Combat knives?

Feb 4, 1999
I'm curious from people who actually go into combat, what is expected of a "combat knife" these days? Reason I'm asking is that many knives are called combat knives, but I'm wondering how accurate the use of that term is.
For example, not to dis anyone, but the last issue of Combat Knives I bought had a story on the Ontario/Bagwell bowies, which James Keating said, to paraphrase, that no combat man would ever have to go into combat with a knife that wasn't up to par.
It would seem to me that the role of a combat knife isn't actually combat, but utility. Cutting rope and nylon lines, opening containers, some prying, perhaps, and maybe some light digging. Combat knives seem marketed, though, as killing and fighting tools, which makes little sense to me. I am not a soldier in the army or whatever, but it seems to me that the days of hand-to-hand combat on the battlefiled are long gone. I highly doubt that the movies where guys are sneaking up to the enemy and slitting their throat are too realistic in this day and age, and I really doubt that a marine is going to charge a guy with a knife instead of just taking him out with a damn M-16! I dunno. Maybe I'm completely wrong, but are knives and "combat" swords actually used in an offensive or defensive way by real soldiers anymore? I suppose in a pinch they would need to serve that purpose, but why have entire publications and classes of knives devoted to something that rarely, if ever, comes into play in this capacity?

<a href = ""> My knife page</a>
Palmer College of Chiropractic
On Two Wheels
I also bought Combat Knives magazine from a newsstand and enjoyed reading it. However, I took James Keating's opinion on Bagwell fighters' suitability for military as a joke. US military in not going backwards from hi-tech to swords, or is it? I wonder if Keating has ever been in the military.

I am an Army Reserve officer in Finland. I have been trained to protect my coutry and would do it in any circumstances. Like most soldiers I hope I never need to do that.

In my opinion, a soldier needs a knife but mostly for other tasks than killing the enemy. There are all kinds of things that need to be cut (wood, rope etc.) and also some light chopping, like clearing field of view and fire from your fighting position etc. And of course a knife must perform all camp duties in military camp as well.

Killing enemies is mostly done by artillery, machineguns, rifle fire etc. Bladed weapons can come to play when you and the enemy are so close he can prevent you from using your rifle by gripping it, like fighting close range after (your or their) assault in trenches, foxholes, tunnels etc. In that case you better use whatever you have: bayonet, entrenching tool, rifle butt, knife etc. But even in very short ranges a pistol often is a better choise than a knife if you happen to have a pistol (most grunts don't). And if you run out of ammo the entrenching tool and the rifle/bayonet combo are mostly better weapons than a knife, but a knife is a good complement to those. A knife can excell in close range silent killing, but a cumbersome oversized fighter is not the best for that job.

Why not to choose the longest knife you can find? First, it is difficult to carry very long knives in cramped vehicles. For example armoured personnel carriers often don't have much extra room for nonissued items, and soldiers have a lot of things to carry.

Second, if you move by foot in a combat zone you must be ready for go down instantly and you definetely dont want something (like a long knife in a swiveled sheath hanging from your belt) to slow you down. A large proportion of casualties comes from artillery fire and you definitely don't want to be standing when the granades explode.

Third, you must think what is economical to take with you when you cannot carry all you would like to. You MUST carry the issued gear, and see what else you can take with you. A knife that is good for nothing else but killing from short range (and actually is too long to be practical even for that in extremely tight places) probably does not belong to most popular items.

Let's assume you have place for one more item in your belt. Would you choose a pistol or a Bagwell fighter?

Please don't get me wrong, Bagwell style fighters are interesting knives and suitable for martial arts, but I don't see much use of them for a soldier in modern combat. A general purpose knife is better for most uses, and even if planning silent short range killings Bagwells are just too cumbersome. Colonel Applegate suggests daggers with 5 to 7 inch blades for that use, and I must admit that is much more practical length. That blade length is long enough to reach all vital organs in a human body, but the knife's total length does not limit it's use in real limited spaces like tunnels etc.

I would also like to hear comments from others who have been in the military of any country.

Thanks for your reply. It was exactly the type of first-person military experience I was looking for. As far as trench warfare and really close combat situations in the military, if this even a reality anymore? Seems to me that with the artillery, airstrikes, and long range weaponry there would be no reason to even be close enough to the enemy to use a knife. I was just wondering if it was me whose thinking was off, or if some of these paramilitary "experts" were a doing a little too much fantasy and romanticizing of the role of a knife in military use. Thaks, Ossi!

