BIG VS SMALL (BLADES) Does Size Really Matter?

Here is an article I wrote for the July 1999 issue of Inside Kung Fu magazine on the subject of knives for self defense use. I was specifically writing about a pet peeve of mine in the 1990s. Some instructors back then were teaching techniques developed in the Philippines and designed for use with a large blade, but were teaching the same techniques to their students in the West, who are carrying much smaller knives. My problem with this was expecting the small knife to be able to do the work of a much larger blade.
Like much else in life: SIZE DOES MATTER (and I explain why in this article).
Assisting me in this article were Tuhon Jack Latorre, Guro Doug Marcaida, Sifu Manfred Steiner and Guro Ralph Beckmann.
   First, let’s understand the basic differences between a sword-like knife, such as a bolo, and a pocket knife, such as a balisong.
   With one  stroke a sword can cut off your arm or disembowel you. A leather jacket will not stop a sword cut. You can parry a sword blade with a sword blade and still have a good margin of error. These things do not hold true for a pocketknife.
   When you see “Filipino knife techniques” in a martial arts magazine, realize that a jungle knife, such as a bolo or barong, or a farm tool, such as a sugar cane machete, is most often meant. I was taught that the way to distinguish between a knife and a sword in many areas of the Philippines is by the length of the blade. When the blade is shorter than your forearm (elbow to fingertip, the Biblical “Cubit”)  it is a knife and when it is longer it is a sword. Hence, a common blade length for barongs and bolos in the Philippines is 14 to 16 inches.

   Remember a “knife” with a blade well over a foot long can easily do things that you should not even attempt with a three or four inch pocket knife. Nor can you take Filipino stick techniques and extrapolate them to pocket knife techniques as many try to do; a knife is a different animal altogether and has specific rules. Therefore, when I use the term “knife” for the remainder of this article I am referring to the type of knife many readers probably have on them right now, a knife with a blade of four inches or less.

   There have been an abundance of knife fighting articles and videos in recent years. Most of them have been authored by by instructors trained in, or at least influenced by, the Filipino martial arts.  You should realize while many of instructors demonstrate their techniques with the types of knives commonly carried in the U.S., the techniques themselves were often designed around the type of knives commonly carried in the Philippines.
   When you see a pocket knife slash the top of a forearm in a magazine and think “that would stop him pretty quick,” think again. The technique may work perfectly well with the large knife it was designed for, but may not even be noticed during the heat of battle should the same technique be used with a small knife.

   About now you are probably thinking “Well a cut like that would have stopped me!” Maybe, maybe not. Have you ever cut yourself in the kitchen or wood shop and not noticed that you were cut until you saw the blood? Or more to the point, have you ever been cut or stabbed when your blood was hot and adrenaline caused you to feel no pain?

   I have been cut and stabbed and have cut others (accidents, I promise), and I have spoken to others who have experienced the same. Please believe me when I tell you that you cannot count on an opponent feeling a cut during a fight.

   Back in the 70s and early 80s (back before lawsuits became the national pastime) Pekiti-Tirsia training often consisted of practicing with sharp blades. Of the four knife wounds I received in training, only the stab to the ribs hurt immediacy (and that felt like a hard, one-knuckle punch).

