“If you had one blade left, would you throw it at your opponent?”
The question above rings rather contemporary in my ears. I find it difficult to imagine that all peoples in all times would have come up with such a question to be asked. Surely there were times and places where cultures bred the answer to this question into the very fiber of all its members; passing along the mindset and knowledge of the basic survival skills for self-defense. Those were times when weapons were utensils to be used as the moment deemed prudent. Children grew up learning to use knives in the same manner they learned to walk; by doing. All the moments of experience acquired along the individual and collective time-line of life made the acquisition of certain knowledge seem like an unconscious process.
All peoples from all cultures and all times have learned particular things through this process. It is part and parcel to being human and of living within our human constructs which we call societies; be they large or small. However, exactly what is learned is extremely specific to those cultures. If I posed the question, “If you had one bullet left, would you shoot it at your opponent?”, an answer, for yourself, will most likely come immediately to mind. You need not ponder or deliberate. I suspect, that even if you have never held a gun and have no intention of ever holding a gun, you would still have a moment of “knowing the answer” before you start rationalizing the likelihood or unlikelihood of ever being in a situation which would force you to make such a choice. That has everything to do with the culture which has formed our deepest concepts and attitudes. The fact that most of us will have to stop and think about the first question, truly not knowing the answer immediately, also has everything to do with the same cultural influence grown inside of us.
Of course, there will be those from the same cultures who do “know” immediately their answers for these questions. That they “know” what the rest of us may not, has everything to do with a more conscious form of learned experience. Knife throwers, know that the answer is, “Yes, throw the blade.” They understand that the two questions are basically the same and the answer is not weapon specific. When defending yourself, use what you have, use what is needed for that moment; because if you do not survive that moment, then having saved your weapon for a later moment may prove to be fatally pointless.
Knife throwers “know” this because through their practice of throwing knives, they have changed their way of thinking, their mindset, through the learning process of the knife. That is not say that throwing knives is the only way to adopt a mindset which understands these questions. It is merely to say that, as with many practices, through endeavor we not only develop skills, we develop our minds; our concepts of the world and of ourselves.
I read this week a comparison of the process of learning and developing knife throwing skills to the famous Zen-mind experienced while learning the Japanese art of archery. That made me think of Tai Chi. Not only did my thoughts immediately refer to Tai Chi, the physical feeling of that Zen-mind experienced through the process of learning the art of Tai Chi flowed effortlessly through my body… for one small moment of timelessness… and then it vanished. This prompted me to want to know more about the art of throwing knives. And, during my treasure hunt searching for information concerning the world of knives and those who have thrown them, I developed an admiration and a desire for the process. What a wonderful way to practice Tai Chi that would be; to add the world of knives into my growing mindset! In this essay, I hope to build another shared foundation to support such a mind. We might as well lay the first layer with prehistoric history and work our way up to the Native American Indian; composing one of the most fascinating and skilled groups of knife peoples of the world, sharing amongst themselves long histories of cultural similarities. Understanding the role of the knife and the tomahawk within these cultures prepares us for understanding the present-day practicalities concerned with the process of throwing knives. By the end of the reading, saying “Yes, throw the knife” should not only be an answer pleasing to the intellect, it should also be agreeable to the senses.
Traveling back in time to trace the development of throwing knives, one could be forgiven the expectation of beginning with the knife. Definitely, the knife had to be developed as a concept and as an object before any knives could ever be thrown. And, the history of knives begins in the Stone Age. However, the idea of throwing knives comes from a different conceptual origin than that of the knife. Before there were throwing knives, there were throwing sticks. Prehistoric hunters sharpened sticks and threw them at small prey. This was such a successful weapon that it continued to survive into the present-day. Throughout history, the throwing stick was valued. Even Tutankhamen (1300 BCE) preferred the throwing stick as his hunting weapon of choice. This is a simple weapon which requires the use of skills for its success. Evidently prehistoric man managed to develop these skills and pass them on to their future generations to refine and polish. From the throwing stick, throwing knives would be invented by many cultures around the world. The Aborigines of Australia made their boomerang; it being a large blunt object which they threw at kangaroos and wallabies from short distances. This was an adaptation of the throwing stick idea which easily transforms into an edged weapon if need be. With the development of metallurgy, the throwing knives joined the growing array of edged weapons around the world; with the stick being continuously used, but receding somewhat to the background. Even today, indigenous children living in wooded areas still make and use sticks for throwing. They learn hunting skills and, eventually, throwing knife skills grow out of their stick throwing practices.
