The Bowie knife has a rich history and its lessons can be applied widely.
I encourage you to watch and learn – and better still seek instruction from its source.
Some of Master Keating’s thoughts on the Bowie knife are copied below only to ensure that they remain readily available. The link to his page is <here>
Master At Arms James A. Keating and Comtech
Random Thoughts on Tactics, Knives, Combat and Life
By James A. Keating
Many people know me in regards to the Bowie Knife, it has definite common bonds with other methods of blade usage. In fact Jim Bowie may have even witnessed some filipino knife methods. His long time friend, pirate Jean LaFitte had many Filipino fighting men aboard his ships and in Barataria (the pirate stronghold). Both Bowie and LaFitte had great interest in the blade. It is not a far stretch of the imagination to at least consider that Bowie MAY have been exposed
to the FMA at some point. On with our article …..
When using the big steel it is advisable to exercise caution during the initial phases of training. Perform the actions of your choice slowly and deliberately. You should not worry about speed, it will occur of it’s own accord as by-product of proper training. This advice I am giving you not only provides a safer training environment, but also allows for proper neuro-muscular development to occur. If you think about it, neuro-muscular programming can be percieved as being the “reason behind the reason” for any type of training in any given field from typing to hang gliding.
The methods of close quarter knife combat which are peculiar to the dreaded American Bowie knife are outstanding examples of that unusual cosmic-amalgam known as “sophisticated simplicity”. It is a descriptive term which captures the deadly, but relatively easy to learn movements of the Bowie methods. The result is a clever, deceptive, means of fighting one or more opponents. The next component of this combat equation is the Bowie knife itself. Several of the better knife fighting techniques that I personally recommend can only be accessed if you are using a real, honest to God Bowie knife. So, with that in mind, choose a good one for yourself. I’ll be providing you some food for thought throughout this article on several different makes of Bowies. Other types of knives such as daggers, folders and tantos cannot perform the manuevers and cuts that the Bowie knife methods demand in order to be successful in close quarter combat.
THE BOWIE KNIVES
There are many versions of the Bowie knife currently available for purchase. I will keep this short and sweet because the information I will share with you is accurate, it needs no further elaboration. For top grade, custom fighting Bowies you need a Bagwell Bowie. And you’ll pay over a grand for it. Is it worth it? Absolutely! If you can swing the dough, a Bagwell Bowie is the Tiger of the knife world. But, what if you simply cannot afford the Bagwell? Consider my own Crossada fighting knife. The Keating Crossada is large bowie, but unique in it’s many features as a true fighting knife. Lastly if all else fails then try to get your hands on a Cold Steel Trailmaster. It is a Bowie knife that has some great aspects and won’t break your bank either. These are just some pointers, your knife is your choice. Choose wisely!
TWO VERSIONS OF ROTATIONAL CUTTING
The Bowie methods are actually well balanced in their employment of point and edge. The thrust is preferred over the slash in most cases. Although the edge and sharpened back clip are also important factors in the larger picture of the knife to knife fight. Because most people are more comfortable when beginning their knife training with the edge oriented techniques than the point based methods, I shall address two rotational cutting methods for you to practice. The first one is a forward rotation (convex/repel) technique and the second is a rearward rotation (concave/impel) action.
#1. Circular technique number one is done as though you were twirling a lariat or piece of rope in front of your abdomen. The main or primary cutting edge of the knife is used in this method. The hand should be about solar plexus level and will prescibe a forward arc, edge out toward the opponent. This action can be done as an arm rotation (large arc) or as a wrist rotation (small arc). The method we are sharing with you in this article is the larger arm rotation version. Notice in the pictures where my blade rotates into the edge forward postion again (the wrist must roll). It is at the end of the sequence and occurs at about belt line level. Try this for yourself, work up to a smooth three set series of cuts. It won’t take you long to become good at this action. Here is the reason why I chose this cutting action over others to begin our edged education with.
You see, the above circular cutting motion contains within it’s simple format the ability to deal with any type of attack that opponent may throw at you. This is due to the angle of response to the ever changing, unpredictable body mechanics involved between two armed combatants. Trying counter or second guess an adversary can be dangerous. If nothing else, when the going gets tough just do this action, it will work in a tight spot to save your butt just about as good as anything can. It is simple, effective, easy to remember, hard for the enemy to deal with and has the capacity to deliver multiple devastating wounds in short succession. In other words this method protects you no matter what the attack may be.
#2. Circular cutting technique number two is once again done in a arcing manner. But this time the arc comes back toward you (be careful !) in a reticulated action. The edge we want to use now is the sharpened back clip of your Bowie, not the primary edge as in version number one. The wrist plays a pivotal roll in the success of this manuever. This snapping, rolling motion can best be explained by this: Hold your hand thumb upright, now as smoothly and swiftly as you can point your thumb toward the Earth. There you have it, simpler than you thought ! Now, try it slowly with your Bowie, if you are right handed be sure to keep your left leg to the rear, out of harms way. Allow the wrist and forearm to move in unison. This time the wrist roll will occur on the high line, this is a must in order to set up the second backcut attack line. As with the first cutting action, this one should also be practiced in multiples. It not strengthens the wrist but familiarizes you the action for combat purposes. Notice that the backcut is an overhand type motion, this can also be thought of as an evasion in the case of the opponent attaempting a hand cut. Let’s talk more about the Backcut later in this chapter.