Palmer College of Chiropractic
On Two Wheels
As an Army Officer, I will tell you that you both make some very good points, although a little too general. First, there are differences in characteristics between a "combat" knife and a "fighting" knife. Fighting knives are designed for close, personal combat, sentry removal, etc. where the target is another human. These knives are usually longer and slimmer (Randall #2, the Bagwell Bowie you mentioned, Mad Dog Shrike and Panther are examples) than a combat knife. The term "combat" associated here usually means warfighting, not individual combat with another human. A "combat" knife is used as you suggested, as a tool, with the ability to engage the individual enemy soldier, if required. Most uses for a combat knife are utilitarian, especially for mechanized infantry, armor (tanks) and support personnel. There are exceptions to this concept, though, like Special Forces, Rangers, and others who operate in small groups with little to no vehicle support, and whose operations often require a covert, stealthy approach to an objective or target. Some of these types (but not all!) are more likely to carry a pure fighting knife or a combination fighting/combat knife for these purposes.

Also, what one soldier carries may be specialized from one mission to another, and so goes his load out of bladeware. Lots of soldiers carry a pocketknife like a Swiss Army Knife, and/or a pocket tool like a Gerber, SOG, or Leatherman. Whether they carry another fixed blade knife along with their M-9 bayonet will be determined by their unit SOP (commander's desires) and the mission.

Bottom line--fighting knives are a bit specialized for fighting a human enemy while a combat knife can be used for this purpose also, but is generally a utilitarian tool.

Bruce Woodbury
Good points. Another question: how realistic is it to make an entire class of knives based on the thought that they may be used to sneak up on someone and cut their throat? Or that some dude will get jumped and have to pull his knife on the enemy instead of simply shooting him? It doesn't seem like soldiers regularly sneak up on enemies anymore, but maybe I'm wrong.

Palmer College of Chiropractic
On Two Wheels
From a knife maker's standpoint, it is realistic to continue to produce "fighting" knives because people still buy them! I'm sure less than the majority of fighting type knives are purchased by combat soldiers. Most are purchased by people for a range of reasons including: Owning a piece of history, they look cool (mystique), someday I might need one, fits a niche in my collection, if I own all the equipment of a "Green Beret" I must be one (self esteem or gratification), etc. And as far as I'm concerned, these are all acceptable reasons.

I carry a Swiss Army Knife, a SOG multiplier, and a Randall #14 (more combat/survival knife than fighting knife). I will assess my Mad Dog Arizona Hunter (also not a pure fighting knife) when it comes, as an alternative to the Randall. I own several fighting knives. My Randall #1 has never been on my LBE (load bearing equipment--pistol belt & suspenders with attached pouches, holster, knife sheath, canteens, etc.) but I won't give it up. I own a reproduction of a WWII Camillus M-3 Trench Knife and probably would not carry it in combat either but it reminds me of those brave infantry and airborne soldiers of WWII. I also own a Camillus fighting/utility (the Marine type combat knife sometimes given the generic name "kabar") and would take that as a back up or alternate to my Randall/Mad Dog, on deployment.

So Chiro75, you are right that few fighting knives get used for the purpose for which they were intended, but they are still in demand.
I have never been in a war. Despite my best efforts, I'm not even a soldier(yet, I haven't given up). I do think I have some info that might be of some value;

As to being close enough to use a knife against the enemy; It's happened in every war I can think of. Some more than others, but it always happens. Especialy now that we don't fight big wars, just these brushfire and police-action deals. Sure, the bombs and jets when you start out, but after the initial problem's resolved, the ground forces move in. As I recall, the mission statement of the U.S. Army Infantrymen is "to close with and destroy the enemy". Infantry have been, and always will be, indispensable to a military campaign, they have and always will end up fighting close in.

Is a knife the weapon of choice? Probably not, but it's a fair back-up with utility functions, and I'm sure it provides peace of mind.

To the old saying of "what ever knife you're in combat with is a combat knife" I will reply with a resounding PHOOEY!

