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History and Evolution of the Karambit

After a Couple Thousand Years, this Blade Design is Still Cutting Edge

Photos by Straight 8, Patrick Vuong, and Steve Tarani

WARNING!
The concepts shown here are for illustrative purposes only. Seek professional training from a reputable instructor before attempting any techniques discussed or shown in this story.

An ancient design, the karambit’s origins can be traced back to Sumatra, Java, and Malaysia, according to the oral history passed down from generation to generation and then onto me by my Indonesian masters. Due to regional variations, there have always been differences in design, depending on which island the blade came from.

For example, the karambit of Pulau Lombok, an island of the Indonesian Archipelago, and that of its northeastern neighbor, the island of Sumbawa, is said to have been traditionally a larger or “battlefield-sized” karambit — quite a bit bigger than its more personal-sized Javanese cousin.

According to the oral record, there is also another variation of the karambit that comes from Pulau Madura, an island located northeast of Java, which is traditionally larger and with more of a curve known as the klurit (pronounced “clure-eet”). There are also many different shapes and designs of the ancient combat karambit such as rajawali (bird-head shape) and others that include protruding spurs used for tearing flesh in the heat of battle — a coveted blade-performance requirement of the ancient world. Today, these features have been reduced to merely fanciful designs and, in most cases, ceremonial etchings.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

Early Javanese bladesmiths figured that Mother Nature had already developed the appropriate length and blade geometry of the ultimate edged tool, so they copied it. The tiger claw was used as the pattern for the evolution of a cutting instrument, which to this day, has no need for improvement. It is this original shape that was emulated by the first designers of the combat karambit.

The Indonesian Archipelago experienced tremendous Hindu influences as early as 1st century A.D. Since that time, Hinduism along with Buddhism spread across the archipelago and reached a peak of influence around the 14th century when the last and greatest among Hindu- Buddhist Javanese empires, the Majapahit Empire, ruled.

Consequentially, both Java and Sumatra were subject to considerable cultural influence from the Indian subcontinent during the first and second millennia CE. Hinduism had significant impact and left an indelible imprint in Javanese art and culture. The original blade geometry of the tiger’s claw combined with the handheld weapons of the characters from the Sanskrit epics called the Mahabharata and the Ramayana has evolved into what is known in modern times as the karambit. It’s now recognized internationally as a traditional Malay weapon.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

A kujang, one of the traditional edged weapons of the Sundanese.

It’s said that in ancient times, when a fighter unsheathed a battlefield karambit, the cutting edge was often smeared with some type of deadly poison, acting almost instantly upon entry into the bloodstream via laceration or even a light scrape of the flesh. The smallest cut was good enough to get the poison into the bloodstream. Knowledge and usage of poisons derived from various species of poisonous frogs, snakes, scorpions, and spiders were considered an essential element of a warrior’s arsenal in close-quarter combative skills. These poisons immediately affected the central nervous system, rapidly accelerate brain death, and were mostly feared for their nearly instantaneous stopping power.

To take advantage of these toxins, the personal karambit, a smaller version of the battlefield or combat karambit, was primarily designed for targeting the nerves and joints. Given diminutive blade lengths and corresponding reduced cutting surface of the smaller karambits, most cuts cannot be made deep enough to kill someone, which is why the karambit can be considered a personal self-defense tool and not an offensive weapon.

In contrast, the blade of the karambit besar (larger or battlefield version of the personal-sized karambit) is longer and thus facilitates deeper cuts. According to the ancients, the combat karambit was preferred not only for its superior length, but also for the fact that you could “quickly spill the entrails of your enemies onto the ground.” However, with the advent of functional, battle-worthy firearms, similar to circumstances in the Occident, bladed weapons became obsolete on the Far East battlefield and relegated to the utilitarian uses of knives that we see today.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

Often used as a last line of defense in ancient times when the larger klurit was made inoperable, the smaller personal karambit targets included the eyes, testicles, the Achilles tendon, carotid artery, biceps, forearm, and wrist. A particularly nasty target of ancient times was the clavicle (collar bone).

According to the traditions of the Madi tribesmen, when executed perfectly, the karambit user jumped straight up into the air driving his curved blade downward into the upper torso of his opponent, similar to one of the fight scenes in the 2004 movie Troy. In one swift movement, he’d utilize the combined physics of momentum and body weight.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

Under load, the combat karambit would hook the collarbone, tip pointed down, then reverse blade direction upon impact. This would result in a broken collarbone, effecting destruction of the brachial plexus and thus rendering his enemy’s weapon arm permanently disabled.

