Offgrid Preparation Making the Cut: Kukri History & Practical Use
We spoke to four knife designers about why they devised their blades...
In This Article
Photos by Q Concepts
WARNING: The concepts shown here are for illustrative purposes only. Seek professional training from a reputable instructor before attempting any techniques discussed or shown in this story.
The kukri is an intimidating weapon. With its fat, forward-curving blade, it looks like a dagger on steroids. Whether you’ve seen one in a movie or in the hands of a famed Gurkha soldier, you’ve probably wondered if it’s any more special than a Bowie knife — and you’re probably curious as to how to use it.
Well, guess what? It’s been used as a utility, tactical, and survival tool for generations.
An original hybrid, the kukri (also spelled “khukuri”) is native to Nepal. Some scholars theorize that it originated from the sickle, the knife, and the bent hunting stick. As with any ancient weapon, opinions differ. There’s speculation that the angled blade came from Europe via the Greek kopis or from Egypt by way of the khopesh. Any which way you cut it (pun intended), the forward bend of the blade brings a new “angle” to cutting tools.
Naturally, its distinctive shape caught the attention of the film industry, which has showcased the kukri in movies like Jean Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg and more recent apocalyptic fare like Mad Max: Fury Road. The blade also showed up in Resident Evil: Extinction, in which Milla Jovovich showed off her pair of naked, curvy … um, kukris. Celluloid aside, does the kukri really deserve a place with your survival gear? We say, “Absolutely!”
Having a kukri in your possession makes sense if you’re camping, working in the yard, or caught in a violent encounter (e.g. an armed burglar bashes through your front door). The aggressive blade also makes it a wicked weapon on the battlefield — just ask any Gurkha (see “Gallant Gurkhas” sidebar for more). But more than likely it’ll be used as a tool for more mundane, yet vital, tasks. History shows that it can be used for many utility jobs, and is used daily in the homes and fields of Nepal. So, follow along as we cut through the mystery and mystique of the kukri and show you how it can be a worthy blade to add to your kit.
When looking at a kick-ass kukri, comparisons to the common machete is immediate. (See RECOIL OFFGRID Issue 10 for “Get to the Choppa! Machetes Truly Are the Original Survival Multitools”). Handle? Check. Lengthy blade? Check. Thick spine and full tang? Check and check. Bent, forward blade angle that would make a chiropractor faint? Freakin’ un-check. What’s with that bending anyway? It turns out, the angled blade (which typically ranges from 10 to 15 inches), maintains the lightweight maneuverability of a machete, while giving it the chopping power of a hatchet.
Traditional kukris also have a notch at the bottom of the blade. This notch (called a cho or kaudi) is said to resemble a cow’s foot or a cow’s teat. Religiously, the kukri should not be used in slaughtering the cow, which is sacred to Hindus. The circular notch also delineates where the sharpened edge stops and helps to drip fluids, like blood, away from the handle.
Two smaller knives — the chakmak and the karda (typically with 2- to 4-inch blades) — are also sheathed with traditional kukris. The chakmak is blunt, used to sharpen and polish the kukri. The sharpened karda is utilized for finer cutting purposes, like whittling or skinning game. The two extra tools are welcome additions to the main blade, especially when far from civilization.
The kukri’s aggressive design makes it an effective chopping tool and a deadly weapon. Utilize extreme caution when handling. If available, use eye protection. Protecting your eyes from flying debris, especially when hacking and chopping are essential. Sturdy leather gloves are also highly recommended. Also, pay attention to your immediate surroundings. A large kukri can decapitate a buffalo in one swipe. (Yeah, we saw the footage on YouTube.) Any flesh found within the arc of a swing will quickly become separated from its owner.
With the angled blade, the kukri can easily split wood like a small axe. We have no delusions of hewing down a sequoia, but for branches used to make shelter, fire, or improvised weapons, the kukri is more than enough. (See RECOIL OFFGRID’s Winter 2015 article titled “Improvise to Survive” on the art of building effective makeshift weapons.) To become a master hacker, keep a relaxed arm with a firm grip, and drop your body weight into the chops to maximize leverage, making contact with the top third of blade.
Be extra careful at the end of your swing (the deceleration phase). The forward angle of the kukri’s blade will place the edge a few inches ahead of where you would expect, especially if you’re used to swinging a straighter edge, like a machete.
