Dennis Martin on the Tactical Folding Knife

I’d like to direct you to a fascinating web page on the tactical folding knife, written by Dennis Martin. He comes across as a very knowledgeable guy, with a ton of first-hand experience, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of third person accounts of real life self-defense.

While in South Africa I’d heard a story about a guy using a Spyderco to cut through a car roof. I mentioned this in Springbok Arms gun shop during a chat about knives, and one of the customers, whose name was Ron as I recall, told me that he was the guy. An engineer for South African Airways he used his Clipit for numerous work-related cutting tasks. On his was home from the airport once Ron came upon an accident, and stabbed the Spyderco through the car roof, then ripped it open like a tin can, freeing the trapped driver. The knife was ruined afterwards, but did the job.
In another case, a chap we’ll call Chris, stops his car at the “robots” [what the South African call traffic lights]. A mugger opens the rear door, gets in and takes Chris in a chokehold, levering him backwards severely. Fighting desperately, Chris manages to access his Spyderco, open it and flails blindly backwards. By sheer luck he rams the blade right into the mugger’s skull, penetrating with instant, lethal, effect. I don’t know the exact model, just that it was a compact Spyderco.

The Spyderco Civilian and Trainers

Mr. Martin Discusses the Merits of the Spyderco Civilian Hooked Blade Knife

Although I found the Civilian interesting, it wasn’t until a senior SAPS Officer, Colonel Mike, alerted me to just how effective that radical knife could be. The blade is visually intimidating. This can be a deterrent, and enable you to win without fighting.


Mike, one of our course graduates, was on a Bodyguard assignment, and entered the elevator of a hotel at the car-park level. The two characters who followed him in fitted the profile of local street scum, and he went to Condition Orange. One stood facing him, and as the doors closed his partner produced a craft knife and started to open it. Mike had already palmed his Civilian, and commenced proceedings with an elbow-smash to the jaw of the closer threat, then flicked open the Spyderco. At the sight of the curved blade the knifeman dropped his blade, and almost beat it to the floor, cowering in a foetal position on top of his compadre. Mike transferred the Civilian to his left hand, drew his Glock 26, and covered the pair until the elevator reached his floor.

As mentioned above the stated function of the Civilian was to allow a minimally trained officer to get out of a hostile situation fast. So the fundamental technique envisages the Civilian being used passively, just covering up, or, shielding, the aggressive limb will meet the blade, and will be on a curve whichever the direction of force. “Curves equal cutting”. The limb will “cut itself” as it attacks

Regarding fragility, well this case demonstrates that the Civilian tip does the job….

A guy we’ll call Dan, has picked up company payroll from bank. He is carrying his Civilian in his hand, but not as a tactical precaution, more like you carry your keys and twirl them. He is attacked by two gunmen. The first grabs his arm. He opens the Civilian and goes in with a lowline ripping strike. The point enters the inguinal area, rips right through and cuts his belt off from the inside! Man down, instant fatality. Dan slashes at the second robber as he legs it… just missing his back.

Should You Carry a Second Knife?

There are a couple of reasons to carry a second self-protection knife. If you are pinned down in a grappling situation, you may be laying on top of your knife, with the full weight of two bodies preventing you from accessing it. A second blade carried on the other side, can be the solution. Another idea is to carry a deep-cover knife as a last ditch weapon, in case you are taken prisoner and disarmed.

Defensive Knife Technique

Thrusts Are Essential to Stopping an Attacker

Another factor was that in my ongoing research I was fast reaching the conclusion that slashes were not the best fight-finisher with a compact knife. To stop an amped-up, committed attacker you need thrusts penetrating the body cavity, inducing involuntary collapse.
To illustrate how slashes are not always the answer, another case from RSA: Anthony, a graduate of our VIP Protection Course, and a professional self-protection instructor is leaving the gym one night. As he walks across the car park he has his Glock in a moon-bag, looped over his shoulder. Out of the shadows he is pack-attacked by three muggers. He quickly draws his Spyderco Harpy and goes to work slashing the thugs as they try to grab him. After a bit Anthony pauses and tells them “I’m cutting you, look you’re bleeding” The would-be muggers check themselves, realise they are indeed in a knife fight, and hastily run off.

The Saber Grip Is Not as Effective as the Hammer Grip

By the way, Bob [Kasper] designed the serrated thumb-rest specifically to accommodate the Sabre-grip, as, at the time, he was heavily favouring this Styers-influenced technique. However, after engaging in a lengthy program of intensive, reality-based knife training, Bob found certain weaknesses with the Sabre grip. He went into print and published his new conclusions, reversing his previous view. This is the mark of a top instructor, who puts tactical truth before personal ego. Although, the KFF was suited to the Sabre grip this in no way limits the use of other grips. The standard, or, “hammer” grip works fine, as does the Reverse grip.

Folding Knives Are Not the Best Choice

Having done quite a bit of this type of training I came to the conclusion that the Tactical Folder is not the best bet to defend your life. Under intense psychogenic stress the first place affected as the neural surge and adrenal dump prepare the organism for the life and death battle, is the fingers. With a folder you’ll be trying to dig the weapon out….with the fingers. You’ll be trying to flick open the blade….with the fingers. Finally you’ll be trying to then shift to a more secure grip….with the fingers.
These days my chosen self-protection knives are all fixed blades. The Kasper Companion, a Push Dagger, or, a Hideaway. The tactical folders discussed above are all great knives. There are many other superb TFKs, and I own a substantial collection, but the ones above are those I selected to look after me in various interesting places, and, more than once, they provided peace of mind in a tense situation. I still own them, and loan them to guys on courses. I had a great time training with them, but in my opinion, the folder has evolved into a modern pocket knife. There is still a place for an easily carried, handily accessed knife for those workplace, garden, household and general tasks.


