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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.

Comments (20)

Displaying 1 - 20 of 20

scott @ 12/10/2011 10:01 PM

Although im not a police officer i do carry a karambit as a edged weapon and a defense against a gun grab. last yr i was forced to use my karambit against a man armed with a blunt weapon. i was not carrying my handgun at the time so the karambit was my only defense. after i was struck several times i decided to use the knife. i slashed my attacker in the face once dislocating his jaw and causeing a massave wound. he droped his weapon and curled into a ball while holding his face and repeating, "im done. please no more". when police arrived they took us both into custody but i was released with a few handshakes from officers. the suspect was a known criminal who was suspected of commiting several robberies resulting in injuries to the victims. this is an amazing self defense tool but also a major threat to police officers. as for the officers, be safe and thank you for your service. scott (exmarine, ccw holder and small time firearms instructor)

Eddie @ 8/4/2013 8:13 AM

Cool -- I did not realize some police use kerambit ---I am actually training in silat in Malaysia--And i find this kerambit very effective -- And ya it is good for a gun grap as said above ..But as one malay silat instructor said to me , its dangerous in the wrong hands ..But when i return to the USA i prob will carry one -for self defense ...Also i like to keep it in the front of my pants ..The thing is easy to hide the smaller ones especially-- Also you can twist your wrist cutting there hand and arm -- So grabbing the arm can be tricky --That was the first move i was shown --so i was like hummm it is tricky to grapple a guy -with lightning fast kerambit skills --But most likely martial art guys are humble, so you most likely you will never face a kerambit trained person ...And more likely a thug with a shanking weapon -normal knife etc ! So if he draws the knife in close --you draw the kerambit to meet his knife hand -cut and parry etc ! Great artical and comment above !

Gordon @ 4/25/2014 6:24 PM

I have some experience with a Karambit, the idea that it is not a good stabbing weapon is compleatly wrong. The point and double edge make it a very capable and lethal stabbing weapon.

Marlon Ticao @ 7/11/2014 10:41 AM

Be sensitive to the potential assailant's movement because a knife is meant to be felt not to be seen. And dont ever grapple with a karambit fighter. Dont try to grab right away. The curling moves of karambits might screw you to death. Tuhon Leo Gaje suggests a collapsable baton for law enforcers when dealing with karambit wielding bad guys.

Marlon Ticao @ 7/11/2014 10:43 AM

Thank you very much for the wonderful article.

Marlon Ticao @ 7/20/2014 4:19 PM

Thank you very much for the post Sir. I really appreciate it. I was looking for any video or article about defense against and counters to karambit. Im with the traffic law enforcement and people fear us not because we have guns but because we mean fines. Although were not dealing with criminals like the police department, resisting and even assaulting motorist are always present. Unless we are assaulted using a car, hand to hand skills are still essential traffic law enforcement ingredient.
I have always been interested with blunt and bladed weapons and i would usually carry in my bag a knife for utility and defense if needed.
When i bought my karambit, i then asked my cop friend regarding the legality of carrying one. The reply was a plain negative. But ofcourse he trusted me carrying that.
The only lesson i had with a karambit was from a Disaster Preparedness Seminar instructor who gave me about 20 minutes of karambit lesson because he was already leaving right after the said seminar. In my short session with it i realized that such weapon is a real nightmare for grapplers. I agree with you sir not to get too close. My first loved martial arts was Aikido and we mostly are used to grabbing, gripping or holding. (I did not have any belt because lessons were kept within the family by my late 6th degree uncle. He did not want us to show off...) well... we were able to learn only about the defense against a conspicuous knife. But when i started learning about Filipino Martial Arts, i begun to wonder how would i use Aikido against exotic and often concealed knife attacks. We tried to blend and bend our techniques with FMA style to develop effective means to counter such knife attacks and ended up learning FMA. Funny that i am a Filipino and learned my art so late. ...