TWO VERSIONS OF LINEAR THRUSTING TECHNIQUES
Here are two idea’s on using a linear or thrusting action to achieve some of your combative Bowie knife goals. When assuming a guard position keep the point of your knife directed toward your opponents eye’s. The guard position should ride a bit higher than what initially appears natural. When performing any thrusting technique always move the weapon first. Any other timing sequence will result in failure or grave injury to your person.
A. The first thrust we will cover is based around an attempted hand attack and subsequent evasion which in turn spins your arm into a high line articulated thrust. Remember, in this case the opponent is attacking you, your guard position will act as “bait” forcing him into an attack. When he does, your opportunity to smite him in retaliation for his impudent attack is then at hand. As he attempts to cut your right arm you must arc your wrist in a counter clockwise (inward bound) manner driving the point forward toward his face aggressively. Simutaneously shift your left leg rearward and across, flattening your body so that it is in alignment with the path of the thrust. Use your left arm as a counter balance to maintain control during the execution of this explosive manuever. This action is quite dramatic, the more extension one achieves in their overall execution of this technique the better and safer it seems to work in real combat. It is a variation to the classic “In Quartta” fighting technique that has been bandied about in knife fighting circles for many centuries.
B. Thrusting technique number two is certainly a linear action, but in this specific instance the point will be exchanged for the the primary edge. This unique and deceptive “thrusting” attack is done with the belly or center area of the blade. The Bowie does this odd cut better than just about any other edged weapon other than the old style saber. Originally this type of cut was known as a carving cut, today we call such a technique a “snap cut”.
In order to pull this off against an opponent, you must launch the center edge of the Bowie knife as though it were the point. The intent is to rap the opponent on the crest of the skull, just above the forehead. If done correctly the the Bowie knife will effortlessly split the skull. It uses it’s weight and blade design coupled with the speed of your launch to create a devastating blow that appears to be nothing worse than a glancing blow. This is because of how the knife appears to sort of richochet off the crown of the opponents skull after it has hit it’s mark. This unexpected attack can catch the enemy off guard allowing you an open shot to halt the momentum of the fight then and there. It can also be employed to draw his guard out, at that point he must react or be struck down. This offers you ample opportunity to strike swiftly in safety. Why do I say “in safety” ? Because, what good is any of this material if you end up getting cut up in the fight too ? There are many, many techniques that will “git”someone if you are willing to pay the ultimate price. This sort of rudimentary knife fighting behavior is based upon an angry, backward logic that appeals to those poorly informed knife fighters who think anger can replace skill. Personally I prefer the methods of bladework which exact a heavy toll from my opponents on every level of their being, yet in turn tax me very little, if at all.
Usually the flank of the adversary will be exsposed when this high line attack ruse is employed. A backhanded carving cut is then often delivered to the ribs (flank) immediately after initiating this straight on thrust/chop manuever. Remember, that when using carving cuts of any kind that the goal is to wound and harass, not necessarily to kill. All of the moves I have shared with you are to be done in a brisk manner. In this method the bowie knife is allowed to do the lions share of the work during the fight. Your part is to merely guide the knife and maintain your overall combat awareness throughout the entire lethal force encounter.
It would be irresponsible of me if I did not relate to you that it is solely up to you to be aware of all laws pertaining to edged weapons in your city, state or country. Always stay within the law when ever you can. If you ever find yourself in a situation to where you may have to use a knife to defend yourself against a lethal force type assault you must understand that to stay out of the slammer you will need to have several factors present in order to prove to a court of law that you acted judiciously and because no other options were available to you at the time.
The DETAILS of the BACKCUT (as promised)
Ah, the dreaded and deadly motion known as the “backcut” is our topic today. While every aspect and motion of using a knife in your personal defense is viable, there is one motion which stands out over all others. That motion is called the backcut and it is often associated with the particular edged weapon known as the bowie knife. I am going to share some random thoughts on this action with you. Let’s see where it takes us. Although, the motion of the backcut can be done with any weapon, including canes and swords, it is the bowie knife that truly adds the dash of awe to this dynamic action. This is due to the bowies deadly design. The subtle secrets of swinging the great bowie in a tight prescribed arc is what is at stake here. Much like casting a small rock net for fishing purposes, one makes a brisk, slightly overhand snap at the wrist to complete a backcut. Let me explain in greater detail about the pro’s and con’s of backcutting.