That's like saying "any car you're in in a race is a race car". Sure, you can race any car you want, but there's a world of difference between an Indi car and a rolls-canardly.

My criteria gleened from experience during a former involvement with para-military types while still a dis-affected youth searching for belonging(whatever that means), and based off the stories related to me by my Grandfather who killed Nazi's with knives, as well as experiences with wilderness survival and using knives to kill game animals are;

A good, solid handle that won't slip when covered with gore or grease

relatively narrow so it doesn't get hung up on web gear

Length isn't as big a problem, within reason, and it's good to have some extra

Keep it sharp

Saw teeth are a joke

Stout, sharp blade with good point

I am not trying to equate the militia-types I ran with to a real military force. I saw through their jive and dropped out. However, we were wearing BDU's and web gear while running through the woods with guns playing Army. It gave me a feel for what's comfortable or not.

I wouldn't classify a Bagwell bowie as a combat knife. I like the knife, and I feel that a properly designed bowie with trapping guard would work, but I don't think a Hell's Belle is it.

Speaking of which, while what James Keating teaches is authentic, I can vouch for the ABC stuff as it's similar to what I research/do, I don't have any idea what this guy's background is.

As was pointed out, soldiers fight primarily with firearms. A military background doesn't automaticaly expert in hand to hand. Likewise, a law enforcement doesn't either. There's a lot of guys with neither that can do well against either of these groups who don't have any such background. So I don't really care if Keating is a Special Forces Frog Ranger or L.A. PD Blue RoboCop or whatever is the popular badge of experience today, or just a streetfighter or martial artist, the matierial speaks for itself. But really, does anybody know anything about his background?
I'm only a hobbyist maker and never a soldier. My opinions are largely armchair opinions gleaned from thinking, drawing, and talking A LOT with folks who know better than I.

I feel some folks have only fuzzy distinctions of various knife classes. I believe in some very distinct classes somewhat different than those usually used. Here are a few:

"Fighting knives" - these are knives intended for fighting (better called duelling) with another individual who is similarly armed and aware of your intent. They are very large, primarily single-edged for slashing but with usable false edges for back-cuts. Large, functional guards and blade-catchers abound. They belong to the Jim Bowie legends and riverboat duels of the last century. They are very cool but have virtually no place in modern society, where duelling is frowned upon and the carry of such pieces is frequently illegal. Bagwell Bowies are the quintessential expression of this class.

"Killing knives" - these are knives for military use only (outside of illegal uses). They are designed with the intent of quickly and efficiently ending the life of someone who is not similarly armed and hopefully unawares. There will ideally be no "duel," just a rush and a strike and it's over. They have minimal guards to protect the hand only, are more moderately sized (6"-9"), and frequently are double-edged or with substantial back edges. The Gerber Mk. II is what I usually think of, though others such as the Applegate-Fairbairn and possibly Katz Alley-Kat are also fine examples. "Sentry-removal" knives are an offshoot of this class tailored to the techniques of certain special services in quietly eliminating an unawares individual.

"Combat knives" - Military-style knives that are designed to be tough and applicable to a wide variety of outdoor tasks. Often they are bad compromises and designed-by-committee kinds of knives, and the worst are those where "fighting" use played a part in the design. These knives are used by folks who have a rifle at their disposal, if not a tank. The last thing they are going to kill someone with is a knife. They tend to be single-edged, deliberately overbuilt, in the 4.5"-7.5" range, and in bad examples include things like sawbacks, bayonet attachments, compasses, etc. A very broad group of knives, and some are excellent. But they are not "fighters" and they are not "killers." In the field they could be a weapon of desperation, but I'd rather use most shovels.

"Folding Fighters" - the stupidest knife term ever, in my opinion. My definition of fighters should make it clear why. First, folks don't have duels anymore, they have violent, sudden encounters. Second, these knives cannot do any of the things a fighter should because they lack the weight, reach, and appropriate guards. Many of these knives are also called "defensive folders" because this is a popular term and folks have confused a defensive encounter with a knife fight. These knives are designed for the "knife fight" scenario, however inadequate they might be for it. Some would serve well in defense (or utility), but I think this is by accident more than by design. I am thinking of the AFCK, the Carnivour, and many similar knives.

