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Karambit - The Last Line of Defense

Guru Scott McQuaidBy Guru Scott McQuaid

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the experienced mind there are few."

The origins of the karambit blade come from Indonesia’s island of Java, tribal folklore says it was inspired by the claws of the tiger. The karambit was originally an agricultural implement designed to rake roots, gather threshing and plant rice. As it was weaponized, the blade developed more curve to maximize its cutting potential.

Through Indonesia’s trade network in South East Asia, the karambit knife spread into Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand with each country slightly adapting its appearance.

European accounts tell of Indonesian soldiers armed with a kriss (long knife) at their waist, holding a spear with a concealed karambit.

The karambit was the weapon for the last line of defense. The warrior tribes practicing pencak silat soon began to utilize the karambit by simply adding it onto their existing techniques. Various silat systems throughout Asia have applied this curved blade differently.

There are many regional variants of the karambit, the length of the blade differs from village or blacksmith. Some curve more than others, some feature two blades, one on each side of the handle.

The karambit blade was originally the choice of blade used by women warriors, it is primarily a close quarter weapon. The most famous karmabit is the kuku macan which literally translates to ‘tiger claw’. This knife is endemic to Sumatra, Central Java, and Madura. The tiger claw version is short in length allowing more powerful cutting strokes and ripping motion.

The Harimau Berantai Silat (chained tiger) style uses the tiger claw karambit to target eyes, groin, biceps, forearms, the wrist and the Achilles tendons. The movement of the blade is to pass through your opponent in motion while still using all other techniques--the sharp blade merely aids the attack.

The Minangkabau tribe of West Sumatra re-designed the karambit’s short hook into a long curved blade called lawi ayam which means ‘chicken’s tail feather’. This blade is used in a upward ripping movement into the bowels of the intended victim.

Guru Scott McQuaid Demonstrating Usage of Karambit

The Minangkabau tribe also formed a karambit system called Tolu. This system adopts a hook and stabbing movement, dragging and pulling their adversary while the blade is still in the body. The Minangkabau silat players often target the collarbone, stabbing tip down and then quickly turning from palm down position to palm up while using one's body weight. This snap’s the bone, thus rendering the enemy's weapon arm useless.

Again, the weapon was used as a last resort so its effectiveness was within close range where we might grab or temporally lock our victim, this karambit blade would act as a sharp hand hooking and cutting your opponent into a hold or lock.

The tolu karambit system acted as a sub-system that Minang warriors would adapt, by connecting it with their preferred ground based Silek Harimau (tiger silat) style. Once a practitioner has become proficient within their preferred pencak silat system, they can easily add on the karambit to their existing techniques.

The finger guard makes it difficult to disarm and allows the knife to be maneuvered in the fingers without losing one's grip. When a silat warrior unsheathed a battlefield karambit in ancient times, the cutting edge was often smeared with a deadly poison,which acted instantly upon entry into the bloodstream. The poisons were sourced from various poisonous species such as snakes, spiders, scorpions, and frogs.

The modern Western interpretation of the karambit is far removed from its original farming tool. The knife folds back into its handle and has many variations in the blade's finish. Today’s United States federal air marshals are issued karambit as part of their kit and Malaysia’s special forces also employ the use of this blade.

Britain’s online crime reports indicate that between the year 2008 and 2009 there were 277 deaths from knife stabbing in England alone, the highest recorded figure for thirty years. This average death toll works out to around five killings for every week of the year.

Most martial arts focus solely on unarmed self-defense. Although this is perhaps the more likely scenario, the mental and physical knowledge of how to combat blade versus blade is becoming a necessity. More than a third of a million young people across Britain admit to carrying knives, thats the equivalent of 353,000 people across the UK. A large majority of 85 per cent claimed they carried a knife for protection. With these publicized figures we can expect even more underground.

The pencak silat arts are both feared and admired for their blade work and the karambit has played an essential part in this reputation. The karambit's design have made it much more than just a sharp instrument. The general single edged straight knife will be used in two obvious ways, thrusting for a stab and slashing for a laceration wound. To counter his bladed opponent, the karambit handler can both defend using a block while cutting and disabling the attacker’s knife hand. The finger hold handle and curved blade makes it easier to extract from the enemy’s body, as it is not easy to pull a straight bladed knife from a body once it has penetrated into flesh. Many warriors of medieval times were killed on the battle field due to being unable to retrieve their sword from another body. The karambit moves with the handler's body at the same pace--once the hand grips the karambit they act as one.

Although I am not condoning fighters or the general public to carry a blade, I am saying that we must be prepared. With each new threat we must evolve and adapt. The truth is that the will to kill is already within us; to survive the human body will overcome many threats, and fear is the true opiate of combat. We once walked as warriors and woodland people knowing how to protect and defend ourselves. We must walk this path again.

Exclusive publication for, 2011.