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Robert J.

Lehnert, Copyright 2006; Permission to copy and publish granted, with proper citation
and credit
Back in the 1980's, knife maker Bill Bagwell started a Nor'easter of controversy from his "Battle
Blades" column in Soldier of Fortune magazine. Bagwell championed Western Fencing using a
large Bowie Knife (9 1/2"+ blade) as the most effective knife fighting combination (Bagwell, 2000).
At that time, the nascent "knife fighting" community was roughly divided into two methodologies:
Asian Martial Arts and Military-Street Combatives. Both factions reacted to Bagwell's position as if
they were the members of either a Buddhist or Pentecostal congregation and someone had stood
up during either of their respective services and loudly shouted out the error of anything less than
a Latin-Tridentine Mass. Compounding his "heresy", Bagwell recommended the book Cold Steel
(Styers, 1952) as a valuable knife-fighting manual as long as the student "sifted out the wheat
from the chaff".
I and other tail end Baby Boomers were a media indoctrinated generation believing any Asian
martial art or melee weapon was, a priori, superior to any non-Asian method or weapon. We
thought it inconceivable that fencing (those guys in white suits playing tag with toy swords)
teamed up with a honking big hillbilly knife was better than the blade arts and weapons of Japan,
China, and the Philippines. We swallowed tales of Nipponese katanas cutting through machine
gun barrels (Yes, we were gullible), so we jumped on the tanto bandwagon. Those of us with at
least one foot in the Military-Street Combatives camp (Fairbairn, Applegate, etc...) were doubly
annoyed by Bagwell's promotion of Cold Steel. We regarded its author John Styers little better
than his mentor, Anthony Drexel-Biddle, for both men taught "knife dueling" which "would get you
killed in the real word". The mutual anti-Biddle and Styers critique boiled down to "knife fights are
close range, in your face, balls to the walls dog fights where the winner goes to the hospital-in a
knife cut expect to be cut!"
The epitome of anti-Biddle and Styers texts was Prison Bloody Iron (originally titled Bloody Iron
Knife Fighting), written by two former Federal convicts, Harold J. Jenks and Michael H. Brown.
Leaving aside some very suspect physical training advice and historical commentary, the book is
a gripping account of knife as weapon both inside and outside of prison-though there is only one
mention of knife vs. knife combat, the others are knife user vs. unarmed user affairs. Jenks and
Brown's criticism of fencing-based knife fighting is based on the analogy just as rifle handling is
not transferable over to pistol shooting, so you can't adapt swordsmanship to the much shorter
It must be stressed Prison Bloody Iron (PBI) advocated the combat use of knives six or less
inches long. While PBI's posed photographs show the inept "fencing knife user" (Brown?) with a
7"-8" blade length Bowie, PBI promoted shorter weapons (Buck folders, Gerber Mk I). One
photograph shows a large Bowie (the Western Cutlery model) but the texts gives no indication
how its use might differ from smaller knives. Indeed, one of PBI's historic deficiencies is the
authors were unaware of fencing masters (such as Pepe Lulla) teaching "saber fencing" with the
Bowie knife in Ante-Bellum New Orleans.
Melee weapons are not only damage multipliers they often (but not always) are range extenders.
A knife with a 6" blade is only a minor range extender, shorter blades correspondingly less so. If
either an "ice-pick" or "hammer" grip is used rather than a more extended grip (PBI favored a
horizontal "foil grip") even more range is lost. PBI drew upon Jenks's reform school experience of
"knife fighting" using the last 1/4" of a nail file-a deep scratching implement with no reach
advantage whatsoever. From the background of using short knives, PBI quite rightly criticizes
knife fighting stances where the weapon arm is significantly advanced forward of the non-weapon
arm. Stances like the classic Saber stance or the Biddle "Knife Duelist stance" leave the weapon
arm vulnerable to weapon strikes, off-hand grabs, or even being "slipped" by an opponent's
sudden rush if the fencing stylist is using a short-blade knife. PBI correctly observed a knifefighter's weapon limb was as vital organ as his heart-to make it vulnerable to a weapon forward

stance was suicidal nonsense.