Marlon Ticao @ 7/20/2014 4:19 PM

FM Arts techniques related to knife defenses which does not 'go for the grab' right away i think is one of the very effective techniques against karambit. I'm not denying Aikido the slot because I still love it and a swinging strike like a hook punch can be dealt with an appropriate Aikido technique. However, as i implied earlier, grabbing is not really the thing against karambits. (Unless by whatever reason would that be, you have already gained a position to do an armbar against a karambit wielder. Although not impossible, it is largely far off.) Another way to defend against a karambit strike is a defense against uppercuts. An uppercut of a karambit is the real upper CUT. But how is it done? I have seen boxers defend themselves against uppercut with fist covered with gloves. What if it is a fist with a blade curving towards you? Still what i think is, not to grapple, not to stick. Keep your distance. Well, you said it above... But, do i mean that Wing Chun's Chi Sao is not effective here? No. I dont mean that. I love wing chun too and it is my 2nd love. Chi Sao is sensitivity stuff and it is very useful as well. Sensitivity plays a very good role against concealed to close range knife attacks; works with parrying and even holding. A knife fighter wouldnt show you his knife before he strikes unlike Gru who would shout "Freeze Ray" before shooting you. A knife is not meant to be seen but it is meant to be felt. I heard that one from Doug Marcaida. So, if I may add "be sensitive" too.
This is so far my worst and longest comment to an article that I have read. Please pardon me for doing so and thank you again for your wonderful post.

tun ahmad pao @ 11/7/2014 7:26 PM

The other weapon to deal with kerambit is wet sort of fabric in malay silat world ,we use wet sarong against kerambit.

Michael @ 12/6/2014 6:05 PM

Not bad Idea; entangle the blade with a jacket or shirt.

Eric @ 3/30/2015 4:24 PM

Good article but I would have to agree with some of the other posts regarding the karambit not being a good stabbing weapon, it can be very effective in that regard. Also, the author states that the attacker will be using a "round house style punch/slap" when using this weapon. I would be cautious of that statement. A true karambit has the blade at almost 90 degrees from the handle, with the blade protruding out past the clenched fist. Many strikes with this blade can be done with a jabbing motion making it very dangerous when a quick straight jab is thrown and or combined with a slashing motion. While the eyes and neck are major targets, so are the femoral artery, Achilles tendon, biceps tendon, tendons in the forearm, belly. As stated in the article, best defense is to be aware and stay at non-contact distance. In an attack, get to a safe distance and position and either use the Nike technique (run), or draw your firearm and fire from a retention position.

Mathias @ 12/23/2015 3:25 PM

As I agree with many comments on this open forum....there is one thing that does get forgotten in tangling with this particular blade. That would be the lower body and Im talking from the waist down. Much discussion is implemented on protection of face, eyes, and throat, but what of the rest of the body. Although body armor and vests are commonly warn the weak spots on the sides are usually left open and with the design of the Karambit it curves perfectly for a stab and slash at the same time and can go between the ribs like a hot knife though butter. Let us also not forget the between the legs and the Femoral as an access point to do damage. Stance in protection from Karambit or bladed weapon otherwise can be the closing distance between a sliced leg or a fatal bleed out.

Khopits @ 2/28/2016 9:23 PM

The writer is off way off target with his assumption that the karambit is not an effective "stabbing" weapon, in reality it's a great stabbing weapon while combined with slashing angle of attacks. A slash attack is often used to open the target (such as a person throwing up their hands to protect their face & throat) followed by a straight jab puncturing a vital organ and using the curve of the blade to rip out and literally leaving a person disemboweled. To say that a person can defend themselves against an attack would assume the person has little to no training. A trained fighter with a karambit learns to move off line and change his attacks from slashing, to jabs, and circular to rip a person to shreds in a few seconds. The angle of attack changes to however the opponent reacts, often the hands and arms will suffer the first strikes with the the throat or other vital following in the same reverse motion...less than a second later. Best defense....distance.