"Defensive folder" - The Spyderco Civilian. This is, IMO, the only production folder designed with true defensive scenarios in mind. Some may not agree with the way it answers the questions it was asked, but I think it at least was asked the right questions. I include this as a counterpoint to "folding fighters."

"Useless knives" - anything with a tanto point or a chisel grind (aside from kitchen/garden knives). Any knife whose blade sacrifices its cutting ability for the ability to withstand forces it should never encounter and other parts of its mechanism (or user) might not bear. I'm just venting here. Others (obviously) feel differently.

That's just a few. Mostly I'm concerned with the confusion surrounding the knives I divide into "fighting," killing," and "combat." Hope folks like what I say, but responses will likely be more interesting if they don't.


(Why else would a bear want a pocket?)
One can make a VERY strong case that the Mad Dog ATAK and variants (WSP1, DSU) are the very best "combat knives" ever made.

They're tough as nails, single edge, excellent utility design but the balance is still geared towards "fast tip control". In a 7" blade length range, you're not going to get a "power smasher" type. Overall weight is low...for the weight/size class, there's no finer single-edge utility knife that can *also* fight.

Jim March
The use of a knife in modern combat is an exception, but probably every type of knife has been used for fighting during the history of war. Also, in most wars knifes are used for killing, but in much smaller scale than firearms, warplanes etc.

A knife does not need to be purpose-built fighter to be useful. More important is what a soldier has with him when the need arises. I am not speaking about Spec Operations units that customize equipment to every mission, but about a typical infantry soldier who fights with what is issued plus probably some personal items.

During the WWII most Finnish soldiers carried their personal puukkos as utility knifes, and sometimes puukkos were used for killing also. There was even one attack done purely with knives. The Finns attacked in a moonless night in total darkness. Every Finn had a backpack and was ordered to kill with a knife or bayonet everyone else who didn't have a backpack, so the Finnish soldiers had to touch the backs of possible enemies before killing them. No firearms were used because it was too dark to see friend from foe, and the Finnish commander did not want frindly casualties by shooting without seeing. The Finns won that battle. There were no night vision goggles during the WWII.

As Bruce said, today most soldiers might carry a Swiss Army knife, a pocket tool or similar, and possibly a larger blade. In Reserve excercices here in Finland that knife is often some kind of puukko or a larger leuku (a puukko-like chopping blade), but some also carry pure military-style blades. Our military does not issue knifes (and bayonets only for parades and real war) so everyone brings the blade he prefers to the Reserve excercices.

BTW, I am aware of US Marine, Air Force and SEAL knifes. Are these blades issued to every member of those troops? Also, is the M9 bayonet (or M7) the only issued blade in the US Army?

Corduroy :

Could you explain why you see a Civilian and only a Civilian as suitable for a defensive situation?

"Useless knives" [SNIP] Any knife whose blade sacrifices its cutting ability for the ability to withstand forces it should never encounter [SNIP]

I would agree. However I have a rather broad idea of what forces knives should be able to endure. This differs from knife to knife but in general while I like very hard/thin knives that are right on the breaking point as to optomise durability, I also like pretty much the opposite. They each have their uses and their limits are well defined and I can use each without problems.

What I don't have any use for are the knives in between those two classes. They don't cut as well as the first type and they are not as durable as the second type. If you ask how strong are they you get vague comments like "pretty strong" and "durable enough". What does that mean? Nothing to me. Therefore I am left with a knife that I can't strain as I don't know if it will break so I end up using it like the first type until I decide that I am better off with a thinner/harder version.

Corduroy made a pretty severe statement against tanto points. What do the rest of you knife gurus think of tanto-ish points (like T.H. Rinaldi's "Warhawk", for example) on combat knives? (With "combat", I do mean the "mostly-utility-but-you-never-know" type of thing, carried in a military context.)

Tony S.
Mr. Stamp,

I tried to make this clear, but I realize the distinction is a tricky one: I do not feel the Civilian is the only knife suitable for defense - I feel it is the only production knife purposely and intelligently designed for defense. Many "folding fighter" type knives would do reasonably well in a defensive situation because they may be deployed quickly, have at least some integral guard, and offer decent thrusting and slashing ability. I feel, however, that they are designed for the "knife fight" scenario or to be "tactical" (utility first, weapon second).

