The Equal Opportunity Stabber. Saber or Reverse Grip?
I am an “equal opportunity stabber.” Sound weird? Hear me out. I’ve heard the knife whisper. Have you? About the secret “best grip tip.” You know the one, “If you see a guy hold a knife like this (reverse grip) watch out! He really knows what he is doing.”
Now for the novice reading this, real quick, the saber grip is the most popular nickname for holding the knife like a sword with the blade sticking out the top of the hand. The reverse of that, the reverse grip has the knife blade sticking out the bottom of the hand. Both are quite natural grabs. New or experienced, young, old, whatever, the knife is a great equalizer and both can deliver bloody devastation.
Ahhh, but “the reverse grip is best,” so whisper the tipsters who know nothing, learned from yet another tipster who knew nothing. I have heard that “insider reverse grip tip” numerous times through the years. One example-
“I was at a seminar once where an “expert” told us that if we see a man using a knife in that grip to “Run! That man is a professional!” – Carl Flume (So you don’t run if the robber has a saber grip?)
I have nothing against the reverse grip. I teach it too. But, how many times have you heard or been told, or taught the reverse grip is the only grip to use? Because there were and are some popular courses out there preaching this idea. Mindless followers will whisper and argue that:
- “Well, the reverse grip is the Filipino way.”
- “The reverse grip is the Pekiti Tirsia way.”
- “Ex-super-copper Pete Smith says the reverse grip is the best.”
- The Marine whisperer claim.
People! People….people. FMA does BOTH grips. Pekiti Tirsia also teaches tons of saber grip material. And Pete Smith? He is just, flat-out, wrong-headed about this. He is not as smart as you think. He’s not as smart as he thinks. The whisperer? Let’s explore that now.
Knife Confusion. I am often both depressed and fascinated by the paths, choices and ideas of various knife courses. Some obsess about dueling. Some appear to me like death cults, others have what seems to be oddball, incomplete conclusions. Most never cover legal issues and just cut and stab away. No knife ground fighting. No knife versus unarmed or mixed weapons. Some way over-emphasize Filipino Sumbrada patterns. Some have only three or four stabs with zero concerns about the before during and after, the old “just sticking the “pointy end” in. How about those little rounded-handle knives that can turn easily in your hand? I could go on. Another, probably big dichotomy is this grip thing and the various obsessions with the one, bestus’, mandatory, knife grip.
In the 1980s, I was at a Dan Inosanto seminar and Dan said. “there is no one perfect knife grip, just the best one for the moment.” Wow! That little phrase stuck with me forever as a baseline. With my Force Necessary: Knife course, I insist that a practitioner learn and experience BOTH the saber and reverse grips standing through ground, right and left handed. Then after much COMPLETE study, they choose what their favorite grip is, based on the “who, what, where, when and how and why” of situations and their lives. I never tell them to automatically favor any one grip. Make it an EDUCATED choice (and not follow a whisper tip).
How Favoritism Gets Started? Here’s one example. The first time I received any training with a knife was in a Parker Kenpo class in about 1972 when that day they received a package of Kenpo knives and dull trainers from Gil Hibben. The knife was designed to be held in a reverse grip and used in a kickboxing format. There, me as a yellow belt rookie, we were allowed to fool around with the newly arrived tools. This initiation, this design I think caused decades of Kenpo-ists to hold their knives in a reverse grip as though Moses, not Gil Hibbens, had handed them knives from the mountaintop.
Did Ed Parker demand the knife and all subsequent training be in a reverse grip? I don’t know. It is widely reported that in 1968 Gil designed the Kenpo Knife (sometimes called the Ed Parker Fighting Knife) for his black belt thesis on knife fighting using Kenpo tactics. These tactics are conducive to karate-kickboxing. Maybe some historian reading this will know and tell us. But the reverse grip stuck.
In the late 1990s I was teaching in a multi-instructor camp and a old Parker Kenpo black belt was there with his imported group. I was covering saber grip material and he would horde his people over into a corner after each demo and show them the “proper, reverse grip way” to fix what I was doing saber style. Which by the way his was more complicated and somewhat awkward than the simple saber applications I was covering.
Finally he just had to approach me and said, “you know, the reverse grip is the superior grip.” I said, “No it isn’t.” He glared at me. I added, “You can do just as much or even more with a saber grip, often simpler, with more reach.”
Well, he stormed off – his 7th dan “master” self, all upset that someone younger in blue jeans and a polo shirt told him flat-out, no. (Oh, did I mention that he also makes and sells reverse-grip-only knives?) My next session by the way, I covered some reverse grip material, as I am…as I said…an equal opportunity stabber.
People pick grips for odd reasons too. I read from a guy writing about his grip choice. He said he once saw someone with a training knife, saber grip, stab a mitt and the guy’s hand slipped up on the blade. This made him pick the reverse grip. Really? That? Because if you don’t have a good guard, saber or reverse your hand can slip onto the blade. As a detective who has investigated knife crime for decades, I can tell you such slippage happens with BOTH saber AND reverse grips without a guard. I have solved attempted murders and murders when the attacker’s hand slipped up on the blade and he himself bled on the weapon, the victim and, or surroundings. We “ran” the blood, and in today’s world, the DNA of today works greater wonders.