kenpo kid @ 3/31/2016 10:49 AM

I disagree with the hole defense part, chances are if you in counter someone using this knife they have some type of training. I have trained with this blade extensively (10years+) there is no defense. Waiting till you get close enough is the training, stealth, and what ever you try and pull I will end you. Vest or not.
This weapon in the right hands is so fast you don't have chance to bounce back draw and fire, 10 out of 10 times the officer still ended up with a deadly injury. I even saw a guy cut through tazer wires with it. Shot in the chest he made one swift circle and wasn't fazed a bit other than the prongs that were ripped a little bit. My advice is this maintain distance and draw your gun. Have the target raise hands above head completely, order them to get down on knees, turn around and cross feet. This keeps target at a complete disadvantage. Look for a stance the target will take before drawing your probability, Biggest tip I can give is they will drop their weight. Lower their center of gravity. Good luck and happy learning, most of stay safe and alive.

Ted @ 5/17/2016 6:31 AM

Just to reiterate: you CAN stab with a karambit, esp if the degree of curve isn't great. The Marcaida kerambit ( has the tip perfectly in line with the hilt. Further, the knife is tiny, slender, and dark -- unless you see it drawn, you won't see it at all; the hand can even be held very loosely open, making threat recognition even harder. Your main advantage is that it's an extremely close-range weapon, but we train to attack limbs and move in. I'd say the best defense if surprised close is the SOCP-style counter blade to create distance and allow for main weapon deployment. A trained knife fighter will chew you up if you try to engage in any other way.

Bryan @ 1/20/2017 10:41 PM

I use a Karambit on my left side just in case someone grabs my firearm in an attempt to take it from me. I have small Kydex holster for the blade and it pulls out with a swift jerk on the ring and it's ready to go. Nobody's going to want to take a gun with that blade traveling a few rounds across their hands. This truly is the perfect knife for someone who works with a Firearm.

devypat @ 1/28/2017 8:34 AM

you can join with us in whatsapp grup indonesian karambit lovers

nameless @ 2/2/2017 6:53 PM

So interesting that everyone giving instruction of knife attacks and countering have NEVER been in such a situation, much less twice.
Knowledge = experience, not 'imagination'!
Only a fool would close, unarmed, with a karambit fighter, whether he is a 'knifemaker of popular esteem' or anyone else.
Distance from the blade is everything.
You'll never see the little thing coming.
It looks like a fist.
The word is to never let them see the weapon until it bites them!!
That article is filled with crap that will get YOU, LEO, killed!
You 'might' see the huge Schrade karambit before it takes your arm...
Mindfulness is the ONLY sure defense, as 'sure' as they come!

Be ethical, and God will protect you.

Ben. M @ 3/11/2017 7:28 PM

Using a friends email. Defense against a karambit is possible. But not by just anyone or someone who has taken a crash course in who does what. That defense has to cone from an offensive mindset and action. It is not the knife you are fighting but the person weilding it and the weaknesses they present. Most important of all your awareness guiding you to attack first and final. Definitly possible but success is limited to luck or the ability of a certian type of individual and no not a superman

Adam @ 9/13/2017 11:29 AM

I myself live in an area where i have used my Karambit twice and walked away from a me vs 3 situation. You can put the edge anywhere and effortlessly holster before anyone is aware. And yes, being trained in 3 different forms of martial arts all pertaining to the Karambit. I have scars and back it up fully. Keep a distance and pull if you encounter a person attacking with one

Miska L. @ 4/28/2018 11:46 AM

Just found this article while karambit shopping...I mean no disrespect to the author, but I think the advice on karambit defense is dangerous and will get people killed....I have martial arts, and MODULAR system TM (Bram Frank/s2institute Clearwater, fl).
If you don't have a blade, don't expect to survive a blade encounter. Distance is good (deploy weapons if armed, If not, retreat). If you don't have REAL EXPERIENCE AND TRAINING FROM A SPECIALIST, please don't give advice.
I Have several real world encounters. I wear Hatch gloves and military type heavy canvas jackets off duty. Even "inspired amatuers" can do lethal damage. Karambits and heavy venoleum blades are nasty, find a karambit student to practice against.

PS- Yes, I fully agree that karambits are very good choices for offhand pistol retention, especially in a close space against multiple opponents.

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