CAN THIS MYSTERIOUS CURVED BLADE MAKE THE CUT AS YOUR DEFENSIVE KNIFE?
The karambit is one mysterious mistress. With her smooth curve, sexy ring, and exotic origins, this blade from Southeast Asia has captured the knife world’s attention, turning a mild flirtation into a full-blown fixation.
This story is for illustrative purposes only and is not to be construed as training or legal/medical advice. Consult with a lawyer, doctor, and reputable instructor before attempting anything herein.
Whether it’s a modern classic such as the Emerson Knives Combat Karambit or CRKT’s Transformers-like Provoke, the popularity of this type of edged weapon has exploded in recent years to the point where dedicated websites sell nothing but karambits.
The mystique around this claw-shaped tool has only grown exponentially thanks to its use in recent movies such as “John Wick 3” and Netflix’s “Extraction.”
But does it mean it’s an ideal daily-carry defensive knife? Let’s take a stab at examining this question—as well as a few myths associated with this edged weapon.
The karambit—which is sometimes spelled “kerambit” or “korambit”—has specific uses and, therefore, must be designed with those uses in mind.
Why is the business end curved? Is it deadlier than a straight one?
Before I answer those questions, it’s important to acknowledge where it came from: the farmlands of Indonesia. While some folks argue that it was a battlefield weapon inspired by the tiger’s claw and shrunken down to pocketsize for easier concealment, the generally accepted theory based on oral history is that this ancient design started off as a utility and farming implement roughly 1,000 years ago. The curvature was ideal for cutting crops, raking roots, and slicing string.
This is not to say curved swords for warfare didn’t exist concurrently back then. There’s just no written documentation showing that one design led to another, or vice versa.
The Retention Ring
This feature allowed workers to use their fingers for non-cutting tasks while still possessing the knife with a single digit. The ring also prevented accidental cuts by stopping the knife from slipping through a user’s hands, especially when working in wet conditions such as in rice fields. Hence why it’s also called a safety ring.
On the flipside, it’s extremely difficult to disarm a knife-wielding opponent when he has a finger looped through the ring. Moreover, fighters also use the ring to strike with, sort of like a brass knuckle.
And the third aspect of a karambit is the handle—or, should I say, how the handle and ring line up. A lot of U.S. knifemakers (especially those without martial arts training) simply add a ring onto the handle, like the dot at the top of the letter “i.”
But that results in misaligned fingers. It’s the knife equivalent of designing a handgun with the trigger set back by a half-inch or more. Can you say awkward?
Instead, a well-made karambit should have the ring forward of the handle so that the inside of the ring lines up with the outside of the handle, forming more of a “p” shape rather than an “i.”
Some self-defense “experts” can get pretty elaborate with their exotic grips and outlandish justifications for using them. I’ll keep it simple.
“The karambit is a deadly edged weapon—but it’s not for everyone.”
Grab the handle as if you’re holding a hammer. It provides the most amount of meat on the handle, supports your cuts with maximum leverage, and prevents others from disarming you.
Should you put your pinkie through the ring? That ultimately comes down to personal preference. Mine is not to, because it takes fine motor control to “thread that needle”—something you’ll probably lose the moment adrenaline courses through your body as a response to a (perceived) lethal threat.
Now this is the grip you’ll want to use to put a finger through the retention ring. In this case, your strongest finger, your index finger, loops through the ring while the rest of your hand grabs around the handle, with the blade pointed downward.
This is also the ideal grip to use if you plan to set up your karambit as a get-off-me weapon, with a pistol or bigger blade as your primary tool. In worst-case scenarios, such as someone grabbing a hold of your firearm, your support hand can draw your karambit and slice upward (being careful not to cut yourself) to free your primary weapon.
So, does this ancient design make the karambit deadlier than, say, a Bowie knife? Not necessarily. Why? Here’s a shocker: Any knife can be deadly in the hands of a determined user.
They don’t even need to be trained. So, the question is less about whether the karambit is better than other knives and more about whether you know how to use one.
Here’s a broad breakdown of the karambit techniques for self-defense.
When it comes to edged weapons in a self-defense scenario, the technique that delivers the most stopping power is the straight thrust. Like a bullet from a firearm, a blade can pierce into a bad guy’s neck, heart, lungs, or other parts to inflict catastrophic internal damage.