African and Native American tribes are perhaps the best known for their knife throwing cultures. These use(d) knives with handles. On both continents tribes were often at war with each-other and their arsenal of throwing knifes included a type of weapon which we recognize as the all-important Tomahawk. Whereas, the peoples of Japan developed a number of throwing blades to be used, they were seen as being supplemental weapons rather than primary. They call these blades “Shurikens”. They typically fall into two broad categories: Hira-Shuriken and the Bo-Shuriken. The hira are round and have four blades. The bo are long and look like modern knives. Neither of these knives were deadly enough to kill intentionally. They functioned more as distractions aimed at the enemy; being thrown toward the face with the intention of blinding the opponent. “Traditional Asian throwing knives did not have a handle. Instead, the knife would have weight to counterbalance the blade; this would help to decrease the size of the knife to allow for more storage. There were several different throwing implements used throughout history. The Japanese used [Bo]Shurikes or throwing-stars. [Bo]Shurikes are small single bladed knives. Whereas the star was generally a four pointed weapon. The native Americans used tomahawks as well as the throwing knife. The Tomahawk was a modified ax[e] which was smaller than a traditional ax[e]. The Indians had their Chakram or throwing discs, which were a deadly Frisbee… Throwing weapons have been tools of hunting, and later on war, for most of human history.” – Benjamin Oliver
At this point, I am setting Asia and Africa aside in order to focus on the North American Indians indigenous to that continent; to those traditional homelands within the broad band of states stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. This group is composed of many different Indian nations. The Continental United States can be divided and subdivided in numerous ways in reference to categorizing these tribal nations. There were so many different tribes and different locations of those tribes that zooming in on detailed maps gives an awe inspiring impression of Native America. To discuss the individual and collective cultures of these tribes necessitates choosing one method of division from the many. I have chosen the most basic division of two parts; because this discussion is of a very basic nature. These two parts divide the continental U.S. into east and west; translating roughly into the “Woodland Indians” and the “Great Plains Indians”. This over-simplified divide is an important one, though; one which does some justice to presenting the basic cultural characteristics of both groups. All Native American Indians lived their lives as a part of nature rather than apart from nature. The adaptations they made for their environments were minimally disruptive; and, as such, their lives and cultures were formed by their chosen co-existences.
The Woodland Indians lived in geographic landscapes of inland rivers, streams, lakes, surrounded by lush woodlands and often bordered by coastal waters. This half of America includes the subcategories of: Northeast Woodlands, Great Lakes Woodlands, Prairie and Woodlands, Southeast Woodlands. The shared climate and natural resources gave rise to many shared aspects of culture; forming similar lifestyles, using the same materials for food, clothing, shelter and decorations. These were hunter-gatherers, farmers, fishers, and trappers. They shared a language family as well; the Algonquian. The most salient factors influencing the lives of these tribes were the abundance of water and the seasons of the year. These allowed for an equal abundance of trees, wildlife, and harvesting of crops. Waterways were traversed by canoe and with open access to seas and lakes; whales, seals, fish and shell fish were incorporated into an already plentiful diet. Because of the plentitude, tribes did not need to be nomadic. They built settlements with permanent buildings; wigwams and longhouses. These tribes could be physically quite diverse in stature, facial features, skin and eye color. The land was densely enough populated that tribes knew each-other, and in the knowing, the experience of “otherness”. “Inter-tribal warfare was harsh and frequent so that people of some tribes lived in villages which were fortified by fencing and reinforcement with dirt.” – Linda Alchin
