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Urban legend has it that some corrupt cops of old would carry an extra weapon on them — not to be used as a backup, rather for a more insidious use. It was there to plant on someone after a shooting if the deadly use of force wasn’t justifiable. It was referred to as a “throwdown” knife, as in literally throwing it down on a suspect. Fortunately, in almost two decades as a law enforcement officer I’ve never witnessed or heard of an actual instance where this has happened. In this day and age of round-the-clock video surveillance and DNA forensic analysis, it is highly unlikely that this illegal tactic would be used, if it was ever used at all.
That said, I do carry a throwdown knife when off-duty, albeit for very different reasons. When traveling, I like to make sure I am armed. As Americans, we are extremely fortunate that we can legally carry firearms in most places. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in most locations outside the states. A knife may be your next best option.
So, what is a throwdown knife? I’ll tell you what it isn’t: expensive. A throw down knife is one you are willing to part with. This rules out your favorite Microtech, Emerson, ZT, or any other six-figure pig sticker. A good throwdown usually ends in, “.99” as in $9.99, $14.99 and so on. You can find these in bins at gun shows and hardware stores, in the back of catalogs, or on late night TV infomercials. Cutlery Corner is my preferred place for cheap knives that can be bought by the dozen. Alternatively, you can head to Amazon, eBay, or even wade through Wish listings.
I get a lot of my cheap knives as promos. Like water bottles, key chains, and other trinkets, cheap knives are often given away by companies. For instance, the NRA sends me these whenever I re-up my membership. Most of my throwdowns have come to me this way. There's no better example of this category than these “free ninety-nine” blades.
So, what do you need a throwdown for? Aside from the obvious utility purposes, they're a means of arming yourself when you land somewhere concealed handguns are verboten, which seems to be most places outside the good ol’ U.S. of A (and a few places within it, unfortunately). I throw one into my checked baggage when I travel. As soon as I land, I arm myself with it. Granted, it isn’t a SIG P365 or a Glock 43 but it’s better than nothing.
Like a gun, you have to know how to use it. You don’t have to be Doug Marcaida from Forged In Fire, but you should at least know some basics of knife defense. At a minimum, have at least enough proficiency to avoid having it taken from you — or stuck in you — during a scrum. Even if you’re a skilled user, it’s likely that any knife fight in the real world is going to get messy. As the saying goes, the winner goes to the hospital and the loser goes to the morgue.
Above: The author picked up this beauty for the princely sum of $5 while deployed to the Middle East.
Make sure your throwdown will cut, as Marcaida would say. A cheap knife often comes from cheap steel. Don’t assume it has a usable edge. Test it by slicing a piece of paper or see how deep it will cut into a 2×4. In a pinch, I’ll test a knife’s sharpness by scraping it against my thumbnail. A sharp knife will remove some fingernail — just don't chop your thumb off. You may have to hitchhike when you get to your chosen destination, which can be hard minus a thumb.
It may also be worthwhile to carry a pocket sharpener so you can put a decent edge on any throwdown knife, or touch up the edge when the cheap steel inevitably chips or rolls.
Above: A pocket sharpener is invaluable for keeping cheap knives sharp. A good one such as this Work Sharp can maintain higher-quality blades without damage, as well.
Fixed vs. Folding
A fixed blade such as a dollar store paring knife may be better in a fight, but it may also be harder to conceal. And, even in the U.S. it is illegal in some jurisdictions to carry a concealed fixed blade over a certain length. Pocketknives are seen as less threatening and more innocuous. A person can reasonably claim that a pocketknife is carried for purposes other than self-defense. Specifics like sharp piercing points, serrated edges, or double-edged blades may alter that perception, so they are up to the user.
A good pocketknife, even a dirt-cheap “must go” special, should have a clip on it. It makes for quicker, easier deployment and more secure retention. The downside, though, is that the exposed clip is the international sign for “this person is armed with a knife!” If it’s legal to carry a pocket knife in the part of the world you are traveling in, clearly signaling that you are armed might be a deterrent in certain cases. However, it might cause a criminal to target you with a surprise attack before moving on to victims who appear defenseless. Also, some jurisdictions have tighter regulations on fully-concealed knives, whereas a knife with a visible clip isn’t considered concealed in the eyes of the law. Carefully consider the appropriate degree of concealment for your blade.