You see this enveloping action of “tossing a net” over your advesrsary is a clever way to describe to you whats really being done when a backcut occurs. Think about it for a moment, a backcut traverses a line that few other strokes follow. Hmm, so questions arise, how is it done and more importantly, why is it done in such a manner?
Ok, here’s the scoop amigos! Nearly every cut and blow that is commonly encountered in knife fighting, knife training and tactical knife defense are done in a repelling manner. The cut in effect “knocks” the opponent away from you. The backcut works on the opposite line! The backcut does not repel, it impels! And in saying that I’ll remind you that more things in nature follow this path than not. Meaning a backcut is a “catspaw” motion. A viscious swipe that is part tear, part puncture and all pain! The action comes back toward you in it’s path. You must allow for this to happen, move your body and legs aside, clear a path by using proper footwork. A backcut is a “whole-body” action, not just something done with the arms.
When an adversary attempts to cut you, often one is taught to counter the move by cutting the attackers weapon bearing limb. This is called “defanging the snake” in some methods of knife play. It works well and follows a path of common sense and tactical opportunity. But in doing so your own hand also becomes subject to the same damaging cut. If you instead use a backcut your hand is automatically protected. In one case the hand leads and in the other case where a backcut is employed it is steel which leads and that is what you want. That is instant, automatic success with a minimization of threat to you merely via proper blade alignment.
The backcut is not only a favorite because of how it deploys your knife in a superior way, it is favored because it is deceptive also. Yes, containing a definite “trick-phase” which throws off the adversaries sense of timing the backcut often does it’s damage totally unseen. It is felt, not seen, it is that deceptive and it is this quality that has become it’s deadly trademark. A well delivered backcut encompasses both defense and attack in one. When the backcut needs a back up or an aid to cause distraction it calls upon the timed thrust. It spans distance with deceit, footwork and elastic use of the torso. The thrust opens the gates for the backcut to enter. The powerful flip of the wrist on delivery of the backcut causes torque and moves your knife / hand / arm connection into another, safer space. Without spatial awareness and relativity to act upon, the enemy becomes lost. This in turn breeds fear and panic, a backcutter stays calm, he plans his work, then works his plan. The backcut comes in from an angle few suspect, like a jet fighter emerging from the sun, it is hard to see. And once it is seen, it is even harder to get out of it’s way. An even mix of backcutting and well placed, well timed thrusts make for a simple, yet effective defensive profile that even a busy person can maintain.
A Multi-Stroke Action
Many people think that there is only one backcut. This is both true and yet not entirely accurate either.
Indeed the backcut is always done with the swag of the bowie knife. And it is always reticulated. So in that sense, one action does dominate. But when using the backcut action one can apply it on any of the diagonal, horizontal or vertical planes of motion. This aspect flings open the doors to creativity and offers us a wide array of options on how to make the backcut into a technique that can answer any attack, any time. To get even more sophisticated one must seek out my own Comtech Bowie Knife training. In this training you are shown how backcuts work in pairs or teams. This simple, yet very critical aspect of combat can bring victory to your door. Remember, properly done backcuts will always work in pairs. It is via this double-up method that one can immediately begin gaining the upper hand. There are eight backcuts taught in my Comtech Bowie methodology. They follow a “logic chain”. They work in harmony for your defense. Survival is primary, bringing harm to others is secondary to survival. In my method of knife play the knife is cast as a lifesaving tool. Not as a weapon of destruction. An old saying goes thusly: “One sword keeps another in it’s sheath”. And so it is today!
Perhaps the most widely known of the pair attacks is the diagonal line lead-in combined with the horizontal line abdomen attack. Playing the shortened arc and changing it’s line rapidly the double-up attack using a spiralling action as an elevator to access targets which the adversary considers to be “safe”.
is those “he’ll never hit me here” attitudes that eventually do get them hit, often at the final bell. Two short, semi-circular, whipping actions done with your bowie knife and the deed will be done.
Another surprising aspect about the backcut action is its incredible ability to generate massive power in a very brief amount of space and time. Think of it this way, give me the “thumbs up” sign, ok, now as swiftly as you can give the “thumbs down” sign (turn your thumb from upright to pointed at the floor). In essence, there is the backcut, you have just performed one of the quickest actions the human body can make. Within this simple roll-over motion is the principle of torque and combined with the weight of your bowie knife (inertia) you create a vortex of edged energy that is nothing less than awesome in its science and horrific in its effect. Ideal fare for those knife men with limited time to practice!
A backcut can be a snapped strike (hit and pull back) or it can be driven through the target. Each action has its place. I prefer to use snapping backcuts when I employ a folder instead of a bowie knife. In such an instance the folder is held edge up. The blade cannot close then by accident. It is then rolled in backcut fashion using the primary edge to strike with versus the false edge or backside of the blade as with the bowie knife.
