A Theory of Ultra-Small Combative Knives

A fighting knife is whatever knife you’ve got in your hand when you need to fight. For the most part this means either a tool you’ve been forced to repurpose, or a dedicated combative blade carried in a manner easily accessible in fight. No one carries Rambo knives; They carry working knives, and if they carry dedicated defensive/combative knives, odds are they’re smaller, and more realistically suited to drawing and applying between two (or more) combative bodies. If they aren’t smaller, then realistically they are probably still sheathed at the end of the fight. Same if they aren’t carried correctly, though a lot of that general discussion will have to wait for its own article. How small the knife depends on position, access requirements, hand size, free-space (for those wearing overloaded “bat-belts”), and concealment needs. Too small and access is hampered, too large and concealment and drawstroke are difficult, and so on – It’s a delicate balance.

In pursuit of improved concealment needs, or unique positional requirements, or in order to add additional layers to a combative hardware profile, ultra-small knives are sometimes chosen. Those ultra-small knives make concealment, particularly in unique positions such as under collars or plackets, much easier. The trade-off is that they make access much less reliable given their smaller size, and they present as less effective tools against an opponent. However, as with all things, proper tool design (and thus selection, if you’re not the designer) and implementation can improve the performance of even small tools.

A Complete Carry Profile May Include Multiple Knives of Differing Size, or Need May Demand the Selection of Only a Single, Highly Concealable, Tool.

The La Griffe (Emerson Version Pictured) Allows for a Full Grip, and Presents an Aggressive, Capable, Blade Design.

Its important to note here that there are some rather small knives that don’t quite fit the definition of ultra-small, despite not being much larger. These designs benefit from blade, edge and handle design characteristics that lend them performance greater than their size, allowing use in more conventional fashions. The best examples of this type of small blade that come readily to mind are the Fred Perrin La Griffe, as shown above, and the TDI/Ka-Bar TDI Knife. The La Griffe, available in several forms (from Perrin, Boker and Emerson Knives), combines a small aggressive blade with an extremely solid handle, allowing for much fuller performance. Much the same can be said of the TDI Knife, with its robust handle design driving a smaller blade. The handle design of such knives allows for a fuller grip, and greater leverage to be applied to the blade. The blade designs also are substantial enough to provide fuller cutting capabilities, and not so short as to make vital-targetting thrusts a complete impossibility. Thus, such knives are useful in much more conventional manners than their ultra-small cousins. (Push knives of smaller blade length also fit into this category, as even a small push knife can be a devastating weapon when used well).

The types of ultra-small tools that exist are myriad, and have been for quite some time. Among the best examples of ultra-small knives are those created during World War II for the various secret services such as the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Befitting the covert nature of their operations these organizations came up with a variety of deceptive nastiness that ranged from firearms to contact weapons to explosives to listening devices. Some of the most interesting of those tools were knives. Often ultra-small, and designed for deep concealment within clothing, these knives were often ground in dagger patterns, and called by names such as thumb, lapel or sleeve daggers due to their intended methods of carry and use.

These types of knives, specifically reproductions of the WWII blades, have remained popular and cropped up anew from time to time in the past with companies such as H.G. Long re-creating the designs exactly, and others offering variants based closely on the old designs. Despite their history and popularity, these designs have notable weak points: Their slim, commonly straight, handles provide little grip. Their narrow, dagger ground, blades provide little cutting efficiency.
To combat the poor grip qualities various methods were sometimes employed. Small knotted or beaded lanyards were often added, along with small sections of cord-wrapping or knurling on the handles. One design of lapel dagger from Britain featured a small bump on the side of the handle; This bump would have allowed the users fingers a tighter purchase along the side, wringing the hilt in tighter to the hand and providing greater grip and stabilization under force. This innovation has only been noted on a handful of examples, however. Less answer was available to the poor edge qualities given the design limitations. However some designs featured broader blades than others and might have cut better. Still others were reduced to being spikes only, choosing to exaggerate the point qualities over edge capability.
In today’s terms, the sheaths on these blades were somewhat limiting as well, being sewn from leather and offering at times poor retention. Though there exist examples featuring tightly wet molded sheaths, which would have offered similar performance to kydex if done correctly.

