CAN WE TALK ABOUT THAT GRIP
Back in the 1970s, when I first started learning Pekiti-Tirsia knife work, Tuhon Gaje had us do many exercises to strengthen our grip. Things like doing push ups while holding our rattan sticks with the butt end braced on the floor, as well as striking and thrusting our sticks full power into a stack of car tires.
When we graduated to practicing with real knives, our “Bag Work” with the knife was to go to the tire stack and stab into the side walls of the tires. We would do this in both icepick grip and in hammer grip. In each position, we had to maintain a strong grip on the knife handle with all our fingers, so our hand would not slide down the blade and get cut.
There were a few times we did practice taking a finger or thumb off the handle. One was training to lock an opponent’s wrist while a knife was in our hand. In those days, Tuhon Gaje would have us train using the size and type of knife that was legal for civilians to carry; which in New York City in the 1970s meant a single edge knife with a blade under 4 inches in length. To get us the most “bang for the buck” with such a small knife, he had us use this small blade differently than he would a much longer knife. In the case of training for wrist locks with this size blade, we would open the thumb at the last moment of the lock to grasp the opponent’s wrist between thumb and the edge of the knife. (I would even say that the smaller the knife, the more likely he was to use this grip, as an adjunct to a lock).
Another use for this grip is when drawing a double edge dagger from a cross draw position, to act as a guard to keep the cutting edge at a safe distance from your body. Once the blade was clear of your body, then a normal grip was used to hold the knife.
My teacher would also use the thumb open grip while doing live blade practice with new students. He was a big believer that the first time a student sees a blade coming at them, it should be in class, with someone who was not really going to stab them (at least, not on purpose :-) .
The thumb was held out to act as a guard, to protect the student’s arm from contacting the blade. This was just a little teaching trick to help students overcome their fear of a live blade, while maintaining an extra level of safety. Once he was confident that the student would not freeze up when a knife came out, he would change to a wooden training knife and hold it with a full, normal grip.
Another time we would hold a finger open in knife training was when Tuhon Gaje was showing us disarming techniques with specific weapons. These disarms were used with blades that had large cross guards, such as you would see on some medieval daggers or fighting knives. Back in the 70s and 80s we didn’t have the realistic training knives we do now. Back then our training knives were just the cut off ends of rattan sticks that had broken during training. Lacking a cross guard on a plain stick, Tuhon Gaje had us use our forefinger to simulate the steel or brass cross guard found on the larger fighting knives. Of course we knew that we were only using our fingers to disarm the wooden training knife in class. We realized that this was just a way to simulate having a metal cross guard and we would not be pressing our naked fingers against a sharp edge in real life.
I really didn’t see Tuhon Gaje use the open fingered grip for overall knife training until he moved back to the Philippines in the 90s (especially after the late 90s, when our organizations went their separate ways).
Students who have trained with Tuhon Gaje at that time and now train with me, tell me that this grip is often used for slashes and jabs as a way to point the edge towards the target.
People have often asked me for my thoughts on this grip for modern knife work.
When we were first training in Pekiti-Tirsia knife work, much of our practice followed our stick training: in that you should be doing equal amounts of timing drills, sparring and “heavy bag” work (in our case, hitting the tire stack for power development). Prior to sparring, there was often a period of our being taught a “training wheels” version of a technique, just to develop our gross motor skills for that motion. Later, when we had ingrained the basic movements properly, Tuhon Gaje would often show us an “advanced” version of the technique, which was simply the way to ride the bike without the training wheels attached. I suspect that some of what is being done with this grip may be the “training wheels” version.*
I have seen a similar grip done by kendo and ken-jitsu stylists with their wooden bokkens during basic kata practice. However, this is done with a large wooden sword, used in a two handed grip. You don’t see this grip used during test cutting with real swords or even in sparring with bamboo shinai, so I think this may be the kendo/ken-jitsu equivalent of a “training wheels” technique. Good for beginning training and then discarded when the basics are mastered. (Though not discarded totally, as I’ve seen masters practicing their basics as their warm up).
If you try using the open finger grip while using a live blade to cut something, you will very quickly find that your forefinger is at greater risk of injury when using a small blade such as a knife compared to a large blade such as a sword. And even though your finger may be farther away from the intended cut zone of a large knife compared to a small knife, things in combat don’t always go as intended. When sparring, you will find that impact can occur at times and angles you don’t expect, so you should train for the “worst case scenario” rather than one based on everything going perfectly according to plan. Keeping your forefinger out during sparring is a good way to get your finger broken when something unexpectedly hits you at an angle and time you didn’t plan on.
Having said that, there is some advantage to having your forefinger SLIGHTLY loose during the first part of a jab, then tightening on impact. This is similar to a boxer keeping his fist loose during the beginning of a punch and then tightening on impact. The principle here is that your arm will punch faster if the muscles in the hand and forearm are loose.
Remember though, there are two big differences between a boxer with wraps and gloves on and you holding a knife with your bare hands. With the boxer, those wraps give a lot of support to the tendons of the wrist and hand, and offer extra protection if impact comes at a less than perfect angle. And that boxing glove will go a long way in protecting the bones in his hands from breakage during impact. Your hands and fingers have no such all encompassing protection when using a knife to defend yourself.
OTHER FINGER GRIPS:
Here are two good cases of when it is OK to use a finger or thumb grip on a weapon.
When I teach improvised weapons and we are using a thin object with no cutting edge, such as a pen or pencil, I will teach a forefinger pointing grip as you see pictured below. This is a good grip for beginners to use as it offers natural accuracy on the thrust.
Another grip in this category is using the thumb to help prevent your knife from sliding in your hand when you don’t have a mechanical stop, such as a guard, on the handle. The knife in the picture below is a Finnish Puukko, which traditionally do not have a guard on them. This knife was given to me by my friends in Finland, who tell me that many young Finns end up in the emergency room each year with wounds across their fingers. This happens when they try stabbing into a log during a pause in a woodworking task and they don’t put their thumb over the top of the pommel when doing this (“as their grandfathers taught them to do,” say my Finnish friends).
*NOTE: It took me many years to catch on to this “training wheels” aspect of training. In my early days whatever Tuhon Gaje did was automatically the “best and only” right way to do something. Later, when we got the “advanced” version, I felt like I was inducted into an exclusive club and this was now the “best and only” correct way. It was only much later that I came to realize he was giving us milk when we could only have milk and gave us wine after we turned 21.
Train hard, but train smart,
Tuhon Bill McGrath