Other than with the Bowie knife and within my own Comtech curriculum of training the backcut is rarely seen. It exists today mainly in the study of classical saber fencing. This art is found on many of todays most elite college campuses masquerading as a sport. Foil and epee do not employ the backcut, only the saber does. One may look therein to discover more about the backcut if the desire to learn so leads you . Since my inclusion of the backcut into the public domain of combative awareness their have been many pretenders who have come forth. Each claiming to have the “right” way of doing a backcut. Largely lost in their own illusion of grandeur. But, the realm of the knife is like fire, it is self cleansing. “Through fire, all things are renewed” this is known.
Concepts of Low Line Play
Here are a few examples of low line skills. Nothing special, but through consideration and study they will open the doors of your mind to your own creations and your own versions of things. Lets explore some of this material together and see what appears on our tactical horizons! I believe you can do this stuff.
Remember, these aren’t “my stuff”, these are tried and true methods of close quarter fighting.
They are generic in nature,
The Foot Crush:
An easy to perform tactic is the simple, but effective foot crush. Off a parry, block or strike on the high line you merely drop straight down and slightly to the side. Where upon you crush the top the opponents arch with your knee. You don’t have to kneel on it with force. Just drop your weight, that will be sufficient. In the process of kneeling you will also avoid the conflict. It’s like you almost just disappear in front of his eyes. Always enter with pain, deception and follow ups! Like with any fighting skill, you will need a sense of timing and distance combined with a knowledge of the technique in order to make the low line foot crush a reliable option for your combative consideration.
The Leg Lever:
Here is another easy to play low line favorite. Its as easy as sitting down and really puts people on their asses quickly. It’s an effective and surprising technique. It works well empty handed and it works even better with a knife or pistol. Hey, what more can ya ask for, eh?
The leg lever is just what it says it is. It is a technique which uses your foreleg (lower leg-shin) to trap-unbalance the opponent. Like the previous action, you play this off a parry, strike or some other brief high line engagement. You simply slide into this action. If you have ever trained in Capoeria then imagine sliding into a negativa-negachiva (dialectical pronunciations). Yes, that’s the idea! You apply this technique to his lower leg. They are catapulted away from you in the course of the throw. You stay safe. A swift kick to his privates, roll away and up you go…. it is all you need. Now get out of there fast, run!
Step, Duck and Push::
Gosh almighty, here is a classic, the granddaddy of festering foul play and tactical trickery, the much vaunted footrap in action. While not actually played in the low line, it is still a low line skill of worth. It is so subtle that most opponents never see it coming. But they do indeed feel it! The damage done by the fall is greatly enhanced due to the foot being pinned. It shortens the arc of the fall. Often resulting in broken ankles and dislocations of the adversaries nether-joints (kness, ankles, toes, etc). This move does not require flexibility or strength, it is an easy one to play. I list it in the arsenal because it is so valuable in real fighting situations.
Now comes the next part, the ducking part. Yes, avoid being hit by ducking in low. Then using either one or two hands just push on his knee. Push to the rear and down. Sure, you could also pin his foot and merely give him a shove. But, by aquiring that low line knee push you accelerate the fall and you can also guide it’s
direction. A nice touch in multiple adversary type encounters. Learn to parry his attacks or dive in swiftly to avoiding his attacks in order to make this “step-duck & push” work as it should. Fast and effective it is!
The Encircling Leg:
Like the other moves we have covered you simply shift to the opponents flank, drop into this action and push them away. Take a look at the pictures, you’ll see what I’m doing. You can attack either of his legs with either of your legs. This one works nicely if you are ever knocked down and must operate from there. Meaning, whether you deliberately put yourself into this technique or if you just end up there, it’ll work either way. Remember, the opponent is standing, you will be seated. He should fall back and away from you. Follow up with an ankle lock or leg crush done with your arms.
There is a technique where you actually learn to walk in this manner. Very much like some types of drunken kung fu. But, it is not easy, so it is best left for another time. For now, practice getting into postion, drop smoothly and accurately in order to encircle or wrap up his leg. Try to get used to getting the “right” reaction from your partner. Seek control during training. And yes, this works well with an edged weapon in your hand also. Experiment some, these techniques are meant to be jumpgates to higher understanding. This can only happen if you are willing to dare, to think and to experiment intelligently.
The curriculum is rich in its simplicity – for it is predicated on an understanding of range and times. The exploration of beats and body relationships. But add to that the studied flourishes and rapidly changing arcs and planes and suddenly the simple becomes impossible to predict. Master Keating regaled us with the history of the Bowie and the men that preceded us in the tradition – a full indoctrination requires study.
A must read on the history of the Bowie Knife is Thorp’s account – a good addition to the library.
Additional resources on the history of the art – the lineage from the saber to the dueling tradition of the American ante-bellum south, to James Bowie (and the various Knives he may have used), then back to saber, Bidwell, Styers, and to Bagwell, and Master Keating.
The following article is taken verbatim for ease of reference and to provide additional perspective on the art of the Bowie.
THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF
by Robert J. Lehnert, Copyright 2006 – used with Permission
Back in the 1980’s, knife maker Bill Bagwell started a Nor’easter of controversy from his “Battle Blades” column in Soldier of Fortune magazine. Bagwell championed Western Fencing using a large Bowie Knife (9 1/2″+ blade) as the most effective knife fighting combination (Bagwell, 2000). At that time, the nascent “knife fighting” community was roughly divided into two methodologies: Asian Martial Arts and Military-Street Combatives. Both factions reacted to Bagwell’s position as if they were the members of either a Buddhist or Pentecostal congregation and someone had stood up during either of their respective services and loudly shouted out the error of anything less than a Latin-Tridentine Mass. Compounding his “heresy”, Bagwell recommended the book Cold Steel (Styers, 1952) as a valuable knife-fighting manual as long as the student “sifted out the wheat from the chaff”.
I and other tail end Baby Boomers were a media indoctrinated generation believing any Asian martial art or melee weapon was, a priori, superior to any non-Asian method or weapon. We thought it inconceivable that fencing (those guys in white suits playing tag with toy swords) teamed up with a honking big hillbilly knife was better than the blade arts and weapons of Japan, China, and the Philippines. We swallowed tales of Nipponese katanas cutting through machine gun barrels (Yes, we were gullible), so we jumped on the tanto bandwagon. Those of us with at least one foot in the Military-Street Combatives camp (Fairbairn, Applegate, etc…) were doubly annoyed by Bagwell’s promotion of Cold Steel. We regarded its author John Styers little better than his mentor, Anthony Drexel-Biddle, for both men taught “knife dueling” which “would get you killed in the real word”. The mutual anti-Biddle and Styers critique boiled down to “knife fights are close range, in your face, balls to the walls dog fights where the winner goes to the hospital-in a knife cut expect to be cut!”
The epitome of anti-Biddle and Styers texts was Prison Bloody Iron (originally titled Bloody Iron Knife Fighting), written by two former Federal convicts, Harold J. Jenks and Michael H. Brown. Leaving aside some very suspect physical training advice and historical commentary, the book is a gripping account of knife as weapon both inside and outside of prison-though there is only one mention of knife vs. knife combat, the others are knife user vs. unarmed user affairs. Jenks and Brown’s criticism of fencing-based knife fighting is based on the analogy just as rifle handling is not transferable over to pistol shooting, so you can’t adapt swordsmanship to the much shorter knife.
It must be stressed Prison Bloody Iron ( PBI) advocated the combat use of knives six or less inches long. While PBI’s posed photographs show the inept “fencing knife user” (Brown?) with a 7″-8″ blade length Bowie, PBI promoted shorter weapons (Buck folders, Gerber Mk I). One photograph shows a large Bowie (the Western Cutlery model) but the texts gives no indication how its use might differ from smaller knives. Indeed, one of PBI’s historic deficiencies is the authors were unaware of fencing masters (such as Pepe Lulla) teaching “saber fencing” with the Bowie knife in Ante-Bellum New Orleans.
Melee weapons are not only damage multipliers they often (but not always) are range extenders. A knife with a 6″ blade is only a minor range extender, shorter blades correspondingly less so. If either an “ice-pick” or “hammer” grip is used rather than a more extended grip (PBI favored a horizontal “foil grip”) even more range is lost. PBI drew upon Jenks’s reform school experience of “knife fighting” using the last 1/4″ of a nail file-a deep scratching implement with no reach advantage whatsoever. From the background of using short knives, PBI quite rightly criticizes knife fighting stances where the weapon arm is significantly advanced forward of the non-weapon arm. Stances like the classic Saber stance or the Biddle “Knife Duelist stance” leave the weapon arm vulnerable to weapon strikes, off-hand grabs, or even being “slipped” by an opponent’s sudden rush if the fencing stylist is using a short-blade knife. PBI correctly observed a knife-fighter’s weapon limb was as vital organ as his heart-to make it vulnerable to a weapon forward stance was suicidal nonsense. Consequently, PBI promoted an offhand-forward stance (a.k.a. “Military Knife Stance”), with the forearm held up as a shield and ready for grabs and strikes while holding the knife well back out of range of an opponent’s weapon or empty hand attacks (See both earlier and later promotions of this basic stance: Applegate 1976, Pentecost 1988, MacYoung 1990).
PBI repeatedly asserted that the longer ranged attacks of either Biddle or Styers were easily evaded and countered-the implicit assumption being that such attacks would be both telegraphed and slow. PBI and other books (Pentecost 1988, Kelly 1983) disdained the Biddle and Styers use of linear-delivered edge strikes (a.k.a. “snap cuts”, “snipe cuts”, “hack cuts”) as a bridging and crippling attack. These authors felt such strikes lacked any potential to inflict significant damage especially to the above advocated “shield arm”-the ulna bone could shed such low commitment strikes with only a minor flesh wound in exchange for the opportunity to seize the opponent’s weapon arm and bring one’s own knife into play with repeated thrusts and cuts to the opponent’s weapon limb and vital organs. Hence “take a small cut to deliver a big cut”
This premise contained at least two other assumptions:
1. The damage done by the snap cut to the forearm is unlikely to be disabling, let alone lethal.
2. The snap cut will not only be telegraphed and slow, it will also remain in full extension long enough to be counter attacked.