Consequently, PBI promoted an offhand-forward stance (a.k.a. "Military Knife Stance"), with the
forearm held up as a shield and ready for grabs and strikes while holding the knife well back out
of range of an opponent's weapon or empty hand attacks (See both earlier and later promotions
of this basic stance: Applegate 1976, Pentecost 1988, MacYoung 1990).
PBI repeatedly asserted that the longer ranged attacks of either Biddle or Styers were easily
evaded and countered-the implicit assumption being that such attacks would be both telegraphed
and slow. PBI and other books (Pentecost 1988, Kelly 1983) disdained the Biddle and Styers use
of linear-delivered edge strikes (a.k.a. "snap cuts", "snipe cuts", "hack cuts") as a bridging and
crippling attack. These authors felt such strikes lacked any potential to inflict significant damage
especially to the above advocated "shield arm"-the ulna bone could shed such low commitment
strikes with only a minor flesh wound in exchange for the opportunity to seize the opponent's
weapon arm and bring one's own knife into play with repeated thrusts and cuts to the opponent's
weapon limb and vital organs. Hence "take a small cut to deliver a big cut"
This premise contained at least two other assumptions:
1. The damage done by the snap cut to the forearm is unlikely to be disabling, let alone lethal.
2. The snap cut will not only be telegraphed and slow, it will also remain in full extension long
enough to be counter attacked.
For the many writers who criticized both Biddle and Styers' "dueling mind-set", it is curious they
not only expect a fencing stylist to cooperate in using ineffective weapons and attacks but also to
be personally incompetent. PBI and like-minded works showed no appreciation of how longer
blades (by just a few inches more length) radically changes the conduct of knife combat.
Anthony Drexel-Biddle was the gentleman-scholar of American close-quarter combatives. A
dilettante and an amateur in the original senses of both words, Biddle used his family fortune to
learn and promote Western armed and unarmed combat methods (especially boxing). As William
Cassidy (1997) noted, Biddle used family connections to get a commission in the USMC Reserve,
allowing him to teach Marine officer candidates both during and after World War I. Biddle's core
method was published in Do or Die (1937). Biddle based his "knife-fighting" method on Western
Swordsmanship; he had extensive experience in dueling sword (epee), foot saber (still the wide
cutting blade) and broadsword (basket-hilted claymore).
Robert McKay (1986), like Jenks and Brown, thought he devastated Biddle's knife technique by
claiming Biddle created a fine sword fighting method that was utterly unsuitable for knives. McKay
and others utterly ignored the fact Do or Die's photographs show the "knives" being used are preWWII bayonets with blades ranging from 15' to 18" long. This blade length is in the true short
sword category. That such sword bayonets were used as military side arms is not just claimed in
Do or Die but in other period war writings (MacBride 1987).
The increased momentum (What Bagwell inaccurately calls "leverage") these long blades can
generate should not be underestimated. An ineffective snap cut with a short knife can be a boneshearing strike with a well-honed sword bayonet. Using your forearm to block such a weapon is to
invite immediate disablement of your arm--if not by amputation then by cleanly severed tendons
and muscles. This is apart from any physiological shock or psychological effect of receiving such
a major wound.
Both the Biddle Knife Duelist stance and the Saber stance shine with blades of this length. An
opponent armed with a significantly shorter weapon (or unarmed) cannot directly attack such a
combination-not without risking either of his arms being sliced to ribbons, or being "spitted like a
pigeon" (Heinlein 1963), or both.

There is some anecdotal evidence that after US entry into WWII, Biddle tried and failed to adapt
his sword-bayonet method to shorter military knives (KA-BAR's, M-4's). Regardless of the
veracity of these rather biased accounts, this is the same period John Styers was Biddle's
protg. Whereas a 70+-year-old man might have failed, the pupil succeeded.