Today, with a bevy of small blades available in both the production and custom markets, there is a much greater diversity of the type and style of ultra-small knives made for, or pressed into, carry with combative-intent. Accordingly, the designs have gotten better with better grip and blade characteristics being brought to the fore, as well as improved sheathing.
Perhaps the best modern example of this type of combative blade is the Lil’ Loco from ShivWorks. Essentially a cross between a push knife and an OSS thumb-dagger the Lil’ Loco provides extremely positive grip characteristics, allowing improved in-fight weapons access, driving a viciously pointed blade. I had one of these for a long time, a hand-ground example from Trace Rinaldi, and would still have it if I hadn’t lost the little bastard. On the ShivWorks site you can see photos of this tool, as well as a nice little photo scenario progression from “SouthNarc” detailing use of the Lil’ Loco: http://shivworks.com/loco.asp
Another good example of this type of knife is another TDI/Ka-Bar collaboration, the Last Ditch Knife or LDK. Again combining a small, but well designed handle for positive grip during access and use.
Other tools exist within this envelope; The best of them will have the characteristics of those mentioned above allowing for a positive grip, with limited risk of loss, from the very earliest stages of the drawstroke through the completion of use. Blade design is less important, but a good edge and better point will go further than no edge and no point.

Access & Use

The ShivWorks tutorial linked above is a wonderful intro to using this size of knife, both in how they can be carried and in how to deploy them. Such tools essentially amount to face, and other soft bits, chisels. They are not going to penetrate deeply into the body cavity and cause CNS damage or cessation. Knife-stops are already a myth, as knives of all sizes lack any meaningful kinetic energy and thus cannot perform like something with significant energy transfer. The knife adds to the physical – Your force, your strength, and the hits you make are what counts, the knife simply helps them count a bit more, maybe a bit differently. The essence of knives is strong holistic violence, and this is particularly true of small knives. These are not stopping tools, rather they provide an assist in gaining small advantages. In a disadvantaged situation, they provide equalization that otherwise may be unavailable. You are still responsible for the fight, and carrying it, just as much as if you were bare-handed.

Specific techniques are opportunistic. Looking back to the OSS/SOE days of lapel and thumb daggers, the trained directives for use of those tools were to target the backs of the hands or forehead (both vasculature rich areas, though not so as to cause rapid hemorrhagic deficits), the soft tissues of the throat, or the insides of the thighs. Although in the OSS/SOE contexts these techniques were often encouraged to be used from surprise, to effect an escape from checkpoints or under guard, they retain merit. Working the hands and arms to upset, if not critically damage, your opponents tools is a key concept of all knife combatives. You can make him or her release things you don’t want them to hold onto, and perhaps even impair their ability to grab or pick up new things. The face is a disruptive target, as attacks there can jar the opponents composure and focus even if little permanent damage is done. If the eyes are struck, the benefits of that should be obvious. The throat can be similarly upsetting to have attacked, and there is some chance of causing serious damage to vital structures related to breathing or blood supply to the brain as well. In the fight, anything you can sink steel into and damage can be to your advantage; A knife in the ass may be all it takes to get an opponents position disrupted enough for you to gain the upper hand. If you are violently applying something hard and sharp to soft tissue, you will do damage – If you are doing so in concert with aggressive combatives you are doing even more damage. No knife makes the fight easy, it just gives teeth to your efforts.

Ultra-small knives are a disadvantaged choice even among knives, as they cannot do what even a moderately larger knife can. However, the advantage and proper role of ultra-small knives is they allow for placement in areas that are otherwise difficult to conceal a tool in, providing a tool in difficult or unexpected positions. Locations such as behind a placket or beneath a collar also make it possible to conceal tools when your manner of dress provides minimal allowance for it. This is a balancing act everyone has to work out for themselves: A slightly larger knife can do more, and do what you need to do better, but may be harder to hide. Eveyones needs are going to be different. For most of us these ultra-small tools are going to be tertiary at best, and not a first line option. Some users will be limited to these as first or second line tools given their needs.
What doesn’t differ is that access is fundamental – If you cannot access your tool, you cannot use it.