For the many writers who criticized both Biddle and Styers’ “dueling mind-set”, it is curious they not only expect a fencing stylist to cooperate in using ineffective weapons and attacks but also to be personally incompetent. PBI and like-minded works showed no appreciation of how longer blades (by just a few inches more length) radically changes the conduct of knife combat.
Anthony Drexel-Biddle was the gentleman-scholar of American close-quarter combatives. A dilettante and an amateur in the original senses of both words, Biddle used his family fortune to learn and promote Western armed and unarmed combat methods (especially boxing). As William Cassidy (1997) noted, Biddle used family connections to get a commission in the USMC Reserve, allowing him to teach Marine officer candidates both during and after World War I. Biddle’s core method was published in Do or Die (1937). Biddle based his “knife-fighting” method on Western Swordsmanship; he had extensive experience in dueling sword (epee), foot saber (still the wide cutting blade) and broadsword (basket-hilted claymore).
Robert McKay (1986), like Jenks and Brown, thought he devastated Biddle’s knife technique by claiming Biddle created a fine sword fighting method that was utterly unsuitable for knives. McKay and others utterly ignored the fact Do or Die’s photographs show the “knives” being used are pre-WWII bayonets with blades ranging from 15′ to 18″ long. This blade length is in the true short sword category. That such sword bayonets were used as military side arms is not just claimed in Do or Die but in other period war writings (MacBride 1987).
The increased momentum (What Bagwell inaccurately calls “leverage”) these long blades can generate should not be underestimated. An ineffective snap cut with a short knife can be a bone-shearing strike with a well-honed sword bayonet. Using your forearm to block such a weapon is to invite immediate disablement of your arm–if not by amputation then by cleanly severed tendons and muscles. This is apart from any physiological shock or psychological effect of receiving such a major wound.
Both the Biddle Knife Duelist stance and the Saber stance shine with blades of this length. An opponent armed with a significantly shorter weapon (or unarmed) cannot directly attack such a combination-not without risking either of his arms being sliced to ribbons, or being “spitted like a pigeon” (Heinlein 1963), or both.
There is some anecdotal evidence that after US entry into WWII, Biddle tried and failed to adapt his sword-bayonet method to shorter military knives (KA-BAR’s, M-4’s). Regardless of the veracity of these rather biased accounts, this is the same period John Styers was Biddle’s protégé. Whereas a 70+-year-old man might have failed, the pupil succeeded.
John Styers joined the USMC prior to December 1941. He and bunk mate Charles Nelson became close combat instructors not only under Biddle’s tutelage, but from Marine Corp veterans-many of them “China hands” exposed to the William Fairbairn’s evolving combative method. One estimate claims Styers taught some 30,000 Marine recruits the basics of close quarter combat (CQC) both prior to his deployment in the Pacific theatre and after his discharge in 1945.
As Carl Cestari (2000) noted, Styers’ teaching had its greatest impact after war’s end, when his post-marine career as a flag salesman allowed him access to military bases across the country. He not only sold flags, he continued to teach the troops, and continued to have access to battlefield feedback from other combat veterans. The onset of the Korean War in 1948 provided a wealth of information. The fluctuating battle-lines and the enemy’s propensity for infiltration created proportionately more close-quarter incidents than either WWI or II. These combat reports would have augmented Styers’ motivation to present a CQC system where young Marines could prevail in a hand to hand encounters, not just survive as scarred and crippled casualties.
In 1951 Styers presented his basic CQC method in the pages of the USMC’s official magazine Leatherneck. In five separate articles, Styers showed the fundamentals of bayonet fighting, knife fighting, unarmed combat, stick fighting, and arguably the “candy” of the series, knife throwing. Constrained by the brevity of a magazine article’s text and photo limitations, Styers (and text editor Karl Schuon) did a magnificent job in teaching techniques and underlying principles and inculcating confidence in both.
In 1952 the articles were collated into the book Cold Steel: Technique of Close Combat, serving as an unofficial but still highly influential CQC manual for the USMC and other services for almost 20 years. When CQC training became a victim of the more suspect “reforms” of the post-Vietnam US military, printing rights to the volume were purchased by Paladin Press where it has remained in print ever since.
Cold Steel’s knife-fighting chapter became (and still is) the whipping-boy of many in the Military-Street Combatives crowd as well as the Asian Martial Artists-the latter doubly so when Filipino blade arts came to prominence in the 1980’s. Styers (or Schuon) did use the words “duel” and “knife duelist stance” which, to the present, opens Styers up to the charge of “possessing a dueling mind-set”. In response, it is adamantly clear from the text Styers intends “duel” to mean mortal combat with melee weapons-not a pre-arranged affair of honor. There are only two conditions the Styers knife-fighting method is predicated on:
1. Both you and your opponent are, for whatever reason, reduced to fighting with some contact weapon (in your case, a knife).
