Monday, April 27, 2009

Knife Review: Spyderco Endura 4 with the Emerson opener

I’ve recently added to my knife collection and I’ll start posting knife reviews here. First off, I’d like to make clear that I always consider knives as both tools and weapons, as they have always been since our hirsute ancestors discovered sharp flint. So my reviews will touch on both uses. I realize that my readers might want to go straight to the weapon usage info but I like to present all the information and let the reader decide on what they need. Please check your local laws on knife carrying in public and blade length limitations.
I’ll start with the Spyderco Endura 4 with the Emerson opener.
To begin with, here are some numbers. At 97 mm, the blade length of an Endura 4 with the Emerson opener is just 1 mm longer than the same knife without the opener. The blade thickness for both knives is 3mm. The overall length of the Emerson opener model is 224 mm, 2mm longer than the “simpler” Endura. A 97 mm blade is in my opinion a suitable blade length for most of what people will use this knife for, including self-defense.

The VG-10 steel of the blade is excellent, and sharpens to hair shaving sharpness easily and quickly. I did a few strokes on my Spyderco Sharpmaker’s fine rods and it brought the already impressive factory edge to my preferred hair-splitting sharpness. One thing I can say about Spydercos, the edge geometry on their knives is outstanding, even out of the box. The edge retention of the VG-10 steel is also quite good; the blade keeps its sharpness more or less even after moderately heavy use such as cutting up cardboard. Cardboard is notorious for dulling blades and my experience with VG-10 is that it only requires a touch-up to get the edge back after using the blade on this material.

For my hands – which are 9.5 cm across the palm - the handle length of 125 mm offers a full and stable grip. The FRN (fiberglass reinforced nylon) handle is tough and I’m confident it can take massive amounts of abuse. The FRN makes this knife quite light and yet you feel confident that the handle can take whatever stress the blade will put it through in regular use. The Endura 4 with the Emerson opener has skeletonized stainless steel liners that further reinforces the strength of the FRN handle. The Bi-Directional Texturing on the FRN handle ensured a good grip on the knife, even with wet hands.

The well made gimping right behind the hole and opener hook on the blade gives my thumb secure purchase for thrusts or cutting actions. The gimping, coupled with the graceful curve of the handle that follows the natural arc of the palm and the base of the thumb, gives this knife great ergonomics and feels really good in the hand. It feels just as comfortable when held in reverse grip, with the edge out.

The lockback locking mechanism engages solidly, with absolutely no blade play when the blade is locked in position. I’m not thrilled about the possibility of having a folding knife accidentally close on my fingers, God forbid when I have to use it to save my life, and the lockback on this knife really inspires confidence. The Boye dent on the lock bar lever minimizes the risk of accidentally releasing the lock when gripping the handle hard. Nevertheless, the lock has to be kept clear of lint or dirt at the pivot point, which may prevent the lock from fully engaging. There’s no excuse for not maintaining critical gear like a folding knife.

As far as I know, this knife and the smaller Delica are two of the only k
nives on the market that sell for about USD 70 with the patented Emerson opener. Spyderco also offers a model of their Rescue knife with an Emerson opener. If you don’t know what the opener does, here’s a video that demonstrates it. If that's too fast to figure out, Spyderco has a set of pics that show how this useful feature works. The opener hook on the knife is larger than what you’ll find on an Emerson knife and it really grabs securely on just about every pocket I’ve tested this on – slacks, jeans, shorts, etc. – and it opens the knife smoothly coming out of the pocket. The opener was my primary reason for buying this knife and it always performs flawlessly. The opener catches so easily that I have to make an effort to put my index finger over the spine of the blade to prevent the opener from engaging when someone asks me to take it out of my pocket.Using the Emerson opener does need to be practiced for it to become an instinctive gross motor movement. The user needs to experience opening the knife from a variety of positions. It doesn’t work well while the user is seated. Unless the seat is a stool or something narrower than the user’s hips, the knife will run into the cushion of the chair if it’s deployed with the opener. Using the opener forces the user to hold the knife with the fingers away from the path of the blade’s opening, so the grip on the knife isn’t completely secure until the user adjusts his or her grip on the knife after the blade has deployed. When used properly the opener allows for very quick deployment, probably faster than a switchblade since it opens the knife as it exits the pocket. The phosphor bronze washers make the deployment of this knife silky smooth.One other drawback of the opener is that it juts out from the blade and prevents the knife from being held completely, to be used as palm stick or fist load. Either way you hold it, the opener will either smash against the inside of your index finger or the meat of your palm if you do punch with the knife unopened in your hand. The bottom of the handle isn’t pointed enough to deliver crippling blows but it will still ruin someone’s day, if applied with the right technique and power. I advocate using empty handed skills first before going for a defensive weapon and I would have wanted this knife to work well in a less-than-lethal role. But nothing’s perfect and this one disadvantage does not in any way overshadow the knife’s excellent advantages.
I really like the light weight of this knife. It’s only 1 cm thick and when I carry it as an EDC (every day carry) I almost forget it’s in my pocket. The clip is a discrete flat black and I particularly like how the tension of the clip on the handle is just right so it doesn’t damage my pants when I have to carry it daily. Some other folding knives I own have clips that are so tight it’s almost a struggle to take the knife out of my pocket. The clip is also cleverly designed to allow a lanyard to pass through it, and the clip can be position for a tip-up or tip-down carry, for either left or right hand carry.

