Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that over the weekend I attended a two-day “Surviving Inside the Kill Zone” class taught by Ernest Emerson of Emerson Knives and Ed Calderon of Ed's Manifesto. The class conveyed a wealth of useful survival skills and lessons, which we will be covering in detail in a future article.

Above: A post-class photo with Ed Calderon and Ernest Emerson. Don't let my above-average height fool you — both of them could absolutely wreck me in a fight, thanks to their decades of hard-earned experience and training.

One exercise was especially crafty — those who have attended Ed's weaponology and counter-custody classes in the past know where I'm going with this. For our homework assignment after day one of the class, all students were told to construct a deadly improvised weapon from scavenged materials in approximately 5 minutes. The intention was to get students thinking like criminals (an “adversarial mindset”) so we could develop a better understanding of what threats we might be up against in the real world. The results were fascinating.

Above: An assortment of weapons students created, including spikes, punch daggers, slash-cut “ventilator” tubes, slicing blades, and impact weapons. The pink Hello Kitty fruit knife is part of Ed's personal collection — a demonstration of how a less-threatening appearance can help you sell the narrative that you don't intend to use it as a weapon.

During this class, I was staying with family, so I raided my dad's garage for an old tool he wouldn't mind giving up. In a toolbox drawer full of paint scrapers and putty knives, I found the scratched and rusty scraper pictured below. Its thin metal blade was strong enough to hold its shape, but flexible enough to prevent immediate chipping or breaking. In the same toolbox, I also found a Sharpie marker, tin snips, a file, and some scraps of thin cardboard packaging.

Constructing the Improvised Weapon

Priority one was to meet one of Ed's recommendations: the Rule of Thumb. His previous interactions with hardened killers in Mexico indicated that many of them constructed stabbing weapons with blades the length of an outstretched thumb. This is long enough to cut through key weak points on the body, such as the heart and subclavian artery. That may sound gruesome, because it is. But it's exactly the type of cold logic used by those looking to employ brutal violence against unsuspecting victims.

I used the Sharpie and a ruler to trace out a rough shape for the pointed blade — not so thin that it'd snap or bend, and not so thick it'd get caught on clothing or fail to puncture. Then, I carefully trimmed the scraper's square corners into a sharp point. The sharpness was enhanced using the metal file, working it back and forth quickly on each side to create a simple dagger. I also used the file to add a few crude grooves on the sides of the handle for additional grip.

Next, a few items from my every-day carry backpack came in useful. A few passes through the carbide and ceramic notches on a Lansky knife sharpener got the edge even sharper and removed burrs from filing. I folded the cardboard I found in the garage tightly around the blade, then wrapped it in duct tape, punched a hole in the end, and added a knotted piece of paracord. This cord allows the sheath to be tethered to a belt loop, so when the knife is pulled from the waistband, its improvised sheath falls away in a single swift movement.

Satisfied with my creation and not looking to drastically overshoot the 5-minute time frame, I put the DIY shiv into my backpack and brought it to the second day of the class. I was glad to hear Ed give it some positive feedback, saying it looked capable of inflicting some serious violence.

Lessons Learned

In the end, what did the students learn from this improvised-weapon-crafting exercise?

First, we learned to think creatively about alternate uses of everyday items — a metal windshield wiper blade, half a pair of scissors, sharpened chopstick, or even a meat thermometer (one of my personal favorites due to the irony factor) can make a very effective weapon for self-defense in a pinch. Many of these tools are just as capable of lethal force as the fancy $250 fixed blades seen all over Instagram pocket dumps.

This brings us to a second lesson: disposability. Unlike that fancy fixed blade, these weapons are naturally inexpensive (or free) and difficult to trace. That's why bad guys around the world tend to commit crimes with them, rather than serial-numbered production knives that could easily lead investigators right to their doorstep.

A third lesson is more mental than physical. A few people we've mentioned this project to don't see the value at first. Why make a crude shiv like a criminal if you're not planning to use it for nefarious purposes? The answer is simple — know thy enemy. If you understand how the average bad guy chooses weapons, the most common characteristics of these weapons, and the most common ways they're used, you'll be more prepared to defend against them. Much of the “Surviving Inside the Kill Zone” class focused on common edged weapon attacks, evasion methods, and potential counterattacks. In other words, the “software” that matches this improvised “hardware.”

If you're interested in learning more, keep an eye out for our class recap article in a future issue of RECOIL OFFGRID. You can also check for future class dates, or just go try this exercise in your own home. Think like a bad guy — if you face one someday, you'll already be better prepared.

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