Unfortunately, a karambit doesn’t stab very well. It’s difficult to get an accurate thrust with this knife due to its curvature. Even with a double-edged karambit, the shape still won’t allow for deep penetration.
Some practitioners argue that you just have to cant your wrist when thrusting but, sorry folks, poor body mechanics cannot overcompensate for physics.
When it comes to extreme close-quarters combat, this is where the karambit is king. In fact, the karambit is ideal for a specific type of slicing: ripping of veins, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and arteries.
The forward path of the blade means the tip will dig into flesh, allowing the curve to sever muscle and tendons that are deeper. And as the user follows through with the swing, the claw-like shape rips through whatever wasn’t immediately cut.
Another benefit is the karambit’s ability to not only slice but simultaneously trap. What does “trapping” mean? In bladed arts such as Silat, Kali, and Kuntao, the karambit is often used as a defensive weapon.
So, when an attack comes in (be it a punch, a club, a knife, a gun, etc.), the user will typically “defang the snake,” or cut the offending limb, while also using the curved blade to move the limb to set up more counter-cuts.
The curve of the blade acts like a cupped hand, moving the attacker’s neck, arm, leg, or torso while at the same time digging deeper into the flesh, often right to the bone. In this manner, the karambit can even be used as a lever for throws and takedowns.
Some martial artists use the karambit’s retention ring to “flip” it like a cowboy spinning his six-shooter. They say you can twirl it as a momentary distraction or to smack a bad guy like a whip or to use the added reach to slice a thug’s neck.
I’d be willing to bet they’ve never pressure-tested any of those techniques in slow drills—let alone realistic, high-speed training. Why? Because if they did, they would have found that those techniques fail against a resistant partner—let alone a psychotic criminal determined to end your life. Your best bet is to never flip your karambit in a violent situation and instead keep a firm grip on it.
OK, so you’re sold on karambits as a defensive blade. Which one should you get? Well, before that, you have to ask yourself some key questions: Is a karambit legal in your state? If it is, is it legal in your county? How about your city?
The last thing a good guy like you needs when protecting yourself or your loved one against a violent criminal is to find yourself in a second fight, a legal one, after the fact. Figure out the laws in your region first, consult with a lawyer if you need to, and then and only then do you move onto selecting a karambit.
Here are some aspects to consider when selecting the karambit that’s best for you.
“…the karambit is ideal for a specific type of slicing: ripping of veins, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and arteries.”
This is ideal because it’s “live” the moment you draw it. There’s no button to push or thumb-stud to manipulate—both of which require fine motor control, which will be in short supply during an adrenaline-filled fight. Plus, the fewer moving parts, the less chance of failure.
The blade shouldn’t be overly circular. Some models have a crescent-moon shape—that’s too aggressive unless your intent is primarily to trap your opponent, which requires serious training. Instead, look for a mild curve or even a karambit with no curve, though some argue that it’s not a karambit at that point.
Look for a karambit that has a comfortable handle in either forward or reverse grip. It should be easy to find the ring with your index finger if you’re drawing it in reverse grip and equally as easy to grab with all five fingers if you’re deploying it in forward grip.
You’ll also need a high-quality sheath that can be mounted in various positions: side carry, appendix carry, horizontal carry, etc. Ideally, the knife should come with such a sheath, but you could also purchase a custom-made sheath if you’re in love with a particular karambit but not its carry equipment.
A folder eliminates the need for a sheath but requires a lot more forethought. You want an opening mechanism that’s reliable, but also quick to actuate in a life-and-death situation. Plus, with the exception of one type of opening mechanism, a folding karambit will almost always be drawn only in forward grip.
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each type of opening:
As the most common opening mechanism, a thumb-stud is easy to use in ordinary circumstances. The problem is that most of these pegs are small (less than a quarter inch wide in most cases), making them hard to grope for during a violent encounter.
Like the trademark circle found on virtually all Spyderco folding blades, a thumbhole is much easier to index under duress. But I’ve found that sometimes I don’t always get a clean open with it due to the length of my thumb, the placement of the hole, and the arc of the opening. Yet, some of my friends swear by the Spyderco patented thumbhole. Obviously, your mileage will vary.
This is the protrusion found on the back of the handle that you push with your index finger, activating the blade. When the knife is open, the tab then acts as a finger guard. This ingenious feature is easy to use and helps stop your finger from sliding onto the blade. But it often requires an extra wrist flick to get the blade to open all the way.