I highly recommend this knife as an EDC. It’s light, compact, feels secure in the hand, features the Emerson opener, a very well made and sturdy lock and has an excellent blade of VG-10 steel. That pretty much covers what most people will want in an EDC knife. You can’t go wrong with this knife.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dueling and Self-Defense

Lately I’ve been considering the differences between how edged weapons are used in a duel as compared to a self-defense scenario, and the inherent differences in training for either of the two situations.

First, let’s define the two scenarios. Personally, I understand dueling as two individuals facing off with weapons and the duelists have them already in hand, and are preparing to attack each other. This scenario is common to a lot of knife training I’ve seen and in FMA it harks back to the age when disputes and challenges were settled through duels. Some would say that age has never actually left the Philippines, but that’s another discussion altogether. This kind of training – for duels - introduces the student to a good foundation of techniques and strategies for knife fighting. FMA knife training in general is well known for its effectiveness and the training is done mostly in the dueling scenario. The student learns how to use the weapon, how to avoid getting hit and how to use strategies such as feints to win the duel.

In such an engagement, the duelists may be aware of each others’ skill and will likely NOT initiate or completely commit to an attack. Usually in knife sparring – if done with an appreciation of the realities surrounding edged weapons - the dueling scenario is played out and very often the participants resort to “sniping” with quick cuts and jabs to the nearest target, which will be the arms or the weapon hand specifically.

In my opinion self-defense with edged weapons, in a modern context, has its unique requirements and thus self-defense-specific edged weapons training must address these needs. The training will be related to the more familiar FMA dueling scenario, in the sense that the weapon and how it will be used will remain the same. The differences in training will be on range, initial action and intent.

The defender in a paired self-defense edged weapon exercise must have his training knife either in a concealed sheath or folded, as he would in every day carry. In contrast with the dueling scenario which will have the two duelists standing out of range of jabs and slashes with weapons drawn, the defender in the self-defense training scenario must prepare to engage the attacker with empty handed tactics first, to allow him to create that reactive gap of time and space which plays a vital role in just about any self-defense situation. You need to create time and distance that will allow you to detect and “read” the attack, determine its type and direction and react to it. Creating the reactive gap is also meant to allow the defender to access his weapon.

In self-defense knife training the defender must accept that the attack might be initiated at closer range than dueling. He must then act quickly and decisively to create the reactive gap to allow for deploying the weapon. Single-mindedly going for a weapon in the face on an attack at close range without dealing with the initial attack first is extremely dangerous. My own personal strategy is to use my empty handed skills to allow me to go for my weapon. if I can end the fight empty handed and the situation doesn't warrant deadly force, then my weapons stays in my pocket. Which is why I consider empty handed skills just as important to the armed defender as the weapon itself.

