The purpose of this essay is to remind people that one size may not fit all. Different tools of different sizes and shapes may require different techniques to be used most effectively.

When I was a range officer for my department, we taught a different grip to the officers armed with revolvers than we did those armed with semi-autos. While the grip taught was different for revolvers and semi-autos, our preferred stance for each group was a two hand hold with the arms fully extended. We also taught one handed shooting skills. Even here, there was a difference in use depending on the distance of the attacker. You didn’t want to use the same technique at grappling range as you would at long range. In addition you would not use the same grip on a rifle or shotgun as on a handgun. The same is true in regards to knives. Different tools usually require different techniques to be used most effectively.

What is the best grip for defense with a knife? I get asked that question a lot at seminars. I usually respond by saying “Well, show me your knife.” Which grip is best will depend on the knife. Both the blade and the handle (and your hand size relative to that handle*) play a part in choosing the “best” grip. Let me explain.

Here are some quick definitions of blade grips (at least the way I teach them):

There are two general categories: Forward and Reverse.


( An Ontario SP-10 Bowie held in Hammer Grip ) 

Hammer grip. (Sak-Sak in Pekiti-Tirsia) A blade forward grip in which the thumb locks the forefinger down. Take the knife out of your hand and it looks like you are making a fist. Large, heavy knives best used for hacking or chopping (like large bowies or camp knives), are best used with a hammer grip.



 ( A 2XL Cold Steel Voyager held in Thumb Support Grip )

Thumb Support Grip. I first learned this grip when I joined the Boy Scouts in 1972, where it was called the Whittler's grip.  It was used for whittling or carving wood with a pocket knife, whenever the handle was too small to hold the knife in a hammer grip. This is a blade forward grip in which the thumb is pressed against the back of the blade to support a cut. Take the knife out of your hand and it looks like you are hitchhiking or giving a “thumbs up.” My first generation Cold Steel Voyagers are all lightweight knives with thin, Zytel nylon handles. I found that when I first tried chopping in hammer grip with these, the handle would move in my grip and the blade would not deliver 100% of its potential cutting power ( I use these knives in my backyard throughout the summer cutting vines and weeds that grow through my fence. ) The Voyager series (especially in the shorter blade lengths) is a slasher rather then a chopper and you will find that you get a better cut from this knife if you hold it in Thumb Support grip. Most tactical folders will slash better with the thumb backing up the blade as well. For example, I have friends in law enforcement whose blade of choice for their non-CCW wives to carry was a large, deliberately intimidating folder such as the Cold Steel Black Talon or the Spyderco Civilian.  I recommended the Thumb Support grip to them as being best for those knives and the way it would likely be used (in armed defense by a female against a larger, stronger, but unarmed male attacker trying to grab a limb, clothing or hair to gain control of their intended victim).


( LT: A sport fencing sword held in Fencer's Grip. )

 ( CTR: A modified Cold Steel Recon Scout held in the same grip. ) 

(RT. A Cold Steel XL Counterpoint. Notice how the shape and length of the handle allow for a usable fencer's grip ).

Fencers grip. A blade forward grip in which the thumb is held opposite the forefinger near the top of the knife handle. This is a commonly used grip for most pocket knives that have a locking blade. However, this is my least favorite knife grip, as it does not allow for the best hold on the knife handle. That’s why I prefer icepick grip for smaller pocket knives (if the handle shape allows it). If you hit something hard (like a bone) during a thrust when using a Fencer’s grip, the likelihood is high that your hand will slide up the handle and onto the blade, cutting yourself. Fencers do not encounter this problem because of the large guards on their foil, epee or saber (and they are using completely dull, supper lightweight blades anyway). A Renaissance era rapier is probably one of the few real swords one would hold predominantly in Fencer’s grip. 19th century military sabers, except for very light versions (like the model General George Patton later designed), would have been used mainly in hammer grip for cutting and blocking and the fencer's grip used only during the thrust.



( A Schrade Sharpefinger, a pencil and an Indonesian coin knife, all held in Finger support grip. ) 

Finger support grip. A blade forward grip in which the forefinger supports the back of the blade. This is a good grip for thin improvised weapons like pencils and pens. I have also seen it used with non-locking folding knives, fighting cock spurs, Indonesian coin knives and items as small as toothpicks. If a knife is too small to be used with any other grip, it may be a good candidate for use with finger support grip.




( LT: A Cold Steel Counterpoint 1 in icepick grip with the cutting edge facing in. )

(RT: A Mora Robust in icepick grip with the cutting edge facing out. )

Ice Pick grip (Pakal in Pekiti-Tirsia) . A reverse grip in which the bade is held 90 degrees to the forearm. With a single edge knife this can be held either cutting edge-in (facing the wrist) or edge-out. Which is best depends on the size and shape of the blade as well as the shape of the handle. The Cold Steel Counterpoint has a relatively symmetrical handle and a spearpoint blade, which lends itself well to being held in an edge in grip. However, the single guard and the shape of the pommel on the Mora Robust feels much more secure in my hand when held edge out.