I once cut a demo partner with a balisong across the back of his forearm that left a gaping wound that nearly severed the underlying muscle. He was surprised that the wound did not hurt (at first) and that the arm still functioned.
   At the Kenpokan Dojo in Germany a few years ago, I saw a group of students practicing an icepick grip knife drill in which they added a slash.
I explained that reverse grip slashes were designed for a much larger knife than those they normally carried.
To illustrate, I told the instructor to hold up a pice of drywall (gypsum board) and had the students slash at the drywall with their personal carry knives (mostly tactical folders) held in icepick grip. All they accomplished was to score the paper surface of the board.
   Unfortunately, I had forgotten that all you need to make a clean break in gypsum board is to score the paper holding the board together.
What happened next could not have been done on purpose if they had practices for a week. Just as the next student made his cut, the instructor tightened his grip on the board and bore down. This caused the board to break along the score marks. The instructor’s hands came down in the path of the knife and, before the student had time to react, cut the instructor across the knuckles.
   I immediacy inspected the hand and found that the instructor had been cut across the back of three of the knuckles at the second joint of each finger. Though bleeding well, , it was not a deep cut.
I then had all the students gather around.
   “I want you all to learn something about icepick grip slashes with a small knife,” I told them. I had the instructor flex his hand. “Does it hurt?“ I asked him.
   “No” he replied with a surprised look on his face. I had him grip my arm and squeeze.
   “Do you still have strength in that hand?”
   “Yes,” he replied.
   I turned to the students and explained, “Now if he had been cut across a small joint like that, especially when flexed as it was, with the large knife that the technique was designed for, his fingers would be on the floor right now.”
   The instructor went to the hospital for a few stitches and was back at the seminar later that day to resume his workout.
   You  don’t have to take my word on knife wounds. Do your own research. Talk to police officers or paramedics who work in a large city and you will hear stories of men in knife fights who, under the influence of drugs, alcohol or just plain bulldog toughness, stood toe-to-toe cutting each other to ribbons until the cops came. Ask these professionals about street fights and you will hear stories of people receiving all manner of terrible wounds, but who still kept fighting.

   I can think of three mugging cases that made the papers when I lived in New York City in which the victims were slashed by a knife and said they didn’t even realize they had been cut until they saw the blood.

   When I hear people say that a cut to this artery will cause a man to collapse in ten seconds and to that artillery in 30 seconds, I think of two things: 1. How many times the average street punk can stab you in only three seconds; and 2. How hard it is to put a determined man down.
Want a case in point? Here are several.

   In 1986, a Bronx crack dealer led NYPD cops on a 12-block running gun battle during which he was hit 18 times with .38 special rounds and was only stopped when an emergency services cop took him out with a shotgun. Do you remember the infamous 1986 FBI shootout in Miami with the two man robbery team? One of the bad guys was hit in the upper arm by a 9mm hollow point. The bullet severed his brachial artery (one of those “ten second kill” spots), expanded fully and stopped just two inches from his heart. He continued to fight for several minutes until a FBI agent took him out with a .38 round delivered point blank into his head.

   A few years back a robber thought he had an easy victim in a petite female who turned out to be an off duty police officer. He wanted her car, so he shot her in the liver with a .357 magnum revolver.
   Her reaction? “It really made me mad,” she later told investigators. After being shot, she proceeded to put several 9mm hollow points into the bad guy who expired on the scene.

(Note: A few years later I gave a seminar in that city on police defensive tactics against edged weapons sponsored by that department’s DT officer. He said she had a rep as a tough officer who punched way above her weight even before that incident. Her wounds would normally be considered “non-survivable” but she won the fight and eventually returned to work as a patrol officer. He said her mental state made all the difference during that fight.)

   I vividly remember the first funeral I went to of a fellow officer. He had stopped an armed robbery in progress. The officer ordered the perpetrator to drop his weapon (which he did). The officer then broke cover to handcuff him. The bad guy proceeded to to draw a second gun and shot the officer in the heart with a .25 ACP round. After being hit in the heart, the officer returned fire and put five .38 rounds into the bad guy’s chest. Unfortunately the officer expired before the ambulance arrived.

   Want one to really scare you? Cops roll up on a gang fight in the Midwest. A young punk points a pistol at the cops sent to stop the fight. Punk gets shot at almost point blank range with a 12 gauge loaded with 00 buck full in the chest, causing a wound in which (in the words of the medical examiner) “the heart was shreadded.” The punk, after getting hit, still runs 40 yards before collapsing. Just think how many times you can be stabbed in the time it takes to run 40 yards.