2. You were able to get your knife in your hand before contact-you were able to keep it from being a complete ambush
As Cestari (2000) has so aptly argued, the Styers Knife stance is deceptively lethal in its frontal openness. An enemy unfamiliar with it will tend to be sucked into the Styers stance’s effective range well before the enemy can launch an effective attack of his own-see pp. 50-51 of Cold Steel. Versus a Styers stance, an extended limb knife man (off-hand or weapon hand) is leaving himself open even if the Styers-user is armed with a short-blade knife (or course, a weapon-forward man can negate this by using a significantly longer knife, say 9″+) Also, self-initiated action beats reaction! A knife thrust or snap-cut is a simple burst speed motion. Like a boxer’s jab, it’s delivered on target and is already retracting back out of range within .25 to .3 seconds. Human response time to perceive a stimulus and start a muscular response is rarely less than .25 seconds-it’s very unlikely a counter cut will be successful if the initiating-attacker is at all competent. As Cold Steel claims, “if an opponent is open and in range of a left jab, he’s going to be hit” (p.44). Against the non-telegraphed attacks Styers taught, reaction tends to be critically behind the response curve-especially if the weapon hand has a longer distance to travel.
Unlike a boxers jab, a single knife strike can be lethal-especially a well directed thrust to the torso or neck. Again referencing Cestari, the Styers’ knife method was to KILL an enemy in dire circumstances-NOT to get involved in some prolonged duel. The knife technique in Cold Steel was predicated on taking advantage of the weaknesses of the most common knife methods found on the battlefield or the street. If you enemy tries to guard his knife hand and vital organs with his off-arm, well you cut that arm or hand fast and hard, and while he’s still in shock you stab him in the torso or neck, fast and hard. You retract your attacks as fast as they are launched, you never let your enemy close into his effective range-you only step in when it’s obvious you can deliver the finishing strike(s) without risking getting skewered in return (pp.72-73). Proper distance (think of a boxer who cannot be touched) is the key to understanding where Styers was coming from (pp.61-65)
Regarding the “chaff’ that Bagwell said you have to sift out-actually, Cold Steel has very little indigestible material. The “Back-cut’ Styers advocates is marginal at best-more likely than not if there’s any bounce-back from a snap-cut, the Bowie’s concave back edge will hit nothing but air-and if it hits a resistant target the “saber grip” is not the most secure hold (again, Cestari). Modern teachers are of the consensus snap cutting is one type of critter and back cutting another-you can mix and match ’em while carving your way through to the kill-zones but they shouldn’t be combined in a single action. Cold Steel’s lack of a dedicated back-cut (taking full advantage of the Bowie’s concave back-edge capacity to inflict crippling and lethal wounds) is probably the chapter’s greatest “hole”.
The rear approach sentry removal using a snap cut (p.60) is optimistic at best-unless you are using a weapon of better cutting capacity than an issue KA-BAR. Here’s where a traditional sized Bowie knife comes into play (9 1/2″ or better)-and you don’t use a snap cut, with an opportunity like that you chop-through the spine or downwards into the skull. No grappling, no fuss (still, wouldn’t a silenced HK be better?)
In regards to snap cutting, short and thin blades do have problems in making effective, low-commitment cuts (Kelly, 1983, Bagwell 2000). In Cold Steel, Styers understandably used demo knives with blades of KA-BAR length (cut down “Patton” 1912 sabers). Styers’ own custom Randall only had 1/2″ over the KA-BAR’s 7″ (however, the Randall’s 1/4″ thickness makes for deeper cuts and slashes than the issue weapons 3/16″ stock). Styers’ method BEGS for a larger, better balanced weapon–perhaps why his private purchase recomendation are for a blade 7″ TO 10″ length.
Since he died in 1983, Styers didn’t live to see the revival of the large Bowie as military and civilian weapon. Regardless, Styers’ influence lives on, through new teachers and students who see the gold in a once derided book-but most of all it lives it the veterans who learned from Styers-and PREVAILED.