What this group shared was their animistic worldview; where all things had souls, even phenomena such as thunder was essentially alive. They believed in spirits and wore War Paint for intimidating their enemies as well as for their protection. They had their own ideas about war and death and bravery. “In many North American tribes, it is considered the traditional pinnacle of bravery to touch or strike an enemy in face-to-face combat without killing him (a tradition which Europeans gave the name of ‘counting coups’. “Coup” means “a blow” in French). This belief is still an important one in many Native American cultures. Some Plains Indian tribes had ritualized this tradition so much that they developed special non-lethal weapons known as Coup Sticks. Coup sticks were generally either a wooden rod with a curved end – often decorated with quillwork, beads, and feathers – or a flexible whip-like branch. Because of the cultural significance of counting coup, Native American coup sticks took on a ceremonial role as a symbol of leadership and honor. Eagle feather staffs, which are still carried by some chiefs, elders, and veterans as a sort of standard or flag, are considered by some tribes to be a form of coup stick.” – Linda Alchin
With the mention of the plains Indians, we arrive on the other side of America, in the category of the Great Plains Indians. As with the Woodland Indians, the lives and livelihood of the Great Plains Indians was dictated by the physical conditions of the lands they occupied. An important difference between these groups is that the Woodland Indians developed their tribes and cultures under stable geographical conditions. This meant that they could stay in one area for a very long time. The Indians of the Great Plains, however, did not always live under the same circumstances. Climate, vegetation, and food sources changed, territories changed, and Woodland Indians were eventually forced to join them. Therefore, it is not surprising that this group is less unified by language than the Woodland Indians; encompassing the language groups of: Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan, and Athabaskan. Water was also a determining element for the lifestyles of this group. There was enough rain to produce grasslands, but, not enough rain for trees. The bulk of this second half of America is a huge landlocked corridor of dryness. These Indians eventually became nomadic hunters and farmers as food sources dwindled. Their lives changed dramatically with the (re)introduction of the horse to the area. “The introduction of the horse in the 1750’s enabled many Indian tribes from other regions to travel to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. The Great Plains hunting culture was relatively short lived as it was replaced in the 1880’s by the European settlers who became farmers, cowboys and cattlemen. In the 1870’s the deliberate great slaughter of the northern bison herds began, designed to prevent the Native Indians continuing the Great Plains Lifestyle.” – Linda Alchin
The Great Plains lifestyle was centered around horses and buffalo. Following the buffalo demanded portable shelter and way-stations. These took the forms of teepees transported by horses and travois, and settlements of lodges and teepees along rivers for those tribes who were semi-nomadic. Neither the Woodland Indians nor the Great Plains Indians lived in total isolation from contact with the Europeans in America. The weapons development of both groups would be influenced by the new materials and different models of guns and knives which were readily available for trade with the Indians. The Indians became caught up in a rapid technological weapons revolution which brought them quickly out of the Stone Age and into a new age of Iron and Steel. “Early Native American weapons almost always utilized stone in some way and Flint was the most effective stone to use when making a weapon. The process of making weapons from flint was called Flint Knapping and the weapon makers were called Flint Knappers. Many Native American weapons were made from a combination of materials. An arrow or spear had a stone or bone arrowhead or point which was attached to a wooden shaft or handle all of which were held together with a cord usually made from animal sinew or with a type of glue. Arrows would also have feathers attached which improved the flight of the arrow. Native American weapons included: Tomahawk, Axes, The Lance, Bow and Arrows, Shields, Knives, Atlatl – spear throwers, Spear, Blow-guns, War-clubs, Arrowheads, Battle Hammers, Jawbone-clubs, and Slingshots. Although they were all made of stone these primitive weapons were deadly.” – Linda Alchin. The Indian weapons all fell into one or more of five categories: cutting weapons, striking weapons, throwing weapons, piercing weapons, and defensive weapons. Where possible, the Indians replaced their stone with iron, steel, copper, and/or brass.
Our main interest is in the new Native American Indian knives which were used for throwing. The Indians already had a long history of using throwing sticks and then throwing knives made of stone. These knives were used for multiple purposes. In general, “Their knives were made to function, but at the same time they are constructed with the idea of being closer to nature and harnessing the spiritual essence around them.” – Mission Del Ray. Knife handles were made of significant materials for the Indians; deer bone, antlers, deer foot, and their sheaths were of different types of leather, furs, beads, and quill. Their blade forms were cut into unique shapes. A throwing knife received additional consideration and care in the making because it needed a proper weight for throwing; be it for hunting or for battle. Mastering the skills involved with the use of these knives was considered an art form in tribes. Every male Native American Indian carried at least one knife on him. Many carried two: a small knife hung around the neck and a large knife attached at the waist; both of which could be thrown. “Native American used instruments such as throwing knives to fight in their battles. When Europeans arrived, the Native American Indians tried unsuccessfully, to use these throwing knives against European invasion into their territory. Warfare was not just a physical experience for the Native American tribes but also viewed as a spiritual experience. The killing of an enemy warrior was considered to be the least important part of battle. When Native American Indians fought with enemy Indian tribes their favorite weapons were throwing knives or tomahawks. Some of the Indian fighting styles can be thought of today as forms of guerrilla warfare. For years, Fighting between the Europeans and Indians which took place over decades were in the end devastating for the Native Americans. The use of throwing knives was thought to be especially cruel by Europeans and others that fought the Indians.” – Indians.org
By this time, the reader should have understood that for the Native American Indians there are two main weapons for their throwing: the knife and the tomahawk. This essay is concerned primarily with the throwing knife. However, a short introduction to the Tomahawk is necessary at this point; it becomes part of the discussion when explaining the practical application of physics in the modern-day world of Knife Throwing which appears a bit further down the reading-line. “While the Native American Indian Tomahawk originates from the Viking style tomahawk, its purpose was more all general. The Vikings used the tomahawk, such as the Franciscan tomahawk, as a medium range throwing weapon. The Indians used the tomahawk for camp, combat, hunting, and ceremonial purposes. Sometimes you will find a tomahawk that is also a smoking peace pipe in nature. The Indian tomahawk is typically adorned with feathers, leather, and various styles of beading. The head of the tomahawk, depending on the time period, was made from different stones and metals. The Indian tomahawk comes from the stone club that was used early on in Ancient Indian History. The stone club was basically a stick with a stone tied on the top of it with sinew. But soon stones evolved into sharper stone and other metals as they became available through trade.” – Native American Vault.com
As we transition from the Indian Wars into the age of our own modernity, let me ease the gap by offering the story of Skeeter Vaughan/Grey Otter (1922-1989). Vaughan was a full-blooded Cherokee, a professional knife thrower and a WWII sergeant for the US army seeing action in Europe. He was raised on an Indian reservation in California. As a boy, Vaughan hunted small game using throwing knives. Through the years of practice, he became quite skilled in throwing the knife. As a teenager he became a performer, earning money with his flying knife skills. At the age of 19 he joined the army and entered the war in 1942. During his tour of duty, a remarkable event occurred. “In Tomahawk Throwing: The Art of Experts, author Harry K. McEvoy described Sgt. Skeeter Vaughan’s famous knife throw. His six-man patrol was tasked with taking out a German pillbox, guarded by a sentry. Any shooting would compromise the mission. Though it was dark, the Americans realized they would be clearly silhouetted against the snow-covered ground if they approached. One of his men asked Skeeter if he could kill the German from a distance with the 16-inch throwing knife he had modified from a bayonet. Skeeter decided to risk a try, crawling as close as he dared to the sentry, whose back was turned to him. With a skill developed over many years of continual practice, Skeeter hurled his bayonet knife in a high trajectory, aiming for a spot about three feet above the head of the sentry. The weapon turned silently over and over in its long downhill pinwheel flight, and to Skeeter’s amazement, the sentry dropped face down into the snow without a sound – the weapon had penetrated the sentry’s head at the base of his skull… The patrol cleaned out the pillbox with grenades. The following morning, Skeeter’s throw was measured at a miraculous 87 feet.”- Ryan
Being born in 1922 and raised on an Indian reservation, Vaughan would have grown up with the realities of two worlds. From these brief accounts, it would seem that he successfully navigated his way through life by drawing from the lessons learned and skills acquired from both of his cultural heritages; Native and American. By the time Vaughan saw the light of day, knife throwing in the United Sates had already gone through a cultural transformation. Knife throwing entered into the realm of Western recreation in the 1800s. It was molded into the form of a sport; and with the creation of rules and regulations, it entered into the further realm of competitions with official organizations such as the American Knife Throwers Alliance and the International Knife Throwers Hall of Fame for its representation. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the sport was picked up and exploited as an entertainment by the circus world. Both of these groups of knife throwers would develop their own practices and standards for throwing; developing different styles for their sport. The common use of knives being thrown as an informal pass-time is a rather universal activity. But, the organization of throwing knives brought attention to the unique skills of those who have developed the art. “Whether you’re trying to hit a bulls-eye from several yards away or trying not to hit a person strapped to a rotating wheel, the art of knife throwing requires skill and concentration.” – Timothy Martinez Jr.
