Story and Photos by Steve Whipple
The humble push dagger (also referred to as a push knife or punch dagger) is an often-overlooked knife these days.
Perhaps because of its fierce appearance, limited utility and potential illegality, many knife users forgo it—and, accordingly, most knife manufacturers and makers don’t bother offering one. But within its scope of application, the push dagger makes for an excellent weapon; and in certain roles is without peer.
At this point in the article, most writers would regale you with purported historical tales of the push dagger, wielded by Nineteenth Century riverboat gamblers defending their winnings and their honor, as they plied their trade up and down the Mississippi River. Yeah, whatever.
First of all, as patrons of this site, I’m sure most of you have read all that stuff before.
Second, I’m not sure any of it is true anyway. Sure, some push daggers were manufactured in the 1800s, and perhaps some were even carried by passengers on Mississippi riverboats. But I’ve been a knife guy my whole life, reading as much about knife use as I can possibly get my hands on, and I’ve never once read a verified account of one being used in a riverboat fracas.
Finally, even if that history of push daggers is true, what difference does it make? Last I checked, there aren’t a whole lot of people earning their livings from riverboat gambling these days. So, any historical context for present-day use is little more than romantic window dressing. You don’t need that.
So, what role does the modern push dagger have in our current era? Fundamentally, close-quarters defense. Oh, some models have a small measure of utility use, particularly the more diminutive, single-edged offerings. But when you weigh the knife’s attributes, it really boils down to a very effective, short-range melee weapon.
Before I discuss the push dagger’s merits, I think it’s important to manage expectations by clarifying what it’s not.
A push dagger is not a substitute for an everyday-carry pocketknife. It’s not good for paring an apple, whittling a soapbox derby car or freeing Flipper from a tuna net. A push dagger also is not a stand-in for most fixed blades, as they are commonly employed.
You’re not going to use one to carve a fuzz stick or fillet your trout. If you try to chop wood with one, you’ll be sorely disappointed by the results.
Where the push dagger earns its place, is in the realm of close-in, high-intensity conflict resolution.
If you carry a firearm on a regular basis and are even remotely concerned about weapon retention, I urge you to examine the push dagger. In that role, the push dagger excels, having the benefit of being light, compact, easy to conceal (sometimes even in plain sight—often people don’t recognize one for what it is), intuitive to use and difficult to lose once in hand.
Most importantly, however, it’s effective.
By way of example, I’ll relate a real-world use of a push dagger, told to me by longtime Cold Steel representative Robert Vaughn, at Blade Show 2019.
During an urban assault, conducted in one of the world’s less pleasurable tourism destinations, a French Commando was blindsided by a hidden terrorist. In a fight for his life, in quarters so close that they prevented the use of his firearm, the Commando drew his Cold Steel Defender push dagger and used it to kill his attacker.
One punch to the man’s chest with the knife was all that it took. Now that’s an effective fight-stopper!
A frequently overlooked audience for the push dagger is women seeking a potent self-defense tool.
Like any knife, it’s an instrument of lethal force, when used against another human being, and you must approach it as such. But, unfortunately, women’s self-defense all too often occurs at very close, interpersonal distances, and that’s where the push dagger shines.
Because it requires no real training to use (just wrap your fist around the handle and punch like you’re trying to win a Golden Gloves competition) and is incredibly difficult for an adversary to dislodge from your grasp, it makes an ideal weapon for anyone unable/unwilling to carry a handgun—or who is concerned about having her weapon taken and turned against her.
For all its benefits, the push dagger does have a few drawbacks.
For one thing, it is a short-bladed weapon with very limited reach. With knife work, range is tremendously important. If you can reach out and touch your adversary without permitting him to get close enough to harm you, you have a huge advantage. The short blades, and shorter handles, of push daggers buy you nothing in this arena. Again, they are truly (and exclusively) personal-distance weapons.
Another limitation of the push dagger is that it tends to be slow to draw—particularly from concealment—and can be easy to fumble when doing so. I find that the T-shaped handle will often catch the fabric of a concealing garment as I clear the knife for retrieval, preventing a proper grip or even causing the clear to fail. This is especially true of Kraton-handled models.
A couple of years ago, while working in the middle of the night, I had to crawl from the back seat of a darkened vehicle into the front seat. As I did so, my concealing shirt caught the Kraton handle of the push dagger on my belt and yanked it out of the sheath. I didn’t feel it happen and only realized that it had when I discovered the knife tangled in my shirt!
Thankfully, it didn’t stab or cut me before I found it. I learned the lesson, though, and I don’t carry that model in that way any longer.
In addition to being difficult to access, a push dagger can be awkward to index properly as you withdraw it, particularly in a hurry. Personally, I prefer push daggers with asymmetric, canted handles (i.e., more of a pistol-grip configuration), designed to index correctly with the tang between your forefinger and middle finger.
When I expressed this preference to Cold Steel’s Richard Lee, at Blade Show 2019, he told me that Cold Steel had done a lot of testing of various push dagger designs—including the pistol-grip style—with numerous police officers, conducting weapon retention drills. According to Lee, those tests demonstrated that the pistol-grip design occasionally led to awkward, unstable grip orientation, particularly when the knife was retrieved off-hand.
He said that the indexing issue was far less prevalent and problematic with symmetric, T-shaped grips, which was why all of Cold Steel’s push daggers were constructed with them. My personal preference notwithstanding, I have no reason to question Cold Steel’s findings, and Mr. Lee’s comments bear repeating for your consideration.
By now, hopefully I’ve whetted your appetite sufficiently to consider owning a push dagger. So, who offers them?
When it comes to production models, your search really has to start with Cold Steel. Cold Steel’s first knives were push daggers, and the company has cataloged them for its entire forty-year existence—offering over a score of different models in multiple sizes. Moreover, as indicated above, Cold Steel tests all of its products, meaning that you can be certain that the knife you choose has proven performance.
Aside from Cold Steel, push daggers are offered by Benchmade, TOPS, ESEE, CRKT, Gerber, WE, Browning, Schrade, and United. Offerings from these companies are generally limited to one or two models, but some of their designs are quite unique and worth a look.
In the custom/mid-tech arena, look at MercWorx, Shadow Tech, Winkler, Atlas Dynamic Defense and Bastinelli Creations. Of these, I have personal experience only with Shadow Tech, which is top notch. I can attest to the general excellence of MercWorx and Winkler knives but have never used or even handled push daggers from either.
The diminutive push dagger is a lightweight, that fights way out of proportion to its class. If you’re in the market for an easy-to-use, easy-to-conceal, easy-to-retain weapon, by all means give one of these blades a try. K&G
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Steve has spent more than twenty years in federal law enforcement. He's been an incurable (and unrepentant) knife and gear guy his whole life, always seeking new innovations, as long as they actually solve a problem or improve performance. With that said, he has been known to buy new stuff just because he thought it was cool. He holds a special fixation on combat knives and knife combat, spending more time than he really ought, studying such things. Steve continues to work routinely in an undercover capacity, so the accompanying photo may or may not be an accurate likeness.
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