When you know you’re about to face a challenging situation, what do you do to prepare for it? In school, you’d be foolish not to take notes and study hard before an important final exam. In a professional setting, if you were tasked with giving a presentation to the board of directors at your company, you’d certainly create an outline of key points and commit your speech to memory prior to the big day. Athletes spend months or years practicing with their teams before a championship.

Consider how ridiculous it’d be to assume you’d pass that test because you brought a freshly sharpened pencil, ace the presentation because you installed the latest version of Powerpoint, or win the big game because you just bought a brand-new pair of cleats. This line of thinking sounds absurd, but it’s all too common in the self-defense field. You might have a high-end carry gun and a top-of-the-line holster, but that hardware is worthless if you lack the software to draw and hit a target reliably. The same can be said of edged weapons — you might have a knife that’s marketed as a combat tool, but have you ever actually used it in that manner? Are you positive you can deploy it consistently, or will you be fumbling with it as an attacker brutally shanks you with his own blade? The only way to answer these questions definitively is through practice, ideally in the form of sparring with a training partner.

Photo by Conrad Bui

Now, there’s a caveat to knife training. Your buddy probably won’t like it if you keep sending him to the hospital with gashes and puncture wounds. This is why we use trainers — dull replicas of knives designed for the purpose of safe practice. A generic rubber trainer is better than nothing, but the best combat-oriented knives are available with dull metal trainers that closely replicate their size, shape, weight, and deployment method. In this way, you can create drills that mimic real-life defensive situations, and establish the muscle memory and confidence you’ll need to deal with an actual threat.

We picked up seven trainer and live blade sets in order to gauge each design’s effectiveness as a tool for self-defense, and also determine how accurately the trainer represented the live blade’s characteristics. Five of these sets are fixed blades while two are pocket-friendly folders.

This raises an important point — fixed blades are generally the mainstream choice, since the added complexity of a folder means added steps during the draw stroke. However, concealed, combat-oriented fixed blades aren’t always the best tools for everyday tasks, and a folder can split the difference by serving as both a utilitarian pocket knife and defensive implement. Just know that if you choose a folder, the bar will be set even higher and continuous training will be all the more important.

If you’re ready to spend some time sparring to ensure your edged-weapon skills are grounded in reality, read on to see if one of these live blade and trainer sets is right for you.

Boker Plus Wildcat

Overall Length
7.3 inches

Blade Length
2.8 inches

Weight
4.4 ounces (live blade) / 4.6 ounces (trainer)

MSRP
$233 ($133 for live blade; $100 for trainer)

URL
www.bokerusa.com

Notes
This modified-karambit-style flipper was designed by Boris Manasherov, a Krav Maga practitioner who has been teaching combatives to Israeli military units since 1985. Unlike the continuous curve of a traditional karambit, the Wildcat features an unusual shape one might describe as a recurve tanto with an upswept clip-point. The end result is a design that’s effective for piercing and slashing. The live blade is constructed from D2 steel with a liner lock and black G10 handle scales; the trainer is identical except for bright red scales and a blunt 420 steel blade. Holes in the trainer make its weight virtually identical to its sharp counterpart.

Deployment is the Achilles’ heel of this design. While drawing it into a reverse grip with index finger through the ring, the simplest way to open the blade is to make an “OK” gesture, reaching down with the thumb to hit the flipper. This feels awkward and sweeps the tip of the blade close to the other fingers as it opens. Attempting this in a forward grip is even tougher. Fortunately, two-handed opening is easy, and the knife feels extremely secure in the hand once it’s deployed.

Pros:

  • Equally effective for slashing and stabbing; the finger ring can also be used as an impact tool with the blade closed
  • Handle shape and curvature offer a secure, comfortable grip
  • Trainer is a good live-blade analogue, with the same lock mechanism and a 0.2-ounce weight difference

Cons:

  • All opening methods require fine motor skills, which might lead to fumbling during a stressful situation. This knife desperately needs some kind of pocket-opening feature.

Krudo Knives SNAG X

Overall Length
7.3 inches

Blade Length
2.5 inches

Weight
7.1 ounces (live blade) / 7.6 ounces (trainer)

MSRP
$290 ($155 for live blade; $135 for trainer)

URL
www.krudoknives.com

Notes
After reading an article in 1997 about the history of the Indonesian karambit, Louis Krudo set out to create his own spin on this ancient and versatile tool. The Krudo SNAG has gone through several revisions since then; the SNAG X is the latest in this line. It features a curved handle and finger ring derived from its inspiration, but pairs this with a crescent-shaped 9Cr18MoV blade that curves sharply upward. Other distinctive elements include an extended spine that serves as a striking point when the blade is closed, two more striking points on the end of the handle and finger ring, and a folding thumb ramp that offers additional leverage. The SNAG X can be deployed in a single motion using the D.O.T. feature, a tiny stud that catches on the pocket hem as the knife is pulled out.