Specifically designed as a close-quarter instrument of self-defense, the personal karambit of old was additionally quite difficult to see in the hand of a well-trained user, due to its method of deployment and cover of the fingers, clenched within a closed fist. Doubly menacing was that it could not be disarmed as a result of its forefinger grip design — what we now call the “safety ring.”

This feature was unique at the time, and meant it could be used for both close-quarter and extreme-close-quarter fighting ranges without changing distance of the striking arm. The user simply swings the blade around the index finger, allowing it to protrude from the fist and providing an additional handle-length of reach to the opponent’s target areas. It was also the only blade used in battle that could cut twice with a single arm stroke. All other blades of that era were limited to only one arm motion per one cut.

The ancient battlefield karambit was unique because:

  • It could not be easily seen.
  • It could not be effectively taken away.
  • It could change ranges without body movement.
  • It could deliver two strikes in a single arm motion.
  • It could be held in thee completely different grip configurations.
  • It could be used simultaneously with other weapons systems.

Although quite a remarkable weapon, and as fierce as it looks, its primary application in this modern era is utilitarian. Although used also by martial artists who practice the art of Pencak Silat and in some cases can be used as an implement of personal defense (much like any modern pocket knife, screwdriver, or steak knife as an improvised weapon), it’s small blade-tip size and length are not conducive to delivery of lethal blows. The karambit cannot be used for effective thrusting, and thus cannot be considered a dirk or dagger. However, when used correctly, it can deliver convincing motivation to any would-be attacker to forget about you and look for a much softer target.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

The three grips of the karambit.

Today, the karambit has found a home with campers, hunters, construction workers, martial artists, collectors, knife enthusiasts, and defense-minded citizens who choose to carry a utility knife that may also be used in the event of assault on their person. As with any tool of value it becomes the responsibility of its owner to know how to care for and safely operate it.

In the blade cultures of the Malay people, such a utility tool that could also be used for personal protection represents skill, maturity, honor, and wisdom. Those who are well versed in its usage have a greater advantage over those who don’t. A 14th century code of ethics reminds the practitioner that his knife should not be unsheathed without good reason, nor without honor.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

Regardless of the grip, the karambit’s ripping and hooking can do serious damage.

The Modern Karambit

Fast-forward 600 years. Modern war-fighters faced with the constant threat of close-quarter contact in a hostile environment rely upon only two things for their personal survival: their training and their gear. As a result of training members of the special operations community, I was approached to design a “get off me” weapon based on traditional blade designs.

Partnering with Duane Dwyer of Strider Knives, Inc., we came up with a modified karambit that would fit adjacent the ejection-side trigger housing of the AR-15, and allow the user an additional weapon option when working in a crowded environment.

Oftentimes, when carrying out hits in urban areas, team members would be crowded by potentially hostile members of the community that although appearing to be unarmed, would impede their ability to provide cover, limit their movement, and otherwise attempt to screw up what they were doing.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

In this scenario, lethal force was not immediately an option, but some way of persuading the unwashed masses to go do something else was needed. In case things got squirrely, the ability to deal with XCQB threat without being able to deploy the carbine was also a requirement.

Easy to carry, rapidly deployed, and with its personal protection capability, the design enabled the operator to rapidly engage a threat at personal contact range and with curved blade still in hand. He could then move right back onto the carbine to deliver rounds down range unimpeded.

It would seem that the ancients knew a thing or two when they crafted the karambit. This classic Eastern knife design is still, in my opinion, the most versatile and adaptable in existence. The karambit is capable of delivering incapacitating cuts in a self-defense situation, while being legal in most jurisdictions due to its short blade length. As with all self-defense tools, getting the most out of it requires training, so be sure to check out the videos at www.recoilweb.com where we demonstrate just how devastating it can be.

About the Author

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

Steve Tarani is a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who served in protective programs and formerly on staff at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Security Institute (Security Force Training Dept.) at Kirtland Air Force Base, where he worked for the U.S. State Department Anti-terrorist Assistance Program (ATAP). Tarani has served the U.S. defense, law enforcement, and intelligence communities for over 30 years as a respected subject-matter expert and service provider to numerous high/low-profile federal agencies. Steve has authored eight books to date and is currently employed internationally as a protective agent, professional educator, and keynote speaker. See www.stevetarani.com for more.

History and Evolution of the Karambit photo

Tactical Karambit
Make: 5.11 Tactical
Model: Tactical Karambit
OAL: 6.5 inches
Blade material: AUS8 steel
Weight: 4 ounces
MSRP: $90
URL: www.511tactical.com

Tactical Karambit Folder
Make: 5.11 Tactical
Model: Tactical Karambit Folder
OAL: 6.6 inches
Blade material: AUS8 steel
Weight: 4 ounces
MSRP: $80
URL: www.511tactical.com