Self Defense With a Knife: Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes When Choosing A Knife

Self Defense With a Knife: Making the right choice

A knife can be an excellent self-defense tool. Lightweight, easy to carry, and legal — in one form or another — virtually everywhere, it offers lethal potential that could literally save your life. Even if you regularly carry a handgun, in the event you suffer a catastrophic malfunction, have to travel someplace where you don’t enjoy reciprocity, or have to spend time in any other gun-free environment, carrying a high-quality, well-designed tactical knife is a smart thing to do.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there about personal-defense knives and their effective defensive use. If you fall victim to the hype and hyperbole, at best you’ll be wasting your money on weapons you can’t trust. At worst, you could end up in jail or on a coroner’s slab because you chose poorly. With those solemn images in mind, let’s look at the five critical mistakes people make when choosing a self-defense knife.

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Choosing a personal-defense knife can be a daunting task. Avoiding a few common mistakes will quickly put you on the right path.

Mistake #1: Failing to Research the Law

Self-defense is an interesting legal problem. Basically, it consists of admitting you committed a violent act but justifying that action by providing evidence you were the victim of a crime and that your use of violence was justified to protect your life. A large part of that justification process involves establishing yourself as “the good guy” in the eyes of the legal system. Carrying an illegal knife is inconsistent with that image.

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Knife laws are complicated, confusing, and notoriously imprecise. They also vary wildly from one jurisdiction to the next. Nevertheless, it’s your job as a law-abiding citizen to research all the laws that apply to you (including municipal laws that could be stricter than state laws) based on where you live and travel. A great way to do this is with a Smartphone app called Legal Blade, which is maintained and updated by It allows you to quickly research the laws of states and major municipalities to determine what types of knives are legal and what types are not. Once you understand those parameters, they should form the foundation of your knife selection process.

As a wise self-defense student of mine once observed, “The worst way to start your claim to self-defense is with a felony in your pocket.”

Mistake #2: Confusing Popularity with Quality

In today’s world of social media, we have come to evaluate things based on the number of “likes,” “shares,” and “followers” they generate. Unfortunately, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it has any redeeming educational value — or that it should ever serve as a basis for any of your personal-defense decisions. Just because a guy in a YouTube video looks cool and can spin a knife like a yo-yo champion doesn’t mean he knows anything about designing a knife — especially one that meets your personal needs.

Online videos and social media posts can be a useful means of learning about knife designs and narrowing your choices, but only if you use them intelligently. Instead of just looking at the number of followers someone has, look at the comments those followers leave. If they are intelligent, well reasoned, and seem to come from people who share your values and concerns, you’re getting potentially useful information. If you post a respectful, inquisitive comment asking about other people’s experiences and satisfaction with a design and get insightful responses in return, you’re on a roll. However, if all you see are vapid or overly aggressive fan-boy posts, keep looking.

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Even if we ignore social media, popularity still does not mean a particular knife design is right for you. Think for yourself and learn to set specific criteria that meet your personal needs.

self defense with a knife, which knife is best for self defense
Just because a knife is popular or its designer has lots of followers on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s worth trusting your life to.

Mistake #3: Failing to Get Training

If you are ever forced to defend yourself, drawing a knife and hoping for the best is not a sound plan. To use a knife effectively, you need some degree of physical skill. And the best way to develop that skill is through high-quality training — Ideally training that focuses on using knives in legitimate self-defense circumstances. Such training not only allows you to develop solid skills and tactics but should also help you understand what qualities are necessary in a knife for it to “do its job.” This can vary greatly depending upon the specific techniques and tactics of the system you learn.

A good defensive knife system should teach you the mechanics of cutting and thrusting and, in the process, help you develop a sound understanding of the qualities a knife must possess to function effectively as a weapon. Really good systems quantify and validate the cutting performance of knives with test cutting on various types of targets. That type of experience teaches you volumes about how different types of knives really perform, which designs work, and which don’t.

Obviously, highly specialized systems — like those that focus exclusively on the use of the karambit — literally require a particular style of knife. That will limit your choices significantly. It also means that if you are ever forced to “make do” with another type of knife, your skills won’t translate completely.

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Also, if you are really serious about carrying a knife for personal-defense, you’ll want to train diligently and will need a training knife that closely matches your actual carry knife. For production knives, that requirement alone will narrow your field of choices faster than anything else.

self defense with a knife
A self-defense knife must be able to cut and puncture its intended targets. Validating that on realistic facsimiles like this “Pork Man” target is a great way to separate good knives from unworthy ones.

Mistake #4: Modeling the Wrong Skill Set

In case you hadn’t noticed, we do not live in feudal Japan or in a remote tribal village of Indonesia. Unless you are actually a duty-bound member of an armed service or are specifically authorized to carry special weapons, you are an average citizen — just like the rest of us. That means that when you use a knife as a weapon, it will be in the context of self-defense. You won’t be avenging your master, fighting a deathmatch, or stalking a sentry, so choosing an exotic, purpose-designed martial arts weapon or high-speed, low-drag military knife probably isn’t your best move.

Similarly, there is a huge difference between lawfully defending yourself with a knife and killing a fellow inmate in prison over a pack of cigarettes. Prison is, by definition, a non-permissive environment, so the weapons you find there are invariably improvised shanks and shivs. High-speed tactical folders are not an available option, but a toothbrush ground to a point on a concrete wall is. With a sharpened toothbrush, stabbing is really the only option. Because it is far from an ideal weapon, stabbing ruthlessly and repeatedly is the best way to compensate for its shortcomings and achieve a lethal effect. However, just because all that makes sense in the skewed, hyper-violent culture inside a prison population doesn’t mean it should be a basis for your choice of self-defense tools or tactics. Inmates stab each other because that’s all their available tools allow them to do. And, yes, inmates die from being stabbed, but ambushing another prisoner (often with help) is not the same as decisively stopping an attacker on the street.

When it comes to tactics, it’s also important to remember that, in self-defense, we have to establish ourselves as “the good guys.” If your “work product” (i.e. your attacker’s wounds) looks like the victim of a felonious assault, you are much more likely to be viewed as the perpetrator of a felonious assault, not an honest citizen forced to defend himself.

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What does all that mean when it comes to choosing a knife? Well, besides the fact that a sharpened toothbrush in a Kydex sheath should not be your number one pick, you need to focus on a self-defense context and the tools and tactics appropriate for that context. You should also avoid designs that are associated with martial arts, knife systems, or other groups that advocate tactics and behavior inconsistent with responsible self-defense.

Mistake #5: Failing to Consider Your Wardrobe and Lifestyle

Most people who have concealed carry permits do not carry on a regular basis — primarily because carrying a handgun is uncomfortable. Although knives are smaller, lighter, and much easier to carry than firearms, a good defensive knife must still be compatible with your wardrobe and lifestyle for you to carry it consistently. You may live someplace where a giant, crew-served folding knife is perfectly legal to carry. Tucked in the pocket or waistband of your jeans, you might even get used to it. But as soon as you put on a pair of shorts, your clothing choice no longer supports its weight and bulk well. Dress up in a suit or even business-casual attire and it not only sticks out like a sore thumb but makes your officemates nervous enough to report you to HR.

Conversely, a reasonable, non-threatening folding knife that blends in well with everything you wear is much more likely to fly under the radar. Because it’s easier to carry, carrying it consistently — which translates to being armed consistently — is not a problem.

In summary, the best way to choose a good self-defense knife is to first arm yourself with good training, good judgment, and the ability to think for yourself.

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