In general, tactical folders and fixed blade knives with blades of 4 inches or less are better fight stoppers with a stab, rather than a slash.  

In icepick grip, you should press your thumb against your forefinger (as if making a fist), locking your grip. This is commonly taught as the first knife grip for Pekiti-Tirsia students simply because it is the best grip for the knives they usually carry in most areas, (if they carried big bowie knives, I would teach them hammer grip first).

If a single edged knife has a handle that does not allow for an edge-in Pakal grip ( as when it has finger grooves ) then an alternative is to hold the knife with the edge out. Just remember to practice counters from disarm attempts that try to take advantage of this edge-out grip ( the same can be said of edge-in grip if winter temperatures in your area bring heavy winter clothing; making the edge-in grip less effective in countering disarms ).



( A traditional Finnish Puukko held in icepick grip with thumb support, along with a tactical pen in the same grip. )

Icepick grip with thumb support: This is a specialty grip commonly used when there is no guard or other means to keep your hand from sliding down the blade, or to keep the shaft of a tool from sliding out of your grip when used as an impact weapon.

For a thin item like a pen or pencil, or a knife handle with no guard (like a Finnish Puukko) you should put your thumb on the butt of the handle to keep it from sliding in your grip during impact. The need for the thumb support in this is type of grip with thin handles is the reason I chose tactical pens with plain tops (as opposed to DNA collecting crowns) for the tactical pens I own.



( A Bidor parang held in forearm grip. )

Forearm grip: A reverse grip in which the back of a single edge blade rests against the forearm. This is something I learned in Penchak Silat for use with a golok, or similar single edged, heavy blade. The length of the blade should be such that, when held against your forearm, the tip of the blade extends just a bit past your elbow. For a guy my size, this means a 14 inch blade. The golok techniques I learned used very “sharp” elbow strikes, paired with reverse grip slashes. This can be used to beat an attacker to the draw at close quarters, while grabbing the attacker's wrist with your free hand to prevent him drawing his own blade. 


Which knives go with which grip:

Grandmaster Gaje used to say that for a knife to be used most effectively in forward or Sak-Sak grip, the blade should be at least as long as the measurement from the student’s wrist to the tip of his middle finger. I’m 6’1” and this measurement gives me a minimum blade length of 8 inches for a knife to be held in hammer grip. He also taught that a knife should be used in icepick grip when its overall length is no longer than the span between the outstretched tips of the thumb and pinky finger. ( This lessens the chance of cutting yourself when grappling in icepick gip. ) For me, this measurement yields an icepick grip knife with an overall length of 9 inches or a 4 inch blade with a handle of no more than 5 inches.





At a seminar in Germany many years ago, I used a bit of golok technique I learned in Silat class to illustrate the point that some techniques and grips are very weapon specific.

A student had asked why Pekiti-Tirsia practitioners hold a single edged knife edge-in when using ice pick grip. I responded that a reverse grip slash with a small knife was almost useless with a straight blade and that the edge-in hold was used to counter disarming attempts. To show them how ineffective a reverse grip slash with a small, straight blade was, I had them take the knives that they actually carried each day (which were knives with 3.5” to 4” blades), and had them slash a piece of drywall (gypsum board) left over from a construction job at the school, with their own knives held in icepick grip, edge facing out.

One of the school’s owners (a big guy named Oliver) held the 4 foot tall by 2 foot wide piece of drywall, with his hands gripping the top edge. One by one the students came up and slashed the drywall horizontally at about elbow height and found that they only cut through the outside paper layer for their efforts. One thing about drywall that I forgot however was that you only need to cut through the paper layer to get it to break. Another student came up to try his cut ( you couldn’t have timed the next thing that happened better if you practiced for a month ). As the student began to move, Oliver tightened down on the board breaking it in two, just as the student’s knife passed. You guessed it: Oliver’s hands dropped into the path of the blade. He was cut across the back of the fingers of one hand at the second knuckle joints with the fingers bent ( the worst possible position for the fingers to be in when cut ). After a quick examination, I had Oliver flex his fingers and grip my arm.  His grip was still strong and he said he felt no pain. He went to the hospital, get stitched up, and was back at the seminar later that day. I explained to the class that if a knife that the reverse slash technique was designed for was used ( like a goIok ), Oliver’s fingers would have been on the floor.

Different knife designs will determine which grip is best for specific knives doing specific tasks. Remember, there is no single “best grip” for all knives.

Train Hard, but Train Smart,
Tuhon Bill McGrath

PS For a look at how hand size effects your grip choice, read these two posts: