Savate Knife Fencing

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Knife fighting is a no-win situation.

Unlike a punch to the face or kick to the stomach, a knife cut can have serious long-term consequences. Sometimes shallow cuts with a 5-cm folding knife at the right target can inflict greater damage than being stabbed with a large 20-cm kitchen knife. Similarly, young knife enthusiasts at play may accidentally and inadvertently cause severe damage to a friend. Knife practice is serious, as in times of panic or through lack of concentration, ‘Murphy’s Law’ prevails and regrettably, anything can and will happen, well beyond your control.

Knives vary accordingly to nationality, culture and individual preferences. Techniques can be crude but efficient. Historically knife and stick fighting were a poor mans armoury as ownership of a sword was restricted to the military and upper classes.

It was the adaptation and the reasoning of fencing that made knife-fencing a science with improved technique and tactical awareness. Today every nation, especially third world countries have a knife culture with Southeast Asian methods presently holding the interest of many Martial artists.

There are many schools on the subject, but when it comes down to the reality, the techniques and methods are relatively simple. It’s the tactical application that makes them deceptive.

There are many fixed or folding knives on the market that serve the purpose of knife fighting and all will cut and thrust to varying degrees. However for ease of reference there are two archetypes that can generally classify fencing-knives. Though these are discussed with reference to modern history, each has existed since the period of Renaissance.

The first is that of the Bowie knife. It is a heavy-duty knife that was designed in the 1830’s from a skinning knife. It has a single edge, false back, clip and cross guard. Generally it is the heaviest of the fighting knives and has superb cutting ability. This archetype design or its modifications could be called the Sabre of knife fencing.

The second development is that of the Fairbairn-Sykes Dagger. It was developed in 1940 at the Commando Special Training Centre at Achnacarry, Scotland. It consists of a slender tapered doubled edged blade with cross guard and cylindrical handle. Because of its lightness it can be used extremely fast. This archetype design or its modifications could be called the Epee of knife fencing.

In recent history, schools have flourished and declined. In America, during the 19-century there were knife-fighting schools based on European methods from New Orleans through to St Louis. Traditionally the Americans tended to favour the heavier blades, which probably perpetuated a wider acceptance of the Bowie archetype.

In Europe, particularly the Western Mediterranean, knife fighting has been a centuries old cultural process. Just prior to and after the Second World War small exclusive societies on the art of knife fencing existed in Italy, Sicily, Corsica, Southern France and Spain. In Italy and Sicily there was a preference towards the ultra quick Stiletto. In Marseilles and along the Riviera, exponents of Chausson/Savate maintained the long ruthless tradition of knife and street kicking.

The local Gitanos were very apt with knives and scissors. The Spanish and the Basque have been for centuries, master craft workers. During the early 17 century the Basque developed the first Bayonet in Bayonne after which it was named. After the Second World War the F/S Dagger and its combat training influenced many societies of knife fencing. On many accounts the ruthless objective to kill and assassinate rather than practice as a sport saw a loss of interest and eventually the closure of the societies. Though some minority groups still exist.

Since the Second World War, military knife training has been influenced by the classical works of Lieutenant-Colonel A.J. Drexel Biddle and John Styers on the Bowie archetype; and Major William Fairbairn and Lieutenant-Colonel Rex Applegate on the Dagger archetype. Their methods were designed for war and cover skills of knife fighting, sentry kills and assassination.

The objective of a knife fight is to hit without being hit. The idea to take a hit to give a hit should be left to boxing where the consequences are not permanent or life threatening. Furthermore, there is no practical unarmed defence against an opponent with a knife who wishes to cut or kill you! You must improvise as quickly as possible!

As to which archetype is best is definitely a matter of personal choice. Although muscular strength, reflex speed, and the intelligence to handle the knife at hand are important considerations.

Generally the knife can be held in one of three ways and each can have some minor variations depending on individual preferences. One must be familiar with each so to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Grip and design only limit knife manoeuvres. Consideration as to the type of grip will relate directly to a blade style and will affect weight and balance. Blade length should be no longer than twice the grip. Knife fencing is a tactical thinking person’s game of short duration, with many manoeuvres being planned several moves ahead of the action.