By Tuhon Bill McGrath (originally published in the 1998 PTI newsletter)

The following structure closely follows the way I learned Pekiti-Tirsia knife work from Grand Tuhon Gaje in the 70’s and 80’s.

First, a bit of an introduction is necessary.

When speaking to new students, I go over some general legal principles on the use of deadly force. I tell my civilian students that they should only carry knives that are legal for the jurisdiction they are in. The knife is there to get you out of trouble, not get you into it. While, on the face of it, a gun and a knife are both deadly weapons, most people look at the two far differently. In most parts of the U.S., if you use a legally owned firearm to-defend yourself against an armed attacker you stand a far better chance of being exonerated by a grand jury then if using a knife under the same circumstances.

Train in Filipino martial arts yes, but train knowing that you will be fighting an uphill legal battle after the street battle is over (and, as various people have pointed out, repeating the phrase “I’d rather be tried by twelve than carried by six”, will be small comfort when serving 5 to 15 for manslaughter, sharing a cell with a muscular guy named Mongo who wants to be your “special” friend).

After putting a sufficient damper on the student’s enthusiasm for knife fighting, I get right to technique.

The first thing I teach in knife work is actually empty hand vs. knife. This is how Tuhon Gaje started my own training and, as I have gained experience as an instructor, I have come to see the wisdom of starting here. If you encounter a knife in combat, (at least in the U.S.) it is likely that you will not have a weapon in your hands when first attacked. In addition, starting with hand vs. knife keeps the students focused on good fundamentals like footwork, timing, power and aggression. Without a tool in his hand for leverage, the student knows it’s all on him to get the job done.

I begin my students with knife tapping. This is a parrying and reaction time drill that I call the “mortar between the bricks” of hand vs. knife because it connects the intermediate and finishing techniques such as strikes, disarms, takedowns, etc. You might ask, why not start the training with finishing techniques? If you start a student with finishers, his tendency is to hunt for them exclusively in a fight. If his timing is off and he misses a finisher (and is not already proficient at a counteroffensive skill like knife tapping) he is then left wide open for a counterattack.

I relate this analogy to my students as to why I teach parrying drills first:
If I were teaching you how to fly a fighter jet, the first thing I would teach is defensive measures, i.e. how to hit the buttons for the release of chaff or the ejection seat.
Generally, the first technique a person learns is the technique that will come out the quickest under stress. The old martial arts adage is true: it’s your basics that come out first in a fight.

If, while flying that jet, you spot a rocket coming at you and have only a millisecond to hit the button that will save your life, you want that reaction to be a quick, instinctive thing. To be that instinctive you must teach the desired reaction first. (On a similar vein, I like to teach new empty hand students ways to avoid a sucker punch). You really don’t want to do a parry in a street fight against an armed attacker; you want to do a finishing technique (just as you really don’t want to hit your ejection seat in a dogfight, you want to fire your rockets). But if you do need to parry against an armed opponent, you will need to parry in a REAL hurry and won’t have the time to think about it.

Knife tapping comes in two flavors. Against hammer grip and against icepick grip.
When used against hammer grip, you use the back of your wrist with your hand pulled back to engage your opponent’s weapon arm in a hooking manner, and when used against icepick grip, you use your palm. The reason for these positions is that they help to keep the more delicate underside of your forearm away from the line of attack should you receive a cut in hammer grip or get hooked when dealing with icepick grip. In both positions, you are actively driving your opponent’s weapon arm away from its intended line of attack. Knife tapping is done with sidestepping and triangle footwork. I teach knife tapping softly at first, both as a sensitivity drill to build reaction time and to help prevent mistakes due to over-commitment. Later knife technique is done forcefully with the idea of stunning your opponent’s weapon arm. Knife tapping is a great reaction time drill. As soon as the student gets the basic movements down, you can add fakes and counters, which really randomize your attacks and helps to keep the student from ,being able to anticipate your moves.

I teach techniques against hammer grip thrusts as basic hand vs. knife and techniques against ice pick grip thrusts and tight hammer grip diagonal slashes as advanced hand vs. knife. Part of my reasoning for this teaching order is that you are more likely to encounter hammer grip in the street. The other reason being that knife tapping against hammer grip is more dependent on good footwork. One thing I learned from the way Tuhon Gaje taught us is that if you have a choice between an easy technique and a hard one, it is better to teach the harder technique first (again, under the theory that the first technique you learn will be the easier technique to bring out under stress).

After knife tapping I teach empty hand strikes that the students can slip in between their parries. These are called “third hand” strikes in Pekiti-Tirsia. They are palm strikes, elbows, forearm hacks and eye jabs. Notice the lack of punches, which can lead to a broken hand and impair your ability to grab, disarm or lock. Next I teach counters to the armed opponent’s third hand strikes and low kicks.

It’s only after the student has become proficient at parries and strikes that I teach what I call “goal” or finishing techniques; disarms, reversals, breaks, takedowns, etc.

