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Departments : The Winning Edge

Countering the Karambit

Use your street smarts and your body’s startle defense to defend against this slashing weapon.

June 01, 2006  |  by Ernest Emerson

Recently I received a rather urgent phone call from a government agency with the following request: “Ernest, in 48 hours we are dispatching an agent to Iraq. He will be training Iraqi police forces. There has been a recent influx of Indonesian jihadists into Iraq, and we are seeing the increased use of a small sickle-bladed knife. There have been several recent incidents where it’s been the weapon of choice. Number one, is it familiar to you? Number two, I know it’s short notice, but is there anything you can give our agent in way of a crash course on defending against it, so he can cover it in his instructional program?”

I knew the knife. From the description and the land of origin, it had to be a karambit. It figured that jihadist militants coming into Iraq from Indonesia would bring along one of their favorite weapons.

Fortunately, at the time of this call I was in the middle of working on a training module for the Federal Air Marshals that included how to defend against an unprovoked, surprise edged-weapon attack. Since a weapon secreted or carried onto a plane was more likely to be a slashing weapon rather than a stabbing weapon, the three modules I had developed for the marshals were a logical match for a karambit defense.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, “I’m not a Federal Air Marshal” and “I’m not going to Iraq or Indonesia any time soon.” Fine. But as an American law enforcement officer, you still need to know how to counter the karambit.

A number of American knife makers (including myself) make versions of this weapon. It’s a great knife, and I’m proud to make it for law-abiding citizens who want one. However, I also want you to know how to defend yourself against it should a bad guy try to attack you with it.

What follows is a short version of the crash course I provided for the agent before he departed for Baghdad.

Karambit Basics

For those of you who might not be familiar with it, the karambit is a small to medium-sized personal fighting knife that was developed and is still used today in the Indonesian archipelago. It features a distinctively curved blade that’s shaped very much like a tiger’s claw and is every bit as effective. It usually features a large ring or hole at the end of the handle, so that a finger can be inserted to secure a very firm grip. Because of the unique shape of the blade, the karambit is actually a fairly poor stabbing weapon. It’s designed for raking and tearing, just like the claw of a tiger. It can also be a very effective weapon for slashing someone’s throat.

Karambit attacks are swift, sharp, slashing attacks. People who are skilled with this knife can draw it quickly and smoothly. You should also be aware that it can be drawn and brought into action with the same motion that you would use to draw a wallet. Since the weapon is small, it is fast, and it is usually deployed in a slapping motion by the bad guy. Just remember that each slap carries with it a piece of sharpened steel.

Is the karambit difficult to defend against? Not any more so than any other edged weapon. They are all deadly if the user’s intent is to cause harm. Of course, the best defense against an edged-weapon attack, in this case the karambit, is a preemptive defense.

Preempting a Karambit Attack

The karambit is usually (not always) carried in the front pocket where it can be easily accessed. Since approximately 85 percent of the population is right handed, it will probably be found most often in the right front pocket. Let’s hope it’s in the pocket of a law-abiding citizen. But if you do run into a bad guy with a karambit, there are several things you can do to protect yourself.

What I am about to discuss does not cover response with a firearm. Obviously if someone attacks you with a karambit or any other blade, you can use deadly force to end the threat. The problem is you may not have time to draw your gun and fire.

This scenario covers a situation where you are already within arm’s reach of your attacker. The Tueller (21-foot) rule does not apply here because you will not have a chance to draw your weapon. Your friend, distance, has already been taken away. This defense is not intended to counter an attack by a crazed man charging at you from across the street. Rather, it addresses a surprise move made against you during an interview with a suspect whom you’ve already approached.

Here’s how to keep yourself safe from a karambit attack while interviewing a subject:

  • Don’t assume the subject is not armed.
  • Don’t get too close to the subject.
  • Don’t get distracted.
  • Don’t let your guard down.

Reacting to a Karambit Attack

OK. Let’s say you’ve followed these four simple and vital rules, and you still get attacked.

The attack has already been initiated and you are very vulnerable. This is the moment of the startle response, where you are merely reacting to a stimulus. In this case, a threat. As a result of this threat your arms will instinctively raise in front of your chest or face. That’s a good thing because the most vulnerable targets against a slashing attack are the eyes, face, and throat, so these are the areas that must be protected at all costs.