By comparison, the Civilian has only one purpose and that is to permit rapid deployment for a powerful strike (or several) against a human in any sort of clothing, creating an opening for escape. Tip-down with a blade-hole is as fast as folders get, IMO (haven't played with a Commander, though). The hooked point allows only slashing, but can be relied on (more than any other knife, at least) to penetrate clothing and do massive superficial damage no matter where a strike lands: the aim is not a necessarily lethal wound, but one that will get your assailant's attention and make them either reconsider their attack or at least take their mind off you long enough to permit escape.

That's my opinion on the Civilian; I'm not speaking from a Spyderco text and perhaps I've misconstrued it. I feel that too often knives intended for defense are discussed in the context of disabling and/or killing an opponent in a prolonged struggle, including difficult, targeted thrusts to the torso. This is, IMO, more fighting than defense. I'd much prefer to hit-and-run and to that end I feel the Civilian is supreme.


(Why else would a bear want a pocket?)
Corduroy, thanks for the clarification. I can understand your point of view now. What I would wonder about is this method of attack, which is designed to produce an excape window, is that you are using what could be intrepreted as a lethal responce in a manner that obviously isn't.

For example, suppose you are in a situation where it looks like you are about to be attacked by 2 individuals and you don't think the possibility of direct flight is a good one (because they are too close, look like they could out run you, or whatever). So you initiate the above action with the Civilian with the goal being to convince both of them that better targets lie elsewhere long enough for you to get out of there.

However given that your intention is not to actually remove them from the fight through physical damage, couldn't this senario just result in them now wanting to kill you whereas before they did not and leaving you with a knife that is not designed for the desired goal that has developed?

Tony, I like tanto points from a utility perspective as the secondary point makes for nice shallow cutting, and the actual tip can be used for precise work. However one of the reasons that I dislike promoted tantos is that they are often just stuck on a knife to make it "tactical".

Let me also clarify my standing on tanto points before folks attack it:

When I say they are useless, I mean that they have substantial disadvantages and no advantages over a knife with standard curvature and belly. Therefore, I have no use for them. I do not mean they are literally "without use" because even a sharp rock has some use, and I would take a well-made tanto over a junky knife in any configuration.

I am also discussing the "American tanto" shape, with a distinct secondary edge and secondary point - these seem to be far more common in the market and are what most folks think of first.

Disadvantages of the tanto:

No belly limits utility. A knife's most useful area is the curved portion, or belly, before the tip. A curving edge presents a steeper cross-section to material being cut and so functions better. It may also be rocked or manipulated in a variety of ways to use this curve for different tasks. Take a look at any skinning knife and you will see a knife that's nearly all "belly" - frequently with an upswept point to maximize this. That shape did not happen by accident.

No belly is poor for slashing. For much the same reasons, the belly presents a constantly curving edge in the slash, which is far more effective. The finest slashing swords are all curved, single-edged designs. One might argue that a katana has a "tanto-point" yet fits this description, but A) a katana's point is often a traditional "tanto" shape that has some belly, not an "American tanto," and B) a knife, unlike a sword, can expect the point to play a substantial role in slashing due to its shorter length.

Shape is poor for thrusting. The thick cross section, relatively steep angle of the point, and point offset from the centerline all make the tanto a poor design for effective thrusting, however good it may be for resisting damage when thrusting. It's no good having a knife that isn't damageable in a job if it doesn't do the job well.

"Advantages" of the tanto?:

The primary advantage is that the point resists damage. This is true, but there is literally no reason that a knife must have a tanto shape to have this feature. I can grind a knife to retain its thickness as close to the tip as any tanto and have a point every bit as reinforced as any tanto, but with a perfectly standard curved blade shape. The idea that a knife must have an "American tanto" shape with a secondary edge in order to have a reinforced tip is pure fallacy - just look at any "traditional" tanto, where some degree or belly is retained (try a Katz tanto, for example, though they add a sill false edge). Also, if a tanto is ground steeply enough it will be just as fragile as a standard knife with a needle-like point; take a look at the BM Elishewitz Stryker to see a tanto that has a point every bit as weak (and useful) as most curved designs.

Some folks have also claimed that you can "choke up" on a tanto and use the secondary edge as a smaller knife. This is not a particular property of tantos - you can do that with the end of any single-edged knife! The only difference is that this is a perfectly straight edge in tantos. I have no specific use for a straight edge except in a kitchen knife where I chop against a flat board, and even there a curved edge works almost as well if I rock the knife, so I consider the straight secondary edge no advantage.