In the cases cited above, the good-guys managed to use their TFKs with sucess under intense stress. However, we don’t have a library of cases where guys failed to get their folders into action, but there is no doubt this has happened. In training and planning for our self protection we must play the percentages, and folders are not the primary choice for a weapon to be deployed under conditions of intense pressure, at extreme close range. In my opinion, as far as self-protection is concerned, the arc of the TFK is over.


9 Responses to “Dennis Martin on the Tactical Folding Knife”

  1. […] of the hat to Big Stick Combat Blog:  interesting piece on the development and philosophy of the tactical folder.  Unfortunately, […]

  2. Yeah Darrin, good stuff there all the way ’round. Lots of food for thought and ideas to explore in training. It comes down to the context with which you’ll likely be using a blade in a possible combative/ self-defense situation. Again, the idea of a back-up knife (to your primary weapon, be it a firearm or big stick) comes up. It is going to be a close quarters encounter, trust me. Grappling on the ground is very likely to occur. I have been in a handful of real-life situations where edged weapons were involved and they were very close-elbow/ knee/ clinch range. I am not unique in this experience, as evidenced by what some of these gentlemen have to say on the subject. I also noticed that he advocates a back-up knife to the primary blade (e.g. opposite side of body carry) and several items can fit that role: small flashlight, sturdy pen, a neck-knife, or a second folder. It is interesting that he mentions that folders aren’t all that great due to the fine motor skill required to deploy them, and I agree with that to some degree, but they are a viable option given certain legalities in various jurisdictions, so you’ll need to train dilegently to deploy under duress (as I have discussed earlier). Overall, great information, worthy of more discussion. The journey continues…
    One other issue comes to mind and that is of training. No mention of equally armed, willing combatants with both knives deployed beforehand engaging in a duel. It is almost always going to be an asymmetrical situation. If in doubt, deploy beforehand and palm or sleeve it to offer a measure of concealment.

  3. By hammer grip do you mean as one would grab a hammer or a stick? A full fingers and thumb wrapped around the tool type grip?. Saber if often thought of as having the thumb at the top of the blade.

    I have read knife fighting manuals that talked about the saber grip but I find it depends on the knife as to which I instantly go for. A Ka-bar finds me instantly using a hammer grip because of the Ka-bar’s oval handle and top guard. Knives with a flat slim handle and no top guard often finds me using a saber grip. Heavy knives such as a machete has me using a hammer grip no matter what kind of handle it has.

    The saber grip is said to be weak since only the four fingers is holding onto the blade and that the hammer grip is stronger because the thumb is also wrapped around the handle. Indeed, one of out stick disarms involves grabbing the meaty part of the hand/thumb to pry it away before putting pressure on the stick towards the fingers.

    As for jimping on the top of a blade, I find it useless and never needed it there to secure my grip on the knife when using it as a tool.

  4. Tommy,

    Agreed that if you have a folder, you need to practice opening it. It’s also a good idea to practice offhand strikes, kicks, and evasion to give you time and space to deploy the blade.

    Which leads to James’ point –a problem is in our training, two guys start, knives drawn, and feint, counter move, etc., when in real life you may not realize you’re under attack until you’re slammed into a car or hit on the head.

    I’m with James in that the weapon dictates the technique, or grip. If you’ve ever done fencing, the saber grip is the way to go.


    Another aspect of the saber grip isn’t just the extended thumb, but the pronated wrist. In the hammer grip, the weapon is at a right angle to the forearm –in a saber grip the weapon is tilted forward to maybe 110-120 degrees, which al;so affects the strength of one’s grip.

  5. Buy into the duel at your own peril. The knife is an ambush weapon, PERIOD! And ambush doesn’t always mean skulking about and driving the steel deep in his back or across his throat. Ambush is a mindset.

    With folders working pressure stressed drills are imperative. Take the work from the pocket…up against a wall under fire from your training partner, and NO don’t lolly pop it to them..make them earn it…Same with ground scenarios. If your back hit’s the ground as a knifer you should be working your ass off to get to it. We all know what can and will go wrong when your back hit’s father concrete with some freaking lunatic junky and his pals! So get your ass on the ground and develop your ground skills to be able to withstand a barrage, and get to your shiv. These types of methods need to be incorporated. Gone are the days of the flash. Live hand parrying and all this stuff is fine and has it’s place but if your not 100% committed to push that steel home than all is for naught! And the best way to do that is learn how to get it out when it all goes south. Rarely do people incorporate this work, it’s ugly and painful if you train it right.

    PS. Carry in two’s.

    “One is none, two is one, three is best! “~ Clint Smith


    Simplicity with Intent

  6. Michael,

    Food for thought.

    I love the quote, “One is none, two is one, three is best! “~ Clint Smith
    I’m reminded of the time Malcolm X checked in two guns at a poker game and pulled a third when someone got funny.

  7. So we’re all in agreement then?

  8. You all give fascinating insight in to the world of folding knives. With out a doubt great training goes a long way. I feel no matter how great of a knife you have practice makes perfect. Especially when learning to open a pocket or folding knife in combat situations.

  9. @Tommy I think yes, everyone is in agreement that at very least, you should have one sturdy, reliable blade that you can count on it case everything goes wrong.

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