This was the second of four courses I plan to take with Kelly McCann this year. Hopefully, our readers have by now read the review I wrote of the ASP/Stickfighting clinic, where I outlined my rationale for wanting to train with Kelly in these areas. The Defensive Knife clinic shared a lot of similarities with the stick class when it came to angles of attack and certain techniques, but it also included many elements that were unique to “knife work”. So it was that I got my second taste of “learning violence” from Kelly McCann.
Course Description, straight off the Kembativz Brand website:
Our knife clinic prepares students to effectively draw and use knives for defensive purposes. The course is not a “scarecrow” course (you training against unanimated, non-moving attackers). Instead, we focus on developing your ability to successfully use a knife against uncooperative people intent on harming you. The advantages of various knives (folding and fixed blades) are discussed. Our course provides you the knowledge and skills necessary to prevail in an armed encounter with a realistic, legal and responsible curriculum.
Requirements: Mouthguard and groin protection. Optional equipment includes lacrosse/street hockey gloves, forearm protection, shinguards, faceshield/protective goggles and other protective equipment you choose to bring.
Cost of the course was $125, but I got in on the January sale, so the cost to me was just $100, which I paid in full. I am not affiliated with Kembativz Brand except as a sale priced-paying customer (more than once now!).
I should note, and long-time blog readers may recall, that this would not be my first rodeo when it comes to knife classes. Back in 2015 and 2016 I did three knife courses, two with Tom Sotis (here and here) and another with Greg Ellifritz. There was also some instruction on edged weapons in the Integrated Combatives course I did with Bill Rapier in 2017. However, besides referring to knives or edged weapons in their course descriptions or titles, these other courses bore no significant similarities with THIS course.
A mess of a car accident on I-95 had me arriving to the Renegade Combat Sports Club only 15 minutes before the class was to begin, but, based on my experience with the Stick class three weeks before, I figured we would not have a “hit the ground running” start. I entered, had my temperature checked, and sat down at the bar (for those who did not read my stick course review, yes, there’s a bar inside the club!). Kelly had thoughtfully hit Dunkin Donuts for coffee and donuts for all, and encouraged us to eat and drink our fill. The class consisted of only seven students including myself. All but one had also been present for the Stick class, so it was nice to see so many now-familiar-to-me faces. I settled in front and center with my notebook and got ready for Kelly’s PowerPoint presentation.
The PowerPoint for this course was a bit more comprehensive than for the stick class I took three weeks prior. Indeed, I took several pages of notes straight off this presentation. Kelly began by pointing out some of the fallacies of some knife “systems” out there. Among these are that they often do not account for the truths of actual combat/fighting, that they include inappropriate individual training tasks, that they incorporate inadequate training intensity, have ineffective TTPs, and do not account for the body’s response to duress and how that impacts a person’s ability to move and fight.
This presentation was full of other gold nuggets as well. For one thing, there is the perpetual myth of “knife fighting” which still exists out there among “knife guys”. The fact is, except in a select few cultures, you are unlikely to ever see or find video of an actual knife fight (i.e., two people squaring off, each armed with a knife, a la “West Side Story”). More often, a knife is introduced into a fight by one party without the other party realizing it. In such a situation, when does one draw his or her own knife to defend against such a threat? The answer, of course, is that it is nearly impossible, which is why we need empty-hand skills.
Nevertheless, this was a defensive knife class, so Kelly next went down his list of preferred qualities in a defensive knife. Perhaps naturally, a fixed blade is best since it can be deployed almost instantaneously, is stronger, etc. However, due to legal considerations in many locales as well as issues of size, a folding knife is what many will end up carrying. Kelly went through his design preferences in jimping, grip angle, point structure, grip texture, blade material, etc. Though he referred a few times to a few knives that he designed and carry his name, he was most certainly not pimping his knives, but merely explaining why he prefers certain features.
This got us around to the work itself. Kelly emphasized that any “system” has to be easy to learn and to be recalled under stress, has to reduce reaction time (i.e., there cannot be so many options of what to do that analysis paralysis results), and that the TTPs have to be geared toward using the least force possible to stop a threat (this is, after all, a DEFENSIVE knife class). Kelly mentioned several times that if you introduce a knife into a fight, you are almost without exception going to be spending time in jail/prison. This is one of the many reasons why he favors sticks and other non- or less-lethal tools, or just empty-hand skills, to get us out of trouble.
The PowerPoint wrapped up with an agenda for what would be covered for the rest of the day. With the PowerPoint complete and a few questions answered, we were given about 15 minutes to visit the restroom, put on protective gear/mat shoes, and otherwise prepare for the active portion of class. Kelly had us each grab a folding training knife for use during the class and informed us that they were ours to keep! While I already own several training knives (folding and fixed blade), this was a welcome surprise and would definitely fall into the “value-added” category.
