Throwing Knives for Survival and Self-Defense

You’ll rarely catch most preppers without a knife on them, or nearby at the least. From survival bushcrafting to self-defense, preppers love their blades. Especially on the defense, several inches of sharpened steel can make short work of an attacker, and the mere sight of gleaming silver can be enough to send all but the hardest among them scurrying on to some other appointment.

Regarding self-defense and survival use of knives, I have seen a rather worrying trend pop up as of late in certain circles: the idea that you could throw a knife in a self-defense scenario. While it is undoubtedly possible, is it a good idea?

Aside from Hollywood theatricality and sheer crazy-factor, is there any good reason to throw one of your most valuable and reliable tools in an all or nothing attempt to take down a foe or perhaps an animal?
In this article we’ll take a look at knife throwing- the good, the bad and the ugly- and consider if it is a skill worth developing as part of a survival regimen.

Knife Throwing!? In 2018!?

Knife throwing is nothing new, no sir: knives have been hurled, flung and flicked at targets of all kinds for centuries in all kinds of activities, from the popular circus-type sideshow of “impalement art” to hunting to actual battlefield usage in personal combat.

The warriors of Asia used throwing knives as weapons of war or assassination. The plains hunters of Africa used them to take or wound game. Native American tribes in various places made use of throw blades for hunting and combat.

Soldiers in the American Civil War would throw knives at trees or other targets to pass the time, and more than a few Confederates have been recorded in history as using their thrown knives in battle, through whether this was an attack of foolishness, desperation or actual cultivated skill remains uncertain.

There is no doubt that with practice a high degree of mastery can be attained with a thrown knife, and that could certainly come in handy. Some folks can even manage to produce near-pinpoint placement on demand. The question tough is not, “can you?” it is “should you?”

Bottom Line Up Front:

Throwing knives in serious self-defense or survival situations is a very bad idea in nearly every instance. Full stop. Period. The End.

In the following sections I’ll explain why.

Knives for Survival

A good knife, folder or fixed blade, is often thought of as the most elemental of a prepper’s tools, right after their own body and brain. A knife in a survival situation is used to build shelter, cut cordage, prepare tinder and countless other tasks.

A knife can assist in getting dinner, also, either used as a spear when lashed to a pole or by preparing the fine mechanisms of a trap to bag game large or small.

Ask any prepper what one tool they would pick to keep on them if deserted in a wilderness setting, and odds are ten to one it will be a knife. That’s how important, and how cherished, they are when you are all alone in a hostile and unforgiving environment.

Unfortunately, even for purpose-made throwing knives, throwing a knife carries with it a high risk of damaging the tool. Tip damage is almost assured, as is rolling or at least blunting the edge.

There is also a possibility you could throw your knife and lose it! These effects are more likely and severity of damage may be increased when you throw a knife that is not designed or balanced for throwing. Throwing a folding knife is a great way to warp or jank the action.

Knives for Defense

Knives are ubiquitous and popular weapons for self-defense even in normal times. From point-driven (he he) combat knives to a handy kitchen chef’s slicer, the “straight silver” as the saying goes can make short work of an aggressive menace.

Knives require a great deal of training to use at a high level, but some folks forget they require almost no training to be effective with; grip knife, apply edge or point to soft parts, repeat until scumbag ceases errant behavior.

Almost anyone who is willing to do harm and has a knife or other edged or pointed implement in their hand can do some serious damage with it. Add some serious motivation and a fair bit of training and you can be positively frightening.

Knives are easy to carry, easy to hide, quick to deploy and can strike before someone knows they are being threatened by one. Knives as a concept are universal, available anywhere and where they are not available they can be manufactured out of most common materials.

Knives have an awful lot to recommend them for self-defense and it is here we come to the chief proposal of some and the subject of our article:
Iis throwing a knife a valid self-defense technique?

We’ll need to unpack this part line by line to get to the bottom of it. Read on and find out.

Flashing Steel

A thrown knife, spike or any other pointed implement is indeed capable of inflicting gruesome wounds. A thrown knife of modest weight generates significantly more power than you might be thinking, and it is no tough task, once practiced or if just lucky, to embed a thrown knife deeply into a solid wooden target.

People as a rule are much softer than hardwoods, so it stands to reason (alongside historical accounts of woundings from thrown knives) that they can certainly inflict substantial, even lethal wounds.

Extending the reach of what is otherwise thought of as a contact only weapon, one best suited for arm’s length use, can be a major surprise for an unwary attacker and gain the advantage.