Not looking to create a path of lumber destruction? There are times when splitting wood requires more finesse and precision. This is where batoning comes in. Finer duties — such as making kindling, animal traps, notches, and shelter — are reasons enough to learn this skill. Kukris are known for their thick spine and will stand up to the abuse of batoning. Simply position your kukri on the wood. Make sure several inches of the blade is sticking out from the wood. Hammer away with a sturdy stick (AKA baton) on the spine of the kukri. (See RECOIL OFFGRID Issue 10 for “Firewood Fundamentals,” a feature on how to baton wood with a knife.)
A kukri will come in handy when you’re in the thick of it — from trimming trees in the yard to clearing a path in dense brush. It’s light enough to maneuver in confined areas, while the cut is assisted by the blade’s forward mass. We cannot emphasize safety enough during chopping and slashing with the anterior offset of the blade. Keep your limbs and those of your companions out of the kukri’s path.
The butt cap or spine of the kukri’s blade can act as a hammer for light-duty pounding. Driving in a tent stake, breaking open a window, or cracking the skull of a two-legged predator is no sweat for the kukri. When hammering with the spine of the blade, be extremely careful because the tip and the edge will be pointed toward you.
Shoveling: While you cannot dig a well using the blade of a kukri, you can use it for simpler jobs like digging a fire pit. With your dominant hand, grip the handle and use your nondominant hand to grip the lower spine of the blade and dig away. Make sure your fingers are nowhere near the edge.
Some researchers claim that the kukri’s shape descended from the sickle; thus cutting grain, grass, or weeds with the curved blade is a no-brainer. To use the kukri as a sickle, simply grab the grass (or other vegetation) with your nondominant and pull up, making the grass taut. Make sure there’s plenty of space between your support hand and the base of the grass, where the cut takes place. Take the kukri, using the bottom half of the blade (the convex part), and pull from left to right (if you’re right handed). Make sure to keep your legs and fingers away from the blade at all times, or else you’ll end up harvesting your own body parts. Now you have a bundle of grass to feed your horse, use for kindling, or lay down as bedding for the night.
During a violent encounter, having a kukri in your hand will quickly help transform your bushcraft skills into bushwacker skills. Using this tool during a life-or-death encounter can give you an edge (yes, pun intended!). The forward angle of the blade will produce deadly hacks, with the potential for severing limbs.
When you or your loved ones are in danger, grip the kukri like your life depends on it. We mean a death grip, as if you were in the middle of the ocean holding onto a flotation device. Your wrist can be mobile, but there’s no compromise on the grip. And no fancy spinning because if you drop your kukri — or any weapon for that matter —
during a confrontation, you may end up dead.
Meeting the Force
When attacked by a short-range weapon, like a fist, knife, machete, or club, move your body out of the way of the attack (so you don’t die!), and retaliate with a cut to the offending limb. When performing this counter (often called “tenderizing” in pentjak silat, a bladed art from Indonesia), you can use your kukri to either “meet the force” or “follow the force.”
With blades, meeting the force means cutting at the limb that’s attacking you. If done correctly, one strike will end the fight. A large amount of force is produced because two incoming objects crash together from opposing sides, similar to a head-on car collision. Be prepared to follow-up, because one counterstrike may not be enough.
Michael Guadamuz raises his bat to pound Conrad Bui into the pavement. Bui immediately steps in at a 45-degree angle and meets the force of the attack with his kukri (and his left arm as backup). Guadamuz drops the bat as kukri and flesh collide. Bui is prepared to follow up, if the need arise.
The author sees Michael Guadamuz coming. Conrad Bui purposely sticks his head out and Guadamuz takes the bait by swinging for his head. Bui immediately moves his head and body out of the way while delivering a counterstrike.
With his hands low, Conrad Bui is out of position to “meet” Michael Guadamuz’s strike. So, he immediately moves his head and body out of the line of fire and follows the force of the hammer attack. Because it isn’t enough damage to get the bad guy to stop his attack, Bui has no choice but to follow-up.
Following the Force
Because a fight is unpredictable, there will be times when the kukri is used to “follow” behind the force of an incoming attack. The counterstrike of following the force is utilized to change the trajectory of the attacker’s strike, while damaging the attacker. The damage will not be as severe as meeting the force. This is similar to a rear-end collision. When both cars are moving, the rear car can “bump” the forward car off course, with less force than a head-on collision.
To execute this counterattack, move out of harms way, and swing your kukri behind the attacker’s arm or hand.