1) Applegate, Rex; Kill or Get Killed; 1976 (reprint); Paladin Press
2) Bagwell, Bill; Bowies, Big Knives, and the Best of Battle Blades: 2000; Paladin Press
3) Biddle (Drexel-), Anthony; Do or Die; 1937 (2000 reprint); Paladin Press
4) Cassidy, William; The Complete Book of Knife Fighting; 1997 (reprint) Paladin Press
5) Cestari, Carl: Who is JOHN STYERS?; online article, https://www.scribd.com/document/259419606/Carl-Cestari-on-the-Styers-Method
6) Heinlein, Robert A.; Glory Road (Novel); 1963; Charles Scribners & Sons
–While a work of fiction, the fencing and close-combat references in the book come from the author’s back ground, both as a champion fencer for the US Naval Acadamy in the late 1920’s and being trained in close combat by USMC instructors–possible those trained by Biddle himself
7)Jenks, Harold & Michael Brown; Prison Bloody Iron: 1978; Cornville Press
8) Kelly, R.; Ninja Knife Fighting; 1983; Paladin Press
9) MacYoung, Marc “Animal”; Knives, Knife Fighting, and Other Related Hassles: How to Survive a REAL Knife Fight: 1993; Paladin Press
10) McBride, William: A Rifleman Went to War; 1978 (reprint); Lancer Militaria
11) McKay, Robert: Modern American Fighting Knives; 1986
12) Pentecost, Don; Put ‘Em Down, Take ‘Em Out; Knife Fighting Techniques from Folsom Prison: 1988; Paladin Press
13) Styers, John: Cold Steel; Technique of Close Combat: 1952; Paladin Press
Understand that the true merits of Bowie fighting derive from the length of the weapon. These are not short blade techniques. To employ beats and blade on blade controls and traps, there must be sufficient length to make such plays logical. And while the edge will always be a prominent part of knife fighting, the point takes prominence as a terminal move, but the back cut is the master move.
But why the saber in particular? Precisely because of the back cut and its incredible power through ‘voiding’ and the deceptive angle change.
Until you have tried to defend against it or been hit with it coming from your blind spots, or more frustratingly, watched it happen and still not be able to react in proper time, the back cut seems almost too simple to be a master move. But delivered in true times, it is a fight stopper.
Where are there empty-hand cognates? The ridge hand strike – a blow delivered with the mune rather than the shyuto. The tactical advantage? Delivering a traditional blow (angle 1, 2, etc) the fingers are forward and susceptible to a strike – the back cut takes the fingers out of range.
And while the back cut may be the master move – many of the other moves (or timed responses) are also found in sport saber fencing.
First attack – Fifth Defense
Weapon, body (lean/extend), foot, feet, fly!
There is of course physical artistry in the execution of any move but the overall engagement is a mental match. Initiation. The Riddle of Steel.
Additional Reading / Research
A great resource on the Bowie Knife and fighters by Paul Kirchner.
And if you need to tie this all back to Aikido – compare Biddle’s bayonet with Ueshiba’s Juken-jutsu (they are contemporaries…)
Some knives to consider
If you can find one – an Ontario Bagwell Hells Belle – or better still a custom Bagwell
Or treat yourself and order a Crossada designed by JAK – it is a master dueling knife
The BOWIE KNIFE
by JAK May 2017
The Bowie Knife: Asymmetrical non-denominational ventilator of fiend and foe. It’s the way of its power for those who know. A design benign to the knowing hand. An icon great to a nation grand! Its voice speaks clear – it’s wavelength scanned. The ageless equalizer of legend and lore has at last been delivered unto thine door. Where forth go thou with this steely wing of death’s song sing? Its power is here, its shape calls forth fear. A ringing to the ear – of the enlightened, the fear of the faceless, the leering, the frightened.
In the way of the wizard, the warrior, the priest to know this weapon is to harness the beast. The normal fare of chop here & cut there is a “nothing feat” of illusion and air. To know this blade and it’s cool, cool shade to shelter the flesh, to instantly mesh to the crush of the rush you first must greet – the courtship sweet where man and blade must always meet.
Choose the right type of Bowie design that feels or looks “right” to you. Get the right size of Bowie for your frame & body type. Carry it, sleep with it beside you – be comfortable with it.
Next cautiously try out some unconventional carry methods. Enter this gate with awareness high, you challenge your senses, blood could fly. Through curious ways knowledge stays, a learning phase. File it away as simple “not-do-ance”, a zen-like state of channeled confluence. The body intuits with every nuance of the Bowie’s breath & movement.
A few thoughts on the subject go like this: Tied well – a leather thong about guard or grip, the Bowie is hung bout the neck, off the belt (at the hip) or in the sunlit tree – but let it be as we say “free”. Unsheathed and shining all day to breathe, this is how we charge it. Hung off the wrist, a swinging Bowie can hurt at will. This ritual is for you alone. Hung about your neck – a dangerous trek, a trip or mis-step calls forth death. Learn to live in this razor sharp, unforgiving environment of point and edge. Then return to normal life. One of two days of a few hours each will do. Listen to what the Bowie tells the ears of your hands.
Unconventional carry (as we speak of) awakens the mind and shifts the points of awareness normally associated with the handling and usage of the Bowie knife. Doors of perception will now open, revealing to you the faithful those things you must know upon your journey.
Sit with me, befriend me and make us as one, spend that time, spend that dime for big Bowie fun. Put your energy forth and bath me in its daily the big knife cries out. There are secrets within secrets, circles within circles, awareness is a many layered device and nature’s laws will not be spliced. Wellbeing, security has no price. Invest in you & your Bowie knife.