The matching SNAG X Controller is an accurate trainer, but also serves a secondary purpose as a pain compliance tool. Like the live blade, it can be used closed for punches and hammer-fist strikes, or the curved steel “blade” can be opened to hook around limbs or joints. Krudo demonstrated by placing it over this author’s collarbone and pulling downward, resulting in instant discomfort and an inability to stand.

Pros:

  • Doubles as an effective impact tool
  • D.O.T. feature makes it simple to draw quickly and, more importantly, reliably
  • The Controller trainer is more than just a sparring tool and might be an asset in places where carrying a live blade isn’t allowed.

Cons:

  • Extreme reverse curvature is more effective for slashing than piercing and limits the knife’s reach.
  • 9Cr18 is a budget-friendly steel that seems a bit out-of-place for a knife at this price point.

Bastinelli Knives Pika

Overall Length
5.2 inches

Blade Length
1.7 inches

Weight
1.4 ounces (live blade) / 0.7 ounce (trainer)

MSRP
$173 ($125 for live blade; $48 for trainer)

URL
www.bastinelliknives.com / www.dougmarcaida.com

Notes
Even if you’re not involved in the combatives world, you’ll probably recognize the name Doug Marcaida. He’s one of the hosts of Forged in Fire — yes, the “it will keal” guy — and was the subject of our Survivalist Spotlight interview in Issue 29. The Pika is a collaboration between Marcaida and Bastien Coves of Bastinelli Knives; Bastinelli created the design with Marcaida’s input and final approval. The production blade was then manufactured by Fox Knives in Italy.

Marcaida’s style of Kali is influenced by a variety of Southeast Asian martial arts, so it’s no surprise that the Pika is a karambit. However, rather than adding bells and whistles to that classic design, the Pika distills it into a minimalist form. It’s constructed from one piece of N690Co stainless steel, with a finger ring and chisel-ground curved edge. This curvature makes it possible to be used in a forward punching motion to pierce, or in arced swings to slash. A tight-fitting Kydex sheath and belt clip are included. Bastinelli only sells the Pika live blade; Marcaida sells the aluminum trainers through his own web store with options for paracord or leather handle wraps.

Above: Marcaida and Bastinelli also collaborated on Le Picoeur, a similar knife with a straight handle and scalpel-style blade that some users may prefer. However, there’s no trainer available for Le Picoeur.

Pros:

  • Simple, light, and brutally effective — doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel
  • Kydex sheath fits like a glove and makes the knife easy to conceal, although we prefer the low-profile UltiClip that comes with Le Picoeur to the Pika’s standard belt clip.

Cons:

  • The aluminum trainer doesn’t fit the sheath, so it’s not possible to realistically practice drawing from retention.
  • This strong forward curvature requires a different technique than a straight blade and leads to a steeper learning curve (no pun intended) for users who are new to this style.

Greg Moffatt Knives / Direction of Force Thick Bastard

Overall Length
7.3 inches

Blade Length
3.4 inches

Weight
3.4 ounces (live blade) / 1.1 ounces (trainer)

MSRP
$280 ($220 for live blade; $60 for trainer)

URL
www.gregmoffattknives.com

Notes
Greg Moffatt’s handiwork was previously featured in the Pocket Preps nonmetallic weapon guide in our previous issue — in addition to covert G10 blades, he also offers a wide range of sharp and pointy steel implements. The ironically named Thick Bastard is part of an ongoing collaboration series with Direction of Force, a close protection and combatives consulting firm. We say ironically named because although this knife starts as a piece of 1/4-inch-thick stock, it tapers down to a tip that’s literally as fine as a needle. The straight Wharncliffe blade is supported by a sturdy spine and terminates into a handle with textured G10 scales (cord wrap is also available by request). The standard knife is made from 1095 high-carbon steel finished in gray Cobalt Cerakote; an S35VN stainless steel version is also available for an additional $30.

The Thick Bastard trainer is sold separately and constructed from 3/16-inch aluminum with a bright red finish. It lacks handle scales, though it does include holes for adding a cord wrap — it might be worth undertaking that DIY project for a closer approximation of the live blade’s handle thickness. Unfortunately, the trainer doesn’t fit in the sheath or include one of its own, so you won’t be able to practice draw stroke drills.

Pros:

  • Ridiculously sharp tip pierces multiple layers of fabric with ease
  • Wharncliffe blade is also effective at slashing cuts, and offers a longer reach than other knives in this guide
  • Long, straight shape is easy to conceal, especially when tethered inside a pocket

Cons:

  • Aluminum trainer matches the length of the live blade, but feels different in the hand due to the light material and lack of handle scales. It also doesn’t have a sheath.
  • It’s impossible to make a tip this thin without raising concerns about durability.

JB Knife & Tool Ditch Pik

Overall Length
7.5 inches

Blade Length
3.5 inches

Weight
1.7 ounces (live blade) / 1 ounce (trainer)

MSRP
$255 ($175 for live blade; $80 for trainer)

URL
www.jbknifeandtool.com

Notes
If you’re carrying a blade exclusively for defense, it’s wise to look at it as a one-time use item. Aside from the fact that fighting with a knife can damage it, it may end up in an evidence locker after taking a ride to the hospital or morgue with the bad guy it’s embedded in. The name of the Ditch Pik came from this use-it-and-lose-it concept. JB’s original Pik knives are made from 1/8-inch-thick O1 tool steel, but Ditch models take that down to an ultralight 1/16-inch stock. The metal is acid-etched to a blackened finish.

