The Best Knife Fighting Styles

What are “The Best Knife Fighting styles”? Can the question even be answered?

“A system” implies something that has been structured, organized. Knife fighting is chaos in motion. The loser might not get another chance to learn from their mistakes. Many older family and clan styles were not written down, instead being passed along via oral tradition. This makes it very hard to ascertain what is “authentic” and what is just plain old BS.

The Best Knife Fighting Styles
The late Escrima Master Vicente Carin shows his knife scars.

Speaking of BS, there are many that will tell you their style is the best and that they are “Knife fighting experts”. They invariably wear camo fatigues (but have never actually served) and have their own line of DVDs to peddle. So it is very much “Caveat Emptor” when considering knife fighting styles. And usually you will have to pay good money to learn one in person. To these “Experts” one should always inquire:

1) How long did you spend in prison?
2) Can you show me your scars?

Modern times are relatively peaceful compared to just a few centuries ago. Wearing a sword and knife was commonplace in many countries around the world. Knife duels occurred often in places like the Philippines and Italy right up until the advent of the WW2. Laws were passed to outlaw such duels, and the art of the blade declined. These days, the systems people study are handed down to them and infrequently tested in real life and death situations.

That is not to say there are no good knife fighting instructors around. There are, and in this article we will discuss some of the best knife fighting styles in the world today.

Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)

Fighting Knife Styles
Guro Dan Inosanto

FMA is one of the more famous styles of knife fighting. FMA incorporates three umbrella terms, “Escrima, Kali, Arnis”. Some will try to argue that one is better than the other but essentially they are all the same thing. A style of fighting that encompasses swords, sticks, knives and empty-hands.

FMA has seen an upsurge in popularity recently from the excellent fight choreography of people like Dan Inosanto (who actually taught Bruce Lee weapons) and Inosanto’s student Jeff Imada, who was the fight choreographer for the “Bourne” Trilogy and “Book Of Eli” movies among others.

The Philippines has historically had a blade culture. Indeed, the “Balisong Knife” (a.k.a “Butterfly Knife”) originates from there and you could make a good argument for it being one of the best self-defense knives in the world. Why else is it illegal to carry in practically every state here in the U.S?

Many prominent blade designers, such as Michael Janich at Spyderco and fellow collaborator Fred Perrin train in Kali.

So, which style of FMA is the best for knives? It’s hard to say, but the “Pekiti Tersia” style is popular all over the world and here in the U.S. It has been used to train Law Enforcement and the Military in a number of countries. You can take a look at Grand-Master Leo Gaje in an older video here, where he also uses a Balisong.

There are many styles of FMA but not all specialize in knife work – especially knife v knife. One style that does is “Sayoc Kali” with the motto “All blade all the time”.

One of my favorite knife instructional videos on youtube features the late Grand-Master Edgar Sulite. He studied with many famous masters in the Philippines and devised his own system, “LAMECO” – which stands for “Largo (Long range), Medio (Medium Range), Corto (Close-range).

Click on the image to play the video.


If you’re looking for FMA styles I can recommend youtube and posting on this facebook list for videos and US based instructors.


Silat is another umbrella term that encompasses a number of fighting arts from the Malay Archipelago.Silat Knife Fighting

“Pencak Silat” is the most widespread family of Silat and refers to Silat of Indonesian origin. “Silat Malayu” is commonly used to describe styles of silat from the Malay people. This includes Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei.

It is an ancient art with animistic origins. Silat has it’s own “Creation Myth”. A woman observed animals fighting and created the fighting style. It uses a number of swords, daggers and other knives.

Perhaps Silat’s most notorious weapon is the “Karambit”. A small, sickle-shaped knife that resembles the claw of a tiger. It is extremely effective in close-quarters and it’s finger ring means it’s almost impossible to disarm.

Practitioners also use the “Keris”, a wavy blade said to resemble the tongue of a snake. It’s often used as a ceremonial knife and worn by a groom at weddings. Many believe the Keris (or “Kris”) has magic powers. That is has a spiritual essence called a “Jinn” (quite literally a “Genie”) that resides within it. Another interesting fact about the Keris is they used to be forged with poison to ensure that any cut would be lethal.

Like FMA, it has been enjoying a lot of popularity recently thanks to movies such as “The Raid 1 / 2” and “Merantau”. Also, the art has become more accessible. Previously, it was common to hear that you had to be a Muslim to either study the art, or to reach the higher levels.

Now, it is more open and many top instructors, such as Master Cecep Arif Rahmen and Master Maul Mornie are giving seminars in the U.S and worldwide.

Click on the thumbnail to play the video.


Here are a couple of great facebook groups for more information and links to websites. The United States Gayong Federation and The International Pentjak Silat Federation USA.