I have also heard folks claim that the secondary point initiates the cut in a slashing strike. This may be true, but is far outweighed by the superior geometry for the cut possessed by a curved blade.

Two genuine adavntages to tantos: James Mattis pointed out that in cutting steak on a ceramic plate, the secondary point keeps the edge from dulling against the plate. also, I have seen the secondary point employed more easily than a primary point could be in cutting coupons and otherwise zipping through paper against a flat surface. Would you buy a tanto for either of these two activities?

Sorry for the long post, but I'd like to "have this out" and make totally clear my feelings on tantos. I have made a few to play with and because folks like them. I don't think I would again. To me, they are useless knives.


(Why else would a bear want a pocket?)
OSSI, Here are some of the knives issued to U.S. military personnel:

Camillus Pilot Survival Knife: To Army, Air Force, and Navy pilots (I assume Marine aviators also).

Fighting/Utility Knife (generic term is "kabar" but most government contracts are Camillus and Ontario: U.S. Marines.

M-9 Bayonet: U.S. Army & Marines issued the M-16 A1 or A2 rifle.

Navy Seals: SOG Seal 2000

Various organizations within all branches: Standard steel sided pocket knives, Pocket tools like the Gerber, Leatherman, SOG, etc.

Most military personnel can also purchase these or alternatives in the Post/Base Exchange or on the local economy.

My experience is that the U.S. Army rarely issues a field knife to soldiers, other than the M-9 bayonet.
Right On Corduroy!

American Tanto's(100 "Hail Mary's" for disparaging the sacred name of liberty by associating it with that monstrosity) are 90% hype. The tanto offers NO advantage over any other point. It is a marketing gimmick. Popular yes, but a gimmick none the less.

Check out Smoke's thread on the Master of Defense Ayoob Razorback. I spent some time detailing why the tanto doeth suck muchly.
But let's save tanto-knocking for another time.

Jim, I can make an equaly strong case that the Mad Dog's are really nothing special, have particular edge over anything else, and at best are no better than anything else that's on the market. Pure junk knives, obviously, excluded.

Corduroy, I would rather say the Civilian is well designed for a particular, and valid, tactical(100 "Hail Mary's" for using the corrupt term "tactical") doctrine. There are others that are as suitable, depending on your mindset.

Also, edged weapon vs. edged weapon is not uncommon on the streets. At least in Florida. You're more likely to get cut or stabbed than shot. If you carry a knife too, then you're talking knife fight. I think the "knife fights don't happen anymore/duelling/assassination thing originated with McYoung's books. I'll have to get around to reading some sometime. I just can't see outlaying cash for a book I haven't seen first. A few bad mailorder experiences.

I would rather say fights in general are uncommon. Or more precisely, one will sledom get into a fight of any sort unless you are looking for it.

WAY too many people fret over the tip of their knife breaking. I have been stabbing living boar to make them dead when hunting for many years now. I have used some knives with thin points. I have never had a problem with breakage. This paranoia seems to stem from bad experiences with the Fairbairn/Sykes dagger. That thing had many problems. It is not indicative of the frailty of all knives. Remember, steel is steel. Inherently strong. You don't need an ingot with an edge. In fact, there are several things going against edged ingots.

That said, I'm carrying an ignot knife these days. A Project 1. Other knives have served me as well, I just like this one quite a bit. There are advantages to it's one-piece construction when it comes to clean up after use, and the gaurd will never come loose.(pet peeve)
Hey, Jim, not to start a flame war or anything, in light of having read most of the Maddog vs Cliff Stamp material both here, on Cliff's webpage, and at Knifeforums, I think an argument could be made that Maddog knives are decidedly NOT the ultimate choice for survival/combat applications, and I am curious as to how your advertisement/endorsement fits into the context of this thread?
Snickersnee, from what I have read about your Project you have done more than a fair share of heavy work with it. Have you wrapped the handle or do you wear gloves when using it heavy? I am curious about your opinion of the ergonomics of the handle.

As to the Tanto having no advantages over any other point, it is different thus it will obviously perform better in some areas and less in others.