In recent years, the martial arts community has seen the rise of an unconventional weapon – the karambit. Made popular by movies like Hollywood’s Taken, Indonesia’s The Raid 2, and even video games like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist, many Asian martial arts dojos and practitioners make the karambit part of their weapons training. The real question is, is the karambit a worthy addition to a survivalist arsenal? Before enumerating the pros and cons, let’s delve a bit into the blade’s background and history.
Known as the “kerambit” in Indonesia and Malaysia and “karambit” elsewhere, this exotic blade has its origins in the agrarian culture of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra.
Since the 11th century, the karambit was an indispensable tool for farmers for harvesting rice, rootcrops, and skinning animals. Its claw-like shape was an homage to the Sumatran Tiger, and as evidenced by its other nickname “Kuku Macan” (tiger’s claw). At the time, the karambit was considered a last-resort weapon by Indonesian warriors opposing Dutch colonists. Indonesian women also tied karambits to their hair and used them as personal defense weapons; in fact, the karambit is still regarded as a feminine weapon by some modern-day Pentjak Silat schools.
Thanks to the European colonization of Southeast Asia, the karambit made its way to neighboring countries like Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines. When and how it came to American shores isn’t clear, however, although it is possible that its introduction coincided with the emigration of some Asian martial arts practitioners to the States. For making the karambit a commercially viable self-defense tool, some credit goes to individuals like former CIA employee Steve Tarani. After retiring from the CIA in the ‘80s, Tarani went to Indonesia to study Pentjak Silat–then founded his own school in the US. Upon his return, Tarani came up with his own line of “modernized” karambits bearing his name. Today, there are many other knife manufacturers who have since made their own blades, incorporating their own designs and using a variety of materials.
Parts of the karambit
The simplest, most traditional types of karambits have only three main parts.
- Curved Blade – The cutting blade of the karambit is different from a conventional knife in that it curves like a tiger’s claw. The blade can be double or single-edged, with or without serrations
- Handle – Traditional karambit handles are often made of hardwood or water buffalo horn. Commercially-made ones use metals or synthetic space-age materials.
- Safety Ring – This is what sets the karambit apart from other blades, in that it ensures the wielder has better retention of the blade. While a finger (the index or pinky, depending on the grip) is in the safety ring, disarming or causing the wielder to drop the blade is more difficult. The safety ring is sometimes also bladed or is made with a protrusion, allowing it to be used as an extra blade or impact weapon. Note that a karambit is always crescent or “C-shaped”. Some knifemakers make variations such as a straight blade, the crescent blade without the safety ring, or with the blade in a reverse position. These are not considered karambits by traditional standards.
Advantages of the karambit
Like most any weapon, the karambit has its share of pros and cons.
- Concealability – Some commercially-available karambits are easily concealable, such as the folding type or miniature sheathed models that can be worn around the neck. Such blades carry the element of surprise thanks to their small size and unconventional placement.
- Ease of draw – Like any regular fixed-blade knife, the fixed-blade karambit can be quick to deploy, and with some practice, the folding-blade types can also be drawn and kept at the ready. If you use a folding type, choose one that self-deploys with a small “hook” on the spine of the blade that, when drawn, catches the inside of your pocket to snap the blade into position.
- No need for a sheath – The folding-type karambits can easily be carried in a pants pocket, without needing a sheath – something no fixed blade can do without damaging your pants, bag, or cutting yourself.
- Unique features – The safety ring can give the unique advantage of doubling as a “knuckle duster” – a blunt impact tool for a quick distraction and setup for a follow-up cut or slash. When used in the reverse grip (index finger inside safety ring), this allows you to “flip” it for “slapping” your attacker with the blade, for making lacerating moves, and even enables you to still use your thumb and other fingers to grip your opponent even as you grip the handle.
- Good retention – A unique feature of the karambit is its safety ring, which makes it difficult for an opponent to make you drop it, or take it away from you. Because of this safety feature, some users opt to have karambit as their backup weapon.
- Limb destruction/laceration – In the hand of a skilled user, the karambit is very effective as a grappling tool; the blade can easily trap an opponent’s arm, then by a simple twist of the wrist, it can do serious damage to the opponent’s nerves, tendons, and arteries.
- Excellent for grappling – A seasoned user can still use and deploy his weapon even in a close grappling situation.
- Unpredictability – The moves employed for a karambit are different from the usual stabbing action with common knives, and your opponent may have difficulty “reading” your moves and countering them. Punching, poking, stabbing, flailing, and slashing actions are all possible with this weapon, and skilled users can transition quickly between these moves.
- Intimidating appearance –The very design of some karambits is enough to deter potential attackers. Serrations, large cutting surfaces, large blades, double-edged blades and bladed/reinforced safety rings can make would-be opponents think twice before going up against such a blade.
- Relatively slow to deploy – If you’re using a folding karambit that does self-deploy but you don’t possess the necessary skill, you may be beaten to the punch (or stab) by an opponent wielding a conventional knife with a fixed blade.
- Specialized nature – Karambits aren’t the best utility or overall knife to have. They can cut but are not suited for heavy-duty tasks like chopping firewood, spearing animals or other survival tasks.
- Limited reach; CQC only – Unless you use a bigger-bladed karambit, your fighting technique will be limited to very close-in situations. To effectively use the blade, you must be within punching range of your opponent.
- Works mostly as a defensive weapon – Due to its short, curved blade, karambits offer limited use by way of offensive attacks. Karambit techniques are mostly executed as a counter-move to an attacker.
- Can be defeated by weapons with longer reach – When faced with an opponent armed with a longer-reach weapon like a baton, long stick, machete, or chain, and if the opponent is reasonably skilled, the karambit can be defeated or rendered useless from long range.
- High learning curve – Compared to learning how to use conventional blades, it takes more time, patience, and skill to learn how to use a karambit effectively.
- Limited to slashing moves –By virtue of its shape, the karambit lends itself better to slashing rather than stabbing, which could prove a disadvantage when trying to reach an opponent at longer ranges.
- Relatively reduced lethality – The “natural” way to use a knife is to stab vital areas like the neck, belly, or even the eyes. These are not possible, or not as effective with the karambit’s curved blade as it is more suited to slashing or lacerating cuts. Unless the karambit’s blade is big or long enough, you can’t get the same lethal results as you would from a straight knife.
- Unforgiving – Practice is needed to master the use of the karambit. Carelessness can also lead to self-injury, especially if the user is not too skilled in “flipping” the blade.
- Legality – In SHTF scenarios, this will be moot. But for now, you’ll have to consider that this weapon may not be legal in all states. There is some confusion among karambit users as to its relevant laws. Consult a lawyer or law enforcement officer, and check your state’s laws before taking up this weapon.
- Cost – If you want a top-dollar karambit and don’t like knockoffs or cheaper blades, a high-quality model can set you back $100 or more.
The Last Word(?)
Given the pros and cons, is the karambit worth making part of a survivalist arsenal, and is it really the “better” fighting knife? Realistically speaking, the answer is not a definite “yes” or “no.”
The karambit can be a good weapon and a worthy addition to a survivalist’s arsenal if he invests enough time and training to make it so. Like any other weapon, the real answer depends entirely on the individual. Conversely, if he doesn’t take the time to train in the use of the blade and take it seriously, then he’s better off choosing and mastering a different weapon. Merely picking up and holding a karambit or any other weapon (even a gun) can make a person a threat, but not a very serious one.