“With sufficient training, a knife-thrower can launch a knife with great force and hit a target at exactly the point that he is aiming for. Ordinarily, the knife-thrower holds the blade with a pinch grip or a blade grip, and then he throws the knife with a little flick so that it will spin in the air as it approaches the target. If the throw is good, the tip of the knife will stick to the target. Because there are different styles and purposes of knife-throwing, knives of different materials and specifications are produced.” – Tribal Directory.com. The words above present the modern-day reality of the art of knife throwing in very broad terms. They give a mere inkling of this art, without satisfying the reader’s inquiring mind as to how this art is practiced, what materials are used, or knowing the theories which support it. Modern knives are certainly not always the same as the traditional knives of the Native American Indian. Vaughan, himself, used a knife he had modified from a bayonet to achieve his remarkable throw in WWII. Today’s throwing knives tend to be made of much lighter materials than the knives Vaughan would have grown up using. The knives are especially designed with aerodynamics in mind. They are made from soft steels and are flexible. Many designs are made from a single piece of metal; forming blade and handle as one uninterrupted whole. Modern blades tend to be double-edged which are kept dull for the sake of safety. Yet my words, too, are of a general nature and are meant to slowly prepare the reader step by step as we approach the target of our inquiry.
There is more to knife throwing than just standing at an arbitrary distance from a bulls-eye, throwing and hoping for a desired result. Beginners are taught certain basics, and in the learning the student comes to appreciate that accurate knife throwing takes skill, and this skill is difficult to master. There are a number of Internet sites which offer their own small summaries and interesting comments concerning these basics. There are also and a select few sites which delve into the depths of the physics behind the art of knife throwing. One small introduction, which I find interesting, is given by a site called “knife-guide”. The author writes, “Movies typically portray thrown knives as traveling in a straight line from the thrower to the target, the point of the knife always forward. This depiction is unrealistic, for unless the knife is fired, rather than thrown, it develops a rotation as it flies, making it difficult to predict whether the point or handle will be facing toward the target when it strikes. Figuring the variables into calculations requires a good sense of distance and the ability to change the number of spins the knife undergoes before striking. These are skills that can be developed only after much practice.” The basic advice is to stand directly in front of the target and hold the handle of the knife. Turn around and take 4-5 steps away from the target, then turn to face the target once again. Take one long step forward (right hand uses left foot). Throw the knife at the target with a simple overhand pitch. Release the blade smoothly, with no spin and no twist. “If, on your first few throws, the knife strikes edge first, with the point up, move back a foot or so and try again. If it hits with the tip down, move forward a bit. Eventually, you’ll discover the natural one-turn range for the knife. Mark that spot, and go on to try to find the range for a spin-and-a half blade-held throw (four feet or so farther back) and then for a double spin handle-held throw (about three or four paces back from the single-spin range). Knife throwing requires practice – like archery, it is a sport that requires a lot of seemingly simple actions to mesh correctly – but within a very short amount of time you’ll be getting consistent hits from the one-spin mark, and you can then go on to improve your accuracy (paper plates tacked to the target are good for this!)”. Our author issues a standard warning which we need to remember and take into account when practicing. Knives can bounce off the target when they do not stick. You need to keep yourself at a safe distance; and all spectators need to be placed at an even safer distance behind the thrower. Always check the target before throwing to make sure that no one (child or animal) is behind it. The practice is meant to be done with a calm, collected, peaceful state of mind. Knife practice is a meditative practice.