Keeping an attacker away and off of you is always a good idea; distance is your friend. If an attacker is busy dodging an incoming missile, or is dealing with a wound inflicted by it, even a non-fatal one, he is not attacking you. Seizing the initiative in this way could definitely afford you the opportunity to escape or close the fight with follow-on force.

These are all potential positives of thrown knives. The problem with all of the above is that the juice only comes from a very hard squeeze indeed.

Throwing Away Knives or Just Your Time?

Anyone can throw a knife. After all, the knife is guaranteed to hit the ground, at least! In seriousness, throwing a knife properly and consistently for maximum effect takes a fair amount of skill and plenty of practice.

Sure, you can just grab and hurl and hope for the best, but understanding the mechanics of knife throwing along with what makes for a good throwing knife will be essential if you hope to have any kind of success.

A thrown knife will typically be launched one of two ways: rotationally or non-rotationally. A rotational knife will fly end over end (we hope) and if thrown correctly adjusting for the knife’s flight characteristics and the target’s distance it will stick into the target, blade first, with a satisfying chuk.

Knives thrown in this way are usually gripped by either the blade or handle depending on the above factors. Knives thrown in this way can generate great power, but timing, technique, placement and range must all marry up to ensure the knife lands point first. A “clang” happens when the knife lands spine-, belly- or handle-on.

Knives thrown non-rotationally, or straight, are meant to fly at the target as a spear does, point first, and stick them so. Knives thrown in this way are usually gripped normally or with a finger along the spine and then thrown “straight arm” sort of akin to dropping a wave or hail.

While this is simpler and more straightforward, no pun intended, than throwing a knife rotationally, it does not generate as much power, though it can be performed more quickly in most cases than the above technique.

A knife designed for throwing will be specially balanced and weighted for the task, and may have a special shape or profile to accommodate its intended purpose.

Throwing knives as a class are often not suitable for anything else compared to standard blades; they emphasize strong, burly points that will survive considerable abuse and tremendous impact forces that normal knives don’t tolerate.

While their points are sharp and their edges may be present, they will not usually be as refined or effective as their cousins.

Standard knives can be thrown with varying degrees of efficacy, but to do so will often significantly damage an otherwise good cutting tool.

The Sharp End

There a few major things to consider when it comes to throwing knives for self-defense: the context of the encounter and your equipment disposition.
If your only weapon is a knife, I will presume you are carrying a traditional fixed blade or folder.

Not a purpose designed throwing knife. In that instance why would you throw your primary or secondary weapon? Unlike a gun, a thrown knife is an all or nothing attack: either it hits and does the job well enough for you to either escape or finish the threat, or it does not.

Assuming the latter, now what? You are better off hanging on to it and making use of it as it was designed- in your fist, doing its grisly work.

Throwing a knife presents additional concerns. If the knife is within reach of an assailant or one of his friends, they just gained a deadly weapon to turn against you, its former owner. If it flies into the wild blue yonder, how can you hope to have any chance of recovering it in order to use it again save moving toward your attacker? Generally not a good plan.

I have little doubt a few flinty souls have the image lodged in their hearts that they are good enough, fast enough, and cool enough to quickly launch their knife into the chests of an attacker before they can react, leaving them with a handle sticking out of their perforated pumphouse to add a bit of gruesome levity to the shocked expression their would-be attacker is now wearing. One piece of advice: forget it!

I have little doubt that a thrown knife can inflict severe, even showstopping wounds and that there are masters of the art who can perform such things against a living, breathing, resisting attacker on demand to great effect.

That much is surely true, but those people are also surely rare. The stresses of physical combat are enormous, and while appropriate conditioning, training and practice can inoculate one against those stresses we need tools and techniques that are easier to perform under stress, not harder.

Knife throwing is a highly complex and variable skill, especially compared to simply shanking an assailant with a handheld knife or filling them in using a pistol and its industrial efficiency. Back to my earlier point: you throw your knife.

Chuk! Great hit! Uh oh. He keeps coming, or he has friends coming on after him. Now what? Your weapon is sticking in the badguy or lying near them. Maybe you get a Clang! Instead. Okay, not the worst thing, we’ll take it. He still just caught a hunk of steel moving at high speed the fun way. That can cause significant pain, injury, and distraction. Just one problem: you have lost your weapon.

Why wouldn’t you want as many chances for them to do work as possible if you need one to save your life? It can do that if you keep it in your hand. By throwing your knife, you throw it away even if your attack succeeds. It is a “one shot,” period.