Returning to the fighter jet analogy: it is paradoxical, but I believe that the thing you want to do most, in the case of the fighter pilot, fire the rockets (or in our case, disable the opponent) is the thing that you learn to do last. Why? Because it is usually the finishing techniques that students have the easiest time learning (at least the “how” part, if not the “when”) and are techniques that require a bit more time to do (at least when compared to a parry or strike).

These finishing techniques are chosen with the idea that you should also keep an eye on your opponent’s free hand as his counter to your lock could include drawing a second knife. Therefore some techniques that work very well in a pure empty hand encounter are excluded from Pekiti-Tirsia hand vs. knife technique. It’s not that they don’t work; it’s just that they present a danger in the environment of knife work. I emphasize when teaching finisher techniques that they should be part of a three part package; 1. the hit that buys you the time to do the finishing technique, 2. the finisher itself, and 3. a built-in escape move in case something goes wrong with the finishing technique.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s Tuhon Gaje would showcase knife tapping at our demos. It is an impressive drill; especially back when most martial artists were unfamiliar with FMA’s.In those days we would demo knife tapping with a sharp blade, cutting a piece of paper before starting the drill. Knife tapping made such an impression on non-FMA martial artists that some of them at the time thought that it was all we did in hand vs. knife, but as you can see there is a whole lot more to Pekiti-Tirsia hand vs. knife than just knife tapping.

Once students have gained a good foundation in hand vs. knife (and the instructor gets a chance to judge the student’s character) knife vs. knife is the next logical step in the teaching progression. Now no sane person wishes to get into a knife fight, but you stand a much better chance of surviving an armed attack if you yourself are also armed. The gross motions of many of the knife techniques can also be done with a pen, book or small flashlight. I emphasize to my students that if you are attacked by an armed opponent, having something in your hand to use to defend yourself is better than having nothing. Having something in your hand focuses your mind and usually gives you something to strike with that is harder and less susceptible to breakage than your own hand.

My usual practice is to teach single knife first, using the following progression if the student plans on becoming an instructor.

1. Hammer grip vs. Hammer grip.
2. Icepick grip vs. Hammer grip.
3. Icepick vs. Icepick.

If the student does not wish to teach (as in the case of many of my law enforcement students) I teach the grip that works best for the knife the student usually carries. I teach icepick grip for small knives under ten inches in overall length and hammer grip for larger knives with blades over seven inches in length.

In the last few years I have begun my basic knife vs. knife classes with three sets of 12 targets for the knife; one set for a closed pocketknife (or palmstick), one set for hammer grip and one for ice pick grip. A kind of a knife Abcedario.

With these sets I depart a bit from the way I learned Pekiti-Tirsia from Tuhon Gaje (he stayed with three attack angles with each grip for a long time, only showing other angles very late in training). I felt it would help the students to have a broad nomenclature of knife targets to begin knife vs. knife training, so I put together three sets of targets from techniques found here and there in the system.

I begin the students with the palm stick set. I give the example of a way this set can be used as when going to their cars late at night. The student can keep a closed pocketknife in their dominant hand and their car keys in the other. They won’t draw attention to themselves this way, but can still buy themselves some time with a palm stick strike if attacked before they have time to open the knife.

After these three sets, I teach the knife vs. knife versions of knife tapping. Good timing is a major component of good knife technique, so I want the students proficient with their flow drills while holding a knife in their hands. In addition, some added hits and cuts are added here that are specific to knife vs. knife tapping.

In basic hand vs. knife tapping, I teach defenses against four basic attacks from a knife held in hammer grip (wide forehand thrust, wide backhand thrust, low centerline thrust, high centerline thrust).

In advanced hand vs. knife I teach defenses against icepick grip attacks from a forehand and backhand diagonal thrust, a vertical downward thrust, a horizontal jab and, (since the gross moments are related), defenses against hammer grip diagonal slashes.

Into the mix of knife vs. knife tapping, I add the attacks from the three knife sets, to help cover a variety of angles not covered in hand vs. knife training (Why are these angles not covered earlier? I would rather a new student first concentrate on getting really good at just a few things rather than getting mediocre at many things).

In both hand vs. knife and knife vs. knife I feel it is important to start the students with large gross motions of the arms and simple footwork as their first line of defense. Fine motor skills go down as your stress levels go up/ so you want the large motions to be the first thing a student goes for when in danger.

After this segment, I teach drills and techniques that are specific to knife vs. knife.
The drills go from counteroffensive and therefore difficult to learn, to directly offensive and therefore easy to learn, under the fighter pilot theory of teaching I spoke of above.
Each drill is centered around a set of three attacks that are countered and then recountered. Each drill works on a specific skill such as avoidance, locking or entering. After the base drill is learned, we delve into variations of that drill, working on different counters and recounters for each attack. After the variations are worked through, we practice moving from anyone point in a drill to any point in any other drill. We are still working with specific techniques, but going from three variables then to nine, then to eighteen, etc, is a very good intermediate step towards the randomness of combat.