In such a self-defense scenario, the defender has the odds already stacked against him, as compared to the relative “equality” granted to both parties in a duel. The attacker may or may not have his weapon drawn, but as anyone with good knife training experience knows, being within range of an edge weapon is not good at all. As I said, the odds are not in favor of the defender. The creation of that critical reactive gap of time and distance is very much a product of good training – and to some extent, favorable circumstances - which will include using the non-weapon hand to strike quickly and effectively, parry and deflect incoming strikes, footwork and body angling to protect the vital points and highly instinctive deployment of the weapon.

The third difference is intent and I feel this is the biggest difference between dueling and self-defense training. In dueling, the element of surprise is absent. The duelists are prepared to fight and are well aware of each others capability and are equally aware of the risk of engaging the opponent. Which is why knife sparring almost always starts with the cautious and probing sniping and slashing and will only progress to close range tactics once one of the duelists decides to initiate and remain within contact range. On the other hand I feel that an attack in a self-defense situation will be initiated in earnest. The attacker will probably not know of the defender’s skill or weapon so he’ll take the initiative and commit to the attack, whether it’s by accosting the defender and threatening him with the weapon, or worse, as a sudden slash to stab to kill or disable the defender right away. Although they can sometimes appear to be duels, prison stabbings are somewhat different because the weapons used, improvised knives called “shanks”, are often short and don’t have the effective edge or blade length to make dueling practical. To compensate, inmates often stab for the head and neck since these provide the most accessible vital points for their makeshift weapons. Thus a prison "shanking" is more of an ambush than a duel.

On the street, the attacker has likely already selected the victim based on his assessment of the situation and the victim’s self-defense capability. So if the attacker is initially robbing the victim and decides to escalate the situation to murder, the edged weapon attack will not be encumbered by any consideration of the possibility that the defender will have a weapon as well and the skill to use it. Thus any self-defense training must have the attacker promptly initiating the edged weapon assault on the defender, without the cautious regard that a duelist will have.

Depending on various circumstances, this full and committed attack can be both a blessing and a curse for the defender. A committed attack by the unskilled will most probably be slower and more telegraphic than what the defender is used to in practice, depending of course on the quality and quantity of the defender’s training. However, a committed attack will not be a simple stab or slash but rather a series of quick thrust, which the defender has to deal very quickly and decisively. At that point the choice of whether to be simply robbed or killed has already been made for the defender. The defender must use the sum total of his training in what will be a fight for his life. The response must be swift and violent, the skilled response of a trained fighter with the savage will to survive.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A story of survival

Recently a friend of mine survived being assaulted by several attackers, one of whom tried to stab him. He was able to draw a folding knife and use it to survive the assault. Naturally I interviewed him to gain as much valuable information on the attack and how the folding knife worked in a multiple attacker scenario. It’s sobering and somewhat gruesome information, but it’s extremely useful to discuss the details of a life-or-death knife fight with someone who’s experienced it, and if one wants to stack the odds in his or her favor for surviving edged weapon attacks, facts gleaned from actual experience should be used to develop better skills and training.

For a number of reasons, I can’t go into detail on some aspects of the incident, but here are some interesting points and the lessons that can be learned from them.

Practice to draw quickly under stress - The attacker with the knife didn’t know the defender had a similar weapon. The attacker drew and opened a balisong and lunged with a stab to the abdomen of the defender. Apparently the deployment of the balisong wasn’t quick, and this gave the defender enough time to detect the attack and draw his own weapon. He deflected the attack and responded with two strikes to the chest of the attacker. The entire sequence happened in a blink of an eye.

Two skills were crucial for the defender surviving this knife attack: the ability to sense and deflect the strike and the ability to draw the weapon for a counterattack, both actions accomplished almost simultaneously. It’s been said that you can’t do a gross motor movement – in this case deflecting the knife strike – and a fine motor movement like opening a folding knife at the same time, but this situation is a good example of having the ability to do both under stress. Lucky for my friend, his Pekiti Tirsia training paid off and he was able to draw the weapon and successful responded to the lethal attack.

Blade finish is a key consideration – After stabbing the knife wielding attacker, two of the other assailants friends sucker punched the defender. On the verge of collapsing from the punches to the head, the defender spun around and responded with two strikes to each of the attackers, immediately stopping their assault. One assailant staggered away and the other ran from the scene.

Now consider this: why would two unarmed assailants chose to attack someone with a knife? It doesn’t make sense. Unless they didn’t know the defender was armed.