   Older police trainers can tell you of two cases in the 1970s in which police stake out squads got into firefights with bank robbers where more than a single round of 12 gauge 00 buck was required to put a bad guy down.
In one case an officer fired two rounds of buckshot into a robbery suspect as the suspect continued to return fire and advance. Getting hit with two rounds of .00 buckshot (with nine .33 caliber lead balls in each load) must have been a bit distracting, because the bad guy, upon finding his semi-auto pistol empty, tried to reload with a fresh magazine but didn’t realize he was trying to insert the magazine backwards. The next round in the shotgun was a one ounce lead slug which, when fired, took out four inches of bone from the bad guy’s thigh. He finally expired on the floor.

   I know some of you are thinking “But knives are different than guns.”
   You are right. Unless we are comparing a really big knife with a really small firearm firing non-expanding bullets, a knife wound will deliver less shock producing trauma and put a man down less quickly than a gunshot wound to the same area. What I am trying to say in the examples shown here, is that you would not have stopped the above mentioned people by slashing them with a pocket knife. Compared to the injuries they suffered, a slash with a pocket knife is just a nuisance.
More stories of knife attacks.
   A college football player goes home after class. Two punks try to mug him. The football player proceeds to pick up bad guy No. 1 and throws him to the ground, where he makes a “splat” sound. The football player then grabs bad guy No. 2 and rams him into a wall, where he too goes “splat.” Only then does the football player notice the handle of a pocket knife protruding from his chest. He literally runs to the nearest hospital and survives the surgery that repairs the puncture wound to his heart.

(Note: The officer I wrote of earlier who died from a .25 round to the heart had a injury similar to that of the college football player. Both men had a small hole in the heart which bled into the pericardial sack. Since the officer was older and not in the same physical condition as the college athlete, the blood from the wound filled the pericardial sack enough to impede the beating of his heart and cause his death.)

   One martial artist I know (the late Frank Ortega, one of the original guys in Pekiti-Tirsia in the 70s) got mugged on a Manhattan street one night. During the ensuing fight, the mugger stabbed my friend in the lung. Frank thinks “it’s only a punch” until he sees the blood. Feeling himself getting weaker, he realizes he has to put the guy down quickly; which he does and then runs into a nearby store to call the cops.

(Note: I have spoken to several people over the years who have had similar experiences of getting stabbed in a fight and thinking at first that they had been punched instead.)

   I would probably run out of fingers if I had to count all the bad guys I have seen go through the NY court system who had knife scars across their throats, put there by people who did not know how to properly cut a throat (with a small knife).  

   One of my students is a former motorcycle cop. He had to swerve to avoid a drunk driver one night and ended up skidding under a parked car. Sometime during the crash, the backs of both forearms were cut to the bone. He thinks he was cut by the underside of the car’s bumper, but is not sure because he didn’t know he was cut until he saw the blood (are we picking up on a theme here?)
Working on adrenaline, he picks up his motorcycle, moves it to the curb, drags the drunk driver out of his car and places him under arrest. The cop said his forearms didn’t hurt until the painkillers he got at the hospital wore off.

   View the Calibre Press video “Surviving Edged Weapons” (featuring Pekiti-Tirsia Grandmaster Leo Gaje and Guro Dan Inosanto) to see several cases of cops who received terrible knife wounds, yet successfully fought back.
   The point I am trying to get across to you with these stories is this: A human being who refuses to die is a very hard creature to stop.


   How do you distinguish between “large” and “small” knife techniques in Filipino martial arts? FMA large knife techniques are based on blades that can take your arm off and are characterized by an emphasis on the hack and slash. The thrust is used as a finisher.
   FMA small knife techniques are characterized by an emphasis on the stab and rip as the primary disabler of the opponent, most often while the free hand is controlling the opponent’s weapon arm.