The Knife-Guide has given us the bare minimum needed for our first knife throwing efforts. As we begin to settle into this imagined experience, Christian Thiel offers us more detailed information which adds depth to understanding. “It is important to keep in mind that a knife throw happens instinctively, without thinking, much like walking or riding a bike. You must not try to think of the throw! Helpful notions like “release when the knife is pointing exactly at the target” are necessary to learn the motion sequence, but your brain will automatically adjust to release the knife in the right moment (a little earlier).” Thiel chooses the Standard Overhand Knife Throw to explain the principles of knife throwing; for other styles there are other factors which influence the action of the knife. After understanding the basics, we are prepared for easily adding the those factors to our calculations. As Thiel mentioned, in knife throwing personal perception is not reflective of the reality of what is happening. People think that they release later than they actually do and what a person may experience as 2 turns is actually 2 1/4. Coming to terms with our mis-perceptions of ourselves and of the world around us; knowing and accepting these discrepancies, is what knife throwing is all about. “The hand makes a circular motion around the shoulder joint. The movements in the elbow joint just change the circle and will be ignored. Once released, the knife will fly on tangentially to the circular path… If you were to release the knife exactly when pointing to the target…, it would fly straight to the ground. Rather it must be released when the tangent of the circular path of the swing points exactly at the target, or better a little earlier, because the ideal tangential trajectory will be effected by gravity.” – Christian Thiel. The actual moment of release is when the knife is perpendicular to the ground and the knife begins to rotate on its own. Up until the release, the changing of the knife angle is caused by the rotation of the the arm along its circular path. After release, the arm continues its course, downward, along its natural path within this circle.
When I read Thiel’s more lengthy, continued description of the throwing process, I knew that the physics of throwing was to follow. I felt the need to review the information already presented and summarize it for myself. This short re-cap of what I think to know from Thiel’s introduction is this:
1. Set your mind to release when the knife points to the target; the body will release the knife when it is perpendicular to the path the knife will follow.
2. The arm makes a large circle from the shoulders, which turns the angle of the knife as it moves.
3. After release, the knife continues to turn in this counterclockwise direction – but the center of gravity is now in the middle of the knife rather than at the shoulder joint.
4. The point of the knife rotates down while the handle rotates up, this continues until the knife either hits something or is overcome by gravity and falls to the ground.
5. You can influence the speed of rotation by: 1.) throwing faster or slower, 2.) the speed can be increased by throwing with a bent arm; because it makes the throwing circle smaller and that changes the angle of the knife in a shorter amount of time, 3.) the speed can be slowed by making the circle larger by “leaning in”; stretching as you throw makes the circle oblong instead of round and this lengthens the time of the changing of the knife’s angle when released.
6. Angular Velocity: the time it takes the knife to rotate.
7. Forward Velocity: circumferential velocity at the moment of release.
8. “It is very interesting to note that the velocity of your throw has no impact on the distance the knife will travel during one full rotation.”
In Thiel’s Physics Proof, he presents three formulas. I am sharing the language formulas rather than the symbolic ones, partly because my key board objects to the symbols and partly because I object to the symbols. Those readers who wish, are free to make notes of the symbols which I describe with words; and thusly take pride in their own abilities to do so. I know some people truly enjoy that task. For the rest of us, the words (and adapted words) of Thiel are more than adequate.
Formula 1: The angular velocity (angle per time) can be measured in radian, its unit is then 2pi/time. The distance the knife travels while completing on full rotation is his forward velocity multiplied by the time needed to complete the rotation.
Formula 2: The forward velocity of the knife equals its circumferential velocity at the moment of release. Circumferential velocity is the part of the circular arc (with the radius measured from the shoulder joint to the center of gravity of the knife) that is covered by the knife per time unit, and with the angular velocity already being in radian; circumference equals radius times 2pi.