Let’s talk Marine whispering. Once I was told this reverse-grip-only tip by a civilian who had never been in the Marines, but heard this tip from the ubiquitous “Marine friend.” The irony was at the time, 1990s, I was in a Triangle, VA. hotel restaurant next to the Marine base Quantico, where I was teaching Marines in their Hand to Hand combatives, “Train the trainers” school, teaching “knife,” among other topics. Some of it was saber grip knife, some reverse grip. They didn’t care what grip we did. They were fully open to both. (Quick note: old school military holds that “hand-to-hand” training does not fully mean unarmed, it refers to close-up fighting, with or without weapons.)
And saber grips survived. Take it from the Sandboxx article by Marine Travis Pike in 2021, “…your blade is always pointing at the bad guy…”
While in the Middle East or “Southwest Asia” as they like to call it, while in several PXs (military stores), I saw walls of all kinds of fixed blade or folder knives for sale. It seems everyone smartly has all kinds of issued or purchased knives, carried all over their bodies and who knows how they hold them. Fortunately about 99.9% of the time they are used for chores. A rare, rare few get any knife training. Some a small bit.
Some military units around the world like to watch-spy and imitate each other, and sometimes this jump innocently does replicate faults. In the mid-to-late 2010s and 2020s, some worldly units started copying other units by spending copious amounts of money buying vests, sheaths for knife carry in or near the center of the chest, along with a knife that has a ring atop it to run one’s pointy finger through and draw. The double-edged knife and sheath come in different sizes. This set-up forces troops into a reverse grip, whether they like it or not. The center staging does allow for right or left handed access. (If the knife hung upside down with a solid sheath and minus the ring, one could draw right or left handed to a saber grip. Just saying. But too late now! $$$$)
The Inside Edge Only Miasma. And on this subject, I will go you one more crazy level with a reverse grip oddity that’s worse. There is a small, knife sub-culture out there that wants you to fight reverse grip, with a single edge knife, and with the one sharp side, “inside,” as in facing back into your body. Not edge out to the outside world where the enemy is attacking you. The edge is aimed back at you, Dull side, flat edge out facing the enemy. This is its own unique thinking disorder. The world you are fighting is OUT there, not in your armpit. This is essentially a one-trick pony.
The reverse grip, edge-OUT offers a slashing possibility, an ADVANTAGE that might diminish or end the opponent alone. And a double-edged, or 1/4 or 1/2 or 3/4s or full sharp edge on the outer side is ALWAYS going to be a doctrine advantage. Maximize your survival with the most versatile knife. Reverse grip, edge-in? This is like only putting 2 rounds in a six gun.
Reverse grip tip in accidents. When the Samurai commit suicide – seppuku – they do it with a reverse grip. There’s a reason for this. It’s easier. The tip is already aimed inward at you. (Incidentally, the helper that will kill him if he fails? Holds a saber grip.) This “easy-tip-inward” is one more point no one seems to consider when raving about reverse grips. The tip is often aimed back at you. About once every 4 weeks on the nightly reruns of the “Cops” TV show you can see a reverse grip knifer get tackled by cops. When they turn the suspect over? He or she was – “self-stabbed” in the grapple. One of our main lesson plans with the reverse grip is self-awareness of these maneuvering and grappling realities.
I cover dropping to the ground and we see people stab their thighs, and when tackled or shoved against the wall, we see the same “Cops” incident of the accidental self-stabbing. Tell people to practice falling-rolling while holding a reverse grip knife and watch the accidents. If people are running and holding a reverse grip knife, and they trip and fall? Watch out! There are more reverse grip “selfie” accidents than saber grip ones. Just be aware of this.
“Years ago I was grappling with my training partner and had a wooden training knife in the reverse grip. Long story short, we went to the ground and I fell on the training knife and caught the tip in the ribs. That definitely made my eyes water. Since then I’m very iffy whether I’d ever use that grip with a live blade in a real situation. I still train both grips but I much prefer the saber grip due to the added reach, maneuverability, and the sharp end isn’t pointing back at me most of the time.” – Neil Ferguson, USA
A Summary. I think by now we might have dispelled the caustic “Reverse Grip Marine Whisperer.” Still, there are many pros and cons for each grip. I HAVE MUCH TO SAY FOR THE REVERSE GRIP. I teach it also and I believe better and more comprehensive and thoughtful than most others…or I wouldn’t bother. I just don’t like the blind acceptance, the secret whisper about which grip is the best and which is to be mandated and or ignored. And It bothers me that people thoughtlessly accept courses about these main things. Question everything. Get educated with both. Then pick a knife and a grip you need in situations. I even hate to tell you my favorites because I don’t want to influence yours.
The knife is a very forgiving weapon, in that you can do a whole lot of screwed-up, stupid shit with a knife and it will work. This is not an excuse to stay stupid. You have to think beyond that to create a comprehensive program and promote real knowledge.
I can’t shake the fact that people essentially eat with a saber grip and most may well reflexively grab and use any knife in this manner. Look, I really don’t care what grip you use as long as it is an EDUCATED, informed choice, and not some mindless, mandate from some thinking disorder and, or brainwashed person, or from that ignorant knife whisperer who knows somebody, who knew somebody else, who…
Having written my extensive and popular knife book, which took years, studying crime, war and forensic medicine, working cases and the streets, I am an equal opportunity stabber. And I will only leave you with what Dan Inosanto said decades ago, – “there is no one perfect knife grip, just the best one for the moment.”
Hock’s email is Hock@Survival Centrix.com