopf Jager:

Aptly demonstrating efforts of the modern knife maker to amalgamate fine points of the Bowie to the Dagger in a modern design is the Kopf Jager. This is a classic design in its own right, melding the two philosophies into a perfectly functional, versatile unit. Immediately apparent is the traditional Bowie handguard, modified to accommodate varied handgrips. Note the thumb notch carved into the custom handle, and how the rear contour of the hand guard allows for comfortable placement of the thumb so that maximum thrust/slash penetration is comfortable with virtually any grip. The graceful taper of the blade into the turnaway hand guard opens up new strategic avenues for effective use of the handguard in defending and exploding into quick counters. Lastly, a further study of this unique blade reflects the Bowie influence in its design, and the Dagger influence in its balance and symmetry. This is truly a weapon for the experienced fighter, and seeing one in the hands of an opponent should certainly signal the defender that a difficult confrontation lay ahead.


The Devil's Spike:




Photograph 7a-c: The blade of the Devil's Spike is designed to inflict maximum injury and the unique handle assures maximum penetration in the thrust .

Proving that modern knife makers still have plenty of creative juices is the Devil's Spike. It is safe to say that this weapon stands alone, and comes from a different family tree than either the Bowie or the Dagger. The three edged blade with its cutaway spoon base is a surgeon's nightmare, producing wounds to internal organs that are painstakingly difficult to close, if not impossible. This weapon is for the consummate specialist who routinely goes for targets on the trunk of the body, and has perfected his attacks to hit designated areas virtually at will. Equally as extraordinary as the futuristic blade is the wide bodied handle, with carved thumb notch. This design greatly enhances leverage and penetration for the fighter who favors powerful thrusts into his opponent's vital organs.

Searching for the Ideal


Photograph 8a: The Kauffroath

Whenever I do a knife fighting seminar, students inevitably come to me with the question "What is the best knife for the average person?" The answer is that even the finest knife becomes a mediocre weapon when put into the hands of the "average" person. Unless you take knife fighting seriously enough to study it as a martial art in its own right, you're throwing money away buying a custom knife. However, once you've made the commitment to the art, you will quickly discover there is a particular size and weight relationship that makes some knives feel especially comfortable in your hand. Though I think the Bowie is a terrific weapon, as a martial artist I feel the tactical advantages of a double edged weapon are so overwhelming that the student of knife fighting would seriously limit his/her fighting style by training with a single edge blade. My preference is for the blade to be as simple as possible, with the taper confined to the tip of the blade, with the balance maintained by even width. This allows for a quick penetration into the opponent and ease of removal afterwards. The


Photographs 8b-c: The extended butt end of the Kauffroath allows for an additional striking/control surface.

handguard is an optional item for most fighters, and unless it is very carefully designed, can cause problems with concealability, excess weight, balance, and handling. Still, I am convinced the handguard opens up new vistas for the fighter willing to expand his/her style, and I recommend it for my ideal knife. Lastly, I prefer a "neutral" or simply designed handle, allowing for quick change of handgrip, and transfer of the weapon from one hand to the other. The butt of the handle should extend far enough beyond the hand grip so that it becomes a functional part of the knife fighter's arsenal as a striking or control surface.

Once, after a seminar, a gentleman by the name of Roy Kauffroath from Bremerton, Washington (eventually we became lifelong friends) asked me what I felt were the ideal features of a fighting knife. Essentially, I responded with the same comments as above. To my surprise and delight, when I next encountered Mr. Kauffroath, he presented me with a practice weapon, custom made to my specifications. So, thanks to Mr. Kauffroath, we have the accompanying photographs of the "Kauffroath," or what I feel to be the ideal design for my personal fighting style.


In researching this article, I was astonished at the dedication, expertise, and creativity brought by modern knife makers to their art. Meeting with them brought to mind images of medieval Japanese craftsmen bringing generations of knowledge to bear in creating bladed weapons which have become standards for all time. Until meeting the modern craftsmen, I never anticipated the same "impeccable" attitude would be found today, and was delighted to learn it was prevalent among this unique guild.

Photographs 8d-h: A well conceived knife, such as the Kauffroath, opens up multiple grips and attacks not available with lesser knives.

My first instructor in the art of knife fighting stressed that by carefully studying the weapon as held, I would be able to better understand my opponent. In the case of the experienced knife fighter, his selection of design is largely determined by his strengths and weaknesses, maximizing the former, avoiding the other. Learning to "read the knife" tells much about the opponent before he even moves.

In the course of this article, we have presented the major influences in current knife design, and have demonstrated these influences with numerous examples. You are well on the road toward being able to "read" your opponent. The rest is up to you!

In closing, I must acknowledge a special debt of gratitude to Paul Inman, Brad Dugan, and Joe Karreci of Pacific Northwest Gun and Knife, Ltd. Without their generous gift of time and their help in collecting the sample weapons described herein, this article would not have been possible.

Author's Note: This article was originally written in 1985, but holds true today. Pacific Northwest Gun and Knife, Ltd. eventually shut down with Paul Inman, Brad Dugan, and Joe Karreci continuing their pursuits elsewhere. Their creations, some of which are shown in this article, were among the finest specimens of fighting weapons I have ever seen.

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