These knives are made by hand to custom-ordered specs, with the buyer’s choice of a standard edge, reverse edge, double-edge, or full edge on one side and half on the other. Our sample features a double-edge. The handle can be clad in G10 scales with stainless, brass, or copper hardware, or wrapped tightly in cord that’s lightly coated in hard epoxy. Every knife comes with a Kydex sheath, which can be ordered with a soft belt loop or Ulticlip Slim. G10 trainers are available by request, and each comes with a cord-wrapped handle and fitted Kydex sheath.

Pros:

  • This isn’t a run-of-the-mill paracord wrap, and we like that. It’s extremely grippy, even when wet, and maximizes concealability while minimizing weight.
  • Double-edged grind and narrow tip make this knife suitable for a variety of techniques and fighting styles — forward or reverse grip, stabbing, or slashing.

Cons:

  • We’re not baller enough to ditch a custom-ordered blade that cost $175 without a second thought.
  • If you want one, you’d better be patient. At time of publication, average order lead time for a Ditch Pik is 16 weeks.

Red Meat Steel Rib Tickler

Overall Length
7.1 inches

Blade Length
3.4 inches

Weight
4.1 ounces (live blade) / 2.5 ounces (trainer)

MSRP
$275 ($200 for live blade; $75 for trainer)

URL
www.redmeatsteel.com

Notes
The original use of the term rib tickler refers to a joke that really tickles your ribs by making you laugh. Eli of Red Meat Steel took the term more literally and applied it to a tool that can do a lot more than tickle. This sturdy everyday-carry knife is composed of 3/16-inch-thick AEB-L stainless steel with a dark acid-etched finish. The drop-point shape makes it one of the most practical designs in this guide for purposes beyond combat — it’s “designed with meat in mind, but still more than capable to peel open a tuna can,” as the product page states. The blade tapers into a point that’s effective for piercing. A contoured, slightly arched handle is sandwiched with G10 scales offered in black, OD green, or coyote tan. Each Rib Tickler includes a Kydex sheath with a reversible belt loop that’s set up for horizontal carry.

Trainers aren’t generally listed on the Red Meat Steel web store, but they’re available by request. Each is made from 1/8-inch-thick aluminum with red G10 scales and comes with a red Kydex sheath featuring the same hardware as its live blade counterpart. Although this trainer’s dimensions vary slightly from the real deal, it’s certainly close enough to be an accurate tool for sparring and draw stroke drills.

Pros:

  • A well-rounded design that could easily be used for defense or everyday tasks
  • AEB-L is a great steel, even though it’s one we don’t see too often. It was originally designed for razor blades, so it holds a keen edge.

Cons:

  • Our sample’s handle felt a little short for a full grip, especially in comparison to the trainer’s 1/4-inch-longer handle. However, both are handmade, so some variation is to be expected.
  • The angular butt of the handle isn’t ideal for thumb placement in an icepick grip.

Pinkerton Knives Active Response Karambit

Overall Length
5.5 inches

Blade Length
1.5 inches

Weight
1.5 ounces (live blade) / 1.5 ounces (trainer)

MSRP
$50 (not sold separately)

URL
www.pinkertonknives.com / www.comprehensivefightingsystems.com

Notes
The Active Response Karambit (ARK) is a design cocreated by two knife experts — Chad McBroom is a RECOIL network contributing writer and combatives instructor at Comprehensive Fighting Systems; Dirk Pinkerton is a knifemaker with 18 years of experience in the private security field. The ARK was devised as a tool that could be used alongside a firearm, with its middle finger retention ring intended to keep the user’s index finger and thumb free. This allows for seamless transitions from gun to knife and back to gun without dropping or losing control of either weapon.

The ARK is made from a solid piece of 8Cr13MoV steel and available in standard (edge away from user) or Reverse (aka pikal, edge toward user) versions. See recoilweb.com/?p=130895 for an explanation of the two styles. We tested both and prefer the Reverse for its more-linear shape suited to icepick stabs. Each blade comes with a Kydex sheath and neck chain; various belt clips can be adapted to the holes in the sheath if you prefer that style of carry. Every ARK also comes with a trainer, which perfectly replicates the live blade (minus the sharp edge) and fits the sheath.

Above: The standard version of the ARK features a more traditional karambit shape, with slight forward curvature and its edge facing away from the user.

Pros:

  • Fifty bucks gets you a knife, trainer, and Kydex sheath. That’s impressive value.
  • Middle finger ring works as intended to retain the knife and maintain the user’s dexterity
  • Available in standard and reverse versions to fit your preferred fighting style

Cons:

  • Make a fist and check the alignment of your knuckles. Closing a fist around this handle pushes the middle finger out of line from the other three, which feels slightly unnatural.

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