Out of all the openings, this will provide you with the fastest way to draw your folding karambit. It works by catching a part of the blade (usually a protrusion on the spine) on your pocket so that the blade opens as your draw the knife.
The most well-known is the Emerson Knives Wave Feature. For defensive purposes, a pocket-deploy karambit is most ideal because of the speed factor.
But there are drawbacks. You have to quickly pull it back to open it properly. This means anyone standing behind you (say, your wife or child) is at risk, so you’ll need to reposition them or yourself before you draw. Likewise, if you’re backed up against a wall, you might not have the clearance to fully draw.
This is why I advocate for your folding karambit to have at least two reliable ways of opening, such as a pocket-deploy mechanism and a thumb-stud or flipper tab.
The mystique surrounding this curved blade from Indonesia can often overshadow both its usefulness and its drawbacks. Don’t let the Hollywood fight scenes or the knife industry’s marketing machine fool you. The karambit is a deadly edged weapon—but it’s not for everyone. If you’re looking for a knife that has immediate stopping power, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use, versatile EDC blade, keep looking.
But what it is, is a defensive-minded edged weapon that can be used to devastating effects. The karambit can claw its way into your defensive knife rotation so long as you have the right mindset and a good amount of training—whether you’re John Wick or John Q. Public.
Columbia River Knife & Tool
Keen Edge Knives
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Vuong is a lifelong knife knut, a writer/journalist, and the co-founder of Tiga Tactics (a combatives training company). As a self-defense teacher since 1999, he uses his diverse knowledge of fighting methods to close the wide gap between two traditionally separate warriors: martial artists and firearms enthusiasts.
He’s an instructor in several systems, including the Filipino bladed art of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali. For more information, go to
THE AUTHOR’S FAVORITES:
There is no single best karambit, just the best karambit for you. My selections will no doubt not be for everyone. With that said, here are three curved blades that fit my self-defense needs.
Bastinelli Knives Pika
This baby blade is a near perfect get-off-me tool—use it with your support hand in the event a bad guy tries to grab your primary weapon, such as a firearm. At just 1.27 ounces with an overall length of 5.1 inches, the Pika can be carried in almost any configuration, concealed or openly.
Despite its diminutive size, it packs a lot of punch. The blade is 1.65 inches long and made from N690Co, a European stainless steel known for its edge retention, corrosion resistance, and overall toughness. It was designed by Bastinelli’s Bastien Coves, an accomplished martial artist, with input from Doug Marcaida of “Forged in Fire” and Paulo Rubio of Funker Tactical.
Combative Edge Dragon Tail
This is an ideal fixed karambit for daily carry. With a 6.75-inch overall length, a 2.3-inch cutting edge, and a 0.175-inch thickness, the Dragon Tail is a slim, medium-ish fixed blade that doesn’t print while concealed yet gives you plenty of power. And because the hybrid blade has more of a drop-point profile, it’s far more versatile as an EDC knife.
Its ring-to-handle alignment is perfect, so your knuckles line up regardless of grip. In fact, the Dragon Tail feels great whether in forward or reverse grip. It was designed by two martial artists, though, so it makes sense why it’s so functional and comfortable.
Emerson Knives Super Karambit
The Super Karambit is hard to beat. The 3-inch blade features a laser-like chisel grind and is made out of 154CM stainless steel. Combined with a large thumbhole and the patented Wave Feature, the Super Karambit is lightning fast to open. The handle has gritty G10 scales for added traction, a super strong pocket clip, and a titanium liner lock for a secured lockup.
The only con? The inside of the retention ring doesn’t quite line up with the outside of the handle, causing my fingers to be slightly misaligned. But that’s the price to pay to prevent the knife from taking up too much pocket real estate. Overall, though, it’s a top-quality defensive folder.
Keen Edge Knives
Carrying a defensive knife is a big responsibility, one that requires training. A lot of it. That’s why we’re big advocates for getting a blunt training knife that replicates (or at least approximates) your live-blade EDC knife.
If a manufacturer doesn’t make a trainer version of your favorite karambit, consider getting one from Keen Edge Knives. This Colorado-based company, headed by a long-time martial artist, offers an assortment of realistic aluminum trainers and can make special orders based specific models if requested.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Sep-Oct 2021 print issue of Knives Illustrated.