John Styers joined the USMC prior to December 1941. He and bunk mate Charles Nelson
became close combat instructors not only under Biddle's tutelage, but from Marine Corp
veterans-many of them "China hands" exposed to the William Fairbairn's evolving combative
method. One estimate claims Styers taught some 30,000 Marine recruits the basics of close
quarter combat (CQC) both prior to his deployment in the Pacific theatre and after his discharge
in 1945.
As Carl Cestari (2000) noted, Styers' teaching had its greatest impact after war's end, when his
post-marine career as a flag salesman allowed him access to military bases across the country.
He not only sold flags, he continued to teach the troops, and continued to have access to
battlefield feedback from other combat veterans. The onset of the Korean War in 1948 provided a
wealth of information. The fluctuating battle-lines and the enemy's propensity for infiltration
created proportionately more close-quarter incidents than either WWI or II. These combat reports
would have augmented Styers' motivation to present a CQC system where young Marines could
prevail in a hand to hand encounters, not just survive as scarred and crippled casualties.
In 1951 Styers presented his basic CQC method in the pages of the USMC's official magazine
Leatherneck. In five separate articles, Styers showed the fundamentals of bayonet fighting, knife
fighting, unarmed combat, stick fighting, and arguably the "candy" of the series, knife throwing.
Constrained by the brevity of a magazine article's text and photo limitations, Styers (and text
editor Karl Schuon) did a magnificent job in teaching techniques and underlying principles and
inculcating confidence in both.
In 1952 the articles were collated into the book Cold Steel: Technique of Close Combat, serving
as an unofficial but still highly influential CQC manual for the USMC and other services for almost
20 years. When CQC training became a victim of the more suspect "reforms" of the post-Vietnam
US military, printing rights to the volume were purchased by Paladin Press where it has remained
in print ever since.
Cold Steel's knife-fighting chapter became (and still is) the whipping-boy of many in the MilitaryStreet Combatives crowd as well as the Asian Martial Artists-the latter doubly so when Filipino
blade arts came to prominence in the 1980's. Styers (or Schuon) did use the words "duel" and
"knife duelist stance" which, to the present, opens Styers up to the charge of "possessing a
dueling mind-set". In response, it is adamantly clear from the text Styers intends "duel" to mean
mortal combat with melee weapons-not a pre-arranged affair of honor. There are only two
conditions the Styers knife-fighting method is predicated on:
1. Both you and your opponent are, for whatever reason, reduced to fighting with some contact
weapon (in your case, a knife).
2. You were able to get your knife in your hand before contact-you were able to keep it from being
a complete ambush
As Cestari (2000) has so aptly argued, the Styers Knife stance is deceptively lethal in its frontal
openness. An enemy unfamiliar with it will tend to be sucked into the Styers stance's effective
range well before the enemy can launch an effective attack of his own-see pp. 50-51 of Cold
Steel. Versus a Styers stance, an extended limb knife man (off-hand or weapon hand) is leaving
himself open even if the Styers-user is armed with a short-blade knife (or course, a weaponforward man can negate this by using a significantly longer knife, say 9"+) Also, self-initiated
action beats reaction! A knife thrust or snap-cut is a simple burst speed motion. Like a boxer's jab,

it's delivered on target and is already retracting back out of range within .25 to .3 seconds. Human
response time to perceive a stimulus and start a muscular response is rarely less than .25
seconds-it's very unlikely a counter cut will be successful if the initiating-attacker is at all
competent. As Cold Steel claims, "if an opponent is open and in range of a left jab, he's going to
be hit" (p.44). Against the non-telegraphed attacks Styers taught, reaction tends to be critically
behind the response curve-especially if the weapon hand has a longer distance to travel.