“No problem!” I hear you exclaim from the comments section. You have brought another knife. Splendid. Now what? Do you throw it to maintain range? Do you keep it in hand and start opening up all comers? “Even better, Tom” you say, “I carry a small brace of throwing knives for just such an occasion.”

Here is where we truly go off the deep end into mall ninja Derp-land. Your ranged solution to a threat is a set of throwing knives? Comparatively ineffective, hard to use and slow to launch throwing knives? If this describes you, sincerely, you are either a complete joker or a genuinely terrifying individual, and probably not much in-between.

The point of all this is simply that throwing knives should never, ever be a first, second or even third tier choice for a defensive weapon. The juice is not worth the squeeze. If I am down to a knife for defense I would rather have the thing in my hand and ready to perform follow-up work after my first strike than knowingly discard my tool in one flashy all-or-nothing attack.

Plausible Uses of Thrown Knives on the Defense

All of that said, there is a situation where you might want to throw a knife. One such instance I can think of would be in the event of an ambush or opportunity strike against an attacker using any implements at hand that would make for a good missile, especially one that sees you unable or unwilling to escape and otherwise unarmed.

Perhaps an attacker has you cornered in a building or you have no known safe escape route except through their path of ingress. If you could, say, produce a drawer or block full of kitchen cutlery of good size you could start hurling them at him in an attempt to drive him off or seriously wound him. In this instance, all kinds of small missiles may do the job at any rate: paperweights, coffee cups, rocks, bricks, pipes, etc.

There is powerful drive in humans to dodge, duck or otherwise avoid incoming objects travelling at high speed. The moment it takes them to duck your thrown knife, screwdriver (or whatever) is a moment you can sue to counterattack or just make good your escape.

Understand this does not happen magically. A half-assed toss may serve to distract an opponent momentarily, but to stand any real chance of hurting them you’ll need to launch what you are carrying and connect with it.
In the scenario described above, you could generally affect a good outcome with any smallish, dense and throwable object, not just knives.

Knives have perks all their own as a thrown weapon of desperation, namely ergonomics suitable to throwing, a better than zero chance of striking point first for major harm and ready availability, but when we are talking about weapons of desperation such advantages are only bonuses, ever.

The Ruling

Unless you are the one in one million person who can throw a knife accurately in all conditions and all situations no matter what, you are far better off spending your time, effort and energy mastering other defensive arts and carrying other weapons.

Throwing knives are never an efficient choice, and are completely outclassed by other weapons, even a knife in the hand, in all but the most niche circumstances.

If you have a good knife, don’t throw it away. Save knife throwing for feats of skill and fun at your next cookout and enjoy it there and in the movies where it belongs.

throwing knives pinterest image

About Tom Marlowe

Tom Marlowe
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.

2 comments

  1. Avatar

    Even the cheap throwing knives with holes in the handles make for a very effective spear point. A SAK saw blade for the slot to hold the blade, snare wire to bind/haft, much for effective than a pointed or pronged stick. A bit of file or grinder work can put barbs in them.

  2. Avatar

    Thinking “inside my box”, if I were to throw a knife I would also “throw out” my arm (near my biceps), because I do not use my aged muscles in a throwing type of way. In fact, I tend to use my arm muscles more for pulling than throwing. I don’t want that 3-day pain in my arm from trying to throw “fast” a knife (though I have dvds on how to do it because it was a childhood fantasy to be able to do it).

    Thinking “outside my box” If you want to really DISTRACT an opponent, get some cordage and add to it cheap fishing weights and lotza lotza of very big and sharp fishing hooks (the bigger the better), and swing them over your head, until it bites something or someone, then yank hard (just like fishing and setting the hook). You will get a response, something along the line of “please stop”. Then run away.

    Better yet, attach your cordage in such a way as several cords tied together, sort of like a “9 tails” (I am referring to an old TV movie (1940s era, though I saw these in the 50s or older) that referred to certain whips as a “cat of 9 tails” (implying that there were multiple strips of “whip” at the end of a larger “snapping alligator type of whip” that could also hold the fishing weights and a bigga-buncha very large fishing hooks. In this way, only the very end of the whip contains the hazard, not the whole whip (which beneficially powers the “end” result :). There is a way to protect oneself from being slapped by the whip that you swing. You just “let go” (and duck down low), before it comes back at you. We 1950s kids used to do that. We would swing a whip like rope, and hold on to it, and it would “snap us”; then we learned fairly quickly if that if we just let go, it would never snap us. But we, if it was heavy enough, swung it over our heard in a circle, around and around and around DARING anybody to come within close distance. No, at age 6 we did not add fishing hooks to our rope whips!

