Folding knives are a conscious compromise — especially when they’re carried for personal defense. Besides being weaker than fixed blades, they are also significantly slower to get into action in an emergency. Fixed blades are ready to cut and thrust as soon they clear the sheath, but folders must be drawn and then opened before they are fully functional. And since knives are really only viable against contact-distance threats, all that must happen in a matter of a few short seconds.

If you carry a folder with even the thought of using it as a defensive weapon, you need to have the ability to deploy it quickly and reliably. The path to that skill begins with a clear understanding of the dynamics that affect the process.

If you carry a folding knife for self-defense, you must have the ability to draw and open it quickly and reliably under the stress of an imminent attack.

Carry Location

Folder deployment begins with getting your hand on your knife, so carry location is critical. The most practical option is the front pants pocket on your dominant side. Ideally, your knife should be clipped so it rides all the way to the back of the pocket, next to the outer seam of the pants. This orients the knife consistently and allows full use of the rest of the pocket. If you suspect trouble, casually hooking your thumb in the pocket also allows you to surreptitiously “prep” your draw.

If your clothing doesn’t support front-pocket carry — or if you are female with shallow pockets that don’t like knives — inside-the-waistband appendix carry is the next-best alternative.

Clip Position

Serious defensive folders have clips that keep them poised and instantly accessible at the top of the pocket. How that clip orients the knife has a significant impact on your draw mechanics and speed. In simple terms, there are two options: A clip attached to the butt end of the handle orients the closed knife “tip-up,” while one attached to the pivot-pin end of the handle orients the closed knife “tip-down.”

Both carry styles can support quick, positive access, but tip-up carry allows you to grip the knife in the pocket with the same basic grip needed to open and use it. Tip-down carry, conversely, requires you to reposition the knife in your hand after the draw before you can open the blade. This takes time and requires a complex motor skill under stress. While it can certainly be made to work, I consider tip-up carry simpler and more reliable — especially with clips that allow the knife to be accessible. “Deep-pocket” clips, positioned at the extreme end of the handle, are certainly discreet, but they also make quick deployment difficult.

Tip-down carry does not allow you to establish a “using” grip while the knife is in the pocket and requires an adjustment before the blade can be opened.

Deep-pocket clips are definitely discreet, but also make deploying a folder considerably more challenging.

Purchase Point

Opening a folder one-handed typically requires some kind of “purchase” on the blade that allows your thumb or finger to gain leverage. Whether it’s a hole in the blade, a stud, a disk, or an index- finger “flipper,” applying pressure to it overcomes the blade’s detent (the lock mechanism’s pressure to keep the blade closed) and pivots the blade open.

Holes and studs usually offer the best leverage and don’t require any grip adjustment after your draw. Disks often sit lower to the handle, offering less leverage, and flippers require you to adjust your grip and use a complex motor skill to achieve leverage. Under stress, simpler is better.

It’s also helpful to know that the detents of different lock mechanisms apply very different amounts of pressure to keep the blade closed. Back locks have very strong springs, while liner locks, Compression Locks, and Axis locks are significantly lighter and easier to open.

To draw and open a knife from tip-up carry, first index your thumb in your pocket to “funnel” it to the knife. Dig your thumb deep into your pocket behind the handle and curl your index finger under the tip of the pocket clip. Gripping the knife firmly, draw it straight up and out of the pocket. This should position your thumb very close to the blade “purchase” — in this case a round hole. Supporting the handle with a pinch grip of your four fingertips, drive your thumb straight forward to index the blade hole and open the blade. Then adjust to your defensive grip.

Putting it All Together

With all these dynamics in mind, deploying a folder (from tip-up carry) should go something like this:

  1. Hook your thumb in your pocket and track down to your knife.
  2. Dig deep to index your thumb along the flat of the handle that faces your body.
  3. Hook your index finger below the tip of the clip on the outside of the pocket.
  4. Draw the knife straight up out of the pocket by lifting your elbow.
  5. Curl your fingers around the handle, anchoring your fingertips on the clip.
  6. Index your thumb on the hole, stud, or disk.
  7. Drive your thumb straight forward to pivot the blade open.
  8. Assume a fighting grip.

If this process sounds challenging, you’re right. Getting a folder into action in response to a potentially lethal threat requires you to perform complicated motor skills with a mechanical device, and do that under conditions of extreme stress. The best way to meet that challenge is to do your homework, choose your knife and carry position carefully, and train diligently. That’s the only way to guarantee you’ll actually have your knife when you need it most.

P.S. I understand and appreciate the advantages of an Emerson Opener, aka “Wave,” for quickly deploying a folder. That topic, however, was beyond the scope of this article and may be covered in a future issue of Knives Illustrated.