On Her Own

On Self-Defense Knives…

I’m thinking today about knives. My friends will tell you that’s not all that unusual: ever since I took my first defensive knife class, I’ve been inspired both to train extensively in relevant skills and to collect blades. Which makes me all the more concerned when I hear about the common practice of women and girls carrying knives for self-defense…not because it’s a bad idea overall, but because there are so many misconceptions about them. Here are just a few:

Knives are sometimes recommended and carried because of this idea that they’re not deadly weapons. That’s wrong. Full stop. Using a knife to defend yourself is legally the same as using a gun, and subject to all of the same considerations about whether lethal force is justified in a particular situation. I might be stating the obvious to you, but stabbing or cutting someone in the right way can kill them. That means you can’t use one unless you are facing imminent threat of death or very serious physical injury. Knives also generally require close contact in order to be effective, making fights involving blades an up close and personal affair. If you have a choice to remain distant, that’s almost always going to be better (with some caveats I’m not going to get into here). Otherwise, it’s going to be brutal, violent, and bloody. Survival may very well be a result of luck and a nearby trauma hospital more than anything else. Choosing to use a knife for self-defense means you need to be comfortable with the idea that someone may die literally by your hand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a potential outcome you need to be prepared for.

Lots of us like knives because they’re relatively easy to carry, even with girl clothes and even in girl pockets. They clip to bras and waistbands, and don’t take up much space or stick out unattractively like a gun can. The downside is that they can be extremely difficult to get a hold of in the middle of an attack. Depending on where they are kept, you might not be able to get one out when you think danger might be near…assuming you have early warning. Situational awareness isn’t foolproof, after all, and you can be in the middle of a fight before you realize a bad guy is nearby. When that happens, the knife will not magically teleport into your hand, unfolded and ready to go. I say unfolded because I know many who carry a knife that needs some sort of manipulation to be ready to use. While it can seem simple and easy in practice, it’s guaranteed to be much more complicated and difficult under pressure. Even features like assisted opening, “wave” openers, or buttons aren’t always reliable. That problem can be solved by using a fixed-blade knife that doesn’t need to be manipulated to get the blade away from the handle, but you still have to get your hand on it. Depending on where you’re carrying your knife and your empty-hand fighting skills, that can be a tough proposition.

Standard fixed blades do solve one other problem, though. Unlike folding knives, they’re less likely to fold in half at the worst possible moment, cutting you instead of your attacker. The mechanisms that keep the knife unfolded are not always sturdy and secure against pressure applied in the wrong direction, and you won’t be able to control that in the middle of a fight. Even the better mechanisms, like frame locks, can be problematic if they come from the wrong manufacturer or if there’s simply too much force for them to hold up against. There are ways to test your knife, but they may not tell you the entire story of what can happen against another human body or with bad luck. Low quality fixed blade knives can also fall apart when needed most, and they can include design features that are more dangerous to you than your attacker. The most common is a ring in the handle, meant for you to put a finger through to get a better grip on the knife, which you might see called a karambit. It’s an attractive idea, but one that can cause degloving injuries that strip the skin off your finger when the knife is torqued out of your hand because the blade is having trouble working its way through what you’re cutting or stabbing. Don’t, by the way, search for “degloving” images or video unless you have a strong stomach.

Karambits are often associated with folks who teach that extensive training in very specific techniques is required to be successful in using a knife defensively. Some skills are necessary in order to access your blade and make the most out of it as a weapon, but they don’t require years of study and an excellent memory to learn. The hardest part really is learning how to get to a weapon if someone is trying to hurt you and prevent you from hurting them. Fortunately, those skills can be translated from other areas and largely don’t need to be knife-specific. After that, you can use a knife effectively if you know how to punch effectively. The blade takes away some of the disadvantages you might naturally have, like lesser strength, though it won’t erase a size and strength gap entirely all by itself. Either way, mastering the knowledge that you need is a different story from learning the basics.

All that said, I still carry a defensive knife on a daily basis. This here is my newest, actually, a custom blade made by a good friend and knifemaker as a one-off especially for me. Knives are both more complicated and more simple for self-defense than they appear at face value. Like any other weapon, you can’t just grab one and tote it around, hoping it will help you stay safe without a little more thought and work to decide if it’s really a good choice for you.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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