The startle response is an interesting creature. There are many different psychological, physiological, and physical responses that take place almost simultaneously during the human instinctual response to a perceived threat. Since this is a crash course, we will only concern ourselves with the movement of the hands.

The thing to understand about the startle reflex is that it can be modified to be an effective defense of your face, throat, and eyes. This can be achieved by using a bit of creative visualization along with the repetitive process of shaping this reflex into a move or posture that suits your defensive needs. So by pretending to be startled and repeatedly coaxing this movement into the position you want, you are conditioning the reflex to better suit your needs.

Since the startle response already has your hands and arms in motion and moving in the right direction, merely extend the movement farther up to place the hands onto the sides or top of your head. This posture, which I call the “Universal Cover Position,” forms a natural frame.

This defensive posture accomplishes several things. It is different from a boxing cover in that, although it partial obscures your field of view, you can still see through it both frontally and peripherally. And while this position places your arms in the line of attack, it only exposes the least vulnerable area of your arms—the outside of your forearms—to the slashing, while it blocks attacks to the eyes and neck. In addition, this arm position causes the trapezius muscles and deltoids to “hunch up” on either side of the neck, further protecting your jugular/carotid areas. You can maintain this position until your reactive state is broken and you transition into a counterattack.

Fighting Back

From the Universal Cover Position, your arms and hands merely have to be thrust forward to begin your counterattack. If you are overwhelmed at anytime during your attack, it will only take you a brief movement to recover back to the original Universal Cover Position.

Forget defensive tactics. At this point, your best defense is an aggressive, overwhelming counterattack. As previously mentioned, this weapon will most likely be used in a slashing motion. Since these slashes or slaps mimic the motions of round house punches, coming from side to side, your counterattack should come straight forward up the middle.

This allows you to employ several tactical options. You can strike directly to the face and eyes, thereby forcing your attacker into a defensive (reactive) mode. Or you can slam forward into your attacker, enabling the clinch, which will stop the attacker’s ability to continue the attack. The clinch—just as in boxing—prevents your opponent from striking or slashing.

The basic concept for all hand-to-hand combat that I teach to the military is simple and direct, and it involves these actions: parry, stun, takedown, and finish. In the case of a deadly attack, it doesn’t matter if you are military, civilian, or police. This concept will apply to you.

In a situation where someone is trying to take your life, procedures and protocol do not apply; your survival is the only thing that matters. There are things you need to know and things you need to do in order to ensure your survival. Most of all you have to be prepared both mentally and physically to do anything in order to defeat the bad guy and survive the attack.

What is a Karambit?

The karambit is a small to medium-sized personal fighting knife that was developed and is still used today in the Indonesian archipelago. It features a distinctively curved blade that’s shaped very much like a tiger’s claw and is every bit as effective. It usually features a large ring or hole at the end of the handle, so that a finger can be inserted to secure a very firm grip. Because of the unique shape of the blade, the karambit is actually a fairly poor stabbing weapon. It’s designed for raking and tearing, just like the claw of a tiger. It can also be a very effective weapon for slashing someone’s throat.

Avoiding Knife Attacks While Interviewing Subjects

Here’s how to keep yourself safe from a knife attack while interviewing a subject: 

  • Don’t assume the subject is not armed. 
  • Don’t get too close to the subject. 
  • Don’t get distracted. 
  • Don’t let your guard down.

Should Cops Carry a Karambit?

The karambit knife can be an extremely useful tool for law enforcement officers. The unique features of the knife make it an extremely effective defensive weapon against a gun grab.

Carried in the offside position, the knife is easily and quickly deployed into a position to come down directly onto the arms or hands of the attacker as he or she reaches for your gun. Because of this effectiveness, the karambit has been picked by Federal Air Marshals as their backup knife specifically for use against a gun grab, since they know their weapon will be the primary target of any attempted airline takeover.

The finger hole in the handle of the karambit makes it hard for you to drop the knife or have it taken from you. As an added bonus, the blade is an excellent tool for cutting through gear or seat belts as in the case of an emergency vehicle extraction.

Ernest Emerson is one of the world’s foremost authorities on edged-weapon defense and offense. He is the CEO of Emerson Knives, a knife maker and blade designer, an expert in numerous martial arts, and a law enforcement and military trainer.

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