Good designs for ultra-small knives provide a secure grip for reliable access even with the minimal grip afforded. These handle designs catch against one or two fingers particularly well, providing a strong lock point to establish a full fighting grip and draw with. Accordingly, the sheath design for these tools (like all other tools) must allow for a full fighting grip to be established from the very outset of the draw. No sheath (on any size combative knife) is acceptable unless a full fighting grip can be established prior to the tool moving even the slightest bit.
The same is true of how you position the knife, and secure it within its concealment. Your methods of doing so should not inhibit a smooth, consistent, drawstroke. You need to be able to acquire the tool readily, with minimal articulation of the wrist and arm (contorted drawstrokes are antithetical to in-fight access) and employ it directly even in a tangle. Particularly in a tangle, actually, as that is exactly what these tools are suited for.
What role in your hardware profile the ultra-small knife fills will shape your carry decisions a great deal. For some this may mean a much more complex access, due to deeper concealment need, but optimal placement will always be readily accessible. A tertiary tool does you little good if its in your wallet at the point, deep in the fight, you’ve come to need it. Given the size of this type of knife, they can actually be placed rather openly, behind often minimal concealment, thus retaining their full advantage of size, without compromising access. As part of a rather complete daily carry load-out I’ve long been a fan, owing to the Total Protection Interactive and ShivWorks influence, of carrying such ultra-small tools behind the collar or placket of my shirt or beneath a jacket collar. This provides for a tool I can access in a tangle if my opponent has my mid-line access blocked in some fashion with his or her body.
Taking a thorough appraisal of your needs, and then hitting the mats and working some of these access problems out is vital for all tools – If you’re unsure of where and how to carry your ultra-small knife, or knives, you need to get a trainer (or make one) and start trying things out until you find your own solutions.

Once the tool is accessed, what to do with it should be fairly instinctive. Deep wounds and the targeting of bony structures re obviously not a going consideration, but specific techniques are opportunistic. If you go for the face or eyes and get the forehead, simply keep going. If you go for the throat and get the jaw, or the ear, keep going. It’s a fight, so you fight – Until you win, or die.

Additional Resources:

The Lapel Dagger of WWII by Den Martin – A great overview of the history and application of thumb daggers, and some of their modern successors, by a subject matter expert.

FightingKnives.info – These folks have a nice collection of OSS/SOE blades, displaying more variety than many other collections out there.

(Disclaimer: In case any of of the sensitive *coughcoughpansycoughcough* crowd was upset by the images above, please note that all injuries depicted in this article are simulated and no living organisms, unique and beautiful snowflakes, or space-moneys were harmed in their production. Knives are dangerous and may be illegal in your jurisdiction. All discussion of their anti-personnel use is strictly for academic purposes.)

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4 responses to “A Theory of Ultra-Small Combative Knives”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Terry Trahan, BFE Labs. BFE Labs said: Some thoughts on the combative use of ultra small knives: http://bfelabs.com/2010/08/21/ultra-small-combative-knives/ […]

  2. […] of the attraction (and danger) of ultra-small knives is in the opportunities, often unconventional, they present for […]

  3. pugilist66 says:

    This day and age may actually be just as dangerous for a civilian as WWII era Europe and it may behoove many to train for and carry a small knife (or knives) for close combat applications. Being prepared doesn’t mean being paranoid and being prepared CAN be made enjoyable, as well as physically healthy. And, it requires little extra preparation. I can carry three or four small fighting knives without much effort (in addition to one or two handguns) and not even be aware of their presence. Of course I am aware, but my point is that it’s really no trouble to be reasonably prepared for an unwanted violent confrontation. Life is fragile (more so than sheeple want to recognize) and it’s also unpredictable. So, in this age of racial divisiveness, an illegal immigrant invasion and emboldened (by codling liberal morons) criminals, why not take a few extra moments to prepare for what could be a very dangerous and disastrous (for you and your family) situation?

    • BFELabs says:

      Absolutely. Especially in certain places, and with the restrictions on personal defense/arms that are present almost everywhere.
      Ultra-small knives may be the only option some people have to protect body and soul.

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