The attack occurred on a dimly lit street. The defender used a folding knife with a liner lock and a black coated blade (which closed on his fingers in the midst of the attack, but that’s for another blog post). It’s not difficult to imagine that his initial defensive strikes - to the chest of the knife attacker – did not look like knife thrusts to anyone watching the assault. A blackened blade moving rapidly in low light is very hard to spot, much less if you’re not expecting it. I think the most likely scenario is that the two empty handed attackers did not know the defender had a knife and probably thought their fellow assailant was merely being punched in the chest.

This brings me to what I consider the pros and cons of blackened knife blades. A lot of tactical folding and fixed blade knives have coatings on the blade to provide stealth and low visibility. It’s gotten to the point that anything labeled as a tactical blade virtually requires that the blade be coated. I can understand the need for stealth in some situations. I make Ginunting swords for the Philippine Force Recon Marines and we Parkerize the blades to provide the low visibility the unit requires.

But is stealth really that important for a self-defense knife? Realistically, a knife drawn in a self-defense situation will not benefit much from a stealthy finish. The weapon is drawn because the owner felt his life was in danger and he had to use the weapon ASAP. There’s no need to hide or disguise the fact that a knife has been drawn and is going to be used. I believe a self-defense knife needs to be seen. There’s the considerable intimidation factor of seeing a gleaming blade, one that can be quite useful in such a situation.

If I draw a knife and defensively strike at an attacker, and his companions see that I have a knife, there’s a good chance they’ll back off. If they don’t, I already have a weapon in hand and I’ll very soon find out if I survive the attack or not, depending on what other weapons and circumstances come into play and if they’ll improve or worsen my odds. By then the color of my defensive blade will have absolutely not bearing at all. Any reasonable and unimpaired person will not want to risk being cut or stabbed by someone else with a knife, once he sees the weapon is now in the hands of his “victim” and has already demonstrated skill in using it (unless of course the attacker is a skilled and experienced knife fighter, a nightmarishly worse scenario) .

This incident reinforces my preference for uncoated blades in my EDC (every day carry) knives. I would prefer to have the option of stopping the attack if I can without further violence, and if the sight of a knife does that, then so much the better.

Stab and slash, repeat as often as needed – Among the three who were stabbed by the defender, one died on the scene, the other died a few days later at a hospital and the other survived. Between them, they received a total of 5 stab wounds and 1 deep slash.

These facts can be appreciated from two points of view:

a) The strikes were directed to the upper torso and were apparently well placed and effective. It only took two strikes on each attacker to make them stop the assault.

b) The 6 counterattacks were effective but they were not immediately fatal as most people would prefer in such a situation.

The ideal self-defense situation with a knife will be to do a single, precise counterattack that will drop the attacker immediately. Given the extremely dynamic and chaotic nature of a physical assault and the actions used to defend against it, I think it’s highly unlikely that a defender with a knife will get that golden opportunity to end it all with one thrust. It has happened but I wouldn’t bet on it. I won’t go into detail as to what and where the “kill switches” are, for obvious reasons.

Adrenaline is flowing all around, drugs or alcohol maybe be present to block out pain and shock so the most likely scenario is that the defender may have to counterattack numerous times just to create the opportunity to flee the scene. Notice that I said “flee the scene”. Unless circumstances prevent fleeing (like having a loved one with you who cannot run), there’s absolutely no reason to engage in a drawn out battle with multiple attacker, who may themselves be scrabbling for their weapons as the fight starts.

In this particular case the defender did the right thing. He did the knife equivalent of a “double tap”, making sure the attacker he engaged had more than one wound to deal with. Multiple strikes by edged weapons even in self-defense situations have been questioned in numerous court cases, often by judges and prosecutors who fail to understand and appreciate the need for multiple disabling knife stabs or slashes in the midst of a fight for survival. For the defender, the goal is simply to survive. There’s no time to study the legalities and moral quandaries of stabbing an attacker more than once. To survive, the defender must make sure he’s causing enough immediate and disabling damage to stop the attack, and very often more than one counterattack will do the job.

In my opinion questioning someone who had to do that to prevent from getting killed from the comfort of a courtroom is in itself unfair and unjust.