When teaching finishing techniques, I explain to my students that the phrase is a goal, not a guarantee. Human beings can be incredibly tough to put down, (especially with the 4-inch pocketknives most of my civilian students carry). You can have the same person use the same technique on ten different attackers and get ten different results depending on their physical and mental condition at the time.

After the students get a sufficient vocabulary of technique under their belts to make it worthwhile, I get them into supervised sparring. Here we spend a lot of time working on jabs that will disable the weapon arm or stun the head since this is what will buy you the time to do the techniques you learned previously. Not too much time is spent on practicing the jab prior to sparring however. Just as in boxing, the jab buys you the techniques that you really wanted to use in the first place, and just like in boxing, sparring is the best place to learn when to use the jab.

After the students become proficient at jabs and counters, we get into general sparring.
I don’t let them spend too much time in one on one sparring however. As soon as possible we get into sparring that involves multiple opponents, and/or unequal weapons. I want the students in class to develop a “street paranoia”. A fight might start one on one but become two on one once the fighters go to ground grappling. A knife fight can turn into a gun fight when a second weapon is drawn. You might hear, “Police! Don’t Move!” shouted from behind you just as you are about to finish your opponent. Make the wrong move and you get “shot”. You might get “carjacked” while seated and have to fight through a “car window” made from bungee cord and pipe insulation. My goal in sparring is not to train them to fight a duel with a knifer but rather to train them to survive a criminal attack.

After single knife, I teach double knife, most of which is based on translations from Espada y
Daga. The icepick grip techniques for the dominant hand generally follow what the punyo part of the stick or sword would be doing in Espaday Daga.

I teach double knife in the following order:

1. Double Hammer grip vs. Double Hammer (Using long thrusting daggers. Looks like it could be done well with a pair of main gauche. That may be where it was originally derived from)
2. Icepick and Hammer vs. Double Hammer (Derived from EYDset 1)
3. Icepick and Hammer vs. Same (Something I put together to fill a gap in the grip sequence)
4. Double Icepick vs. Double Hammer (Derived from EYDset 2)
5. Double Icepick vs. Same (Derived from EYDset 3)

After double knife, I teach knife vs. empty hand technique. This involves counters to Pekiti-Tirsia and other hand vs. knife techniques (and something I reserve for my advanced students for obvious reasons).

Do I teach any knife throwing? Very little, just a basic introduction. There are people out there who can teach it a lot better than I can. What I do show is more in the nature of judging what distance you can dodge a thrown knife and what distance you can’t.

The above material comprises all that I teach in Pekiti-Tirsia knife work.

Lastly, I want to address the philosophy I try to impart while training.
Knife work is inherently “dark” and it is all too easy for your students to go over to “The Dark Side” while training in it (I can hear Yoda’s voice now, “Beware the Sharp Side of the Force. Seductive it is. Once you have started down the sharp and pointy path, forever it will hold you. Yeeeeeees.” 🙂

While I want my students to take their training seriously (and the consequences of their actions VERY seriously), I don’t want them to take themselves or even me too seriously. Here is the danger I am trying to avoid. What should be a defensive tactics that simply focuses on one practical defensive tool, can easily be turned into “The Cult of the Knife.”
I work very hard to prevent my classes from turning into a cult, (and this does take work on my part). When teaching knife, it seems almost a natural inclination of some students (especially the younger males)to turn the class into a cult built around what bad asses they are because they train in knife. On the flip side of this, if an instructor actually wanted to turn a martial arts class into a cult, the knife class is the place to do it.

If it’s the teacher’s responsibility to look after the welfare of his students as it pertains to what he is teaching them, then that welfare includes not only their physical safety, but their legal and moral safety as well. You really have to be careful not to send your students out into the world with a hair trigger that can go off at the slightest insult or fender bender. To do so is just plan irresponsible on the instructor’s part and is probably fueled by a desire for ego building (or wallet building) on the part of that instructor.

So then, how do I prevent my knife classes from going over to “The Dark Side?”
Humor is part of the equation. I joke about myself, I joke about the students and I even joke about the technique (have any of you guys seen my “rabbit trap” technique?). It’s hard to turn into a serious cult if you don’t take yourself too seriously. I get the students to laugh at themselves so they won’t form themselves into a cult and I get them to laugh at me so they won’t build a cult of personality around me or any other instructor. I use a lot of self-depreciating humor in my classes (not too difficult when you are among the “follicly challenged” (:-) . Another thing I emphasize is that they leave class in class. While I have the students address me as Tuhon in class, I tell them to call be Bill outside of class.

I tell them that we are not an army or a tribe or a gang. I ask them not to wear their school shirts in public and keep their training very low profile. Above all I tell them that the martial art they train in is there to be their servant: to teach them self defense, to keep them in good health and to protect their families. If they become the servant of the martial art then something very, very wrong has occurred. In fact one way I define a martial arts cult is when an instructor teaches that the students are there to serve the art, rather than that the art exists to serve the students.

Tuhon Bill McGrath