(Note: As a general rule, if the majority of the work in a technique is done by the knife alone, then that is a good indicator that the technique is intended to be done with a large knife. However, if the work is being shared fairly equally by both hands, then that is a good indicator that the technique is intended to be used with a small knife).

   How do you, the reader, judge good knife technique in general? Honestly, it is difficult if you have no experience in weapon work. Twenty years experience in empty hand arts do not necessarily prepare you for judging knife fighting techniques - the rules are just that different, the margin of error that much smaller. Nor will a military background be a guaranteed help. I have had three students who were combat vets of of special units in Vietnam. Each had done a good amount of sentry removal with a knife, but zero “knife fighting;” it just doesn’t happen all that often in modern warfare.

   Remember; it is quite common among many older instructors of traditional arts to hide a key element that makes a technique work, saving that key for a small percentage of their students.

   I remember watching a Silat instructor demonstrate techniques with a karambit. At the time I thought many of the cuts would be small and ineffective in real life. Upon questioning, the instructor said, “In my country my Karambit has poison on it. One scratch - 30 seconds - and he’s dead.” Now without that key bit of information someone could learn a technique that has a long and successful combat history without understanding he lacks an important element that makes the whole thing work.

   Compounding the problem is the number of instant “masters” in the martial arts these days. Because selling a “knife fighting” video can be lucrative if you are a good marketer, many have entered this field after putting together their own “system” from bits and pieces of other systems. Usually the techniques in these videos take far too much for granted and will just get you killed should you use them on the street. Stick with instructors with a documented lineage in an art with a proven combat history - and who teach by identifying which size blade, big or small, the techniques were designed for. Because size does matter.
Bill McGrath’s Small Knife Do’s and Don’t’s
1.  Train with the same size practice knife as your carry knife.
2.  Pay special attention to protecting your eyes, throat, heart, and weapon arm.
3.  Control your opponent’s weapon arm as much as possible.
4.  Leave the immediate danger zone quickly after an altercation (the bad guy may have a partner who is still a danger to you) and get to a place of safety to call the police. Have someone inspect your body (especially your back) for wounds you may not have noticed.
5.  Call your lawyer and say as little as possible about the altercation to anyone else until you have your lawyer present.
6.  Remember that juries do not like “knife fighters.” If the police arrive to find you with a dead mugger at your feet, a bloody “fighting” knife in your hand and a “World Knife Fighters Association” ID card in your wallet, it will not matter much to the typical juror that the perp was trying to rob you.
7.  Apply for a handgun carry permit and get some good training in defensive shooting, so you will less likely to resort to a knife in defense of a knife attack in the first place.
1.  Don’t rely on any one plan/technique/knife design as “unbeatable.” Have back-up plans available.
2.  Don’t rely on a single cut to disable your opponent’s weapon arm.
3.  Don’t stand toe-to-toe inside an opponent’s guard during a fight. Try to fight from outside his guard.
4.  Don’t use a technique in the chaos of a fight too complicated for your own skill level.
5.  Don’t use a technique that takes too much time on any one opponent. Ask yourself, “where is bad guy number 2?”

   Bill McGrath has been a New York State Court Officer since 1986. He is the co-author of the NYS Court Officer Academy’s Defensive Tactics Manual, the chief impact weapons instructor for the NY State Office of Court Administration; and an FBI-certified defensive tactics instructor. In 1995, McGrath and Grandmaster Leo Gaje founded Pekiti-Tirsia International. McGrath is the organization’s current president.
More examples of fights in which people took mortal or serious wounds and continued fighting for a significant period of time:
June 2022. Security guard shoots bank robber in neck in Maranhao, Brazil. Notice the arterial blood spurting while the robber chases the guard and the time between the shot and collapse of the robber (about 25 seconds).

May 2024. Caught-on-camera machete fight in Dominican Republic. Note: The video begins with the hand already cut off at the wrist and goes on for 30 seconds before the victim picks up his severed hand.
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