Unlike a boxers jab, a single knife strike can be lethal-especially a well directed thrust to the torso
or neck. Again referencing Cestari, the Styers' knife method was to KILL an enemy in dire
circumstances-NOT to get involved in some prolonged duel. The knife technique in Cold Steel
was predicated on taking advantage of the weaknesses of the most common knife methods found
on the battlefield or the street. If you enemy tries to guard his knife hand and vital organs with his
off-arm, well you cut that arm or hand fast and hard, and while he's still in shock you stab him in
the torso or neck, fast and hard. You retract your attacks as fast as they are launched, you never
let your enemy close into his effective range-you only step in when it's obvious you can deliver
the finishing strike(s) without risking getting skewered in return (pp.72-73). Proper distance (think
of a boxer who cannot be touched) is the key to understanding where Styers was coming from
Regarding the "chaff' that Bagwell said you have to sift out-actually, Cold Steel has very little
indigestible material. The "Back-cut' Styers advocates is marginal at best-more likely than not if
there's any bounce-back from a snap-cut, the Bowie's concave back edge will hit nothing but airand if it hits a resistant target the "saber grip" is not the most secure hold (again, Cestari). Modern
teachers are of the consensus snap cutting is one type of critter and back cutting another-you can
mix and match 'em while carving your way through to the kill-zones but they shouldn't be
combined in a single action. Cold Steel's lack of a dedicated back-cut (taking full advantage of the
Bowie's concave back-edge capacity to inflict crippling and lethal wounds) is probably the
chapter's greatest "hole".
The rear approach sentry removal using a snap cut (p.60) is optimistic at best-unless you are
using a weapon of better cutting capacity than an issue KA-BAR. Here's where a traditional sized
Bowie knife comes into play (9 1/2" or better)-and you don't use a snap cut, with an opportunity
like that you chop-through the spine or downwards into the skull. No grappling, no fuss (still,
wouldn't a silenced HK be better?)
In regards to snap cutting, short and thin blades do have problems in making effective, lowcommitment cuts (Kelly, 1983, Bagwell 2000). In Cold Steel, Styers understandably used demo
knives with blades of KA-BAR length (cut down "Patton" 1912 sabers). Styers' own custom
Randall only had 1/2" over the KA-BAR's 7" (however, the Randall's 1/4" thickness makes for
deeper cuts and slashes than the issue weapons 3/16" stock). Styers' method BEGS for a larger,
better balanced weapon--perhaps why his private purchase recommendation are for a blade 7"
TO 10" length.
Since he died in 1983, Styers didn't live to see the revival of the large Bowie as military and
civilian weapon. Regardless, Styers' influence lives on, through new teachers and students who
see the gold in a once derided book-but most of all it lives it the veterans who learned from
Styers-and PREVAILED.
1) Applegate, Rex; Kill or Get Killed; 1976 (reprint); Paladin Press
2) Bagwell, Bill; Bowies, Big Knives, and the Best of Battle Blades: 2000; Paladin Press
3) Biddle (Drexel-), Anthony; Do or Die; 1937 (2000 reprint); Paladin Press
4) Cassidy, William; The Complete Book of Knife Fighting; 1997 (reprint) Paladin Press

5) Cestari, Carl: Who is JOHN STYERS?; online article, accessed at: ; 2003,
6) Heinlein, Robert A.; Glory Road (Novel); 1963; Charles Scribners & Sons
--While a work of fiction, the fencing and close-combat references in the book come from the
author's back ground, both as a champion fencer for the US Naval Acadamy in the late 1920's
and being trained in close combat by USMC instructors--possible those teained by Biddle himself
7) Jenks, Harold & Michael Brown; Prison Bloody Iron: 1978; Cornville Press
8) Kelly, R.; Ninja Knife Fighting; 1983; Paladin Press
9) MacYoung, Marc "Animal"; Knives, Knife Fighting, and Other Related Hassles: How to Survive
a REAL Knife Fight: 1993; Paladin Press
10) McBride, William: A Rifleman Went to War; 1978 (reprint); Lancer Militaria
11) McKay, Robert: Modern American Fighting Knives; 1986
12) Pentecost, Don; Put 'Em Down, Take 'Em Out; Knife Fighting Techniques from Folsom Prison:
1988; Paladin Press
13) Styers, John: Cold Steel; Technique of Close Combat: 1952; Paladin Press
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