World War II Combatives

WW11 Combatives usually refer to the material that William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes taught to the British Commandos and Allied Forces during World-War 2.

From all accounts; it seems that Fairbairn was many years ahead of his time. A keen martial artist, he practiced boxing, wrestling, Savate, Judo, Jujustu and Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. He developed his own fighting style, “Defendu”, on the mean streets of 1920 / 30s Shanghai. At that time, Shanghai was the most dangerous city in the World.

Fairbairn devised, created and led an “anti-riot” squad and got into hundreds of street-fights during his 20-year secondment. His face, torso, arms and hands were apparently covered with scars from knife fights. So I guess we really could call him, “A knife fighting expert”! Let’s take a look at him in action in this great video. A real trip back in time.

(For a longer video go here)

During the war, he returned to the U.K to train the British Commandos in his “close-quarters combat system. At the secret location, he also taught U.S Colonel Rex Applegate. His system of combative was then disseminated to the US Marines, Rangers, the FBI and the CIA.

Today, WW11 combatives are pretty thin on the ground. One instructor is Clint Sporman in New Jersey and you can find his “Gutter Fighting CQB” on Facebook. Another instructor with a modified take on WW11 combatives is Kelly McCann, and likewise you can find his “Kembativz” page on Facebook, too.

Another instructor who was closely related to both WWII combatives and Kelly McCann was Bob Kasper. He developed a style of knife fighting called “Kni-Com”, which became the program of instruction for the United States Marine Core. You can learn more about Mr. Kasper from this Bio over at Crawford Knives. His system is being kept alive by his successor, Fred Baur. You can find the “Gung Ho Chuan Association” page on Facebook, here.

Italian Knife Fighting

knife fighting stylesThe Romans were one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen. It’s a fair bet to say they knew a thing or two about knife combat. Knives have also been the assassin’s instrument of choice for centuries in Italy. Emperor Julius Caesar himself was stabbed with a number of “Pugios”, the knife of the Roman soldier.

It wasn’t until the 15 century that the most deadliest assassin’s knife of all was invented in Italy. The Stiletto. Originally conceived to pierce through the chain-mail of downed opponents, it could also go through thick leather and many layers of clothing without a problem. The ability to hide it up a sleeve and create a small puncture wound added to it’s effectiveness.

Perhaps the most famous knife fighting style in Italy today is “Paranza Corta”, the traditional knife fighting style of Sicily. It’s also referred to as “Scherma di stiletto siciliano” (Stiletto Fighting). The style contains traditional knife dances named “Danza di cotella sicillano” which nicely parallels East-Asian cultures which also mask weapon forms behind plays and dances. You can see an example video here. You’ve got to love knife fighting to opera.

Sicilian Knife fighting has a style “Duellando“ for dueling and “Difesa” for defense. Sicilians would also use other everyday items of clothing to assist them in a knife fight. “scherma di coltello e coppola ” is fighting with a knife and cap, whilst “scherma di coltello e cappotto” is fighting with a knife and coat. There are some great videos of this style on youtube, and this demo in Russia is really good. The guys go at it with a fair amount of intensity, which is good to see.

Italy has always had a number of regional and family knife fighting styles and some survive up to this day. Some of the styles include “”Scherma Di Coltello Pugliese” which is also known as “Apulian Knife”.

[/ezcol_2third_end] There is also Danilo Rossi Lajolo di Cossano and his style “Lajolo Knife”, which you can see a nice demo of here. (Click image to play)


On Facebook, you can the great page, “Italian Knife Fencing“.

Japanese Knife Fighting – Tanto Jutsu

Japanese Knife Fighting StyleThe Japanese Warrior Culture (and especially the Samurai) are famed for their Katana swords. They also have a knife that is famous the world over – The Tanto.

When combatants clashed and grappled on the battlefield the Katana could not be used to pierce armor. It was designed as a cutting blade, and naturally you’d need a bit of distance to wield it. This is when the tanto comes into it’s own. It’s tapered design supports the blade tip so it could punch through armor. Tantos were also ideal for fighting in restricted spaces. They were often worn in-place of a short-sword, especially indoors. Samurai women were also taught how to use a tanto to protect their virtue.

Today, the knife fighting style of the Samurai is kept alive through “Tanto Jutso”. It usually forms part of a larger syllabus such as “Tai Jutsu” (translation: “Body Technique) Aikido, and also “appears” in Ninjitsu, too.

Here is a nice video about Tanto Jutsu and the origin of the Tanto. Click the image to play. The youtube channel also has related videos and there’s a “North American” facebook page here.


HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts)

talhoffer knife fighting

As society has become relatively peaceful the sword and knife fencing arts have all all but died out. However, fighting with a knife remains as dangerous today as it was in the 14th Century. HEMA is concerned with the revival of combat arts from the middle-ages on-wards.

To do this, they conduct intense, academic study of the fencing manuals of such past masters as Johannes Liechtenauer (Germany, 14th century), Hans Talhoffer (Germany, 1490d) Camillo Aggripa (Italy, 1553), Fiore dei Liberi (Italy, 1409) and George Silver (England, 1620s ) to name but a few.

The great thing about the fencing manuals is that they come with quite a lot easy-to-follow illustrations. This allows HEMA practitioners to recreate the movements and techniques. This is precisely what the two gentlemen are doing in the next video, to give you a flavor for it. CLick the thumbnbail to play.


A lot of the manuals can be found online for free. Just go to the HEMA Alliance website. They have a really great facebook group here. A really busy group with lots of news and information on the bladed arts.

Well, the article turned out much longer than expected and only covered a handful of knife fighting styles! Are there are any glaring omissions? Or do you practice any of the above arts and can add to the discussion? Be sure to hit the “Comments Section”. Thanks!

You may also be interested in the following articles:

What is The Best Self Defense Knife?
The Best Fixed Blade Knife for Self-Defense

16 thoughts on “The Best Knife Fighting Styles”

  1. I like this list. Quite informative. But You start off with a critique saying ” ask 1. How much time did you spend in prison 2. Show me your scars. And later mention military service. The fact is that other than the WW2 H2H stuff. The vast majority of the masters or instructors of the styles on this list don’t actually meet any of the previously mentioned criteria. I also don’t like the way you use the word “authentic” many of the “authentic” or “traditional” martial arts practiced today were founded in the last 150 years. Meaning the guys who created those styles were at one time equivalent to the “camo pants wearing guys”. New self defense systems can be BS or very good. And although there are some good “authentic” arts they seem to be even heavier on the BS for my money.

    • You’re right and thanks for the comment- a lot of arts are just based on BS. And just because something is old – doesn’t make it better. The foundation of any functional knife defense program should be replicating how knife attacks actually occur in the street.

      Case in point – both people start from a stationary stance with weapons out opposite each other. Is that really going to happen?
      I wrote more about this here:

  2. I’d enjoy the blog a whole lot more, and be more inclined to share it if I could read it for more than 5 minutes without that annoying “Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)” message popping up and obscuring part of the screen, especially since there is no X button to close it. Instead of enjoying the blog, I found it more annoying, so much so that I abandoned reading before getting half way just to find a way to complain about this site. And now, I’ll close the site and find someplace that doesn’t annoy me with pop-up messages.

  3. Thank-you for your comment. I agree with you in the main. We tend to think society is violent but it’s actually pretty tame to what was happening several hundred years ago.

    There is too much BS in the knife arts and MA in general. If you compare it to boxing, the boxers can get in the ring and prove who is better. How is that possible with knife instructors?

    Now, I lead this list with Kali and Silat. Having trained in the Philippines and Indonesia, I have met instructors who have been incarcerated for “duelling”, who did show me their scars.
    The problem is, they’re normally pretty humble guys after these experiences / jail time. They don’t market themselves as “Knife Fighters” or “Knife Experts” or wear camo. Naturally, the ones with DVD series and “1 day instructor certificates” are well known…

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  4. Nice article however you are incorrect on a couple of things “Today, WW11 combatives are pretty thin on the ground. One instructor is Clint Sporman in New Jersey and you can find his “Gutter Fighting CQB” on Facebook. Another instructor with a modified take on WW11 combatives is Kelly McCann, and likewise you can find his “Kembativz” page on Facebook, too. Another instructor who was closely related to both WWII combatives and Kelly McCann was Bob Kasper. He developed a style of knife fighting called “Kni-Com”, which became the program of instruction for the United States Marine Core. You can learn more about Mr. Kasper in this article here. His system is being kept alive by his successor, Fred Baur. You can find the “Gung Ho Chuan Association” page on Facebook, here.”

    Carl Cestari and Bob Kasper were pioneers in combatives. Kelly came along later and had very little knowledge of WW2 combatives prior to meeting Bob. Kelly took the Gung Ho Chuan curriculum and sold it via video tape. He didnt create anything. Kelly is no longer affiliated with GHCA nor has he been since the 1990s.

    • From what I have read, Kelly and Bob were close friends, and I doubt Bob had any problem with Kelly teaching others what Bob had taught him. We can’t ask him because Bob passed on. All that aside, Kelly’s book and his videos are excellent and a very good, practical resource for people who want to learn combatives. So far, they are my top recommend to people who want to learn self defense but don’t have a competent local instructor. But I will check out Sporman too. Thanks for the link.

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