Formula 3: [Insert formula 2 into formula 1: distance equals radius times 2pi]: The distance which the knife travels during one full rotation only depends on the radius of the throwing movement, not on the force or speed of the throw. This last formula also explains why axes (and large knives) travel longer distances during one full turn: their center of gravity is well away from the hand, making the radius of the circular throwing movement bigger.
The last bit of Physics which Thiel gives us is aimed toward obtaining insight into the effect of center of gravity upon the distance traveled during rotation. To do this, we must consider the entire length of the knife (Lg) and the distance of center of gravity (Ls) placed upon it. Well-balanced throwing knives have their center of gravity in the middle. Axes, however, have their center of gravity practically at the end of the handle. Consider:
1. Knife: 30 cm = Lg 0.3 m; a travel time of 2 m for one rotation
2. Axe: 30 cm = Ls 0.3 m; a travel time of 3.5 m for one rotation
This, Thiel reminds us, is true when using the Hammer Grip. This is the point where the theoretical principles of physics become refined by the practical applications of real-life knife throwing. The knife thrower has many variables of which he need take heed: type of knife, throwing style, force used. The first of this is consideration of the knife itself. The second is of grip. “Knife throwers know that they can slow down the rotation of a knife by taking more of it into the hand, holding it more towards the middle. This results from the fact that the knife needs more time to clear the hand after release, whilst the hand continues to travel downwards, pushing onto the handle. This slows down the rotation, which normally would have the handle going up. The technique of throwing the knife with the thumb on its spine slows down the rotation for the same reason.” –
Christian Thiel In our basic knife throwing instructions earlier in this essay, we were told to use two different grips when seeking our distance for different rotations; however, there are at least four grips from which we may choose. To understand these choices we return to two main streams of modern development of knife throwing; sport and entertainment. Each adopted their own style of throwing. The Sport Style uses a wind-up rather suggestive of a baseball pitch, and steps into the throw. The Professional Style is what is used in knife throwing acts, popular in circus circles. Of the four standard grips there are two which hold the handle of the knife and two which hold the blade. The handle grip is called a Hammer Grip. This basic grip is associated with the Sportsman Style. You simply hold the handle of the knife as you would the handle of a hammer; gripping with the full hand as one unit. The Modified Hammer Grip is associated with the Professional Style and it places the thumb on the spine of the handle while the fingers grip the handle together. Both of these grips are used to achieve a landing on a full-turn.
The third and fourth grips are used by both styles of throwing. These grips are blade-grips. The first is called the Vertical Blade Grip and is used only with knives having dull edges. The throwing itself is the same except instead of grabbing the handle, the thrower grabs the knife at the tip of the broad edge. The knife is held pinched between the thumb and one or two fingers with the rest of the fingers curled together to support the hand. This grip is used to achieve half turns. The last grip is the Horizontal Blade Grip. This is used to achieve a half turn with a knife which has one sharp edge. The landing of the knife is horizontal rather than vertical. It is tricky and there a couple of essentials for safety which must not be ignored: always keep the sharp edge away from the palm, and never wrap fingers around the blade. Aside from that, it is good to know that the landing of this grip is particularly hard on the knife. The tip can easily break away.