Following the force is generally used as a “Plan B,” when you find yourself out of position and unable to counter by meeting the force. This can happen anytime you first draw your weapon, when you’re caught unaware, or if you miss a strike. If and when this happens, just continue to use the force, young Skywalker.
Footwork and mobility is crucial during close-quarter combatives, and silat provides a good lesson on the “when” and “whys” of mobility. Sun Tzu, the great military strategist, said it best: “Mobility is better than fortification.” Your feet will allow you to move out of harm’s way, position you in range for a counterstrike, or help you make like a tree and leave.
When armed with a kukri, do you want to step forward or backward to tenderize the attacker’s limbs?
When your attacker is armed with a weapon that has a longer reach, distance is not your friend but rather an ally of the attacker. Your odds of surviving will be improved on the inside. If a weapon is longer than the kukri (like a baseball bat or pool cue) and you see the attacker loading up for a strike, rush forward at a 45-degree angle, moving inside the arc of the weapon immediately. With any luck you’ll avoid getting nailed by the weapon, and even if you do, the damage will not be as great as if you were on the arc of the attack.
If your opponent is armed with a weapon of similar length or shorter, stepping back at a 45-degree angle, out of range just enough to where you can chop the hand or wrist of the bad guy, will be your best bet. Distance just did a 180 and is now our friend since your kukri is just as long or longer than the weapon of your opponent. The step back will move your head and torso away from the danger, while keeping you in range for the counterstrike.
Using the kukri as a tool or weapon requires the proper training and practice. The techniques in this article are a good place to start, and we encourage you to find a qualified teacher for proper training of both the bushcraft skills and the combatives. The investment will be worth it. As exotic as it looks, the kukri deserves a place (or at least serious consideration) with the rest of your equipment. The crazy, crooked multitool is angled to save the day, when the need arises.
To become proficient in using the kukri as a weapon, a training blade is highly vital. Just like a blue gun for firearms, a blunt trainer allows participants to practice safely alone and with partners. Steve Rollert of Keen Edge Knives makes excellent kukri trainers, along with many other types. His high-quality training knives have been used by police, military, and martial artists all over the world. His aluminum kukris have a cord-wrapped handle and come in two sizes: 17¾ inches and 16 inches. www.keenedgeknives.com
When discussing the kukri, you cannot help but mention the deadly Gurkha soldiers of Nepal. Some even go so far as to call the kukri a “Gurkha knife.” The Gurkhas (or Gorkhas) are known for their small stature, ferociousness in combat, and big blades. Their legendary status in the West as courageous warriors came about during their service with the British starting back in 1815. The English chaps immediately saw value in the Himalayan troops when Britain failed to annex Nepal as part of their empire. To this day the Gurkas still take a licking and keep on kicking.
Just how badass are these soldiers? During WWII, Bhanbhagta Gurung, a rifleman for the Gurkhas, saw his buddies getting picked off by a sniper. Not able to get a clean shot from cover, Gurung calmly stood up and eliminated the threat despite heavy enemy fire. That same day while advancing, his battalion again met heavy resistance. Gurung immediately advanced forward, clearing out four separate foxholes with his grenades and a bayonet. He flung his two remaining smoke grenades into a bunker and, using his kukri, took down two Japanese soldiers who ran out. Running into the bunker, Gurung quickly dispatched the remaining soldier. What is more surprising, Gurung was under fire the entire time. For his bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration for bravery.
More recently in 2010, while on sentry duty in Afghanistan, Sergeant Dipprasad Pun was attacked from all sides by more than 30 Taliban fighters armed with RPGs and AK-47s. Pun expended more than 400 rounds of ammo, 17 grenades, and a mine — and used his machinegun tripod to beat an intruder climbing over the compound wall. When the smoke settled, Pun singlehandedly fought off the attackers in under an hour. Like Gurung, Pun was also honored with the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
Gurkhas have proven their bravery and effectiveness, time and time again. What makes them so deadly? It may be the high altitude they’re raised in. It may be the deadly kukri they carry. Or possibly their belief that it’s “Better to die than to live a coward.”
A San Francisco-based chiropractor, Dr. Conrad Bui has over 30 years of continuous martial arts experience. He is a certified instructor in six different martial arts systems including silat, a bladed art from Indonesia. In his spare time, he contributes to RECOIL OFFGRID and spends time in the outdoors with his family.