As the name implies, a throwdown knife can be ditched if you need to get rid of it. If you unexpectedly need to enter an embassy or other non-permissible environment where any type of weapon is likely to be confiscated, you can simply drop it in a trash can. Probably not something you want to do, but substantially less painful than throwing away your favorite $300 folder.
I often carry a couple of throwdowns in my checked luggage, in case I have to dump one. It’s good to pick knives that don’t necessarily have a tactical appearance — while we all know that features such as a tanto blade, serrations, and black or earth-tone finishes don’t substantially alter a knife’s capabilities, the average onlooker may not.
A knife with a bright-colored handle and a seat belt cutter will appear to be less of a weapon and more of a tool. I’d avoid a Swiss Army knife or similar nail-nick-opening blade, as they take too long to draw (assuming you don’t pull out the cork screw by mistake). The blade is also too short, and most importantly, its slip joint mechanism means it doesn’t lock open. This is a self-inflicted injury waiting to happen.
As you travel, don’t get in the habit of storing the knife in your carry-on baggage. I’ve “donated” a knife to the fine folks at TSA after forgetting it was in my backpack. Not fun. Luckily, I had a second knife that I had intentionally placed in my checked backpack.
As a side note, always check your carry-on for other restricted items. One of my friends was detained in South Korea when airport security located an errant .223 round he had left in there. In some countries, possession of ammunition — especially so-called “military calibers” — is illegal. Jail sucks, but many foreign jails make American ones look like five-star hotels. I know a couple of guys (not me this time) who forgot they had left handguns in their carry-on or checked baggage. This is a very bad situation to be in, especially if you land in a foreign country. On the plus side, you’ll get to practice your diplomatic skills with foreign law enforcement, your fellow inmates, and embassy personnel.
So how do, bargain-basement knives compare to higher-priced models? It depends on what you are measuring them by. Cosmetic differences will be obvious, but functionality is the only thing that matters in this category. The biggest functional difference is going to be in durability. A high-end folder will be made from higher-quality steel designed to hold a sharp edge for longer and to put up with more abuse.
Cheaply-made knives may also be poorly-designed or -assembled, leading to issues with how smoothly the knife opens and its ability to stay open during use. A weak blade or slipped lock can lead to serious injury. Recently, Harbor Freight, the maker of Gordon knives, had to recall 1.1 million $5 folders due to consumers being injured when the blade failed to lock into place. The money you saved by buying a low-budget knife will disappear quickly if you keep buying replacements, and it certainly won't make up for the cost of stitches at the emergency room.
With all that being said, a cheap travel knife should never be considered a long-term investment. Rather, it’s a short-term solution to a problem. When traveling abroad, I’d rather have a cheap knife than none at all.
Maybe your travel destination has extremely strict knife laws, or you want to be even more discreet. There are plenty of defensive options other than knives. What could be more harmless-looking than a pen? Metal pens that double as defensive implements are commonly referred to as tactical pens. They're also offered with glass breakers, hidden handcuff keys, and other goodies. And, of course, they can write.
The Uzi brand pen pictured above costs $30 or less. Despite the inexpensive price, it's reasonably well-made and can be used for defense. The pictured example was given to me at a trade show. The vendor told me that the sharp, crown-like device was a “DNA collector.” The user could theoretically rip out a chunk of their attacker’s flesh with it and turn it over for DNA analysis. That seems a little far-fetched, but it certainly looks like it wouldn't be pleasant to be hit with.
If you don't have a purpose-built tactical pen, a regular pen or flashlight could be an effective force-multiplier. Also, don't rule out tools like box cutters and screwdrivers. If carried in a vehicle, especially in a tool bag with other tools, these items wouldn’t necessarily be viewed as weapons. There's also the improvised route. Prisoners use handmade weapons like shivs as brutally-effective stabbing tools — thousands of convicts can’t be wrong about their lethality.
No matter where you travel, you should always take steps to stay prepared and be ready to defend yourself with the most effective tools available. But don't discount the usefulness of throwaway tools solely because of their discount prices.
Nick Perna is a Sergeant with the Redwood City Police Department in Northern California. He has spent much of his career as a gang and narcotics investigator. He served as a member of a Multi-Jurisdictional SWAT Team for over fifteen years. He previously served as a paratrooper in the US Army and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has a Master’s Degree from the University Of San Francisco. He is a frequent contributor to multiple print and online publications on topics related to law enforcement, firearms, tactics, and issues related to veterans.