    One time fishing creeks (=narrow streams) at about age 12 and in a weedy-woodsy area I one time snagged the very edge of my ear while trying to cast my line into a pond. It did bleed, but it didn’t hurt; but what really bothered me is my instant awareness of what would have happened if it hooked securely to my ear–it may have ripped my ear apart.

    OK, I will jump ahead, just as you are and raise the issue, how can one carry a whip and deploy it in 2-3 seconds? Well, I have no answer from experience, that is for sure; but I also cannot respond to throwing knives from experience. I remember old Tarzan movies about “Good guys” (sort of, but not really) who carried whips in Africa (and I wish I could say it was only for “snapping whips” at unruly animals, but they were trying to keep their hired help carrying their gear from running off and away from something they feared).

    I do know one thing for sure though, which is that if I ever carried a coiled whip on an “easy to draw friction like holder on my belt), I could fairly quickly draw it and swing it and use it to snag a branch to get me out of quicksand, or mud that I am sinking too quickly into; and if I were confronted with wild pig or something that size with a whip with very large fish hooks in it (that I set into the pig by hooking and yanking as hard as I can), or even using old fashioned straight-edge razor blades (the old kind that had holes in it to put into old-fashioned razors, that pig would really wonder about what kind of monster I really am, who can slash like a tiger, but look like a stupid old man. Whips can be multi-purpose also, and when imbedded with “sharps” (in hospitals, sharps are needles). Unexpected needle hooks that pull and yank on you are experienced as worse than knife-stabs, that can happen without even knowing that you have been stabbed. YOU CANNOT “NOT KNOW” THAT YOU HAVE BEEN HOOKED WITH BIG FISH HOOKS ON A WHIP THAT SOMEONE HAS CAUGHT YOU ON AND THEY ARE PULLING WITH ALL THEIR MIGHT, TRYING TO TAKE YOUR FACE OFF, OR ARM MUSCLES, OR WHATEVER. Is it lethal? Probably not! Is it going to make somebody so mad that they chase you? I doubt it, since you are running away anyway, to their great pain. Most people don’t chase monsters who have impaled them and are dragging them along.

    But not only that. Even if the monster finally drops the whip, the one “hooked” will have to spend considerable time trying to get the hooks out before using the same tool to try to attack the one who already is miles away. Think about it! Who was ever born willing to run through woods, when impaled by fish hooks in their cheeks, ears, arms, neck…and they are going to do that while the handle of the whip gets caught in a “Y” shaped nook of a tree (that would impale them further)…it is not going to happen.

    So, in summary. OK, an old-timer is reminiscing about using some kind of a rope-whip at age 6, and swinging it over his head, and experiencing the whip “slap him in the cheek”–and he don’t like it at all!
    OK, he is just a kid. This thing works, but it can work against you too. But he is old now, and no longer a kid. He has heard of the CAT OF 9 TAILS, and knows that each of those tails (strands) are only at the very end of the whip; and if each of those tails has every two inches a huge fish hook (volunteering to snag and scratch and hook onto anything that it hits)…that old timer still knows that this is a formidable non-lethal, yet potentially extremely punishing, self-defense weapon. And, should it travel too close to me, all I have to do is “let it go” (and it will by-pass me, and especially if I also duck down), and I will have only lost a few dollars of Material (leather [from old leather belts], and fish hooks). That is no biggie. It is not a $100+ knife, that I could lose, or that could be picked up and used against me.

    My experience with my idea this ranges between “Whips used in Tarzan movies (with me practicing at home “snapping the whip” at age 6) and Tether-ball (largely a 1950s+ rather wierd kind of game offered at my public school). It taught me about speed and agility to keep a whip or ball in fast motion in a circle. Beyond that my experience is being hit by the very thing that “I sent forth…in a circle”, to which I quickly learned “to let go and run like hell (or duck below the swinging arc) to get out of the way.

    I think it would take 2-3 seconds to draw a knife and throw it. I think for a whip it that I could rip off a “friction hold” “U-shaped” contraption on my belt, it would take about four seconds to get it out and put the first “bad ass” swing into motion (which could be enough); but beyond that, if I was a hoodlum and saw an old man swing a whip in a circle around his head while facing me (having never seen that before)–I am fairly certain that I would laugh. But my laughing would stop instantly if I was impaled in my cheek with someone snagging me while running away from me. I would go down to the ground hard (with my face ripped apart); and if he still had the whip in his control, I would not be chasing him too closely–that is for sure.

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