The variable of force is a story of trajectory, speed, and release point. Thiel tells us that people try to throw hard & fast because they think they will be more accurate. They think they can focus better on their target by doing so. This doesn’t really help, though, because the knife is not on the same line as the eye when releasing the knife. Knife throwers tend to throw less hard (slower) for short distances than for long. Part of the reason for this is that they are afraid of the knife bouncing back from the target if it does not land well. So they throw with more ease at short distance targets than long. The other reason is that many throwers think the knife will travel farther when thrown hard and fast than when thrown softly and slow. What in fact happens is that in a fast and hard throw, the knife will follow a flat path. And, in a slow and soft throw the knife will follow a curved trajectory. The slow knife has a longer trajectory potential than the fast knife; meaning the actual distance traveled is greater when traveling slowly. The slower the speed the higher the arch. Remember that the distance for one turn does not depend upon the speed of the throw. So, the slower the throw, the higher the arch, the longer the distance reached, and the more rotations made to meet the target. Knife throwers use their knowledge of these differences to fine tune their results. They do this at a very conscious level at first. They play with controlling the spin by altering the arch when the distances are great. They can adjust their grip and/ or change the size of their throwing circle to effect the outcome of how the blade meets the target. With enough practice, using the right state of mind, the knife thrower can develop a feel for how to use the knife to achieve the desired results. This is what enabled Vaughan to throw his knife 87 feet and silently take his target down, and what caused his own surprise for having done so. Vaughan’s skilled body and mind worked together to throw the knife in just the right way to reach the target unimpeded. He allowed his mind to silently take in the information of his surroundings, of his knife and of himself. His body responded with the experience of thousands of throws and hit the mark without conscious thought or effort. Body, mind, knife, and the elements moved together in harmony.
This fluid cascade of synchronizing knowledge used in the process of throwing the knife has been experienced over and over again by Native American Indians throughout the centuries. Both the Woodland Indians and the Indians of the Great Plains valued their knives equally and both developed their skills into art forms which reflected their spiritual world-views. Native Americans would continue to prefer their throwing knives over firearms when hunting and always relied heavily on them when at war. But, the value attributed to the throwing knives was more than just their great value in use during hunting or warring. The knife was made and bound with the shared values of their natural world and it symbolized their reverence for their part within that world and within their shared Indian cultures. One can only imagine that Vaughan readily understood this reverence, for he too was forever bound to his love of throwing the knife. When reading the words of modern-day knife throwing masters, I notice immediately the descriptions of the meditative mind which they deem necessary to learn their art. The calm and aware mind in tune with the calm and responsive body seems to bring their world together into a harmonious whole; reminiscent of the Native American and the Japanese Zen Master alike. What has changed in the world of knife throwing is not the transcendental state of mind acquired through its practice; it is the culture which is being outwardly reflected which has changed. The culture of modern man is one of high technology and scientific method. The knives have changed. Designs and materials have evolved. Purposes for the knives have moved from the realm of hunting and fighting into that of sport and entertainment. Yet, there is something intrinsically valuable in the art of throwing knives which seems to be universal and unbounded. It is that very same something which we acquire through our own experiences when we develop that particular harmony of a skilled mind and body working together; silently taking the information of the self and its surroundings, and responding with “effortless effort”. This is the basis of Tai Chi and is the true essence of all arts.
Before ending this essay, I want to leave the reader with the advice Christian Thiel sets down for his beginners. The brief description in the beginning of this section of hands-on modern knife throwing, was advice meant for “unprepared” minds. Thiel’s advice is more suited to the more “informed” beginner. For those who might be trying their hand at knife throwing, this sounds like good advice to keep in mind. “In the beginning, you always make the same movements with your arm and body, with always the same force. Having mastered that [these] constant movements you can now find the distance from the target where the knives stick if you throw them with these movements.” In flight, the knife turns around its center of gravity, alternating blade and handle pointing toward the target. First distance: stand about 3 m from the target, grip the knife by the handle, throw it, after one full rotation it should stick, if it doesn’t then move backward or forward until it does. Second distance: stand 1 m behind the first distance, grip the knife by the blade, throw it, after one and a half rotations it should stick. Turns happen by themselves. There is no need to try to make the knife turn. Third distance: step back from the second distance, grip the handle, the knife should stick after 2 full rotations. Always throw with the same force. You want the knife to have the same speed of rotations every time. Skilled throwers can achieve up to 7 full rotations. Record your successful distances during a practice; but be aware that every practice is a new situation and will require adjustments in the distances you use. “By adjusting your grip on the knife, you can stick it from distances between those of half turns. If you take more of the knife in your grip, it will spin slower, allowing you to move a little back from the target. Gripping it more towards the end will increase the spin.” – Christian Thiel.
* Note of Recognition: Paintings by Kirby Sattler