Muscle Memory, Coordination and Knife Skills

The quality of your knife matters less than the quality of your training when your life is on the line. If you fail to perform due to lack of training or experience, your death could not have been prevented with even the most expensive of tools at your side. Far too often, knife enthusiasts attempt to compensate for lack of skill with abundance of, elaborate or overly expensive knives. In the end, their knives are handled more in the comfort of their home than in actual conditions. While I don’t suggest subjecting yourself to dangerous conditions haphazardly or with wanton disregard, I do believe in learning your limits and testing yourself. I also believe in the value of regular training and guided instruction. This training regimen doesn’t have to be stern, overbearing or impossible to follow; it just needs to be realistic and practical. What works for a person half your age or twice your size may not work for you. What you will find through careful use and experience is what does work for you. Through structured, disciplined study and over time, improved muscle memory, coordination and blade skills will be developed improving your all-around survivability.

To begin with, your knife selection is intensely personal but equally important is how and where you carry it. If you carry a knife at work in your front pocket but remove it in lieu of a belt knife while hunting, you will more than likely reach for your knife in your front pocket first. Your body and mind have become familiar with reaching for it in one location and you pause momentarily to find where you actually have access to an edge. This momentary lapse in time probably won’t matter in a low stress situation cutting cordage, opening a stubborn tab on a box of ammo or spreading mustard on your sandwich. It will matter though if fractions of seconds count in a defensive situation or rescue scenario. Build muscle memory in reaching for tools by carrying them in the same place all the time. Also, don’t vary the opening mechanisms on your folding knives from day to day as frequent change doesn’t build repetitions and familiarity. Fumbling for a thumbstud on your folder when only a nail nick is present can cost you critical seconds you can’t get back.

Coordination is the ability to incorporate different elements effectively toward a common goal. Often, when using knives, coordination deteriorates as users focus too much on the sharp object in their hand than all of their surroundings. Of course, care should be exercised with any sharp tool but too much care distracts from other tasks at hand. I recall vividly a student using the tip of his blade to open the lid of a pot only to find his meal boiling over the top and causing stove flare ups. With his right hand holding the knife with the pot lid dangling from the tip and his left hand free, he paused to determine where to put his lid down and knife down then turned the stove down with his right hand. In examining this scenario, he easily could have turned the stove down with his left hand or transferred the knife from his right hand to left to free up his right hand. Again, critical seconds are lost from lack of experience. My students often inquire how I’m able to perform different tasks while never putting my blade down or putting it back in my sheath. The answer is simple, coordination. I learned early on where the cutting edge and points of my tools were. I’m able to pinch with my thumb and forefinger cordage fibers while holding my knife with my middle, ring and pinky finger. In the field and street, edge awareness prevents accidental cutting, improved dexterity and the ability to multi-task (within reason). 

In spending more time using your knives, you will develop better blade skills. This is a broad category of ability incorporating sheathing and re-sheathing without looking, cleanly cutting with the fewest strokes/passes and transitioning from one cutting grip to another. Having seen students cut through their leather sheaths from pushing the knife too far down into the pouch, absolutely butchering an easy filet job on a recently caught fish and dropping knives while holding them for one task then turning them in their hands for another, I know there is a clear difference between an exclusive knife collector and a knife user in the field. Knife skills and ability come with time and with repetition. They also are developed with trial and error. There is no shame in cutting through your knife sheath…once. Do it every time and there is likely need for a drastic change. The same goes for filleting a fish. There isn’t shame in how many pieces you cut it into the first time as long as eventually you can cut a single filet with most of the meat on it. As previously mentioned, in low stress scenarios, these mistakes aren’t life-threatening. In a more critical scenario, dropping your knife while sheathing it and damaging the tip can ruin your chances of survival. In an equally critical scenario, cutting someone free of entanglement can be life-threatening to them if you don’t have good control of your blade. You can never practice too much!

In sum, muscle memory, coordination and blade skills are absolutely necessary for anyone who carries a blade. I strongly suggest finding a mentor to help you learn the proper way to use a knife. If one isn’t available, the internet is filled with how-to’s and tutorials that are easy to follow. Knives are great companions but they won’t save your hide alone. You bring the knife to life and in the end your knife ability and know how will determine your survival.