Story and Photos by Michael Janich
Gripping a knife with the blade extending from the little-finger side of the hand is nothing new.
Whether you call it reverse grip, “ice-pick” grip, “Earth” grip, or something else, it’s an approach to knife tactics that has been used for centuries, by many cultures around the world. And, like any other choice of tactics, it has both advantages and disadvantages.
In recent years, there have been a number of knife-fighting systems that have gained popularity by focusing heavily on rapid-fire, reverse-grip thrusts and cuts. While the skills of the practitioners of these systems are impressive and their tactics are undeniably deadly, there is still a huge difference between the use of lethal force in self-defense and preemptive murder or attempted murder.
True self-defense is incredibly difficult, because it requires not only an effective level of “net violence” to decisively stop the threat, but the justifiable and appropriate use of violence based on the dynamically changing nature of the threat.
For example, if an attacker armed with a potentially lethal contact-distance weapon—like a tire iron—is intent on using it to bash your skull in, you would be justified in using lethal force to defend yourself.
If that lethal force consists of a flurry of thrusts and cuts to his neck and face, you could easily argue that he still posed a lethal threat to you when you delivered those strikes. If, however, your tactics teach you to maneuver around behind your attacker and finish him off with additional cuts and thrusts to his back, your claim of self-defense wanes pretty quickly.
Once you’re behind him, your attacker no longer has the ability to target you effectively. Depending upon your environment, you may also have the opportunity to run or create distance at that point—avoiding further use of violence.
Purposely choosing to stay engaged and inflicting wounds from behind establishes you as the aggressor and creates a “work product” consistent with the criminal use of knives.
I have been an expert consultant on a number of cases in which knives were allegedly used in self-defense. In every one, the actions of the parties involved were analyzed in excruciating detail, with close attention to the timeline of events. At every step, both the capabilities and intent of each party were also constantly assessed. Those who didn’t stop once the threat of lethal force against them had been eliminated or avoided were held criminally accountable.
As the saying goes, “You will fight the way you train, so train the way you want to fight.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of reverse-grip tactics as they apply to self-defense application, not as a more deadly martial arts expression of knife tactics.
The primary difference between reverse-grip and standard-grip (with the knife’s blade extending from the thumb side of the hand) tactics is its effective range.
When you grip a knife in reverse grip, you give up at least several inches in reach. That means that you must make the commitment to fight up close and have the skills and tactics to do so effectively. Since most real attacks are initiated at close range or in a confined environment, you may not have a choice, but you should still understand that it’s a conscious compromise.
The body mechanics of downward and forehand stabs in reverse grip are based on mechanically efficient gross motor skills. Like hitting with a hammer or club, these caveman-style actions are also extremely consistent with the gross-motor-skill override that occurs during a life-threatening incident.
Despite their power and potential lethality, however, reverse-grip thrusts do not guarantee rapid incapacitation, even when delivered to the face, neck, or upper torso. Killing and stopping are still two very different things.
The body mechanics of wielding a knife in standard grip offer a significantly wider range of natural motion than reverse grip. The key term here is “natural motion.”
Reverse grip excels at thrusting, offering powerful inward and downward hammer-style thrusts and quick, woodpecker-like backhand stabs. When it comes to cutting tactics, however, reverse grip is limited. Yes, it is certainly possible to wave a knife around in reverse-grip figure eights, but that motion is not natural, nor is it powerful enough to cut with telling effect.
Edge-in cuts with reverse grip generally start as hammer-style thrusts and morph into pulling cuts with the edge, which faces back toward the user. Powerful and capable of inflicting devastating damage, this type of cut is also primarily offensive in nature. As such, they are more difficult to justify in the context of self-defense.
Edge-out cuts in reverse-grip are less accurate and less instinctive, because the blade “trails” the hand. At longer ranges, you must articulate your wrist to get the blade to extend beyond your fist if you hope to cut with any effect. Even then, full-speed, full-extension cuts often result in banging your knuckles before the blade makes contact with the target, dissipating the force of the cut significantly and limiting your ability to achieve a deep, disabling wound.
Reverse-grip cutting works best with short-range, upward and forehand cuts delivered with a bent arm and powered by the drive of the shoulder. To ensure accuracy, think of punching just above the intended target. This will index the heel of the blade and apply pressure before the length of the edge is driven through the target.
One distinctive advantage of the reverse grip is its ability to hook and redirect the attacker’s limbs to achieve a position of advantage. At a basic level, it allows “barrier removal”—hooking and moving your attacker’s limb to expose a higher-value target.
A more advanced application, known as palisut in the Filipino martial arts (FMA), involves hooking the attacking arm to move from the “inside”—the danger zone between your attacker’s arms—to the “outside,” where you’re safer and have more options to finish the encounter on your terms.
While the palisut tactic can be employed by itself, it is even more effective when combined with checks and blocks with the non-weapon, or “live,” hand and upward cutting strokes that target the flexor muscles and tendons on the inside of the forearm. This “check-cut-hook” sequence is commonly known as “Cover and Slash” and is a core reverse-grip skill in many FMA systems.
Palisut is also a key component of my Martial Blade Concepts (MBC) approach to reverse-grip tactics; however, we modify it to focus on achieving an immediate fight-stopping cut.
At the bottom of the hooking arc, the knife hand is turned palm-up and the arm is straightened into a strut, to deliver a powerful pressure cut to the lower quadriceps muscle, just above the knee.
Depending upon the position of the attacker’s feet, there is a good chance you can cut both quads with a single motion. Executed properly, the locked, straight-arm structure of this tactic harnesses the power of your body weight to create a devastating mobility-killing cut.
One aspect of knife-based self-defense that is often ignored is the action of drawing your knife and achieving a solid grip before you initiate your preferred tactics.
Many reverse-grip proponents focus exclusively on the centerline carry of fixed-blade knives to address this issue. While drawing a fixed blade directly into reverse grip from this position is quick and positive, this approach doesn’t work for everyone.
In many jurisdictions the carry of concealed fixed-blade knives is illegal. Even if you live somewhere where concealed fixed blades are allowed, this style of carry works best for reasonably fit people with flat stomachs. If you happen to be “better fed,” carrying a knife in this way can be uncomfortable and difficult to conceal.
Most folding knife deployment methods favor the standard grip. If you prefer reverse-grip tactics that means you have to first draw your knife into standard grip and then change grips before you can employ your tactics. Changing grips is a complex motor skill that can easily fall apart under stress.
One way to overcome this is by choosing a folder with an Emerson Opener feature (aka “Wave”) or fitting it with an aftermarket attachment like a 5×5 Combat Solutions “Pickpocket.”
By switching the pocket clip to the opposite side of the handle, the knife can be carried in the pocket with the spine of the blade facing forward. When drawn toward the front of the pocket, the blade’s hook snags the lip of the pocket and the knife opens directly into reverse grip.
Like any other realistic deployment method, this skill must be integrated with sound empty-hand skills to “earn” your draw. Some reverse-grip advocates invariably demonstrate Waved folder openings by starting with their hand on the knife. While fast and impressive, this approach is also deceiving if your focus is on reactive self-defense.
There is a significant difference between self-defense and martial arts tactics. If you carry a knife as a defensive weapon and choose to pursue reverse-grip tactics, you should back that decision with sound training, skills and logic.
Above all, remember that your goal is to stop the attacker decisively and in a way that establishes you, as clearly as possible, as the “good guy” in that encounter. 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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