For some of Kelly’s philosophies regarding the knife, I will refer you to this video Kelly recorded in 2020 (warning NSFW……also, there is a Part II, a Part III, and a video on snap cuts that you can find on the Kembativz YouTube page):
“Armed” with our new training folders, we moved to the mats to begin the physical part of our learning. Due to the physical nature of the rest of the class, it would be impossible for me to do justice trying to describe every little thing that we did. The written word just will not suffice. What follows is a rough outline of topics covered, with some highlights.
We began with how to grip the knife. There are a few options, of course, but except for some particular circumstances, Kelly favors the “saber grip”, which features the knife emerging from the top of the fist (as opposed to the bottom, which would be a “reverse” or “ice pick” grip), with the thumb on top of the blade. This position allows for maximum reach as well as articulation of the wrist (as compared with the “hammer grip”, which would be similar but with the hand in more of a fist, with the thumb down.).
Next, we spent quite a bit of time on the draw. Much like the drawing of a handgun, Kelly favors doing it the same EVERY time in a way that is repeatable even under duress. We got to practice executing his preferred technique for the draw and deployment of the folded blade under his watchful eye, then partnered up and got to practice it with our partner offering us “pressure” to see how well we could do it while fending.
In between learning how to draw and deploy and then how to do it under pressure, we also practiced how to assume different guard positions. Since this was a defensive knife course, Kelly stressed protecting the knife and knife hand/arm while drawing it and getting the blade open, then backing into a forward guard position. By backing up (it is only one step back), we:
1) Can acquire more space
2). End up with the knife in our forward hand, which means the other guy has to come through the knife
3) Signals to attacker and any witnesses that you are the defender
Other topics we covered included combative movement (including the combative shuffle, vaulting, and off-line movement), slashing angles (6 total, all identical to the angles we learned in the stick class), and thrusting angles (basically the same but with the orientation of the blade more of a thrust than a slash….again, see the Kembativz YouTube page for a demonstration of these). After each quick block of instruction we would practice solo and with partners (we switched partners a lot more in this class than in stick, which was good because there are always things to learn from different partners). If Kelly (or his assistant, Rod) saw any errors, they swooped in quickly to make corrections. I was on the receiving end of many of Kelly’s demonstrations (he knows my name now, dammit!), and everything he does is with…..gusto. I’m finishing up this review a week and a half after class and I still have some fading bruises and some aches.
We had about an hour for lunch at midday, and in the afternoon covered a lot more material including, but not limited to vertical snap cuts, horizontal cuts, fending, and lots of practicing all of these things with our partners.
Late in the day we switched to Kelly’s homemade knife trainers:
With these, we were able to go full bore at each other. Kelly would pick two names, announce one person as the attacker and the other as defender, and then we would go at it for a minute, then switch roles, and then get a break while another pair had at it. We did this a few times so that I ended up going for 4 rounds of one minute each, two as attacker and two as defender. In this, I tried my best to incorporate all the techniques we had learned throughout the day, and it was TIRING. I had the pleasure of first going against an early-20s cat-quick, small but strong beast who is at the club several times per week. He kicked my ass in both roles, though I must confess that the role of attacker was much tougher than defender. My second opponent was Rod, and he, with much more practiced skill and a major height and reach advantage, also killed me and eventually even knocked me down. I got in my share of “cuts” and such on him, but it was eye-opening (actually a misnomer, because I probably came close to having my eyes closed!).
I mentioned that the role of attacker is tougher than defender. That is because, as a defender, Kelly teaches, just as in the stick class, to basically create a moving wall that the bad guy must come through to get to us. Anything that is offered must be attacked. You can reach a hand? Cut it. You can get to a thigh? Cut it. Make the attacker pay for every foray into your “space”.
With the one-on-one sparring complete, the class ended (around 1600), and after cleaning up a bit, I retired to “The Last Round” for a beer and some camaraderie with my classmates. I must confess that, though I felt welcomed at the stick class, now that I have been there twice (and still plan to go at least two more times this year), I have earned at least a touch of respect from the regulars. Most people would not challenge themselves in courses like this, much less come back for more.
Factoring in lunch, this was another roughly six-hour clinic that delivered exactly what I was looking for. This was a much more, as best I can tell, realistic take on defensive use of the knife, which was a welcome change compared with my prior coursework. This is not knocking the prior coursework that I have done, as I feel those courses also fulfilled training purposes for me, but I just really like Kelly’s approach to this material. This was also another stop on my 2021 journey to learn more about what violence looks like, what it feels like, how I react to it, etc. As such, and especially considering the sale price—or even the list price—I felt like I got great value from this clinic.
I will mention here that I am finishing up this review one and a half weeks after the course, and I still have the remnants of bruises on my arms, chest, and a few other places, and still have some aches and pains. I mention this not to sound like Mr. Tough Guy (I’m clearly NOT), but just so to provide fair warning that a clinic like this WILL test you a bit (as well as your supply of preferred painkillers).
As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions, please post them below, as we always welcome civil discourse. I can be reached privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.